Basic Firearms Safety

In this section, I’m going to cover the basic things you need to know to safely handle firearms. If possible, I’d highly recommend getting at least some in-person training to practice the safe handling of weapons, but I wanted to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to learn the essentials here.

Basic Safety Rules

Different organizations and government agencies have different sets of safety rules they teach, but they’re all pretty similar. The most common safety rules taught are these four:

  • All guns are always loaded (Treat them like they’re loaded).
  • Never point a gun at anything you are not willing to destroy.
  • Keep your finger off the trigger until the sights are on target.
  • Be sure of your target and what is beyond it.

These four rules give you a multi-layered safety plan for your guns. Ideally, we’d always follow rule #1 perfectly, but if you don’t, you should at least not be pointing the gun at anything that matters. Even if you fail to do that, you can still prevent disaster by not pulling the trigger. If you follow all four rules, your chances of getting hurt or hurting someone goes down to almost zero.

You should memorize these four rules. At many police academies, a cadet must be able to recite these four rules on command or they’ll be punished with pushups. Many instructional range sessions begin with reciting the rules (especially for new shooters).

Instructors are serious about this because every time you handle a gun in the future, you will be tested on these rules! There might not be an instructor there to make you recite them, but if you fail to remember them, you could get hurt or killed.

Other Safety Considerations

Beyond the above safety rules, there are some other things to think about when it comes to gun safety.

Keep Guns Unloaded Until Ready To Use

While all guns should be treated as if they are loaded, it is unwise leave loaded guns
unattended because children or other untrained individuals may come across them. The
only time guns should be loaded are when they are being shot (such as at the firing line at a range) or if they are being safely carried or stored in a ready to use condition (such as in a holster or quick access safe).

How To “Clear” A Firearm (Make Sure It’s Not Loaded)

To verify that a gun is unloaded, check both the chamber AND parts of guns that
store ammunition. In a revolver, this would be the other chambers in the cylinder, and in
most semi-autos this would be the magazine and magazine well. For rifles, there’s also a chamber and a place that stores extra rounds. Both of these should be empty. These places can be checked both with your eyes and with your fingertips.

For guns with magazines, it’s essential to eject the magazine before clearing the chamber because closing the slide or bolt could pull a new round out of the magazine.


Keep Firearms Away From Children and Unauthorized Users

It is important to ensure that firearms are NOT left unattended and accessible to children or other people who should not access them. This can be done by keeping guns in a safe or by using a locking device. Simply attempting to place a firearm out of reach will not necessarily keep it out of their hands (kids know how to pull up a chair or stool).

If keeping a firearm off your person in a bag or in a vehicle, it is important to ensure that
the firearm is secured. If, for example, you leave a bag with a gun in it unattended, a child or criminal could get ahold of the firearm. If this happens, you can be charged with a crime in some jurisdictions.

Never Use Or Carry Firearms When Under The Influence Of Any Substance

This isn’t just about drugs and alcohol, but any substance that impairs your judgment or
sensory perception. This includes things like cold and cough medicine, prescription drugs,
or any new substance you are using when you are unsure of the effects. Never operate a
firearm or have one in your possession when impaired in any way, or if you are unsure if
you will become impaired.

Know How To Use Your Firearm and Use The Correct Ammunition

Consult the owner’s manual for your firearm and consult with somebody knowledgeable
about firearms to ensure that you are familiar with the safe operation of your particular firearm. Also, be sure to only use the correct ammunition for your gun. This is not just a matter of using the correct caliber, but ensuring that you do not use ammunition in the correct caliber that is loaded to higher pressures (such as +P or +P+) if your gun is not designed to handle such loads.

Range Safety Rules

  • 180 Degree Rule – No person should be beyond a straight line extending to your
    left and right. On the range, this line is the firing line.
  • Any gun not being fired will be unloaded with action open or in holster/case.
  • Don’t table a loaded gun or put a loaded gun in a case (action open is best).
  • All guns will be pointed downrange at all times. Don’t turn a gun sideways to
    inspect, manipulate controls, fix malfunctions or eject magazines.
  • Any gun being moved from the firing line to another location shall be unloaded,
    action open, pointed down AND NOT IN ANY OTHER DIRECTION.
  • Don’t pull the trigger to drop a hammer or striker (all guns are loaded!).
  • If assistance is needed, keep the gun pointed down range and raise your non-dominant hand.
  • Follow all range commands. Don’t get ahead of the range master or instructor by
    anticipating commands.
  • Don’t load or fire until told to do so.

Cease Fire!

The “Cease Fire!” command means to cease fire immediately. It does NOT mean you can fire another shot or two. It means that you must immediately stop firing your gun. Any person on the range can call a “cease fire” if unsafe conditions are seen. Range safety is everybody’s job. It’s better for somebody to call “cease fire” when in doubt.

Basic Mechanics

There are many different types of handguns, shotguns, and rifles. Here’s a great video going through the different types and the basics of how they work.

Be sure you understand how YOUR firearm works before using it or carrying it.

How Ammunition Works

Today, most firearms use a modern centerfire cartridge, with everything pre-assembled and ready to load and fire. Older designs, such as muzzle loaders, required the shooter to manually put all of the parts together before firing a shot. Here’s a video that explains how modern cartridges work and how we got here.

Common Cartridge Malfunctions

Sometimes, guns don’t work properly. It can be a problem with the gun or a problem with ammunition. When this happens, it’s extremely important to continue following all safety rules. Here’s a video explaining common malfunctions and how to safely deal with them.

Another very dangerous thing to watch out for are squib loads. A squib load is when there’s less powder than usual or even no powder at all in the cartridge. When this happens, the shot will sound really quiet compared to normal and may even sound like a fart. The gun will also have less recoil or “kick” than usual.

If this happens, you have to stop shooting immediately, because the bullet can be stuck in the barrel. Firing another round can cause the gun to explode.