Safety and Training

All Guns are NOT Loaded

Man firing a gun out of a car window at a knife wielding attacker

If you have heard them once, you have heard them 1000 times: the Three Rules of Gun Safety. In fact, originally there were 10. Written by Col. Cooper, their numbers have been reduced over the years for ease of remembering them. But, confusingly, a quick look online and you will find lots more than three rules and a quite a few variations of them to boot.

Man firing a gun out of a car window at a knife wielding attacker
Force-on-force training with real firearms can only be done after all parties redundantly confirm the gun is unloaded and the gun handler does not have immediate access to ammunition where the gun could be loaded.

One pet peeve of mine is the rule that states, “All guns are loaded.” The concept is that you should treat an unloaded gun the same way that you treat a loaded gun. And you should—but not in all cases! It’s amazing to see the large number of accidental shootings with “unloaded” guns by owners who thought they could be reckless with what they thought was an unloaded gun.

While the intent is good, the problem with the rule, as written, is that it is demonstratively false. As an example, my defense guns are loaded, but the guns in my storage safe are, in fact, not loaded. I will, however, treat them as if they were loaded when I remove them and first handle them.

Taking that into account, and with a goal to make the rule more sensible, many shooters and instructors have adapted the rule to read, “Treat all guns as if they are loaded.” While that makes it more appropriate than the original connotation, I can’t dry fire or clean my guns if I treat them as if they are loaded.

The version of the rule that I like the best is “Treat all guns as if they are loaded, unless redundantly proven otherwise, and done for a specific purpose.” Finally! That one works for all occasions.

Shooters should treat guns as if they were loaded, meaning, don’t put your finger on the trigger, and don’t point them at anything that you are not willing to destroy. When it comes to a specific purpose, such as dry firing, cleaning a pistol, or storage, here’s the procedure for unloading:

  1. Remove the magazine, and then rack the slide to empty the chamber.
  2. Confirm the firearm is unloaded. This is done by looking at the chamber to visually confirm that it is empty.
    1. To be redundant, double check with a finger that the magazine is removed.
    2. Look at the chamber again to confirm it is empty.
    3. Put a finger in the chamber to confirm that it’s empty yet again.

Only then can you point it in a safe direction and pull the trigger if needed or dry fire and clean it.

Accidents happen because of an assumption that a gun was unloaded, and a shooter was too lazy to confirm whether it was loaded. Follow the adapted rule and you will always be safe.

Do you have a personal mantra about handling firearms, treating all guns of they were loaded etc? Share your personal mantra or assessment of the author’s message in the comment section.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (27)

  1. “Follow the adapted rule and you will always be safe.”

    Correction: Safety is relative, but the above phrase promises absolute safety. It would probably be better to word it “You will always be safer if you follow the adapted rule.”

    I know I’m basically just arguing semantics here, but isn’t that also a huge part of safety talk? Basically what I am getting at is that following the adapted rule does not always make you safe, but always following the adapted rule will make you safer than had you not followed it at all.

  2. Yes to of that. However, firearms do not discharge unless the trigger is pulled. The redundant clearing drill you mention is excessive, therefore perfect.

  3. The point of this article is to clarify a commonly used statement, but then ends with what I hold to be the greatest piece of misinformation spread about guns. Why do people who talk about safety still use the term “accident”? It is not an accident if you pull the trigger and the gun fires. Accident implies that there were no reasonable actions that could have been taken to prevent this from occuring. Accident is the term used when people try to absolve themselves of responsibility for what happened. Call it “unintentionally” if you want to be nice. I call it negligent, because it makes me truely aware that my actions have consequences. Whether it’s me or someone else holding my gun I never relinquish the responsibility of everything that happens with that gun. To me responsible ownership begins when you do away with accepting anything is an accident.

    1. Correct, Jeff, an “accident” is tripping while carrying a firearm. Tripping while having your finger on the trigger and shooting the firearm is not an “accident”!

  4. Pat McNamara (ret. Delta Sgt.Major) has been teaching rule 1 for years as “know the status of your weapon system at all times.” If you go into an engagement believing your weapon is loaded and charged up and it is not, you’ve just screwed yourself and anyone on your team or anyone you were supposed to be protecting. I’m thinking he knows what he’s talking about.

  5. Nice adaptation of the rule. However, you need to consider the person being taught. A beginner needs to start out with the basic rule. Think about trying to teach the nuances of the expanded rule to a bunch of 8 year olds and I do in 4H. We start with simple and work toward the complex.

  6. Three rules? Its always been 4 rules of safe gun handling.
    1. Treat all guns as if they are loaded.
    2. Keep your cotton picking finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire.
    3. Identify your target, and don’t point your gun at anything you don’t intend to shoot.
    4. Know what’s behind your target, and where your bullet will end up if you must your target.

    Which one of these is not on the 3 rules?

  7. Also, his advice of “There’s always a round in the chamber.” Seems pertinent. I don’t know how many stories of negligent shootings I’ve heard because someone didn’t bother to clear the chamber. Check it and double check it.

  8. When I was around 12 years old, my dad started taking me to the range with him. He always taught the rule as “Treat every firearm as if it’s loaded, until you can confirm otherwise.” That’s how I teach it to every first time shooter I take to the range. Then I show them how to unload and visually inspect the firearm. It only takes a minute, and I really don’t want myself or a friend or relative getting shot due to carelessness.

  9. My father, a former Marine sharpshooter, taught me his first rule when I was * years old and receiving my first BB gun: “Never trust what someone tells you about a gun being loaded. Check it for yourself.” This rule has served me well for more than 50 years and has prevented several potential accidents.

    It’s Schrodinger’s Law of gun handling: You can’t know the load state of a firearm until you open it and see for yourself.


    1. Amen, David!

      My father taught me the same thing. Each time a gun changes hands, check it yourself. Even if the action is open, LOOK to make sure. Taking the time to double-check costs a few seconds and can save your life or the life of someone else.

  10. Guess one can never be too safe, considering one’s stupidity. Perhaps calling the neighbor over to help verify that the weapon really isn’t loaded would be helpful….

  11. Always check that a gun is unloaded regardless of what the person says and regardless of who they are.

  12. My father was in law enforcement his entire 37 year career and a well as a firearms instructor and SWAT instructor in our area. Often, he did CCW classes, intro to firearms and tactical skill training on the side. I often would assist periodically in helping when needed.
    One day he’d asked me to demonstrate the differences between a single and double action revolver. He was running a bit behind on time and was trying to finish up that section. He said “Pick up those two Smith’s and pull the triggers so they can see how they operate!” Doing as I was taught from the age of 6, I point it in a safe direction and start to check if it is loaded. He interrupts me with “Lets go, we don’t have all day, they were just cleaned, pull the damn trigger!” It was an older Smith .357 with the plate that covered the back of the cylinder, so you visually couldn’t see if anything was in the thing in a rush. Not once, NO TWICE, but THREE times I pause and looked at him like “Pull the trigger without checking huh?” He’s like “Lets go!” Ok, fine; safe direction, squeeze the trigger, BOOM .357 hole in the floor! Everyone jumps, and I for some reason wasn’t surprised, he’s laughing. The people in the class thought it was staged like we shoot holes in the floor on a regular basis or something!
    In the end he did apologize to me and thanked me for “trying” to do the right thing. Everyone in the class said it was “the best wake-up call lesson they’ve ever had”.

    1. Your father should have STOPPED TEACHING when he became so familiar, with what he was saying & doing, he BECAME CARELESS. Thank God, he TAUGHT you the proper procedure. NOTE: as a former NRA instructor, for 25 years, for Rifle, Pistol, shotgun, person protection and Home firearms responsibility, AND a Jr. Olympic Rifle Team assistant shooting coach (12 to 20 year old kids). A rule apparently your father never learned. NEVER FIRE A GUN TO CHECK TO SEE IF IT’S EMPTY. First it’s down right Stupid & Dangerous. Second, Dry firing an empty gun, can damage or break the firing pin. UNLESS THERE IS A DUMMY ROUND IN THE CHAMBER. Don’t take my word for it, ASK ANY GUN MANUFACTURER.

  13. I emphasize that rule too all that handle any firearms around me. Finger only goes inside the trigger guard when pointed at the target and never when changing mags or cycling the slide. The finger will stay outside the trigger guard when loading and ejecting mags and charging slide or locking slide open.

  14. Never assume a firearm is unloaded.

    For literalists who need something to work for all occasions — with fewer commas, and way fewer syllables.

  15. My version would be, “Treat all guns as if they are loaded, until you have personally verified that they are not.”

    The procedure for personal verification, including redundant checks, is a separate exercise and need not be part of the rule.

  16. This article is dated March 1, 2019 — TODAY — but I know damn well that I have read this same article before.

  17. ANGER.

    Extreme ANGER.

    “All guns are NOT loaded” is false and dangerous, and I suspect that the intent was to say “Not all guns are always LOADED” as an argument point.

    Without regard to how the writer feels about overkill on safety (which is a strange position) this headline can and will be used to show how careless and dangerous gun owners and users really are.


  18. Agreed Dave. Negligent discharges are made from stupid mistakes and there is no such thing as an accidental shooting. Someone placed their booger picker on the trigger and pulled it purposely or not. Someone holstered their gun not making sure their shirt tail didn’t get caught in the trigger guard and shot themselves in the groin. Someone drew from their holster in practice and shot their self in the leg because they drew with their finger on the trigger. Untrained people who pick up a gun including kids unconsciously put their finger on the trigger and pull it.

    What I have learned in all of my training is to keep my finger off the trigger at all times unless my sights are on target and I am ready to shoot. I always keep my muzzle pointed in a safe direction without fail!
    I CCW always and I have a routine I do not veer from which includes the two former above. The third is at home when I remove my gun from my person it immediately goes into my pistol safe and locked without fail! Even though my family is trained with firearms I remove the possibility at all times for a negligent discharge. This routine keeps everyone safe and is how I train others to respect their gun and 100% attention to it’s condition loaded or not.. Practice often, practice vigilance.

  19. even after clearing a weapon for dry firing, I treat it as if it were loaded.
    I point it at a target that would stop a bullet actually fired at it, I never aim in a direction that could have people or animals downrange. when cleaning a cleared and disassembled weapon, I insure the barrel is pointing in a safe direction and never point the barrel in anyone’s direction.
    I never put my booger hook on the bang switch until my sights are lined up on the target, even dry firing, these absolutes are necessary to ensure that an accident can never happen. In other words, all guns are always loaded. unless all safety rules are always followed without fail, we will always hear that poor old excuse, ” I thought it was unloaded. just one mistake can result in a fatality.

  20. You wrote in a caption, “Force-on-force training with real firearms can only be done after all parties redundantly confirm the gun is unloaded and the gun handler does not have immediate access to ammunition where the gun could be loaded.”

    That cannot be overemphasized, as evidenced by a tragic incident several years ago in Southwest Florida. A training and demonstration exercise of a home invasion was announced and members of the public were invited. A volunteer was assigned the role of an intruder and a deputy sheriff the role of a homeowner. Evidently neither the volunteer (who was not experienced with guns) nor the deputy (who certainly was supposed to be experienced) personally examined the weapon before the exercise. When the volunteer advanced on the “homeowner” and disregarded orders to stop, the deputy (playing the homeowner role) raised the gun and shot the volunteer (an elderly woman) to actual death. THIS TRAGEDY WAS AVOIDABLE!

    I was trained to inspect any gun I pickup or am handed to confirm if it is empty or not. If two or more people are to be involved in a scenario, each person MUST verify that the weapon in unloaded. The same precaution should be taken before cleaning any weapon.

  21. Ah, a good ol case of “the semantic splitting of hairs on order to beef up the word count or compose an article which answers a question no one ever asked”.

  22. Absolutely! The rule as written “All guns are loaded all the time” is so obviously false that it encourages people to ignore it. I teach my students to assume all guns are loaded until you confirm or clear. If someone else tells you it’s unloaded, assume it is until you confirm it. If you intend to dry fire or clean, assume it’s loaded, then clear and move on. If you intend to carry out the door, assume it’s loaded, then confirm and reload if necessary. I hate when people say it’s loaded all the time. It just leads to trouble.

  23. ALWAYS KEEP FIREARM POINTED IN SAFE DIRECTION…if an”unloaded”firearm goes off,at least you/your family/pets will be intact

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit exceeded. Please click the reload button and complete the captcha once again.

Your discussions, feedback and comments are welcome here as long as they are relevant and insightful. Please be respectful of others. We reserve the right to edit as appropriate, delete profane, harassing, abusive and spam comments or posts, and block repeat offenders. All comments are held for moderation and will appear after approval.