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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.