Gun Safety for Experienced Shooters: Training Never Stops

I recently wrote an article discussing gun safety for beginners. It covered the four basic rules of firearm safety, as well as one more I tacked on for good measure. Today, we’ll look at gun safety for more experienced shooters. That doesn’t mean the rules and processes are all that different. They aren’t. In fact, the rules for experienced shooters are the same as for beginners. The only difference is that they may be applied to a wider range of scenarios, some of which may distract experienced shooters more than beginners. Let’s examine how that might look.

Man firing Henry carbine
With time, some things can become automatic, like properly indexing your trigger finger. But don’t allow automatic to become complacency. (Author’s Photo)

The Four Basic Rules of Firearm Safety… Plus One

Let’s start with the four basic rules, because everything else revolves around them. And years of experience do not exempt any of us from following them.

  • Rule 1: Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction.
  • Rule 2: Treat every firearm as if it were loaded.
  • Rule 3: Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot.
  • Rule 4: Know your target and what is beyond it.
  • Bonus Rule: Alcohol, drugs, and guns don’t mix.

The truth is, if you follow these rules religiously, no matter your experience level, you’ll do just fine. Each can be extrapolated to cover just about any realistic scenario. But I believe the greatest danger the experienced shooter faces is…


Complacency can happen to the best of us. When you do something long enough, it becomes automatic. Automatic to the point that you don’t even think about it. This is good and bad. For instance, whenever I handle a firearm, my trigger finger automatically indexes along the stock, receiver, or slide. It just does. I have to think about placing it inside the trigger guard.

Unfortunately, certain of my routines cause me to occasionally skirt some rules, and I then have to chide myself to make certain that habit doesn’t take. For instance, my carry guns and home defense guns are always loaded. I know they’re always loaded, so I sometimes don’t check them when I pick them up.

Sig Sauer P365XL loaded chamber port
My Sig P365XL is one of my two main carry guns. It has a loaded chamber port. I just have to make sure I use it. (Author’s Photo)

You may ask why that’s a big deal since I already know they’re loaded. It’s a fair question. The answer is that not checking those guns reinforces a bad habit. If I don’t check those guns, I may not check others. So, when I catch myself doing that, I make myself check them while correcting myself verbally. I also tell myself, verbally, that my Dad wouldn’t approve. It seems to help.

Complacency carries over to all the basic rules. We can never think that our experience makes us special. We can never think that those rules don’t apply to us because we have thousands and thousands of rounds downrange and hours behind the gun. They do apply, and we better not forget it. If anything, our experience should tell us how important it is that we stick closely to those rules because we know what can happen if we don’t. We should also model those rules to others, which brings me to the next point.


Most of us aren’t instructors, but most of us will teach other people to shoot at some point. My Dad taught me and my brother, as well as several of his friends. I taught my son and, to a lesser degree, my daughters. My girls aren’t really interested in guns, but they understand firearm basics.

I’ve also had probably a dozen people over the years ask me to teach them how to shoot a gun. I’m happy to do that. But I spend probably the first 30 minutes or so going over the basic rules of firearm safety. And I’m very earnest about it. I then constantly reinforce those rules through that and any subsequent range session. Another important thing I do is model proper firearm safety while I work with those folks.

father teaching son to shoot
Safety is the most important thing you can teach a new shooter. (Kelly Knox/

Again, I’m not a certified instructor, but let’s face it, most people don’t go to certified instructors. They seek out friends and family. I always encourage them to seek professional training, but I rarely miss an opportunity to introduce someone to firearms and shooting. I just have to make sure I do it the right way. Sticking to the basic rules keeps me on course. I’m sure many of you do the same thing.

What really ticks me off is seeing online videos of yahoos handing big-bore firearms to clearly novice shooters with no instruction, usually a small-framed girl who can barely hold the gun. The point being to watch the gun kick the novice in the teeth and everyone gets a big laugh. At best, those situations turn off someone who might be interested in learning to shoot. At worst, those scenarios are incredibly dangerous, and someone could easily be hurt or even killed. Don’t do that. Just don’t. And don’t tolerate it from your friends or family. If you know better, and now you do, stop it.


I said earlier that the basic rules of firearm safety can be extrapolated to cover just about any realistic scenario. What do I mean by that? Well, let’s look at some examples.

  • Handling malfunctions. Malfunctions come with the territory. Knowing how to clear them safely is part mechanical knowledge, part muscle memory, and part safety. For instance, if you experience a failure to eject, there are processes by which you can clear the gun. But part of that is making certain your firearm is pointed in a safe direction while doing so. Keeping your finger off the trigger is another part of that process. Maintaining good safety practices makes you more likely to implement them in such scenarios.
  • Carrying your firearm: Many gun owners choose to carry a firearm for self-defense. Learn to holster and draw your gun while keeping your finger off the trigger. Also, be aware of where the gun is pointed while doing so. Have you considered the advantage of keeping your carry side foot tucked in close to your other foot while administratively drawing or holstering your gun? I hadn’t until my son came back from a recent training course and showed me. I’m now establishing that habit because it makes sense. Little things make a lot of difference.
  • Passing obstacles in the field: Crossing a fence while hunting comes to mind here. Safely crossing a fence means, at the very least, not climbing over while carrying your gun. If you’re alone, I strongly recommend unloading your firearm and laying it over the fence before climbing over yourself. Some people recommend keeping the action open during the process. Reload after you’ve crossed. If you’re with a friend, handing one another’s firearms across can suffice. It depends on the situation. Just keep the rules in mind and be safe. It only takes an extra minute.

    Hunter crossing a fence, gun safety
    Crossing a fence with a firearm is a perfect example of the importance of safe handling in the field. (
  • Proper equipment in the field: I’ll use another hunting example here. Rifle scopes are not to be used for scouting. That’s why God created binoculars. If you’re scouting with your scope, you’re also potentially pointing a rifle at someone else. You’re certainly not pointing it at a target you intend to shoot. You can buy lightweight binoculars for as little as $20, or you can buy something nice. Up to you. I know it’s tempting. Don’t do it.
  • Range Rules: I get that some range rules are a pain. But keep in mind that ranges are forced to play to the lowest common denominator. They have to assume that at least one shooter, at any given time, is a complete novice and requires basic and direct instructions. If you don’t like that environment, find another place to shoot. I don’t like that environment either, so I took my own advice. There are no range officers where I shoot. But all that means is that I have to be my own range officer and I’m required to follow the basic safety rules, and even model them for others. There ain’t no free lunch when it comes to firearm safety.

These are just a few examples. You can no doubt think of many others. But space is limited, and I need to wrap this up.

Hunter using binoculars
Equip yourself properly in the field. Riflescopes are not for scouting. (

Training Never Stops

Whether you seek professional training or do it yourself, the basic rules of firearm safety never go away. They’re never superseded. They apply to everyone, from the beginner with a cricket rifle to old guys like me. From first-time shooters to world-champion competitors and Tier One operators.

That’s because improperly handling firearms can kill someone. It happens every year. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: there’s no such thing as an “accidental discharge.” There are only negligent discharges. Negligent discharges result from poor training, inattentive handling, or some combination thereof.

You are responsible for being safe. As you gain experience, you may also become responsible for teaching others to be safe, or at least modeling proper safety. Take that responsibility seriously. The rules are simple, but they aren’t always easy. Abiding by them requires some effort, mainly mental. But not doing so can result in someone dying. So, no matter your skill level, keep training yourself on proper safety practices. It’s worth it.

William "Bucky" Lawson is a self-described "typical Appalachian-American gun enthusiast". He is a military historian specializing in World War II and has written a few things, as he says, "here and there". A featured contributor for Strategy & Tactics, he likes dogs, range time, and a good cigar - preferably with an Old Fashioned that has an extra orange slice.

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