Thinking Critically About Safety

Recently some friends on Pistol-Forum were discussing a video that was recently posted to youtube:

The Cliff’s Notes version is this: The individual who posted the video unintentionally discharged his Springfield XD pistol while trying to holster after loading and making ready during a match, causing a bullet wound to his lower leg. He’s not exactly sure what happened, but he seems pretty adamant insisting that he didn’t do anything wrong. I understand why he thinks that…but he’s wrong.

Now I want to make it clear up front that I’m not posting this to ridicule the person in the video. I’m not here to demean him or make fun of him. Instead I want to use his experience as a touchstone to discuss a problem that lots of people have…including me and you.

Perception is not reality –

It is painfully easy for a human being (that description includes you and me) to be unaware of what he/she is doing while holding a lethal weapon. We often think we have everything under control but that’s usually because we do not critically examine what we’re doing in any systemic fashion. We don’t challenge the assumption that we’re observing proper safety practices when we are handling a firearm, especially under some level of stress. If we watch the video above the shooter seems pretty sure his finger wasn’t on the trigger at an inappropriate time. Yet if we look through some of his other videos look at what we find:

Screencap courtesy of Byron at Note the shooter’s finger is on the trigger during a reload.

The shooter here is performing a reload and during the process of the reload he clearly touches the trigger. Some might say “Well the gun is empty! What’s the big deal!” the big deal is this: Did he intend to have his finger on the trigger at this exact moment? I’m going to wager “no”, because it’s very difficult to conceive of a reason why someone would intentionally have their finger on the trigger during a reload. Folks, the trigger calls to the finger like a siren song. The trigger is a nice cozy place that our trigger finger seeks out if we aren’t in conscious control of it at all times. If after this string of fire I had asked the shooter (or even the RSO watching him) if his finger was ever on the trigger when he didn’t intend for it to be, the answer would be “No!” …and yet the video tells the tale. If your finger is on the trigger without a deliberate decision to put it there, it’s kind of a big deal.

Does this mean that the shooter is an “unsafe” person? No, it means he’s a person. This is a mistake lots of people have made in the past, and will make in the future. I’ve seen lots of people make this mistake on the range. I’ve made it myself.

A scrreencap from another match video, again courtesy of Byron. In this one the shooter is preparing to load and make ready for a stage.

In the next screencap from another video we see an instance of the shooter’s finger on the trigger while he prepares to load and make ready for a different match. This also was presumably done under the supervision of a range safety officer who didn’t notice it. It’s nice to have range safety officers or instructors watching over things, but even the very best with the most critical of eyes doesn’t catch everything.

The trigger finger can touch and leave the trigger in fractions of a second meaning that unless the RSO or instructor is staring intently at your hand the entire time he/she may miss the fact that you’re touching the trigger at an inappropriate time. (This is, by the way, a superb argument for having multiple people watching the shooter. Multiple RSO’s and assistant instructors are more likely to catch problems before someone is bleeding) When you’re thinking about the stage you are about to shoot or how well the last guy performed or how you hope you don’t embarrass yourself when you shoot this stage, you can miss what you’re doing with your own hands even when you’re looking right at them. Again, the central question here is: Did the shooter intend for his finger to be on the trigger at this moment? Odds are probably not. It’s rather difficult to think of a legitimate reason for one’s finger to be on the trigger while they’re attempting to load and make ready.

Another screen shot courtesy of Byron. I doubt this was intentional on the shooter’s part.

In this last screenshot from another stage (this one involving a vehicle) we see another instance of what is most likely unconscious trigger-touch. In reviewing the video on the forum, Byron pointed out that in previous frames of the video the shooter’s finger wasn’t on the trigger…but probably without conscious thought the finger migrated there anyway and even though the shooter is looking right at it he’s unaware of it. A mind busy with something other than “Where is my muzzle pointed? Where is my trigger finger? Where should they be?” easily fails to notice the exact state of the muzzle and the trigger finger.

Again, I say this from experience…both as an observer who has watched people make these kinds of mistakes on the range and as someone who has made them himself. If I took video of every time I’ve handled firearms in my life you’d be able to pull similar screenshots. Exposure to quality instruction and sharp-eyed instructors who did magnificent jobs of outlining the risks helped make me more aware of these incidents so I could correct them…and I’m still making corrections.

My friend Todd Green is a big photography nerd and he likes to take pictures when he’s taking a class. (I think I may be the only guy in the world writing for a blog that doesn’t give a hoot about photography.) He sent me a series of pictures of me performing a draw from the class I did with Robert Vogel and noted that in one of them my finger was on the trigger of my Glock 34 before the pistol was in my eyeline. The pistol was pointed at the berm and if it went off in that position the bullet probably still would have hit the silhouette downrange and so some would doubtlessly wonder why I would be concerned. I’m concerned because at that moment I didn’t intend to have my finger on the trigger. With the stress of the clock and an audience, I was doing something I didn’t even notice. I’m working to correct that because any time my finger is on the trigger without a deliberate decision to put it there it’s a problem.

“Safe” vs. “unsafe” people –

I often hear people describing themselves as “safe” because they think they’re doing everything right. When listening to this I often get the impression that they think of “safe” as something akin to the old Indian caste system. As if there are “safe” people born into this world and “unsafe” people born into the world. As if unintentional discharges only happen to “unsafe” people, creating psychological distance from the actual realities of handling a lethal weapon. We see some of that in the video. The shooter says he prides himself on being safe with firearms, but he’s saying that in a video trying to explain how he shot himself at a match…and when there’s other video evidence of worrying habits during weapon manipulations.

I understand why he’s going to those lengths to keep himself in the “safe” caste, because being in the “unsafe” caste opens one to all sorts of ridicule and derision.

Folks, everyone makes mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes happen while there’s a gun in the person’s hand. The shooter in the video is not the first person to launch a round into himself during a match. It’s happened to Grand Master level shooters before. There has even been television footage of professional shooters giving tips on a TV show where they launch a round into the dirt just in front of their feet while trying to perform a fast draw. I’ve watched people in force-on-force evolutions touching the trigger when searching with the expectation that any second someone is going to pop around a corner and shoot them in the groin with a sims round. I’ve seen people in training thrusting their finger on the trigger and applying pressure as they try to keep up with a time standard they’re unfamiliar with or try to set a new personal record. The siren song of the trigger calls out to everyone’s finger under stress regardless of how much experience they have.

The truly safe person acknowledges this fundamental flaw in human nature and plans for it. They critically examine their handling practices for flaws using peer review, (from peers who have the same level of awareness and a critical eye) and even video footage. When they screw up, they own it and seek to correct it. They don’t defend it or argue about it, they just want to do it better. There’s no room for ego when we’re talking about the handling of lethal weapons.

Don’t believe in fairy tales –

I said earlier that I’m not posting this to ridicule the shooter in the video and I want to reiterate that now. I don’t think that the bullet hole in his leg is a result of him being morally or intellectually inferior to me or lots of other people I can name. (I can list a bunch of famous names that have had accidents or close calls) Don’t for a second think that you’re immune to having the same thing happen to you.

Where I do find fault is with the attempts at self-justification. I understand why he wants to believe that he didn’t directly cause the gunshot wound he suffered, but the bottom line is that the most likely explanation for the accident was that his finger was on the trigger. Lots of people ranging from law enforcement officers to professional shooters have managed to shoot themselves when attempting to reholster a firearm. Reholstering is one of the primary danger zones for accidents with a handgun, and most of those have been the result of having one’s finger on the trigger while reholstering.

To deny off the bat that this is even a possible explanation for the bullet hole in one’s leg is not useful in the slightest. Everybody who has handled a firearm for more than 30 seconds has, at some point, probably done something unsafe with it. Many people have avoided hurting themselves or someone else out of sheer luck…and doubtless some of those who have just been lucky are laughing at this fellow whose luck just ran out.

If, however, we fail to acknowledge and learn from our mistakes then we guarantee more of the same. If we refuse to even consider the possibility that we screwed up and seek to understand how we might have screwed up and how we might correct it, then we’re signing up for bigger disasters down the road. This insular thinking leads to bigger and bigger problems until the point where you’re doing something unforgivably stupid and you end up killing or severely injuring someone. Not too long ago a couple of students at Gunsite forgot the major rules of firearm safety taught there,  and decided to play quick-draw in their hotel room using each other as a backstop…and predictably one of them center-punched the other right through the other’s heart. Last year a relatively famous instructor went through a blacked out shoothouse engaging targets in the dark without verifying what, exactly, he was about to put bullets into and managed to shoot an assistant instructor he didn’t think was there.

Generally speaking, the kind of incidents that result in somebody going to the hospital with a bullet wound don’t happen all at once. There’s a pattern of unnoticed or even excused behavior that finally catches up with the person behind the trigger. I believe that’s what happened here, and that if the shooter in the video doesn’t break down and admit (to himself at least) that he screwed up it will produce even bigger problems in the future…and maybe next time it won’t be a minor wound.

You may have the same sort of unseen problems in the way you are handling or manipulating firearms, too. Please…carefully examine everything you’re doing with a gun in your hand. Use video. Find some people who know what they’re doing and get them to critique your manipulations looking for potential safety problems. When you’re handling a firearm have moments where you stop everything and just think about the safety implications of what you’re doing with the weapon at that exact moment.

If you make a habit of thinking critically about what you’re doing with a gun in your hand and layer safety practices, odds are that you won’t find yourself on youtube explaining how you got that hole in your leg.





  1. I know I’ve had the ‘Awww #$%^’ moment (typically after a few days into a class) where I’m realizing my finger’s getting on the trigger a little too quickly during a draw stroke, but let’s face it…much of action in these settings is on a bit of autopilot, and it’s hard to know exactly WHAT you were doing.

    But how can he claim that a ‘number of witnesses’ could state that his finger was safe? How often is anyone really watching details like that at a match? Even RO’s I’ve had, once they know you’re relatively safe, are more watching for safe muzzle direction than where a trigger is…even when I have been watching to coach someone, I have trouble seeing exactly when the finger slips into the trigger guard.

    Personally, I’d have waited a bit for some results on testing the weapon before making such a post or video…it may turn out that it was a malfunction, but the outright denial that anything under his control could have been at fault is just that…denial. Might have been something in the holster, might have been a finger, might have been some clothing, but I’d hold off before making a blanket statement.

    In looking at the discussion thread, it seems that my opinion if largely in line with the first few posts at least…

  2. If you watch enough videos of club matches on YouTube, I think you’ll find that quite often, the RO is watching their buddies’ targets, not the gun. It amazes me how often I see that. Saying the RO didn’t catch something does not mean it didn’t happen.

  3. Is there any information about what holster he was using? Many years ago (15+) a local shooter had a discharge while holstering that resulted in leg injury. He had a competition holster (the kind that had a specific “trigger block” made for a specific firearm model), but his gun quit running during the match. There was a fun shoot “shoot off”, and he borrowed a totally different gun (Glock vs. Para), loaded and made ready, holstered, and …blam. In that case it really was equipment, because the trigger block pushed on the trigger as the gun was pushed into the holster. That’s easy enough to test with an unloaded gun. Put the same gun (cocked) back in the same holster and push down hard, see if it goes “click”.

    1. The guy has a separate video up talking about his competition gear; the holster was made for the gun and he’d used it before.

  4. This is why the Four Rules have built-in redundancy.You generally have to break two of them to cause injury or worse.

  5. Something pulled the trigger even if it wasn’t one of his sausage fingers.

    Perhaps this will reduce his trips to the fried food bar at Golden Corral and it’ll be a blessing in disguise.

    He’s in denial.

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