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Gun safety is the most important part of being a gun owner and something sportsmen and women have always taken very seriously. I recently spent a week at Gunsite in Arizona preparing for a hunt I’ll be taking later this year. The instruction was second to none, but what really struck me about my time there was how safe the range was. The instructors there may fire thousands of rounds per year, but they never get complacent when handling a firearm.

When it comes down to it, it’s up to all of us to handle firearms safely and continue to do so no matter how experienced we are with them. Shooting-related accidents, though rare, can and do happen whether you’re on the range, out hunting, or at home. Knowing and practicing gun safety goes a long way to prevent them.

Table of Contents

  • The Four Rules of Gun Safety
  • Types of Gun Safeties
  • How to Store Guns Safely
  • How to Practice Gun Safety at the Range
  • How to Practice Gun Safety While Hunting
  • How to Practice Gun Safety at Home
  • Gun Safety: Final Thoughts

The Four Iron-Clad Rules of Gun Safety

A pheasant hunter points his shotgun in a safe directing while walking the edge of a cornfield. Mossberg

It’s important to remember that the following rules apply whenever you’re handling a firearm. Whether you are in the field, putting guns in cases to go to the range, or cleaning a gun at home, you should follow these four rules without exception. Remember, too, that they apply to anybody you’re around who’s handling a firearm, too. If you notice they’re not following them, let them know or leave.

1) Always keep a firearm pointed in a safe direction.

Keeping track of the business end of your gun is a top priority when handling a firearm. You should always be aware of where your gun is pointed and make sure it’s in a safe direction.

2) Treat all guns as though they are loaded.

Even if you’re absolutely, 100-percent sure the gun you’re handling is unloaded, you need to treat it as if it was ready to fire. Assume any firearm you come across is loaded.

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

Your trigger finger should remain outside of the trigger guard until you’re ready to shoot. Some triggers are extremely sensitive, and you shouldn’t rely on a gun’s safety to keep it from firing.

4) Always be sure of your target and what’s beyond it.

This rule applies in every situation but deserves special attention while hunting. Bullets can pass through things and keep going, and even if you don’t think so, you could miss your target. Make sure to identify exactly what you’re shooting at, and don’t fire unless there is a safe backstop behind your target.

You can dive deeper into the four main rules of gun safety here.

Types of Manual Safeties

Firearm safeties are not foolproof, but it’s smart to familiarize yourself with all types. Tim Glass / Adobe Stock

A manual gun safety is a mechanism installed on a gun to prevent the gun from firing. They are designed in a number of ways, but they all share one thing in common: They are not to be relied upon. A gun’s safety is a good fail-safe option to keep you from accidentally pulling the trigger. But if you remember rule number 3, your finger should never be on the trigger until you’re ready to shoot. Gun safeties can fail or get worn out, especially in older guns. What can be even more dangerous is that by pulling the trigger when the safety is on, you may partially engage the sear, causing the gun to go off when you take the safety off again. It’s best to put the safety on while walking around with your gun and only take it off when you’re about to shoot. Here is a rundown of the different kinds of gun safeties you’ll encounter so you know how to operate them.

Cross-bolt Safety

This cross-bolt safety is positioned at the back of the trigger guard on a Weatherby pump-action shotgun. Ryan Chelius

Cross-bolt safeties are found mostly on pump-action and semi-automatic firearms. You’ll also see them on Remington pump and semi-auto rifles. The safety looks like a button, and it’s usually located on the trigger guard. When engaged, it will block the trigger, but it will not block the firing pin. This means the gun can technically still fire even though the safety is on. When you disengage a cross-bolt safety, it will usually expose a bit of red paint, telling you the gun is ready to fire. I say “typically” because on older guns, this paint can wear off, which is why it’s important to familiarize yourself with your gun before loading and taking it to the field.

Pivot Safety

The “S” stands for “safe,” and the “F” stands for fire on this pivot safety. Ryan Chelius

Pivot safeties are found on bolt-action rifles and some semi-automatic handguns. Some block just the trigger, while others lift the firing pin off of the sear. The latter is a safer design. Pivot safeties will usually be in the fire position when they are pushed forward, and in the safe position when pulled rearward. Some have three positions with one to lock the bolt in place (great for hunters) and another that allows you to operate the bolt while the safety is on. 

Tang Safety

The tang safety on this Browing over/under moves up and down for “safe” and “fire,” but also moves laterally to determine what barrel will fire first. Ryan Chelius

As the name suggests, tang safeties are found on the tang of the gun, just above the grip. They are operated by the thumb on your shooting hand. Mossberg puts them on their pump-action shotguns, though they are more typically found on break-action shotguns and rifles. Tang safeties are ambidextrous, meaning right or left-handed shooters won’t have a problem using one.

Half-Cock Safety

The half-cock safety is more of a hammer position than a safety, like the others above. You’ll see them on lever actions and single-action revolvers. When the hammer is pulled half-way back, it engages a notch and pulls the firing pin off of the chamber. When you’re ready to shoot, you pull the hammer back all the way and pull the trigger. This is not a very good safety and can lead to shooters accidentally thinking their gun is on safe when it actually isn’t.

Grip Safety

Grip safeties are most common the 1911, though they can also be found on a number of other semi-auto pistols. The design uses a curved piece of metal or polymer on the back of the gun’s grip. When you grasp the gun, it depresses the safety. On the 1911, there is also a thumb safety, giving you an extra layer of protection.

Other Safeties

If you get into the world of military surplus firearms, and antique guns, you’ll likely come in contact with different kinds of safeties or different configurations of the safeties above. Some are more difficult to figure out than others, and they usually lack the red paint for the fire position that you’ll find on most commercial guns. It’s best to familiarize yourself with your gun through research and by manipulating the safety while the gun is unloaded and pointed in a safe direction. If you can’t figure it out, go see a gunsmith.

No Safety

Some firearms don’t have safeties, and others may have a safety device incorporated into the trigger itself. On Glocks, you’ll notice a spring-loaded piece of polymer protruding from the trigger. This locks the trigger until your finger comes in contact with it. Double-action revolvers usually don’t have safeties, but they do have a device to keep the hammer from coming into contact with a round in the chamber until you press the trigger.

How to Store Guns Safely

Find a safe place to store and lock your guns at home and consider investing in a locker or gun safe. Mossberg

It may be the law to store guns securely and safely where you live, or it might not. Regardless, it’s a good habit to get into, especially if you have people coming around who may not know as much about guns as you do. Firearms should be stored unloaded in a locked cabinet or safe. If you can’t afford a gun safe or lockable cabinet, try to find someplace secure in your house and keep a trigger lock on your unloaded guns. Storing guns in lockable hard-sided cases will keep them secure, too, but this can ruin the finish on a gun depending on how it’s stored long term.

If you’re concerned about accessing a gun quickly to defend yourself, there are a lot of great options out there. We won’t get into specifics here, but you can find single-gun safes that quickly unlock with RFID cards or other devices.

 How to Practice Gun Safety at the Range

Be sure to follow all the safety rules set out by whatever range you are shooting at. Mossberg

Most gun ranges will post safety rules prominently, and many have a range safety officer onsite while people are shooting. In general, ranges are very safe places to shoot with established rules and sturdy backstops for all of the targets. The best thing you can do when shooting at a new range is to familiarize yourself with the range’s rules. If you don’t see them posted, ask somebody.

You should also keep the following things in mind:

  • Always keep your gun pointed downrange
  • Do not handle your gun until the range officer notifies the line that it’s “clear to fire” or “going hot”
  • Never handle your gun while others are downrange
  • Keep your gun unloaded with the acton open and safety on when you are not firing and store it either pointed downrange or on a gun rack.
  • If your gun malfunctions in any way, keep it pointed downrange and call a safety officer to look it over before unloading it and storing safely.
  • If you get what’s called a hang fire, or ammunition that does not fire when you pull the trigger, keep the gun pointed downrange and count down to 10 before unloading.

How to Practice Gun Safety While Hunting

Hunters should always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction and not take the safety off until they’re ready to shoot. Browning

Hunting by yourself or with others can put your gun safety skills to the test. It is a less controlled environment than a range with a few different obstacles to contend with. Still, hunters safely take to the field every year, and it isn’t hard to practice gun safety while hunting. You just need to stay aware of the four golden rules mentioned above, and keep a few more things in mind like:

  • Never climb a treestand or hoist a gun into a stand with a round in the chamber. That goes for getting in and out of hunting blinds, too.
  • Don’t cross a fence, stonewall, or a creek with a loaded gun. If you do need to climb over a fence, unload your gun, rest it in a safe direction, then cross.
  • Physically and visually check to make sure your gun is unloaded, twice or three times, before getting into a vehicle or casing it up to go home.
  • Don’t drink alcohol and hunt (this goes for any time you’re handling a gun), and don’t hunt with people who do.
  • If you feel the people you’re hunting with are fundamentally unsafe or just plain stupid, call it a day and go home. A better idea is to not go hunting with them in the firstplace.
  • If you see someone being unsafe or slipping up with their gun safety, tell them.

How to Practice Gun Safety at Home

It’s easy to relax with gun safety at home, but just as important to practice it. A large number of gun fatalities every year are due to accidents, and many of those accidents happen in people’s houses. Being unsafe with guns at home can also put your neighbors in jeopardy, as bullets can pass through walls quite easily. Here are a few things to be aware of when you’re handling a gun at home:

  • Remember to treat every gun as if it was loaded. It’s easy to forget this when you’re at home.
  • Store guns with actions open if possible and put them in a locked area or use a trigger lock to keep others from accessing your guns.
  • Be mindful of where everyone in the house is. For example, if you’re cleaning a gun in the basement, don’t point the barrel to the cieling where people are.
  • Triple check to make sure a gun is unloaded before cleaning it.
  • Don’t use live ammunition to function-check a firearm. Buy or make dummy rounds instead.
  • Teach everyone else who lives in the house about gun safety.

Gun Safety: Final Thoughts

I’ll say it again: Gun safety is the most important part of being a gun owner. Just like using power tools, heavy equipment, or driving a car, you need to know how to operate a gun safely before bringing it into your life. When it comes down to it, though, gun safety rules are easy to follow. Whether you’re on the range, in the field, or at home, you need to keep them in mind and share them with others if they don’t.