Accidental vs. Negligent

Two of the common gun terms that you may encounter are “Accidental Discharge” and “Negligent Discharge”, which refer to the action of firing a weapon when you did not intend to.  For some reason, I have seen these terms used interchangeably, and that is something that should not be.

A Negligent Discharge is when your firearm goes off because you were breaking one of the rules of safe firearms handling.  An example from own personal life goes as follows: as a cadet at the Academy, I competed in Free Pistol.  During a practice, I had loaded my single shot pistol, and while raising it to the target I sneezed.  Because my finger was in the trigger guard and on the very light trigger, the gun went bang.  This was a classic ND, because my finger was on the trigger even though I was not ready to fire.  If had exercised proper trigger safety, the results of my sneeze would have not ended with a gunshot.

An Accidental Discharge is when a firearm goes off due to mechanical failure or defect, not operator error.  For example, a slamfire in a CZ-52 would classify as an accidental discharge.  Because the firearm itself experienced a mechanical failure, the fault for the gun “going off” does not rest on the operator.

Accidental Discharges are extremely rare; modern guns are generally well made and durable, and in most cases are designed specifically to not experience an AD.  Don’t take that to mean that the possibility of an AD should be ignored; indeed the mere possibility that an AD might even happen is why we have rules for safe gun handling, especially the rule about not pointing guns at things you don’t want to see full of bullets.

Most of what are termed Accidental Shootings are in fact Negligent Shootings; operator error.  So the next time someone is complaining that guns “just go off” explain that they actually don’t, and that the bulk of “accidental shootings” would have been prevented if proper safety precautions were observed.


  1. What about those single-action revolvers I hear so much about? I hear you are not supposed to carry a round under the hammer for safety reasons.

  2. Colt style revolvers and reproductions should be carried with the hammer down on an empty chamber. On the old revolvers, the hammer rests on top of a live round and a sharp blow to the hammer could cause the gun to discharge.

    This problem fixed in Ruger type revolvers.

  3. Many exposed-hammer automatics have the same problem. I think it was Ayoob who related the story of a LEO who was carrying a holstered .45 (Ruger?) auto on a stack of books, and it slipped and fell, landing on the hammer and discharging a round through his head. I believe in this case it discharged because he’d lowered the hammer with his thumb rather than using the decocking lever, and the internal safety mechanisms didn’t engage.

    That’s one reason (the main reason?) why carrying a 1911 with the hammer back and the manual safety engaged is preferred over carrying it with the hammer down and a live round in the chamber.

  4. And even in the rare case where there might have been an AD, the failure to follow the safety rules turns it into a case of ND.

  5. As member of the US Navy (reserve) Marksmanship Team, we shoot National Match grade M1911/M1911(A1) and M9/M92FS pistols. Because of their very light trigger pull, the shock of releasing the slide can often disengage the sear and allow the hammer to fall without pulling the trigger, causing a “slam fire”.

    We know this to be the case and it is only specific to the National Match pistols. Standard practice is to hold the hammer back with the thumb while releasing the slide to prevent this from happening.

    The question: Even though a slam fire in this case is caused by the pistol configuration itself and not by the operator violating one of the four rules, because it is a known issue with a work-around, would this type of slam fire be properly termed an AD or an ND?

    This is not intended as a trick question and it really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, I’m just offering food for thought.

    That’s one reason (the main reason?) why carrying a 1911 with the hammer back and the manual safety engaged is preferred over carrying it with the hammer down and a live round in the chamber.

    Actually, the original designs of the M1911/M1911(A1) did not include a transfer bar which meant that in condition 2 (round in chamber, hammer down) the hammer was resting directly on the firing pin. Therefore, carrying in condition 2 was definitively unsafe, therefore, condition one was the ONLY safe method to carry a 1911 with a round in the chamber…not “the preferred” method.

    I don’t own a more modern version of the 1911, but I believe that they incorporate a transfer mechanism to alleviate this safety issue. My understanding is that most people still carry 1911 style pistols in condition one to prevent them from having to cock the hammer prior to firing. Makes sense to me…but even modern 1911s and revolvers are extremely unlikely to AD even with a round in the chamber (cylinder) and the hammer down.

  6. Personally, I’d call that an accidental discharge – since the gun isn’t designed to fire like that but does as a result of it’s condition.

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