Muzzle Discipline: Handling Firearms Safely

One mistake, and it can all be over. We may not get a second chance when we are dealing with firearms.

What are some things we need to be aware of, and some steps that we can take to ensure safety? Today we’ll discuss muzzle discipline and why it is vital to safety.

Preparing For Class

“Always be aware of where your muzzle points and keep your finger off the trigger. If you happen to shoot me and I think I’m not going to make it, I’m going to take you with me. Count on it.” That is how a good friend of mine starts off his training classes with firearms. I remember the first time I heard him say it, and it really caught me off guard.

The more I thought about it, though, it made sense. It accomplished a few things:

  • Firearms training is serious stuff, and we could get “unalived.” It puts inexperienced people on notice that this training could be lethal.
  • Be very, very cautious of where that muzzle points.
  • Be cognizant and don’t be stupid.
  • Accidents are 100% preventable.

Now when my friend starts off a class, I know that statement is coming, so I enjoy watching the shock on new shooters’ faces when they hear it. It makes me smile.

You see, to some people, firearms are little more than cool toys or status symbols to show that they can defend themselves; that they are “ready.” But the sad truth is that some folks out there are not ready, and they have no clue.

They believe that merely having that handgun on their person will virtually guarantee that they are prepared for any attack that might befall them. Well, I hate to tell you, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. You have to be able to run the gun very proficiently and do it under more stress than your mind can possibly begin to grasp.

Many gun owners have likely never seen what a handgun bullet (or any bullet) can do to flesh. As a result, they might not be as careful as they should be when handling their firearm.

Terminology

We need to be familiar with a few terms to make sure everyone is on the same page.

What’s the muzzle? Well, simply put, it’s the end of the gun that the bullet comes out of. I’m not trying to be funny here – we have readers whose backgrounds vary drastically. Some are experienced military and law enforcement operators, some are tactical trainers (yes, we read each others’ articles and steal ideas like nobody’s business, it’s how we learn), and others are just really experienced. And some, unfortunately, have next to no experience, and they look to us who’ve been in the game for awhile for knowledge.

The term “Muzzle Discipline” applies to every movement of a firearm, whether holstered or unholstered, and the need to keep the weapon pointed in a safe direction at all times. This could be on the range, at the gun bench, or just when showing your new gun to a friend. Any time it is in our hand, we need to exercise muzzle discipline and ensure that the weapon is pointed in a safe direction and not at something we are not prepared to destroy.

Situations

What are some common situations in which peoples’ muzzle discipline fails?

Manipulating the firearm. Sometimes when they are loading the magazine into the weapon or racking the slide or charging handle, they might focus on the task at hand and disregard where they are pointing the firearm.

When loading magazines or racking the slide, one must take caution if other shooters are to the side, lest one point the weapon at them. At the range, firearms must point down range at all times. The pistol is a Glock 19X.

Most people are at least marginally more cautious on the firing range since they realize live ammunition is going to be expended (though they’re not always very careful even on the range). However, maybe you’re over at a friend’s house and he wants to show you his new blaster. He unholsters it as you’re standing right in front of him, and points it directly at you as he unholsters. This has actually happened to me on a few occasions, and it’s not a good feeling.

Another example might be that your buddy just fired an outstanding group or hit a difficult target. He’s excited and turns around to ask you if you just saw their proficiency. In doing so, he turns with the firearm pointed at any number of others who are on the firing range, including you. Again, not a good feeling and definitely NOT good muzzle discipline.

Consequences

Doing these things in certain situations can result in consequences. Most ranges will simply take the weapon from you and kick you off their range. Especially indoor ranges.

The author’s tactical team regularly used firearms in riot formations and CQB situations. Muzzle discipline was an absolute must!

I’ve been to training events where sweeping people with a firearm was simply not tolerated. One of the instructors I learned from would smack someone with a heavy, padded paddle if they did something so idiotic. Even then, there was a good chance that they’d be ejected from the training.

In my tactical unit, it simply wasn’t tolerated either. You’d be off the unit in a heartbeat for doing something like pointing a firearm at another member.

A friend in a very specialized military unit related that. During CQB training, any team member who did not exercise good muzzle discipline would be struck (very hard) in the back of the head. It wasn’t long before muzzle discipline was established and perfected.

US Special Forces team making entry. Note the muzzles are depressed toward the deck, which is typical for Army units. Navy units normally are taught to hold the muzzle skyward. Photo: DVIDs.

What To Do?

Whenever I am training new-ish shooters, I explain it like this: “Pretend there is a laser shooting out of the barrel of that firearm at all times. Anything you point that firearm/laser at will be sliced by the laser beam. The beam never shuts off. Act accordingly.”

Further explaining that it’s never okay to sweep another person with their weapon is an idea that needs to be imparted. Ask them how they’d feel about looking down the barrel of a gun. That might put it into perspective for them. They should not want to make another person feel that sort of discomfort, since they themselves would not like it.

Here, an instructor oversees a student, who is keeping the muzzle pointed down range as he shoots on the move. Muzzles must always be down range. Photo: Jim Davis.

On the range, the only safe direction to point the muzzle is down range as long as no one else is down range.

During trainings, I’ve always been taught to keep the barrel pointed either toward the sky or toward the floor if I’m holding a weapon in my hands.

Caveats

Be aware that if you experience a negligent discharge (in other words, you idiotically let loose a round when you weren’t supposed to) and you have the weapon pointed at the floor, the projectiles will likely bounce up. Possibly even hitting others.

While I’m on the subject, I’ll relate a pertinent war story. My agency dispatched officers from the prison to transport high custody-level inmates to a local hospital for various treatments. They were standing in the emergency room, waiting to be seen by the staff.

The sergeant on the detail had a 12-gauge Remington 870 that was in “Cruiser Safe” mode. Cruiser safe mode means the shotgun has a full magazine, an empty chamber, and the safety is on. Somehow, the sergeant managed to hit the slide release, rack a round into the chamber, remove the safety, and pull the trigger, with the expected results. The shotgun did what it was designed to do, which was launch a round of #4 buckshot down the barrel. In case you’re not aware, #4 buckshot has 27 .22 caliber pellets.

The pellets hit the floor of the ER, bouncing up and hitting two officers and an inmate who were standing nearby. Fortunately, all survived.

Obviously, the sergeant violated enough safety and procedural rules to fill three encyclopedias. Needless to say, this practically caused an international incident, complete with much wailing and gnashing of teeth (figuratively and literally). We never did figure out how in the world he got the shotgun into firing condition, but he claimed it was handed to him like that from the prison’s armory. That excuse didn’t wash because we were supposed to confirm the status of any weapons that were issued to us.

I’m happy to report that 99.9% of the rest of our staff were not as monumentally inept and stupid as that particular sergeant.

So what happened to the people he shot? They were treated and released in the ER. I guess there’s no better place to get shot than standing in a hospital Emergency Room if you’re going to pick a spot. And the sarge? He got his hind quarters chewed out for that one. But hang onto your hat for the exciting conclusion. He happened to be on the promotion list. A little over a month after shooting his two fellow officers and a death row inmate, the sergeant was promoted to the rank of lieutenant. And no, I am not joking. 

Don’t Worry, It’s Unloaded

How often have we heard, “Don’t worry, it’s not loaded.” Or, “There’s no round in the chamber.”

Yeah, that’s nice. Except when it isn’t. I think we’ve seen, in the above illustration, that weapons with an “empty” chamber sometimes are fired. It’s never unloaded.

All weapons are loaded. Assume it.
There is some merit in keeping the muzzle pointed skyward as a safety measure. Firing a load of buckshot into the deck can have detrimental effects on those around you. The weapon here is a 12 gauge Remington 870 Hardwood Home Defense shotgun.

Conclusion

Once the round is in flight, we can’t call it back. SO BE CAREFUL!

Keep weapons pointed down range or in a safe direction if we are at the range.

Don’t tolerate sloppy gun handling from those around you under any circumstances! If you’re at the range and people are being dangerous, tell them about it. If they won’t clean up their act, leave. It’s not worth sticking around and getting shot.

If you have friends who are dangerous with firearms, talk to them about it. Don’t remain silent, because you might be saving a life by speaking up (perhaps even your own life!).

Remember, the laser that’s pointing from the barrel of that weapon – it will cut anything that it comes into contact with. Even you!

Jim Davis served in the PA Dept. of Corrections for 16 ½ years as a corrections officer in the State Correctional Institute at Graterford and later at SCI Phoenix. He served on the Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT), several of those years as a sniper, and also the Fire Emergency Response Team (FERT). For 25 years, he was a professional instructor, teaching topics including Defensive Tactics, Riot Control and Tactical Operations, Immediate Responder, and cognitive programs as an adjunct instructor at the DOC Training Academy. He was then promoted to the title of corrections counselor, where he ran a caseload and facilitated cognitive therapy classes to inmates. His total service time was close to 29 years. He was involved in many violent encounters on duty, including incidents of fatalities. He is a dedicated Christian and attributes any skills that he has to the glory of God.

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