The Rules

I can’t seem to leave well enough alone so today I’m gonna complain about the rules. I’m sure this will stir up some drama but I never shirk with the llama calls.

You know them, or should. They’re usually called “the 4 rules” and they go something like this:

1. All guns are always loaded.
2. Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy.
3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target.
4. Identify your target, and what is behind it.

They’re semi-sacred because Saint Cooper delivered them unto us and they’ve been drilled into the heads of shooters in one form or another for decades.

The problem with Rule 1 is that guns ARE unloaded and we all know it. If guns are always loaded we couldn’t dry fire them, clean them or work on them. Rule 1 is not a universal rule. If a rule is not universal then I’m leaning toward dumping it because human brains and non-universal rules are not mixy things.

Rule 1 is also an oddity because violating it has no real bearing on a Negligent Discharge (ND). If the gun isn’t loaded (oops but it always is!) then you can’t have a ND anyway no matter what other rules you violate.

But Rule 1 isn’t my only problem with the rules.

There are 4 rules with a yes/no possibility, that gives us 16 potential outcomes for violating any combination of rules.

In only 4 cases is a ND possible and in only two of those is it potentially deadly.

Rule 3 is the key rule. If you’re not touching the trigger, an ND is impossible. I almost said virtually impossible there, but let’s be honest, if you’re not fingering the trigger the gun isn’t going to fire. I’m sure we’re all creative enough to come up with highly unlikely scenarios where a non trigger related ND is possible but that’s about as useful as waiting for a politician to not lie. There is a special case where a malfunctioning semi-auto firearm might fire when loading a round into the chamber but the 4 rules traditionally ignore that possibility so I will too. (For you pedants out there, it’s ignored because all guns are loaded, right? You can’t be loading a gun if it’s already loaded.) Also, Please feel free to substitute any foreign object for a finger. (Kinky!)

So why is the key rule sitting at #3? Maybe “Keep your bugger hook off the bang switch” should be Rule #1.

Rule 2 is another problem for me. When I’m carrying, the muzzle of my pistol is almost ALWAYS covering something I’d rather not have a hole in. Another non-universal rule.
People don’t like guns pointed at them or their stuff. So instead of saying the passive, never let the muzzle cover anything you’re not willing to destroy, how about this?

Never point a gun at anything you don’t want a hole in.

Take another look at the chart above. There are only two results for an ND. You either hit something you didn’t want a hole in or you hit something you don’t care about.

Rule 4 really just a sub case of Rule 2. Eliminating it doesn’t change the possible outcomes. You still either hit something you care about or you don’t.

So here are Alan’s two rules:

1. Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to fire.
2. Never point a gun at anything you don’t want a hole in.

With two rules we have the exact same failure modes as the 4 rules, only they’re less confusing, easier to remember and universal.

Two rules. Simple. Easy to remember. Universal.

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34 Responses to The Rules

  1. Joe in Reno says:

    I can’t take credit for this but I’ve come to believe that rule #1 should be

    “Know the status of your weapon at all times.”

    Solves the problem of “I didn’t think it was loaded” rather nicely.

  2. Matt G says:

    @ Joe: If you set a gun down, and turn your attention from it for even a second, you cannot know the status of your weapon. From the issue of safety against ND’s the cat is still alive in Dr. Schrödinger’s box. We must assume that the gun is loaded, because there is nothing to gain by believing that it is not.

    Alan, I like Rule 4 as discrete from Rule , because it demands that the shooter take into account the mindset of safety even when he intends to shoot. What IS that target, really? Will it actually stop this bullet? If not, what will happen to the bullet? What if I miss? Where with the bullet end up?

    The redundancy of the Four Rules is part of why they are so effective; Follow any one, and you can prevent a tragedy.

    Thus it is with the greatest respect that I submit my disagreement.

  3. Matt G says:

    “as discrete from Rule 2″…

  4. Jim says:

    The first thing I do when I pick up a firearm is confirm the whether or not it is loaded. Once confirmed, then I can safely handle the weapon while disregarding the other 3 rules (within limits, of course. There’s no reason to be rude if you’re around others…). That’s why it should be Rule #1. If I set it down and pick it up 5 minutes later I still do that, even when I’m alone. Builds good habits. The first rule may need rewording, but I believe it is a good safety rule nonetheless.

  5. George says:

    I’d also like to step up for rule 1. Yes, there are times when we “violate” it, such as dry-firing. But I like the idea that the “default” setting is that it is loaded. When I am in a gun store, and the clerk hands me a gun, even if just watched him check it, I check it again, right there. When I was at Gunsite, each time the instructor was going to demonstrate something, he checked that chamber, even though there was no magazine in his weapon, and it only went from his hand to his holster.

    The problem with “know the state of your weapon” is that it introduces the carelessness of someone who “knows” that their gun is unloaded. Need I say more?

    It’s true that two rules will prevent fatal accidents, but the four rules can also prevent the hassle of holes in your floor.

  6. Robb Allen says:

    You know, I always repeat rule #1 as “Treat all weapons as if they’re loaded”. The key word is treat. I also agree that #4 is not negotiable, but could be reworded as “You are responsible for the path and final resting place of every bullet. Make sure you know where those are.”

    Warning shots or shooting in the air can be a deadly Rule 4 violation.

    Eventually, you HAVE to break rules. It should feel uncomfortable to you to do so. For example. Unload your gun, point it at your head, and pull the trigger. I mean, you KNOW it’s unloaded right? And yet, deep in side you should feel something is wrong. I think that’s the overarching goal of the 4 rules is to make you feel a bit of discomfort in breaking them in order to stay safe.

    As a Glock owner, rule #3 is the most important though 😉

  7. Ed Skinner says:

    Nice chart, thanks. I’ve often told beginners there are four rules to live (!) by but you gotta violate more than one of them to hurt anyone, intentionally or otherwise.

    You did omit, however, the fact that mechanical gizmos do occasionally malfunction and that, at least to some degree, those four rules *tend* to make things safer in those situations as well. For example, with wear and tear a gun needing trigger work may have the unexpected hammer fall if the hook comes off the sear when it shouldn’t. Yeah, the gun needs service, but you won’t know that until the AD (not ND) happens.

  8. Weer'd Beard says:

    I would nit-pick that the 2nd Yellow ND from the top in the chart is also potentially deadly. Rule #4 ignored can negate Rule #2, as a bullet may penetrate a wall or a floor or a ceiling, or may fly into the sky only to fall with deadly force someplace else.

    Its not as certain as having your gun pointed at your buddy or yourself when you foolishly finger the trigger, but the outcome can be just as deadly.

    Listening to VC, I felt the same way as Stingray does…It really sucks having to agree with you.

    I still see some merit in the SPIRIT of Rule #1, but it certainly does NOT hold the gravity of the other rules as this rule can be routinely and safely violated…but I do like it as a violation, as such treatments of a functional firearm as “unloaded” must be done with caution and gravity.

  9. Bubblehead Les says:

    When I was in the Navy, when I was issued a 1911 for Topside Security/Petty Officer Watch duties, we had two magazines with 5 rounds in them and and “Empty” pistol in the old Flap Holster. When I asked why we had to wear the Weapon in such a useless manner, the Answer was always “Accidental Discharges”. God help you if the Officer of the Deck came up and saw a Magazine in the well of your 1911. Those of us who knew something about firearms, however, and did not want to be caught with an empty Firearm, would load a round, engage the safety, dump the magazine and place the pistol back into the Holster with the Flap loose. I treated those situations as the proper application of the 4 Rules, while the Navy Policy at the time was Suicidal. Never had an AD, and I at least had the opportunity to make a “Loud Bang” and warn someone there was “Something Wrong”.
    It took the U.S.S. Cole attack and 9/11 to step up Security Measures, however in the Navy, but at least when I glimpse a news story, I see Sailors carrying properly loaded weapons nowadays.
    4 rules, 2 Rules, whatever works, just don’t think the “Barney Fife Rule” will keep you safe

  10. ASM826 says:

    You’re right, although the exact editing may still be up in the air. We all know and behave differently than Rule 1 would demand if it was correct. My first rule would be muzzle control, the others could follow.

    I would say that the rule should say “Every gun is presumed loaded until verified empty”. This would mean a gun I take out of my safe is presumed loaded until I ensure it is empty. If I put it in a case and take it to the range, it is again presumed loaded as I remove it from the case until I check it and put it on the bench, etc.

    If I check a gun and verify it empty, I may disassemble it for cleaning. At that point I may put a cleaning rod and jag in the barrel, using my hands. Obviously something I would not do if it was loaded. Once reassembled, I will function test it, including dry firing. Again, not a action I could take if it was loaded.

    At a rifle match, every rifle on the line is verified empty, and has a yellow empty chamber indicator inserted so the RO can verify the line safe before anyone goes down range. We are actually following my rule. If we followed Rule 1 as written, we could never go down range, it would be unsafe.

    At our USPSA matches, each shooter and RO both verify the pistol empty and magazine removed, the chamber is closed, the trigger is pulled, and then the weapon is holstered. This is considered safe practice for a cold range. Once checked in this manner, the pistol is considered empty, although safe practices also require it be kept holstered.

  11. Cargosquid says:

    Bubblehead, you too? I did the same thing when on brow watch. And when a Chief was standing watch with me, instead of an officer, he always made sure that we were set up that way……

    The officers….not so much.

  12. JohnOC says:

    I want to restate rule 1 instead of ditch it entirely. I think the point of that rule should be to establish a mindset for the safe handling of the firearm. Take care. Don’t assume anything. Think through what you’re about to do, plan it so it happens without breaking any of the other rules.
    Short and snappy is good, too. “Pay attention, idiot.” is probably not specific enough, but has a pretty good feel.

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  14. Tam says:

    So, what you’re saying, Alan, is “Big Boy Rules”? 😉

    I kid, I kid.

    Seriously, though, you raise good points.

    There’s a problem when people just parrot “The Four Rules” verbatim like they were carved in stone, and never consider the meaning or intent behind any of them (although, given the choice, I’d rather see somebody be too anal than not anal enough…)

    For instance, the phrasing of Rule 1 is all zen and stuff and obviously doesn’t work right for hardcore left-brain types. For them, “pretend every gun is loaded” or “treat every gun as though it were loaded” or “is gun, is not safe” would work as well, since the intent behind the rule is to discourage the idea that thinking (or even “knowing”) a gun is unloaded is an excuse for sloppy gun handling, because one day they’re going to think (or “know”) wrong.

    Again, good post, and it has given me some ideas.

  15. styrgwillidar says:

    I was in the Navy and there were a couple of cases of sentries/pier watches who were mugged for their guns.

  16. styrgwillidar says:

    That’s how I was trained. Check the condition of any weapon first, always assuming it is loaded until confirmed otherwise, and never taking someone else’s word for it. I agree, wording the first rule something like ‘treat all weapons as loaded until confirmed empty’ then sets up ensuring it is safe for dry-firing etc.

  17. Kirk Parker says:

    Robb Allen and JohnOC have got it–it’s about establishing mindset, and especially subconscious mindset.

  18. Karl Rehn says:

    The NRA uses 3 rules, which are more clearly stated, are all stated as positives and absolutes, and are in priority order.

    1) ALWAYS keep the muzzle in a safe direction.

    When I teach this I include a discussion of what a safe direction is (what stops bullets and what does not, that the best safe direction is dependent on immediate conditions and thus muzzle direction requires constant attention).

    If you obey this one rule, the worst that can happen is ringing ears and damage to property that can be replace.d

    2) ALWAYS keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot.
    This rule applies to all kinds of shooting, aimed or not. and all types of gunhandling.

    3) ALWAYS keep the gun unloaded until ready to use.
    Any gun that is ready for self defense is “in use” and thus this rule can be obeyed even by those that are carrying concealed. In truth all that’s necessary for safe gunhandling is for the first 2 rules to be obeyed all the time.

    There is no reason to re-invent the 3 NRA rules since they address all the concerns you’ve raised about the poorly worded, overlapping and poorly sequenced “4 rules”.

  19. Kristopher says:


    A tube fed shotgun can easily go from unloaded to loaded if all that slide racking causes that shotshell jammed slightly crooked in the magazine to suddenly free itself and leap into the loading gate.

    It happens.

    The other classic is a newbie shooter “clearing” a semi auto by racking the slide first, the ejecting the magazine.

    If someone hands me a firearm, I WILL check the chamber. And I won’t get freaky when someone checks said chamber when I hand it back.

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  21. Gunstar1 says:

    The problem with your number 3 is that the person might assume that since they always “keep the gun unloaded until ready to use” does not mean everyone follows that rule or has the same definition of “in use”.

    So to the NRA, my first determination must be if the gun is in use, and if it is in use then is loaded and if it is not in use then it is unloaded. That means you have to make an assumption that could easily be wrong. As others have said, the best thought process is to “assume the gun is loaded”.

    To restate the obvious, the only way you will have a ND is if the firearm is loaded, so your default assumption should be that the firearm is loaded. If you assume a bullet will come flying out if you pull the trigger, it means you pay more attention to pulling the trigger. Rule #1 puts extra emphasis on Rule #3 (the most important one).

  22. c0yote says:

    I was taught rule #1 as “Treat all weapons as if loaded”. This means that if I’m dry firing I’m doing so in a direction that conforms to rule number #4, and aiming at something that conforms to rule #2. Of course I was also taught rule #4 as “Never point your muzzle at something that _can’t be replaced_.”

    I think you may be going a little lawyer-ey with the rules.

  23. Ben C says:

    As previously stated, rule 1 is much better when it is stated as “Know the condition and status of your firearm at all times”

    This includes other things besides just the status of the chamber, such as: broken or worn parts, cleanliness and lubrication, known function issues (#4 mag causes malfs), ammo issues (WWB is good, UMC not), etc.

    Rule 4 is not simply to prevent NDs, it is just as much to prevent idiots with guns who intentionally fire their guns from putting a round through that milk jug, and into Susie-soccer-mom’s SUV. Also applies to police officers who try to shoot snakes in bird houses who fail to take the people on the dock downrange into account.

  24. Gunstar1 says:


    Your chart is not quite correct for the rules as you have them written.

    Rule 4 has 2 sets of yes or no statements.
    a. Have you identified the target?
    b. Do you know what is beyond your target?

    You may know your target and wish to destroy it, but if the bullet over penetrates and kills someone, that is a ND.

    Also, rule 3 as you have it written is a conditional statement. A simple yes or no does not cover all conditions. Rule 3 is a statment saying that until your eye is looking down the sights at the target (you are aiming your gun), your finger should not be on the trigger.

    If you have your finger on the trigger with the sights on target, is that a yes or no? To me that is a yes, you are following rule 3. You are also following rule 3 as long as you keep your finger off the trigger if you are not looking down the sights at a target.

    If you rephrase #3 to be “keep booger hook off bang switch”, then your chart is correct for Rule 3 (rule 4 needs to be expanded). With the “until” statement included, green could mean finger on trigger or finger off trigger, depending on whether you are looking down the sights (ready to fire) or not.

    As you currently have the rules defined, your chart should be vastly different. Any time your gun is loaded and finger on the trigger, you have a chance of a ND unless all boxes are green (including an expanded rule 4 to cover both questions a and b). After all green, any green rule 1 means that an ND is a possible outcome with rules 2 and 4(a and b) determining if the ND is yellow or red.

  25. TXGunGeek says:

    But you are not violating the rule when you dry fire because you are “firing” the gun just without ammo.

  26. ASM826 says:


    This post, and the quality of the comments, prompted me to add you to my blogroll.


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  28. George says:

    All right, I’ll give you that one. 🙂

  29. Kevin Baker says:

    I’ve had a “finger off the trigger” ND.

    I have a Remington XP-100 bolt-action single-shot pistol chambered in 7mm Benchrest. For reasons I won’t go into here, I had the gun in my hand, in my home, and I chambered a live round. When I lifted the bolt to eject the round, the sear slipped and the gun discharged. (It’s a target pistol with a trigger pull weight of about 8 oz.) I was not aware that the gun would do that, but after checking to make sure I hadn’t killed anyone, I determined that yes, lifting the bolt with the gun cocked would release the sear with my finger nowhere near the trigger. Not a good thing.

    The only thing I did right – accidentally I’ll admit – was I had the gun aimed at a 6×12″ main support beam in the garage, and that stopped the 130 grain hollowpoint. The layer of drywall and the layer of siding didn’t even slow it down. However, had someone been transitioning between the laundry room and the kitchen through the garage, it’s quite possible that they’d have been in the bullet’s path. Thankfully, all I had to repair was holes in the wall, but it could have been much worse. Oh, and my ears rang for three days.

    Since then, I don’t EVER chamber a live round in the house.

  30. sevesteen says:

    I pretty much interpret the combination of 2 and 4 as “don’t let the muzzle cover anything you cannot afford to shoot, even if it is behind something else”. I’ll point a gun at things I don’t particularly want to destroy, but my life won’t be ruined if I put a hole in the corner of the floor.

  31. Richard Ripley says:

    A not-too-well-known point about Cooper’s 4 rules – they were written to be used IN A GUN FIGHT. We use them on the range (and elsewhere) because they work. (Source: Clint Smith, Thunder Ranch, May, 2006. Clint said that he painted the original signboard for Col. Cooper when he worked at Gunsite back in the 70’s)

    With that lens in place, the 4 rules make more sense.

    That’s also probably why the NRA third rule is “Always keep the gun unloaded until READY TO USE”. A gun that you have for personal protection better be ready to use all the time, unless your world is populated with criminals who always give you 30 seconds notice that they will attack…..

  32. ctd says:

    1. Finger-off-trigger ADs do happen. Been there done that. Don’t discount them.

    2. Having taken a course from Cooper himself, I assure you being reasonable is a precondition for following the rules.

  33. Lissa says:

    A cop in a Charlotte airport said he boiled the rules down to two (excuse my language):


    (This is the same guy who told me that the motto “Serve and protect” should more accurately be changed to, “We can’t get there in time to protect you, but we’ll try to clean up the pieces afterward.” Yes, he was a big fan of educated gun-toting citizens.

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