Everybody knows, or should know, the basic rules of firearms safety. (a) Always treat the weapon as if loaded, (b) Never point a firearm at anything you are not willing to destroy, (c) keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot, (d) be sure of your target and what is beyond it. (These are sometimes called “Cooper’s Rules” after legendary instructor Col. Jeff Cooper. There are several minor variants of the wording.)
If you follow these rules, you will never unintentionally injure anyone with a firearm. They are easy to learn and very safe. They are appropriate for civilians.
Some elite military units have different rules, with a different tradeoff between safety and combat effectiveness. I learned them from an instructor who was ex-SOCOM. The way I learned them is sufficiently amusing that the story deserves retelling.
The instruction began in the following way. Imagine several students sitting in a circle in camp chairs, the instructor almost directly across from me. Note that this was after we had learned and practiced the basic Cooper rules I described above.
The instructor began by clearing a pistol (opening the chamber port so we could see there was no bullet there or ready in the magazine) and letting the slide drop until the port was closed.
He handed me the pistol, looked at me with a slight smile, and said “Eric. Please shoot yourself through the head.”
I thought for a second, grinned, pointed the pistol at my temple, and pulled the trigger. There was a click and shocked gasps from some other students. (The gasps meant they had learned civilian rules correctly. I believe testing this was part of the instructor’s intention.)
The instructor then asked for the pistol back. I handed to him. He fiddled with it for a moment, passed it behind his back, brought it into view, offered it to me with the chamber port closed, and said again “Eric. Please shoot yourself through the head.”
I said “No, sir, I will not.”
His smile got a little wider. “Oh? And why not?”
I said “Because the weapon was out of my sight for a moment and I do not know that it is not ready to fire.” (My exact words may have been slightly different. That was the sense.)
“That was the correct answer,” he said, and proceeded to explain to all of us that elite military units must frequently carry weapons in a combat-ready state, and therefore train safety under different rules that require fighters to reason about when a firearm is in a dangerous condition.
In that exchange I violated Cooper’s Rules (a) and (b). I was thinking like a warrior who must frequently carry weapons in a ready-to-fire condition (because he can’t count on having the time to ready the weapon in a clutch situation) and knows that the warriors around him are trained to do likewise.
I’ll never forget those few minutes, because they taught all of us a valuable lesson. Also because we did not prearrange this! The instructor paid me a notable compliment by assuming that I would respond correctly both in obeying his first order and disobeying his second – and, if you think about it, there was a normative lesson there about intelligent initiative, cooperation and responsibility that goes far beyond the specific context of firearms safety.
UPDATE: Post title changed from “Military rules” because this is a story about how special-ops fighters (“operators” in military jargon) think and react.