updated by Charles Yor 03/28/2019Learning to shoot a firearm can be a very rewarding experience. I have fond memories of my father and grandfather teaching me to shoot and hunt. When most boys my age were playing video games, I was competing in marksmanship tournaments.
However, the very first lesson I was taught was the importance of safely handling firearms. I know it goes without saying, but guns can be incredibly dangerous if not handled properly. My son is only three, but we have already discussed gun safety on several occasions. By following a few simple but essential rules, shooting can be a fun and safe pastime.
The Five Rules of Firearms Safety
There are lots of rules that govern virtually any situation you might encounter when you have a gun in hand, but there are only five that are considered the most important, most inviolable rules of gun handling. If you do nothing else right except follow these rules, you will avoid accidents with your own guns.
I am not the creator of these rules, and I’ll bet you have already seen them before here or there. Some people and organizations might condense them to four rules, or even three, but the spirit of them remains the same: these are the rules you must not, ever, break. No matter the gun, and no matter the situation.
Rule #1- Always Handle Every Gun as if It Were Loaded
The first and most important rule for handling firearms is to always treat every gun like it is loaded. When I was in high school, a friend of mine was shot and killed because another individual was cleaning a handgun having assumed it was not loaded.
If you treat every gun like it is loaded, it eliminates the potential for accidents such as this. Always be mindful of where the gun is pointed. Never point a gun at anything you do not intend to kill.
The best direction to point a gun is straight down towards the ground. The second best direction is straight up in the air. If there is an accidental discharge, this helps to prevent the round injuring other people.
Rule #2 – Never Point a Gun at Anything You Are Not Willing to Destroy
Always be mindful of where the gun is pointed. Never point a gun at anything you do not intend to destroy or kill. The best direction to point a gun is dependent on where you are and the area around you. If you are outside, this is usually the ground.
On a shooting range, the safe direction is toward the backstop. In a structure, you want to point the firearm at the hardest possible surface away from others in the building. By following this rule, if an accidental discharge occurs this helps to prevent the bullet from injuring someone else.
Rule #3 – Keep Your Gun On-Safe Until You Are Ready to Fire
If your gun has a safety, always keep it engaged until you are ready to fire. Nearly all rifles or shotguns, and many handguns have a manual safety switch. The safety locks or otherwise disables the action so that the gun cannot fire even if the trigger is pulled.
Know where that safety is located and do not switch it off until your sights are lined up and you are ready to fire. When done firing for the moment, immediately switch your safety back on until you are ready to fire again.
However, you must further never assume that your safety will prevent the gun from firing! No mechanical device is 100% effective (see Rule #1)!
Rule #4 – Always Keep Your Finger off the Trigger and Outside the Trigger Guard Until Ready to Fire
Do not put your finger on the trigger until you are ready to fire. Get in the habit of resting your trigger finger outside of the trigger guard and up on the frame or receiver of your gun until the sights are on target and you have made the conscious decision to take a shot.
Developing this level of unconscious skill takes a whole lot of practice until it becomes second nature, so you must be conscious and cognizant of where that trigger finger is in the meantime.
Don’t be lazy about this because your gun is unloaded or the safety is on! You must keep your finger off the trigger at all times until you are preparing to fire.
Rule #5 – Know Your Target and Your Target’s Background
You and you alone are responsible for where your bullets come to rest. You must know what will stop your fire and what won’t. Always be conscious of the range of your weapon. When firing bird shot out of my shotgun, I know the range is less than 100 yards.
When I fire at birds, I only have to be cautious not to aim at any other hunters or dogs within that range. However, any of my rifles have the potential to travel much farther. Any time I fire a rifle I always find a downward shooting angle so the round ends up in the dirt.
Also, never assume that the target itself will stop the bullet. It is not uncommon for a round to enter the target, exit the opposite side, and keep travelling for a significant distance. Be mindful of what or whom is behind your target.
Other Safety Rules
Inspecting the Bore
Never look up the barrel of your gun from the muzzle unless the gun is disassembled and doing so is unavoidable to inspect it. There are times when you need to ensure that the barrel of your gun is clear; if your gun has been dropped in the dirt, in the mud, or in snow then clearing the barrel is essential.
However, looking into the barrel of the gun through the muzzle is exceedingly dangerous. Most guns will allow you to look down the barrel from the rear, or at a minimum will allow you to do so after being partially disassembled. This is the safe and proper way to check your barrel.
When to Load the Chamber
Do not keep a round in the chamber of your firearm unless the situation requires it. When I go hunting I like to load my rifle‘s magazine before leaving the house, but I do not chamber a round until I am in position and ready to actually start hunting. This is just another safeguard to prevent an accidental discharge.
Also. as soon as you are done shooting and are not keeping your gun ready to fire, unload it. When I am finished I always remove the magazine or cycle all remaining rounds out of the gun.
I also cycle the gun several times before inspecting the chamber to ensure that the gun is completely clear. I then immediately store all rounds back in their box or a case so there are no loose rounds rolling around in the vehicle or in my pocket.
Positioning when Shooting in a Group
When hunting in a group, keep everybody in a straight line abreast. The primary time this may happen would be bird hunting. If all hunters maintain this formation, then you just have to ensure that everybody shoots only at birds in front of them.
This will prevent everybody from accidentally shooting the person next to them. If one person is out a few yards ahead of the line, it is easy to allow your aim to follow a bird right into their path.
Never walk down range on a shooting range until everybody is done shooting, and concerned parties (range safety officers or all other shooters) are satisfied that all guns are unloaded, clear and shown safe.
When you spend your afternoon target practicing at your local outdoor range, there will be several points where you need to walk down range to check or replace your target. This can be a very dangerous walk if you are not careful!
Make all shooters aware that you need to head down or wait for a planned cease-fire. Ensure that all other shooters have unloaded and cleared their weapons and you are clear to proceed downrange before proceeding.
During one of these situations, if you are back on the firing line you must not handle any firearm, loaded or not! This is a great way to get kicked off a range and lose friends.
Keep Your Guns in Good Working Order
Keep your gun clean. To properly take care of your weapons, they need to be cleaned on a regular basis. Ideally you should partially disassemble them and clean with gun oil each time you shoot them. This will prevent rust and keep them in pristine condition, but it is not just about keeping them pretty.
Guns that have not been cleaned are more likely to have a mechanical failure. In some cases this can be dangerous for the shooter. Take the time to make sure your firearms are in good working order.
Store Guns Safely
One of the most important aspects of gun safety is storage of your firearm and all ammunition. All firearms should be stored in some sort of a locked container or compartment. This could be a gun safe or a gun case, but the lock is vital.
If you have children in the home this is doubly important and you should also consider storing your ammunition in a different location. This makes it more difficult for children to end up with a loaded gun.
Never Load Unknown or Iffy Ammo
Never fire questionable rounds. If you are anything like me, you will occasionally run across random bullets or shotgun shells as you dig through your hunting gear, or on the floor of the local range.
If you do not know what kind of round it is and what it has been through, you are better off not to fire it. Also, if it looks like it may have been damaged in any way you will want to discard that round. Only fire rounds that your gun is designed to chamber. It can be dangerous to fire any defective rounds, even if they fit in the chamber normally.
Other Safety Tips
Never intentionally fire your gun straight up or nearly so. Do not forget that bullets that are fired upwards will have to eventually come down. A bullet on any stable trajectory is extremely dangerous.
Guns are not for celebrating and every single year people are injured, crippled and killed by so-called “happy fire.” Only every pull the trigger on your gun if you have a target in your sights. Also take great care if you decide to shoot at any metal or oblique surface.
Ricochets can be very dangerous. If you fire at something metal, the bullet will likely bounce off. You definitely do not want it headed back in your direction.
Be cautious of how you carry your gun. Many people like to tuck a handgun into their waistband in the front or back. It is very easy for this firearm to accidentally discharge, and it could possible shoot you in the leg. Always use a proper holster that is designed for holding firearms.
Also, never climb a tree stand with your gun in hand or slung over your shoulder with a round chambered. It is too easy to drop the gun or snag the trigger on something.
If you have trouble negotiating such a maneuver, bring cordage with you and attach it to your gun. Once you are in your stand, use the cordage to pull the gun up to you safely.
Always wear eye and ear protection if at all possible. Gunfire is loud enough to damage your eardrums. Ear plugs are always a good idea, especially if you shoot frequently.
Loud noises have a cumulative effect on your ears. Safety glasses are also smart to help protect your eyes from flying particulate and other debris. Many ranges require this safety gear to be utilized.
It should go without saying, but never, never, ever fire a gun if you have been drinking alcohol or if you are on prescription medication that affects coordination or judgement.
Firing a gun is very much like driving a car. If done safely it can be very productive, but you never want to take your chances if you are not 100%. Firing a gun while intoxicated significantly increases your chances of injuring yourself or others. It is also against the law in many states.
If you follow these rules, shooting and hunting can be a wonderful hobby. If you have not taken a hunter safety or basic intro to firearms course, I highly suggest you do so.
The course will go into much more depth and will make sure you are ready before you start hunting or shooting. In some states this is required before you can purchase a hunting license. Once you know how to be safe with firearms, you are ready to enjoy them to their full potential.