It’s shift change at the station. Some officers are showering, getting ready to go home or go to a local watering hole. Others are putting on their uniforms and preparing to go on patrol. Cops talk and laugh. Then there’s a loud bang in the room. An eerie silence pervades the locker room. And the officer whose gun just went off stares dumbfounded and embarrassed at the new hole he has blown into the side of his locker.

Almost every veteran cop has either experienced an accidental discharge or been around when one happened to a fellow officer. Accidental discharges happen. And most of the time they result in no more damage than red faces and ringing ears. But any time a firearm goes off accidentally it can lead to tragedy. Consequently, every precaution must be taken to prevent accidental discharges.

Before we discuss how to stop accidental discharges from happening, we need to clarify some terms. For the purposes of this discussion there is a difference between an accidental discharge and a negligent discharge. An accidental discharge is the result of a mechanical failure of the weapon. For example, a safety or mechanical device has failed, resulting in the weapon firing. Negligent discharges are the result of operator error. People have died and people have been severely wounded from both of these types of unintentional discharges of firearms.

Weapon-Related Failures

Just as most airplane crashes occur when a pilot is taking off or landing his or her aircraft, most unintentional discharges of firearms occur when a shooter is loading or unloading a weapon.

Loading discharges involving pistols are usually the result of poor-quality arms and ammunition. Most semi-auto pistols have a drop safety or positive firing pin block that prevents the firing pin from running forward unless the trigger is fully pressed to the rear.

But rifles are another story. They don’t always have this safety system. I experienced an accidental discharge when loading a semi-auto .223 caliber rifle on the range. With the weapon pointed downrange, I inserted a loaded magazine and pressed the bolt release. The bolt ran forward and the weapon fired, even though my finger was not on the trigger.

I investigated and discovered that the cause of this AD was a high primer on the cartridge. The bolt struck the high primer and fired the cartridge. Fortunately, the weapon was pointed in a safe direction, so no harm was done except perhaps to my reputation.

This is perhaps the most important thing for you to take away from reading this article. Even true accidental discharges will not usually lead to injury if safety rules related to muzzle discipline are observed.

Decocking Procedure

When loading a semi-auto pistol equipped with a decocker, always use the decocker to lower the cocked hammer. Otherwise, the firing pin safety may be bypassed.

Also, when decocking the weapon, make sure that the muzzle is pointed in a safe direction. One agency near me that issues the Smith & Wesson double-action pistol has a sandbox on the range that officers use as a safe bullet trap when decocking their weapons. The muzzle of the pistol is pointed into the sandbox as each pistol is loaded and decocked, then reholstered and the officer returns to duty. The sandbox procedure is a good idea for the range and perhaps for a safe room inside the police station.

Unloading a Semi-Auto

Occasionally an off-spec round or a round chambered in a dirty chamber will prove difficult to unload by slide manipulation. On one occasion reported by writer, trainer, and peace officer Gila Hayes, a shooter racked the slide of a pistol and a recalcitrant round fired while the slide was partially open, injuring the shooter’s hand.

In this case, the cartridge struck the ejector and fired. After Hayes’ warning I adopted a new method of unloading my weapon.

My previous method was to remove the magazine and place it between the ring finger and little finger of my firing hand. Then I placed my hand over the ejection port, and canting the gun, racked the slide. This procedure resulted in the slide locked to the rear, the magazine in one hand, and the formerly chambered cartridge in the other. Today, I use the slingshot method. I grasp the rear of the slide and pull it without putting my hand over the slide window. This method is less elegant but safer.

Follow the Rules

True weapons-related problems are rare, but any trainer with time on the job has seen his or her share of weapons that have problems, weapons that will not fire, and defective weapons. Strict adherence to gun safety rules will help prevent injury should a weapon defect or malfunction cause an AD.

We all learned the basic safety rules in the Academy, in the military, or as sport shooters. But two of them bear repeating in this discussion because they are critical to understanding how accidental discharges occur when officers draw their weapons and when they move with weapons drawn.

The most important gun safety rule mandates that a shooter never point his or her weapon at anything he or she doesn’t want to shoot. Regardless of what other boneheaded mistakes a shooter makes, if the muzzle is pointed in a safe direction, then no unintended injury can occur. This is the difference between an embarrassing accident and a tragic one.

The second most critical gun safety rule is to not place your finger on the trigger of your weapon until you want to shoot. Understand that this rule doesn’t say put your finger on the trigger when you think you will shoot; it says put your finger on the trigger when you shoot. Violation of this rule is the number one cause of all accidental discharges.

Drawing and Holstering

For example, most unintentional discharges on the draw are related to problems in keeping the finger off the trigger. Officers become excited and jerk the trigger before the gun is on target. Fortunately, most officers are well trained and this doesn’t happen very often.

A much more common trigger-finger AD occurs when officers reholster their weapons. The usual cause of this problem is that an officer’s trigger finger is still inside the trigger guard as he or she reholsters the weapon and, when the finger meets the holster lip, it is forced against the trigger, firing the gun. If you don’t want this to happen to you, keep your finger out of the trigger guard and alongside the holster when holstering your weapon.

Another cause of holstering ADs is the result of the holster’s thumbreak becoming tangled in the trigger and firing the weapon. To avoid this problem, angle the pistol into the holster from the rear and slide the frame into the holster, moving the slide under the strap. In this manner, the pistol’s trigger is never exposed to the trigger guard. As an added bonus, this technique also prevents the common problem of the brass or nickel snap marring your handgun’s finish.

On those weapons that have external hammers, the revolver trick of placing the thumb on the hammer for safety when holstering works. If the hammer is rising, then the trigger has snagged.

Off the Trigger

As discussed, there are accidental discharges and negligent discharges. A negligent discharge can result in a life-threatening injury for the person in front of the muzzle and career-threatening disciplinary and legal action for the cop who unintentionally fired the shot.

Negligent discharges are likely to happen when a cop is covering a subject with the muzzle of his or her weapon or just moving with a drawn pistol.

Of course, the best way to prevent all negligent discharges is to keep your finger out of the trigger guard unless you have to shoot. This is true regardless of whether the weapon’s safety is engaged.

There are several techniques for keeping the finger off the trigger, in a safe position but instantly ready for action if you need to fire.

The first technique is to hold the finger alongside the trigger guard in a straight position. This keeps the finger away from the trigger. However, I can testify that this technique is not perfect. When I was on the job, I suffered a broken trigger finger when involved in a fight while carrying a flashlight with my finger straight along the light tube. I held it that way because of long-practiced habit with my gun.

On the other hand, if your trigger finger is on your trigger and someone grabs your gun and tries to disarm you, the gun will fire or the trigger finger will be broken. An NYPD undercover cop that I know had the skin of his trigger finger peeled back in such a struggle.

Another technique for keeping your finger off the trigger but ready is to slightly curl your trigger finger alongside the trigger guard. In this technique, the point of the finger immediately enters the trigger guard.

A third technique is to place the finger alongside the frame above the trigger guard, in the index position. Many pistols have even been designed to help the shooter quickly find and maintain the index position.

For the purposes of this article, I decided to test each trigger finger position on the range to see which gave the shooter the quickest reaction time measured with a Competition Electronics Pocket Pro Timer. I employed each of the three basic techniques while handling both a Beretta 92 and a Kimber 1911.

As a control, I began each drill with my finger on the trigger. I held the gun at belt level for the first drill and at eye level for the second. When the timer beeped, I fired as quickly as possible. I fired two shots beginning from ready with each finger position, alongside the frame, outside the trigger guard, outside the trigger guard with the finger bent, and on the trigger.

What I discovered was that there was nothing more than a slight statistical variation using each technique. There was no difference in speed to an accurate shot. From eye level, already aiming, the finger on the trigger was perhaps .02 seconds faster. For all practical purposes, speed to an accurate first shot was identical. My conclusion is that speed is not compromised by safety.

Sudden Body Movements

When studying the problem of accidental discharges and how to prevent them, we have to take into consideration the effects that sudden body movements can have on a person’s hands and fingers.

There are three common types of ADs that involve muscular contraction caused by body or hand movement: the imbalance AD, the startle AD, and the interlimb reaction AD.

The startle AD and the imbalance AD are related. If you are moving with your gun drawn and your finger on the trigger and you are startled, your hand can automatically tighten in reflex and a sympathetic tightening of the fingers could trigger a shot.

Some time back Chief R.E. Cogdell and I were checking an abandoned home during a search for a burglar. It was dark, and we had our Colt .45s in retention position. We were familiar with the unexpected and bizarre sights in hovels abandoned by humans. Large dolls can look like babies, for example. And this house seemed to have been as carefully orchestrated as any Halloween spook house. I opened a closet and a large cat leaped off the top shelf literally over my shoulder. I started, but my finger stayed off the trigger. The chief didn’t move, but he had a good laugh. But if my finger had been on the trigger when that cat jumped out at me, neither one of us would have been laughing. Thankfully, I did not experience a startle AD.

Like the startle AD, an imbalance AD happens when you least expect it.

A recent imbalance AD involved a SWAT team that was stacked up and ready to make an entry. As they made their move, the second man in line slipped. He righted himself with his left hand but his finger was on the trigger of his Glock, and it fired a shot because of sympathetic constriction of his trigger finger. The shot struck the point man in the back lodging in his vest. A little higher or lower, and this SWAT team would have lost a member.

Interlimb reactions are well understood by physical therapists. The human body is bilaterally symmetrical, which means when your weak side or support arm is handling a suspect or even during a search, your gun hand can tighten up and your trigger finger can squeeze.

This interlimb reaction is sufficiently well researched and documented that therapists use its reaction to their benefit in treating patients who have suffered nerve damage in one limb. However, in a tense situation, interlimb reaction is not so beneficial and can lead to ADs.

Technical Solutions

Some people think that a heavier trigger pull can prevent imbalance ADs and startle ADs. Sadly, no practical trigger weight can prevent ADs. Hundreds of pounds of pressure can be exerted during a struggle or just by a human hand reflexively closing.

Nor are double-action-only trigger systems the answer. There were many accidental discharges when double-action revolvers were the standard police sidearm.

No current technology can prevent negligent discharge because it is essentially caused by operator error. The answer to avoiding negligent discharge is to apply the same common sense and respect to firearms we apply to vehicles and chainsaws. By maintaining rigid muzzle discipline and keeping our fingers off the trigger until we need to shoot, we can protect ourselves and the public we serve from unintentional discharge of our weapons.