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The safety catch is an important part in many modern firearms and that includes the AR-15. By rotating it to the Fire and Safe position, you can render the weapon safe to transport and carry. However, which safety is right for you?
What is a Safety Selector?
Most firearms—handguns, rifles, and shotguns—have a safety catch. This is typically a lever or button that you depress or rotate to render the weapon safe and ready to fire.
The word “safe” in this context means mechanically unable to fire. You must still treat the firearm as if it’s loaded at all times until you have personally proven otherwise. Even when you’ve positively cleared the weapon, you must keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction.
Safety catches typically prevent the trigger from releasing the hammer or otherwise lock the firing mechanism.
In handguns, such as the M1911 and Beretta M9, this may take the form of a rotary lever mounted on the frame or slide. The Remington Model 870 shotgun uses a cross-bolt safety—i.e., a button that you slide from right to left—and the Mossberg 500 series uses a sliding safety on the receiver.
The AR-15 safety selector is accessible and intuitive to operate. When you place your firing hand, as a right-handed shooter, on the pistol grip, the safety selector falls under your thumb.
In some other designs, the position of the safety and its purpose are not immediately obvious. This can lead to confusion among novice shooters. In most AR-15-pattern weapons, on the other hand, the safety catch rotates to two clearly marked positions, stopping positively at each one: “Safe” and “Fire.”
However, if you’re not a right-handed shooter, you may prefer an alternative system to the mil-spec variant.
Safety Selector Options
The AR-15-pattern carbine has become the new common pool weapon in police squad cars and for home defense. That is, a firearm to which multiple authorized persons have access in an emergency.
If you’re a left-handed shooter or want to share your AR-15 with left-handed friends or family members, installing an ambidextrous safety selector is a common-sense upgrade.
But being able to share your AR-15 with other members of your household is not the only reason to have an ambidextrous safety selector. Another important reason is practicing weak-hand drills with your rifle.
Whether you practice these drills privately or while participating in a tactical training course, you should be able to engage and disengage the safety efficiently with either hand.
If you want to use an ambidextrous safety as a right-handed shooter, you should consider a design with a low-profile left-handed lever. When the safety is in the “Fire” position, you don’t want the left-handed lever hitting your right index finger.
Do I Need an Ambidextrous Safety?
If you’re a right-handed shooter, you don’t intend to share your rifle, or you don’t intend to practice weak-hand drills, you probably don’t need one.
Ambidextrous safety selectors are popular among competitive shooters who need to switch shoulders or fire from unusual positions. If you don’t foresee yourself needing to do that, the mil-spec selector is probably sufficient for your purposes.
There are several types of safety selector throws: 90° and 45° being the most common. However, there are also 57° and 60° throws available, offering a balanced option.
90° throw is the standard throw, requiring more rotation to engage and disengage the safety. The 45° throw requires less rotation and, thus, enables faster operation. Short-throw safety levers are popular among competitive target shooters, especially those who participate in 3-Gun matches.
Many selector levers also offer an adjustable throw, allowing you to set the distance the lever travels according to your preferences.
The standard mil-spec safety selector does provide sufficient traction for most shooters. Some, however, prefer to have a more textured surface, enabling them to manipulate the safety regardless of clothing choices and weather conditions.
While not a matter of practical function, if you want a stylish or ostentatious color, causing your rifle to stand out more, a number of companies can oblige you. A blue, red, or silver selector can add a unique accent to your weapon.
Alternate Trigger Systems
There are also systems that allow “binary fire,” replacing the fire-control group and selector lever. In this type of system, which features a three-position selector, the mechanism fires one round when you press the trigger and another round when you release the trigger.
Whether a binary system improves the functionality of your firearm depends on your preferences and circumstances. If you want to gain anything from this design, you’ll have to practice.
Changing the Safety Selector
Replacing the AR-15 safety selector lever is relatively simple. Always clear your firearm, verifying that it’s unloaded, before handling, dry-firing, or attempting to disassemble it. You can start by depressing the front and rear takedown pins using the tip of a cartridge or other pointed tool.
Separate the upper and lower receivers, setting the upper aside.
The pistol grip captivates a spring and detent, which retains the selector lever. You can either remove the pistol grip entirely or loosen the screw enough to remove tension.
Once you remove these parts, or relieve tension on them, you should be able to slide the selector lever free, although tolerances vary and you may encounter some resistance.
Cock the hammer and insert the new selector lever. If you’re installing a two-piece ambidextrous safety selector, you’ll have to unscrew the other half to slide it into the receiver hole. You can then screw the second part into the opposite side. Some manufacturers include an Allen key for this purpose.
If you removed the pistol grip, detent, and spring, return the detent to the port in the lower receiver. Place the detent spring in the matching port in the pistol grip and join the two together. Screw the pistol grip into place.
Test the new selector by rotating it to the “Safe” position and pressing the trigger when the hammer is cocked. The trigger should not move.
Rotate the selector to “Fire” and press the trigger with your thumb on the hammer. The trigger should move and the hammer should drop.
If the safety selector does not stop the trigger from releasing the hammer on “Safe,” the selector may be defective. Remove the selector, replace it, or take it to a gunsmith for evaluation.
Don’t Rely on the Safety
The safety catch, as a mechanical device, is not infallible. It can break or experience wear, becoming non-functional. No safety catch is a substitute for the strict observance of gun-safety rules.
Whether you need an ambidextrous selector or one with an adjustable throw is up to you. Although a common AR-15 upgrade, changing your safety selector is by no means mandatory. The standard mil-spec selector is sufficient for most purposes.
But if you’re a southpaw or need increased functionality for competitive shooting, you may consider a change.