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




In this video, Instructor Zero details why simply “checking left and right” in a methodical fashion is only a range drill and not adequate in a reality contest. While some may argue that routinely scanning after each discharge builds muscle memory that breaks tunnel vision, this has not proven to be the case under stress in real life deadly force encounters. In fact, Instructor Zero argues that it is a waste of time to do this each and every time during training as it wastes valuable time and energy in a training regiment where individual skills are trained.

In firearms training, scanning your environment immediately after a shooting has gone the way of the office “how ya doin?” We do it instinctively without giving it much thought and we do it without meaning. While muscle memory has its benefits in certain aspects of training, building incorrect muscle memory can be a disservice to progress.

As an example, when you are at the range working on your extraction, it detracts from the technical learning process. When working on accuracy, it becomes a monotonous futile exercise that serves no real purpose when sh!t hits the fan.

What are your thoughts on this? As with everything Instructor Zero teaches, this is only an option. The validity of which solely rests upon its validation and logical application on the basis of YOUR personal experiences.


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Lately I’ve seen a quite a few of videos depicting police officers abusing their power. Most people don’t understand is the kind of stress this job entails; it can push you to a point where you won’t recognise yourself. I have never served in a police force (nor will Mrs Sharp let me), but my time in the army as someone with power, I had to deal with very real potential threats. That is no excuse for the behaviour, but I hope this video can illustrate a little of what they have to deal with on a daily basis – both comical and dangerous.


A security guard in Florida responds perfectly to the approach of three armed gunmen. Notice how he steps offline and immediately engages the three suspects from behind the cover of his post.


“Under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training.”

Are you confident that your own training would prepare you to respond so calmly and effectively? Or does your firearm training focus on the competitive side of shooting? If so, where does your skill set fall when viewed from a tactical perspective, should you ever need it?

The ability to put effective hits on any target is only a fraction of the equation when it comes to performing in the heat of competition, or an armed engagement.  Like a concealed weapon, the value of our training is based upon our ability to access it in a crisis situation, whether against the clock for high score, or against others who mean to do you harm.

Optimal performance, regardless of arena, relies heavily on the mindset of the participant.  In the provided video, the guard obviously possessed an attitude of readiness, and as such, was able to fall back upon his skills in order to perform effectively in this violent altercation.

This guard, if perhaps able to gain a greater view of the impending threat, may have had the opportunity to end the confrontation non-violently.  His stimulus in this instance though, was three men rushing into an establishment which was obviously a high risk business given the guard was even there.  With very little time and distance, the guard was up, gun drawn, and making effective hits within a very small window.



This is an excellent display of technique performed under pressure and at crisis speed.  We should aim to examine the video not just for the glorification of violence, but to draw from it poignant lessons that may be applicable not just in these types of encounters, but in every day life.


– Adam


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And more importantly, how to fix them?

Viking Tactics takes us through the “3 Little Kittens” malfunction drill with live demonstration.   Training to deal with malfunctions is a critical component of any firearms training system.  How do you train malfunction drills?

Does anyone have an actual experience with a malfunction during a training scenario or real life scenario?  If so, please share below.

[youtube id=”-TqLnBd1udM”]Story time:  Back in 2009, I was a Team Leader in the 101st ABN Infantry.  I had 3 guys directly under me and our platoon (Mortars) and sister platoon (Scouts) were at the live-fire shoot house on Ft. Campbell.  I, myself, had run sim-round shoot houses, but never an actual live-fire in close quarters.  Now it was not only my first time but that I was  also in charge of controlling myself and 3 others, my adrenaline was through the roof as.   In my mind, I now had to think as 4 people instead of 1.

Before our fireteam ever ran “hot” we use the proven crawl, walk, run methodology.  This translated to running the shoot house scenario with no ammo, just using our voices (“Bang, Bang”), blanks with blank firing adapters on our weapons and finally with live 62 grain M855 5.56 ammunition.  My weapon was an M4 with M203 attached and 4×32 TA01NSN Acog.  Everyone else in my team ran a standard M4 with an M2 Comp Aimpoint.  The scenario consisted of 2 hallways and 3 rooms.  The ground was basically sand and it was difficult to use anything but rudimentary footwork (ie. never crossing your feet).

All in all, we ran the scenario 6 times with half of it in daylight and the other half in pitch black using our tac-lights.  During one of the of the scenarios, I had a malfunction on the second room with my target still standing a few feet from me.  Our targets were “little man in the woods” with a balloon tied to a rope behind them.  As the balloon was shot which was non visible and center mass behind target,  the target could fall to the ground.  This is an excellent, cost effective training measure for reactive targets.

When my gun failed to fire, I immediately yelled “Bulldog,” our battalion SOP for a malf, and went to a knee.  The private in my team behind me, took over my lane of fire and took down the target.  As I cleared the malfunction I saw that it was a double feed.  Back then, it wasn’t as common knowledge, but this is an inherent issue with older aluminum mags.   I knew right away that “SPORTS” (The Army equivalent of Tap, Rack Bang) would not fix the issue, so I immediately stripped the mag and performed “remedial action.”  Gun was back up.

You’ll notice in this training video that stripping a double-fed mag is not the same as removing the mag when the gun is working properly.  The second round is usually jammed up in between the bottom of the bolt and the rear of the round is still usually between the feed lips.  This pressure causes the magazine to be stuck in place.  You have to really get full leverage on the body of the magazine and yank downward while ensuring your finger is kept on the mag release.  Many new shooters index fingers tire easily after depressing the mag release for just a few seconds, so it’s important to treat the gun like a tool and man-handle it when seconds count.