The Midwest Shooting School

featuring Shotgunning Instruction by Patrick LaBoone

There is something more important than whether you hit a particular clay target or bird, and that is who you don’t hit. I am not doing my job if I don’t make you the safest, politest gun handler possible while teaching you how to hit anything that flies within range of your shotgun. That is why I have created and teach...

The Gold Standard of Gunhandling Etiquette

If you receive instruction from me, shoot sporting clays on our course, or hunt at our hunting club, you will be introduced to our particular standard of gunhandling etiquette... and be expected to handle your guns according to it. If you do handle your guns this way, you’ll be safer than 99% of the other shooters out there... that is, until they catch on, too!

This standard is an approach to teaching firearm safety and etiquette that I developed years ago. It evolved from experiences in the field guiding hunters, owning a hunting club and sporting clays course, and giving shotgun shooting instruction to both new and experienced shooters.

It is simple, built around just two rules, and gives anyone, new or experienced, an instant judgment about what is OK gunhandling, and what is not.

It is a higher standard, teaching polite gun-handling, which is more demanding than safe gun handling, and minimizes risk. The thought is, if your handling goal is to be polite, and you make a slight mistake, you have a far greater cushion than someone who tries only to be safe, and makes a mistake. 

It’s Simple-- Two rules, and one is golden.

Rule 1: Everybody has heard versions of this one, most just don’t live by it. 

Treat every gun as if it is loaded, and it is going to go off when you least want it to... like it has a mind of its own. 

This establishes an attitude of caution, like the approach to using a chainsaw--its a useful tool, but don’t lay it on your thigh while the chain is still going around.

Rule 2: This is the golden rule--the key one--it gives you an instant judgment about whether what you are doing, or considering doing, is OK. This rule establishes that higher standard, that wide margin for a “safe” error. 

If you can tell there is a hole in the end of a barrel, it’s too close to you; if someone can tell there is a hole in the end of yours, it is too close to them... 

Handle your gun so that no one can tell that there is a hole in the end of your barrel.

A lot of other mistakes can be made, a gun can go off unintentionally, and yet no one is likely to be hurt if this one rule is obeyed.

Applying this second rule requires a high level of awareness of where you are, and who is around you. It takes effort to apply. 

It is a classy way of handling yourself, because it shows great respect for those around you.

That second rule, my shotgunners’ golden rule, gives you an instant idea about what’s OK when handling a gun around home, your vehicles, at a gun club, or out hunting. It gives guidance about how to pick them up, carry them, and set them down... how to load, unload, and choose your shots.

Whether you are an inexperienced shooter or an old hand, there is a lot going on as a bird goes up. You don’t have the time to run down a list of ten commandments. A shooter has to decidenow.

I coach my shooters to answer the question, “Could someone see in the end of my barrel?” when a bird flushes. If the answer is no, then they are clear to make their move. They can silently ask and answer the question quicker than you can say it.

There are situations where you are forced to compromise and can’t maintain the standard of the golden rule.

In these situations, double check yourself and the unloaded status of your gun in the seconds before you make the compromise. Every time.

Don’t trust yourself not to make a mistake. It’s so easy to leave a shell in a gun, or have one hang up in the magazine or chamber... How many times do you have to make that mistake to have a tragedy?

These necessary compromises occur frequently... changing a choke tube, placing a gun on a gun rack, or removing it from one. Be aware of the compromise, and respect the power of the gun.

If I want to change a choke tube, I’m not going to be standing the barrel under my chin... I am not going to pull it in under my chin as I take it off a gun rack, either.

If surrounded by people on all sides, and you need to get the barrel of your unloaded gun from down to up, or up to down, you can’t do it without giving someone a peek in the end of the barrel. If you can’t move out of the situation, verify the open and unloaded status of the gun, cover the end of the barrel with your hand, as if to put yourself in jeopardy before anyone else, and make the move. It is an act of awareness and respect for those around you.

How many times has someone pulled a gun out of their vehicle and passed the business end through your gut while doing so? It doesn’t matter how quickly it happens... there is still that moment in time when you would least want it to go off....

A cased gun is still subject to the golden rule.

An assembled gun in its case more dangerous than a gun that is out of the case. With a cased gun, you can’t tell if the action is open, and if it goes off, the fact that it was in the case just makes for a dirtier wound. 

If someone passes an uncased gun with an open action through you, at least you can see it is open. They have made a mistake, but you aren’t going to die. It’s easy to offer a gentle correction.

 If this same gun is in a case and someone passes it through you, or your kid, you probably should get a little hot!

I have had two supposedly unloaded guns go off in our driveway, both many years ago, both just after being taken out of a vehicle. One was on its way out of its case, the other was still in its case. The second one was the last straw that lead to me developing our etiquette program. No one got hurt, but the thought of one of my daughters walking up from the house into that discharge was unthinkable.

When fitting shotguns, I am regularly placing my eye on the business end of a shotgun barrel. In every instance, I am asking the person mounting the gun to open the action immediately before I check their eye alignment over the barrel... even if we have just checked a minute before. I am not perfect, and it is a habit I work to maintain. It is habits that we are governed by when we act without thinking.

When you take instruction from me, you’ll be introduced to this standard early, maybe even before your shotgun is out of your vehicle.

I’ll try to let you know that what we expect might be a little different than what happens at other clubs, and these are the rules we ask you to handle your guns by....

You are expected to make mistakes, whether you are new to shooting, or a seasoned veteran. When taking instruction, these mistakes are almost always made with an unloaded gun, and the corrections you receive can be low key, and subtle. No one wants an accident to occur--we are all on the same side.

If you adopt this gunhandling standard, and want to teach it someone else, I recommend you use the same low key approach. Explain the standard before a mistake is made, and the other person already knows what you are talking about when you correct a mistake... they are much less likely to take offense, or feel blind-sided.

New shooters are easiest of all. Before they ever touch a gun, simply spell out the two rules, emphasizing the second. The rules are simple, and you have already established your authority. 

By the way, even if you are trying to teach this, don’t be too proud to take a correction from another shooter, even a new one, if you have broken or bent one of the rules. Thank them, set an example. None of us are perfect; I guarantee there are a few shots I’ve taken that I wish I could have sucked back into the gun, even though no one was hurt. With this standard, if you make a mistake you are usually just impolite; with normal safety standards, if you make a mistake, you are unsafe. There is a difference.

It is easy to spread the concepts from a new shooter to their family and friends.

I strongly encourage dad to sit in on junior’s first lessons with me. This way, he gets to hear the golden rule, too, and gets put on notice without his habits being directly challenged.

When dad and junior go hunting with dad’s buddies, I teach dad to remind junior in front of everybody else, before the guns come out, about the two rules of good gunhandling. Everybody else has now been put on notice, without their current skills being challenged. If dad or junior has to mention a wandering barrel later in the day, they aren’t caught by surprise. They heard the little speech, they know where the ideas are coming from.

As an aside, my approach with new shooters goes like this:

It only takes a few minutes to introduce our two rules to a new young shooter. Another minute or two to teach them how to point and mount the gun, and they are shooting. Don’t glaze their eyes over with facts they don’t need to know yet... get them breaking targets in a closely controlled situation, enjoying their success and hooked on the game, and refine their gun handling skills as needed. Expect occasional mistakes, allow them to be made with unloaded guns, prevent them from being made with loaded guns, and correct in both situations gently, helping them visualize why. I won’t put a new shooter in the bird hunting field until they are making the right choices and moves in a couple of different clay target drills.

If you would like more information, or would like hands-on training in this approach to gunhandling etiquette and firearm safety, go to our Contact page, and choose a way to contact me directly.

Adopt this standard, and you and your shooting friends will learn to appreciate how safe and comfortable it is to be around shooters who have made the gold standard of gunhandling etiquette part of their lives.