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Basic Principles Of Firearm Safety

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By David Link

As a young shooter, nearly all of my lessons about firearm safety were learned alongside my father, so when I think of firearm safety, it’s hard not to think of my father. It was the ideal scenario to have my dad right by my side as I learned to shoot my first firearm, both for encouragement and for the occasional scolding. I’ve never forgotten those lessons, and it was during those early years that I learned to have a healthy respect for firearms. Note that I did not say “fear,” because a firearm is a tool to be only used responsibly. Anyway, I realize that not everyone has the privilege to be shown the principles of firearm safety first hand, and so I thought it would be great to touch on them in my own words. Before we get to each principle, remember that reading these rules isn’t adequate without hunters safety and on the range training.

Always Treat A Gun As If It Is Loaded

This is the first rule that most everyone comes in contact with when they first pick up a firearm, and while I would say that it is the most important rule, all these rules are important really. Regardless, this is a vital habit to get into, even when you’ve just looked down the muzzle to confirm that no shell is loaded in the firearm. It is beside the point if you’ve just confirmed that no shell or cartridge is loaded in the firearm, you never know if there is another shell in the magazine that you missed. Just always treat a firearm as if it is loaded and you’ll be taking no chances.

WWII era poster that demonstrates proper firearm safety.

Leave The Safety On Until You’re Ready To Shoot

As you learn how to shoot and especially hunt, there can be the concern that you won’t get your shot off in time because you have to disengage the safety first. In response, some may end up spending a lot of time before they are ready to shoot with the safety off, but this is focusing on the wrong practice. Instead you should work on manipulating your safety only when you need to shoot, and then immediately placing the safety back on afterward. There are some light exceptions to this, like when you’re deer hunting and it is clear that a deer is going to enter into your shooting path soon, but as a general rule, the safety should be on as long as possible. It’s also great to develop a habit of regularly checking the safety, almost obsessive compulsive disorder level, in case you ever lapse in immediately applying this important principle.

Finger Off The Trigger Until You’re Ready To Shoot

Even as the safety is disengaged, bringing your finger to the trigger should be an even rarer practice that only happens immediately before you plan to shoot. This includes the previous example of deer hunting where you may have slipped the safety quietly off a few moments before the deer crosses your path. Since your finger is quite a bit stealthier than the action required to disengage a safety, leave this action to the last second. It can be dangerous to hover over the trigger for a long time before shooting and it could result in firing a shot at a undesired time. Even if you’re sure the safety is engaged, keep your finger away from the trigger. You can never be absolutely sure of anything in firearm safety, except that you’re employing best firearm practices. This is just another good habit to develop, and one that should be part of your regular routine every time you hold a firearm.

Soldier demonstrates proper trigger finger placement.

Always Be In Control Of The Muzzle

Your muzzle should always be pointed in a safe direction unless you’re absolutely ready to fire the gun, and this is another important habit to develop early. You’ll see it done religiously wherever you’re hunting or shooting. People at the range will always orient their firearm either up or downrange. As for hunters, it is important to keep the firearm pointed up when walking, standing, kicking up birds or animals in brush, or any other time except when you’re aiming at your intended target. If an accidental discharge occurs, up is the safest direction for that to occur, and that should be the position your gun is in most often. Remember, this includes the earlier principle of always treat a firearm as though it is loaded. So when looking at guns at home, in the gun shop, or wherever it is likely for them to be unloaded, still be in control of the direction where the muzzle points.

Always keep your firearm pointed up or down range.

Be Absolutely Sure Of What You’re Shooting

Target identification is a very important principle of firearm safety. In addition to keeping your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot, you need to be absolutely sure you’ve identified the right target before making any movements to ready yourself for a shot. This is best illustrated by the “rustle in the bushes” scenario when hunting. You can never assume that what is approaching is actually a deer or other game until you see it completely, and this includes even pointing your muzzle at what is moving. Even with hunters orange, you can never be sure. Be sure to wait until you’ve fully identified what is moving before even aiming at it.

Check The Muzzle / Action For Debris

Foreign debris in the muzzle or action of a firearm can cause serious problems like jams, misfires, and even fragmenting or damage to the barrel. This is an outcome that could be very dangerous or deadly to the shooter, so you should always ensure that the muzzle and action of your gun is free from anything foreign including mud, leaves, whatever…you can’t be too cautious. This was illustrated to me when hunting upland game. This requires trudging through less than flat terrain, and if I was to slip and stick the barrel of my shotgun in the mud, it would need to be thoroughly cleaned before I could hunt again. If something like this was to happen to you, don’t check the barrel without completely unloading the gun, and even then avoid pointing the muzzle at yourself.

Deal With Cartridge Malfunctions Cautiously

If you experience a dud (shell that doesn’t fire), make sure to allow at least 60 seconds to ensure the shell doesn’t fire before ejecting the round. During this time, it is vital to keep the firearm pointed down range in case the powder in the shell ignites unexpectedly. Once you’ve waited the appropriate amount of time, remove the shell from your gun cautiously and dispose of it properly. The dud shell should still be considered dangerous even once it is removed from your gun.

Be Cautious Of Ricochets

Firing at certain metal objects or at the surface of water can create ricochets that may endanger you or those around you. When recreational shooting, only shoot at approved targets and ensure that they are positioned at a safe distance. Also when hunting, be aware of junk or potentially dangerous shots. When in doubt, let the game you’re hunting go or wait until a more opportune shot opens up.

Old structures like this, close plinking targets, and bodies of water can all represent ricochet threats.

Keep The Firearm Unloaded While Walking, At Home Or In The Car

There was a practice that we employed when I began to hunt, and it’s a good one to mention when talking about firearm safety. Aside from upland hunting and some deer driving which requires walking with a loaded shotgun, we unloaded our guns anytime we left the deer stand, duck blind, or turkey blind for home. This minimized the potential of an accident while walking, and for those times where you met game on the walk out, trying to jump shoot the animal wasn’t a viable option anyhow. In addition to this, anytime hunting involved climbing a fence or a tree stand, you should unload the firearm for such a task. One slight exception is when you’re climbing a fence with a partner, and they can hold both guns safely while the other climbs the obstacle.

All firearms should be placed into their cases unloaded when you’re leaving the hunting spot or range, and you should never have a loaded gun while you’re in your home. Don’t worry, there are ways to still be prepared for home defense without keeping the gun loaded.

Practice all these principles, and you’ll ensure that you and those around you get home safe time after time. Be safe out there.

Images one, two, three and thumb courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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