(Note – generally on this site we write in the impersonal ‘third person’ sense. But I am varying this for this particular article, because it is not just an impersonal transfer of information from all of us to all of you; it is also a personal plea direct from me and direct to you.
Gun safety is the most important skill of all.
For your safety, for the safety of your loved ones, and those around you, and possibly even for my safety to, please get the gun safety rules perfect before you progress on to any other aspect of firearms training.)
Before you first touch ANY gun in ANY situation, you need to have become a total believer in, and slavish practitioner of, the four basic gun safety rules.
Different sources describe these four rules in different ways, and the NRA even omits rule number 4 entirely, adding it to another set of slightly less imperative rules, leaving only the first three.
Let’s take all four rules on board, however.
Before I show them to you, here’s the really important bit. You MUST follow ALL four rules, ALL the time. You don’t get a ‘free ride’ on any of the rules if, for example, you ‘know’ the gun is unloaded and you also simultaneously know your finger is not on the trigger.
The real world teaches us that sometimes things go wrong, even when they shouldn’t. The gun that you thought you knew, 110% for sure, was unloaded actually turns out to still have a round in it. And even though you don’t have your finger on the trigger, something else catches on the trigger instead. Or anything else that might happen, sooner or later, will happen.
And that is the first reason for FOUR rules, not just one or two. It gives you a series of ‘belt and braces’ fall-back safeties. If for some reason or another, you fail one of the four rules, you still have three other rules protecting you. If you even fail two rules, you still have two other rules protecting you.
If you look, for example, at a plane crash and read the accident report, you’ll usually see that the plane crash wasn’t the result of just one thing going wrong. First one thing went wrong, then a second mistake was made, then a third error occurred, and so on until a system that was designed to be ‘fault tolerant’ with one or two or three errors was eventually overwhelmed with four or five errors and the result was a fatal crash.
We never get to read about non-crashes that were prevented by the multiple levels of backup kicking in. Every day, flights have a first failure event occur, but the second (and third and subsequent) levels of redundant safety procedures and systems kick in, making it a minor event rather than a fatal event.
My point here is simple. Sort of like how buses bunch up – you wait for a long time for a bus, and none come past, then all of a sudden, three come towards you, all together; well the same thing happens with mistakes and errors.
Translation – most of the time, with firearms, you’ll probably make no mistakes and have no problems at all. But then, when things do go wrong, it might be a two or three factor screw up. You need to have four layers of protection – four gun safety rules – so even with two or three messups, the third and/or fourth safety rule is still in place to protect you.
The second reason why you must ALWAYS follow ALL four safety rules, even when you know you don’t need to, is to make them totally 100% ingrained reflexes. If you never ever point a gun somewhere dangerous, you’re more likely to always think about where your gun is pointed, including when it is loaded. If you never ever put your finger anywhere near the trigger until you’ve decided to shoot and have the gun already pointed at the target, you’re less likely to make a mistake at the wrong time on some other occasion.
I write this just a week after a trainee instructor in one of my classes muzzled me with his pistol. He had just gone through an elaborate process of doing a ‘show clear’ routine to everyone in the classroom, and after he had finished that, he clearly thought to himself ‘Okay, so I’ve just showed clear, we all know the gun is unloaded and totally safe, so now I can relax’ and then without thinking about it, he waved his gun in my face.
That really upset me. But what really upset me even more is that when I pointed his error out to him, he wasn’t abjectly apologetic. He didn’t get it. He does not understand that even smart clever instructors must follow the same very basic rules of safety as the least experienced student must. (Needless to say, he won’t be in any of my classes again.)
That points out one more truth. You are never, ever, smart enough, practiced enough, skilled enough, to not need to compulsively follow all four gun safety rules, all the time. If you ever find a person claiming to be an instructor who is casually disregarding any of the four rules at any time, leave his class and don’t go back to it.
I’ve been around guns most of my life. I’ve fired tens of thousands of rounds – maybe even hundreds of thousands of rounds – through tens or possibly hundreds of different weapons, in all sort of environments and situations. Indoor and out. Day and night. Wet and dry. Against static safe targets and against people shooting back at me. I’ve taken more firearms classes than any two ‘normal’ people, and have a long list of firearm qualifications. But the more I learn, and the more I shoot, the more careful I become, and the more seriously I treat these four rules. You must only associate with trainers – and shooters in general – who give them the same reverence I do. The life you save could well be your own – gun accidents are as likely to involve the shooter wounding/killing someone else as they do with the shooter hitting himself.
And so, now on to the four safety rules. These are paraphrased from of the best known (and indeed, generally best) gun instructors ever, Colonel Jeff Cooper.
Rule #1 – All guns are always loaded.
The only exception to this occurs when you have a firearm in your hands and you have personally unloaded it for checking. As soon as you put it down, Rule #1 applies again.
Rule #2 – Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not ready to destroy.
You may not wish to destroy it, but you must be clear in your mind that you are quite ready to if you let that muzzle cover the target. To allow a firearm to point at another human being is a deadly threat, and should always be treated as such.
Rule #3 – Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target.
This we call the Golden Rule because its violation is responsible for about 80% of the firearms disasters we read about. Most modern firearms can not fire by themselves. Someone or something needs to pull the trigger.
Rule #4 – Be sure of your target and what is beyond it.
You never shoot at anything until you have positively identified it. You never fire at a shadow, or a sound, or a suspected presence. You shoot only when you know absolutely what you are shooting at, and what is in front, reasonably alongside, and beyond it.