On Thursday, January 26, 2006, the Virginia blogosphere was alive with the news that Henrico County Delegate Jack Reid had "accidentally" discharged his Kel-Tec P-3AT semi-automatic pistol while unloading it in his office. Is Delegate Reid telling the whole truth about the incident? This is the way he described the incident to Pamela Stallsmith, a staff writer with the Richmond Times-Dispatch
The office door was shut. He said he took the .380-caliber Kel-Tec pistol out of his front coat pocket, pulled it from its case, and was pushing the button on the grip to release the magazine when it went off. The gun doesn't have a safety, he said.Ms. Stallsmith's article is in the Richmond Times-Dispatch here. Does Delegate Reid's story stand up? Probably not, but in order to understand why, you need to understand something about semi-automatic pistols in general, and something about the Kel-Tec P-3AT in particular.
The slide cut his right hand between his thumb and forefinger, "so obviously I wasn't holding it correctly," he said. "When the slide comes back, it comes back off the back of the weapon and it cut my hand."
A semi-automatic pistol is a handgun that fires one cartridge for each trigger pull until it runs out of ammunition. When the trigger of a semi-automatic pistol is pulled, the pistol fires and automatically extracts and ejects the fired cartridge case from its chamber. The semi-automatic then picks up and loads a new unfired round from its magazine into the pistol’s chamber, ready for the next trigger pull.
The most basic kind of semi-automatic pistol is the “single-action.” A single-action semi-automatic pistol must be cocked, or “racked,” by pulling back on an exposed hammer or recoil slide for the first shot before pulling the trigger. The famous Colt M1911 (or "Colt .45") is an example of this style of action. This meant that the pistol could not be drawn and fired with one hand unless it was already cocked.
To make it possible to fire an uncocked semi-automatic with one hand, designers created “double-action” semi-automatic pistols. In a double-action pistol, the hammer, striker, or firing pin may either be manually pre-cocked or it will be automatically cocked by the first trigger pull when starting to fire. The hammer, striker, or firing pin will be re-cocked fully by each subsequent firing of the pistol. If a double-action pistol was carried with a cartridge already in the chamber, it could be drawn and fired with one hand, though the first trigger "pull" would require more force than if the hammer were already cocked.
The semi-automatic pistol continued to evolve with the invention of the “double-action only” system. Double-action only pistols are carried with a round already chambered, ready to fire. In the "double action only" system, each trigger pull both arms and releases the hammer or firing pin in one continuous motion.
Delegate Reid's Kel-Tec P-3AT is a "double-action only" pistol. Look again at the pictures of the pistol in this article: there is no exterior hammer; it is impossible to "cock" a P-3AT. Also, you must understand that the P-3AT is a small pistol, and a normal sized man would probably have to hold the gun with his pinky beneath the butt in order to avoid having his hand pinched by the slide when firing the weapon.
Note the small size of the P-3AT: if held incorrectly, the slide will recoil back and cut the firer where the thumb meets the hand
Now, read Kel-Tec's user manual for the P-3AT, the part relating to safety:
SAFETYAccording to its manual, the P-3AT should only fire when the trigger is pulled. Translation: Delegate Reid's story doesn't jibe with the facts. Either the P-3AT is a ridiculously unsafe weapon, or Delegate Reid isn't being truthful about what happened. The complete P-3AT manual, with many useful illustrations, can be found here.
To achieve the highest operator safety, combined with ease of handling, the P-3AT is "DOUBLE ACTION ONLY." It has no manual safety and the hammer is never fully cocked.
The hammer is of a novel design. Compared to a conventional hammer, the P-3AT's is very light and consequently, operates at high velocities. It is driven by a special free floating extension spring.
In its ready position the hammer is securely held by the hammer block. Only by deliberately pulling the trigger can the hammer block be disengaged. The tilting action of the barrel excludes firing unless the breech is fully locked. A direct blow to the hammer is impossible, as it is enclosed by the slide and grip. The hammer's energy is transmitted to the primer though a low mass firing pin.
We will probably never know what happened inside Delegate Reid's office Thursday morning. My own theory is that Delegate Reid had unloaded the magazine, but forgot about the cartridge already in the chamber. I believe he was fooling around with the pistol and drew a bead on a convenient target: his own bullet-proof vest hanging on the back of his door. Designed as a "pocket" pistol, the P-3AT is a very small pistol with as few exterior "snags" as possible. The P-3AT has no exterior safety: the trigger itself is the safety. The P-3AT will not fire unless the trigger is pulled. Because Delegate Reid did not believe his P-3AT to be loaded, he took an improper grip on the little gun, with all of his fingers on the butt and the end of the slide between his thumb and the rest of his hand. He then pulled the trigger, firing the pistol and causing the slide to recoil back and cut his hand.
In order to cover up his own reckless irresponsibility in failing to properly clear his pistol's chamber (the design of the pistol cannot be blamed as the P-3AT is, after all, designed to be carried with a round in the chamber), I believe Delegate Reid made up a story about the pistol going off when he pushed the magazine release button. In doing so, I believe that Delegate Reid slandered Kel-Tec and its pistol design. I have read several reviews of the P-3AT, and I have found no hint that the pistol is unreliable or unsafe in the hands of a responsible user.
Nevertheless, in fairness to Delegate Reid, I am going to forward this article to Kel-Tec and ask them to comment on Reid's description of events. Perhaps the P-3AT does have a serious safety flaw and Delegate Reid was clever enough to find it at a moment when it did not cost anyone their life or serious injury: when his gun was pointing at his own bullet proof vest.
Note: The technical portions of this article were written with heavy reliance on the article "Semi-automatic self-loading pistol" in Wikipedia and Kel-Tec's owner's manual for the P-3AT found here.
The author of this article is not anti-gun. He enjoys shooting guns with his friends and family in safe conditions. He does believe that the carrying of loaded firearms into the General Assembly's offices--where many teenage children serve as legislative pages--is a foolish and irresponsible act. He is also troubled by the fact that Delegate Reid appears to have been less than honest about how the accident occurred.