Principles of Gun Safety

Gun safety has been a concern in this country since the firing of the first firearm. The rules have changed very little from the early days, when round lead balls were tamped down the muzzles of rifles and pistols with hickory ramrods.

After reviewing virtually every available source of gun safety literature-a list that includes gun manufacturers, the National Rifle Association, and public safety websites, the Barbertown Sportsmen’s Club has compiled the following list of firearm safety recommendations. They apply to virtually any situation involving firearms.

13 Principles of Gun Safety

1.       Learn the Mechanical Characteristics of Your Firearm

2.       Treat Every Firearm As If It Is Loaded

3.       Always Point the Muzzle in a Safe Direction

4.       Keep Your Finger Off the Trigger

5.       Never Rely on a Mechanical Safety

6.      Keep Gun Unloaded and Action Open Until  Ready to Shoot

7.       Know Your Target and What's Beyond It

8.       Use Only the Correct Ammunition for Your Firearm

9.       Know What to Do in the Event of a Misfire

10.    Wear Protective Ear and Eye Equipment

11.    Keep Firearm Free from Obstructions and Well Maintained

12.    Don't Modify Your Firearm

13.    Do Not Mix Guns with Alcohol, Drugs, or Fatigue

Learn the Mechanical Characteristics of Your Firearm

It is important to become thoroughly acquainted with the firearm you intend to use, because not all firearms are the same. Know its mechanical characteristics as well as the mode of loading, unloading and carrying it safely. For example, depending on the model, a firearm may or may not have a manual safety. If the firearm does have one, the safety may be "on" when the switch is placed in an "up" position. On another firearm, it may be "off" in that same position.

Read the owner's manual for your firearm, and get to know its every detail. Never assume that what applies to one brand or model is exactly applicable to another. Ask questions about its function from the sales clerk or its previous owner. Take lessons. If necessary, write the manufacturer for a copy of the manual for your gun.

Treat Every Firearm As If It Is Loaded

This is a good way to always remember to be alert around firearms and never relax your attention to the principles of safe gun handling. If you treat every firearm, even the ones you know are unloaded, with the same degree of care that you would when it is loaded, you will not only avoid lapsing into bad habits, but you will also set the best example to everyone around you.

Also, there is always the chance that you might be mistaken in thinking a particular firearm is indeed unloaded. One common handling mistake associated with magazine-fed semi-automatic handguns is to assume the gun is unloaded simply because the magazine has been removed. All too often, a live cartridge is sitting in the chamber because the user failed to open the action (by pushing the slide to the rear) and visually inspect the chamber.

Treating a firearm as if it is loaded also avoids potential accidents that might occur if someone, unknown to you, loaded a cartridge into the chamber when your attention was elsewhere. Another danger is that you picked up someone else's firearm by mistake.

In summary, this rule is designed to neutralize the accidental momentary lapse in attention to safety standards. It also protects against simple human errors that may occur if a loaded firearm is considered "unloaded" or "safe." Always perform safety checks to visually and physically insure that every firearm is, in fact, unloaded.

Always Point the Muzzle in a Safe Direction

This is paramount among the rules of gun safety under any circumstance. A "Safe Direction" requires a bit of common sense. The rule of thumb is that a "Safe Direction" is any direction that will produce no damage or injury should the firearm discharge.

Think in terms of penetration, too. That means that if you consider shooting at something, make certain that there is no one or nothing you don't intend to damage behind or nearby your target.

In general, the safest direction for the muzzle or front end of the barrel is pointing toward the ground. Pointing a gun at a person is dangerous, and could be construed as a criminal threat.

Keep Your Finger Off the Trigger

Until you are actually ready to shoot, the safest place for your trigger finger is off the trigger and resting alongside the trigger guard. Avoid at all costs the natural tendency to place your finger on the trigger when handling or moving with a firearm. The trigger has one purpose: to fire the gun.

If you are moving with your finger on the trigger and happen to stumble, fall, or run into someone, you could accidentally discharge the gun. Similarly, if you are startled or frightened by a sudden loud noise or movement, your natural tendency to tighten muscles under stressful situations may also cause you to inadvertently pull the trigger.

Never Rely on a Mechanical Safety

Safeties are mechanisms designed to prevent a firearm from firing. Many are designed to prevent accidental discharges when a firearm is dropped. Long gun safeties, in general, prohibit the trigger from being used. They often don't block the hammer or firing pin.

Never use a safety as a substitute for safe handling practices. Certainly safeties should be used. However, like any mechanical device, a mechanical safety might break or fail.

Two universally acknowledged "safe" practices are to unload a firearm and to keep your finger off the trigger. Nevertheless, even when a firearm is checked and rechecked to insure it is unloaded, and even if your finger is resting solidly on the trigger guard, that firearm should be handled as if it was loaded and ready to fire. The same principle of treating the firearm as if it is ready to fire should be your rule of thumb, even when the safety is on.

Keep Gun Unloaded and Action Open Until Ready to Shoot

The "action" of a firearm is the working mechanism where the process of readying a cartridge for firing, firing, and extracting the empty cartridge casing takes place. In revolvers, this means swinging open the cylinder and removing the cartridges via the ejector. In semi-automatic handguns, this means removing the magazine, locking the slide back, and visually inspecting the chamber.

The same can be said of rifles and shotguns. Hinged or Break-action long guns such as over-and-under and side-by-side shotguns should opened to expose empty chambers.

Semi-automatic or auto loading shotguns should have the operating handle pulled and locked to the rear so the chamber is visible. Slide or pump action shotguns should have the slide pulled rearward, exposing the chamber. Bolt action and lever action rifles, too, should be kept in a state where their chambers can be seen as clearly empty.

A firearm should always be kept unloaded until it is being used, whether at the range or prior to taking to the field in pursuit of wild game. Under no circumstance is it necessary to keep a firearm loaded before a hunt begins, after a hunt ends, or on the range when not actually engaged in controlled shooting.

Know Your Target and What's Beyond It

Whether on the range, in the field, or in the midst of a life-threatening situation, you must be absolutely certain of your target and the background beyond. If you don't know what your bullet will strike, don't shoot.

You must always be aware of certain characteristics of a bullet's trajectory or flight. Bullets can travel amazing distances. When fired from a rifle, the low-power .22 short can travel for more than a mile and a quarter, and three miles is the conservative distance a rifle using the 30-06 cartridge can send its bullet. Shotgun slugs have a range of more than half a mile, while pellets can fly some 500 yards.

If you are "plinking," that is engaging in informal recreational shooting, make certain that the background against which you are shooting will not cause ricochets that direct the bullet back toward you or towards areas you don't want struck. If the background beyond your target is solid rock or metal that is not angled towards the ground, there is a good chance that the bullet will pass through a paper target, hit the background, and ricochet back at you. Or, it may pass through the intended target and strike an unintended person or object beyond the target.

Do not shoot if buildings or populated areas lie along your bullet's flight path, as you will endanger people and property. Even shooting over a calm body of water is a very dangerous proposition. Calm water, like a smooth hard surface (such as a stone floor, street, or concrete wall) will cause a bullet to deflect and travel a few inches above and parallel to that surface for quite some distance.

When hunting, do not shoot at a sound or movement. Be absolutely certain of your target. That sound of rustling leaves may be a deer, or it well may be another hunter, camper, or hiker.

Use Only the Correct Ammunition for Your Firearm

Mixing ammunition of different calibers or gauges, or using ammunition that is loaded to pressures too extreme for safe use in your firearm, is a formula for an accident that may destroy your firearm. Even worse, you could cause an accident that could injure you or someone else.

All firearms are built and "proof tested" to standards based on factory-loaded ammunition. Using hand loaded, reloaded, or higher than normal pressure ammunition may result in pressures that are too powerful for a particular model firearm. For example, .38 Special handgun ammunition marked "+P" or "+P+" may be the correct numerical caliber for your firearm, but unless your particular model is designed to withstand the pressures equivalent to a "magnum" load, chambering and firing such ammunition may result in your firearm literally blowing up in your face.

Another equally dangerous scenario involves loading a sub-size cartridge in your firearm. The smaller cartridge may slide from the chamber to the barrel and cause an obstruction in the barrel. If the correct cartridge is then chambered in the gun and fired, the gun could explode.

Always be sure the ammunition you are carrying is correct for the firearm you intend to use. Never store different ammunition together.

Discard ammunition that has been soaked in water.

Never carry more than one kind of ammunition, unless they are so different that they could not possibly be mistaken for each other. For example, .22 long rifle ammunition and 12 gauge shotgun shells are quite safe to carry together. But .40 S&W and 9mm are not. Neither are 12 gauge and 16 gauge shot shells.

Know What to Do in the Event of a Misfire

Understanding your firearm does not stop with normal functioning. Get familiar with worst-case scenarios such as what to do when the trigger is pulled and instead of the familiar loud "bang" of the shot being fired, a mild "pop" or no sound at all is heard.

If nothing happens when the trigger is pulled, any number of factors might be at work. The firearm might not be loaded, the chambered cartridge might have a defective primer, or the firing pin may be broken. Whatever the reason, you must determine what caused the misfire before continuing to shoot.

One approach, used by law enforcement officers when a semi-automatic firearm misfires, is the "rack and tap" method. That means to firmly grasp the slide and "rack" it to the rear to clear the chambered round and feed a new round. The "tap" is a slap with the palm of the non-firing hand to the bottom of the magazine to insure that the magazine is seated correctly.

Another possibility is that the "failure" to fire is a "hang fire," where a cartridge fires very slowly. This is more common when shooting black powder muzzleloaders. Regardless of the type of firearm, keep the muzzle pointed down range at the target for at least thirty seconds. Looking down the barrel or covering the muzzle with your hand during a "hang fire" is a dangerous proposition. After the 30 seconds have elapsed, begin to examine the firearm in a prudent manner.

If you heard a muffled pop after pulling the trigger, it usually means that the chambered round had a faulty or missing powder charge. Only the primer detonated. This is called a "squib" round. If that is the case, be very careful. The bullet might have traveled out of its cartridge case and lodged a few inches down the barrel's bore. If that is the case, the bullet must be removed to avoid a potential tragedy due to the obstructed barrel.

When a cartridge fails to fire, for whatever reason, remember to keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction and never put your face close to the breech. Carefully open the action, unload the firearm and dispose of the faulty cartridge in a safe manner.

Wear Protective Ear and Eye Equipment

Eye protection, in the form of prescription or non-prescription safety glasses, is essential. This is true whether you are shooting in a confined indoor range or in the field. Back splatter (tiny pieces of metal sent flying from the bullet's impact with the back stop) and flecks of unburned powder are only two examples of debris that can make their way back toward your eyes.

Plinking at a quarry or on a farm could send rock or wood splinters propelled back toward you.

When shooting or standing near someone else shooting a semi-automatic firearm, spent and ejected cartridge cases can fly into your eye. They are heavy, they are tossed from the firearm's action with considerable force, and they are very hot. Serious shooters often wear large brimmed hats to keep flying "brass" out of their eyes.

Another safety concern is that the report, or sound, of a fired cartridge can cause serious hearing damage. Continual exposure to gunfire can cause cumulative nerve damage that, before the days of hearing protectors, often led to deafness.

You can purchase hearing protection in the form of plugs or "ear muffs" that cost anywhere from one dollar to nearly $100. Molded earplugs, custom fit to your individual ear, are especially effective. Some shooters prefer earmuff-style protectors over inexpensive plugs. Whatever your preference, get the best quality protectors you can afford, and wear them. Be sure everyone you bring to the range has both ear and eye protection, whether they participate in shooting or not.

Keep Firearm Free from Obstructions and Well


Regular cleaning and proper storage are essential to safe operation. Failure to properly maintain a firearm is not only irresponsible; it could endanger you, your family, a friend, or wildlife.

Always open the action and check to insure that no ammunition is in the chamber or magazine, and that nothing is obstructing the barrel bore. Even small amounts of oil, grease, mud, dirt, or snow can cause extreme and dangerous pressures to build that can cause an injury to you or a companion.

A good habit prior to shooting is to run a cleaning rod and cloth patch down the bore to insure that it is free of any unwanted substance. Equally important is having a qualified gunsmith or armorer check the firearm to insure that all parts are functioning properly. Because a firearm is a mechanical device and is subject to wear, it is highly recommended that you have your firearm checked by a professional. Have it inspected for worn or broken parts, as well as needed adjustments.

Don't Modify Your Firearm

Tampering with a firearm may cause it to malfunction. Altering it from its original design may not only void its warranty, but it may be illegal. Do not jeopardize your safety, your firearm's functional integrity, or your freedom by deliberately or inadvertently altering or modifying it from its original design.

It is a federal offense, punishable by time in prison, to do any of the following:

Disfigure the unique identifying serial number of your firearm

Modify a firearm to fire in a fully automatic mode

Shorten a rifle or shotgun barrel below legal lengths

DO NOT Mix Guns with Alcohol, Drugs, or Fatigue

Whether you are competing on the range, plinking, or hunting in the field, remember two extremely important safeguards. The first is that firearms combined with alcohol and illicit drug use is a dangerous and deadly mix.

The second is beware of fatigue, particularly when hunting. Alcohol, drugs and fatigue impair your judgment and your behavior, and they exponentially increase the likelihood of an accident. Combining guns with any one of these compromises your safety, and the safety of those around you.


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