Firearms Food for Thought: Muzzle Awareness


If you have ever taken a basic handgun safety course or perused the NRA’s website, you should be familiar with them. Actually, if you have been around the firearms world at any greater length or depth than only topical interest, you should be familiar with them. They’re the four golden rules of firearms safety and although there are multiple versions thanks to varied wording, the gist remains the same: 1) Keep your finger off the trigger until you are on target, 2) Treat all guns as though they are loaded, 3) Know your target and what is beyond it, and 4) Never point your gun at anything you are not willing to destroy.

On a recent mountain lion hunt in the Sierra Nevada range I was once again reminded of the importance of these rules as well as the fact that many people seem to see them not as strict rules to adhere to but as suggestions made in shades of gray. For example, muzzle awareness. Although some people may see the point of not aiming a loaded gun at a person they may not give a second thought to aiming it at, say, a dog. Or perhaps they have no problem aiming a supposedly unloaded weapon at a person, however briefly (or at length). Or – to make things even more interesting – they walk around apparently unaware of their surroundings, stepping directly in front of the gun you had pointed in a safe direction or otherwise undermining your attempts to observe the rules of safety.

So when it comes to muzzle awareness, is it an issue painted in shades of gray or one with clearly defined lines? Does the person holding the firearm bear 100% responsibility at all times, no matter what, or is it also the responsibility of those around firearms to pay attention to where they’re being aimed?

One thing is for sure: accidents happen, as does blatant stupidity. When it comes to firearms, is there such a thing as being too careful?


Katie is an avid shooter, hunter, military journalist, and Southern girl. Firearms are her passion whether at the range or on a spot-and-stalk after a big buck. She’s a staff writer at The Firearm Blog and writes about guns, hunting, and the military for various publications both online and in print such as Outdoor Life, Handguns, and Shooting Illustrated. Shoot her a message at


  • Austin

    Firearm safety is no single mans responsibility, it falls to both those operating the firearm and those engaged in the activities around it.

  • Budogunner

    Those four rules are a process, not a checklist. Safety requires constant effort and situational awareness.

    That said, people can jump indoor of a gun just as easily as a car or train. I can imagine situations where a lawful gin owner is being sage and responsible but another person renders the situation unsafe before the gun owner can remediate. So, no, liability shouldn’t be 100% on them at all times for all situations. If it were, we would have a lot more cops in prison.

    • Bill

      I was covering a known-violent felony suspect, WML on, issuing verbal commands, when the CEO of another agency who momentarily forgot that he hadn’t been a street cop for 3 decades but wanted in on a high profile raid, stepped directly in front of the gun, between the suspect and myself, to “take command of the situation.” He had also decided that a white dress shirt would be appropriate attire, which meant I was blinded for about two weeks by the backsplash.

      Guys in his department told me they would have taken up a collection and thrown me a party, hookers and all, if I’d shot him.

  • Major Tom

    “When it comes to firearms, is there such a thing as being too careful?”

    Unlike a lot of things, on this one I don’t think so.

    • Simcha M.

      I’m an NRA certified instructor and I tell all my students for basic gun handling that one area that it is good to be OCD is when it comes to gun-safety.

  • TC

    You can’t call a bullet back once it leaves the barrel. You can’t unmake a bad decision.

  • Jwedel1231

    Always keep the barrel pointed in a direction where if you were to pull the trigger that second, you would not mind where that bullet goes, or at least you would shoot the thing that means the least to you (into the ceiling instead of into your spouse/kids/dog/refrigerator). If someone steps in front of your barrel, you need to move it. That person should have seen the barrel, but that won’t keep the bullet from hitting them. Likewise, be careful of the muzzles of those around you. If someone is being unsafe, it’s your job to avoid their muzzle at all costs.

    • Budogunner

      As an NRA certified RSO, I maintain that EVERYONE is an RSO. I’m 100% okay with anyone calling cease fire on a range I’m on or running if they see something they think it’s unsafe.

      False alarms are better than gunshot wounds.

  • Cymond

    “Never point your gun at anything you are not willing to destroy.”
    If followed strictly, I wouldn’t be able to dry fire at home. It would also made it virtually impossible to carry a firearm anywhere that’s more that a single floor.

    “Treat all guns as though they are loaded.”
    If followed strictly, it would make cleaning and maintenance impossible, especially for those designs that require the trigger to be pulled for disassembly.

    Heck. I have to point the gun up and down and manipulate the trigger multiple times to disassemble and reassemble my Ruger MkIII.

    • JumpIf NotZero

      Take a step back there. Common sense still applies. You can be pedantic of you like, doesn’t change that someone needs to break 2 rules to hurt.

      I think we’ve all seen examples of poor muzzle disipline in people that should know better. The “rules” are fine.

      • MR

        It’s important to be mindful of the rule you’re breaking to complete a specific task, and comply 100% to the other rules during that time. Layered security only works if you give proper respect to all of the layers.

    • Bill

      I dry fire at a target on a wall I’m perfectly willing to destroy. The spot was selected just because of it’s intrinsic worthlessness.

      All guns are loaded, until I’ve unloaded it and disassembled it, in which case it’s a pile of parts. Note that it is unloaded and then disassembled, not unloaded, put down while I wander off to do something else, then return to disassemble

      • Budogunner

        A SEAL friend of mine always dry fired or Decocked while aiming at the high or low corner of a room, claiming there was more structure in a corner to stop a bullet than the middle of a wall or floor. High out low depended on what was above it below you in that structure.

        • Bill

          Old body armor panels are great options.

        • Simcha M.

          They taught us the same thing in the IDF and in government service afterwards…

          • Mikial

            Hey, if the SEALs and the IDF both say it, that’s plenty good enough for me. Two of the organizations I respect the most.

          • Simcha M.

            Todah (thanks), Mikial!
            In an unfriendly world, we need all the friends we can get!

    • USMC03Vet

      lol I always feel weird resetting my strike after I just cleared my weapon by pulling the trigger. I always have the mindset that when pulling the trigger it will go bang.

    • gunsandrockets

      Exactly right.

      There is a problem with how some of the four rules of gun safety are commonly phrased. Sure that’s not an issue for experienced shooters, but it is crucially important for novices.

      So when I recently instructed a novice, a reworked the four rules into an encompassing frame of ‘awareness’: awareness of loaded condition (never assume a firearm is empty, always check it first yourself), muzzle awareness (always point the gun in a safe direction), trigger awareness (keep the trigger clear and your finger outside of the trigger guard until firing), and downrange awareness (a bullet has great penetration and may travel more than a mile downrange, so only fire in a safe direction).

  • Pete Sheppard

    When I look over a gun at a store, I’m constantly ‘waving’ it around, trying to keep the muzzle from covering other people–and that’s after I cleared it!

    • Bill

      I hate gun stores. Particularly big ones, when a dozen guys are waving various guns all over the place.

    • Budogunner

      I hate gun store clerks who don’t clear a gun before handing it to you then shift around in front of you, eager for a sale, oblivious that they are making it hard for you to not muzzle them.

      I once complimented a clerk on the Kimber he was carrying. He drew it and laid it on the counter for me to pick up and look at. Fully loaded. I explained I was not about to pick up that loaded gun and left. Never went back. I hope that genius was never robbed with his own gun.

      • Pete Sheppard

        One of the earliest lessons of gun ‘courtesy’ I remember was, when handing a gun to someone, clear it then pass it over with the action open, so they could see it is empty as they receive it. Return the gun the same way.

  • Mattblum

    When I was a kid, we used to take our .22 rifles out to a deserted location and shoot. We took a less aware friend shooting one day. He turned to talk to me and the rifle turned with him. Aimed right at my head. Loaded. Finger on the trigger. He got a serious talking to and we never took him out again. I’ve been telling the story for over forty years.

    As has been pointed out below that there are gradations to the care one can take. The key thing, in my book at least is always being aware of the direction the muzzle is pointing. Yeah. I have had to dance around in gun stores too. People walk right in front of you. Makes me wonder.

    We all clear a weapon when we pick it up. That is just “what you do”. We still read about people accidentally injuring themselves while “cleaning a gun”. How do you do that? Not only leave a round chambered but muzzle yourself and pull the trigger? I am always kind of suspicious when I read things like that.

    • I am a Marine

      A friends father was cleaning his glock and “it just went off”, this was while I was in his home. I spoke with him about it and found that he had cleared the gun by racking it and then dropped the mag. Of course one round ejected and the next in the mag was loaded into the chamber. I think this is how most of those accidents happen.

      We were all lucky that day.

  • John

    Well, some people IMO are just unreasonable safety Nazis.

    I’m referring to those who freak out because some youtuber is pointing at a stationary camera downrange or uses a detached scope to aim at his dog or something to demonstrate it’s clarity.

    • Hensley Beuron Garlington

      I consider them like grammar Nazis. Safety is important, but we shouldn’t assume others are being unsafe, especially via camera, because we can’t usually see everything. A lot of people use it to be “holier than thou” on the subject. Some are honestly trying to help. Those same people aren’t getting upset with Hollywood for lack of “safety”.

  • Twilight sparkle

    I can say for certain that about 50% of the people in my area who own guns don’t know crap about the commandments of firearms safety. I sell guns and I get muzzle sweeped every day, what’s worse is people muzzle sweep their own family as well. People have also bought 9mm makarov when they needed 9×19 as well as buying .38 special when they needed .380 acp and they complain to me when it doesn’t work… Working behind a gun counter has literally made me lose hope in humanity.

    • Budogunner

      I know it’s hard,but we need people like you to lead the way in education. It sticks having to explain safety to a customer, but if you teach the 4 rules and encourage training you can save lives.

      If they get pissed by having safety violations politely explained to them, did you really want to sell them a gun anyway?

      • Twilight sparkle

        Unfortunately doing that is bad for business, you can chose to educate people, or you can chose to not have rumours spread about how “rude” people are at your business.

        The only people you can educate are new shooters, they understand they don’t know much about guns, they’ll take everything you say to heart and they won’t be offended if you point out something bad that they’re doing. I try to reach the new people as much as I can, hopefully they can teach the old ones that don’t know enough for me.

  • Hensley Beuron Garlington

    It is up to the person controlling the muzzle and the other people to try and keep tabs on where that muzzle is pointed at all times. The moment anyone starts not paying attention and disrespecting a weapon is when there is greater potential for not only an accident, but a serious or even deadly accident.
    Watch people clear rooms, they not only control their muzzles, but their teammates try not to step into their “cone” of fire either.
    I’ve never understood why people can’t just keep in mind that those four basic rules are not negotiable and if strived for strict adherence, it can greatly reduce, if not eliminate, the chances of having an accident. It isn’t rocket science, its just common sense.

  • Bill

    I couldn’t handle a 13 minute video, and have no respect for James Yeager, but halfway see the point the instructor was trying to make. When I was training transitions from shotguns to handguns, our shotguns not having slings, when it was dry you dropped the gun and drew your pistol. Trainees might be horrified, but it’s the agency’s gun, if it’s empty it’s worthless, dropping it isn’t likely to cause damage, and even so, who cares if it’s your life at stake. In the training environment we would recover the guns after the iteration, inspect them for damage and repair as needed (seldom involving more than shaking dirt out). Same thing when transitioning to BUGs: why take time to try to holster a useless empty duty pistol that probably is at slide lock and won’t fit securely in your holster anyway, when you need your backup NOW. And guns got stepped on – it’s how we maintained control of them when possible.

    I understand the “caring for your tools” argument, but let’s remember that these should be LE/MIL weapons that are designed to be rugged and tolerant of adverse conditions and rough handling, not a set of precision micrometers, or some other tool that shouldn’t be dropped and stepped on. If a scratch on your GLOCK bothers you, you may want to rethink your priorities.

    • Paul White

      I get the idea but you don’t purposely abuse a tool for no reason either. My dad would flip his lid if you mistreated one of his saws or hammers for no reason.

      • Bill

        Carpentry tools and fighting firearms are kind of apples and oranges. Is playing a saw as a musical instrument abusing it? I would contend that using a high quality handsaw in the rain isn’t abuse, but failing to dry and oil it afterwards is. I’ve railed against destructive tests, but fighting guns are designed to be “mistreated.” Anything deliberately going into a violent. deadly environment needs to prove it’s durability and resiliency beforehand.

  • Goody

    I’m loose with #4, dry firing at a running dog is great for practice when the local range doesn’t permit moving targets. Looking for that behind-the-eyes sight picture when I hear the click…

    I love my dog, but wild dogs are a major problem here so I don’t mind using him as an effigy to train on.

  • Biker6666

    I know that in USMC training, you did not want to be the”one” the DI observed not maintaining muzzle management.

  • JohnnyCuredents

    Here is a conundrum. Over at the gun club, most of us are very careful to point our pistol downrange always but especially when we have just chambered a round; we would never turn the muzzle toward others, even with the safety engaged. If some careless person were to suddenly pivot, weapon in hand, believe me that he (or she) would hear harsh words from others on the line, at least where I shoot. But later, after we have pumped several hundred rounds at targets while scrupulously obeying this basic rule of safety, we load our magazine with hollow points, chamber a round, engage the safety if there is one….and insert the pistol in our IWB holster which points the muzzle directly at our leg and/or foot.

    I am a long-time shooter and gun enthusiast who regularly carries concealed, am an NRA member, and strongly believe in the virtues of the 2nd Amendment, but isn’t there a puzzling contradiction here? This thought has occurred to me many times over the years and I’d like to see what others think about it.

    • Sam S

      Only way to solve this contradiction is be willing to destroy your leg! What I mean is that if you carry you are saying that the risk to your leg is outweighed by the benefit of carrying a firearm.

    • gunsandrockets

      Yes that is a contradiction. And I think the rash of Glock-leg incidents is a direct result of too casual practices when carrying a loaded firearm.

      I think an excellent argument can be made for empty chamber carry and/or bullet-resistant holsters (depending on the specific firearm involved).

      • JohnnyCuredents

        I agree with you. The Israelis prefer to carry with chamber empty and to teach their people to draw and rack the slide in one continuous motion, and they live in some pretty dangerous parts.

        • gunsandrockets

          The irony about Glock-leg, is that the Glock is probably the best pistol ever made for an empty chamber carry because it it’s big clean slide and striker fire lockwork.

      • Mikial

        I’ve carried my Glock or my XD locked and loaded for years now. The real secret is to simply be mindful of what you’re doing and the fact that you are handling a loaded gun. Guns do not go off by themselves 99.9% of the time, they require some form of human interaction to go off.

        In essence, keep your head out of your third point of contact. It’s like driving a car at 70 mph down the highway. A momentary lapse in thought or judgement can be fatal.

  • heathjayman

    Well stated. And allow me to share a little game that I play – whenever you watch any action / combat / gunplay movie, which supposedly has weapons tech advisers, count how many times people muzzle sweep their partners, team members or general public. It IS amusing. This is also, btw, one reason I do not like shoulder holsters which point the muzzle of a loaded chamber pistol at whatever poor soul is standing behind the wearer.

  • gunsandrockets

    Took a group of friends out once for their first shooting experience. That was a mistake as me and my shooting friend were not able to properly supervise all the novices simultaneously.

    One novice muzzled us while holding a Browning 16 gauge. And a couple other times he rested the muzzle of the shotgun on his foot. While it was loaded. With his finger on the trigger!

    That was 25(?) years ago and I learned my lesson. When I take a novice out now, I am much more cautious and controlling.

  • CavScout

    Thank you once again Katie (like the ‘smart gun’ tech article) for trying to keep us safe from guns. Yes, there are shades of gray but those who know when to deviate, are generally trained on when to deviate. As for most people sitting in an NRA class, those rules are excellent. But not always. Rule (usually) #4 about knowing what’s beyond your target, is missing what Front Sight has added, ‘Everything INLINE with your target.’

  • Mikial

    “HOWEVER–I still always point the gun only at things I’m willing to shoot, even during dryfire and when disassembling.”

    Couldn’t agree with you more.