Rifle Safety – Rules and Best Paractices

The elephant in the room. The topic that everyone seems to roll their eyes at these days when the time comes for the safety brief.

“Yep, heard that stuff before, I’m all set, I’m good. It’s that other guy who needs to hear this stuff.”

Wrong answer.

We all need to hear it, and we need to hear it over and over because it’s not sinking in. If we didn’t need to hear it then we wouldn’t be seeing so many blatant violations of the four firearms safety rules at the sporting events we go to called rifle matches. I’m composing this with the hopes that as a community we can change the mindset, become more accountable, and do it before someone gets hurt. Playing a game with a rifle means you’re playing for keeps and we can’t take back mistakes.

The Four Firearms Safety Rules

1. Treat every weapon as if it were loaded, even if you’ve determined it to be unloaded.

Treating a weapon as if it were loaded, even if it’s unloaded prevents complacency through awareness.

2. Never point a weapon at something you’re not willing to put a hole in, including yourself.

Even if a weapon is loaded and we have a mental meltdown, or a mechanical failure and a discharge occurs, no one should get hurt other than our ego.

3. Keep your weapon on mechanical safe, and your finger straight and off the trigger until you’ve positively identified your target and decide to shoot it.

We have 3 safeties with any weapon. Mechanical, Physical (your finger), and Mental (you making the decision that it’s time to shoot and applying proper trigger control). If you don’t have a mechanical safety installed, you’re wrong.

4. Be aware of your target, its background, its foreground, and its flanks.

More for hunters and tactical situations, but this rule applies for any of us shooting on public land where access is open and we cannot control the impact area.

The Hard Ground-Rules

My background with firearms safety started off the same as many of us; through hunter education at about 12 years old. Some of you probably younger depending on the state you grew up in, or your family’s involvement in the shooting sports. When I joined the military, I realized that I really didn’t know shit about firearms safety. Sure, all guns are always loaded and don’t point them at anything you’re not willing to put a hole in. Easy, right? Sure, until you’re in constant close proximity to others with a loaded weapon and being asked to complete complex tasks under less than ideal conditions.

I’ll admit, the safety stuff in basic level training seemed mundane and the procedures were awful and painstaking, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Those rules were in place because people got killed in the past for not following them. Setting that hard ground-rules upfront created the benchmark for performance when the time came in my career to do things like company-sized live-fire maneuver exercises, where everyone around you has a loaded weapon operating in controlled chaos.

Fast-forward a few years, then it was a live-fire close-quarters battle (CQB) in a shoothouse, at night. Take that a step further, add night vision goggles to the mix then it gets really spicy. Anyone who’s done CQB in any environment knows that it’s a different story when it’s time to use live ammunition. The mindset instantly changes and you’re placing a tremendous amount of trust in your mates to make the right decisions, and not shoot anyone that doesn’t need to be shot.

Some of you may say, “Well, we’re not in the military, a rifle match isn’t nearly as serious.”  I have to disagree and disagree strongly. I’ve seen as many as 240 shooters at an event. That’s 240 rifles and about 57,600 rounds of ammo that’ll be expended in 2 days, not including registration day with zeroing and data confirmation. Think about that for a minute; that’s a lot of potential for something to go wrong. Take it a step further and ask yourself how many of those folks there have you shot with so often that you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they’re just as safe as you.

Maybe a handful?

Two hundred forty rifles is a lot of rifles in the hands of people whom we largely have no idea what level of firearms safety training and handling skills they possess. More often than not, the last time many of those shooters have had formal training on firearms handling was hunter education, however, many years ago that may have been. Has the community as a whole had any major incidents? None that have gotten anyone shot, to my knowledge. I know of many, many negligent discharges though, and countless instances of people having rifles pointed at them. With the growing popularity of our shooting discipline and more people coming into the sport, it’s a game of numbers and time if we as a community don’t make efforts to ensure we stay incident-free.

The Golden Hour

Most of our rifle matches take place in rural areas, often far outside the extents of the “golden hour”. The golden hour refers to the statistically proven time span that a human has to live from the instant a major trauma occurs to the time the injured receives professional medical care. The golden hour is a real thing; ask any ER doc, paramedic, nurse, combat medic, etc. Generally speaking a wound from a handgun is survivable, but the same cannot be said about a wound from a centerfire rifle.

How many of our safety briefs contain an action plan for an incident? What’s the plan? Call 911? Cool, but how long? If you’re the one holding the event and the venue is outside reasonable response time of standard emergency medical services, have you spoken to the life-flight provider in your area and discussed average time-on-station and briefed a landing zone?

How many people at a rifle match are qualified to deal with a major trauma such as a rifle wound?

Where’s a trauma kit located?

Are Range Officers trained to deal with something like that?

Crazy stuff, but these are absolutely real considerations when we play games with guns. Guns weren’t designed so that we could shoot steel targets and have a good time. Guns were designed with one purpose in mind, to take lives in the most efficient manner possible.

Now, is this doomsday? No. It’s not. But the lack of safe weapons handling skills I’ve seen at events is alarming, and that’s what’s prompting me to speak out about it. There has been a lot of excellent conversation coming from the National Rifle League (NRL) on the topic of safety, and that’s the result of a solid crew of match directors communicating together, as well as the directorate of the NRL being committed to holding safe sanctioned events. We’ve all been to the local ranges where the old guys in red or yellow jackets make life as a shooter so unbearable that you just say screw it and drive an extra hour to public land and shoot without hassle. I get it, I’m the same way. I want to be perfectly clear when I say that’s NOT what I would ever want for our sport. But, there is a middle ground. Nothing ever gets accomplished on the fringes.

Muzzle Up or Down?

Some of the reasons that we’re having so many flagging instances is that shooters have little direction as to where to put their rifles when they’re waiting to shoot. In tight areas where there’s dozens of people moving around with rifles, flagging is bound to happen if rifles are being placed on the ground horizontally.

When we carry rifles, the muzzle is either up or down, period.

When you take a rifle out of the case it traveled in, we clear it, and the muzzle goes straight up. I’m recommending that in the future each staging area has a portable rifle rack that can accommodate everyone’s rifles where muzzles are up, and shooters know without question where their rifle is supposed to stay. This isn’t unreasonable at all in my mind. Minor inconvenience? Added layer of logistics? Pretty cheap insurance if you ask me. Add mandatory chamber flags, and I think that will mitigate a lot of the incidents we see with flagging.

Negligent Discharge vs Accidental Discharge

The next thing I want to address is the other elephant in the room, and that’s the good ole’ negligent discharge (ND). Yep, no accidental discharge, but a negligent discharge. I see this as a pretty simple topic, and not one I’m open to discussion on. If the rifle is in your possession, and it goes bang when you didn’t mean for it to go bang by actuating the trigger, it’s negligence on your behalf. That may be a tough pill for some to swallow, but it is what it is. I’ve got first-hand experience with this, and the argument of what constitutes an ND and an accidental discharge (AD).

An AD is an occurrence when the weapon discharges unintentionally due to a mechanical failure with the weapon’s firing mechanism, be it the safety, the sear (runaway machine gun), or a cook-off.

I myself have had a cook-off with an M16A2 service rifle. Long story short, my platoon was conducting long break-contact drills with individual 4-man teams. Small team survival on enemy contact depends on immediate fire superiority coupled with fast maneuvering in order to create enough separation for supporting arms to be utilized. Lots and lots of bullets, really fast. While in a tight 360 after one such drill was complete, I was making radio calls and simulating a request for a fire mission under the eyes of my platoon sergeant and platoon commander when my rifle jumped in my hands and popped. You can imagine the immediate “what the actual fuck?!” look from both of my leaders. I immediately looked down and my finger was off the trigger and my weapon was on safe.

Later, after the holy shit moment subsided my platoon commander came forward and told me he was watching me the whole time and verified that in fact my finger was straight and off the trigger and indeed my rifle was on safe. We found the brass, and it had no dimple in the primer. Ahhh, I was clear of any wrong-doing but nonetheless, a bullet came out of MY rifle at about 3,000 fps. No one got hurt because I was pointing my rifle in a safe direction, as per the second firearm safety rule. Imagine that. That was an AD guys, not a trigger set so light that the sear releases when it’s not supposed to.

Now, all these light triggers out there, the 10-12 oz trigger guy. You’re begging for an ND, and it’s probably gonna happen. Hell, I’ve even heard of people running 8 oz triggers. Absolutely unsafe.

With a trigger that light, you’re bound to have the rifle go bang when you don’t want it to. The absurdly light trigger is the disease, everything else is a symptom. Sky-loading, whatever that term really is— is silly. I absolutely shouldn’t have to wait until my reticle is on a target before I close my bolt. That requirement is a symptom of people having too light a trigger for their skill level. Dumbing down standards because people cannot apply the four firearm safety rules is perilous to the sport and unacceptable. If you’re so paranoid about an ND, or a bullet going over a berm, look to the disease and not the symptom.

Mechanical Safety 

Another thing, whatever happened to using the mechanical safety on a bolt action rifle?

“Oh, that thing? Yeah, I never use that.”

Excuse me, why not? Some rifles I’ve seen don’t even have a mechanical safety. Guys, a mechanical safety is never a disabler, it’s always an enabler. Again, look at the disease, not the symptom. Why do we expect AR shooters to use a mechanical safety, but not bolt gun shooters? Because with a bolt rifle when the bolt is up and back the rifle can’t go off? C’mon, guys, we’re dumbing down really basic weapons handling skills because no one wants to address the real problem. If you need a trigger that light to hit targets, maybe invest in some professional training first before trying to buy forgiveness, and the by-product of an ND.

I get that some of this stuff sounds harsh, but the effects of a close-range rifle wound are far more harsh. I’m not trying to be the Debbie-downer here either. We can definitely have fun with our rifles without the red jacket range nazis. It’s going to take us as a collective community to hold each other accountable. I get it, no one wants to be “that guy”, but there are ways of communicating this stuff without being an ass.

Stop trying to sea-lawyer this stuff too. The he-said she-said garbage was grade school, leave it there. This is serious stuff guys, and as we grow with more and more people coming to these events without current or formal firearms training, the odds are continuing to stack, and not in favor of safety.

Be aware of yourself and your surroundings, and above all be reasonable. There’s a right way to say something, and there’s a wrong way to say something.

Practice the Firearms Safety Rules as Life Rules

Those safety rules are layers of protection, put together systematically with the human thought process in mind. If you haven’t shot in close proximity to others, make sure you’re comfortable doing that before you immerse yourself into an environment with dozens of other people. If you’re a match director, set your participants up for success by thinking through things like safety briefs, emergency medical plans, and how people are moving and staging rifles.

Bottom line is that we all love to shoot, and we love to test our skills against new scenarios. Keep that love of the sport at the forefront; everyone has a right to enjoy this passion in a safe environment.

Shoot well!

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