This fourth installment in our review of the Four Rules of Firearm Safety, with due credit to the late Col. Jeff Cooper, covers target environment.
The focus, as usual in this series, is defensive shooting. These principles also apply to hunting. People who carry a handgun for self-protection, experienced as hunters or not, have the same concerns, but different contexts in which to frame the issue of targets and target environment.
Be aware of your target and what’s around it sounds simple, and it is. It’s just not always easy. On a proper shooting range, it’s usually just a matter of making sure someone’s not downrange before loading and firing.
Straightforward as that is, I’ve seen some potentially deadly mistakes on the formal range, so we’ll start there. From folks wandering downrange to fiddle with targets without notifying anyone they were doing so, to unsupervised kids popping up on top of the berm bordering a hot range during practice, keep your senses alert to what’s happening in the area. And for heaven’s sake, don’t be the guy who strolls downrange without first checking to see that it’s clear to do so.
*Editor's Note* This video is of a guy who did just that on an active range:
Most hunters are aware of these rules, thanks in part to the proliferation of hunter safety courses around the US as well as the tradition of learning from more experienced hunters.
With that piece of common sense out of the way, let’s move on to less obvious considerations.
That “be sure of your target” bit is no joke.
Everyone who attended hunter safety class as a kid was instructed to never shoot at things like rustling bushes, since it’s as likely to be another hunter as the game du jour. The same thing goes for shooting at what sounds like a home intruder. Too many times in recent years, parents and grandparents have fired at shadowy figures in the dark, or sounds in the kitchen, only to find a younger family member was prowling around at an unexpected hour.
If you need convincing of this or know someone who does, listen to this 911 recording. You won’t soon forget it.
Use a backstop.Most people are aware that rifle rounds can travel for miles. Even a .22 bullet, fired from a rifle, has a range of around a mile. According to Casey Betzold, President of Snake River Shooting Products, 9mm, currently the most popular self-defense caliber, can go at least 2.1 and up to 2.9 miles when fired from a handgun.
Your local range probably makes use of natural embankments or man-made berms that serve to trap bullets. If you’re making or improving your own range, the NRA publishes construction advice and guidelines.
Surfaces like rock tend to crack rather than crumble and should be avoided for practice. So should water. Even though a certain YouTube figure and a retired martial artist with a reality show have been lucky thus far shooting into water, it’s asking for trouble. This is especially true when rounds are fired relatively parallel to the water’s surface.
The danger, of course, with any impenetrable backstop is that a ricocheting round can go in any direction and, although its ballistic force will have been reduced, it may still cause damage and injury.
It should go without saying that, when shooting toward an open horizon as may occur in hunting situations, be sure there are no occupied structures, hunting parties, and the like in the direction of fire.
Target environments are usually not static
Range practice is important, but so is preparing for the world outside the range as a target environment. Has your personal safety planning included thought about where a round would go if it missed its target when fired at an intruder from beside your bed at 3:00 AM?
What if you or a loved one is the target of a violent criminal at the mall or the grocery store, where the target environment will surely include things you don’t want to hit? There is no law in my home state, nor in any other that I know of, absolving gun carriers of responsibility if a round impacts upon a person, animal, or object they didn’t intend to hit.
The best shooters on the planet can’t guarantee a perfect hit every time, so, good as your marksmanship may be, this bears consideration.
Of course, we can’t draw and practice at the local Kmart, so how does a person prepare and train for realistic target environment situations? Here are a few suggestions:
- Assess likely ingress points for home and workplace intruders. Find objects of cover and concealment that will protect you from incoming fire and perhaps other weapons, whether or not you decide to shoot. Give thought to where other innocents are at the times you’re typically there, and where rounds fired (by you) inside the ingress points will likely go. Are the walls and furniture in that direction impenetrable by bullets? Do you plan to spend most of your work, sleep, or leisure time in a place that also offers access to cover and a generally safe shooting direction?
- Make a habit of identifying routes of escape and objects of cover in the public places you travel. While identifying a handy vantage point for shooting isn’t likely, the process of thinking about escaping, taking cover, and whether to shoot will help you stay calm and make better decisions if an incident does break out.
- Make a habit of paying attention to what’s going on around you, without being a busybody. Situational awareness is your best friend and buys you time to plan and act in case any emergency happens—not just violent crime.
- Make being prepared for a deadly force decision in a complicated target environment fun. No one needs to know that, as you’re patiently waiting your turn in the checkout line, you’re also imagining what you’d do if a disgruntled employee walked in with a shotgun and began shooting—or if the couple in front of you began fighting, and one pulled a gun on the other. It’s a bit of mental work, but a lot better exercise for your brain than reading the cover of National Enquirer as you stand in line.
There’s no guarantee
The off-range world offers very few perfect target environments, and millions of risky ones. The decision to carry includes, to this writer’s philosophy, the responsibility to train mentally and physically to decrease the likelihood of unwanted damage or even death. It includes understanding that you could be held legally accountable for the round that lands where you didn’t intend.
These are very real, and too often minimized, details of responsible carry in the civilian world. It’s not my intent to discourage carrying, but to encourage development of competence and confidence.
Please tell us in the comments what you thought about this safety series by firearms instructor Eve Flanigan, and let us know what you'd like to see her talk about in the future.