Four Cardinal Rules of Firearms Safety-Expanded

Four Cardinal Rules of Firearms Safety-Expanded

Depending upon which trainer, what range, or the particular gun related video that you may be watching, there will sometimes be more “rules” than these, but there should never be less.  Especially at sporting events involving firearms usage, there will likely be many restrictions that are counterintuitive to “practical” usage.  This is as it should be.  At open enrollment events, the proficiency of those in attendance cannot be underestimated, regardless of “profession”.

The following is aimed primarily at the serious firearms practitioner who recognizes that there are no reset buttons regarding defensive firearms handling and usage.  You must handle your firearms properly, all the time.  These rules, when fully committed, and ingrained, into your default behavior when you handle any firearm, will preclude virtually all negligent discharges and if you should have a legitimate accidental discharge, the consequences will be minimal.

These rules are equally as, if not more, important in “tactical” settings whether or not you are a police officer serving a high-risk warrant, warfighter moving to contact, or homeowner investigating the sound of broken glass at your residence.  You must not shoot things, or people, that you don’t intend to shoot.

The firearm you are handling is a tool.  It will act only according to input onto the operating and control mechanisms with which it has been designed.  This means ANY input on the trigger or other mechanisms, human or otherwise, will cause that part to operate in the manner in which it was designed.  Control the environment of that tool, and the opportunities for anything to interface with it, whether it is in storage in your safe or on your person in a ready condition.  Foolish and careless handling or behavior is the mark of an idiot that is soon to become a tragic injury or death.

The rules are purposefully redundant and overlapping.  To negligently discharge a firearm, you must violate two or more of these rules.  Don’t be that person.

The Four Cardinal Rules of Firearms Safety-EXPANDED

Treat all guns as if they are ALWAYS loaded, all the time. 

    • This rule, all by itself, will eliminate any situation-specific or variable decision making that may serve to confuse you.  In your mind, you will only handle firearms in one manner whenever you handle them at all.  No confusion, no uncertainty with variables, i.e., “I handle guns this way when “at the range”, or this other way when I’m “tactical”, or yet another way when I’m “just at the gun store”.
      1. Guns are supposed to be loaded.
      2. From a defensive perspective, they are no good to you unless they are loaded.
      3. Just like your car is no good to you unless it is fueled.  You expect the car to be fueled, and otherwise functional, to some level or other because that is the normal condition of a functioning car.  When you activate the ignition system, you reasonably expect your car to start.
      4. When you activate the fire control system on a firearm, it is reasonable to expect it to function as designed.
    • A Negligent Discharge (ND) refers to anytime a firearm discharges through negligent handling.  It is always a result of mishandling the firearm on the part of the person doing the handling.
    • An “Accidental Discharge” (AD) pertains to some sort of mechanical breakage or system failure that occurs internally, that the shooter had little or no control over, and causes the firearm to function without direct input to the trigger mechanism.  Accidental discharges are exceedingly rare.
    • Almost all unintentional discharges are preventable by proper gunhandling.
    • If you think a firearm is unloaded, and you are compelled to handle it, the first thing you should presume is…it is loaded.
      1. If you don’t know the proper clearing procedures for that firearm, leave it alone unless there is some overriding reason to do otherwise.
      2. While following ALL of the 4 Cardinal Rules of Firearms Safety, perform Unload and Clear Procedures.
      3. No one knowledgeable in firearms handling will be offended by you double checking a firearm, at any time.
      4. This will, in fact, demonstrate your emphasis upon safe handling procedures
      5. Anyone who objects to your emphasis upon safety is displaying their disregard for proper gun handling, and by logical extension, everyone else’s safety in the area.  They are quite possibly dangerous due to this lack of concern.  Do not allow their recklessness to affect your safety protocols.  Conduct yourself accordingly.


Never allow your muzzle to cross (point at) anything or anyone that you don’t intend to shoot.  This is sometimes articulated as, “Keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction”-see below.

    • With all handguns, this is quite easy to violate, simply because of the short overall length of the firearm.  It is very easy to put things in front of the muzzle (the fiery, death-end part of the gun).  It is exactly why most self-inflicted gunshots are from handguns.
    • With rifles and shotguns, feet and legs are more apt to be in jeopardy.  Be especially averse to the sporting shotgun philosophy that somehow justifies resting an “empty” shotgun muzzle onto a leather, shoe-top barrel rest.  Conflicting philosophies aside, defensive usage and handling of firearms is arguably the most dangerous to all parties present, with the least amount of room for error.
    • You are in control of your firearm.
      1. If someone walks in front of your muzzle, move the muzzle away from them
      2. It is a tool that you control.  Act like it.
    • “Safe Direction” -working definition. “A safe direction is any direction which, in the event of a discharge from that firearm, there will be no possibility of unintentional injury or only acceptable property damage”.  If your only options are pointing your muzzle at an inanimate object or a human object (that doesn’t need a gun pointed at it), choose the inanimate object.  More nuances and context will be discussed in class.
    • Defensive environments requiring the potential use of deadly force often call for the armed person to move about with a loaded firearm in hand.  This should only be done after proper and professional level training and always with a means of re-securing the firearm when it is no longer appropriate to have it in hand.  This falls squarely into the intermediate and advanced levels of defensive firearms training.
    • Presenting a handgun from a holster (or other secured location), or a long gun from a slung position (or other secured location), into a ready position, requires proper instruction and practice to perform without pointing the muzzle at oneself.  “Trained” police officers violate this rule with alarming regularity.  They are not generally a good example of proper gun handling.  Don’t be that guy/gal!

Keep your finger out of the trigger guard until your gun is on target AND you are ready to fire it.

    • The human hand is designed to grasp things by using the opposing thumb and all of the fingers.
    • However, when handling any firearm, you must learn to always use a 3-finger and opposing thumb grip that excludes any gripping with your trigger (index) finger.  It is odd at first, but it MUST be developed to become an automatic, subconscious action when handling a firearm anywhere near the trigger.  Anyone who does not have this habit fully developed is a Negligent Discharge waiting to happen.
    • It is the mark of the untrained, careless, and/or reckless shooter to be touching the trigger at any time unless the shooter is in the process of placing shots on target.
    • There are two, and only two, places for the trigger finger to be;
      1. Either in the index (or register) position, which is completely outside of the trigger guard and physically touching a reference point on the firearm, above the trigger guard, that is not the front of the trigger guard, or
      2. Onto the trigger when the decision to fire has been made and the shooter is in the process of doing so.
      3. A shooter who habitually, and unconsciously, places the trigger finger in the register position as a matter of course when not firing and on the trigger only when actually firing is distinguishing oneself as a proper gun handler.
    • It has been scientifically proven through usage of high-speed video and shot timers that there is no appreciable, nor practical, benefit or advantage in first round hits on target when the trigger finger is actually on the trigger versus in the register position.
      • Rather, the risk and high probability of an unintentional discharge resulting from:
        1. Startle response
        2. Sympathetic inter-limb response
        3. Involuntary clutching due to unexpected imbalance or positional change
      • Is dramatically higher and with potentially deadly consequence
    • When the shooter has decided to stop shooting, for whatever reason(s), the trigger finger should immediately move to the register position and remain there until either needed back on the trigger or until the whole hand position is changed for some other manipulation of the firearm.

Be sure of your target and its background at all times.

    • See “Safe Direction” above
    • Have a means to illuminate a potential target without pointing a weapons-mounted flashlight at it.  Yes, even during daytime.  The interiors of buildings and underground parking lots all are illuminated with artificial light during the day.  Have your light in case theirs fails.
      1. Weapons mounted lights are special purpose, target illumination tools designed to illuminate a target that you have identified as a deadly threat and you are at the final decision making stages of acting upon that threat.
      2. If you use your weapons-mounted light as a search tool, you may be guilty of brandishing or assault if you point that light/gun combination at someone who does not warrant being at gun point.
      3. Your rail-mounted Tac Light is not a general purpose searching tool.  It is a firearm.  It just happens to have a specialty device attached to it that will enhance your marksmanship ability in darkened conditions after you have identified a target that needs deadly force applied to it.
      4. You will use a compact, handheld flashlight much more than you will use your firearm.  Get a proper, handheld high-powered flashlight and carry it with your defensive firearm.
    • NEVER, despite the “advice” of politicians, shoot through doors, windows, or at shadows to scare off anyone or anything that you have not positively identified as needing to be shot.  The legalities of shooting through concealment at an imminent threat adversary are covered in proper detail in self defense education, but will always involve full identification of the immediate, and deadly, threat.
    • Stage your defensive firearm away from yourself when you are sleeping.  There is a time lapse in your ability to make conscious and aware decisions when in the process of awakening.  Your firearm should be close enough to be available, but only after you are in complete control of your awakened faculties.
    • Small arms projectiles will consistently penetrate most interior wall materials unless they are designed to fragment upon impact.
      1. Learn the difference between cover and concealment.
      2. Know your ammunition characteristics.  Virtually all interior walls and most exterior walls are only concealment and do not stop most bullets.   There are noteworthy exceptions that mandate you know how your ammunition is likely to perform upon contact with building materials.
      3. Be aware of friendly positions in a 360 degree environment; upstairs, downstairs, and horizontally.
    • Do not work the trigger faster than your skill at keeping the muzzle on target.  You will be held legally responsible for all of your shots downrange.  Even if you are “informally” shooting on a desolate target area, do not indulge in bad behavior that may turn into bad habits.

Always maintain control of your firearms

    • Yes, this is number 5 of 4.  It is worthy to include.
    • Whether on your person, in a ready-access box, a gunsafe, or in some other positively controlled means that is not accessible to unauthorized person(s), keep control of your guns.
    • This means knowing where your guns are and not “forgetting” them in your carry-on bag at the airport.  If you “forgot” that it was in there, you are not in control of it.

Closing Notes

  • The physical, or tactical, problem that you may have to solve is only the first part of your defensive skill set.  Problem #2 is the legal problem of justifying your actions under the law.  DFI’s Use of Force & Self Defense Laws Class is an excellent beginning to understanding the critical aspects of legal use of force in you defense.
  • This holds true whether or not gunfire is involved in your defensive solution.  If you use ANY force against another person, you may be held legally liable for your actions.
  • You MUST know the laws of use of force and self defense in the jurisdiction where you are situated.  Otherwise, you are whistling past the graveyard.
    1. Knowing the mechanical and tactical functions of your firearms is not enough.  Know the laws of self defense.
    2. Never accept legal advice regarding use of force or self defense laws from anyone unless that person is a licensed attorney in the legal jurisdiction where you are inquiring.
    3. Police officers are notoriously ignorant about firearms and self defense laws.  That’s just the way it is. Even if you should be able to obtain a written “position” on a firearms or a self defense related issue on official department letterhead and from the senior-most official acting in official capacity, police are not licensed attorneys and should not be relied upon to give any legal advice.  Such advice will have no standing in a court of law and is virtually useless.
    4. None of the above may be considered legal advice and does not establish any confidential or professionally protected relationship.

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