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Guidelines for Gun Safety

Updated on February 26, 2013

Various situations demonstrating proper weapon safety.

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Safe weapon handling: AK-47, fully automatic.Safe weapon handling: M-16A4, select fire. The trigger finger is straight and off the trigger, but is slightly hidden by the sling. Iraqi Policeman with an automatic weapon, safe weapon handling, RPK.  Safe weapon handling will keep those around you much safer.The rules and guidelines for gun safety can be applied to all weapons, even this RPG.
Safe weapon handling: AK-47, fully automatic.
Safe weapon handling: AK-47, fully automatic.
Safe weapon handling: M-16A4, select fire. The trigger finger is straight and off the trigger, but is slightly hidden by the sling.
Safe weapon handling: M-16A4, select fire. The trigger finger is straight and off the trigger, but is slightly hidden by the sling.
Iraqi Policeman with an automatic weapon, safe weapon handling, RPK.
Iraqi Policeman with an automatic weapon, safe weapon handling, RPK.
Safe weapon handling will keep those around you much safer.
Safe weapon handling will keep those around you much safer.
The rules and guidelines for gun safety can be applied to all weapons, even this RPG.
The rules and guidelines for gun safety can be applied to all weapons, even this RPG.

Gun Safety for Everyone: Beginners to Experts

As a Corporal in the United States Marine Corps infantry, I have witnessed many training incidents on rifle ranges. In this leadership role, I have helped train foreign military forces, our own forces, and have been on the receiving end of countless hours of instruction myself. The Marine Corps has very strict rules which help to continue a tradition that has instilled the mantra, "every Marine is a rifleman," and they all start at one place: safety. There is no doubt that several centuries of the Marine Corps' existence allows for a great amount of tactics and regulations to draw training from, but here we will only summarize the basics that will get you away from your computer, to the firing line, then back in time for a juicy steak without any cause for concern.

Most people can agree that safety is the biggest concern with firearms, no matter what level of expertise. Every range you shoot at should have at least one range safety officer (RSO) present and a list of their range rules. This RSO is an individual whose sole responsibility is to manage the safety of everyone on the shooting line. There are ranges where these people are not present, but I advise against their use unless you know the skills of all who are shooting while you are in attendance. The second part of range safety comes from everyone else on the range. That's right! I am implying that you, even if you are a new shooter, are also a range safety officer. The official RSO is usually very skilled, but he or she cannot always keep an eye on every shooter at all times. It is your responsibility and right to call a 'cease fire' on the range and address a possible dangerous situation. The RSO should also be notified so that he can handle the rest of the situation.

  • Side note on Range Safety Officers(RSO): They are also helpful in the event of you having a weapon malfunction or ammunition jam. If you are new to a weapon or to shooting, it is best to get assistance from the RSO. If this happens, be sure to have the barrel of your gun pointed down range, have the safety on, and maintain positive control of the weapon until the RSO arrives by your side.

Now, new shooters may be thinking at this point, and possibly with a sense of panic, "how can I be responsible for the other shooters if I am still so new to this?"

The answer is simple. Know the following rules better than the back of your hand and you will keep yourself safe and will be able to observe others who are or are not being safe as well. These rules have a redundancy built into them. In my experience, if you follow every one of these rules simultaneously, then injury will be avoided. Injuries tend to occur when one or more rule is ignored. They are as follows:

  1. Treat every weapon as if it were loaded.
  2. Keep your weapon on safe until you are ready to fire.
  3. Keep your finger straight and off the trigger until you are ready to fire.
  4. Never point your weapon at anything you don't intend to shoot.
  5. Know your target and what lies beyond.

The Rules Explained

1. Treat EVERY weapon as if it were loaded. Do not be rough with your weapon and bang it around, point at anyone, leave unattended (especially without trigger locks), or ignore the other weapon safety rules.

2. Keep your weapon on safe until ready to fire. Even if you do not have the weapon loaded with ammunition, it is ideal to practice this rule to create muscle memory. This way, when it comes to range time, from start to finish the weapon will be in a safe mode unless intentionally being fired. This is something to check every time you pick up your weapon, as well as whether or not it is loaded (also known as clearing the weapon).


3. Keep your finger straight and off the trigger until you are ready to fire. In addition to the weapon being in a safe mode, being conscious of the trigger, be it from your finger or by clothing/gear items that could snag the trigger, is essential to preventing the firearm from discharging without you allowing it.

4. Never point your weapon at anything you don't intend to shoot. This means you need to constantly be aware of your muzzle (gun barrel). This is commonly called muzzle awareness. You want it pointed down at the ground unless you are aiming in on your target. You don't want the barrel slung over your shoulder or waiving around pointed at the people around you. (Going back to muscle memory and good range safety habits: having this awareness instilled whether or not the gun is loaded can save lives through instilling safe habits.)

5. Know your target and what lies beyond. Bottom line is that you should only shoot at designated targets. Unless you are shooting a .50 CAL rifle, steel targets are highly discouraged. Even .50 CAL rounds can be ricocheted back in unsafe directions. (Pistols are able to shoot certain metal targets without cause for concern of ricochet. Be positive that they are the correct target types.) Be aware of what is happening down range (perhaps someone is down there fixing a target of has wondered into the area without proper awareness of the shooters. Create left and right "lateral limits" for yourself. This means if the gun moves to the left or right past certain points, you will not engage. This prevents crossfire between you and other shooters which is also dangerous. A 45 degree arch with your target in the center is ideal. Knowledge of the distance, or range, your gun can fire is also very helpful.

  • The range safety officers should be very experienced and will be keeping an eye out for safety rules violations by the shooters on the line. As you think about and practice these habits, notice how each relies on the others in order to create the safest environment.

Lastly, many legitimate ranges require safety equipment before being allowed to entire the shooting area. Safety glasses, or any with a ballistic lens (essentially shatter proof) are the best. Oakley and Wiley X are popular brands in the front lines. Hearing protection is the most important part of any safety equipment as a long day at the range can mean permanent hearing damage. As I write this, I can hear the tinnitus ringing in my ears, which was caused from numerous frontal assault ranges where the earplugs simply fell out while on the move. Tinnitus is minor compared to true hearing loss, neither of which you want. In addition to safety equipment, have a clean weapon, free of barrel debris, that is fully functional.

Attached around this article are various examples of the rules I described above. I hope you find them helpful and if you have any questions, please don't hesitate to contact me. No question is dumb, especially when dealing with firearms!

Semper fidelis.


This video is not graphic, but it shows the danger of shooting at metal targets. Even with a gun designed for those targets. This man had a combination of wrong

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