Whose Rules of Firearms Safety Are Best? Comparing Col. Cooper and the NRA

There’s a humongous donnybrook on a post on our Facebook page about the Rules of Firearms Safety, with people questioning everything from my training to my intelligence to my parentage to my species because of the formulation of the Rules of Safe Firearms Handling I included in the post. Let’s clear up some of the fracas and explain the two major systems of understanding and articulating the Rules, and why I prefer the NRA articulation of the Rules to Jeff Cooper’s. Hopefully this helps the brouhaha turn into a meaningful discussion.


Allow me to preface this discussion with a touch of background on this one. I was taught safe firearms handling by two USMC-veteran grandfathers (one of whom served under Chesty Puller in the 1st Marine Division and was wounded in the assault on Pelileu) and by my pop who was a Recon Marine in Vietnam (3/3, first full platoon on the ground in country, for anyone keeping score at home) Let’s just say that these three men pounded Col Cooper’s Rules into my head from a very early age. I have no ill will toward the Colonel’s Rules and respect them. I just don’t think they’re the best articulation of the rules.


With that said, let’s examine the Rules.


Cooper’s Rules:


ScreenShot2013-04-12at111920PM_zps61cedfb2RULE I: ALL GUNS ARE ALWAYS LOADED (or at least, treat all guns as if they were loaded)




RULE III: KEEP YOUR FINGER OFF THE TRIGGER UNTIL YOUR SIGHTS ARE ON THE TARGET (some add, and you have made the decision to shoot)


RULE IV: BE SURE OF YOUR TARGET (some add, and what is beyond it)




The core of the Colonel’s official articulation is in caps. The additions are in parentheses.


The NRA Rules:


Rule 1: ALWAYS keep the gun pointed in a safe direction.safety


Rule 2: ALWAYS keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot.


Rule 3: ALWAYS keep the gun unloaded until ready to use.




While I certainly respect Colonel Cooper as the father of the modern pistol technique, I think his articulation of the Rules has weathered with age a bit, and as one of the most important martial arts figures in my life, Ed Parker, said, “An ounce of logic can be worth more than a ton of tradition that has become obsolete through the weathering of time.” Let’s analyze each of Cooper’s Four Rules and see why I don’t think they’re the best formulation:


1) ALL GUNS ARE ALWAYS LOADED. No they’re not, but I am not so brain damaged that I can’t see that he means to treat every firearm as if it is loaded. Okay, fine. But the very fact that guns AREN’T loaded all the time and can be checked unloaded all the time makes this one poorly worded. The NRA formulation (ALWAYS keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction) is clearer, easier, and has no natural point of ignoring it. The low level of awareness of too many people leads them to ignore the rest of the rules when the gun is supposedly “unloaded” because it’s fine, right? We know better, but once this one is thrown out mentally people do more stupid things.


2) NEVER LET THE MUZZLE COVER ANYTHING YOU ARE NOT PREPARED TO DESTROY. Certainly it’s good to think about what we’re pointing a firearm at, but this one is again poorly worded and in a practical sense constantly ignored. When you handle a firearm, you’re going to muzzle lots of stuff you don’t want to destroy. I was dry firing today and pointing my muzzle at my safe, which I do not want to destroy. However, the gun was pointed in a safe direction! (see what I did there?) When you pick the gun up it is pointed at desk and chair and bed. Hopefully it’s never pointed at your hand! It’s far simpler to say ALWAYS keep the firearm pointed in a safe direction, and then define a safe direction as that which would hurt no innocent people and would cause minimum property damage if the gun went off unintentionally. I get that the heart here is “Don’t point the gun at someone unless you are sure you need to shoot them,” but again since it gets functionally ignored as stated, it leads to an easier mental jump to ignoring other parts of this formulation of the Rules.


3) KEEP YOUR FINGER OFF THE TRIGGER TIL YOUR SIGHTS ARE ON THE TARGET. I have no real problem with this one. On the sights, on the trigger. Same as NRA Rule 2, but I like the NRA formulation because it is a second ALWAYS. They are functionally identical here, and both serve a good purpose.


4) BE SURE OF YOUR TARGET AND WHAT LIES BEYOND IT. This is not a bad rule, at all, but it’s part of the first NRA rule already because if you can’t verify your target and backstop, it’s not a safe direction so you don’t point your gun at it. And NRA Rule 3 is valuable because it adds safety without compromising the need to keep defensive firearms loaded, because when it’s used as a defensive tool (the moment it is “on duty”) it should be loaded because it is being used. But the second I am going to hand it to someone else, I unload it because I am not using it anymore, and any time someone hands me a gun I verify that it is unloaded because it is not being used. This is why we say we never hand a loaded gun to someone. And before I put a gun away in the safe, I unload it. And when I put a gun down on the table at the range, I only do so when it is verified unloaded. And when I pick it up, I point it in a safe direction (Rule 1) and keep my finger off the trigger (Rule 2) and verify that it is unloaded (Rule 3) so that if I do something stupid, I don’t streak a .45 through my palm. Some argue that the guns in their quick access safe need to stay loaded because otherwise it’s too much time to load them for defensive use in a home invasion. I believe it is acceptable to say that those guns are also in use as home defense tools, but recognize that they must be secured against unauthorized access in some capacity.


For these reasons, I think Colonel Cooper’s Four Rules, while not evil or terrible, are aged and poorly worded, especially for new shooters and for those learning firearms safety. I prefer the NRA Rules:


Rule 1: ALWAYS keep the gun pointed in a safe direction. (pointing a gun at an armed robber is keeping it pointed in a safe direction!)


Rule 2: ALWAYS keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot. (if you bring a gun up and put sights on target, you should be READY to shoot, even if you don’t immediately shoot, so in my expression you can put finger on trigger when the gun comes up on target)


Rule 3: ALWAYS keep the gun unloaded until ready to use. (defensive firearms are in use; when in use, load the gun!)

25 replies
  1. Steve
    Steve says:

    Better firearm safety rules

    1. Treat all firearms as though they are loaded and check each firearm visually and physically before declaring it unloaded.

    2. Never point a firearm at any individual that you are not willing to shoot or at anything that you are not willing to destroy. Always be aware of your muzzle and point firearms in the safest possible direction.

    3. Keep fingers off of the trigger and outside the trigger guard unless anticipating imminent discharge of the firearm.

    4. Be sure of your target. Know what is between you and the target, behind your target and never shoot at anything that has not been positively identified.

    5. Never take a firearm from anyone without verifying it is unloaded.

    • Daniel
      Daniel says:

      Your rule number 5 falls into the same category as the Colonel’s rules. It is not universally wise to follow said rule.

      When growing up, my siblings and dad used to practice teamwork quite a bit. One of our drills was to pass weapons between team members from various positions simulating injury, jams, etc.

      So while your rule may be a good generalized statement, I believe it is unwise to hold it as a rule.

        • Barry
          Barry says:

          Actually, I think its a great idea to teach firearm safety rules to a 5 year old. Unless you can guarantee your child will never come in contact with a real gun, or even a bb gun, it’s probably a good idea that they know what to do. But for that age group, the safety rule would be 1) run away 2) and get an adult. But I teach the normal safety rules (the 3 NRA rules) to my 5 year old to use with his bb gun and airsoft pistol.

    • Laron F. Woods
      Laron F. Woods says:

      Correia has it nailed! Steve, I think the other comments are right on. Your rules are too complicated. The NRA version, (Correia’s version) Are not only simpler and cover things completely, but they are “positive’ instead of ‘negative’ helping the shooter (shooting student) to keep a positive mental attitude thus enhancing learning! I am a former teacher with a degree in education, and I understand the need for students to have a PMA!

  2. Gabe
    Gabe says:

    John, I like it. Simple is good. Ultimately, I think the solution, regardless of which wording is used, is to teach (slowly) and demonstrate. I’ve watched people finish rattling off the four rules while their student is still trying to process rule 1.

    Too many of us are born thinking that we’re already proficient and we need it hammered home that we’re not.

    Hollywood has been a real enemy in this regard.

  3. Rustmeister
    Rustmeister says:

    As a kid, the first thing I learned was “all guns are loaded”. It was easy enough to understand, and is the first thing I say to someone new to firearms. It teaches us to respect what a gun is, and what it can do.

    Similarly, the Col’s rule 2 reinforces this. Gun safety is more than learning simple rules, it’s developing respect for something more powerful than you, yet under your control.

    I prefer the Colonels.

    • bcrockett
      bcrockett says:

      Agreed. Col’s are easier for me to remember and to teach—I’d rather be told what not to do when it comes to firearms safety. Much quicker and easier to correct someone breaking one of the rules than explaining something that says “Always.”

  4. Daniel Medley
    Daniel Medley says:

    The NRA rules are great because they encompass everything. Follow them and you’ve got everything covered in simple, concise verbiage.

    That being said, I do tell new shooters who I’m introducing to the discipline to treat every gun as if it’s loaded. I do this as I tell them that there simply is no room for error with a firearm. With an AD, chances are quite high that there may not be a do-over.

  5. Steve Kendley
    Steve Kendley says:

    No matter which you prefer, the main idea is we need to preach firearm safety and do it from a young age. If we do this, we are going a long way toward protecting our rights and country.
    Thank you for your discussion.
    Steve Kendley

  6. George
    George says:

    I just saw a video of Colonel Cooper explaining his safety rules. The explanation of rule number one I was free all guns as if loaded unless you have checked to make sure it is unloaded and is still in your hands. If you put a gun down on a table and then pick it up again you still need to recheck to make sure it’s unloaded.
    That being said, I still prefer the NRA rules.

  7. Sandra Henderson
    Sandra Henderson says:

    What is up with the nearly INVISIBLE light grey font??? I there something wrong with a VERY easy to see and read BLACK font???

  8. Sam Fidler
    Sam Fidler says:

    With over 25 years with the U.S. Army Special Forces and a half dozen more with the State Dept in Baghdad where I finished teaching firearms and tactics, I got tired of teaching cardinal rules one day and telling students to violate them the very next day.

    In the military and security positions see routinely train force on force or role playing with unloaded weapons or with blanks or simunition rounds. On live fire days we would tell them, “Never point it at anything you don’t want to destroy” and on other days tell them it’s ok to point at instructors and role played but not their team mates. As a result, one of my peers came up with the following rules that didn’t require a suspension of understanding or additional clarification. It’s what I teach today.

    1. Keep your finger straight AND off the trigger until I am intentionally shooting.

    2. Control and know where the muzzle it’s pointing.

    3. Know the condition of the firearm.

    4. Be sure of your target and your environment.

  9. Erica
    Erica says:

    I go with a variation on both.

    1 Treat every gun as if it is loaded.
    2 Always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction.
    3 Keep you finger off the trigger until you are on target and have decided to fire.
    4 Know your target and what is beyond it.

    Number three is important, because I may draw and aim During a confrontation (say a burglar on my property, but not actively attacking) , but may not be ready to shoot, then some noise startles me with my adrenaline already racing. I f my finger is indexed on the fram, my flinch does no harm, but i a world with short light triggers that flinch may have me explaining why a shot a guy after he dropped his weapon ( I have cameras on my property).

    Number 4 is important because people tend to stop thinking at the target. must of the time you cannot count on the target stopping a round, and even when you can, it won’t stop a miss.


  10. Doug
    Doug says:

    I always like to add: NEVER try to catch a falling gun.
    Because it’s too easy to break all the other rules when doing so. But I agree that the NRA rules are easier for a broader audience.
    Thanks John

  11. Bernie
    Bernie says:

    1) ALL GUNS ARE ALWAYS LOADED. No they’re not(Quote) YES THEY ARE! The late Colonel was known to take out his pistol and ask “Is this loaded?” The correct answer was “Yes” He removed the magazine and locked back the slide asking the same question again. And once again, the answer was “Yes”. Even when unloaded, how does it change the way one handles the weapon? The most infamous words prior to an ND is “Don’t worry! Its not loaded!” Cooper went on to state “Loaded is the normal condition of a weapon! An unloaded gun is useless! It cannot perform its task when unloaded!”

  12. Gordon
    Gordon says:

    The NRA is simply trying to coopt the safety rules so they can sell more instructor certifications. I prefer the four BECAUSE they’re tried and true. And the NRA’s third rule is SO open to misinterpretation is must be explained…which is bad policy for safety. No thanks. I’m not falling for the marketing scheme thanks. Cooper’s four have never failed me and never will.

  13. Duane from Canada
    Duane from Canada says:

    Hello, my fellow Americans! John, I love watching your lessons everyday. I just happened upon this thread.
    Regarding the NRA vs Cooper’s rules. In Canada, we have similar rules, worded differently, but somehow lacking because they’re only about unloading.
    We are required to take a federal safety course, and background check to obtain a firearms license (2 kinds: non-restricted (Long guns that we can hunt with), and Restricted (hand guns and certain firearms that we can shoot at the range, but look too scary to hunt with).
    There is also a separate provincial hunting course, which also covers how we are to be sure of our target and what is behind it.
    The Canadian Firearms Safety Course uses acronyms which we must memorize and perform to pass the written and practical tests. What they call the ACTS & PROVE method to make firearms safe.

    These are what they call The Vital Four ACTS (with my own personal comments in parentheses):
    (A) Assume every firearm is loaded. (Like Cooper’s only worded better in my opinion)
    (C) Control the muzzle direction at all times. (again, similar to Cooper’s and the NRA’s #1 rule)
    (T) Trigger finger must be kept off the trigger and out of the trigger guard (Uh ya, until you’re about to shoot your target, of course).
    (S) See that the firearm is unloaded – PROVE if safe. (after which you might load it and shoot stuff, so be sure of your target and what is beyond it)

    Next, how to PROVE it safe:
    (P) Point the firearm in the safest available direction.
    (R) Remove all cartridges.
    (O) Observe the chamber.
    (V) Verify the feeding path.
    (E) Examine the bore. (yep, some people look straight down the barrel of their guns at this point).

    I’m a hunter and I also enjoy participating in IDPA, which uses Cooper’s Rules.
    I think that the NRA rules are simple and make the most sense.


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