Tactical Experts > Shooting > Fundamentals

Firearm Safety on and off the Range

Firearms are deadly and their owners must handle them properly at all times. Those who are new to gun ownership must understand the immense responsibility of owning a weapon. A beginning shooter must master several skills. The first and most important is safety.

Range Safety Rules

There are four universal rules of safety when handling firearms that every shooter should commit to memory and practice daily:

  1. Treat all guns as if they were loaded

  2. Never let the muzzle of a firearm point at anything you would not shoot

  3. Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot

  4. Be sure of your target and what lies beyond it

There will be additional rules at most ranges you visit. Many will post their rules prominently for all shooters to read and understand. Some rules may be specific to the range given its physical characteristics, the proximity of other shooters and backstop material. Not all ranges allow all firearms or ammunition types. Reloaded ammunition is often not allowed, as the quality of this ammo is unknown. All ranges require that adequate eye and ear protection be used by all persons present.

It's important to learn and follow the additional safety rules unique to the range used. As a beginning shooter, seek out the range master or instructor to make sure you are in compliance. Many ranges will require the shooter to complete a basic safety course and cover the rules of their range before allowing them to shoot. The better supervised a range is, the safer you are while using it. Because of strict liability laws, most ranges are well supervised. A range without rules or supervision is not a safe environment. If you find yourself at this kind of range, leave and find a safer facility.

Qualified instruction

Qualified instruction is especially important for new gun owners. When a decision is made to buy a gun — especially a first handgun — job number one is to learn how to safely handle and fire the weapon. First, read and carefully study the owner's manual that comes with the weapon. Learn and understand the individual parts of the weapon and each of its functions. If you don't have the owner's manual, most gun manufacturers make their manuals available for download from their website. If you can't find one on their website, call the manufacturer's helpline; they can usually send one in the mail.

Learning to shoot and mastering your weapon will not happen overnight. Most police academies require several days of classroom instruction followed by several weeks of range live-fire drills with one-on-one instruction. A recruit may use several thousand rounds of handgun ammunition to achieve basic minimum proficiency.

There are many good range instructors, and most are eager to work with newer shooters. A range master working at a range is there, in part, to provide instruction to newer shooters. Seek out a qualified instructor and absorb as much information as possible. A good instructor will cover safe handling and storage, proper stance, grip, sight picture, breath control, and trigger squeeze. It will be a lot to take in, and will take time to master each skill. As many instructors tell their students, it is much easier to teach a new shooter with no experience than it is to retrain the bad habits of a shooter who tried to go it alone.

Weapon Inspection

A weapon inspection by a qualified range instructor will take about a minute, but it is very important. In addition to a physical inspection, function testing semi-automatic handguns is essential. As a new shooter, do you know if your firearm will function properly? A function test will answer this question. The instructor will test several functions with an empty magazine, checking the proper mechanical function of various handgun components. Function checking is a skill a shooter can easily learn and, once mastered, can complete themselves.

Common Weapon Malfunctions

An important part of safety training is being able to identify a weapon that is not functioning properly and taking the appropriate corrective action. It is possible (although uncommon) that a malfunction not properly identified could cause a handgun to blow apart in your hand.

A shooter should be able to recognize and correct the following five semi-automatic weapon malfunctions.

1. Failure to feed

In this instance, when the trigger is depressed, instead of a bang, all you will hear is a click. In a failure to feed, the weapon has failed to feed a bullet from the magazine to the chamber. The most common cause is that the magazine isn't fully seated in the weapon. A procedure called "tap, rack, bang" is used to correct this malfunction. The shooter taps forcefully on the bottom of the magazine, properly seating it. They then rack the action by pulling the slide to the rear and releasing it. Provided nothing is ejected, with the next squeeze of the trigger, the gun should fire. Note: If an empty shell casing is ejected, STOP. The problem is more serious.

2. Failure to fire

When the shooter depresses the trigger and hears a click, the issue may be a failure to fire. This is confirmed by racking the action and recovering the ejected bullet from the chamber. It will usually be either a light strike on the primer or a primer failure. Handle this the same way as a failure to feed with one important exception.

If you hear a "pop" sound instead of a "click," you may have a squib load. While rare, a squib load is when the trigger is pulled and the primer ignites but fails to light the powder. The ignited primer may force the bullet from the casing and lodge the bullet within the barrel. The second way of identifying a squib round is to look at the ejected round. If it's just the casing and not the bullet, you have a squib round. The weapon must be immediately unloaded and checked for a bullet lodged in the barrel. Firing a second round with a bullet lodged in the barrel can result in the barrel blowing apart, possibly injuring the shooter.

3. Failure to extract

When this happens, the casing from a fired bullet fails to be extracted and remains in the chamber. The most common cause is an overly dirty chamber or ramp. Other causes include a broken extractor claw or a failure in the casing rim. To correct this, remove the magazine and manually pull and release the side. If the casing ejects, as it usually will, then it's time to clean the weapon. If the casing still fails to eject, have the extractor claw inspected for damage. It's common to refer to this malfunction as a double feed, but a true double feed is much more rare.

4. Failure to eject

The common term for this is a "stove pipe," as the partially ejected casing looks like a little stovepipe sticking out of the chamber. In this case, the spent casing did not clear the weapon as it cycled the next round into the chamber. This malfunction can have several different causes. One of the most common, especially for a new shooter, is a limp wrist. The shooter must hold the gun securely so the recoil energy is sufficient enough to allow the slide to cycle correctly. Other causes include a light powder load in a particular round, a recoil spring with too much tension or a worn extractor.

The quickest way to clear a stovepipe round is to swipe your hand across the top of the slide, sweeping the spent casing out. The swiping motion should be made from front to back, being careful not to put your hand in front of the muzzle. Once the stovepipe casing is cleared, it may be necessary to tap the back of the pistol slide to seat it forward fully.

5. Double feed

One final, very rare malfunction is the double feed. Not to be confused with failure to extract, a true double feed is when one round is chambered and a second is released and sits behind the first. The problem in this instance is usually with the magazine. Magazines wear out, and the common culprit is the two bent metal pieces at the very top of the magazine body. These are often referred to as the magazine's lips. A worn magazine may allow more than one round to be released and travel toward the chamber. To clear this malfunction, pull the magazine from the weapon, rack the slide several times to clear both rounds, and insert a different magazine. Separate the problem magazine for further inspection and possible replacement.

Indoor Range Safety

At outdoor ranges, a shooter may move to different target distances and stances. At an indoor range, the target moves to different distances while the shooter remains stationary. Many indoor ranges have bench rests, limiting the shooter to firing only from the standing position. Indoor ranges may also have individual stalls that limit the available space. Many of these ranges will allow only one person and one weapon per booth at a time. Most do not allow drawing from a holster and firing. Most indoor ranges want the shooter to enter the premises with an unloaded weapon in a closed case. The instructor may inspect the weapon and ammunition to verify they both meet the range's standards. Proper ventilation is essential for indoor ranges. Most do not allow non-jacketed lead bullets to be used because of lead exposure and inhalation concerns.

Transporting Weapons

Know the law

Each state has different laws regarding the proper transport of firearms. These laws change and are often updated. It is the responsibility of every gun owner to learn the laws of their particular state for transporting firearms to and from the range. Additionally, some cities have their own, more restrictive laws. One knowledgeable source will be your local gun store or indoor range. Ask where to get a copy of the law. Always follow the written law and not the opinions of others. Most laws can be located on the internet through individual state or police web sites. Always be in full compliance with your state's laws.

Use Common Sense

If a shooter is driving to the range, they should drive directly there, enjoy their range experience, and then drive directly home. If the police locate a firearm in a person's car at 2:00 am, the excuse that the person attended a range earlier in the day will be of little consequence.

Safety in the Home

Responsible gun ownership does not end at the range. Weapons must be handled properly in the home. When returning from the range, verify that all weapons are unloaded before entering the home. One of the first things a shooter should do after a trip to the range is to clean and oil their recently fired weapon(s). The cleaning area should be a flat table or workbench away from any ammunition or magazines.

Always start by removing the magazine, locking the slide back, and inspecting the chamber to verify the gun is empty. Disassemble and clean the weapon according to the owner's manual. Next, oil the gun in the locations and amounts recommended. Draw and release the slide several times to evenly distribute the oil along the rails. Finally, wipe down the weapon to remove excess oil and properly secure the firearm.

Proper Storage

There are two types of appropriate storage. Weapons may be stored for safety only, or they may be stored for safety and self-defense. Any weapon not designated for immediate self-defense should be secured, unloaded and under lock and key. Many owners will store weapons in a gun safe which not only keeps them safe from children but also protects them from theft during a burglary.

Cable locks and trigger locks are a less expensive alternative. A cable lock consists of a cable that is looped through the weapon's chamber, barrel, or cylinder and is secured by a padlock, making the weapon inoperable. The trigger lock is a mechanism that physically covers the trigger and locks in place, making the trigger inaccessible. Once a shooter returns from the range, they must maintain control of the firearm until it's properly secured.

Accessibility for self-defense

Many gun owners will keep one weapon loaded and close by for self-defense while keeping the rest unloaded and secured. The most common location is the master bedroom. The focus is on keeping the loaded weapon secure against accidental access yet almost immediately accessible by the owner. Gun storage cases with a four-digit lock are popular. Most have a keypad allowing the owner to quickly punch in a code and have access to the weapon. A loaded gun must never be stored in an unsecured location.

Responsible gun ownership requires several actions by the owner. Learn and abide by the four rules of firearm safety as well as the rules specific to the particular range being used. Learn about the firearm purchased from both the owner's manual and qualified range instruction. Learn to identify and properly correct weapon malfunctions. Identify and follow all state laws regarding the transportation of weapons to and from the range. Lastly, learn to secure all firearms in the home properly against accidental or unauthorized use.

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