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HUMAN ENGINEERING -- WHAT IS IT AND WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT?

We hear a lot these days about the various characteristics of the fighting handgun and what makes certain guns superior to others. Among these are accuracy, functional reliability, size, weight and power, to name but a few. Yet, of at least equal, and probably even more, importance is an additional element that's usually overlooked completely – "human engineering."

What is "human engineering?" you say? It's how the gun fits your hand, how it feels, how it points. It's where the weapon's operational controls, such as slide release lever, thumb safety, magazine release and such are located. Moreover, it's how they're configured, thus dictating how quickly and efficiently they can be operated in stressful environments.

Why is "human engineering" so important? Well, consider this – self-defense shooting situations all have certain elements in common with one another. First, the altercation is nearly always fast. The annual FBI Uniform Crime Report stresses over and over again an average time-frame of between 2 1/2 and 3 seconds. This means that if not already in-hand, your weapon must be brought into action – and used – quickly. It also means that once the piece is in action, it must be fired rapidly and accurately in order to bring the fight to a favorable conclusion in the shortest possible period of time and with as few shots fired as possible.

Second, it means that accurate shot placement is critical. Filling the air with bullets in a handgun fight not only takes too long to do you any good, but actually increases not only your tactical, but criminal and civil liability as well. A couple of quick shots on a single adversary or a single shot against multiple assailants is all you have enough time for.

In order for both of these requirements to be successfully fulfilled, the weapon must be "user friendly," another term for "human engineering." For it to be quickly acquired, indexed in the firing hand, presented to the target and brought into action, the gun must fit the firing hand and point at least reasonably well, something seen with only a few of the self-loaders introduced in the last decade.

Why? Simple – to compete in a shrinking marketplace, their designers have largely sacrificed grip index and pointability and concentrated instead upon large magazine capacity to entice prospective buyers…commercialism, in other words. This has often resulted in grip frames that are excessively thick, too thick to index in all but the largest of shooter's hands and frame angles that prevent fast pointing.

Yet, the real issue has nothing to do with large magazines. Instead, it has everything to do with getting hits, quickly and accurately. In order to accomplish this critical requirement, the gun's grip angle and thickness must be compatible with the shooter's hand. It's that simple.

Stocks, too, influence this requirement and should be examined carefully before installed on your piece. Regardless of what material they might be made from, if they increase the thickness of the grip frame area or make the grip angle more vertical, they should be avoided.

Large-framed guns, although more controllable, are noticeably slower to bring into action, whereas a medium framed piece would provide faster presentation and would also be less fatiguing if carried for long periods of time. Here, Colt's "D" or "I" frame, or S&W's "K" or "L" frame are good revolver choices while, as an example, the Colt Lightweight Commander or Glock 19/22 offer good results in the self-loader category.

The high shooting speeds inherent to self-defense situations also dictate that weapon control is a critical factor. Yet, the design of many of the more modern self-loaders incorporates a great deal of slide mass located well above the firing hand, causing excessive "flip" and torque effect, both of which slow down shot-to-shot recovery a great deal.

In truth, it should be the other way around. Slide mass should be minimal and placed as low as possible in the firing hand. This way, recoil forces are distributed in a more linear manner and more directly into the web of the hand, rather than causing the muzzle to rise radically as the slide reciprocates rearward.

The location of the weapon's controls also greatly influence its performance under stressful conditions. Slide release levers, for example, should be narrow and edge free in order to present the best combination of "user-friendliness," mechanical reliability and concealability. Magazine release buttons should not protrude excessively, lest they be inadvertently activated during carry or firing, thus causing either loss of the magazine completely or a Type One (Failure To Fire) stoppage.

The thumb safety of a single-action self-loader such as the M1911 .45 ACP or Browning P-35 9mm, should be shaped to accommodate rapid manipulation by the firing thumb, but not, in order to prevent unwanted disengagement during carry, be excessively wide. All three should be carefully configured for maximum efficiency but be absolutely edge-free.

Sights, too, greatly influence performance. Everyone knows that high visibility is important, but not everyone realizes that this should not be accomplished at the expense of the sights presenting an excessively high profile. Anyone who has experienced his weapon catching in his shirt or concealment garment during a fast presentation because the sights snagged is all too aware of this factor!

In addition, fast sight acquisition cannot be over-emphasized. If low light situations are expected, tritium insert in your sights are an immense help, provided they're configured properly. Avoid vertical bars, outlines, diamonds, squares and the like and instead use the proven horizontal 3-dot type, as they're much quicker and easier to align.

If you opt for a sub-compact self-loader, but sure that it has a magazine extension to allow the little finger of the firing hand to be properly placed. Otherwise, control suffers greatly…too greatly to be justified on the basis of concealment needs alone.

Sight radius is also important. The closer the front and rear sights are to one another, the less forgiving of alignment errors they are. If you're about to select a snubbie revolver just because you think it will be easily concealed, think again. Except in highly specialized situations, to sacrifice the more efficient sight radius of a four-inch barrel in favor of a two-incher for concealment purposes is a mistake. Moreover, the longer barrel will give you higher bullet velocities, a fundamentally critical factor in frangible bullet performance.

These, then, represent the more subtle design criteria called "human engineering." In order to be capable of maximum efficiency when the chips are down, they all influence weapon/operator performance at least as much, perhaps even more, than simple mechanical engineering and workmanship. If you can't get the gun into action, fast, and shoot it quickly and accurately, then how many rounds of ammunition it carries or how cool it looks instantly becomes academic.

To prevent loss of perspective on this important factor, examine your needs carefully and honestly, paying particular care to your life style, the environment in which you operate and the potential situation for which you might need the weapon as a result. Don't allow others to make your decisions for you, because what works for them might not work so well for you. If you do this, you'll find that, subtle or not, human engineering is near the top of the list for any fighting weapon – and in so doing, the life you save, just might be your own!

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