Every firearm is a dangerous item. Even the .22 long rifle, one of the weakest cartridges, is capable of killing someone when misused.
It is important for everyone to know the basics of firearm safety, even if you do not plan on owning a gun yourself. If you are a shooter, then you must not only be aware of the following safety rules, but you should keep an eye on your fellow shooters and help them follow the rules as well.
Depending on who you ask, there are anywhere from three to ten firearm safety rules.
My favorite ones are the four rules by Jeff Cooper, who is legendary for his contributions to firearm techniques and safety.
The Four Rules of Firearm Safety
Here are Jeff Cooper’s Four Rules of Firearm Safety:
- All guns are always loaded
- Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy
- Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target
- Be sure of your target and what is beyond it
Know these rules. Memorize them. Remind others. That will help keep guns safe in your hands.
There are other similar rule sets out there. For example, the United States Marine Corps’ rules are:
- Treat every weapon as if it were loaded
- Never point the weapon at anything you do not intend to shoot
- Keep your finger straight and off the trigger until you’re ready to fire
- Keep the weapon on safe until you intend to fire
I prefer Jeff Cooper’s rules because the language is more evocative and therefore easier to internalize.
Now, let’s look at all of these firearm safety rules in detail.
Rule #1: All guns are always loaded
This is the most important rule, and it’s also the easiest to forget.
A gun, whether used for plinking or hunting, is dangerous and needs to be treated with respect. Some people fall into the trap of treating them like toys when they are unloaded.
After all, there’s no round in the chamber, so it can’t be dangerous, right?
I once unloaded the tube of a pump action shotgun before putting it away. I went to dry fire the gun, but it turned out that I had miscounted the number of shells. Thankfully, I was following rule #2, so nothing was damaged except my pride.
It should be obvious that “all guns are always loaded” is not technically correct. However, if you put that thought into practice, you’ll never put a hole in your wall. You can’t have an unintentional discharge if you always expect there to be a round in the chamber.
This rule is especially important when handed a firearm by someone else. They may say that it’s unloaded, but they could be mistaken—or even lying.
Rule #2: Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy
The short way to refer to this rule is “muzzle discipline”.
Muzzle discipline is ensuring that you never point the firearm at anything that’s not a target. If it would cause you or anybody else pain (whether physical or emotional) to put a bullet hole in it, don’t aim the gun at it!
When at a firing range, keep the gun pointed down range at all times. At home, keep it aimed at the ground, or a wall you don’t mind ventilating (with no neighbors on the other side).
Generally, when hunting or otherwise outdoors and not at a range, there are two safe places to point the gun: the sky and the ground. Both have advantages and disadvantages.
Unless there’s a roof over your head, there’s nothing in the sky you can harm with an accidental shot. That’s provided that you keep the gun straight up. When shot straight up, a falling bullet’s terminal velocity is not enough to cause harm. However, even a small angle to the side can allow the bullet to keep enough horizontal momentum to be dangerous.
Also, it’s easy to slack and let the gun’s muzzle drop. I’ve had a barrel pointed straight at my face when my hunting partner slacked while climbing through rough terrain, so I recommend pointing to the sky only on flat ground.
Pointing at the ground is generally safer. The gun’s weight will naturally cause the muzzle to drop. The biggest problem with aiming at the ground is that a misfired bullet can ricochet off a rock. Also, aiming down is a bad idea if you’re above the ground floor of a building. That being said, if you’re outside and the ground around you is mostly soft dirt, I’d recommend keeping the gun pointing down.
It should go without saying, but this rule also covers your face. Never look down a gun barrel!
Rule #3: Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target
This rule covers trigger discipline. If your finger isn’t on the trigger, then you can’t accidentally pull it. So keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot!
Keeping your finger on the trigger is dangerous because there are many ways in which you can accidentally squeeze the trigger. Here are a few examples:
- If you stumble, you could inadvertently squeeze the trigger
- When you tightly grip something, such as a gun, all of your fingers will want to pull inward
- Your finger can get pushed into the trigger by an external object, such as when reholstering your pistol
So, keep your finger off the trigger until you are prepared to shoot. It’s best to keep your finger outside the trigger guard entirely to completely protect against involuntary movements. Only put your finger on the trigger at a time when you’re holding the gun properly, your sights are on target, and you are wanting to shoot.
A humorous yet effective reminder of this rule is to “keep your booger hook off the bang switch!”
Rule #4: Be sure of your target and what is beyond it
Many hunting accidents are caused by people who do not respect this basic safety rule. If you see a flash of brown moving in the woods, sure, it might be a deer. It might also be a hiker, wearing a brown jacket.
But your situational awareness better not end at the target! If you miss, or even if you hit and the bullet passes through the target, there needs to be a safe backdrop.
Shooting ranges almost always have a berm to stop all bullets, but you won’t have the luxury of a pre-made safety stop in the woods. It’s up to you to make sure that the bullet will safely impact the dirt and nothing else.
This means that you should never fire at an animal silhouetted against the sky. The sky cannot stop a bullet and, as mentioned before, a falling bullet moving sideways can injure or kill.
You should also avoid shallow shots into water because of the risk of ricochets. Rocks and metal can also deflect bullets, sending them in the distance or back at you. And never fire in the direction of a building or road!
6 Extra Safety Tips
Those four rules are the most important ones to remember. They will take you far along your journey of gun safety, but they aren’t the only safety considerations to keep in mind. Here are some more ways to keep you and your guns safe.
Check the chamber every time you pick up the gun
Bullets are mischievous gremlins. They seem to hop into the chamber when you think the gun is unloaded.
I like dry-fire practice. I train regularly with my firearms so when I pull the trigger for real, I won’t jerk and spoil the shot. I even have a special magazine for my AR-15 that’s had the spring and follower removed so it can’t be loaded.
Despite this, every time I pick up that rifle, I pull the bolt and check with my eyes that the chamber is empty. Even if I just set the gun down a moment earlier.
If you’re not in the habit of checking the chamber every time you pick up the gun, then one fateful day, there may be a round in the chamber. Don’t get complacent.
Check your barrel for obstructions
Your gun’s bore is facing away from you, so it can be hard to see what’s going on inside the muzzle. Normally this isn’t an issue, but when hunting, it’s easy to accidentally push the barrel into the dirt. That dirt can get inside the bore and cause a blockage.
It’s wise to check the muzzle before shooting to ensure that it’s clear of debris. Just make sure to never directly look down the barrel!
Never climb a tree or fence while carrying a loaded gun
Hunting sometimes involves crossing fences or climbing to a tree stand. These are potentially the most dangerous times when hunting because of how easy it is to drop a gun (or accidentally hit the trigger) when climbing.
If you have to climb anything with a gun, unload it first. If you are crossing a fence, set the gun down before climbing the obstacle. Pick it up afterward. It will cost a little bit of time but potentially save you from a negligent discharge.
No guns and alcohol!
There are few combinations more dangerous than drinking and shooting. Alcohol hurts your judgment and motor skills, both of which are required for shooting.
This extends to other aspects of the firearm hobby, such as reloading. If it has anything to do with a gun or gunpowder, leave it alone until you’re sober.
Remember where you keep your guns
Thankfully, this story is from a friend of mine, not my own experience.
Some people who like to use firearms for self-defense have a few guns scattered around the house. That way, no matter where you are, you’ll be able to defend yourself and your family against a home invasion.
I even know a guy who keeps a gun taped to his toilet reservoir’s lid!
Someone else—the type of bachelor who never uses his stove or oven—discovered that his stovetop lifted up for easy cleaning and his Glock 19 fit inside.
What better place to hide a gun in the kitchen?
That worked well until his girlfriend decided to bake a pizza in the oven. Halfway through baking, he remembered the gun in the stovetop!
The grips were partially melted, but the gun still shot fine. Until he left it in the stovetop again, and his girlfriend baked some lasagna.
Always keep track of your guns. Curious kids and baking girlfriends can cause woe if they find a gun you left in an irresponsible place.
Watch the blast!
This last piece of safety advice may save your truck’s tail lights.
A firing gun pushes a concussive wave out of the barrel right behind the bullet. Unlike the bullet, that concussion pushes to the sides as well. This is especially so with a muzzle brake. Many a hunter has used their truck tailgate as a bench rest, only for the blast to blow out their tail lights.
Keep that muzzle away from anything breakable!