Western Rifle Shooters Association

Do not give in to Evil, but proceed ever more boldly against it

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Basic Rifle Marksmanship Series: Part I - Safety

In this series on basic rifle marksmanship skills, we will attempt to describe the steps in firing a rifle competently, with the goal of making the process comprehensible to someone who may never have fired a rifle before. Ultimately, you will be judge of our success or failure, so feel free to throw compliments or rocks, as appropriate, in the comments section.

The first step we must take is to learn some basic rifle nomenclature and safety rules. Note that although this particular rifle is an M16 military rifle, most rifles will have some functional equivalent of the parts we will be describing.

1. Starting from the left and moving towards the right, we first encounter the rifle’s muzzle (a/k/a “where the bullet comes out”), which in this case features a flashhider at the end of the barrel.

2. Moving along the barrel from left to right, we next encounter the front sight assembly, which contains the front sight. The corrugated items to the right of the front sight assembly are known as the handguards.

3. Continuing from left to right after the handguards, we find the carrying handle on the upper surface of the rifle. At the rear of the carrying handle (behind the area that appears to be missing), the rear sight assembly is located. Immediately below and slightly to the right of the rear sight assembly is the charging handle, which is used by the shooter to move ammunition from the magazine (that curved object protruding from the bottom of the rifle) into the chamber of the rifle to be fired.

4. Immediately after the charging handle is the upper surface, or “comb”, of the rifle’s rear stock, or “buttstock”. The end of the comb is the top surface of the rifle’s buttplate, which is the surface placed into the shooter’s shoulder area for firing.

5. Now moving from right to left along the underside of the rifle, we move from the lower surface of the buttplate along the lower side of the buttstock. The item protruding from the buttstock is the rear sling swivel, through which an adjustable cloth or leather strap will be threaded.

6. The next stop along our journey is the pistol grip of the rifle, which is placed in the shooter’s firing hand immediately prior to firing. The shooter will then extend his index finger for use as the trigger finger, placing that finger on the trigger, immediately ahead of the pistol grip. Both the M16 and its civilian cousin, the AR15, have the safety selector switch immediately behind the trigger in the wall of the rifle’s receiver.

7. Ahead of the trigger in the receiver’s left wall is the bolt catch, by which the shooter can release the rifle’s bolt assembly forward into position for firing.

8. Moving forward of the receiver now, we travel along the underside of the handguards, coming to the front sling swivel (companion of the rear sling swivel), the bayonet lug (where present), and return to our starting point at the rifle’s muzzle and flashhider.

9. Looking at the right side of the AR15/M16 rifle, you should look closely at the receiver underneath the carrying handle and focus on the button immediately forward of the trigger. That’s the magazine release, which when pushed allows the magazine (which provides ammunition storage) to fall clear of the receiver well into which it fits.

SAFETY NOTE: It is imperative when unloading all magazine-fed firearms (rifles, pistols, and shotguns) to remove the magazine FIRST before clearing any live ammunition from the weapon’s firing chamber. Failure to unload the weapon in this order (remove magazine first, then clear chamber) leads each year to deaths and permanent injuries. Don’t let it happen to you!

Those of you with an interest in the details of the AR15 platform can click here for an excellent graphic for the component parts of the M16A2/AR15 rifle when properly field-stripped. You can also go here and download the Bushmaster manufacturer’s operators’ manual (thanks to the good folks at Bushmaster and AR15.com.

But before I lose you to the wonders of the Bushmaster and AR15 websites, let’s use the shared language that we now possess to learn the basic rules of firearms safety. Folks, these rules are literally a matter of life and death, so I not only want you to read them, but I want you to memorize them and their meaning so that you can, at command, recite them and describe what you mean:

Jeff Cooper's Rules of Gun Safety





There are no exceptions. Do not pretend that this is true. Some people and organizations take this rule and weaken it - e.g., "Treat all guns as if they were loaded." Unfortunately, the "as if" compromises the directness of the statement by implying that they are unloaded, but we will treat them as though they are loaded. No good! Safety rules must be worded forcefully so that they are never treated lightly or reduced to partial compliance.

All guns are always loaded - period!

This must be your mind-set. If someone hands you a firearm and says, "Don't worry, it's not loaded," you do not dare believe him. You need not be impolite, but check it yourself. Remember, there are no accidents, only negligent acts. Check it. Do not let yourself fall prey to a situation where you might feel compelled to squeal, "I didn't know it was loaded!"

Conspicuously and continuously violated, especially with pistols, Rule II applies whether you are involved in range practice, daily carry, or examination. If the weapon is assembled and in someone's hands, it is capable of being discharged. A firearm holstered properly, lying on a table, or placed in a scabbard is of no danger to anyone. Only when handled is there a need for concern. This rule applies to fighting as well as to daily handling. If you are not willing to take a human life, do not cover a person with the muzzle. This rule also applies to your own person. Do not allow the muzzle to cover your extremities, e.g. using both hands to reholster the pistol. This practice is unsound, both procedurally and tactically. You may need a free hand for something important. Proper holster design should provide for one-handed holstering, so avoid holsters which collapse after withdrawing the pistol. (Note: It is dangerous to push the muzzle against the inside edge of the holster nearest the body to "open" it since this results in your pointing the pistol at your midsection.) Dry-practice in the home is a worthwhile habit and it will result in more deeply programmed reflexes. Most of the reflexes involved in the Modern Technique do not require that a shot be fired. Particular procedures for dry-firing in the home will be covered later. Let it suffice for now that you do not dry-fire using a "target" that you wish not to see destroyed. (Recall RULE I as well.)

Rule III is violated most anytime the uneducated person handles a firearm. Whether on TV, in the theaters, or at the range, people seem fascinated with having their finger on the trigger. Never stand or walk around with your finger on the trigger. It is unprofessional, dangerous, and, perhaps most damaging to the psyche, it is klutzy looking. Never fire a shot unless the sights are superimposed on the target and you have made a conscious decision to fire. Firing an unaligned pistol in a fight gains nothing. If you believe that the defensive pistol is only an intimidation tool - not something to be used - carry blanks, or better yet, reevaluate having one around. If you are going to launch a projectile, it had best be directed purposely. Danger abounds if you allow your finger to dawdle inside the trigger guard. As soon as the sights leave the target, the trigger-finger leaves the trigger and straightens alongside the frame. Since the hand normally prefers to work as a unit - as in grasping - separating the function of the trigger-finger from the rest of the hand takes effort. The five-finger grasp is a deeply programmed reflex. Under sufficient stress, and with the finger already placed on the trigger, an unexpected movement, misstep or surprise could result in a negligent discharge. Speed cannot be gained from such a premature placement of the trigger-finger. Bringing the sights to bear on the target, whether from the holster or the Guard Position, takes more time than that required for moving the trigger finger an inch or so to the trigger.

Know what it is, what is in line with it, and what is behind it. Never shoot at anything you have not positively identified. Be aware of your surroundings, whether on the range or in a fight. Do not assume anything. Know what you are doing.

Make these rules a part of your character. Never compromise them. Improper gunhandling results from ignorance and improper role modeling, such as handling your gun like your favorite actor does. Education can cure this. You can make a difference by following these gunhandling rules and insisting that those around you do the same. Set the example. Who knows what tragedies you, or someone you influence, may prevent?

I hope Colonel Cooper, who died last year after a long life unlike many others, would forgive me if I added one more rule, derived from his summary:


It will do you and those around you very little good to be completely observant of all gun safety rules if the knucklehead two positions down fires a rifle bullet into your spine while trying to clear a malfunction. You simply must make sure that everyone around you observes these four rules, all of the time. Remember - it will very likely be their bullet that kills or maims you.

A stern “MUZZLE!” or “TRIGGER!” command will advise those in the know that they have erred by failing to control their muzzle or keep their trigger finger indexed along the side of the receiver unless the sights are on target. If the person does not understand your attempted correction, make it clear to him. If he violates the rule again, leave the area. Someone is going to die or be permanently injured because of that person, and you don’t want that for you or your people.

Before we end today’s lesson, let’s make sure that our rifles are unloaded:

1. Always keep the muzzle under control and pointed in a safe direction:
a. downrange if safe,
b. straight down at the ground, or
c. if nothing else is available, straight up in the air.

2. While making sure to keep our fingers off and away from the trigger, remove all of the stored ammunition from the rifle – whether it is in a box magazine as shown in the illustrations above, a tubular magazine running parallel to and underneath the barrel, an internal magazine as part of the receiver assembly, or even a tubular magazine contained in the rifle’s buttstock.

3. When you are sure that ALL ammunition has been removed from the rifle, operate the rifle’s action to eject the chambered round, if any. If possible, lock the action open and visually inspect the rifle’s chamber (located in the receiver end of the barrel) to make sure that there is not a live round present. It is also a good habit to make a tactile check of the chamber using your finger. Doing so does two things:
a. it doubly confirms that the chamber is indeed empty, and
b. it allows you to get familiar with how the empty chamber feels, so that if you ever have to check a rifle’s chamber for safety in the dark, you will know the difference between the feel of an empty chamber and that of a full chamber.

Notice that I did not refer to the rifle’s mechanical safety during the unloading process. The lesser reason is that on some rifles, an engaged mechanical safety prevents the shooter from unloading the rifle by locking the action closed. The greater reason is that you should never, ever rely on a mechanical safety; it is a mechanical device and they are known to fail when stressed. Instead, by faithfully executing Colonel Cooper’s Rules I, II, and III every single moment that you are holding any firearm, your mind and mental discipline become the true safety device.

Simply put, the safety on any firearm is located between the ears of the person using the weapon. As long as that safety is fully operational, any other problem will be avoided, or at least rendered harmless.

For next time, please memorize the safety rules and be able to explain what they mean, on command and out of sequence. We’ll cover sights and sighting in our next session.

Thanks for coming by.


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