How-To

Rifle Safety: A Few Easy Steps to Prevent a Tragedy

Man showing a woman how to use an AR-15 rifle at an indoor range

Firearms safety is important, perhaps the most important thing beginners learn. Usually, all types of firearms safety are lumped together in a general safety lesson. Rifle safety deserves its own course, as the rifle offers challenges the handgun does not. While it is easier to cover (muzzle sweep) your body with the muzzle of a handgun, the rifle by virtue of its size and length offers unique concerns.

Among these is the procedure for bagging and unbagging. Most of us carry the long gun to the range in a range bag or drag bag. The rifle must be unloaded before and during transport.

bolt-action rifle on a bipod with the bolt in the open position for rifle safety
If you are walking to the berm to check your target be CERTAIN the rifle is unloaded, and the bolt is to the rear!

Rifle Safety at the Range

When we arrive at the range, the range bag should be oriented muzzle toward the berm or bullet stop. Open the case’s zipper carefully and immediately check the rifle. Be certain the magazine is removed and empty. Then rack the bolt to the rear.

Lever-action, bolt-action, and self-loading rifles all feature a bolt of some type. How the bolt is manipulated is the important difference. The magazine, if used on the model, is removed first. Next, the bolt is moved to the rear. The safety should always be engaged.

Be certain to check whether the chamber is loaded by placing the fingertip in the chamber. Once you have made certain the rifle is unloaded and the muzzle is toward the berm, you may proceed to plan your firing tests or marksmanship drills.

The safety should be engaged during loading. Long guns are often kept loaded at ‘home ready.’ I agree a long gun is far more effective than any handgun. In my area, many folks keep a .22 rifle on hand for personal defense.

The humble .22 is effective in good hands and offers fast handling and good accuracy. A fellow that often drops a squirrel from a tall tree can really dot the ‘I’ on a burglar. The rifle should never be kept with a loaded chamber for many reasons. While handguns often have a positive safety, and a firing pin block or drop safety, rifles do not. Most rifles have a floating firing pin. They are much more likely to fire if dropped.

close up of Three rifles demonstrating how to properly show safe with the various bolt styles in the open position
These firearms – lever action, bolt, and self-loading, top to bottom, are properly safe and locked open.

Other Safety Considerations

A long gun is more likely to get knocked over or kicked over if kept by the bedside at home ready. The rifle should be locked in the gun safe during the time you are not home and made ready for duty when you retire. By contrast, most often the bedside handgun is the handgun we carry concealed during the day. Let’s look at some of the safety rules that apply to the rifle.

The most basic and most important safety rule is to never allow the muzzle to point at something you do not wish to destroy. These rules are bent a bit when we carry a concealed carry handgun, as the muzzle often covers our leg or body. There is no reason the rifle muzzle ever needs cover the body!

One of the primary rules of gun safety is to never aim the rifle at anything you are not going to shoot. During dry fire practice, I like to take an elevated aiming point. When I practice trigger manipulation, I have ‘triple checked’ to be certain the firearm isn’t loaded.

Lever-action rifle shown with the bolt in the open position for rifle safety
Every shooter should keep the action of his or her rifle open when not actually in use.

In my study, I take aim at the top of a brick fireplace. I believe I am not going to make a mistake, but if I did, the result would be a shower of brick fragments and nothing else. No bullet in the next room.

The ‘muzzle in a safe direction’ rule is very important in the rare event of a mechanical failure. As an example, I once had a rifle with the firing pin stuck forward. I loaded the magazine, dropped the bolt, and the rifle fired. The result was a hole in the ground in front of the shooting bench and nothing else.

Another safety rule when loading a self-loading rifle such as the AR-15, Garand, or M1A is to never drop a cartridge in the chamber and then lower the bolt on the chambered round. This isn’t good for the extractor, but that isn’t the primary reason to avoid this drill.

Rifle slung over the shoulder with the muzzle pointed down
Sometimes muzzle down is the best sling carry.

These rifles have floating firing pins. When the bolt runs forward stripping a cartridge from the magazine this slows the bolt’s travel. When the bolt isn’t slowed down, the firing pin may take a run forward and fire the cartridge.

Operate the rifle as it was designed. Lock the bolt to the rear, load the magazine into the rifle, and then lower the bolt when you are ready to fire. When the muzzle is pointed in a safe direction, this means away from human beings but also away from material that would possibly make the rifle bullet ricochet.

Sometimes, the rifle is safest with the rifle slung on the shoulder. At other times, the rifle is safest with the rifle carried and pointed toward the ground. Be careful not to let a rifle slung on the shoulder cover another shooter or your cranium.

When slung muzzle down, be aware of the muzzle and your feet at all times. The chamber should be empty in most cases. Unless you have SWAT on your jacket, because you are actively working an emergency, you don’t need a chambered round.

When the rifle is not in use, it should not be loaded. I have a long gun or two I keep loaded for home defense, but I don’t keep them loaded in the safe. If something were to happen to me, I don’t want my wife or son dealing with a loaded rifle, and I don’t want to deal with a loaded rifle as I reach deep into the safe.

Rifle slung over the man's shoulder with the muzzle pointed upward
At other times muzzle up is best. Generally, when alone, muzzle up is best.

Detachable magazine rifles are so easy to quickly load or unload that there is no excuse to bend this rule. We don’t keep a rifle chamber loaded in the home! The ones ready for home defense — I repeat — do not have a loaded chamber. It takes but a moment to load the chamber, if the need should arise.

When hunting, or in the field, the action should be open, and the chamber unloaded when climbing or walking. This is one reason many old timers liked the simple break open firearms of the day. There is no reason to be hunting with a chamber loaded firearm until you reach the tree stand or game field. Never use a firearm for support when climbing or walking and never hand a loaded rifle to someone else. Never rest or lean a gun against a wall or tree. They will fall or tip over. The Bang! you hear could be deadly.

Keep your finger off the trigger. Don’t place the trigger finger on the trigger when you think you may fire. Instead, only place your finger on the trigger when you have made the decision to fire. Adrenaline and excitement are powerful influences on the brain. It is easy to squeeze off a shot long before you realized how much pressure you are were placing on the trigger.

Rifle leaning against a wooden fence
Never lean the rifle against a post or tree! Bad things could happen.

By the same token, don’t rely on a safety. Sure, most work as designed, but a mechanical safety may fail. Keep your finger off the safety and never touch the trigger to test the safety! Safety buttons and levers are sometimes bumped from SAFE to FIRE.

An important safety rule is knowing your target and what is behind the target. Rifle cartridges have much greater penetration than the handgun or shotgun. They are more dangerous, although all are cartridges are powerful enough to pose a danger at close range.

You must know your backstop. If you are firing at the rifle range then the berm (a tall wall of dirt) or sometimes angled metal plates, will stop the bullet. Be certain the target is what you think it is. Be certain the bullet will stop in the target or just behind it.

Be certain the game animal is in fact an animal and not a person. There is a term called personification (The attribution of a personal nature or human characteristics to something nonhuman). This goes the other way as well and you may mistake a person for an animal. Take the time to be certain before you pull the trigger. Once the bullet is on the way, it is too late.

Use the correct ammunition!

three different 6.5mm rifle cartridges
These are all 6.5 caliber cartridges, but the 6.5 Creedmoor, 6.5 Swede, and 6.5 PRC do not interchange.

This seems simple enough. Not long ago, a friend had a well-used, but clean, Mauser 98 rifle come into his shop. The rifle had a stock marked 7.62. We each thought it was one of the many 8mm Mauser rifles converted to 7.62×51 NATO for Israel. In general, these are unsatisfactory and inaccurate rifles but seem safe enough. Darrell had on hand Go No Go gauges in various calibers. The Mauser was still the original 8mm Mauser. Somehow the stock had found it’s way to the 8mm Mauser. Another fellow touched off a 7mm Mauser in an 8mm chamber. Be certain of the caliber. The firearm may come apart with the wrong ammunition — abruptly! At the least, you may ruin the action and barrel.

Hangfire

This is when the firing pin strikes the cartridge primer, and the cartridge does not immediately ignite. This seems most common with Berdan primed, corrosive primed, and older ammunition. The cartridge may ignite a fraction of a second after the firing pin strike.

fingered poking into the chamber of a rifle to confirm it is unloaded
Be certain to manually check the chamber and magazine to be certain the rifle is not loaded.

In the case of a potential hangfire, keep the rifle pointed downrange and wait several seconds before you unload the firearm. I once experienced a run of hangfires with surplus Egyptian .303 ammunition.

I enjoy firing the .303 and did not need aggravation. The .303 surplus was ground into fertilizer after the bullets were pulled. Wolf .303 was a trifle more expensive but functioned reliably.

Eye and Ear Protection

I should not have to mention hearing and eye protection. Yet, within the week, I saw a shooter in his 30s at the gun club with his fingers in his ears as his wife fired. She had hearing protection, So, I guess we know which sex is smarter.

I mentioned that I had an extra set of earmuffs, but he huffed off to the shooting bench and stuck some cheap plugs in his ears. He would have been thrown out of the club had our president and director seen him.

Young man shooting a Smith and Wesson AR-15 rifle using eye and ear protection for rifle safety
Always wear your ‘eyes and ears.’

I see this occasionally. If the eye protection fogs up, wipe it clean and replace it on your nose. Don’t fire without this protection — even a few rounds — ever in your life.

Considering my study and work room has a dent in the ceiling from a muzzle plug, and my work bench is permanently stained from solvent, always wear your eye protection when handling a firearm. This includes maintenance and cleaning. Hearing loss is gradual, but eye damage is a tragedy that occurs in a heartbeat.

When you take a rifle out of storage, and before firing, it is a good idea to check for barrel obstructions. A piece of cleaning cloth or even a cleaning rod may be left in the barrel. It has happened, more than once, even to experienced shooters. Dirt daubers may nest in shotgun barrels, and it isn’t out of the question they might inhabit a big bore rifle.

Rossi RS22 rifle and paper target in front of a log
Be certain of the backstop. This wooden berm will stop most bullets.

Moisture accumulating in a barrel is often dangerous. A small-bore high-pressure cartridge such as the .223 Remington may be forced to a dangerous pressure level with a drop of water in the barrel. Even a larger bore with modest pressure such as the .35 Remington may have pressure problems with moisture in the barrel.

Last, but not Least

The last concern is one I encounter often. In my shooting classes, the single most common shortcoming of students is a lack of familiarity with the firearm. Teaching marksmanship and combat shooting is one thing. I should not have to take time to explain how to load and manipulate the firearm safely. Yet, it is common.

Three rifles demonstrating how to properly show safe with the various bolt styles in the open position
Regardless of the type of rifle you are planning to shoot, be familiar with its manual of arms.

Learn the safety and how the safety functions. Most safeties have two positions — on (safe) and off (fire). Some are three positions, with safe locking the bolt, another notch allowing manipulation of the bolt, and third spot making the rifle ready to fire.

Some rifles have two sets of magazine catches. Learn proper loading. As an example, the proper procedure to load a HK or AR-type platform is to lock the bolt to the rear, and then insert a loaded magazine. When you are ready to fire drop the bolt.

A bolt-action rifle may demand that cartridges are loaded one-at-a-time into the magazine. Next, you hold the nose of the cartridge down as the bolt is moved forward. A lever-action rifle is loaded in a tubular magazine. The lever action may be kept in action by single-loading cartridges in the magazine as the rifle is fired.

HK rifle strapped into a soft case
Unbagging and bagging may be a concern. There is no good reason to keep a magazine in a rifle in storage.

Rifle safety, in its basic form, is similar to any other firearm. There are certain considerations specific to the rifle, including loading rifles with detachable magazines. Learn handling, manipulation, and safety, and never forget the implications of a mistake. An innocent person may be crippled or killed (even you), if you violate these safety rules.

Do you have a question or a tip for rifle safety? Share it in the comment section.

  • Rossi RS22 rifle and paper target in front of a log
  • fingered poking into the chamber of a rifle to confirm it is unloaded
  • Man showing a woman how to use an AR-15 rifle at an indoor range
  • Young man shooting a Smith and Wesson AR-15 rifle using eye and ear protection for rifle safety
  • HK rifle strapped into a soft case
  • H&K Carbine in a soft rifle case
  • Rifle leaning against a wooden fence
  • Three rifles demonstrating how to properly show safe with the various bolt styles in the open position
  • Rifle slung over the shoulder with the muzzle pointed down
  • close up of Three rifles demonstrating how to properly show safe with the various bolt styles in the open position
  • Rifle slung over the man's shoulder with the muzzle pointed upward
  • Lever-action rifle shown with the bolt in the open position for rifle safety
  • Magpul Matrix rifle furniture kit
  • bolt-action rifle on a bipod with the bolt in the open position for rifle safety
  • three different 6.5mm rifle cartridges

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.


Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Handloader
Rifle Magazine
Handguns
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns



Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
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 (7)

  1. The biggest issue I personally have seen in the last 2 years is persons at a range who are totally ignorant of the proper way to use their fire arm and the way that particular weapon functions. They ran out and bought whatever they could get because of freaking Covid panic. It is funny to see but is really dangerous to others at the range.

  2. We were enjoying a family outing at the outdoor gun range. I gave everyone a thorough safety brief, emphasizing muzzle forward toward the berm, at all times.
    My sis-in-law’s bf was hogging the S&W 1911 in .45 acp. He experienced a ftf. He had not tapped the mag hard enough to seat properly. Gun in hand, he turned to his left as he called out his problem. The gun was pointed directly toward the family lined to his left. I quickly grabbed the gun and turned it, and him, to face the berm. Without being nice, I proceeded to dress him down. I showed him how hard he needed to tap the mag to keep it running. He apologized and said it wouldn’t happen again. A new mag later, it happened again. As he turned left with gun in hand…again, I was right behind him. I grabbed the gun with my left and pushed him off the line with my right. I told him, ‘You’re done!’ I never let him shoot again.

  3. In the name of safety for ALL, ALL safeties should be of design for 100% ambidextrous use, like rifle stock center of tang position, revolver transfer bar system, and on AR/platform style should come with an ambidextrous safety, especially as it is NOT a budget breaker.

  4. Having muzzleloading firearms alongside modern ones creates another set of conditions e.g.no”modern”safety,flint needs to be covered[of hammer falls flint could discharge firearm],keep black powder containers securely sealed from other smoking shooting shooters[does anyone smoke at the range these days??],keep your hands/face away from muzzle of your M/Ler while loading,safety drill for misfire/flash in the pan.Eye protection is de rigeur with M/Lers.
    With modern firearms,keep the action open[and preferably unloaded when going down range while checking target[s],do not allow other persons[esp children]when you are not immediately present.

  5. Great advice on firearm safety. We all get distracted, we get busy, our mind wanders. Our moods, emotions and thoughts change depending on life events and circumstances. Firearms stay the same, they function a certain way and doesn’t care what happens when the round goes off. Once I was helping a recent widow move and I reached into a closet to get somethings. A cheap forgiven made 32 cal pistol fell off a shelf and went off when it hit the floor. The round struck my left foot. Lucky I had on boots and just had a small open wound with the bullet sticking out a bit, I was able to pull the bullet out with a pair of needle nose pliers, OUCH !!!!

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