The 4 Rules?

“They’re more like guidelines, anyway!” Are the 4 Rules of gun safety, as given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai Jeff Cooper really as sacrosanct as some people claim they are?  Recent controversies across the gunblog world have sparked this train of thought on how quick we are as a community to point and holler “they have their finger on the trigger” or “she’s muzzling people with that gun“.  In both of those linked instances, those people would be correct: the SniperBabes have several pictures that are in clear violation of Rule 3, and even Breda is clearly violating Rule 2 in that video.  So technically, the people that called them out for those violations of The 4 Rules are quite correct if you’re holding to the letter of the law.

But the letter of the law isn’t really adequate to address real life.  If you’ve ever met a serious gun owner that claims to have never violated one of the 4 Rules in his or her life, that person has either owned guns for less than a day, or they’re a liar.  The 4 Rules are actually elegant in that you need to be breaking at least two of them simultaneously for something bad to happen, and yet we insist as a community on a treating them as though they were rigid doctrine to never be violated.  The truth is, we all break the 4 Rules regularly.

  • Dry fire practice?  You’re breaking Rule 1 for sure, and most likely Rule 3 as well.
  • Holstering in an IWB holster?  Good chance to break Rule 2.

The list goes on and on and on and on and on; but the point isn’t to say that the 4 Rules aren’t good, or that we shouldn’t be following the 4 Rules.  They are, and we should, because adherence to the 4 Rules of gun safety does in fact prevent accidents that could lead to injury or loss of life.  The problem is when we treat the 4 Rules as though they’re religious dogma – they’re not.  They’re more like guidelines than rules, because rigid sets of rules can’t always apply in the real world.  Look at the two examples above, especially the video in Breda’s post.  Is there a rule violation?  You bet.  At any time, was that gun being handled in an unsafe manner or were people in danger?  Not even for a split second.

The 4 Rules: they’re great, but like any set of guidelines, they’re not perfect.  Once we start acting like we live in a vacuum where we can always apply rigid rules, the 4 Rules then become a crutch for people to escape critical thinking.  That’s the most important safety, after all.  No set of rules, no mechanical safety is ever going to be a replacement for good critical thinking and reasoning skills.


  1. Hear Hear!

    We excoriate schools and other entities for their zero tolerance policies and then enforce the same against our own.

    Whatever happened to common sense?

  2. The point of the 4 rules isn’t that they’re guidelines, which I suppose they are. It’s that they have built in redundancies. You have to screw up more than one to cause serious injury. That redundancy is important. If people are screwing one up, then that is one less step between them and disaster. They probably aren’t being unsafe yet, but they are being inherently less safe by reducing the length of the failure chain. In and of itself, that is a bad enough idea to warrant a word or two.

    As for dry firing and holstering, if you do it right they’re pretty safe. But that means you always treat the gun like it’s loaded while dry firing and use a target that could stop a bullet. I like below ground basement walls myself. Likewise I might sweep my butt when holstering, but don’t wear holsters that require me to sweep major blood vessels or body parts I’m not willing to lose.

  3. Next you’ll be suggesting that it’s ok to point guns at people for other entertainments like TV or movies as long as precautions are taken. That’s just crazy talk.

  4. I’ve added a 5th Rule: “Do not try to catch a dropped or falling gun.”

    I call it the Plaxico Burris rule……

  5. Stipulating that they are good guidelines, what earthly reason would there be to violate said guidelines for no apparent reason* in cheesecake photos?

    There is a decided benefit to dry fire practice, and to using an IWB holster.

    You’re trying way too hard to defend an (ignorant|arrogant|careless) practice, instead of simply acknowledging that they got it wrong, and you apparently failed to see that before you threw in your lot with them.

    * And no, as an experienced instructor, I don’t buy the laughable assertion that something like half of the photos deliberately have fingers on the trigger to provide classroom examples of what-not-to-do. Look at the BRA instructor materials: demonstrate the right way, not the wrong way, because even if you show them wrong, while saying “this is wrong,” the mind absorbs the visual image more strongly that its auditory soundtrack.

  6. Andrew, you’re the only person that misread this post to think that I’m defending the trigger discipline shown at SniperBabes. I’m not, and I went to great pains to ensure that the Gun Nuts calendar was free of said violations.

    For the purposes of this post though, it also served as a convenient illustration. What they’re doing is clearly in violation of the 4 Rules, and I don’t disagree with that. I’d love it if they’d reshoot those pictures with better trigger discipline, but I’m also not going to cry and yell that they’re evil and terrible for it. I’m not without sin, so I’m not in a position to cast stones.

  7. I think the point is that having rules that are OK to be broken from time to time devalues inherently devalues the rules.

    Guns are always loaded…

    Well….except when cleaning or doing maintenance, or when inspecting a bore, or testing a trigger function.

    I could give other examples but that’s the most egregious.

    Any time you have to answer questions about why the rule doesn’t REALLY mean what it says, but it’s supposed to be understood that it’s OK to violate it under certain conditions, you’ve just declared that it’s not really a rule after all, is it? it’s more of a mindset or suggestion, than a rule.

    And if that’s true, then why is it imperative to rake anyone over the coals when they may APPEAR to have broken the rule even if you don’t know all the details.

    Like, for instance, if I put my video camera downrange to get some video of shooting from that angle. There’s no one behind the camera. The gun is pointed in a safe direction, and I was willing to take the chance on the camera being damaged, so who the heck are you to tell me what I did was unsafe? You weren’t there to see what precautions were taken.

    In the case of the “sniperbabes” pictures. Were they real guns? Were they even capable of being fired? Were they ACTUALLY loaded (no, guns are NOT always loaded, as discussed above)? Was there even any ammunition in the general vicinity? Perhaps they’d been disabled in some way…that’s pretty easy to do with most guns. The bottom line is you don’t know what precautions were taken so why is it OK for you to ASSUME that something unsafe was going on?

    IS it OK for gun use to be depicted in movies? If so, why? Isn’t it unsafe for the actors to APPEAR to be pointing guns at each other? Or do you give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are doing it safely? How is that any different than this?

    I’m with Caleb on this one. in our self-righteous quest to purge the world of any possible indication of unsafe gun handling, we’re making a lot of assumptions and berating a lot of people who probably don’t deserve it.

  8. I have to say I am also not perfect, but I acknowledge the mistakes I make and I think it is both right and proper to call out others on their mistakes. I I tern expect the same. Judge and prepare to be judged.

    That said, sometimes the one of the rules doesn’t or can’t apply in the situation and that is where the redunancy comes in to play. For I stance when holstering IWB, while I try to avoid the muzzle pointing at me, a lot of times it does, but I keep my finger off the trigger and the safety engaged.

    Don’t you follow the rules when you dry fire? “Treat the gun as if it’s loaded” (easy enough, shouldn’t I practice as if the gun is ‘hot’?). “Never let the muzzle cover anything you aren’t willing to destroy” (the target I use for dry fire is something I’m willing to destroy). “Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot” (you do shoot during dry fire practice, even if it is ‘dry,’ so again easy enough). “Be aware of your target and what’s behind it” (to me this is another easy one when dry firing).

    Breaking the four rules is okay, but only when you absolutely have to. Just like it’s sometimes okay to shot someone, when you absolutely have to.

  9. Please forgive the atrocious spelling/grammar in my last comment. Auto correct and typing on an iPhone kill me, especially when riding around in the back of a work van!

  10. Treating the Four Rules as guidelines is asking for trouble. The one time one does not follow them there will be a horrific tragedy (as boatloads of examples from law enforcement show us).

    The problem is that you cannot be sloppy around guns as they will burn you.

    As Jeff Cooper taught them there was an exception to Rule #1, the weapon in your hand that you have verified, but that does not excuse Rule #2 or #4 in dry firing.

    The solution is not “common sense” (the perpetual plea of the untrained/uneducated/lazy), but education.

  11. SB, the “guidelines” reference is a line from Pirates of the Caribbean.

    But as far as common sense goes, I suppose a more accurate phrase would be “critical thinking”. The 4 Rules in and of themselves are good, but the point of what I’m saying is that slavish devotion to a set of rules as if they’re the immutable truth without the proper application of critical thinking leads to foolishness.

  12. “Slavish devotion to rules and regulations only demonstrates that one has nothing better to do.”

    Sorry, couldn’t resist, and can’t recall where I originally picked that up from.

  13. I have little doubt that the babes were perfectly safe. It’s the apparent message of the pictures that bugs me — that the rule isn’t important enough to get right, even when there is clearly no good reason not to.

    This picture, on the wall of a body shop or basement, is both decorative and educational — but the educational aspect is teaching something wrong.

    I am relieved to find that the calendar is free of such images.

  14. I agree.
    As my dad says every time we shoot, after going over the four rules, “obey any two and you’ll never have an accident”.

  15. Wow.

    I guess the millions upon millions of troops involved in force on force training with REAL service weapons (often with blank ammunition), who actually point the weapons at their OPFOR targets are just too dangerous to be permitted around firearms. ESPECIALLY those using the MILES system that REQUIRES one to actually aim the muzzle at the target (another human being) while firing a round (albeit supposedly blank) in order to score a hit with the laser beam. . .

    The 4 Rules ARE rules — but ALL RULES have exceptions.

  16. “I guess the millions upon millions of troops involved in force on force training with REAL service weapons (often with blank ammunition), who actually point the weapons at their OPFOR targets are just too dangerous to be permitted around firearms.”

    Herein lies the problem. People do not know the Four Rules yet they talk incesstanly about them.

    There is no real that you do not point a firearm at another human being, just one that you do not intend to shoot.

    This is the problem with “common sense”. Those who bray about “common sense” do not understand the problem.

  17. Well, that’s sort of my point. If more people understood the 4 Rules instead of just shouting “THAT’S A RULE VIOLATION OMGWTFBBQHAX” we’d all be better shape.

  18. Shootin’ Buddy —

    I do not regard touching off a blank round as “shooting at something”.

    Nor, I suspect, do most people.

    Nor do I “intend” to shoot the ground when I point a (cleared) firearm at it and drop the hammer by pulling the trigger.

    And I thought the rule was “Do not point the muzzle at anything you are not willing to DESTROY.”

  19. When I took the NRA Basic Pistol Course we learned 3 rules:
    1) Always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction.
    2) Always keep a gun unloaded until you are ready to use it.
    3) Always keep your finger off the trigger until you are actually ready to shoot.

    One could argue that #2 is broken just by carrying (depending on the meaning of “use“) and #1 is broken by wearing a pistol in an IWB or shoulder holster (depending on the meaning of “safe direction“). I have love handles, so when I wear an IWB holster (as I almost always do when I carry) my pistol always tilts toward my thigh (not immediately life threatening, but not strictly “safe” either). That’s part of why I carry a Double Action Only pistol.

    Rule #1 is most definitely broken when I inspect the bore during cleaning and #3 is broken when I run a cleaning swab across the trigger. Of course I personally ensure the gun is unloaded before I even begin to clean it.

    Since you keep talking about 4 rules on BTR, maybe you should actually read your list during the podcast.

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