I was asked recently, "Why don't you like forward cocking serrations?" Part of it is that I'm a curmudgeon, a crusty old relic of bygone days. I learned on pistols that didn't have them, I got along fine without them, and I didn't need them. There's also the fact that the sharper ones act like a cheese grater in holsters.
The general question of how to use cocking serrations safely and properly is a more interesting one. Let's discuss their strengths and weaknesses when racking a slide. We'll start with the normal grooves, those on the back of the slide.
There are two ways to grab and use them, slingshot and overhand. I'm sure there's a firearms instructor out there who has figured a third way and named it after himself. If so, good for him.
The slingshot is just that. Using a right-handed shooter as our example, you hold the pistol in your right hand, then pinch the slide between your left thumb and forefinger with your left palm facing down. Pull back, let go, and you're in business.
The strengths of this method are simple: You can't point the pistol at yourself while doing it, and you end up with the pistol pointed pretty much at the intended target. The weakness is plain to see: You've got just a thumb and forefinger on the slide, and that's it.
Those with weak hand strength don't like it. You can improve the technique. Instead of holding the pistol out at arm's length and pulling the slide back, hold the pistol close, pinch hard, and punch forward with your right hand. This gets stronger muscles involved, and the punching makes up a little for the left hand only having two fingers involved. The slingshot method also keeps your fingers clear of the ejection port.
The process is useful enough that I'm told it's the apparent norm in Israel. There are lots of people armed there — and openly — but since there is so much public transportation, it is prudent that a lot of them carry pistols hammer-down on an empty chamber. We refer to this as Condition Three.
Additionally, in the early days they had such a hodgepodge of pistols to carry, the only way instructors could hope to even try to train everyone on everything was to teach them in Condition Three carry.
They modified it by training people to turn the pistol on its side, "gangsta" style, but only for working the slide. Draw, lift up close to your face, grab and punch, and turn the pistol upright before you start shooting toward the threat. For a lot of people, and for a lot of pistols, slingshot works.
Over the Top
Overhand changes this. Your left hand is still palm down, but you grab the slide by putting the heel of your hand against the left side of the slide and wrapping your fingers over the top. This gets the heel of your hand and a few fingers onto the slide, and since you have to bend your arms to reach, it gets bigger, stronger muscles involved in the slide-racking process. That's the good part.
The downsides are potentially really bad. First, if you aren't careful where your pistol is pointing, the mechanics of overhand can have you pointing the muzzle at the shooter to your left. You must be diligent in keeping the muzzle pointed downrange or in a safe direction when using the overhand method of racking a slide from the rear.
The second downside deals with the pinkie finger of your support hand. Particularly with shooters new to learning this method, the pinkie can cover the ejection port. If the reason you're working the slide is to clear a malfunction, this little finger might just be an obstruction.
Worse yet, if you have big hands or are sloppy in grabbing the slide, your whole hand is in the way. I know of at least three competitive shooters who have scars on the fingers or palm of their left hand from unloading, having their hand in the way, struggling with the now-recalcitrant pistol and having the round that's trying to get out inadvertently go off.
Admittedly, three shooters aren't many considering the tens of thousands of competitive shooters I've met and for the many millions of rounds we have all fired. But who wants to be "that guy"?
A traditional rear blade sight or adjustable match target sight known for having sharp corners can be painful for shooters used to employing the overhand method of working the slide. The current popularity the overhand method enjoys should be partly credited to the prolific use of lower-profile, ramped-style sights.
So far, we've been discussing the use of slide serrations in terms of pistols such as the Model 1911, which feature a frame-mounted safety, or various striker-fired ones with internal safeties.
Pistols with slide-mounted safeties, such as the Beretta 92FS, have problems with both methods. It is all too easy, with pretty much any of them except the spring-loaded variants, to push the slide-mounted safety from a Fire to a Safe position when working the slide. When you have a slide-mounted safety, it is on you to keep the lever where you need it.
Forward Serrations Now, on to pistols with forward cocking serrations. As I've mentioned, the sharp ones shred leather holsters. They also grate little bits of Kydex off the plastic ones. They add friction to the draw. My biggest problem with forward cocking serrations is the way I too often see them used.
Picture this: The shooter reaches up and over with his left hand and clamps down on the top of the slide, on and forward of the ejection port, with fingers on the cocking serrations. Then, he pulls the slide back. Sound familiar? If this is you, stop it. Stop it right now! If this is not familiar to you, then you're lucky. You're probably not spending much time at a public range.
The problems? First, your fingers are way too close to the muzzle, and the positional dynamics don't work to keep them away from hazard. Second, your hand or thumb fully covers the ejection port.
To avoid that, you can use just the thumb and forefinger, but that means you have to exert more force, and that worsens the third problem; the action moves the muzzle up, more toward you. Last, the action causes your left-hand thumb to collide with your trigger finger. You don't want to be doing anything that discourages proper off-the-trigger finger placement.
Now, you've probably seen this used by the hotshot shooter at your gun club, the guy who has been to so many tournaments he can't remember them all. Because the hotshot does it is not a reason to learn a bad habit.
Here's the correct way to use forward cocking serrations: Reach under the pistol, from the side, and with your palm facing up, pinch your thumb and as many fingers as you can on the serrations. Pull back. If you are chambering a round, pull back and let go. If you are just checking the chamber, pull back just enough, and let go.
We'll call this the underhand method. Be aware, this is usually a bad way to clear a malfunction. Your left hand doesn't have a lot of space to move, and you may not be able to clear a malfunction properly. This is what I alluded to in the beginning: You sure won't be changing the status of your slide-mounted safety with this method.
I have a mix of methods, a bad habit I learned from the early days. I chamber a round or clear a malfunction with slingshot or overhand, whatever works. I chamber-check with the underhand, and I strive to do everything on a pistol with a slide-mounted safety underhand.
This is true unless I'm using a revolver, and there I just drop the empty one and draw the next one, repeating as necessary. See? There's another reason I like wheelguns.