Definition Series - Part 17: "Drop Safe"
by Kirk Lawson

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The term "Drop Safe" comes up from time to time in the firearms community, particularly in sales and marketing literature. Unfortunately there seems to be confusion about what it means. Beginning from the early days of firearms, there has been a concern that if a firearm is dropped it might discharge. This is obviously a concern. Humans can sometimes be fumble-fingered and the prospect of a firearm discharging a bullet in some random direction is justifiably worrisome. Therefore there have been both carry strategies and new technologies introduced over the centuries to help prevent or mitigate the possibility of an unintended discharge due to the gun being dropped. An technological example from the black powder "cap 'n ball" era comes in the form of notches milled into the cylinder mid-way between each of the chamber nipples. The hammer could be lowered into one of these notches. In the event the revolver were dropped, at least the hammer couldn't be slammed into a life cap and discharge. An example of carry strategy comes from the early days of metallic cartridge guns: make sure there is an empty chamber under the hammer. With a 6-shot revolver, that means only loading 5 rounds and keeping the chamber under the hammer empty. With a semi-auto it means keeping the chamber empty and manually loading a round when needed. Again, in the event of a drop, particularly on the hammer, it would not impact into a live round.

However, it is obvious that downloading your revolver leaves you with less ammunition, a vital commodity in a self defense situation. And carrying the semi-auto with an empty chamber has a lot of problems too, most notably, the gun is not "ready" when you need it most. To address these problems, modern designs incorporate "Drop Safe" features which help prevent the gun from discharging if dropped, even when the chamber is loaded. These features vary from firing pin blocks, to hammer blocks, to under-compressed striker springs, to trigger disconnects, and many others.

So are we just supposed to take the manufacturer's word for it that the gun is "Drop Safe" or is there an actual standard, a standard "test" that can be run on the gun to ensure the claim? The answer is yes. The federal National Institute for Justice (NIJ), often known for their ratings of "bullet proof vests," has a testing standard for drops.

The short version is that the NIJ specifies the tests as the gun, loaded with dummy ammunition, being dropped onto concrete from 1.5 meters (a little less than 5 feet) onto either the hammer or the rearmost portion of the slide. It will dropped:
  • Normal firing orientation, barrel horizontal;
  • Upside down, barrel horizontal;
  • On grip or butt, barrel vertical;
  • On muzzle, barrel vertical;
  • On left side, barrel horizontal;
  • On right side, barrel horizontal; and
  • On grip or butt, barrel 45° from vertical;
  • On muzzle, barrel 45° from vertical;
If it can pass these tests, then it passes the NIJ Drop Safety protocol. While these 8 different positions seem fairly comprehensive, they clearly cannot cover the entire 3D compass of positions. While extremely rare, this has caused a problem for some recent guns, notably the Sig P320, which apparently passed the NIJ tests but, due to the trigger design, was still vulnerable to a different orientation drop until Sig fixed the issue with a trigger redesign.

In fact, the vast majority of new handgun designs are drop safe and simply will not suffer an unintended discharge if dropped. Which brings us to what is sometimes referred to as the unofficial "5th Rule of Safe Gun Handling:" If the gun is dropped, DO NOT TRY TO CATCH IT. Let it fall. Yes, it might be embarrassing. Yes it might scuff the finish. But, no, it won't discharge. But there when people try to catch a falling gun, sometimes they manage to put their finger inside the trigger guard and on to the trigger. That can cause an unintended discharge, with potentially tragic consequences. Just let it fall.