Midwest Shooting Center

<em>You’ve heard them. You’ve learned them. You (hopefully) obey them at all times. But what do they actually mean? And where did they come from? </em> 

Responsible gun owners know that safety must always be a top priority whenever they’re around anything that goes bang. It’s something that is hopefully etched into our minds even before we ever fire our first shot. But how much thought have you put into each of them beyond just reciting the words as they were taught to you? Do you follow them 100% of the time? Now you might’ve had slip-ups where you accidentally flagged somebody, or you noticed that you forgot to engage the safety when you’re done firing. It’s OK, it happens. But practicing safe firearms handling is just as important as practicing your actual shooting, perhaps even more so.  

In today’s post, we’re going to go into the origin of these 5 basic safety rules, their history, and their practical application because, believe it or not, there are those for whom these rules are not common sense. And it’s important to note that these are not the only safety rules that exist but were created as an easy-to-remember method to mitigate risk and ensure the safety of shooters, whether it’s on the range or on the battlefield. The purpose has always been to prevent the worst fear of every shooter – the negligent discharge (a.k.a accidentally firing your gun thereby endangering yourself and those around you).  

ORIGINS 

Jeff Cooper. Ever heard of him? There’s a good chance your answer was no.  

Cooper (b. 1920 – d. 2006) was a Marine Corps officer that served in the Pacific Theater in WWII and, after a short time back in the civilian world, returned to active duty to fight in Korea. When he retired as a Lieutenant Colonel, he lived in Southern California and was teaching history at the high school and community college level. After doing that for about a decade he left and founded the American Pistol Institute (now called Gunsite Academy) in Arizona, which is where he conceptualized and advocated for a standard of gun safety that could easily be taught to law enforcement, military, and private citizens.  

These 5 safety rules are far from Cooper’s only contributions to the firearms world. Even today in his beloved Marine Corps, recruits in basic training at either San Diego or Parris Island learn about Firearm Conditions of Readiness (conditions 1-4) and the Combat Mindset Color Codes (white, yellow, orange, red, black), both of which were created by Mr. Cooper. Later training teaches new Marines the modern pistol technique which was the first to heavily emphasize, among other things, the Weaver Stance. Guess who invented that? Cooper may be the most influential yet under-appreciated individual in Marine Corps history. 

So now that you know where the 5 Basic Safety Rules come from, let’s really dive into them so we can understand why each one is important. And remember – these rules apply to anything that, upon activation of a particular trigger, creates a small explosion that forces a projectile down a barrel, not just handguns.   

#1 TREAT EVERY WEAPON AS IF IT WERE LOADED 

This is the one that is forgotten the most and is the cause of the majority of firearms accidents. That’s probably why it’s number one. If you’ve been around firearms for a long time or were in the military/law enforcement, this comes as second nature. For many, however, it does not.  

You. Must. Assume. Every. Gun. Has. A. Round. In. The. Chamber. Full Stop.  

It doesn’t matter if you’ve removed the magazine and locked the slide/bolt to the rear and shown every person within a 20-foot radius that this gun is now condition 4. You must behave as if the firearm is loaded at all times. Getting into this habit helps ensure everyone’s safety, with the added benefit of being courteous and an example of good range etiquette.  

So what does that actually look like? Well, let’s start with an example that we see and have to correct all the time on our range. The shooter has completed firing and the slide has locked to the rear. They’ve sent the slide forward and set the gun down on the shooting table. It’s angled such that, should a round come out of the chamber at that moment, could injure someone. It may be themselves, it may be the person one lane over. Now, it may be 100% true that there are no rounds left in either the magazine or the chamber of that particular gun. But who are all the people that actually know that? If you’ve ever been on the range and somebody just sets their gun down with the barrel pointed right at you, you know how unnerving this can be. This, coincidentally, leads us right into rule #2.  

#2 NEVER POINT YOUR WEAPON AT ANYTHING YOU DO NOT INTEND TO SHOOT 

One thing that will always send a spike of adrenaline and cortisol straight into the veins of the Range Safety Officer is when a shooter (99% of the time it’s someone’s first visit to a range) gets excited that they hit the target and proceeds to pivot to talk to the person sharing the lane with them and say something like, “Was that good?” or “Did you see that?!” and in the process, forgets that they still have a loaded gun in their hands. If they’re immediately and enthusiastically corrected, they tend to not make the same mistake again.  

Maybe you’ve seen the video where two friends in Houston are on a range and one of the guys wants to get a selfie on his smartphone. That one idiot proceeds to jokingly point his pistol directly at the left temple of his friend (although I don’t know if they remained friends after this) just to get the “funny” picture. An attentive RSO who had been standing in the background leaps into action, taking positive control of both the gun and the idiot’s arm and kicks him off the range. The action rightfully earned both men a lifetime ban from that range. Other ranges in the area probably asked for their names so that they could ban them too.  

You should not point the barrel of a firearm at anything unless you are willing to pull the trigger, be it a paper target or otherwise. And your gun should be pointed in a safe direction downrange at all times, whether you’re actively firing it or not.  

It’s that easy. It’s not a joke, and it’s not simply a courtesy. It’s a necessity, and if you want to be invited back to shoot with your friends, maybe don’t point a gun at their head.  

#3 KEEP YOUR FINGER STRAIGHT AND OFF THE TRIGGER UNTIL YOU ARE READY TO FIRE 

Trigger discipline is the easiest way to tell from afar if the person holding a firearm knows what they’re doing or not. And if you’re like me, you rage internally whenever you see poor trigger discipline in movies or TV shows. It’s such a simple thing for the production’s armorer to address and fix! Just tell ‘em to get their dang fingers off the trigger! It takes two seconds, it’s not that hard. 

Look, this is the easiest rule to follow. And if you make it a habit early in your shooting life, it’s the one that you need to think about the least. That finger stays straight and resting on the trigger guard until you raise to the low-ready position and are prepared to fire.  

Like Hoot says in Black Hawk Down, your trigger finger is your best safety. The likelihood of a round going off without your finger on the trigger is zero. Now with that being said, you still have to….. 

#4 KEEP THE WEAPON ON SAFE UNTIL YOU INTEND TO FIRE 

This one is easy. It should already be a habit. If not, start to practice the movement of flicking the safety on and off. Do it over and over again until it hurts, and then do it some more. If you’re adhering to this safety rule (and I know all of you are…. right?), the safety should be on from the moment you take it out of a holster/case/range bag, through the loading process, and even when you’ve raised the gun up to the low-ready position. The only time you disengage the safety is when you have sighted in on the target and are prepared to pull that trigger.  

Yes, I am aware that more and more handguns are being manufactured that do not have manual safety selector switches. In that case, you need to once again channel Hoot, because Rule #3 is that much more important.  

#5 KNOW YOUR TARGET AND WHAT LIES BEYOND IT 

This one isn’t the most important when you’re on an indoor range, because the answer tends to be the same all the time – your target is paper and there’s a backstop behind it. Case closed.  

But if you’re out in the real world, whether it’s hunting or a defensive situation you absolutely, 100% need to have the situational awareness to determine the consequences of any shot that you fire. If you’re hunting in a wooded area and are on the ground, how sure are you that there’s not another hunter on the other side of that deer? If you’re 100% certain that you have a clean shot with very low risk of injuring another person, then by all means – go right ahead. But if you’re not, understand that you’re taking a big risk by pulling that trigger. I’m just saying…. it’s happened before, and it can happen to you.  

If you’re in a home defense scenario, the calculus changes a little bit. A lot of people will come into our store and say “I’m looking for a home defense weapon. I’m thinking I’ll get a 12 gauge because I want to make sure that anybody that comes to my house uninvited isn’t gunna get back up.” 

OK first off, calm down chief. A 12 gauge slug will go through your target, through the exterior of your home, and into your neighbors’. Think about worst-case scenarios in this situation. Either way, your life is going to get a lot worse if you’re not taking what’s behind your target into account.  

As such, the hardest part about choosing a home defense weapon is the worry that, depending on the mass and speed of your ammunition, any round you fire is likely to go right through drywall and insulation like a hot knife through butter. It’s not easy to know what lies beyond your target when what’s beyond your target is obscured by a thin wall. Unless you have Predator vision. Also – it might be dark, you’re going to be hyped up on adrenaline and/or fear, and we can’t forget that the home invader gets a vote in how it plays out, too. What I’m trying to say is this: bigger isn’t always better. Be smart. Have situational awareness. Prepare for the consequences if you’re wrong. Better to be safe than sorry, right? 

So, there you have it. The 5 Basic Safety Rules: created by Jeff Cooper, popularized by the United States Marine Corps, and followed by every single responsible gun owner.  

At the end of the day, you just need to remember the 3 R’s. 1) Respecting what you’re holding in your hands, 2) Recognizing and acknowledging the damage that it can cause, and 3) Remembering that when you’re holding that firearm, the only person responsible for what it does is you.  

These 5 Basic Safety Rules are there for us to continue to enjoy firearms and firearm-related activities. They keep us all safe, and they keep the range friendly.  

Learn them.  

Implement them. 

Enforce them.