Today, was once again reminded of the 4 Rules of Firearms' Safety as per the rules supposedly given to us by the late Col. Jeff Cooper. That got me to thinking about how many people believe that those rules are sufficient as the only rules to teach for firearms safety and about how many folks think them absolutes and also about how many of those same people violate some of those so called absolute rules frequently. In fact, it got me to thinking about how silly it is to see all 4 of them as absolutes. Now mind you, I am not saying the rules of firearm's safety are foolish or silly, just that creating them and teaching them as absolutes is absolutely so.
Why are they held as absolutes by many? Probably because the person who wrote them, by my guess, thought himself infallible. That is until he felt it necessary to change at least one of his own rules and even then he wrote it as an absolute. Another reason they are held as absolutes is because some people feel they must be in control of others and absolutes are one way to achieve that. Another reason, and this is probably the strongest reason they are held as absolutes is because shooters try to hide behind them as if they were some sort of magical shield that will prevent any type of accidental shooting or other type of accident with firearms. Maybe they would prevent most accidents but not all. Even then they are a tool at best and not a shield behind which to hide. You see, if you get down behind that shield low enough, you are going to overlook the other rules of firearm's safety that were left out of these mere 4 rules. Some of them are just as important, maybe even more important, than the 4 rules and how they are often overlooked is beyond me.
Let me get to the 4 rules, that some shooters hold as absolutes, so you know what they are. Before I do, let me point out that I may not have them worded exactly as he wrote them, you find them in different format almost where ever you see them, but they are in essence what he said:
1. All guns are always loaded. (This was the original version of the one that changed later.)
2. Never allow the muzzle to cover anything that you are not willing to destroy.
3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target.
4. Always be sure of your target and what is beyond it.
Now that I have written them out, let me also give you the one that was changed:
1) All guns are always loaded. Even if they are not, treat them as if they are loaded.
I'll address them, then I am going to tell you what I think are much more sensible rules of firearms safety or at least will tell you a much more sensible manner in which to interpret them other than them being held as absolutes.
Number 1, as it first stood was not a rule at all. It was a declaratory statement - nothing more. You have to guess at what it is telling you as far as it being a rule goes is concerned. It is easy to make that assumption, that being: Treat every gun as if it were always loaded. The thing is though, if you always treat every gun as if it were always loaded, it would be impossible for you to do several things safely with your gun. You would never clean it, never look inside the barrel to inspect it (this should only be done after double checking that you have unloaded the firearm and removed any source of ammunition from it each time you handle it to do so), never hand it to someone else to look at, never take it from someone else to look at and so on. So I have to point out, no not all guns are always loaded and it would be absolutely ridiculous to always treat them as such BUT (and yes this is a big BUT) you had better be absolutely certain the gun is unloaded before you treat one as such like when you disassemble one, clean one, examine one (such as check the lands and grooves, look for rust in the bore, check the crown), repair one and so on.
Now despite what I just said in the last sentence above, whenever I am around someone who is handling firearms, I insist that they do handle the firearms as if it were loaded each and every time they handle it, and all the time while handling it, even after they have checked it to make sure it is unloaded and that any source of ammunition has been removed from it, unless it is disassembled and cannot possibly fire and even then I usually insist on a high level of safety (be careful about this one because you had best be darned sure it cannot fire). Can you see how rule number 1 above can have exceptions to it - times when you would not handle a firearm as if it were always loaded. Not yet? Let me give some examples of when I would regard a firearm as loaded or not.
I have just finished shooting my pistol at the range. I am getting ready to go home and I have already unloaded my firearm and left it on the bench, pointing in the only safe direction which is downrange). I then go to retrieve my target. I come back to the bench to pack all my gear, including my pistol, away for transport home. I pick the pistol up - oh no wait a minute what have I already done, before picking it up, that would have been a violation of the 4 rules above? I left the gun on the bench and walked down range. In other words I walked in front of a loaded gun. Oh my goodness, I forgot to treat it as being loaded at all times. Okay - that one seems silly to you, let me give another example of when I would or would not treat a gun as if it was loaded.
I have picked up my gun, after I retrieved my target as I said above. I keep it pointed downrange, and as I do so I check to see that it is in a safe condition in that it is indeed unloaded and that there is no source of ammunition in it. I do this visibly and physically by looking with my eyes and checking with my fingers both the chamber and magazine well. I then place the gun in my gear bag, zip it closed, then turn around and start to walk to my car. Oh no - here I went and did not treat the gun as loaded again because while it was sitting in my gear bag its muzzle covered at least 5 other people at the range - what have I done - have I violated rule number 1 above and maybe some others?
Soon enough, I am in my car and driving home. I arrive at home. I take the pistol out of the bag once I am in my basement. I point it in a safe direction at the walls with finger off of the trigger, then point it at the floor, then check to see if it is unloaded and that any source of ammo has been removed. Then I disassemble it for cleaning. To do so I must pull the trigger; I do so with the muzzle pointed in a safe direction even though I know I just unloaded it. Hey maybe I am following rule number 1 above but wait a minute - oh my, I have done it again, I have not treated it as if it were loaded at all times because I almost just pulled the trigger and surely I would not do that if I were not ready to shoot my always loaded gun and was not sure of my target and what was beyond and was not pointing it at anything I was not willing to destroy (and you can bet there is no part of my home I want to destroy). It seems I have violated rule number 1 and another one or two of the other rules - maybe all 4 - didn't I. Did I follow the rules or break them. Can I disassemble my pistol, in my home, then clean it without violating the 4 rules or at least a couple of them? Wow this is tough to figure.
I am starting to become flummoxed by these 4 absolute rules, are you? Still though, I know that a clean gun is a happy gun (no not a rule I made up but a saying I love to repeat, thanks Pete G), I decide that regardless of rule number 1 or any of the other rules I may have to violate to get the job done, I am going to get the job of cleaning done and I am going to do it as safely as I can do it. I look at the gun, that has been sitting on the counter top as I thought this all out and I again pick it up keeping my fingers off of the trigger as I do so. I check to see it is unloaded and that any source of ammunition has been removed from it and I do so both visually and physically all the while keeping my finger off of the trigger and while keeping the firearm pointed in a relatively safe direction while still pointing it at some area of my home that I certainly am not willing to destroy but while also realizing it will not harm life nor limb if it accidentally goes off nor hit a gas pipe or anything like that. Then when I am satisfied it is safe, I check it a second time because I am a worrisome sort of a guy. Once I am convinced it is unloaded, has no source of ammunition and is safe, I keep it pointed in a relatively direction yet most certainly pointing at something I do not wish to destroy, all the while being unaware of anything else on the other side of the poured concrete foundation at which it is pointed. I allow the slide to go forward and then squeeze the trigger. I then commence with the remainder of the disassembly procedure. Once disassembled I can clean the firearm properly. Did I do okay? I keep thinking of those 4 absolute rules and it sure seems like I broke them, at least some of them. What am I to do?
Oh heck, I am just going to get it cleaned. Those 4 rules, and their absoluteness, are still coming to mind as I ready to actually put bronze to steel. Let me think about this whole cleaning thing some more because it certainly cannot be safe. It seems inevitable I will violate at least one or two if not all of the rules while cleaning my gun! I am worried so I put down the pistol and think about what I have just done as relative to rule number 1, let alone the other rules for now, I come to realize, that as well meaning as the author, and followers of that rule, must have been to make it an absolute, it cannot possibly be held as an absolute if I am going to do almost anything with my firearm when I am not shooting it. I guess the rule writer realized that because he changed it a bit, but man it is even more confusing now because he is in essence saying even if it is unloaded you should always treat it as if it were loaded. It seems my guns will never be disassembled or cleaned or examined down the muzzle or whatever - that is unless I violate that rule as it is written in either version.
I have concluded the 4 rules must not be absolute and need to be broken to get some things done. So why didn't the guy who wrote them come up with easier understood versions of them. maybe he lived in a world of black and white. Yep, it was more that way way back when he wrote them but not absolutely so, so why not give them a little bend? Well maybe he was an authoritarian. Hm, could be since he had been a colonel and since he had a pretty strong ego. Could also be just because he did not want to see others get hurt because they did something stupid that was not safe. Maybe he just wanted to keep it simply too. The thing is, absolutes, no matter why you institute them usually are not absolute and almost always have exceptions. The 4 rules of firearms safety are no exception to the fact that most rules have exceptions. There was a better way to write those rules, one which explained what they meant a bit more. There was also a better way to express rules of firearm's safety rather than just giving 4 rules and that would have been to give several more of them.
You see, the 4 rules above omit several other rules that have been in effect as long as or longer than the 4 rules as a set. For instance there is one that, in essence, says:
Always use proper ammunition in any given firearm. (Do you think that a no brainer? Do you think it not necessary to tell anyone? Do you think it unimportant enough so it can safely be omitted from firearms' safety rules? Based upon my experience I can safely say that if the answer to any of my last 3 questions was yes then you need to rethink your answers. As a matter of fact, this is one of the most important rules of firearms' safety and it may be the only absolute one at that.)
Then, there is that other rule, the one about not mixing gunpowder and alcohol. Well, that is how they said it when I was a kid. What they meant was: Do not handle firearms in any manner while under the influence of mind altering drugs such as alcohol or narcotics. (It is really a good thing to remember and to remind other shooters about. When I see a guy drinking and shooting or handling guns and ammo, I either get him to stop handling the guns or am out of there if he does not stop.)
How about the one that says: You should become familiar with how to operate any particular firearm by reading its manual, or getting instructions from someone who is familiar with it, before you attempt to operate it; and you should confirm that the firearm in in good working order before firing it. (You would think this a no brainer too but man you would have missed the truth by a long shot. Again, this one has exceptions.)
Yet another important one: Check the barrel of your firearm, before going afield with it, to assure it is not blocked. Also check it after a fall or anything that could result in it becoming blocked.
Or yet another about checking it: If your firearm does anything unusual while firing it, such as a misfire, or such as it gives of a lower than usual bang, cease fire keeping the weapon pointed in a safe direction with finger off of the trigger, count to 10, then make the weapon safe by removing the source of ammunition and unloading it. Then safely check it or have it checked to see if there is a problem.
And here is one that people seem to ignore a lot nowadays: If you hand a firearm to anyone else open the action and make sure it is unloaded, if it is loaded then unload it safely before giving it to the other person. (There are exceptions such as when handing a firearm to someone to unjam it for you, or when you hand a firearms to a shooter whom you are instructing and that person is ready to fire - but make sure the gun is pointed in a safe direction at all times during such an exchange.)
Here is one that keeps you safe when others are handling firearms: If someone else is handling a firearm assume it is loaded and make sure they handle it safely, warn them if they handle it unsafely.
Here is one I have not heard in a while: Never fully trust that a mechanical safety will prevent a firearm from firing, follow the firearm's safety rules to prevent accidents.
Or what about this one: When storing firearms and ammunition, store them apart from one another in secure and separate containers. (Point out that storage of a firearm does not mean a loaded firearm you keep in your nightstand for self defense although that one may be best kept in a rapid open electronic lock box especially if there are kids in the house.)
Here is one for all ages: New adult shooters, and children should be under the watchful eye of an experienced and responsible adult shooter/instructor whenever handling a firearm.
And here is a rather morbid one, but one that usually gets people to thinking maybe they should have paid attention to the other rules - especially if you tell them this one and show them some photos of the gruesome results of accidental discharges of firearms: Remember, one accident with a firearm can have fatal consequences and it could be you who dies or you who goes to prison for killing someone else so keep it safe when handling firearms.
Of course, the 4 rules would be at the top of the above list but I would rewrite them in another format and would explain there can be exceptions. Here are the 4 rules, written a little differently:
When you first pick up or handle a firearm, check to see if it is loaded or not; and if you put a firearm down or are distracted, even for a moment, while still handling it, when you pick it up again or focus on the firearm again make sure to again check to see if it is loaded before doing anything else with it. (There are exceptions such as drawing from the holster in self defense when you had better know it is already loaded.)
Be aware of where the muzzle is pointed and while handling a firearms, do not point your firearm, even momentarily, at something you do not intend to shoot. (There are exceptions such as for disassembly, cleaning, repair, when the firearms has been unloaded and is inside a case - but even then try to keep it pointed in a safe direction with your finger off the trigger whenever possible to avoid chance of an accident.)
Do not place your finger on the trigger or even inside the trigger guard until ready to shoot. (There are also exceptions to this rule such as when disassembling some firearms.)
Be sure of your target and what is beyond and also of anything between you and your target even if off to the side but within your peripheral vision. (You may be darned sure that is a 12 point mega-buck standing broadside to you only 50 yards away and yet totally oblivious to you. As you raised your rifle to fire, did you stop to wonder just for a second why it is not looking at you when you are so close by? Maybe another hunter, leaving the woods with lunch on his mind, neither sees you or the deer and is about to walk in between the two of you while your tunnel vision has your eyes full of buckskin! To avoid tunnel vision give a quick scan with your eyes as you raise the gun to shoot.)
Now I grant you, the 4 rules written this way are tougher to remember word for word, but word for word does not matter. What matters is the essence of each rule and the reason we have the rules - to prevent accidents and remain safe. They are even tougher to remember when you add all the other rules I just gave. The thing is though, each and everyone of those rules is very important in order to prevent accidents that could result in serious bodily harm or death. Never think, even for a moment, that telling someone these rules and getting them to remember them all will be too much for them to learn. I learned virtually every one of the above rules in one fashion or another by the time I was 9 or 10 years old and did so at summer camp in a matter of 2 or 3 classes and range trips.
Why anyone would actually want to omit any of them from a firearms' training regimen for new and experienced shooters alike is beyond me. Every class should begin with them. The 5 or so minutes it would take to read them all to experienced shooters would only be a bother to the guy who knows it all. Me, I like to remind that guy, more than anyone else, of just what are those rules. As for new shooters, it may take 20 to 30 minutes, maybe even 45, to go over these rules and answer questions the first time around. Those 30 or so minutes might be the best you ever spent in your life in that they may prevent a tragedy from taking place. With each lesson, the rules should be repeated and the questions should become less and less as the new shooter soaks it all in. Handing out these rules in printed form would also be a good idea as would having them displayed at the range or in the firearms' classroom. It is up to you, as a professional firearms instructor, or as a husband teaching his wife to shoot, or as a mom taking her kids to the range for some fun with a 22, or as one shooter to another to keep it safe and to pass the rules on to others as you encounter new and old shooters alike. Why anyone would want to cut corners with something as potentially dangerous as firearms and shooting is beyond the scope of reason. Keep it fun by keeping it safe for you and yours and please - also for me and mine and everyone else for that matter.
All the best,