Beginner’s guide to firearm safety

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Firearms are fantastic. They can help you put food on the table, have the time of your life, and protect your family. A lot of gun owners treat them as collectors’ items and love tinkering with them, but firearms are not toys. They are weapons that are designed to kill. Firearms are also a tangible symbol of our freedom. Freedom is power and with great power comes great responsibility.

Hunter education courses are a great idea

As gun owners, we have a responsibility to ourselves, our families, our hunting partners, and everyone around us to handle our firearms with the utmost safety. The more accidents happen involving firearms the more of an excuse adversarial political forces have to chip away at our 2nd amendment rights. Handling your weapon safely not only keeps you safe, but it also helps keep everyone’s freedom safe.

In some states, a permit or license is required to purchase a firearm, particularly a handgun. The process usually involves some safety training. Most US jurisdictions that allow concealed carry require a permit that involves safety training. Even if it is not a legal requirement, a hunter education course is always a good idea to cover the bases of firearm safety.

If you’re new to firearms, you’re going to start to hear seasoned shooters refer to the four or five golden rules of firearm safety. Exactly how many golden rules there are and how they are phrased varies from source to source. We’re going to look at seven:

  1. Treat all firearms as if they were loaded.
  2. Always keep your firearm pointed in a safe direction.
  3. Keep your trigger finger outside the guard and off of the trigger until you are ready to fire.
  4. Be certain of your target, your line of fire, and what lies beyond your target.
  5. Use the correct ammunition.
  6. Always wear appropriate eye and ear protection when shooting and maintaining your firearm.
  7. Keep your firearm unloaded when not in use and secure it from unauthorized use.

Seven rules of firearms safety in depth

The first rule is to treat all firearms as if they are loaded. This is a vital rule, that’s why it’s number one. You never want to get complacent with guns. The mentality of ‘it’s okay, it’s unloaded’ is a slippery slope to someone getting shot by a negligent discharge. That’s the term for a gun going off when it shouldn’t. A firearm is a tool designed to kill and it should be respected as such at all times. That one time you let your guard down because you’re sure it’s unloaded is sure to be the time that the worst happens. Many of the later rules are contingent on rule number one.

Rule two is: always keep your gun pointed in a safe direction. Never point your weapon at a person, animal or article of property that you don’t want to be destroyed. Keep the muzzle pointed down at the ground when not flagging a target. Be careful when maneuvering in groups, adjusting the position of your weapon, or passing it to others. No matter what you’re doing, don’t point it at anyone.

The third rule is to keep your finger off the trigger and outside the trigger guard until you are sure that you are ready to destroy something. Practically all firearms have a safety mechanism but you should never rely on it and become complacent. Complacency is the leading cause of death, whether we’re talking about how much fried chicken you eat or how you handle your firearms. Stay vigilant. You can identify a professional shooter because they keep their finger straight, resting across the side of the trigger guard and off the trigger until it’s time to rock and roll. It’s unlikely though not impossible for a firearm to go off if nothing has touched the trigger. This is one of the key ways to avoid a negligent discharge.

Rule four is: be certain of your target, your line of fire, and what lies beyond your target. So, it’s time to rock and roll. You have something you need dead in your sights and you want blood. But wait. Are you sure the target is what you think it is? A rustling dark figure in the bushes could be a buck or it could be your bud. Can you say with 100% certainty that you have a clear view of what you’re targeting and you have positively identified it? The ‘well, what else could it be’ mentality could land you in prison or worse. Besides, is there some distracting movement in the foreground? Don’t be too eager to take your shot that you neglect to check if something or someone could stray into your line of fire. You can always shoot another buck but you can’t bring your bud back to life.

So, a pronghorn is skylining on the top of a hill and you have the shot of a lifetime, right on his vitals, a sure, ethical kill. Nope. If that bullet goes sailing through the animal or you flub the shot (happens to the best of us), chances are that the bullet is going to travel on to God knows where. If you don’t know what is behind your target, it could be your bud, or maybe a group of girl guides on a camping trip. Never take a shot at a skylined animal.

The same principle can apply in home defense. If you don’t know who is behind the wall, you better think twice about taking that shot. In this scenario, knowing about over-penetration, that is, how many objects your projectiles can go through after passing through an assailant, is key.

Rule four boils down to situational awareness and remembering the old saying, that every bullet has a lawyer attached to it. You are legally liable for every round that comes out of your barrel and where it lands. Of course, if things go really wrong, the grief could be even worse than the legal penalty.

Rule five is to always use the correct ammunition for your weapon. An exploding barrel can rip you in half, and that’s what you can expect if you try to use the wrong ammunition for your firearm. Every firearm you come across has a barrel stamp that tells you exactly what kind of ammunition it is made for. Commercial ammunition that matches your barrel stamp is generally safe for use. There are a few things to keep in mind.

America’s most popular rifle, the AR-15, usually comes in 5.56x45mm NATO, which is nearly identical to .223 Rem. You can shoot .223 in a 5.56 gun but not vice versa. Note that the caliber name on your barrel and your box of ammo must match exactly. .380 ACP and .38 Special is not ‘close enough.’

Another minefield is the world of reloading and wildcat rounds. If you don’t thoroughly know the physics involved in developing your own rounds, or the person providing wildcat rounds to you doesn’t, stick to store-bought.

Shotguns are also complicated when it comes to cartridge compatibility. Besides the bore size, usually measured in gauge with shotguns, different guns are compatible with different lengths of cartridge. The most common are 12 gauge 2.75″ cartridges. However, 3-inch cartridges and longer are available, particularly for goose hunting. Cramming one into a 2.75″ gun can be dangerous. Besides, shotguns have chokes that narrow the muzzle, the business end of the barrel. Most but not all lead slugs are made to deform and fit safely through different chokes. If you try to shoot a steel slug out of a ‘full’ choke, your barrel could explode and kill you.

Rule six: always wear eye and ear protection when using or maintaining your firearm. Sure, this sounds over-precautious and a bit uncool. You don’t see everyone doing it. The cost of being a stone-cold badass is often long-term hearing damage. No thank you. You know those sleek shades all those tacti-cool security professionals always wear? Those are usually safety shooting glasses. You can get models that let you switch out the lenses for different light conditions. You may not end up using earplugs for every shot when you’re out hunting, but there’s little excuse for not using eye protection with every shot. It’s the smart thing to do, and the right lenses will help you acquire your target.

Firearm maintenance can also be a bit dangerous. The chemicals used are often highly corrosive, poisonous or flammable, various maintenance procedures can result in injury, and little bits and grits can go flying into your eye, so it’s best to play it safe.

Firearm maintenance is also key to safety. Maintenance is how you prevent misfires and bore obstructions, which are often the causes of accidents. Keep your weapons clean and well maintained at all times. It keeps you safe and protects your investment.

Rule number seven is to keep your firearm unloaded when not in use and secure it from unauthorized use. Some people do keep firearms loaded and at the ready for personal protection purposes. If you do, you should have a specialized system. Don’t just leave a loaded shotgun leaning against a door frame unless the is nothing and no one around that you don’t mind accidentally sporting a pie-tray sized hole. You need a secure case, holster or another method of safekeeping to prevent an accidental discharge.

If your primary use case for your weapon is not personal protection, the best practice is to keep your firearm unloaded and locked in a case, ideally a safe, with the ammunition locked away separately. This helps to prevent children, idiots, or intruders from living out the proverb, ‘curiosity killed the cat.’ Besides, the last thing you want is a villain getting access to your own gun and using it against you.

What to do if you experience a misfire

If you have a round in the chamber with the safety off, you pull the trigger and nothing happens, maintain muzzle control. Do not peer down the barrel like Elmer Fudd. Sometimes a faulty cartridge could experience a delay before firing. While you’re scratching your head and swinging the gun around there’s a good chance it will suddenly go off. If you decide to check that there is no obstruction in the bore, do it from the chamber end, not from the muzzle. Most firearms offer an easy way to do this.

It’s always a good idea to check the bore before operating a weapon. When one shooter passes a firearm to another, he or she should unload and check the bore first, and the receiver should also run their own check. If you’re tromping through the woods there’s always a chance the muzzle snagged the ground in an absent-minded moment and got blocked with a clump of dirt. That can kill you and/or your buddy.

Other considerations

Each gun will have its own unique safety features and safe handling recommendations. Read the manual and get as familiar as you can with your weapon. The more training and practice you have, the safer you will be able to handle your weapon. You should be able to operate your weapon safely through sheer instinct and muscle memory. That takes time and practice. Follow the rules above, hit the range as much as you can, and surround yourself with responsible, experienced shooters and stay safe!