The Four Rules of Firearm Safety are:

  • Treat Every Firearm as if it were Loaded
  • Never allow the muzzle to sweep anything you are not willing to destroy.
  • Keep your finger off the trigger until your target is identified and you have made the decision to shoot.
  • Be aware of your target, what is behind it, and what is in front of it.

These rules are taught from beginning firearm training well into advanced firearm training. The shooter never ‘grows out of them’. They never become non applicable. Shooting fundamentals and application are borne from them into drills that enhance safety and best practices when operating the firearm.

From the day you decide to start shooting until the day you stop altogether, these rules must become an ingrained part of you. Both consciously and subconsciously followed.


Treat every firearm as if it were loaded

The first and most important rule of firearm safety.
We start every classroom session we offer with a short statement on Intelligence vs. Wisdom. We do this because firearm handling and safety is wisdom-based and not intelligence-based. Why? When we treat every firearm as if it were loaded, we build in a number of behavioral safeties.


One mode of handling.
When we treat every firearm as if it were loaded, we will handle firearms safely. We respect that the item is a dangerous tool. We do not develop a cautious handling mode for a loaded firearm and a separate relaxed mode for one we know is not loaded. This is the single most important thing you can take from this article. There are 3 more common rules for firearm safety. If you develop a “not loaded mode” of handling, you are more likely to transgress on the other 3 rules. After all, it doesn’t matter because it isn’t loaded, right? Wrong!
When the firearm is treated as if it were loaded at all times, only one mode is created for firearm handling mentality, and safety is more is adhered to more often. It becomes habit. It becomes SOP. In short, it allows the 4 Rules to become ingrained life rules and not something you recall only when picking up your loaded firearm.


Because we might be wrong.
Intellectuals pride themselves on their mental prowess. The knowledge of something and the conclusions derived are rock solid in their minds and their actions are based on these conclusions. Modern society strongly values intelligence. It makes most of what we have available today possible.
But our wisdom as a society has not kept pace. People relying on their GPS and driving into a lake is an example. The story of the lady at the mall a few years ago that walked right into a fountain because she was engrossed in her phone is another. These are not necessarily “stupid” people, but they have allowed their thinking skills to de-prioritize based on other factors.
Intelligence is a great way to use facts to figure out a path forward to meet a goal. Wisdom is what we use to first determine where that path will lead, and to develop a plan B’s in case we were wrong.
Intelligence is looking into the chamber of a firearm and seeing that it is empty, and developing the conclusion that because the firearm is unloaded it poses no threat to anyone. With an intelligence-only conclusion, the firearm can then be treated like the benign inanimate object that it is.
Wisdom is allowing room for the notion that you may be wrong, and treating the firearm with the same respect that you would if it were loaded. When this happens, even if you were wrong, you are causing no harm.


Beyond our grubby little mitts.
Extrapolate beyond just handling. If you and I treat every firearm as if it were loaded, how would we store it? An unloaded firearm can be left on the kitchen table. A bunch of 8 year old kids can run by it, play with it, take it to show their friends, and it will cause no harm. Does that sound right? Of course not! We all should know better than to keep a loaded firearm out and accessible to unauthorized people. We all must know better than to keep an unloaded firearm accessible for the exact same reasons. If our mentality is that these things are always loaded, then we will treat them as such.
In the end, treating every firearm as if it were loaded is about developing the wisdom to respect the dangerous nature of these devices and establishing a means of safe use, handling, storage, and other considerations.
Treat every firearm as if it were loaded.

Never allow your muzzle to sweep anything you are not willing to destroy

 The second rule of gun safety.
This is an extrapolation of the first rule of gun safety: Treating every firearm as if it were loaded. This rule goes beyond how we treat a firearm, which can be active (how we handle it) or passive (the state we allow it to be in when not actively handling it). The second rule is an active practice of firearm handling. In short, the bullet cannot strike anything not in its flight path. By ensuring the muzzle of the firearm is always pointed in a safe direction, we apply a control to that flight path. Some things to consider…


The flight path is not a straight line, it is an arc.
Furthermore, add in windage and this becomes a cone of potential effect. Add in natural unsteadiness during shooting and this cone of potential effect can become rather large. Add in gross movement and this cone can be massive. The cone of potential effect sums up the bullet’s potential path based on all certainties and uncertainties at the time of firing. The bullet will traverse space somewhere within that cone. When handling a firearm, that cone of potential effect is the handler’s responsibility. It is not enough to think only of a straight line or arc; the entire cone of potential effect must be considered. If there is something in that cone of potential effect that you are not willing to destroy, you are not handling the firearm properly.


A recent training video showed a wheelchaired individual at the shooting range. We absolutely applaud the guy for taking training. However, the rest of the class was allowed to outpace him on a closing-the-distance drill, causing them to be in this guy’s downrange. This is in and of itself not necessarily risky yet. The guy might be a phenomenal shooter. The ground was very uneven, though, and littered with casings. One of the course instructors started pushing the guy forward. Without the tactile feedback from his wheels (being under his own power), the jostling and movement from being pushed forward widened his cone of potential effect.


Environmental constraints exist at shooting ranges to mitigate the “what we are willing to destroy” part of the statement. Ranges are specifically designed to ensure there is nothing downrange we are not willing to destroy. Backdrops are engineered to terminate that cone of potential effect (the bullet is not allowed to go beyond the back wall or trap area). In short, we are limiting downrange to paper targets: something we are willing to destroy.


Muzzle sweep and the holstered handgun or cased firearm.
Yes, it’s true the muzzle is generally pointed at the ground when the firearm is holstered. Yes, it’s true that our leg and foot are sometimes in this cone of potential effect. Yes, it’s true that in a multi-floored building a bullet may not stop at the ground but instead travel through the floor into the space below. For a firearm in its case, yes, all the above are true AND the muzzle may be sweeping all manner of things as we transport it.
In these situations we are basically doing risk analysis. A proper holster that prevents unintended trigger actuation is another layer of safety (and the 3rd Rule). The muzzle pointed down is safe most of the time, and when our own leg and foot is swept, we understand that the cone of effect is affecting us only. In short, we have made the determination that with reduced risk of discharge (trigger protection), the added benefits of having the firearm if needed (external threat response), and mostly safe muzzle direction, the potential cone of effect from the muzzle sweeping us is an acceptable risk.
Similarly for a cased firearm, we have made the determination that the firearm is in a safe condition (it is not loaded) AND we are not manipulating the trigger, or any aspect of the firearm for that matter. While we should still treat it as if it were loaded, we are relying on other safety considerations (mechanical separation) to bridge the gap of treating it as if it were loaded.


Getting on target
The act of drawing the firearm in the proper manner is an act of obeying this safety rule. From the holster, the traditional 4 step draw helps ensure the firearm cone of potential effect (I probably should have given that an acronym by now, eh?) travels up from the ground, and in a line with the target. Strong side holsters provide the safest means to do this, but cross draw and shoulder holsters can, with practice, be made very safe as well. These carry methods have advantages in some situations (such as driving).


Muzzle awareness must be trained. A relatively small object can be handled with ease, but its cone of effect can extrapolate up to hundreds of yards away. The handler of the firearm is solely responsible for this cone.
Never allow your muzzle to sweep anything you are not willing to destroy.

Keep your finger off the trigger until you are on target…

 …and have made the decision to shoot.
Looking into this rule more closely, we should start to see these rules are all redundant and this is another layer of safety when used in unison with the first two rules. This rule is paramount, because even if the muzzle is in a safe direction and even if we are treating the firearm as if it were loaded, we have years of craptastic television and movies showing us the wrong way to pick up a gun. No, do not pick it up with your finger on the trigger.
The fact is, the modern firearm simply cannot discharge without user actuation of the trigger. Boom. Obviousness stated.
In the real world where we might have to draw the handgun from a holster, we have traditionally 4 steps to get it on target:
1. Get a firm grip on the handgun in its holster. NOW is the time to get the trigger finger in the correct spot. It should not be over the trigger guard area (even with a layer of leather or kydex between the finger and the trigger). It should be pointed straight down along the holster, and in a position so when the firearm is drawn it is along the slide or frame.
2. Draw the handgun purposefully from the holster and acquire pectoral index. If your trigger finger was in a straight line in step one, it should now be pointed down the frame and safely out of the trigger area in this step. We may have already made the decision to shoot a bad guy, but with the muzzle pointed straight down, it is unlikely we made the decision to shoot our own foot. We are not yet on target.
3. Rotate the handgun upwards to get on target. Depending on time and distance, we may actually start shooting at this point to get pelvic shots. We are on target, though not optimally, and we have made the decision to start neutralizing bad-guy threat. Finger may get on trigger through this step.
4. Push out as applicable to get the handgun on target. This step is typically where we have decided we are on target and are ready to shoot. Typically, at this point we would move our finger to the trigger for discharge.
The decision to move the finger to the trigger is the second to last commitment taken to shooting the firearm (pulling the trigger is the last). The mindset that we must foster is that moving the finger to the trigger is the last decision (if we do this we will shoot, minus any last moment interrupts). This movement is shoot or no-shoot. This movement is last resort. This movement is life or death.
Commit with wisdom and justification.

Be aware of your target, what is behind it, and what is in front of it

This safety rule is very similar to the second rule. We are again evaluating our potential cone of effect and ensuring the things in it are of acceptable (ideally negligible) value should they be affected by the shot’s impact. The bullet must be propelled to the target, might hit the target and stop, might hit the target and overpenetrate (continue upon a path), or miss and continue upon a path. These represent 3 zones of before target, at target, and after target.
Before Target

In modern training with close contact considerations, the shooter may first have to strike an assailant to fend off an attack, or to create the time and distance necessary to achieve a safe (not able to be interrupted) drawstroke. Remember, the firearm is drawn along the body’s axis. In matters of great bodily harm, getting shots on target may mean shooting from pectoral index as the firearm rotates up to level with the shooter. If the shooter has his arm out protecting himself or striking at the assailant, his arm may be in the cone of potential effect. When training, it is crucial to ensure that off hand is pulled back as the cone of potential effect moves up the target.

In unconventional shooting positions such as prone, supine, and urban prone, kneeling, or in a dynamic position (from running, catching balance, etc), the shooter’s leg and foot may also be in this cone of potential effect. (Think being knocked to the ground, kicking an assailant away while struggling to draw the firearm and get up.)

Being aware of what is in front of your target becomes very important.

At Target

Being aware of your target is crucial as well. Their movement, cover, concealment, and more affect how you will engage that target. The bullet does not magically stop there. Misses are one example, and overpenetration is another. This is target awareness.

After Target

Further down the cone of potential effect, there may be a wall, there may be a range backdrop and trap, there may be 2 miles of corn field. There may also be a busy street, a playground at recess, other people shopping in a store, and more. The shooter is solely responsible for the bullet’s path, what it ends up striking, and the damage it imparts. The shooter cannot bank solely on simply hitting the target under duress. He must assess the backdrop to determine if the shot is of acceptable risk.


Movement can change the backdrop. If in an alleyway facing a street, the backdrop is people walking by, cars, stores, and more. Moving to a wall can bring the opposite wall into covering the cone of potential effect. Bystander lives in the backdrop transitions to cheap cinder block.