The Four Rules of Gun Safety for Beginners (and Everyone Else)

four rules of gun safety

Col. Jeff Cooper furthered general gun safety by distilling and popularizing the four rules of safe gun handling. The purpose was to minimize accidents, otherwise known as negligent discharges (every accidental discharge is a negligent discharge).

There are other variations on the theme, but Cooper’s four rules of gun safety are easy to remember and communicate. You have to break at least two of them for something really bad to happen. Learn and follow the four rules and you eliminate the possibility of creating a dangerous, perhaps even deadly negligent discharge.

Learn them, live them, love them and preach them.

1. Every gun is always loaded.

Safety demands that you treat all firearms as loaded — at least until you personally and accurately verify that a gun is unloaded. Always safety check a firearm before and after handling. Even then, you should continue to treat it as a loaded gun.

Safety check every gun immediately after you pick up, even if you just put it down moments before. Safety check every gun immediately before you put it down or hand it to someone else, even if you “know” it’s unloaded.

Remember: you can remove a magazine from a firearm and still have a round in the chamber. You must check the chamber.

If someone hands you a gun, make sure it’s clear. If someone says “it’s unloaded” treat the statement as utterly meaningless.

The only unloaded gun is one you’ve personally checked and it’s been secured or hasn’t left your sight since you checked it. Until and unless you’ve safety checked a firearm — and in most cases (save cleaning) even then — treat the firearm as if it’s loaded.

2. Never point a gun at anything you aren’t willing to destroy

If you let your muzzle cover anything like an innocent person or an inoffensive inedible animal, bad things can happen. If you keep your gun pointed in a safe direction, away from innocent life, it can’t (which is why some think this should be the first rule). Even if you have a negligent discharge — which will only occur if you violate other safety rules — at least it won’t harm man or beast.

What’s a safe direction? Anyplace a bullet can’t harm an innocent life should you fire the gun.

Be aware: depending on where you may be, there may be times when there isn’t a safe direction.

Bullets can penetrate walls and other barriers and travel extremely long distances. Someone living in an apartment building in an urban area may not be able to avoid the possibility of a negligent discharge causing harm.

In that case as in all others — such as cleaning, storage and transportation — always keep a gun pointed in the safest possible direction. For example, aiming a gun at the steel-reinforced corners of a building may be an apartment dweller’s best bet.

3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on your target.

No matter how many media reports to the contrary, guns don’t “go off.”

Yes, there are older guns that aren’t “drop-safe” or a gun that’s mechanically defective (an extremely rare occurrence), but in virtually every instance in modern times, someone or something has to pull the trigger for a gun to fire. If you keep your finger (and other things) off of the trigger, you won’t create a negligent discharge.

There’s a natural tendency to place your finger on a gun’s trigger; that’s the way firearms are designed to be held. You have to train yourself to keep your finger out of the trigger guard until you’re ready to shoot.

When you pick up a gun, pause. Place your trigger finger in a safe spot (above the trigger on the gun’s frame is good). Feel your finger placement. Look at it. Lock it into your memory. Do this every time you hold a gun.

[NOTE: Even people with excellent “trigger discipline” may place their finger on a trigger in a high-stress situation. For this reason, some people choose handguns with a heavy trigger pull (e.g., revolvers) or a gun with a heavy first trigger pull  followed by lighter trigger pulls (DA/SA).]

4. Be sure of your target and beyond it.

Again, bullets can penetrate barriers and travel great distances before they lose lethal force. You can aim at one thing and hit another, with disastrous results. You are responsible for every bullet that leaves your barrel.

Always make sure there’s no one down range, or someone about to go downrange. How far downrange should you consider? As far as the eye can see — and then some. A .22 caliber bullet can travel over a mile before losing momentum. Be sure you have an adequate backstop. Don’t forget the possibility of barrier penetration (i.e., there may be people or livestock behind a distant barn).

Also keep in mind that you may inadvertently fire well to the left, right or above your target. Imagine a horizontal line running from where you’re standing to your right and left, trailing off into infinity. Make sure there’s no person or animal anywhere ahead of this “firing line” or about to go ahead of the line.

In terms of self-defense, assess your environment, preferably before you draw your gun and certainly after. Defensive gun training courses and competitions are helpful in this regard. In any case, accuracy is a function of distance. The closer you are to a target, the less likely you’ll miss and shoot an innocent bystander.


There are other firearm safety rules (i.e., don’t drink and shoot) gun owners should be familiar with. But master Cooper’s big four gun safety rules and you’ll enjoy a lifetime of safe gun handling. It’s the right thing to do.


  1. avatar cgray says:

    Aaaaand the first rule is complete and utter bullshit.

    1. avatar Spud says:

      Please explain? I do not understand your comment.

      1. avatar Biatec says:

        Maybe he means then how do you dry fire practice if it’s always loaded? I wouldn’t dry fire a loaded gun. lol

      2. avatar cgray says:

        Unloaded guns are by definition not loaded. You could never clean or dry fire your gun if you handled it like a complete emotional cripple. My six dollar knife from Wal-Mart is infinitely more dangerous than an unloaded gun.

        1. avatar Rich says:

          Really, I’m interested, just how stupid are you?

        2. avatar SteveO says:

          How do you verify it’s “unloaded” unless it is verified to be in an unloaded state? Going to take someone else’s word for it? I think you’re missing the global point: can you absolutely know that a firearm is in an inert/ safe state unless you verify it is, like verifying it physically and visually? Ever been distracted mid-task and unintentionally extend past the task item that you left off at? Are willing to pass a weapon in an unknown state (or “should be” unloaded) to somebody that could cause them, you or somebody/ something else immediate harm or death unless you verify it? It’s not a difficult concept.

          Pretty weak argument that your knife is infinitely more dangerous than an unloaded gun.
          An inch of water is 10x infinitely more dangerous than a knife.

        3. avatar Rick the Bear says:


          The “rule” lists no exceptions (e.g., after checking it yourself).

          That’s my big issue with Rule #1.

          (Do I detect an “Inside Man” reference?)

        4. avatar Gadsden says:

          A loaded or unloaded gun, when placed inside a box, becomes both loaded and unloaded at the same time.

        5. avatar Rich says:

          According to Col. Schrödinger

        6. Are you referring to Schrödinger’s Gat?

    2. avatar Gnius says:

      I think the better summary of the first rule is: “know the condition of your weapon at all times and treat it accordingly.” But it works as written for teaching novices.

      1. avatar VicRattlehead says:

        As written is MUCH better for novices. It really hammers in the point that mishandling guns can be catestrophiclly bad and they should ALWAYS be handled with the respect you would handle something you KNOW is deadly.

        After some experience handing firearms I’d say:
        “know the condition of your weapon at all times and treat it accordingly.”
        is better written.

      2. avatar Craig in IA says:

        Oh, I don’t know. There are holes in the houses of a fair number of gun saavy people who were sure their firearm was unloaded when they “dry fired” it. One pal took out one of his old lady’s prized Precious Moments ornaments, another shot “himself” in a full length mirror practicing his fast draw. Can go on further. None of these people ever exhibited unsafe handling characteristics at ranges or while hunting with them. I think the mantra is not “If”, but “when” you have a negligent discharge. Check. Check again. And remember Rule 2 before you squeeze again without checking.

        1. avatar billy-bob says:

          Houses, and the legs of a few cops.

        2. avatar napresto says:

          I know a few such stories myself. And I would add that the first rule (all the rules) are written for clarity, not nuance. If you assume any gun is loaded, and that maybe a bullet somehow magically wound up in the chamber when you just looked away there for a second, you are unlikely to ever have a problem. You can still dry fire safely with this mindset – and in fact more safely than otherwise, since you’ll stop to clear the weapon pretty frequently, ensuring it is absolutely unloaded. As for cleaning: well once the gun is a disassembled, in my mind it’s parts, not a gun, and the rules kind of lose their meaningfulness when it comes to parts.

      3. avatar Kenneth says:

        Watch this and get info from the horse’s mouth. Rule 1 is at apx. 7:30. Just watching one minute will make it crystal clear. Yes, it’s crappy quality. It’s an old video digitized from a VHS or beta tape, which is the only way this video was made back in the day. I got my copy back in the 1980s, and today it isn’t in any better shape. Tape deteriorates with time. But the meaning is still there.

        1. avatar JasonM says:

          Well I just lost a lot of respect for the man. He’s apparently not familiar with his own Rule #2.
          At 7:15, when drawing his gun, he points it right at the cameraman.
          When unloading and reloading it, he passed his hand in front of the muzzle multiple times.
          And at 7:30, when reholstering it, he muzzled his own hand.
          And that’s just 15 seconds of the video.

        2. avatar Rich says:

          It’s a camera on a tripod you mouth breathing retard.

        3. avatar JasonM says:

          Hey Rich, if you’re going to be a complete asshole in your comments, make sure you’re not completely wrong as well. As he draws and unloads the gun the camera zooms in on him. Are you suggesting a sentient tripod pushed the zoom lever on the camera? Or perhaps that some time traveler gave Cooper a camera with a remote control? There was a person standing behind that camera controlling the camera angle and zoom level.

        4. avatar Kenneth says:

          JasonM: Please go watch again, carefully this time. You might note(assuming you have eyes) that the gun is pointing off to the left. No muzzling of the camera, that is just an error you made. Correct it and its no harm. Keep insisting that you are always right, and you will put yourself in the position Plato spoke of when he said:
          “Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something.”

        5. avatar JasonM says:

          With the low quality video, it’s hard to determine the exact angle, but it looks nearly straight on at first, before he starts rotating it to the right. I can see his knuckles, but not the back of his hand. The bore axis is high enough that he’d be pointing at the cameraman’s legs. In any case, it’s clearly not just a tripod, as Rich so eloquently claimed.

          Also, the hand in front of the muzzle errors while unloading, loading, and holstering are clear violations of his second rule.

        6. avatar LarryinTX says:

          Entire argument is excessively stupid.

        7. avatar Kenneth says:

          But it is in error, and thus the duty to correct the error, no matter how stupid that error might be.
          Let’s face it, there are a LOT of stupid people out there, and they desperately need someone to set them straight. The fact that they don’t WANT to be corrected, like Jason, means nothing, other than that they think they already know everything, so why not just become Plato’s fools that only open their mouths because they need to hear themselves blather?

    3. avatar Iron Cat Beast says:

      Do elaborate.

    4. avatar Rich says:

      Hope I’m never at a range near you.

    5. avatar Rick the Bear says:

      Cgray et al,

      I’m pretty much with you. Always loaded, to me, means never dry-firing, except at an appropriate backstop while wearing eyes and ears; never cleaning (would you clean a barrel with a round in the chamber); never unholstering to put in a safe or drawer (especially a problem for apartment dwellers); never drawing to fire while standing on concrete ( the spall issue); etc.

      Yes, for first timers, this rule is possibly useful. Yes, old timers can get complacent (I’ve only had one ND). We PotG frequently explain to the ignorant (and stupid) that guns do not “go off” by themselves. Yet we are supposed to treat them as if they do.

      In my non-NRA class, I say that all guns are loaded until personally verified by you. Again. I echo the comment someone made about always checking.

      I prefer the “finger off the trigger” rule as the primary one. If the trigger isn’t pressed, you should be ND-free.

      (End rant)

    6. avatar Darkman says:

      Aaaand you are a complete and utter moron. Most likely a keyboard commando direct from his mama’s basement. “So Chill Out Francis”.

      1. avatar Darkman says:

        Comment was meant for cgray. sorry for the confusion…

    7. avatar Hannibal says:

      It’s only bullshit in the pithy sense, when you read the explanation in the body of the article it makes sense.

    8. avatar Gadsden Flag says:

      Don’t worry about cgray. Debated with him once. He’s about as smart as a box of rocks. Don’t waste your time.

      1. avatar Rich says:

        Yes, dumb bastard

    9. avatar Southern Cross says:

      Ever see the movie Tremors where the character Bert Gummer, after handing an unloaded revolver to a teen to motivate them to move faster (long story), immediately checks the revolver when he takes it back?

      Just making sure. For a B movie, and for movies in general, the firearms handling was very good. The actor playing the character insisted on doing things that way.

    10. avatar Rich says:

      Direct reply to cgray:

      What do you do for a living? I’m hoping that I nor none of the people I love ever have to interact with you. You don’t have an understanding of basic reasoning. Watch videos of the COL and try to learn. It may take some abstract thought processing to comprehend but if you try really hard you may make it.

    11. avatar Anymouse says:

      These are the wrong rules. Cooper’s #1 is meaningless. I prefer the NRA’s big 3 rules:
      1: Always keep pointed in a safe direction (although “willing to destroy” is catchier for some audiences).
      2: Always keep finger off trigger and trigger guard until on target (put on frame)
      3: Always keep gun unloaded until ready to use. A gun intended for defense is in use, and a gun’s not unloaded until you’ve checked it if it has left your immediate control.

      Granted, 2 of these are pretty much the same as Cooper’s. His #4 is part of the NRA’s full list, which includes target identification, safe storage, not under influence of drugs/alcohol, proper ammo, knowledge of operation, keep gun in good working order, use eye/ear protection, and there may be other rules for activity or location. NSSF has a bunch of extras, like make sure barrel is clear, don’t rely on mechanical safety, and be careful if you pull the trigger and it doesn’t fire, but I feel they’re specific example of knowledge or operation.

    12. avatar Eric in Oregon says:

      As commonly taught you’re right. The complete rule is more like “All guns are loaded unless you’ve cleared them personally since they came under your control”.

      1. avatar Rick the Bear says:

        Thanks, Eric.

      2. avatar LarryinTX says:

        I have an extension which is more difficult to make up a quick rule about. Basically I won’t handle a gun which I have verified is unloaded, if there is anyone within view who has NOT verified the gun is unloaded. If I am alone, fine, but if someone comes in, family member or not, I will cease whatever I am doing with the gun until everyone is satisfied of their safety. Just seems the polite thing to do.

  2. avatar jwm says:

    The most important bit of training is the safe day to day handling of your firearms. We will handle our firearms every day. We will only rarely be involved in a dgu. I haven’t been shot at since the late 80’s. And I do not miss it at all.

    Any training beyond basic handling and safety and a little knowledge of the local laws is all you’ll need if you ain’t a cop or soldier.

    Course if you want to fatten the purse of all those ex ‘operators’ pushing the tactifool mindset, feel free. It’s your money.

  3. avatar Kenneth says:

    And do not argue about which is the most important. They all overlap each other for a good reason. They are all co-equal, and must all be followed. Attempts to find only one rule to follow are just laziness waiting for the chance to become an ‘accident’.
    Also take note of the order. They are also in that order for a good reason. Rule #1 is for before the gun is even touched. Rule #2 is for when the gun is in your hand(s). Rule #3 is for when a target has been identified. Rule #4 is for when the sights are on the target, and the gun is to be fired. There is a progression there that should be obvious.

  4. avatar Cruzo1981 says:

    Rule #5: If Democrat and in possession of a firearm, please turn in to your local PD…

  5. avatar ozzallos says:

    There’s always a #5. Mine is “Know where tho gun art at all timeths.” Seriously, this bullshit of “i forgot my gun was in there!” is mental negligence of the highest order when dealing with firearms.

  6. avatar LKB says:

    A very good instructor (Steve Smith of Asgaard NTG) adds the following to Cooper’s Four:

    #5 If you drop your weapon, DO NOT TRY AND CATCH IT — let it hit the ground and then pick it up.

    This one makes a lot of sense, especially in the context of training/practice where you’re handling a loaded weapon a lot. (He really emphasized it during immoblization drills, where you had to practice drawing from your strong side carry using only your weak side hand, and then shooting / reloading / clearing stoppages with weak side hand only.) Trying to “catch” a falling weapon carries a big risk that you’ll snag the trigger while doing so, probably when the weapon is pointed at some part of you.

    #6 “Most importantly, do not shoot the instructor, because he will shoot back.” Always said with a smile, but I for one never wanted to find out if retired Sgt-Major Smith was less than serious about it.

  7. avatar RCC says:

    I’ve seen two very old shotguns and one M60 that fired when the breach was closed due to old age and worn out parts. Thankfully all were pointed in safe direction down range on an actual range so no damage aside from “O S****”.

    As I’ve seen previously it’s the four rules not suggestions.

  8. avatar moshe says:

    Rules #2, #3 and #4 are redundant.
    If you follow rule #1 all other rules will be followed naturally.

    1. avatar Defens says:

      Completely disagree. They form an integrated system. I used to (note USED TO) go target shooting with some guys that were constantly sweeping everything and everyone around them (with truly loaded guns). Constantly finger on the trigger. Prattling about while waving the gun aimlessly about. They knew the gun was loaded and ostensibly knew the rest of the rules too – they didn’t treat them seriously. Assuming a gun is loaded does not automatically mean that a newbie or careless shooter knows what to do with that information.

      1. avatar moshe says:

        You confirm my point. If rule #1 is ignored then the rest of the rules are disregarded as well.
        if Every gun is always loaded then nobody will point a gun at anything they aren’t willing to destroy
        if Every gun is always loaded then everyone will keep finger off the trigger until sights are on target.
        if Every gun is always loaded then all will be sure of their target and beyond it.
        Very simple to remember for beginners: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS UNLOADED GUN.

        1. avatar Big Bill says:

          “You confirm my point. If rule #1 is ignored then the rest of the rules are disregarded as well.”

          True, but that does not make them redundant or otherwise not needed.
          Rules are there for a purpose. Disregarding one, *in a single incident“, may mean the other rules “during that incident” aren’t followed either because the gun fires, but doesn’t mean the others aren’t important. It only means they didn’t matter during that incident.
          Disregarding any of them at the wrong time can make all the others irrelevant at that time. But the rules still serve a good purpose.

        2. avatar LarryinTX says:

          My son and I went to the range, during a cease fire he went downrange to adjust his target, I discovered his rifle on the rest still pointed downrange at his target, fully loaded (incl chamber) and with the safety off. When cease fire was declared he just stood up and headed downrange. Clearly there were words, but my point is, where in all these rules would that be caught? Gun *was* loaded. He pointed it at his target, which he did intend to shoot. It was a safe direction. On and on, there is no shortcut and quickie rules do not correct every problem.

        3. avatar Big Bill says:

          LarryinTX says: ” Clearly there were words, but my point is, where in all these rules would that be caught?”

          Know your target.
          Well, I guess since he was the target, he knew his target, but still…

          And, I spoke too soon. My Browser didn’t save my information for this comment, so obviously there’s still a problem.

  9. avatar moshe says:

    1. Every gun is always loaded.
    2. Every gun is always loaded.
    3. Every gun is always loaded.
    4. Every gun is always loaded.

  10. avatar Texican says:

    Hickock45 does a pretty good job in all his videos. He is contantly checking the status of his firearms, especially pistols. Because while you’re doing stuff and talking to the camera you forget. And since no one has x-ray vision it doesn’t hurt to check the pistols condition when it’s in your hand.

  11. avatar Roymond says:

    “every accidental discharge is a negligent discharge”

    That can depend on the gun. I had an old Japanese Arasaka with the safety being a disc behind the action that had to be pressed and rotated at the same time, but if bumped just right it could pop off, which frequently resulted in a shot fired as well. I was out hunting with it, and the ground went out from under my feet; the Arasaka hit a limb of vine maple, and BANG! every deer in the neighborhood was warned. 🙁

    Now unless you want to blame Arasaka for negligence in designing such a silly system, that accidental discharge WAS accidental.

    (I had another one with the same rifle; I was putting the muscle of my thumb against the safety disc to show a friend how it worked, and an idiot kid (college, maybe) whacked me on the shoulder, just right to make me twist the disc with no control… BANG! I suppose I was negligent in demonstrating with a round in, but that was the incident that made me retire the thing to display model status.)

  12. avatar Lebowski3 says:

    #5 If the government says you don’t need a gun then you need a gun.

  13. avatar enuf says:

    Always looked upon these short rules as the titles for the explanations that follow. Titles are supposed to be brief. Even so, the details can be very brief too, briefer than what the writer here has provided. Don’t see why people fail to comprehend this.

    I treat every gun as loaded. Until I personally clear it and it does not leave my sight and control. Done.

    I never point a gun at something I would not want to destroy. This rule covers you fucking up on that first rule.

    Finger off the trigger until ready to shoot. Yup, not much to add there.

    Be sure of your target and what’s beyond it. Covers all situations including dry fire. I have a safe place to point the thing even in my house.

  14. avatar bontai Joe says:

    God bless Col. Jeff Cooper. I miss his writings.

  15. avatar JW says:

    I taught the kids: MATT.

    Helps the little ones remember.

  16. avatar Mort says:


    I must advocate for 5th “Golden Rule.”

    #5. If you are not sure about the controls on a firearm, DO NOT GUESS… ASK.

    All firearms fundamentally do the same thing, but all firearms’ controls are different. If you are unsure what a lever, or switch, or button might do, don’t guess. Ask somebody. From magazine releases, to slide stops, to charging levers, to decockers, to safeties… all manufacturers put these fire controls in different places and without labels, of course. Don’t guess– ask.

    Be safe (…actual AZ Mort)

  17. avatar Jim Bullock says:

    You know, I know tbe gun is empty; I checked.

    But, sometimes I’m wrong.

  18. avatar Mike in Ohio says:

    The point of rule one is to create safe habits. One does not have a set of behaviors for loaded firearms and another for unloaded firearms. Unlearning bad habits is the hardest part of training.

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