Range Safety and Real World Safety | Why the Cardinal Rules Are Wrong for Self-Defense Shooting.

I’m sure if you have read any two of my articles you have seen me refer to range mentality at least once though chances are good it was twice.  And I don’t think I have ever referred to it in a positive light. However, a recent conversation I had made it apparent that I have never directly addressed what range mentality is, and why I don’t like it. Since it’s a common topic for all gun owners with a self-defense mindset, I decided to lay out my feelings on the subject as directly as possible.   In the hope that it may educate, alter attitudes, viewpoints, or perhaps  introduce a new way to approach  your personal practice and training regiments.

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The Author demonstrating high angel close quarters shooting using non-lethal training munitions.

What is the Range Mentality?

The range is the setting for most of our training. It’s a sterile environment, mostly under someone else’s control, that only allows for limited degrees of realism based on its established safety rules, physical layout, any training dogma associated with the owner, lead instructor, range safety officers or administrator afraid of things that make loud noises (guns, usually). In law enforcement and the military, our ranges are held hostage by administrators and Kool  Aid salesmen of varied usefulness. The rules vary from mostly common-sense to outright ridiculous and are often enforced with a draconian approach that is much at odds with the intended purpose of the range. For the private ranges, classic indoor, stalled environments, rules for the sake of safety are often far more restrictive because people are literally walking in off the street and usually don’t have to meet any requirements beyond providing ID and signing a waiver to use the range. One look around any given indoor range can show you that there are a lot of people out there lacking muzzle discipline or they are just bad shots. Everything on the range is safety first because firearms are inherently dangerous and people swallow this idea because it’s almost always the first concept they are taught before ever touching a firearm. Safety is always important, there’s no argument about that but the very nature of a range and the safety demands it creates (and others added on because of  fear of litigation, or simple stupidity) turn the range environment into a breeding ground for bad training and bad practice.


The range is where the bulk of live fire training occurs, and because of this the safety rules of the range become the safety rules. They create a mentality in the shooter that is then taken home with them. Most of this mentality is useful in that it helps prevent negligence; however much of what the range won’t let you do is very applicable to real world self-defense situations. Trainers who subscribe to the rules of the range and don’t see the real world differently are guilty of adopting a range mentality. They are training students to defend themselves in their daily lives, but doing so according to rules that only apply to a specific setting; you can see the problem with this, no? Safety is paramount, but safety is also an individual commitment to common sense tactics.

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Live firing high angle close quarters shooting. Using 3D targets adds in that extra dimension that most firearms training is lacking even though we live in a 3D world

Safety First

The safety psyche is such a part of the shooters mentality that it is ever-present in our evaluation of things; allowing us to measure what we see based on real or imagined violations of the rules as we know them. Staged photographs are scrutinized for finger placement and videos evaluated for any sign of a range violation.  God help you if you introduce, or simply make public an existing technique that violates a safety rule born on the range. Sometimes we spend so much time focused on the safety performance (usually weighed against personally held range rules) that we miss the point of what we are observing or learning. Safety is first, but range safety and real-world safety are two diametrically opposed practices.

The range and the real world do share some similar rules: treat every weapon as if it were loaded (except those we know are not because they are in our positive control), be aware of your target (I prefer threat) and what’s beyond it,  and finger off the trigger until you are ready/willing to fire. That’s it! I’m sure some of you may be saying to yourselves but you missed one…That’s right, there are 4 cardinal safety rules and I only mentioned three. That’s because the fourth, never point your weapon at anything you are not willing to shoot simply isn’t possible in the real-world, or even at times on the range.   When the gun clears the holster, comes out of the rack, trunk or bag, the muzzle is out of a safe direction. The real world is a potential 360 degree direction of fire where safety is one sided and many, many things will be muzzled even though we don’t intend to shoot them. It would be impossible to work with a firearm and never muzzle something that isn’t deserving of bullets. This is semantics to a small degree, though think to yourself and remember it ever being explained in that way. I know that my professional firearms instruction began in the military and it would be almost a decade before the concept was actually taught to me in this way. A small concept that drives a wedge deep between the range and the real world, it introduces an exception to the rules based on necessity, not want.

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Gaining access to and drawing a firearm from a seated position in a vehicle offers many challenges that few instructors teach students to overcome.

Taking the Range to the Streets

The military is actually pretty good about disregarding this rule in the real world. Combat deployments see all manner of unknown nouns have an overwhelming number of muzzles pointed at them with ready intent to fire at the first justifiable reason to do so. I don’t remember it ever being addressed; it was just a natural transition. For law enforcement it’s more of an individual issue and the environment isn’t one of war and weapons are rarely carried unholstered/at ready without provocation. What about when they are?

I was involved with a situation earlier in the year, where a few different alphabets were present, and most of us had guns trained on a single vehicle. Its occupant had been positively identified as a wanted, violent felon who was known to be armed and enjoyed shooting at people (cops, mostly). The car in question was completely tinted except the windshield, and we were all positioned to the rear. At any point the felon could have been aiming at us through the rear window and the tint would have prevented us from seeing it. There were two officers present from a department I had never interacted with before and neither of them were aimed in on the car. They were crouched, using their academy instructed SUL position (ironically both were muzzling their feet in this position). When another local agency ended the excitement by staging on the car and extracting the felon, I talked to these officers about their choice not to join in the mutual sight picture.

“We couldn’t see him.”

“But you knew he was there.”

“Yeah, couldn’t see him though.”

We could have argued the point, just like we can now. The fact remains that just because they couldn’t see him didn’t mean he couldn’t see them. The fact that we knew him to be in the car was more motivation to be prepared and the fact that he was armed with what was described, and later confirmed as a “rifle” meant it should have been all guns on deck. I can’t speak to their motivations for not maintaining a sight picture on the vehicle but I believe it to be a direct result of vague safety-related training practices that hammer home range-only rules that don’t apply to the 3D world. If you bring the range to the street, you are doing nothing to better your protective ability.



Before anyone disagrees with the premise, think of how often you muzzle yourself. Appendix, even some hip holsters, place you in a situation where you muzzle parts of your body. During the acts of holstering/unholstering you are doing so with active control of the weapon. This is a clear violation of muzzle awareness as the rule stands is it not? Now consider how often you muzzle things you have no intention of shooting. If your approach to self-defense shooting has been shaped by only shooting in one direction, with guns always pointed down range or at the deck when not shooting, I say that you would be much better prepared by more realistic approaches to training.  It’s as simple as taking a look at your safety rules and adopting them to train in light of what we are training for.

The Four Cardinal Safety Rules are Range Rules, Not Real World Rules

It’s generally understood that the Cardinal Rules are designed to work together; I was once told that if you were doing any two of them at one time you couldn’t injure anyone who didn’t deserve it, and that’s generally true. However, it’s also apparent that some instructors, academies, and individuals hold these rules to a moral level of adherence without considering their actual application in everyday life. If you consider the thousands of possible variables that make each self-defense situation unique, you can find a perfectly justifiable reason for breaking or bending a few of these rules depending on how they are worded in your memory. The fact is, any time I’m not on a range and my weapon is out, it’s going to spend more time pointed at things I have no want or intention of shooting than things I do, unless I’m muzzling the bad guy. It’s also perfectly reasonable, depending on the situation to set the trigger in anticipation of firing before the actual need to do so exists. If I am feet away from a man with a knife, my finger is on the trigger and I’m pulling slack.  If he decides to retain the knife and disobey commands, he in all likelihood will be shot. His backdrop may be a pitch black alley, or blinding light, or a high hedge, and I may have no idea what is actually beyond him, I must go with what I know and not defend my life based on what I don’t know about his backdrop.  Doing otherwise is ridiculous. As far as treating the firearm as if it’s loaded, that’s one I can almost always comply with, except when I need to treat it like its unloaded. The firearm does not exist in a neat box that controls where it can be pointed and where it can’t; there are no limits or ceiling that regulates its arc of travel in any direction. It is aimed as we wish and this is something that more people should consider when training and practicing.

I hear it all the time and read it even more “Don’t break 180.” This 180 degree imaginary line that makes up the firing line; a line we are not supposed to move our muzzle past in either direction. This line doesn’t exist and on most ranges, its much less than 180 degrees. This rule has no place in the real world.

Real World, as Applied at the Range


There are many ready positions. The reason there are many is because they solve different problems. There is no single ready position that solves every problem .

Training on the range means there will be some artificialities; range design may prevent high-angle shooting such as a hip fire to the chest of a threat in close quarters, or  you may not be able to fire from the deck due to a back drop limitation. You may only be able to shoot in one direction and you may not be able to move. These are problems that can be overcome to a degree but some safety constrains will always exist when it comes to live fire. In the simplest terms, safety on the range is not shooting yourself, other shooters, objects not intended to be shot and it is also not muzzling things that do not deserve to be muzzled. It is doing anything, so long as it is safe and it makes sense. Pointing our weapon in the safest direction possible at all times is the only real cardinal rule. That direction may be straight up to maneuver in or exit a car, which is a huge range no-no that sounds nice, but doesn’t often conform to reality. That direction may be down to push through a crowd or make movement to cover, or just off sight picture of an unknown person to splash them with light from a weapon mounted light in order to make a positive ID. These are but a few examples of thousands of possible situations where what works on the range isn’t going to live up to the real world.

I am making no attempt to replace the Cardinal Rules, I am flatly stating that I have no intention of using them. They belong on a range that isn’t preparing shooters for the real world and I’m not part of that mindset. Safety is a primary concern of mine, make no mistake about that, but my approach must be as realistic as the situations I encounter. There is a lot of good in the Cardinal Rules, but I have my own. Similarities aside, the following make much more sense as far as I’m concerned.

All safe and logical actions are acceptable.

Know the condition of your weapon at all times.

Keep your finger off the trigger until you are confronting a known threat and willing to fire.

Be aware of your muzzle direction at all times and point it in the safest direction possible.

Be aware of your threat and angle of fire, minimize unsafe back drop as you are able.

My rules are five in number-just one more-but one more is important to me and rules shouldn’t be pared down for the sake of convenience, there should be as many as needed. I will again say that I am making no attempt to reinvent the wheel, my rules are what they are; when compared to the standard accepted rules, mine make far more sense both on and off the range. Those who have toiled under the Cardinal Rules for a few decades may find plenty of reason to not like my approach and for them I don’t have much to say that has not already been said. I train and teach on a range, but the fight doesn’t happen there. The range needs to mimic real life as much as possible, and nervous, overbearing safety constraints are detrimental to good training. If an instructor is speaking against a skill or technique, is it because it isn’t safe, or because it isn’t range safe? If you sincerely want to learn self-defense skills, you need not concern yourself with instructors presenting techniques for gunfights that have been conceptualized within the confines of the range.

Aaron Cowan

Lead Instructor – Sage Dynamics

Sage Dynamics Facebook




Funker Tactical is simply an umbrella comprised of passionate individuals who have dedicated their lives to something.

Each member represents their own team. Together, we are redefining concepts on holistic training through intellectual exchanges of ideas and concepts.


DANIEL SHAW is a retired US Marine infantryman with multiple combat tours and instructor titles. He has developed curriculum and training standards for pre-deployment training and Marine Security Forces such as the Fleet Anti-terrorism Security Teams (FAST) and the Naval Nuclear Security Program. His direct action experience includes Level IV VBSS and In Extremis Hostage Rescue. Daniel has been a DOD/USMC firearms instructor for over 15 years. He holds numerous instructor certifications from the US Marine Corps to include foreign weapons and master instructor of Handgun, rifle/carbine, shotgun, and medium to heavy machine guns. Daniel takes his life of training and combat experience and develops and presents curriculum to help law enforcement professionals and responsible armed citizens survive a deadly force encounter. YouTube | Facebook

RYAN HOOVER is the co-founders of Fit to Fight®, a worldwide training organization, specializing in courses related to self-defense, fighting and fitness. Ryan has certified instructors from eight different countries and has taught defensive tactics to law enforcement and military groups, from Ramstein Air Force Base to Denver Highway Patrol Academy and many points in between. He helped develop and draft much of the defensive tactics curriculum for NCBLET. He has also been a featured trainer for the Carolina Panthers NFL Team and Hendrick Motorsports. Ryan has co-authored three books on Krav Maga and is also the co-founder of programs such as Safer Campus Now, Hard Ready, From The Ground Up, and Sparology.  YouTube | Facebook

MilesMoser1 (1)MILES is a highly decorated Canadian Forces Sniper, with 3 combat tours in Afghanistan as a Sniper and 14 months in IRAQ as a private military contractor. His contractor roles ranging from designated marksman, assistant team lead, mission planning, and risk analysis. Since the CF, Miles has stood up a new venture “C/S 66” (Call-Sign-Six-Six). Conceived to provide both education for long range shooting enthusiast and to facilitate a foundation to give back to the Sniper community. Recent C/S 66 activity includes curriculum development, long range instructional training packages, and ballistic research and development. Facebook







DOUG MARCAIDA is an Edge Impact and Weapons of Opportunity Specialist. He travels the world both as a military contractor and private instructor teaching close quarters combatives to military, police and civilians. He holds design collaborations with Kabar, RMJ Tactical and FOX Knives Italy and is widely regarded as the world’s premiere knife instructor. A veteran of the US AirForce, Doug Marcaida is the proud recipient of a Presidential Commendation for his work in the joint training exercises between United States and Filipino Force Recon Marines. He can be seen in the History Channel’s “Forged in Fire” set to air this fall. YouTube | Facebook


INSTRUCTOR ZERO is one of the most recognizable figures in the tactical community. Born from the Italian Military’s Parachute Brigade, FOLGORE, today he remains an active international operative. He is the Director of Security and Security Project Manager of a Special Industrial Site with High Security Profile operating under the control of the Ministry of Economy, Risk analyst for an international financial group, Chief Instructor and President of the Spartan Shooting Academy and CEO of a Security, Military and Defense Advisor Company. He travels the world training Special Military and Police units and is a clinical professor at an Italian University under the Faculty of Security and Investigative Sciences. YouTube | Facebook

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The oft-maligned Beretta M9 is slated for retirement. On July 12th of 2014 Fox News reported that “The Army wants to retire its supply of 9mm handguns and replace it with a more accurate and user-friendly model that also will provide soldiers with more “knockdown” power.” The Army has stated it requires a hammer-driven pistol with a manual safety: our apologies to Glock and M&P fans.

The advances in ammunition in the past decade have created more and more options for defensive carry in the United States. Better propellants and better projectiles have led to better ballistics out of all rounds, but particularly the 9mm. There are two main issues why this does not factor into the Army’s new service pistol.

Firstly, the faster +P and +P+ loads increase wear on firearms. This leads to shorter service life, and when we are discussing 400,000 pistols, service life is a major concern. The 124grn+P 9mm NATO standard is what has worn out the current inventory of M9 and M11s.

Secondly, the Geneva Convention limits troops to Full Metal Jacketed (FMJ) rounds. All the high-tech hollow point ammunition is a no-go for the military, at least non-SF units.

Due to theses two above reasons we are left to choose a caliber other than 9mm. .40 Smith and Wesson should be ruled out immediately, as its higher pressures produce even more wear than 9mm+P ammunition, and firearms chambered in it are typically 9mm sizes, which further shortens the service life. .357 Sig is an option, but it is a high pressure, high speed round, and is not produced in nearly the numbers as the option I advocate – the venerable 230grn .45 ACP.

The chorus of “Bring back the 1911!” comments begins immediately as you attempt to engage in any discussion involving service pistols or the .45 ACP. There should not be any debate around bringing the M1911 back into service. John Browning devised that workhorse before manned flight. The storied M1911’s place in history is secure, but our service personnel deserve more than a 7-8 round magazine. They need the best chance to live, which means higher magazine capacity. Also, the M1911 was not a perfect design. There has been much progress in firearm design since the 1890’s.

The Army is seeking a pistol with improved ergonomics, higher capacity, and better “knockdown power.” The answer in .45 ACP is simple: FN’s FNX-45. With a 15-round capacity, fully ambidextrous controls, interchangeable backstraps for ergonomics, and excellent accuracy, the FNX-45 meets all of the Army’s requirements. Its polymer lower receiver is cheaper to replace than the all-metal lower of the Sig Sauer P227, which lacks the FNX’s fully ambidextrous controls (specifically the de-cocker) and is limited to a 10 round capacity. A 14 round magazine exists for the 227, but it is quite extended.

The FNX also bests the Beretta PX4 Storm, with it’s lower-capacity 9 and 10 round magazines. The Heckler and Koch HK45 is another option, but again, has a 10 round magazine. The Colt M45CQB is a wonderful pistol no doubt – the pinnacle of 104 years of development since the design’s adoption by the US Army – but a 7 round magazine is unacceptably low on the modern battlefield. We can and should offer our service members better.

As of 14 February 2015, on, the FNX-45 is selling around $650-700, the Sig 227 around $1000, the Beretta around $550-600, Heckler and Koch’s HK45 runs $1000+, and a sole Colt M45CQBP is listed at $2295.00

No doubt Government contracts will involve a different cost per unit, which brings me to the FNX’s strength; single source integration. FN America manufactures the M4, M16, M249, Mk.46, Mk.48, and M240 families of weapons, as well as the M2HB and GAU-21 systems for the US Military in their Charleston, South Carolina plant. There are numerous advantages to awarding the contract to FN, but the largest one is keeping production in the United States and assuring American jobs.

The only consideration the Army should be looking at with a new equipment purchase is soldier survivability. The FNX-45’s 15+1 round capacity gives a soldier a 5-7 round advantage over other pistols. That’s 5-7 more chances to neutralize the threat. If a soldier is down to their pistol, a reload is likely not happening. In that situation, I would want the best pistol I could have. That is the FNX-45. The unit cost, American manufacture and jobs, and single-source maintenance advantages all point to FN. Let us know what you think in the comments.


– Bison


USMC Infantry Unit Leader, Daniel Shaw delivers 6 key considerations when setting up your Chest Rig or Plate Carrier. Optimizing your load-out for ease of access following your natural path of movements is key in staying in the fight. Daniel shares anecdotal evidence of the importance of how loadout optimization may have saved some of his buddies’ lives during the Battle of Nasiriyah in 2003.


How do you set up your rig? And what are the considerations that you take when doing so?


Train Often, Train Well




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The below video shows a man attempting to rob a convenience store clerk at gunpoint.  As seen, the clerk calmly bends over and retrieves his own firearm which he points directly at the assailant.

The two men are now trapped in a stand-off, with either men willing to pull the trigger.  As I have discussed before, presenting a firearm may add fuel to the fire during a confrontation, and knowing how to properly handle a firearm during an altercation is an essential set of skills.

As you can see, the clerk is being quite casual with how he is wielding his firearm, and on two occasions the assailant attempts to swat the clerk’s pistol away.  In Canada, we do not have any laws that allow us to carry concealed or open, but in my mind, once you draw a firearm and point it at a living being, you better be prepared to pull the trigger.  Luckily in this instance both parties survived, and the clerk was able to go home safely.  It was later determined that the firearm possessed by the robber was in fact a BB Gun, but whether the clerk knew this in the instant is unknown.

The first thing that I pull from the video is the way in which the clerk handles his firearm.  He has the gun far away from his body, with only one hand on his weapon, and he does not seem to be completely in control.  He is utilizing a ridiculous “gangster-style” grip with the gun canted and his elbow high, guaranteeing poor control over the firearm, and almost no ability to aim.  Learning how to use your body language, voice, and firearm techniques in sync is a necessary skill set I believe which will aid in enabling you to survive a violent altercation.

I firmly believe that most CCW holders do not possess a desire to hurt or kill anyone, but if you pull out a firearm in response to being presented with the business end of someone else’s, I think it is time to act, and not negotiate.  I do not condone violence as a first response, but had the robber been properly armed, or more intent with his actions the clerk may not have fared so well.

This also highlights the need for proper unarmed training, or learning how to properly control an aggressor.  To play the ‘armchair operator’ had I been in the same situation, you would see a radically different attitude in my body language, and I would have been demanding compliance.  Had these commands not been followed, I highly doubt I would have stood there arguing and and allowing myself to get into a shoving match.  Since this is completely theoretical, take from it what you will, just know that the violence of action has saved many people from becoming victims.

How would you have handled this situation?  What training do you participate in that would have allowed you to fare better than the clerk?

Train well, train often!


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