The 4 Rules of Gun Safety Rules

It is important to take a closer at the 4 Rules of Gun Safety to present a nuanced examination to anyone who is new to shooting sports, who has just purchased their first firearm, who is considering purchasing their first firearm, or to anyone who is planning their first trip to the range.

This guide will review clear and useful concepts to illustrate the ins and outs of gun safety while demystifying potential scenarios that might cause a person to abandon common sense.

By taking a closer look at the 4 Rules of Gun Safety, we hope to reinforce their importance while ingraining an alert and observant mindset whenever and wherever firearms are present. Please note the quotes by Jeff Cooper: Creator of the “Modern Technique” of handgun marksmanship.

1. All Guns Are Always Loaded

The only unloaded weapon is the one you have personally unloaded and still retain in your hand.[1]

Observant and keen adherence to the first rule of firearm safety is the fundamental operating basis for safe gun handling; this awareness-seeking mindset should always be applied and extend to all other forms of gun safety.

If there is any need to handle a firearm as if it were unloaded, it is only safe to do so with firsthand visual confirmation.

Whenever firearms are passed from one person to another, the person receiving the firearm must assume the firearm is loaded until they have personally inspected and confirmed that it is unloaded.

Once a firearm has been (1) holstered, (2) placed upon a table or on the ground, or (3) stored in a drawer or safe (even for a second), it must be treated as a loaded weapon until its status is once again visually confirmed.

Guns can be loaded or unloaded but don’t ever assume that.[1]

Strict observation of the rules of gun safety still requires nuance and common sense to safely and effectively handle firearms. Any logical exception to the first rule of gun safety should only be considered once basic safety has been positively ensured.

In order to disassemble, clean, transport, and travel with firearms, they must actually be unloaded and treated as such. As long as the person handling the firearm visually confirms that it is unloaded, these actions can be safely performed.

  • Never assume any weapon is unloaded.
  • Treat every gun knowing it is loaded, chambered, and ready to fire.
  • Assume any firearm handed to you, found on the floor or table, or found in a drawer, box, or glove compartment is loaded until you visually confirm it is unloaded.
  • If you do not understand how to handle and check a weapon’s status, do not take it without receiving a practical demonstration of its handling and operation.

2. Always Keep the Muzzle Pointed in a Safe Direction

A. Slide B. Trigger C. Trigger Guard D. Slide E. Rear Sight F. Front Sight

Never let the muzzle cover anything which you are not willing to destroy.[1]

The permanent damage caused by a bullet fired from a gun should be considered at all times when (1) handling any firearm and when placing firearms (2) upon a table, (3) the ground, (4) or into storage.

Once a bullet exits the barrel of a gun, it cannot be recalled; whatever damage it inflicts cannot be undone. Always direct the muzzle of the firearm in a safe direction away from anyone or anything you wish to keep safe and intact.

Even when resting upon a table or on the ground, be sure the muzzle of a firearm faces a safe direction. Tables can be moved and shifted, and the muzzle of the firearm will shift with it. 

In the extremely rare cases of an accidental discharge caused by mechanical failure, a firearm pointed in a safe direction will discharge away from people and valuables on the premises.

In the more likely case of a negligent discharge caused by failure to observe all 4 Rules of Gun Safety, persistent muzzle discipline will be the best mechanism to avoid injury, fatality or lawsuit.

When discharging firearms outdoors, take careful consideration when selecting a safe direction. Bullets can ricochet off hard surfaces (like asphalt) or bounce off the surface of calm water (like a skipping stone) so it is vital to consider one’s targets, backstop, and barriers.

  • Always direct the muzzle of a firearm in a safe direction
  • Be aware of any unintentional redirection of the muzzle.
  • Never leave your weapons unsecured or unattended.
  • Never place your body or limbs in front of a firearm’s muzzle.

3. Keep Your Finger Off the Trigger Until Your Target is in Your Sights

When you’re not on target, your finger is straight.[1]

Always keep your finger pressed against the frame and clear of the trigger guard until your target is visible in your sights.

Firearms do not discharge on their own. Modern firearms employ numerous redundant safety mechanisms that make them highly resistant to accidental discharge caused by drops and mechanical failures.

Regardless, no safety mechanism can prevent negligent discharge due to carelessness or through dangerous handling of a firearm. If a firearm discharges, it will be because a person loaded it, chambered it, and manipulated its trigger.

On the continuum of handling firearms safely while shooting and not shooting, one’s trigger finger should only enter the trigger guard when a target is visible in the sights.

Engaging and disengaging the trigger with a finger should become deliberate and reflexive while preventing any objects from entering the trigger guard while storing, transporting, and holstering a firearm.

  • Always observe trigger discipline.
  • Be aware of any object that may find its way into the trigger guard.
  • Observe trigger discipline when placing and removing firearms from storage.
  • Observe trigger discipline when unholstering and holstering firearms.

4. Know Your Target (and Whatever is Behind It)

You never shoot at a sound, you never shoot at a rustling noise, you never shoot at a silhouette or shadow or something behind a screen.[1]

The operator of a firearm is responsible for every round that exits the muzzle; always exercise awareness and precision when directing and discharging a firearm.

Bullets are can pass through intended targets to strike unintended persons or property, and they contain enough power to pass through common barriers such as drywall, car doors, and common wood construction materials.

Bullets that miss their target will continue their flight path at speeds of hundreds and, sometimes, thousands of meters per second. Bullets discharged toward the sky will return to the ground and possess the potential to cause serious injuries or fatality.

Be aware of anyone or anything behind and around your intended target.

The operator of a firearm has a personal and legal responsibility to protect bystanders by knowing who and what their firearm is being directed at. Errant shots and ricochets which inflict unintended injury and destruction are the sole responsibility of shooter.

Whether targets are made of paper or steel plates, it is important to understand what is being shot at and the effect it will have upon the bullets that strike it.

  • Be aware of anything or anyone behind the intended target.
  • Bullets can pass through walls and many common barriers.
  • Bullets will continue their flight path if they miss or ricochet off their intended target.

When In Doubt

Training systems are not important enough for you to violate these safety principles.[1]

While the 4 Rules of Gun Safety are far from the end-all-be-all of firearm safety, they represent the fundamental basis for the correct handling of firearms, especially when assessing unfamiliar or unexpected situations whenever firearms are present.

The 4 Rules of Gun Safety are simple and easy to remember, but a person also requires an observant and engaged mindset to consistently exercise these rules under stress and unfamiliar situations.

There will always be practical exceptions to conceptual absolutes of the 4 Rules of Gun Safety. Otherwise, it would be impossible to disassemble, clean, store, transport, or even holster a firearm. At some point, a person will affirmatively need to determine their firearm is inert for these common scenarios.

The key is to treat every situation involving firearms as a real-life scenario with real consequences. Being alert, observant, and positively aware will always trump being casual and complacent.

With an unfamiliar weapons system, a person might feel unsafe handling a firearm. If someone does not know how to handle a weapon, they should not take or be given it without receiving a practical demonstration on safe handling and operation.

When all else fails, remember to follow the 4 Rules of Gun Safety and seek a manual.

To become an expert at handling a firearm, one should invest time and practice into proper handling, operation, and maintenance to become familiar and proficient in all aspects of competition marksmanship and self-defense. Proper gun safety will ensure someone’s journey through firearm’s training will be free of incident and catastrophe.

The 4 Rules of Gun Safety

1. All Guns Are Always Loaded.

2. Always Keep the Muzzle Pointed in a Safe Direction.

3. Keep Your Finger Off the Trigger Until Your Target is in Your Sights.

 4. Know Your Target (and What is Behind It).

Printable Poster

Related Topics
Gun Safety and Kids
First Time Shooting Range Guide

  1. Jeff Cooper. Handgun Safety, A Basic Guide with Jeff Cooper. Morris Video (1989). ISBN 1-55746-106-6.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *