Beyond Cooper’s Four Rules by L.K.R.

Most people know the four rules of firearm safety popularized by Colonel Jeff Cooper:

1.) All guns are always loaded.

This one has a double meaning – (1) always check an “unloaded” firearm yourself and (2) once you’ve checked, still follow all the other rules as though it was loaded.

2.) Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy.

This doesn’t mean you’re willing to destroy the wall of your home – just that it’s not catastrophic like pointing at a family member.

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

This is a critical partner for the ‘muzzle’ rule above. It means that you have to violate 2 rules in order to hurt someone – both sweeping a person with the muzzle and having your finger on the trigger.

4.) Be sure of your target.

This is often expanded to “be sure of what is between you and the target along with what is behind your target”. You must know where the bullet will stop.

Let’s expand on these rules and consider some issues faced by almost everyone who owns a firearm:

In the home
  • Even with guns that you know are unloaded – check every time. This is very important when kids are around to demonstrate good habits. It’s also essential when handling firearms around people less familiar than you – putting them at ease and ensuring no problems when they invariably violate the muzzle and/or finger rules.
  • When unloading, first remove the magazine from semi-autos. Then lock the slide back to inspect the chamber. This ensures that racking the slide does not inadvertently chamber a round.
  • Have a safe direction for the muzzle when loading and unloading. Some people keep a 5-gallon bucket of sand in the workshop for this purpose. At least have a safe direction where you won’t penetrate a floor, wall or ceiling into an occupied room or adjacent building.
  • The above muzzle advice is also important when moving firearms in the home. Muzzle “up” may be the best option on your upper floor but muzzle “down” may be the best option downstairs.
  • Dry fire practice is an excellent way to develop good sight, trigger and follow-through skills. The best technique is to aim at a blank wall about a foot away. First unload the firearm and separate the ammo or loaded magazine to a different room. Then double check the chamber and use a wall where nothing important will be damaged if an accident occurs.
  • If you store loaded guns for self-defense, consider having a small safe or lockbox. There are many options that allow fast access via a key code, fingerprint or RFID bracelet. I personally avoid anything with batteries since they can and do fail at inopportune times. I prefer key codes using a Simplex lock – one that is purely mechanical. If you hide firearms in the home, then you may want to keep the chamber empty in case they are found by an unauthorized person. If there is any chance of a child or unstable person finding them, stick with a lockbox or safe.

Concealed Carry
  • ·The ideal holster will conceal well, have adequate retention of the gun and be reasonably comfortable. Another important characteristic is that the holster remains open when the gun is removed so that you can re-holster with one hand. This is important to avoid the muzzle sweeping your weak hand as you hold the holster open. In general, Kydex holsters, hybrid holsters with a Kydex shell and leather holsters with a stiffener will stay open when empty.
  • When holstering on the belt, be sure to insert the gun with muzzle straight down – not angled toward your body. If using a shoulder holster, be very aware of where the muzzle is pointing. Most shoulder rigs these days have the gun horizontal to the ground – thereby pointing directly behind you.
  • The latest craze is appendix carry – where the holster is inside the waistband on your strong side just in front of the hip. This makes the gun very concealable and fast to access from any position. It also makes it more likely that you’ll point into your abdomen when re-holstering and ensures that the gun will be pointing into your upper thigh / groin area when seated. Note that this automatically violates Cooper’s second rule on muzzle direction.
  • Many younger shooters think I’m just old fashioned when I explain my concerns – if you share that opinion, I suggest you Google “appendix carry accidents”. My personal rules for appendix carry are either to have an empty chamber or carry a double action handgun where there is no stored energy in the hammer or striker and a reasonably long and heavy trigger pull. It is also safer to use an inside the waistband holster with a belt clip that allows you to place the gun in the holster pointing in a safe direction and then put the holster onto your belt with the trigger safely covered in the holster.
  • While on the subject of carrying with an empty chamber – this is not the best practice if you want the gun to be immediately available. Most self-defense shootings happen very close and very fast. You can’t rack the slide if you are pushing an attacker away or holding onto a child. The exceptions are where your method of carry makes a loaded chamber too dangerous. This is one of the trade-offs when determining how you should carry.
  • Off body carry options include waist packs, backpacks, briefcases, purses, etc. This option is not ideal in that you can be separated from your firearm when you put these items down – leaving them open to theft or accidents with children. In addition, the handgun is often carried horizontal to the ground – meaning that the muzzle is sweeping everyone around you. I apply the same rules as appendix carry – empty chamber or double action. At the very least, you must have a holster in the bag to ensure nothing can get into the trigger guard. Purpose-built bags usually have a Velcro panel that allows you to insert a suitable nylon or Kydex holster with mating Velcro surface.
  • Pocket Carry is very convenient with small guns. If done in a front pants pocket, you have the same issues as off body carry where the muzzle is sweeping others while you are seated. Jacket pockets are a bit better if the muzzle can be kept angled down. Both require a holster to cover the trigger guard and I use the appendix carry rules when in a front pants pocket.
Vehicles, Gun Stores and at the Range
  • Some folks like to keep a gun in the car. If you do, it should be concealed to avoid alarming people or inviting theft. Be sure it is positioned so that nothing can get into the trigger guard.
  • If you need to retrieve the gun or are moving it back and forth from a holster, be very aware of the muzzle. It’s very easy to sweep your legs or angle the muzzle toward your body while seated.
  • Some of the worst muzzle discipline happens in gun stores. When handling weapons – even those just cleared – be sure to follow the same muzzle and finger discipline as you would at home. Gun store clerks get swept by muzzles everyday and you’ve probably had the experience of some guy sighting a rifle or dry firing a handgun in your direction. There are very few “muzzle safe” directions in a crowded store and you need to be very careful.
  • When arriving at the range, some people pull the gun off the backseat or out of the bag and proceed to walk to the firing line with no muzzle control. You should have the gun cased in the car and take the case to the firing line to safely remove the firearm while pointing downrange. The gun should ideally arrive with a chamber flag or you should immediately open the action at the shooting bench to show the gun is clear.

If all the above sounds like a burden – it should. We are blessed with a country where private gun ownership is a right and many states where reasonable laws exist (at least for the time being). As responsible adults, we have the obligation to keep everyone safe while we are exercising these rights. Along with our primary responsibility to avoid injury, we must avoid jeopardizing our rights by providing the anti-gun activists with examples of accidental shootings or reckless gun handling. Be very aware of your muzzle / finger discipline and stay safe at all times.


  1. “dry fire” should be conducted out door. The border patrol (at least the local ones I grew up in the locker rooms of) had a large open steel pipe filled with sand infront of thier “employee entrances” you would place the barrel of gun in this and unload. Then enter the building.

    Not many actually did this.

    The agents also had a tendancy to dry fire while aiming at the clock on the wall.

    As a result …. There was a section of wall that is haunted by the ghost of clock past…. And lots of time was killed… And that section of wall is now constructed basically entirely of paper tape and compound.

    Honestly keep the trigger pulling in approved areas and with firearm pointed in approved directions.

  2. A very good summary of gun safety rules. Let’s just say my Dad’s hammering of those same rules saved a friends life (and mine too) when I was young and foolish.

  3. To be honest I don’t think these rules are said enough. I have been around an AD (accidental discharge) before and it isn’t fun. I have also been flagged while helping to run a range before. Again, not fun. These rules aren’t a burden but are demanded from us as responsible gun owners. I happily follow them every single day. Thank you for this article, for it is the basics and the small things that are often forgotten but should be front and center when using firearms.

  4. I carry behind my right hip, concealable but still easy to get to, except when I’m in my car or pu. Then it’s a bitch to get to. Like Mr Cooper said about the location or pointing of the muzzle, at 70 plus, it just a memory. So I’ve been wondering about maybe a crossdraw ( inside the waist band ) for a .380 bersa / walther. Just wondering

  5. Way, way back when I had to take a hunter safety course, the game wardens cleared a shotgun and set it down, demonstrating the process. With some impressive stage direction, the other warden secretly loaded the shotgun with a blank, so when the first warden picked the “empty” shotgun up again (by the trigger) it went off. Scared the bejesus out of all of us teenagers, and I will never forget that lesson. Always treat a weapon as loaded, even if you “know” it isn’t.

    I almost always carry with an empty chamber myself, but I’m ok with the compromise.

  6. Rule 5: Never attempt to catch a falling gun.

    Many (most) modern pistols no longer have an external safety. Therefore anything that interacts with the trigger can cause it to discharge. If for any reason you lose your grip on the gun, let it fall. The internal drop safety will prevent it from firing. However, if you attempt to catch it, any finger may make its way into the trigger guard and accidentally pull the trigger.

  7. Corollary Rule to Cooper’s 4: If you are tired or sleepy your chance of violating one of the Big 4 is at least double.

    On my last tour in Iraq I watched an extremely experienced MSG AD his 9mm into the clearing barrel – not just once, but multiple times – because of fatigue. I finally had to run over to him and put my hand over his and stop him from continuing to rack and fire into the barrel. He simply forgot to take his magazine out first, so he kept racking and firing thinking he was clearing the weapon. Needless to say, this was a significant emotional event and a learning event as well. Fatigue can make you do really stupid things if you don’t mitigate it – even with battle buddies it can get you (his battle buddy was up in the hatch clearing the .50 cal). When tired, slow down and triple check everything!

    1. This is so true. Fatigue leads to so many ER gunshot visits. Then add the effects of alcohol or OTC medications (the ones that make you drowsy) to fatigue. The alcohol does not need to be at high levels (DUI) to affect judgement.

      I refuse to be around anyone who has had a drink in the last six hours when firearms are present. One mistake in judgement equals tragedy.

      Carry on

  8. I agree with your gun locker philosophy. I only use mechanical combination, lock, etc. I see too many people who buy big gun safes with electronic locks, which likely will never open after an EMP or strong solar flare (when you will need your weapon the most). Good article.

    1. I am constitutionally against gun safes. Period. If you need a child proof storage for gun then you need to educate your child on gun safety.

      If you need to secure your gun from theft then it should be done in a different manner ,… Buried in a drum , or mattress etc.

      Any safe that I’ve wanted in to I have gotten in to. I have no problem grinding open a safe. Grinders touches hammers sawsalls . If they want in your safe they will get in.

      All safes do is protect the eyes from seeing and delay your getting to them. Just like locking your tool box on a Jobe site…

      “Locks only keep honest people honest”

    2. My local locksmith told me that every week he is called to someone’s house to break in to their gun safe because their electronic lock has malfunctioned and they can’t open it up. He said never buy a gun safe with a digital keypad lock, only mechanical.

  9. Lol on gun safety.

    My dad was a leo (b.p.) and drilled us constantly. I didn’t realize how deeply ingrained the lessons were until I read this … And noticed how I hold my drills and drivers at work …. Lol.

  10. I have taught new shooters “all guns are loaded until you know otherwise.”

    First – “all guns,” whether you are holding it or not. That means you insist on others treating the guns they are handling as loaded until you are certain they aren’t. Their knowlege isn’t sufficient. And it includes guns that are resting nearby too.

    Then “you know” which means you have actual knowlege that has determined the gun is unloaded. It means you have the understanding of the way the gun operates as well as you have made the observations necessary to ensure it’s unloaded. It means you have taken the time and care and not made hasty or incomplete inspection.

    Once you know the gun is unloaded, you can carefully handle it as unloaded. Why? Do you ever clean your gun? Do you ever clean your gun while it is loaded? If you only clean unloaded guns, you must have a criteria that determines a gun is unloaded and safe to handle.

  11. I rod every weapon to check for empty barrel. The old Hoppes rods had orange plastic swab holders which are perfect for checks. I wish they’d go back to that color.

  12. I’ve mentioned the gun safe electronic lock problem to various store employees where safes are sold and none of them has an answer…ie) can the electronics be over ridden in case of electronic failure? ( not just the need for new batteries), and they are blank. Surely the safe manufacturers have a solution for this, otherwise there is inadvertent “gun control” and disarmament. Electronically controlled gun safes are not my choice.

    1. I had an electronic lock fail on a fire safe. Mechanical failure in the electronic locking system. No way to get in without destroying the safe. I cut it open with a grinder. Needless to say I’m saving for good fire safe with a totally mechanical lock.

  13. Excellent article- we need much much more of this type of proper discipline.
    Also – when hunting, or on BLM land – I OFTEN see folks not properly evaluating what is BEHIND their target…

    1. The border patrol where I grew up would actually order their agents out of certain known hunting areas at the beginning of dove season… The gun handling of people and shot judgement and field of fire analysis was so poor that it was a hazard to the agents.

      And there was so much shooting at suspected movement that no illegals would attempt to cross at that time… Or survive if they did attempt.

      I have seriously seen people shoot through a whole magazine flip and reload (competition style) just to empty that magazine for one ONE dove.

      Ive also seen irl the pheasant accident where both people died.

  14. I was once hit in the shoulder by a ricochet in a shooting range. The person next to me had an accidental discharge into a concrete ceiling beam directly over us and it came back and hit me in the shoulder. I am always on guard now whenever others are shooting nearby. All you have to do is look around and see all of the holes in various places from accidents while in a range.

  15. My father was aggressive about gun safety. Starting with my BB gun. As a boy, I once allowed the muzzle to briefly cover my grandfather while hiking and my father seized my gun, emptied it, dry fired it to make sure it was empty, and returned it to me. I was then required to carry that “empty” gun on all outings for an entire year while strictly obeying all of the safety rules. Only after a year of safe gun handling did he return my ammo. I hate to admit that my second offense involved a ricochet from firing my BB gun at a target without regard for what was behind it. No injuries but that mistake cost me the right to possess my gun for another year. Needless to say, when I finally graduated to actual firearms, gun safety was one of my core values. Gun safety starts early and a zero tolerance policy for violations must be enforced in a meaningful way.

  16. Growing up my brothers and I had total access to the old man’s guns and he kept a 357 revolver loaded and hanging on the bed post where he slept. However we were taught so early I can’t remember not knowing it, that all guns are loaded and are not toys. I think all our friends had the same lesson cause no one ever expressed interest in playing with them or even just curious. These days I shoot alone or with a select few who I know hold the same high standards for safety.

  17. Here’s one more gun safety rule that I now live by and I will throw it out there to you guys and gals to see if you agree. NEVER CARRY YOUR PISTOL LOADED SOMETIMES AND UNLOADED SOMETIMES. It’s too easy to forget whether it’s loaded NOW or did I unload it the last time I carried it. My advice is to always carry it loaded so there’s no guessing whether it’s loaded or not.
    I come to this conclusion after making a stupid mistake. My wife and I were about to leave the house to run some errands and I went out to my truck to wait for her. We live in the country. As I stood next to my truck I decided to reach inside and retrieve my 40 caliber Glock and do some “dry firing” because my wife was taking forever to get ready. I remembered that I had been carrying it unloaded so there was no danger there. I pulled out the pistol and pointed it at my canoe which was resting on the shore of my nearby pond. I was impressing myself at how steady I was holding it and my breath control was down right text book perfect. I expertly squeezed the trigger (not jerking the trigger because I’m practically a professional) and then then gun went BANG! It scared the crap out of me! My ego instantly became deflated as I realized that I had in fact loaded the gun the last time that I had carried it in my truck. I could have sworn that it was unloaded the last time I had put it in it’s holster and placed the gun in the center console of my truck. So I walked down to the pond like a whipped pup only to find that I had shot through both sides of my aluminum canoe.
    I still have that canoe today (twenty years later) and every time I get in it and I see the two patched holes I still feel embarrassed. But gosh wasn’t that a heck of a shot!

  18. Visiting friends out west, there was an unforgettable incident. They were having a big family gathering, and the father’s ten year old son wanted to show off his hunting rifle. The whole family hunted frequently – all they had to do was walk out the door to find good hunting.

    He came back into the living room, and showed off the rifle to his father and the rest of the family, as well as to us guests. Someone asked if it was unloaded. “Of course” he answered, a bit indignantly. Someone else told him to check. He resisted a bit, sure than it was unloaded. He checked. It was loaded, and he had been pointing it straight at his father, whom he loved dearly.

    You could feel the shock and horror in the room, most of all from the boy.

  19. When I was a child I asked my father if I could have a toy gun. He said “No”. “A gun is never a toy and should never be presented as such”. A few years later I was allowed a BB gun and later a .22 and was taught the rules. If you want to see children getting hardwired with all of the wrong gun handling habits go to a paintball range.

  20. Concerning gun safety, IN GUN STORES. I was visiting a favorite gun store in a city with a population of more than 100,000 people. At three seconds inside the store, I was startled by the blast of a .308 bolt action hunting rifle fired into the ceiling. It was fired by an employee who was testing the trigger pull of a used rifle the was considering purchasing for himself. How many people had handled that rifle since it entered the store? How many times had the action been operated? The last time pushed a live round into the chamber. Or had the seller brought it into the store with a live round in the chamber? When I drove away from the store, the shooter was climbing the ladder to look for holes in the roof.

  21. Th local PD where I qualify has a large sign at the range shelter that reads Rules of the range.
    1. Keep our finger off the trigger!
    2. Keep you damned finger off the trigger!
    3. Keep your damned finger off the trigger if you like that finger!
    4. For those who violate rules 1 through 3, you can retrieve you finger as you leave the range!!

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