A Short Discussion on AR-15 and AK Safety Levers

The AR-15-style combined safety/selector thumb lever has become a hallmark of modern assault rifle and carbine design, proving to be an ergonomic and simple design for fire control management. However, it wasn’t always that way. The AR-15’s selector lever goes all the way back to the Johnson Light Machine Gun‘s selector, which was mounted on the right side of the gun, with “AUTO” at the rear, “SAFE” at the vertical, and “SEMI” in the forward positions. In the Johnson, the current setting is indicated by the checkered end of the selector itself, and in the very earliest AR-10 prototypes this design was retained, even though by this point the lever had been moved to the left side of the gun. By the production AR-10s, though, the selector markings were flipped to the opposite side, and indicated by a pointer on the selector, opposite the lever, which remains today. However, as Ian of Forgotten Weapons explains below, the actual positions of the selector were retained from the Johnson LMG all the way through the initial development of the AR-15:

The progression of Armalite safety designs, Johnson LMG, AR-10 X02, AI belt-fed AR-10 on production lower, AR-15 00001, current AR-15:

1x1BiKi Receiver_logo_cronology IMG_0123cs armalitear15sn1_zps87333678Colt-GX-5857

One thing that’s worth remembering about the development of safety/selectors during this time period (1940s-1950s) is that in many cases the selector function was considered a kind of “convertability”, and not something that necessarily needed to be accomplished quickly. Perhaps the most extreme example of this was the M14, where this philosophy was taken so literally that rifles destined for the regular rifle role (as opposed to the squad support weapon role) came equipped with no selector levers at all, and could function only in the semi-auto mode. Only the rifles used by the automatic riflemen would actually have these selectors installed, illustrating how thinkers at the time considered this functionality to be a kind of “modularity”, rather than additional capability within the infantry rifle itself.

Both the modern AR-15 and AK rifles helped bring the modern perspective to term. The AR-15, with its very natural “safe-semi-full” selector positions, and the AK as well. The latter case is often misunderstood, and is therefore worth some additional coverage. The pop culture interpretation of the Kalashnikov-style “safe-auto-semi” selector is that this denotes the primary and secondary functions of the rifle itself: Machine gun first, semi-auto rifle second. There does not seem to be any evidence that this was the actual intent of the safety desin, which appears to be a direct product of Kalashnikov’s effort to dramatically simplify his earlier desigs.

The previous Kalashnikov assault rifles, sometimes collectivey called “AK-46”, used separate safety and selector levers, which brought the added flexibility of being able to bring the rifle off safe and directly into either the semi or fully automatic fire mode. During development, the Soviet rifle board pressured Kalashnikov (and presumably the other designers in the competition as well) into simplifying and ruggedizing his design, which led him to combining the functions of the selector and safety with the Browning-style lever into a package that was rugged and easy to use in the cold.

Nathaniel F

Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. In addition to contributing to The Firearm Blog, he runs 196,800 Revolutions Per Minute, a blog devoted to modern small arms design and theory. He is also the author of the original web serial Heartblood, which is being updated and edited regularly. He can be reached via email at nathaniel.f@staff.thefirearmblog.com.


  • John

    Tim from the Military Arms Channel briefly touched upon the AK safety in one of his videos. He noted that when sweeping the safety off, there is a tendency to bring it all the way down to semi, and that switching it to full auto had to be deliberate decision requiring finer motor skills

  • iksnilol

    I always was taught that the AK safety was like that so that you could with a relatively crude movement just sweep the lever down and be ready to fire semi auto. Whilst auto required a bit of deliberate and somewhat precise operation to select.

    • ARCNA442

      I wonder about that explanation as well. As I understand it, the Soviets treated the safety as something to be disengaged before combat and then left off. The Safe-Auto-Semi configuration may just have been the simplest mechanically.

      • iksnilol

        Something like that.

        Maybe I am not tactical or proficent enough but I like to think that putting my rifle on safe would be the last thing to do in combat.

        • billyoblivion

          With the M(x) style rifles it is very, very easy to go on and off safe, and some units teach that as you bring the rifle up to firing position you take the weapon off safe, shoot (or not) then as you take the rifle out of firing position you put it back on safe.

          This is very, very easy to do, and after you do it 5 or 10 thousand times in training is simply done without conscious thought and without significantly changing the grip on the rifle.

          The AK has different ergonomics, it’s an order of magnitude or so harder[1] to move the safety lever, and even with my long ass fingers you have to change your grip on the rifle to do it.

          The other side of this is that US troops (well, western troops in general) are better drilled and trained than your average Russian/Asian/African conscript. We *expect* our troops to be able to do this.

          Philosophically I’m in the camp that says that that switch should say “Bored, Combat, OH F!K”, and that the lever should be where your mind is. If nothing is going on, it’s on safe. If you are in contact, or have *good* reason to believe contact is imminent it’s on “combat”. If you’re getting overrun “Oh F!K” is appropriate.

          Practically though it’s not a big deal with the AR.

          [1] No, it’s not *hard*. It’s *harder*. Walking 100 yards is harder than walking 50, but it’s still not hard to do. Unless you’re in parts of Oregon where they’ve gotten FEET of snow over the last week.

          • iksnilol

            I just find it unnecessary, y’know? Just like white glove cleaning is unnecessary so do I find the overuse of the safety to be.

            But yeah, I agree with you on that mindset marking thingy :p

            Who worries about snow, snow is easy. Try black ice slicked with rain on it. I almost faceplanted going to my car a couple of days ago.

          • billyoblivion

            I live at almost 2000 meters above MSL. We got 8 inches of global warming last night. I drive up to about 2500 to 3000 meters on a monthly basis (hopefully more in the next couple months) to play in the white stuff.

            Walking on ice is a *skill*. Walking in 6 inches of powder is *work*. Walking on any more than 6 inches is *hard* work. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/4055aba5473037f072058fdded9e815ab87e81578524ab80fd8b37b3a0d30ab5.jpg

            Gun relevance? I want to try Biathlon.

  • Riot

    The whole “auto is first on the AK because Russians spray and pray rather than aim” thing is nonsense.
    Having the selector go to semi at the bottom fits in with the AK being conscript oriented, a barely trained man if panicked will forcefully push the lever and it is better to have someone in that state not on full auto.

  • GaryOlson

    Please stop using the term “assault rifle”. This is a false term created by a certain group to advance a hostile mentality towards semi-automatic rifles. I’d suggest you use any of the more technically correct terms.

    • Kivaari

      Except they are discussing assault rifles, the select-fire variants.

    • Sunshine_Shooter

      You are thinking of “assault weapon”, not “assault rifle”. If you are going to be pedantic, be fully pedantic.

      • GaryOlson

        I guess I forgot to put on my fully pedantic pants this morning.

        • iksnilol

          Yes… yes you did.

        • billyoblivion

          Just make sure you do it one leg at a time.

    • .45

      You know, I understand the issues with the terms “assault rifle” and “assault weapon”, but on a personal level I don’t have a problem with them. Assault rifle is an admittedly vague term for a military weapon, and assault weapon describes a civie rifle resembling an assault rifle. Makes sense.

    • int19h

      How about “Sturmwaffe”?

      • Jeff NME

        “Sturmgewehr” because we’re talking rifles, not weapons in general.

    • Anonymoose

      salt waffle.

  • Major Tom

    I know one thing is that on the M16A4 the selector switch is not able to freely go back into Safe without pressing the bottom part of the forward assist. You can go from Safe to Semi to Burst smoothly and quickly, but go back the other way? That ultimately takes one more hand motion. At least with the bolt locked back and the weapon cocked is what I remember. I forgot if you could freely switch if the bolt was closed and forward and the weapon completely empty, it’s only been almost 6 years since I last had that weapon in my hands.

  • iksnilol

    Yup, and I do remember a comic style manual for the M16 recommending flicking the switch all the way ’cause “you’re gonna want that firepower”.

    Kinda hilarious the difference in mentality there.

  • Jim_Macklin

    The AK lever is easier to use when it is 30 below zero and you’re wearing mittens

    • billyoblivion

      The AK lever might be (though I tend to use my thumb on an AR safety), but you’re still going to have to get a digit out and pull the trigger.

      And at 30 below (either C or F) that is going to SUCK.

  • Ed Forney

    Took my AR to the range in Ohios Delaware St Park yesterday (froze my butt off). The first three times I pulled the trigger, I was beginning to think It had changed to full auto. Two VERY quick shots. It took Another fellow and myself to find what was happining. The trigger pin had slipped slightly into the receiver. Kinda fun though. Super glued them.

    • DataMatters

      That doesn’t make any sense, nor does your solution.

      • Ed Forney

        It doesn’t make sense. I made the lower, so maybe that had something to do with it. The super glue won’t let that pin get loose again.

        • Rick O’Shay

          If you made the lower, your trigger pin holes may be out of spec, causing the “double tap” issue. That would make more sense than a walking pin.

          • Ed Forney

            I made the receiver out of a block of polymer that came with templates that you put on the side to show where the pin holes are to be drilled. As soon as the pin was back in the hole in the receiver, it worked just fine. Obviously, the holes were a bit too large, and the pin was loose. Haven’t had a problem since I glued the pin in place.

          • Rick O’Shay

            Still, it doesn’t take much misalignment for the pins to cause double taps. We’re talking hundredths of an inch difference in the disconnector doing its job properly. I’m glad it seems to be working fine for you, but that’s something that would personally make me very nervous. A drop in trigger would solve that issue altogether.

          • Ed Forney

            I’ll keep shooting it until it (might) does it again. I put a standard LPK kit in it, and it has the best trigger pull that I’ve ever seen. Very sharp with no drag. If it acts up again, I’ll take the parts out and put them in a registered polymer lower, and hope it works as well. As long as i’m shooting at the range, there isn’t much danger, although it scared the H+++ outa me the first time it happened.

  • int19h

    I recall reading somewhere that the original AK safety was smaller, and that the charging handle was actually on the left side of the receiver… and both were changed according to the feedback of the troops testing them. The former ostensibly so that it’s easier to manipulate in mittens, or when it gets stuck; and the latter, because the handle was poking the wearer when crawling prone.

  • CommonSense23

    You know that is fake right?

    • BaconLovingInfidel

      James Yeager played the chimp.

  • DataMatters

    I don’t believe the statement about the M14 selector. They were removed because once they had been in service for awhile, the military realized that most grunts could not handle that rifle in full auto mode and then the selectors were removed on most rifles.

    Much the same thing happened with The L1A1s and that’s why the later selector design makes it impossible to flip into the “auto” position.

    And lots of National Guard units had those metal doodads fitted under the pistol grip of their M16A2 rifles as well.