Weapons Safety: Rules and Procedures for the Real World

Safety in both shooting and handling is a prime consideration when armed with a gun. Unless your first exposure to the firearms sphere is this article, you have hopefully been instructed in the Prime Rules of Gun Safety. They certainly pop up everywhere: posted at ranges, written in manuals, recited by trainers and shown at the beginning of videos.

You have likely also seen the variations on the number of the Prime Rules depending on who is posting the list: Three, four, six or twelve. While the number varies, the intent is always the same; if the shooter adheres, strictly, to the Rules disaster and loss of life will be averted in the event of accident or negligence. This is a fine idea, and perfect safety is the standard all conscientious shooters must ascribe to.

But taking safe handling practices beyond the relatively sterile and known environment of the range is not so simple. Some shooters advocate that the Rules will be bent, even broken, in the “real world.” This just isn’t true, first, and second choosing to do so is utterly negligent, and may result in injury, death or, at least, embarrassment and ostracism.

“Good safety” is as integral to good shooting as being accurate or fast on the draw. In this article, I’ll codify the Rules, again, and perhaps more importantly explain how they translate to the average gun-carrier’s day-to-day regimen. I will also give you much food for thought regarding where the Rules will impact decision making all the way down to live self-defense.

The Twin Snakes

“The Twin Snakes” is what I call Ignorance and Complacency, the two mental conditions responsible for more avoidable loss of life due to gunfire than absolutely anything else. And just like the serpents of biblical antiquity, these will slither right up and doom you before you understand just how terrible they are.

Ignorance comes in many guises, like a lack of training, lack of information, not knowing better, or truly not understanding the danger or threat something poses. An accident due to Ignorance is still tragic, but more forgivable than one stemming from complacency. Don’t misunderstand: Ignorance will kill you, as quick as you please, but Ignorance is much easier to spot and more readily correctable as it only exists in a vacuum, one where there is no Knowledge.

Most experienced shooters may think they are far from ignorant, but smaller, harder to see motes of Ignorance still exist in their education: it could be a model of gun they are truly unfamiliar with, a tricky or unknown type of malfunction that renders the gun in a dangerous condition or an unforeseen weak spot in a backstop. There is always more to learn, more to confirm, more to refine. That mindset is how Ignorance is kept at bay.

Complacency, on the other hand is far more insidious, as it is only found where Knowledge exists, but one has made the choice to act otherwise. If you know better, why would you not choose to be better? That’s the scary part: without judicious care, Complacency may be slithering around your mind even now. Perhaps Complacency resides in the rolling plains of laziness, the gentle rocking of routine, or the soaring tower of arrogance, but whatever the case, you must not give into it.

Complacency will whisper, you don’t need to unload your pistol, you are only doing a couple draw reps, or you just watched your friend unload the gun before he handed it to you, he’s good- try the trigger now. That is the voice of Complacency. The one that assures you, that strokes your ego, that promises you’re special: too good, too smart, too quick. You won’t screw up, you don’t need to “work” at it. You’ve never made a mistake. Your eyes and hands have never deceived you.

Do not be lulled by that siren song! Learn to guard your thoughts lest you wind up with a smoking hole in your TV, or worse… Unlike Ignorance, a tragedy stemming from Complacency is damnable beyond mere contempt. Here stands one we should have been able to trust, who knew better, was better, but did otherwise. It is far from easy; simple, mind-numbing routine will dim your nerves to sleep with time, dulling your mind to the frightful power lurking inside the gun.

Discipline, iron Discipline is the one, infallible preventative for Complacency. The commitment to total, unflinching focus and adherence to safe procedure from the first day you strap on a gun to the very last. No matter your mood, no matter how tired, no matter how many years you have been slinging guns full-time, and no matter how good you think you are.

The Four Prime Rules of Gun Safety

The following rules represent the crux of safe gun-handling, and can be thought of as a distillation of all the other lists of six, or twelve, or however many you have seen elsewhere. While there is nothing wrong with that longer format, four is far easier to remember, and impart, than twelve or twenty. I’ll list the rules here together, and then analyze each with my thoughts and other considerations.

I made one minor alteration to the presentation of the Rules, and it is only the addition of the word “prime” to their header. Words mean things, and I truly do believe that these Rules should be treated as such, and not disregarded or broken except in situations of extreme need or very controlled conditions. Too many shooters, especially seasoned ones, start to slip in their application after Complacency strikes, and in doing so invite disaster to their table.

Note that that tiny addition aside, I otherwise did not create the Rules, or modify their wording with my own spin, or anything like that. The Great Ones who came before us developed the Rules, along with so much more knowledge we shooters take as mere “common sense”. We owe them much, as they paid a heavy price in blood and lead for the wisdom we enjoy today.

The Four Prime Rules of Gun Safety

  1. Always handle every gun as if it is loaded.
  2. Never let the muzzle of a gun cover anything you are not willing to destroy.
  3. Always keep your finger off the trigger and above the trigger guard until you are preparing to fire.
  4. Know your target, your target’s foreground and your target’s background.

Rule #1: Always handle every gun as if it is loaded

This applies at all times. Even if you know a gun is unloaded and you checked it twice yourself, handle it with the care and respect it is due. More lives have been lost accidentally (actually negligently, if the gun-handler is experienced) due to careless or idiotic handling of a gun than almost anything else. Don’t lose your composure or bearing with the gun just because you “know” it is unloaded. Don’t clown around, take stupid risks or showboat. Leave your devil-may-care attitude at home.

holding hand on gun muzzle wrong

An awful lot going wrong here: upon unloading the pistol for cleaning, this guy has the muzzle resting in his palm and is preparing to press the trigger. Live ammo in the cleaning area compounds mistake. Great way to get a hole in your hand.

Another situation you may consider is the re-checking of a firearm that has just been unloaded or checked and handed to you. Check it again! I do not care if the best, safest shooter on the planet just checked the gun in front of you while you watched. There is no insult in certainty. Trust, but verify. I would not be insulted, and neither would any shooter, of any station whose ego has not got the best of them.

Think about it: how many times have your eyes deceived you? How many times have you glitched and made a mistake you’d swear you didn’t? Think of it another way: what if that person, friend, teacher, whoever, is having the worst day of their life, and just plain messed up? If you come behind them and upon rechecking the gun discover it is loaded, you just not only averted a possible negligent discharge, but saved them a considerable amount of grief and shame.

Rule #2: Never let the muzzle of a gun cover anything you are not willing to destroy

This includes your body, not just other people. I cannot count the number of times I have seen otherwise good, locked-on shooters carelessly rest a pistol’s muzzle on the palm of their hand or a shotgun’s on their boot. And for what? This practice is dangerous and will result in a severe injury in the event the gun is discharged. If there is no good reason to put yourself in front of a muzzle, then don’t. Likewise, do not ever point a gun at anyone else you do not plan on shooting, or at pets, or prized possessions.

This dovetails with Rule #1. If the gun was loaded, would you perform the same action so flippantly? If the answer is no, then stop doing that. If the answer is yes, you are in need of serious reprogramming. If a gun is in your hand and you are not seeking a target, point it in the direction that will cause the least possible harm in the event of a discharge.

You must also pay particular attention when drawing and reholstering a pistol, or slinging and un-slinging a long gun. It is easy to sweep a thigh, foot or hand with a pistol if the steps of the draw are not thoroughly practiced. Many shooters get sloppy when reholstering and “dig” the muzzle toward their body to make entry into the holster. This is to be avoided.

wrong way to insert gun in holster

Shooter here has cleared his concealing garment well, but is canting muzzle inward to help insert pistol into mouth of holster. This could result in a severe self-inflicted wound in event of discharge.

good reholster

This is much better; shooter has cleared concealing garment well and pistol is pre-oriented for insertion into holster without muzzling body.

Likewise, when holding or slinging a long gun with the muzzle pointing toward the ground you should not let the muzzle cover your feet or shins. This is lazy and dangerous. Holding or slinging the long gun so that the muzzle scribes an arc just beyond the feet of the shooter is all that is required. Also pay particular attention with a long gun slung, muzzle high or low, when bending over that the muzzle does not dip or climb and cover a person or point in an unsafe direction.

Keep in mind a “safe direction” can change. If not on an approved shooting range, there is seldom a 100% truly safe direction out in the world. The ground is a good bet, but what if you are above ground level in a home or apartment? What about the floors below you, and the rooms or dwelling next to you? Same with the sky, or “up”. Bullets that go up must come down, and bullets on any kind of trajectory are dangerous to lethal the entire way. You must constantly be assessing your environment, and projecting your awareness beyond the walls of a room you are in or the horizon of your surroundings outside.

If this sounds like a lot of work and thinking, it is. But with dedicated practice it will be nearly automatic.

Rule #3: Always keep your finger off the trigger and above the trigger guard until you are preparing to fire

This is the rule that is most often broken, and the one that requires diligent practice to ensure it is followed. The only time the trigger finger should be on the trigger is when the shooter has made the conscious decision to fire and is preparing to or in the process of breaking the shot. If the need to shoot passes or no follow-up shots are to be made, the finger should be removed from the trigger.

It is easy to break this rule, especially if not well trained or practiced owing to simple physiology: clenching the other four digits while keeping the trigger finger straight is far from a natural movement, and the ergonomics of guns are such that when the trigger finger closes it will naturally fall on the trigger, as in making a fist.

It is possible to keep the finger alongside the trigger guard and still see a negligent discharge occur: many guns have oversized trigger guards (or shooters have short fingers) that will not halt a finger contracting from a startle response or sympathetic clenching of the hand, and then mashing into the trigger. To preclude this from happening, it is best to move the trigger finger above the trigger guard and rest it on the frame or slide as appropriate.

opening door with trigger on finger

This shooter is preparing to open a door, but he has his finger on the trigger. If startled, a discharge is likely; he may wind up shooting his hand or arm.

Be sure you have properly located the trigger finger on the frame especially before holstering a pistol, as negligent discharges, so called “crash on landings” occur frequently due to an errant trigger finger being pressed into the trigger by the holster body. Also be mindful that other things besides fingers can pull the trigger; bungee adjustments and straps on jacket hems are notorious for entering the trigger guard on holstering, as is fabric from wither clothing or the holster itself if old and worn. Any will readily cause a negligent discharge. Ensure you are paying attention to the holster when putting the pistol away.

poor reholstering

Another view of shooter reholstering poorly; finger is correctly off trigger, but concealing garment is encroaching on gun as it is being reinserted along with muzzle covering shooter’s hip.

Long guns too can suffer from some object on or about your person entering the trigger guard and depressing the trigger. Flaps, straps, buckles and buttons on worn clothing or gear is a common culprit, as is a protruding corner of a magazine or other piece of gear worn on the waist.

Rule #4: Know your target, your target’s foreground and your target’s background

Rule # 4 is critical, both on and off the range. It is solely up to the shooter to know the target, and the target’s background and foreground. You must know if the target will safely contain the projectile you are firing, or if it presents any sort of ricochet hazard. You must be aware of the target’s background, all of it, to include the immediate backstop or entirety of anything along the bullet’s trajectory before you fire.

Also be aware of the target’s foreground: are you shooting over, under or past anything? How much mechanical offset is present between your sights and the bore? Could someone or something suddenly come between the target and the gun?

This is doubly important anywhere you may be forced to shoot in defense of yourself or others. You are responsible for every, single bullet you fire. Every one of them gets a home, and where they end up is on you. If you fire at a frothing psycho charging you and your family with a machete, but shank a shot that strikes a bystander, or penetrates a wall or car and causes harm, you are still solely responsible for that bullet.

The awareness of what will stop a bullet, and what won’t is constantly shifting with your location and environmental changes, and this skill must be practiced constantly. Consider the interior of your home. Pick a point of entry into the room you are in, now. Great. Ok, so a home invader is coming through that door momentarily. If you had to shoot, right now, what lies beyond your room along that path? Where are your family members, roommates or visitors? Is the bullet likely to stay in your house, or penetrate the exterior wall or window and carry on?

shooting in the dark

Investigating a crash at the far end of darkened home, shooter is using WML for navigation and ID. If threat appears suddenly from either end of T hallway and shooter fires, what is beyond the door in the center? Is the room occupied?

This is a significant real-world concern, and one you should be “gaming” before that fateful day arrives.


Safe handling of a gun is not just protocol for shooting ranges. Proper procedure and strict adherence to the Prime Rules is as integral to shooting performance as the fundamentals of marksmanship, and must be practiced both alone and together with other skills. It is only by constant focus and attention that you will engrain safe handling as a default reaction.

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1 thought on “Weapons Safety: Rules and Procedures for the Real World”

  1. I saw a friend of mine who was very safety aware have a mental slip and shoot a .44 mag into his firewood pile thinking his gun was empty. Yes he was really embarrassed about “killing” that stack of firewood. Dam good thing it was just firewood


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