Four Rules: Kind of Like Religion

Alan over at Snarkybytes takes issue with the four rules. I tend to think of the rules as being a construct to help people understand safe gun handling, more than literal commandments that must be taken at their very word. In that sense it’s kind of like religion — if you get all fundamentalist with it, it loses its point.

We know that there is, of course, such a thing as an unloaded gun. Cooper’s point is more that we should not assume a gun is safe just because we’re certain it’s unloaded. More than a few people have been killed by guns that someone was certain wasn’t loaded. That’s the problem rule one is meant to solve. I’m not sure how concerned we should be about how we accomplish cleaning, dry firing, and smithing conceptually within the framework of rule one, because that seems to be missing the forest for the trees. That ends up getting into debates that go something like, “Well, if you take the slide off, and remove the barrel, is it still really a gun you have to treat as loaded? I mean, if I’m staring down a barrel out of the firearm, how is it different than staring down a pluming pipe?” All reasonable technical observations, and interesting in an academic sort of way, but I’m not sure we need to argue about such things when thinking about promoting safe gun handling.

I tend to think the four rules are fine, but I think they have to be taken for what they are; a conceptual framework for safe gun handling. One could certainly make literal arguments for why they do or don’t apply in this situation or that situation, and where they fall apart if taken literally, but to me that’s in the realm of an academic exercise. I think in terms of promoting safe gun handling, they’ve suited the community just fine.

18 thoughts on “Four Rules: Kind of Like Religion”

  1. Absolutely the proper perspective, as many of the comments over there noted.

    Everyone “breaks” Rule 1. (By which I mean, treats a gun as if it’s unloaded.)

    Almost everyone (everyone?) breaks Rule 2 (especially in situations they’re breaking Rule 1 in).

    This is rarely a problem if the conditions are appropriate; Rule 1 is broken by everyone that does dry-fire practice, and if they’re doing it at home indoors, as is common, Rule 2 is typically broken as well, simply because nobody really wants a bullet hole in their wall.

    Likewise, you can’t clean a gun without “breaking” Rule 1 – if it really was loaded, you couldn’t clean it, and attempting to would be a violation of safety.

    Likewise during holstering (as I mentioned at Tam’s today, in her thread about IWB holsters) it can be damned difficult to do it without ever covering yourself at all, or something you’d rather not shoot – but this is not a problem because we realize that and take double-strong care to not break Rule 3 while doing so.

    Redundancy and a careful mindset are the goals.

  2. I sort of have my own caveat to Rule 1, and that is ‘unless the action is open.’ Irks me to no end when someone hands me a weapon and says “There’s one in the pipe!”

    Maybe that’s from having it drilled into me as a Gunners Mate in the Navy, any time we issued weapons, any time they changed hands, the action was open. And to this day, that’s still the first thing I tend to do when I pick one up: clear it, inspect it, and then proceed with whatever task I am doing (cleaning it, moving it, etc). There’s been a couple of times I picked up one up, and had a round pop out of the chamber.

  3. My pickup-truck can be empty and unloaded but you wouldn’t want to ride behind me on a motorcycle.
    I’d rather make the assumption myself that a gun is loaded than rely on someone’s assertion that it isn’t, because by the time it’s in my hands it’s my responsibility – and plenty of guys have injured themselves with their own “unloaded” gun.

    If you dry-fire with a replacement training barrel are you really breaking Rule-1 since it’s technically no longer a gun?

  4. It could be remarked. My personal mantra regarding rule #1 would be that “All Guns are Always Loaded, unless I personally have checked it twice.”

    At that point, when I have the slide locked back and am peering down the bore with a light to look for pitting, I’m sure. And I still keep my booger hook off the bang switch.

    No. They’re not “ALWAYS” loaded. But they are until I’ve made doubly sure they aren’t. It keeps the ND’s down to a bare minimum.

  5. The purpose behind Rule 1 is to establish that a gun is an inherently dangerous object, designed to shoot holes in stuff, and should always be handled as such. There’s no special category of “safe” or “unloaded” guns that can be handled carelessly.

    This is why I have a quibble with those who phrase it as “Always be aware of the condition of your weapon,” as though you can be “aware” that it’s “unloaded” and therefore it’s safe to go pointing it at friends or loved ones.

    If you want to phrase it as “handle every gun as though it were loaded” or “pretend every gun is loaded” or whatever, that’s fine, so long as it establishes the same baseline of thought: Is gun. Is not safe.

  6. I realize that Jeff Cooper is viewed as some kind of god to some people, so I’m sure this will seem like sacrilege to a few people. But the NRA’s 3 rules actually make a lot more sense, and I don’t have to ignore any of them in order to field strip a Glock.

    Oh, and you still have to break more than one to have an ND, and all three in order to hurt someone.

  7. Laughingdog: Unfortunately the NRA’s rules show its target shooting heritage and focus. Cooper’s are intended for self-defense and hunting as well as target shooting.

    The NRA’s rule 2 is Cooper’s rule 3.

    The NRA’s rule 1 is rather explicit in only covering target shooting (“not cause injury or damage”) and simply doesn’t work for most forms of concealed carry (where an AD will at the very least cause you some harm); Cooper’s equivalent rule 2 “Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy” is much more to the point. The NRA’s rule 2 (without the long explanation) is entirely useless for concealed carry. Cooper’s rule 4 covers something very critical for hunting (where I learned the principle) and self-defense, which is essentially glossed over in the NRA’s rule 1 (when you’re at a target range you only have to worry about making sure you hit the backdrop).

    One final note: While Cooper has one more rule than the NRA’s (the infamous rule 1 of attitude), there’s much less to remember in Cooper’s since each rule is one sentence followed by one explanatory sentence.

  8. A not-too-well-known point about Cooper’s 4 rules – they were written to be used IN A GUN FIGHT. We use them on the range (and elsewhere) because they work. (Source: Clint Smith, Thunder Ranch, May, 2006. Clint said that he painted the original signboard for Col. Cooper when he worked at Gunsite back in the 70’s)

    With that lens in place, the 4 rules make more sense.

    That’s also probably why the NRA third rule is “Always keep the gun unloaded until READY TO USE”. A gun that you have for personal protection better be ready to use all the time, unless your world is populated with criminals who always give you 30 seconds notice that they will attack…..

  9. When Kathy talks about gun cleaning and dry-firing at the Cornered Cat, she always insists that you need a place for bullets to go in the case of the ND. That is, even when a gun is dry fired or when stripped, you obey the Four Rules, or Three, or Two, or however many rules are proposed.

    1. I know two people who decided to relax about the first rule and not double check before dry firing. One has a hole in the ceiling to remind him, and the other in his floor. It’s not a casual rule that we can just overlook without thinking about it.

      My rule is to always check twice, even if I was the last to handle the gun. I figure I’ll keep doing it that way and I never have to worry about a hole in our floors, ceilings, or walls to remind me.

  10. My rule is that once it’s disassembled to the point where it can’t possibly fire anymore, it’s not a gun and you can disregard the rules of gun handling…. at least until you put it back together. That deals with the cleaning issue. Needless to say I don’t recommend people cleaning functional firearms. You can’t do a thorough job without disassembly anyway.

    Dry firing I think should absolutely be in a safe direction, especially that first squeeze… just so you’re in the habit.

  11. Whether you use Cooper’s four rules, the NRA’s three rules, Alan’s two rules, or some other set of rules, I’ve always believed that the underlying idea is to be multiple steps away from a catastrophe. By this I mean that we should always be more than one mistake away from accidentally killing or seriously injuring someone, including ourselves. Preferably we should be three or more mistakes away.

    If my only rule is to keep the gun unloaded, but I freely play with the trigger and don’t worry about where I point it, all I have to do is accidentally leave a round in there one time for a serious accident to occur. Likewise, if my only rule is never to pull the trigger until I am ready to shoot, but again, I don’t worry about keeping the gun unloaded or who the barrel is pointing at, there’s a possibility that at some point the trigger will get snagged with tragic consequences.

    But if I make sure the gun is always unloaded when not in use (checking it each time I pick it up), AND I never point it at anything I’m not willing to shoot, AND I keep my finger off the trigger, AND I use keep the safety on when not firing, then I have to make a lot of simultaneous mistakes for something tragic to occur, which is VERY unlikely to happen.

  12. JMD: While I mostly agree with you, I have to point out that the NRA’s target range oriented rules cover only implicitly, and not at all in the explanation’ emphasis, one of the most important rule for hunters (where I learned it) and self-defense gun users, which is in Cooper’s rule 4:

    Identify your target, and what is behind it. Never shoot at anything that you have not positively identified.

    Far too many hunting “accidents” (I sometimes wonder how many of these are really accidents) occur when someone shoots at a not positively identified deer or whatever and takes out a hunting partner.

    And notoriously Dick Cheney’s violation of the 2nd part of rule 4 resulted in what I’ve always feared while quail hunting, accidentally shooting a hunting partner who you’ve lost track of. That part of rule 4 was something my father drummed into the head of all his children, by instruction and example (e.g. he’d explain why one shot was acceptably safe or explain why he wasn’t taking a particular one because of the backdrop). And he started us on dove (where you’re stationary) much earlier than quail.

Comments are closed.