Rule 3: You’ve come a long way, baby

Rule 3:  You’ve come a long way, baby

Compare the photo above, of a US Army OpFor troop in the 1980s, with the one below, of an AFROTC cadet role-playing an insurgent in 2010. As they sang on Sesame Street, “One of these things is not like the other . . ..”

Debbie, the Army soldier with the scoped PSL rifle, was NOT an idiot (although she can’t have had very good judgement; I was able to talk her into giving me her phone number). It’s just that the military didn’t teach or follow the Four Universal Caveats of Firearms Safety in those days.

As a reminder, those Rules are:

  1. Treat every firearm as if it is loaded.
  2. Never point a functional firearm at anything you are not willing to destroy.
  3. Keep your finger off the trigger, up alongside the frame, till you have made a conscious decision to fire.
  4. Be sure of your target.  Know:
  • What (or whom) it is,
  • What is behind your target, and 
  • What is between you and your target.


Why the Trigger Finger Rule?

There are three major reasons to have your finger not just off and hovering over the trigger, but actually up alongside the frame, of any firearm when you do not want to hear a loud noise:

  • Loss of Balance
  • Startle Response
  • Overflow Effect, aka Interlimb Interaction

Loss of Balance

When we slip on the kid’s skateboard (I knew an F-16 test pilot who did exactly that, and wound up in a body cast), all our muscles suddenly tense up. If you are escaping and evading from the scene of a civil disturbance in the dark, and you stumble on a curb while you are holding a firearm with your finger on the trigger, you will cause it to discharge. If your finger is alongside the frame instead, you will not.

Startle Response

If you are almost certain it was the cat who knocked over that vase in the middle of the night, but only almost, so you are checking to make sure, when you suddenly run into your drunk former roommate who still has a key to your flat, you could perforate him if your finger is on the trigger when you are startled. If it is up alongside the frame instead, you could chew him out for not calling you ahead of time. That beats calling 911 to explain how your friend got that hole through his intestines.

Interlimb Interaction

My daughter used to dump our VHS tapes out of the boxes, put a box on her hand, and toddle around the house. Her other hand was bladed, like a salute, even though there was no box on that hand. Why? Because

What one hand does, the other hand wants to do.

People who keep their finger on the trigger have been known to have negligent discharges grasping doorknobs and other objects.


NRA’s Gun Safety Rules

The Four Universal Caveats vary slightly from the way safety is taught by the National Rifle Association. The NRA has three main rules, and a host of additional rules. The NRA’s rules, in order, are:

  1. ALWAYS keep the gun pointed in a safe direction.
  2. ALWAYS keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot.
  3. ALWAYS keep the gun unloaded until ready to use.

You can see that NRA’s first rule is essentially Rule 2 of the Four Universal Caveats.  NRA’s second rule is what most schools number as Rule 3. NRA’s third rule, about separating guns and ammunition, is fine for recreational shooting and long term storage. It can be confusing if your firearm is on alert status.

I took my first NRA instructor course (Law Enforcement Submachine Gun Instructor Development School) in 1991, and I’m proud to be a currently NRA certified civilian Pistol, Rifle, and Shotgun instructor. The NRA has done more than just about any other organization to promote firearms safety and teach military, law enforcement, and civilians how to use firearms efficiently.

The NRA also jealously defends the right of US citizens and lawful permanent residents to keep and bear arms. I’ve never understood why some people who hate the NRA love the ACLU, and vice-versa. Both organizations have the noble intent of protecting civil liberties enshrined in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

But I prefer all Four of the Universal Caveats over the NRA’s third rule.


“Unloaded” guns

Historically, the Army always attempted to control safety through ammunition issuance.  I knew a guy who liberated Grenada in 1983; they thought it was an exercise, but about an hour before they jumped in, the NCOs busted open the sealed ammo cans and issued it out. Suddenly things got real, because the Army never gave them ammo, except on the firing line during qualifications.

Comparing rifles with a French Fusilier Commando de l’Air, I believe of the 602e GIA, during Desert Shield. He’s holding an American M-16 with M-203, and I’m holding his FAMAS F1, “Le Clairon.” Clearing out your weapon before handing it to a stranger who speaks a different language is a sign of proper upbringing.

In August or September of 1990, I was patrolling through the ink-black Saudi night when my partner and I came upon a pair of US Army Air Defense Artillery soldiers guarding surface to air missiles. They were alone, like my USAF Security Police partner and I were. That was in the early days of Operation Desert Shield, when our presence was as much to keep Saddam Hussein’s forces from rolling into Saudi as it was to evict them from Kuwait (the later Op Desert Storm).

Those ADA soldiers on guard duty had rifles–but no magazines or ammo. I could not believe any competent commander would leave surface to air missiles in the middle of the desert, at night, guarded by only two troops without ammo. Maybe the Army was counting on the armed USAF SPs in the adjacent sector to actually protect the SAMs from attack or sabotage, and the Army guards were only there to prevent pilferage of less important supplies.

The two hapless Army guards could not believe that the Air Force not only trusted us with ammo, but that we were permitted–yea, verily, required by regs–to put loaded magazines in our weapons. It was hard to see their faces well in the dark, but I sensed their disappointment and envy when we pulled our mags and used our flashlights to show them our ammunition. How sad to be in a foreign country in a time of war, but not trusted by your own people to do the job they trained and paid you for–or even equipped to defend your own life.

This is not a new lesson. It remains unlearned over and over again throughout history. Not issuing ammo to California National Guard troops didn’t prevent any businesses or homes from being burned to the ground during the Rodney King riots of 1992. Nor did not having rifles, ammo, or even vests to protect their own lives help the DC National Guard prevent breaking and entering into the Capitol building in 2021.

The Air Force was never immune from negligent discharges, but the Army has always had far more (both in percentages and overall numbers). Why? Because if you believe your firearm is loaded, you might actually treat it like it is loaded.

Premium USAF billets, Ali al Salim AB, Kuwait. Those green uniforms really blended in with all the Kuwaiti foliage, didn’t they? Loaded mag in M4. M9 on hip had a round in the chamber, decocker set to “fire”–in accordance with USAF instructions. Every day each of us carried a standard load of 210 rounds of 5.56mm, and 30 rounds of 9mm, NATO ammunition. Zero negligent discharges by any of our similarly armed SF troops during that tour.

There are many situations where unloading firearms is the smart thing to do, say, for dry practice, or long term storage. It’s the polite thing to do when handing a firearm to someone else. But don’t for a second think that makes the gun safe. Trying to make guns “safe” by separating them from ammo is, like communism, a noble idea that never works as intended in human hands.

The problem, as far too many have found out the hard way, is that “unloaded” guns have a nasty habit of loading themselves when you’re not looking.

The supposition that such a thing as an “unloaded” gun exists is very, very dangerous.

Guns are purpose-built to be dangerous. A gun with a round in the chamber, the hammer cocked, and the safety off can sit on a table for decades and not go off–but as soon as human hands enter the equation, anything can happen. The ONLY way to ensure nothing bad happens is to train the brain controlling those human hands till they habitually perform safely.

When I worked Internal Affairs, I often responded to investigate officer-involved shootings right after they happened. Once, in the middle of the night, I went to the hospital to check on an agent (from an agency that shall remain nameless) who had been shot. His buddies had been dry-practicing with a pistol in the next room. They left the room and returned some time later. Without rechecking the chamber, one of them “dry” practiced one more time–BANG!

The .40 bullet went through the wall, through the couch, and into their friend’s back. It traversed most of his torso. An E-room doctor cut it out of his pectoral muscle. He was not amused. He should have been grateful–I was told it narrowly missed his aorta. The bullet had bits of drywall and couch in it, which helped us Rat Squad types to corroborate the other agents’ stories, and rule out intentional assault (as opposed to negligent malfeasance).


Dry Practice

Those agents who shot their roommate made another, even worse, mistake, which could have ended a life, rather than their fledgling careers. THEY WERE NOT POINTING THE GUN IN A SAFE DIRECTION. Rule 2 applies beyond what you can see, even through intervening barriers. ALL four Rules apply at ALL times, even during dry practice.

Whenever you dry practice, ALWAYS point it at a backstop that will absorb and stop an errant bullet.

That may confuse some people, because in order to dry practice, by definition, we clear out the firearm, essentially issuing a waiver for Rule 1 (or pretending it’s more of a guideline than a Commandment).

The trick is to have redundant safeguards. Clearing out the pistol, and re-checking any time it’s been out of your sight, is all well and good, but just in case there’s some mistake (Murphy is out there, so anything that can go wrong will), we point it at something that will stop a bullet. That makes sure that if we do hear a loud noise, it will be an amusing anecdote, and possibly a citation for discharging a firearm within city limits, rather than an irreversible tragedy.


Appropriate Dry Practice Backstops

What will stop a bullet? Most interior (and even exterior) walls will NOT. Stacks of books from the side might. A planter full of soil, ammo can full of sand, a brick or stone wall / fireplace will, as should a Kevlar vest.


Press Checks

Murphy has only one exception to Rule 1: It’s the gun you need right this second to save your life. To keep Murphy from UNloading your life insurance before the one time in your life you really need it, you should



External Manual Safeties as an Alleged Solution

When we were learning long range patrolling in RECONDO (RECONnaissance commanDO) school, one of the guys cranked off a blank while we were supposed to be sneaking up on an objective. “That’s why you leave it on safe till you need to shoot somebody,” said our cadre, an Army Staff Sergeant with a MAC-V (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) patch on his right sleeve. Never an admonition about keeping your finger off the trigger. In the Army of the 1980s, it was just assumed that trigger fingers were going to rest on triggers as a default.

Safeties of both are up = on. Debbie, with the Romanian AKM, has her finger on the trigger. The soldier behind her with the milled receiver Chinese Type 56 has all four of her fingers on the pistol grip, which is safe, but sub-optimal from a readiness standpoint. AK receivers are wider than their grips, which means it almost takes conscious effort to place your finger up along side the frame.

One problem (of several) with dependence on external manual safeties is, sometimes they’re not there. There wasn’t one on the Smith & Wesson Combat Masterpieces I carried in the Air Force–and they made us put live ammo in our guns. No external manual safety on the Tokarev T33, one of the more prolific pistols of the 20th century. None on the Ruger P94DAO I carried as a city cop, nor on the Gen 2 Glock 19 I carried as a state park ranger, nor on my US Border Patrol issued Beretta 96D, nor on the H&K USP-C LEM duty pistol of an INS criminal investigator, nor on the SIG P229DAK, Glock 17, and Glock 26 I carried as an HSI special agent.

All day every day, those pistols on our hips had a live round in the chamber. None of us (except a few Taskforce officers from other agencies) had an external manual safety, yet our offices were not riddled with bullets from sudden inexplicable discharges. When we served a warrant with our guns in hand, every single one of us had our trigger fingers where they really belong: up alongside the frame (until those rare occasions when one of us had to shoot a suspect).


Finger Up Alongside the Frame is the New Normal

Now, keeping your finger off the trigger is one of the first things our soldiers learn. It’s about time.

One sociologial experiment I waited too long to conduct was to go through Blockbuster, counting the videos with pictures of Hollywood actors holding guns on the box. Inevitably, in the VHS days, their fingers were on the triggers. Now, you can tell which actors have had SOME training of SOME kind because many, perhaps even the majority, have their finger up along side the frame where it belongs.

What hasn’t changed since the VHS days? Violence in film has not diminished one iota. It has gotten more graphic. Actors are still paid a great deal of money to carry and brandish guns frequently, although many of them are “activists” against gun ownership by anyone other than their body guards.

It’s would be difficult to prove a direct causal relationship between violent movies, TV, and video games and actual violence. As far as I know, playing Grand Theft Auto does not actually force anyone to murder a prostitute and then urinate on her. But if what we saw on TV did not influence our behavior, advertisers would not spend millions on TV commercials. For informative, well-researched reading on the subject, try LtCol Dave Grossman’s Assassination Generation: Video Games, Aggression, and the Psychology of Killing, or Grossman and Gloria DeGaetano’s Stop Teaching our Kids to Kill.

At least while they are showing our kids how fun revenge killing sprees can be, many actors are now setting the good example of keeping their fingers off the trigger.


Dual Arming is Also the New Normal

A student firing his carbine support hand only. Had his left hand had been “out of action” instead of his right, he could have dropped the carbine and driven on with his pistol.

One other difference between the soldiers of the 1980s and today: the “insurgent” ROTC cadet in that photo is “dual armed,” with both a rifle and a pistol. As was I, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom (but not usually, during Ops Desert Shield and Storm).

Now, soldiers will have more access to pistols than at any time since the days of the horse cavalry, even if the Army made SIG put a (useless, unnecessary) external manual safety on the otherwise superlative M17 & M18.

But dual arming is a discussion for another post. Mayhap it’ll get a post of its own one day, but for now you can learn more about dual arming in the article on Bayonets.


What about Deb?

Things never worked out with me and that lovely OpFor instructor sporting the PSL and the AKM. It wasn’t that lack of trigger finger discipline was a turn off–it is, but that can be corrected. I had learned the Four Universal Caveats in civilian Defensive Pistolcraft courses taught by a Gunsite graduate some years before, and I would have been more than happy to share what I’d learned with Deb in person.

Nor was the distance between us a real obstacle. She lived 3 – 4 hours down the road (depending on Denver traffic), but a man in his twenties will drive any distance, through rain, sleet, or snow, for romance.

About that time, though, I started getting serious in another (much longer distance) relationship, with the woman who later became my bride. She’s stood beside me for three decades, so I must’ve made the right choice.

–George H, lead instructor, Heloderm LLC

A proud (and safe) US Army cadet, ca. 2020 AD