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Gun Safety 101

Updated: Apr 20, 2023

Shadow of finger gun shadow puppet
Careful -- You'll poke your eye out.

You've come to the right place! There's a whole lot to cover here on how you can handle and shoot your gun safely, so we'll get right to it, but if you want some more info on safe gun storage and how to navigate mental health concerns as a gun owner, check out our great article on responsible gun ownership.

In this article:

The Four Golden Rules

Probably the most widespread and famous piece of gun knowledge, Jeff Cooper's four rules of gun safety are something that every gun owner has been taught and has heard recited dozens of times, and for good reason. A gun owner keeps themself and others safe by keeping these rules at the front of their mind at all times.

#1: ALWAYS keep the gun pointed in a safe direction. My personal favorite, this rule will help ensure that even when other safety rules are broken out of sheer negligence, no harm to life or property should occur. Put another way, never point your firearm at anything you do not wish to destroy. This means in your home, at the range, the gun store, when drawing from a holster, in a self-defense situation, moving your gun in and out of a case or a safe, and so on. All the rules are equally important in keeping you and others safe, but I like to really hammer this one home, especially for new shooters.

#2: Treat every firearm like it's loaded, no matter what. This goes hand-in-hand with the previous rule, and its significance cannot be understated. Many lives have been lost to gun owners who did not properly respect the inherent danger of their firearm, or grew complacent after years of shooting. When it comes to guns, NEVER trust yourself to be perfect. Everyone will always make mistakes no matter how experienced or competent they are, so do everything in your power to leave zero room for error. It doesn't matter if you're CERTAIN that the firearm is empty and unloaded, DO NOT EVER do anything with your gun that you wouldn't do if there was a round in the chamber. It just takes one slip in a lifetime of gun ownership to result in tragedy. Don't give yourself the opportunity.

Painted handgun with finger off the trigger.
Finger straight, and off the trigger.

#3: Keep your finger straight and off the trigger until the moment the gun should fire. Otherwise known as having good "trigger discipline", this practice has unfortunately been one of the more difficult ones for some shooters to adhere to. Like the others, it takes a conscious effort to follow this rule at all times, but eventually it will become muscle memory to only place your finger on the trigger when you're about to fire, and to immediately take it off again as soon as you've finished firing.

#4: Know your target and what lies beyond it. Number four is perhaps the most overlooked (and misunderstood) of the four rules, so let's break it up into its two parts. First, "Know Your Target" means that you should make sure you know what you're shooting at before pointing a gun at it or pulling the trigger. It's a big one for hunters in particular, who need to make sure that the shape in the distance is indeed the animal they're hunting, and not another animal, object, or worse, a person. The second part, "What Lies Beyond It", refers to being aware of where your bullet will fly as it passes (or goes through) your target. This is why shooting ranges have "backstops", or those special sloped walls or berms behind their targets. Shooting over the backstop could have dire consequences depending on the range, as most shooters have no idea what's on the other side, let alone out to the miles of distance that a bullet can travel. This is also a major consideration for self-defense, home-defense, and when choosing a location (and a direction) to shoot in the wilderness.

The four rules are excellent laws to live by and think about whenever you're in the presence of a firearm. They are not optional, and there are never any exceptions. And it should go without saying, never mix guns with alcohol, drugs, or any other substance or activity that affects motor control, focus, or judgement.

The Firing Line

Benchrests along desert shooting range firing line
Typical firing line at an outdoor range. Shooters can cross it to place targets during a ceasefire.

One of the most important concepts in gun safety, the firing line establishes a physical or imaginary line between the shooters and the target. The line cannot be crossed until all shooters have stepped away from their firearms and have all mutually acknowledged that a ceasefire has been called. In ideal circumstances, all firearms will also be checked to be empty and unloaded before the ceasefire takes effect.

At a shooting range, the firing line is usually a physical row of "benchrests" (tables you can shoot from), a barrier, or a painted stripe on the ground. To keep everyone protected, range safety officers strictly enforce the rules of the firing line. They ensure that no careless shooters cross when they shouldn't or attempt to handle their firearm during a ceasefire.

Long range precision shooting in the desert, laying prone with rifles.
The firing line is just as important out in the wilderness.

When shooting in the wilderness, take care to establish an agreed-upon firing line with any other people present (whether they're shooting or not). It's best to use a physical object as your firing line, even something as simple as a foldout table for your guns. Lacking that, the firing line can just be a straight imaginary line where the shooters line up.

Very importantly, no shooter should be closer or further from the target than the others. This helps ensure that if any shooter accidentally angles their gun slightly to the left or right, their aim still won't cross over another person.

Checking if the Gun is Loaded

Although we learned earlier that you should always treat every gun as though it were loaded, it's also an extraordinarily good idea to make sure it's empty and clear of any ammunition. This is a great thing to obsess over, and paranoia is encouraged here! Every shooter should check that their gun is empty every time when:

  • Taking a gun in or out of a case

  • Taking a gun in or out of a safe or locker

  • Whenever you give someone a gun

  • Whenever someone else gives a gun to you

  • Before cleaning, maintaining, or disassembling a gun

  • Whenever the gun jams or malfunctions while shooting

  • Whenever you have a shred of doubt, no matter how small

Doing this may feel a little neurotic, but it's something every shooter has learned to do, and is an excellent way we've all kept ourselves safe for decades of frequent gun handling.

How do you check that a firearm is empty and clear? It depends somewhat on the type of weapon, but the first step is always to have the firearm pointed in a safe direction with your finger off the trigger.

Next, remove the magazine, clip, belt, or whatever other device you may have that feeds ammunition into the firearm. You must do this before the next step.

Then, expose the chamber of the firearm and remove any round that may be chambered, whether it's the slide of a pistol, the bolt of a semi-auto, lever-action, or bolt-action rifle, or so on. Nearly every type of modern firearm will automatically eject any round in the chamber as soon you do this. Even still, never skip the last step:

Visually and physically check that the chamber is empty. Lean over and look into the chamber. Hook a pinky or a tool into it and confirm that's it empty. Guns don't always successfully pull that last round out even if they were supposed to. Always check. If there's a round in the chamber, remove it yourself.

With that, you've now confirmed that the gun is empty and clear! And if you're wondering why you have to remove the magazine before checking the chamber, it's because opening (and then closing) the slide, bolt, etc. will load another round into the chamber from the magazine or other device.

Exposed chamber of loaded handgun, clearing a pistol
No round in the chamber, but the mag is still loaded. As soon as the slide closes, the gun will load a round into the chamber.

It should also be mentioned that while the above covers most firearms, there are some exceptions. For instance, revolvers don't have a magazine, but instead have multiple chambers. Open the cylinder, and check each one. Guns that have built-in magazine tubes, like certain rifles and most shotguns, will require you to manually remove each round from the chamber and magazine tube. Some break-action firearms have no ejector, meaning you'll need to pull the chambered round out of the gun yourself. And so on.

As always, familiarize yourself with your firearm and read the manual. There are countless designs, enough that we won't be able to cover them all. Educate yourself on your gun before attempting to interact with it.

External Gun Safeties

Many firearms (especially rifles and shotguns) will come with a physical lever, switch, button, or other mechanism that will prevent a pull of the trigger from firing the weapon. This is known simply as the "safety." When the safety is "off," the gun can be fired once more.

When a safety is provided on a firearm, the best practice is to use it.

Beretta PX4 Storm and Ruger 10/22 rifle with external safeties off
A Beretta pistol and Ruger rifle, with external safeties. When red is visible, the gun can fire.

Treat it similarly to how you would the trigger; only take the safety off when you're ready to fire the weapon, and when you're done firing, activate the safety once more. A safety should be used as just one more layer of protection for when all else fails.

However, and this can't be emphasized enough, NEVER rely on a gun's safety. In the same way that you should always treat every gun like it's loaded (even when it's clearly empty), you should always treat every gun like the safety is off (even when it's clearly on). A gun's safety mechanism does not give you permission to violate any of the four golden rules of gun safety. All mechanisms can fail, and all people will make mistakes.

Many firearms these days, particularly polymer-framed defensive pistols (most famously Glocks, and all the handguns that followed) will have no external safety. If this seems alarming to you, then you should know that it also seemed alarming to a massive number of gun owners as this design choice grew in popularity over the last couple decades.

Steyr L9A1 and Glock 19 Gen 5 Austrian duty pistols
Two defensive pistols with no external safety lever: a Steyr L9A1 and a Glock 19.

But as it happens, the world has largely come around to accept it, and for a couple very good reasons. First off, these firearms will often have additional internal mechanical safeties to prevent the gun from firing by accident if, for instance, it was dropped on the ground. Second, removing the extra step of an external safety means that the gun can be used more quickly and effectively in a defensive situation (and indeed, the pistols that have done away with external safeties are almost universally designed and marketed as defensive pistols). But finally, and most importantly:

YOU are the first and last line of defense against a negligent discharge of your weapon. Looking back over the four golden rules, you'll notice that there is zero mention of whether your safety is on or off. As I mentioned above, an external safety may be an extra layer of protection, but should never be relied upon to guarantee that a gun won't fire. The four rules still stand, and should be adhered to no matter what.

Eye and Ear Protection

Everyone knows that guns are loud, and wearing ear plugs or earmuffs while shooting has become widely accepted common sense. However, protecting the eyes is overlooked more often than not, and the extent to which noise can still be damaging to the ears is frequently misunderstood.

Let's start with the ears. Although there are a number of things that can make a gunshot quieter (shooting outdoors, the type of muzzle device, length of the barrel, type of ammo, type of gun, etc.), none of it is hearing safe. In fact, even in an ideal scenario of shooting outdoors with an excellent silencer and subsonic ammunition, it's still very likely too loud to shoot without hearing protection.

OD Green CZ Scorpion SBR with CGS MOD-9 Silencer and Red Dot
Subsonic 9mm through a great silencer? Yep, it'll still make your ears ring. Ask me how I know.

Generally speaking, some of the only guns that can achieve truly hearing-safe levels are SOME of those chambered in .22LR, coupled with CERTAIN silencers. As technology develops, there will be exceptions, but to this day it's very difficult to get below that dangerous noise threshold. To make matters worse, many types of hearing protection won't reduce the noise level enough to prevent hearing damage with louder firearms or indoor ranges. In particular, earmuffs -- especially since things like glasses and head shape can prevent a good seal around your ear.

While earmuffs can be very practical, convenient, and offer many more features...believe it or not, those cheap little foam ear plugs are superior to any earmuff on the market in terms of actual reliable hearing protection. The good news is that you can take advantage of both!

Most experienced shooters have figured out that they can "double up," or wear ear plugs beneath a set of electronic earmuffs. The plugs provide the bulk of the hearing protection, and the electronic earmuffs add even more while also doing a fantastic job at piping in external sounds at safe volumes, greatly enhancing your situational awareness and ease of communication with others. It's definitely the smart way to go for any shooter.

Disposable foam ear plug hearing protection
Foam ear plugs. Not Cheetos.

Now we'll move on to the often-forgotten eye protection. A lot of shooters will unfortunately go years without wearing any sort of ballistic-rated shooting glasses, right up until they feel their first piece of shrapnel hit them in the face. There's nothing like a bit of sharp metal narrowly missing an eye to make you reconsider your safety choices.

You may wonder why there would be shrapnel flying at a simple shooting range, but it definitely happens. A big culprit is steel targets that have been positioned too close to the shooter, resulting in shreds of steel and bullet bouncing back at you.

Other causes include certain malfunctions in your own firearm, certain ammunition, and of course a catastrophic explosion of the gun (it can happen). Unfortunately, it really doesn't take much to do permanent damage to an eye.

Finally, many shooters take advantage of gloves, and will avoid open-toed shoes or loose-fitting clothing. These are a little less self-explanatory and can be more a matter of preference than absolute necessity. However, some guns (looking at you, AK-47) can scrape or pinch a finger, burn a hand, or with some pistols even draw blood if your hand is in the wrong spot while firing. These are rare occurrences and generally pretty minor, but gloves are hardly a bad idea if you do a lot of shooting on a regular basis. As for the fitted clothes and closed-toed shoes, many ranges actually require these to prevent hot brass casings from flying somewhere it shouldn't. Lethal? Probably not, but nobody wants to stand near a shooter with a loaded gun while they desperately try to fling scorching hot brass out of their shirt.

Lucky for you, we've already done the research on which products work best! You can find the highly rated and highly effective eye and ear protection we love to use ourselves in our store.

There's a lot to cover on the topic of gun safety, but you (and those around you) will only stand to benefit by learning everything you can about it. For more great info, you can check out our other articles! Have fun and stay safe!


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