Before every I.C.E. Training Company class begins, we cover three things: safety, comfort, and competency.
I say that these are three important aspects of all training that need to underlie everything that we are about to do, regardless of the type of training we are going to be conducting. In this article, I’m going to cover safety. As I say at this point in the classes, this isn’t about a set of safety rules; it is about the concept of safety.
Although safety gets talked about a lot in the training industry, I earnestly believe that safety isn’t thought about nearly enough. Dogmatically repeating safety rules and telling everyone that they are a “safety officer” does not necessarily indicate that an instructor has put in a lot of time pondering what I view as their responsibility to do everything they can to keep their students safe.
I’ve had the privilege to be a student of some of the best instructors in the world, to provide training to some of the best soldiers and sailors on the planet, and to have been on ranges around the world with an amazingly diverse sample of people from the incredibly experienced to, literally, those afraid of the guns they were about to shoot. I’ve seen some of the least likely people do some very stupid things with loaded firearms because of their relaxed attitude, and I’ve seen many people who were so intimidated by or nervous about the firearm that they would do nothing except exactly what their instructor told them.
There are many, many (sometimes tragic) examples of professionals and experienced shooters who were intimately familiar with “The Rules” being involved in negligent discharges. My goal in thinking about safety as a concept is to be able to address everyone on the range with a set of guidelines and principles that will do as much as possible to keep us all safe on the training range.
Why do we need to think about safety as a concept instead of just having a set of rules? For one thing, I’ve seen more than one instructor violate his own rules in front of students or when standing beside signs with long lists of bullet pointed safety rule minutia—without stating that those guidelines were being suspended (much of which are often ignored by shooters on the firing line, especially in defensive training courses).
This kind of hypocrisy sends the wrong message to students and needs to be examined. For another thing, we have plenty of empirical evidence that says that simply being aware of a set of rules doesn’t always prevent accidents. Furthermore, the industry doesn’t even agree on what “The Rules” are! Some groups use three, others use four, and most have exceptions and asterisks. I think that understanding safety as a concept as well as the rules and procedures that we follow will definitely increase the amount of true safety for all us.
Many years ago, in the wake of a tragic (but typical) case of negligence after a class at a well-known school, I got into a lot of trouble on the internet for questioning the value of simply saying, “It wouldn’t have happened if those guys had followed the rules.”
The question that I was asking was, “Are we, as a community of professional instructors, doing everything we can to make sure that our students won’t get hurt or hurt others?” The responses I got on the forums often reflected a lack of critical thinking or interest in discussion—and not just from “ToughGuy37” types posting from their mom’s basements! Many real pros were involved in the discussion threads. So, I enter into this discussion knowing that it is a minefield.
As you read on, simply consider the rules and procedures that you currently follow on the range and ensure that they help you meet your ultimate goal of training, while remaining safe.
The fundamental principle that I propose we use as a basis for firearms safety is this:
The Trigger Finger Rule…Evolved.
At the NE Shooter’s Training Conference in early 2011, fellow trainer Craig Douglas first postulated to me that we should be telling students to “Keep their finger ‘somewhere’” and not just say that they should keep the finger off the trigger. In the past, I have always followed up my old Rule #1, “Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot,” with a further explanation that I meant “above the trigger guard” and possibly gave other tips or clues as to where they should actually have the finger.
Craig’s point was that instead of teaching a negative (after all, what are the rules that an instructor lays out except our teaching of safe gun handling?), we should teach a positive: Tell the student what they should do, not what they shouldn’t. The brilliance of that concept struck me physically. It is both rewarding and a little demoralizing when a peer presents an idea that is so obviously good that it makes you say, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Starting with my class the next day at the conference, and throughout the several weeks since that time, I have articulated my Rule #1 as “Keep your finger somewhere other than the trigger until you are ready to shoot.” While there have been other instructors in the past who have taught students to keep their finger in specific places or hold their fingers in certain ways, I have never been compelled to follow suit because of the wide variety of hand sizes/shapes and gun sizes/shapes.
It never occurred to me to instruct that the concept be customized by the individual student to the individual gun until Craig suggested it. About a month after the NE Shooter’s Conference, when we got together at the Rangemaster Conference in Tulsa, Craig evolved his suggestion to include the idea that the exact location of the tip of the trigger finger should be as far from the trigger itself as possible. Claude Werner, former lead instructor at the Roger’s Shooting School and relentless detailer of shooting skill minutia, suggests that such a placement would possibly reduce reaction time by as much as one third of a second from typical trigger finger placement, but that the safety gain in the big picture would be worth it.
Personally, again citing the huge variation in shapes and sizes, I am at this point listing options such as takedown levers, various pins, the seam between the frame and slide, the ejection port, and the extractor or edge of the breech-face. It is not without significance that most instructors seated at a round table discussion at the latter conference (several with decades of instructional experience), including some of the best-known names in the industry, nodded in agreement with Craig’s concept. Less than a decade ago, the suggestion of a re-evaluation of THE rules almost lead to a cyber-lynching!
To me, this evolution of the trigger finger rule (regardless of which number you choose to attribute to it, though I suggest making it First) represents exactly the kind of thought process that I have been lobbying for in the industry. Perhaps we really are in the midst of a Firearms Training Enlightenment?
The expected benefit of any action must clearly outweigh any known or perceived risk.
That seems straightforward enough, but we need to examine a couple of issues:
Let’s first separate risk from danger. Let’s assume that any activity brings a known and objective amount of danger that something bad (an injury, for example) could happen, but that we can manage the level of risk of that injury actually happening by following specific rules or procedures while engaging in that activity, even though it is dangerous. If we think we cannot do this, of course, we should choose not to engage in that activity at all.
What if we want to do something that is inherently dangerous? Let me give you an example: We know that shooting a firearm can damage our hearing, but we also know that live fire training is vital to really being prepared to use a firearm for personal defense. How do we mitigate the danger of hearing damage? We use hearing protection, of course! This makes the actual risk of hearing damage from live fire training incredibly low. This is an example of applying our fundamental principle of firearms safety to a real world situation.
Let’s look at the infamous “down range drill” issue (having any student in front of the imaginary line extending through the shooter which is perpendicular to the line of the shot, sometimes called the 180 Degree Rule). This has been hashed out in the magazines, in the forums, and even on TV. Last year, one of the Questions of The Week on SWAT Magazine TV was, “What place, if any, do down range drills have in firearms training?” Not surprisingly, most of our experts said, “None.”
But, some of them articulated their belief that for certain people, under certain conditions, down range drills are appropriate. This implication was that for some students, military special operations team members and the like, their previous training and skill level mitigate the risks of the inherently dangerous practice to the point where the expected benefit of the endeavor outweighed them. I tend to agree with the latter.
Of course, the judgment of the instructor (or shooter if not in a class setting) plays an inherent role in evaluating risk. This is the best argument for having a fundamental set of rules in the first place. If a person who is ignorant of how guns work or what is dangerous has nothing to guide them, and therefore their experimentations with risk could be disastrous. With this in mind, I think it is ever more important to make sure that our rules, recommendations, and gun handling procedures have a significant amount of forethought behind them, practical ability to be applied to the real world, and clarity in their articulation.
Rules such as “never point a gun at anything you are not willing to destroy” fail those tests miserably, in my opinion. “Keep your finger somewhere other than the trigger until you are ready to shoot” (see sidebar), however, rises to the level of a well thought out, practically applicable, and clearly articulated rule. In the end, you will have to make the decision for yourself about how you will handle guns, how you will run a range, and you can train both realistically and safely for personal defense.
When you consider safety in the face of the responsibility of firearms ownership, shooting activities, carrying a firearm, and the potential use of a firearm for personal defense make sure that you have really thought about the rules and procedures you use as your guide and that the risk of all of your activities is significantly outweighed by the expected benefit—even if that benefit is just an enjoyable session at the range.
[ Rob Pincus owns I.C.E. Training and teaches firearms classes throughout the country to students interested in learning more about using firearms in self defense. The developer of the Combat Focus shooting program, Pincus also hosts and writes for Outdoor Channel’s wildly popular show “The Best Defense” and “SWAT Magazine TV.” His work has appeared in Police, Tactical Response, SWAT, and GunWorld. ]