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Safety First - Avoiding an Unintended Discharge

Rich Nance gives a few tips on how to avoid an unintended discharge.

Safety First - Avoiding an Unintended Discharge

Photos by Alfredo Rico

KA-BOOM! The sound was deafening, even through the ear muffs. The muzzle blast from the Remington 870 lit up the night sky like the grand finale at a Fourth of July fireworks display, illuminating me and my fellow reserve police academy mates on the firing line.

I was holding the shotgun, but no one was more surprised than me that it went off. It wasn’t intentional. I was certain that in the blink of an eye — or, in this case, an ill-timed press of the trigger — my dream of becoming a police officer was over before it began.

My fear was stoked when the instructor, an overbearing, campaign-­hat-­wearing sergeant from a nearby police agency, berated me (justifiably). His words had little impact. I was so shocked by what happened that the crusty ol’ sarge sounded like an enraged version of Charlie Brown’s teacher.


More important than my fading hopes of becoming a police officer was the fact that had my shotgun not been pointed in a safe direction, I may have unintentionally injured or killed someone. It was a deadly serious matter. The sergeant barked that I should be kicked out of the academy, and I couldn’t disagree.

I wondered how that could have happened to me, one of the top performers in the academy. In hindsight, it’s pretty easy to diagnose. That was the first day I’d ever held a Remington 870. We received a crash course in its functionality, and, as we were firing, the sergeant ramped up the stress by yelling at us and continually asking about the condition of our weapon.

Unfamiliarity with a weapon, instructor-­induced stress and diminished lighting conditions is not the ideal learning environment. Throughout the day, the sergeant emphasized that when the shotgun was empty, we were to press the trigger on an empty chamber. You see where this is going.


While in the port arms position, with the shotgun held diagonally across my chest, I pressed the trigger on what I thought was an empty chamber. I was wrong. Fortunately, the 00-­buckshot blast sailed harmlessly into the night sky. As the more level-­headed instructor later told me, it’s a good thing I had mastered the port arms position.

Keep Your Finger Off the Trigger

Unless there is something mechanically wrong with your firearm, it will not fire unless the trigger is pressed to the rear or, in some cases, if the weapon is dropped. Adhering to the late, great Col. Jeff Cooper’s third rule of firearm safety, “Keep your finger off the trigger till your sights are on the target,” would virtually eliminate unintended discharges. (This wouldn’t have helped in my case because I intentionally pressed the trigger on what I assumed was an unloaded firearm, but we’ll get to that later.)

There are three widely accepted causes of an unintentional trigger press, and all three are completely preventable by keeping your finger off the trigger and outside of the triggerguard. Let’s look at the culprits, then consider how to ensure our finger is not on the trigger until it needs to be.

While the finger is out of the triggerguard, a safer, more consistent method of ensuring proper placement is to index it along the top of the frame.

Postural Disturbance

It’s common for the hands to clutch onto whatever object is being held when a person’s balance is disrupted. If your finger is on the trigger of your gun or even inside the triggerguard when you stumble or trip, there’s a good chance the trigger will be instinctively pulled. I know of an instance where a police sergeant flung open the door to a bathroom while pursuing a suspect. His finger was on the trigger of his service pistol, and when the door bounced back into him, the sergeant was knocked off balance and his pistol discharged. Fortunately, no one was injured.

Startle Effect

When startled visually or audibly, clutching of the hand may occur. If your finger is on the trigger, you may fire the gun without intending to do so. I’ve experienced this in dynamic training scenarios with marking cartridges. I’ve seen an unarmed subject suddenly emerge in front of an officer whose gun was drawn. The subject had nothing in their hands, but they appeared unexpectedly, moved quickly and screamed, which startled the officer, and the subject was unjustifiably shot. Fortunately, this was a training lesson and not a real-­life tragedy.


Interlimb Response

During one-­handed pistol manipulation, you’ll often see the hand that’s not holding the pistol mimic what the other hand is doing. What one hand does, the other tends to do. It’s how we’re wired. Therefore, if during a close-­quarter fight, you grab hold of your assailant with your off-­hand, your shooting hand is apt to squeeze, too, possibly resulting in an errant round being fired. This phenomenon can also occur when you press the button on a can of pepper spray with one hand while holding a gun in your other hand, which is why it’s foolhardy to have a lethal and less-­lethal weapon in use simultaneously.

Even while indexing the pad of the finger to the frame, inward pressure could cause a slippage and result in an unintentional trigger press.

Trigger Finger Index

To the neophyte, gripping a gun with their finger in the triggerguard or, worse yet, on the trigger can feel quite comfortable. Telling them to keep their finger off the trigger may not be enough. Rather than concentrate on not doing something — in this case, not placing your finger on the trigger until you’re on target and ready to fire — a safer bet is to focus on what to do with your finger.

Essentially, you need a staging area for your finger until it’s go-­time. This is often referred to as “indexing” your trigger finger. I like to place my finger flat along the top of the frame of my pistol. Some prefer to index the pad of their finger to the frame or slide. I’m not a fan of this method because when you press the pad of your finger against the gun, it causes your finger to bend. To my way of thinking, a bent finger is more likely to press the trigger to the rear if it were to slip off or be knocked off its indexed position than a straight finger. Even worse are those who index their finger across the triggerguard. This is bad juju.

The exact index point will vary depending on preference and the size and shape of your gun. For instance, on my Glock 21, I use the takedown lever as a physical reference for the pad of my (straight) index finger. For my Glock 23, however, using the same physical reference would require that I bend my index finger considerably. Admittedly, precisely how you index your finger outside the triggerguard isn’t nearly as important as that you do so.



Believe it or not, holstering is one of the most dangerous tasks a person can perform with a handgun. If you’re not extremely careful (sometimes even if you are, depending on your holster setup), your muzzle will cover a portion of your anatomy, in violation of Cooper’s second rule, “Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy.”

I’ve noticed that many shooters are somewhat cavalier about holstering. Many instructors advocate that their students not look at their holster before inserting their gun. I used to teach the same thing. “Keep your eyes on the threat area,” I would say. However, nowadays, I’m a believer in keeping your gun out of the holster until you are certain there is no threat. After confirming your world is safe, take a breath, make sure your finger is properly indexed outside the triggerguard and take a glance into your holster before securing your firearm.

Crawl, Walk, Run

OK, back to my embarrassing but fortunately not life-­changing incident with the Remington 870. In my case, I didn’t accidentally press the trigger; I didn’t violate Cooper’s third firearm safety rule. I broke his first: “All guns are always loaded.”

My unfamiliarity with the shotgun led me to believe that I had fired it dry. I assumed the shotgun was unloaded. Throughout the day, we had been taught to press the trigger on an empty chamber. Thinking the chamber was empty, I pressed the trigger, resulting in my most memorable shotgun firing to date. (If you think a shotgun recoils from a shoulder mount, imagine firing it from port arms).

Clearly, unintentionally firing the shotgun was my fault. If I was uncertain, I should have raised my hand and asked for clarification (or checked the chamber). However, 20-some-odd years later as a tenured firearms instructor, I realize that the instruction I was given that day was severely lacking. I was thrust into a situation where I was expected to do too much too soon with a firearm I had never held before. I was expected to run before I was able to walk. Thank God I had mastered the port arms position.

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