By Ted Yost
Some of the best ideas for discussion come from you guys. Recently, we received a good question about 1911 safeties: “Why does the 1911’s safety lock the slide when so many other designs don’t? It seems less safe to have to disengage the safety to unload or check the ready status of the pistol’s chamber. Educate me!”
It’s an excellent observation, and given the popularity of the 1911, I’m surprised I don’t hear it more often. So many of the world’s pistol designs, whether equipped with frame/slide-mounted manual safeties or not, allow the slide to be retracted without disengaging the safety. Two notable exceptions, the 1911 and the Browning Hi-Power, feature slide-locking safeties. Some adaptations of their design, such as the Colt .380 Government model and the Sig Sauer 938, have frame-mounted safeties that don’t lock the slide.
Sore hands and old eyes notwithstanding, there are some benefits to having been in the business for a long time, and memories and friendships top the list. I remembered 1911’s have been modified in the past to allow the slide to be retracted with the safety engaged. I’d seen an example many years ago at Gunsite, and found it intriguing, but not quite interesting enough to start using the concept.
The gun I’d seen was a Devel custom, an early 1980’s job with a hooked trigger guard and an exceptionally large magazine release. To get a little background, I reached out to a couple of old friends, Wayne Novak and Gary Paul Johnston. Wayne, in addition to being one of America’s best pistolsmiths, is likely the world’s foremost collector of all-things Devel, with some of Charlie Kelsey’s personal pistols in his collection. Gary Paul Johnston, in addition to being an accomplished and knowledgeable gun scribe, is a retired police officer and firearms authority.
Left: Novak’s NeXt with the “Solution” safety engaged, slide retracted.
There’s no need to move the thumb safety “off-safe” to run the slide
and eject a loaded round. Below: Novak’s NeXt Colt with his “Solution”
safety engaged, slide in battery. Red arrow shows bevel cut in slide
to clear safety.
Gary filled in some of the blanks in my incomplete memory of the modification. After meeting Jeff Cooper at the first Big Bear “Leatherslap” when he was 14, Gary was bitten by the 1911 bug. When Charles Kelsey opened Devel in Gates Mills, Ohio in 1979, Gary was living nearby and established a relationship with Kelsey, including taking the first Devel 1911 to Gunsite in 1981, and making Expert with it. Gary, like our reader, began to wonder why the slide couldn’t be made to operate with the safety engaged.
Taking file-to-hand and carefully thinning the safety’s backing plate until the slide passed freely, he figured out how to do it. He shared this development with Kelsey at Devel, whose response was it would be too time-intensive an operation to include on all his pistols, but asked to consider the mod for a time.
A couple of days later Gary was asked to come to Devel and look at Kelsey’s adaptation of his concept. He’d relieved the slide with a beveled edge from the safety notch forward, and relieved the safety with a corresponding bevel. The result was a simple, repeatable operation working perfectly. Kelsey performed this modification on two of his personal pistols, including a .38 Super he called “Socius” (Greek for “friend”). That pistol now resides in the Novak collection. All-told, Devel made approximately twenty 1911’s with this feature — rare birds indeed.
Amore modern incarnation of the modification was performed by Wayne Novak’s shop, and remains an available option there today. It was incorporated into a special run of Colts called the “NeXt.” With 25 LPI checkering by Pete Single, Novak’s adjustable sight and all the options and modifications you’d expect on a fine custom 1911, the NeXt offered a couple of surprises. First was the “Answer” — a solid, one piece backstrap blending the grip safety and mainspring housing into one piece for a smooth, solid feel.
Also included in the NeXt was the “Solution” — Novak’s name for the slide and safety modification. Using the beveled slide bottom and safety, the system works flawlessly without being unslightly. Truth be told, you might not even notice it unless you were looking for it!
The ability to run the slide on a 1911 with the safety engaged certainly has merit, but it’s not necessarily for everyone. The purists would scoff at anyone trying to re-invent John Browning’s finest work, maybe rightly so. I’ll have to admit after 40+ years of handling a 1911 nearly every day, I don’t know if I’d ever get used to the change. If you’re a gunsmith though, or a shooter looking for something to help you operate the 1911 more confidently, this modification’s time may have come. In my book, it’s in the “Won’t hurt, might help” category. Who knows? Maybe I will try it.