Every shotgunner, whether new or experienced, should understand and follow firearms safety rules. This makes you a safer, more effective shooter, protecting both yourself and others.
General Firearms Safety
A key component of being a responsible gun owner is learning and observing firearms safety rules. Most unintentional discharges are negligent—i.e., they result from a failure of the gun owner to follow the four basic rules of gun safety.
There may be circumstances under which an unintentional discharge results from a mechanical failure; however, your muzzle awareness should ensure the gun fires into the ground or another appropriate backstop.
Firearms are dangerous weapons in the hands of the reckless and irresponsible. However, if you follow the four basic rules of gun safety, you can minimize the risk of an accident.
- All guns are always loaded. Even if they’re not, treat them as if they are.
- Never let the muzzle cover anything that you are not prepared to destroy.
- Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target.
- Be aware of your target and what is behind it.
You may also see the rule that you should keep your shotgun (or firearm in general) unloaded until you’re ready to fire. This is sound advice for the range and when transporting firearms for non-defensive purposes.
However, if you keep a shotgun for the principal or auxiliary purpose of self-defense, the shotgun should remain loaded.
Check the Barrel
Before firing your shotgun, always check the barrel for obstructions and dirt or debris. This is equally applicable to handguns and rifles, especially if you keep firearms in storage for protracted periods.
Maintaining and cleaning the barrel will not just make your shotgun presentable but also ensure the optimum performance.
The first part of shotgun safety should always be understanding how to clear the gun. You should always clear a firearm—open the breech and unload the gun/inspect the chamber to ensure that it is unloaded—before handling it. You should always clear a firearm before attempting to dry-fire or disassemble it. It’s also often necessary for safe storage and transportation.
To clear a pump-action shotgun, retract the slide handle fully to open the breech. You should check that the chamber is unloaded by sight and feel. Many shooting instructors emphasize inserting a finger into the chamber because a visual inspection can be hampered by low light.
Look through the loading port. You should be able to see the magazine follower, which indicates that the magazine is empty.
If you’re new to shotguns, it’s important to remember that if you’ve cycled a pump-action shotgun, the action will lock. If you need to open the breech to unload a shotgun that’s been cocked, you need to find and depress the action release. This is usually located at the bottom of the trigger, adjacent to or behind the trigger guard.
As with any firearm fed from a detachable box or drum magazine, always remove the magazine first before opening the breech. If you unload the chamber first, on closing, the bolt may strip a successive round from the magazine and feed it into the chamber.
Unloading a pump-action shotgun is different from unloading many other types of weapons. Unloading a single-barreled or double-barreled break-action shotgun only requires that you break the gun open by rotating the opening lever.
However, in pump-action shotguns fed from tubular magazines, it’s necessary to unload the magazine without repeatedly cycling the action. Otherwise, you will have to chamber, extract, and eject each shell.
Part of the unloading process for a pump-action shotgun is to find the shell latch on the inside of the receiver through the loading port. Depressing the shell latch should cause the magazine to eject one shell.
Misfires, Hang Fires, and Squibs
Shotgun shell misfires do happen. If you press the trigger on your shotgun and the firing pin strikes the primer but does not detonate it, you’ve experienced a misfire.
A misfire is simply the failure of the primer to detonate. This may be due to a light strike, in which the firing part failed to deliver a sufficiently powerful blow to crush the primer. A defective primer can also cause it. However, the only way to distinguish a misfire from a hang fire is to wait.
A hang fire, on the other hand, is delayed primer ignition. When you press the trigger and hear a “click,” you should avoid opening the breech immediately. If you’ve experienced a delayed ignition, opening the breech may result in an out-of-battery ignition, which risks damaging the gun and injuring you.
A squib is a cartridge that contains no powder propellant, or the propelling charge is insufficient to propel the ammunition out of the gun. In handguns and rifles, this often results in the bullet remaining inside the barrel.
This can also occur in a shotgun. If the shot charge failed to exit the barrel, you should attempt to clear it using a cleaning rod.
Always load your shotgun with the correct ammunition. If you own a 12-gauge shotgun, only load it with 12-gauge shotgun ammunition.
However, there’s some confusion regarding appropriate shotgun shell length. The length of the shotgun shell corresponds to the length of the shotgun chamber. If your shotgun chamber is 2¾” long, don’t attempt to chamber and fire 3” shells in it.
Furthermore, as every manufacturer will advise, only use high-quality, factory-loaded ammunition for target shooting and defensive purposes.
If you're looking for a guide on how to load your shotgun, visit this page.
Shotgun safety also requires a brief note on choke tubes. The purpose of a choke tube is to constrict the shot charge at the muzzle to extend the shotgun’s effective range.
However, this tapered cylinder can be dangerous if you use it with slugs. An improved cylinder choke may be acceptable; however, a modified or full choke may cause a severe failure.
See Related Article: Which Shotgun Choke is the Most Open?
You should become familiar with your shotgun’s controls, including the placement and manipulation of the safety catch.
The Remington Model 870 pump-action shotgun has a cross-bolt safety catch—a horizontally sliding button—located behind the trigger. You depress the safety catch from right to left to ready the weapon for firing. When the safety catch protrudes from the left side of the trigger guard, it will expose red paint to indicate that the safety is disengaged and the shotgun is ready to fire.
In the Mossberg 500, 590, and 590A1, the safety catch is a sliding button on the top of the receiver. When you slide the safety catch to the upward position, it exposes a red dot, which, as with the Remington, denotes that the gun is ready to fire.
The Remington and Mossberg are modern hammerless shotguns. What about pump-action shotguns with external hammers, such as the Winchester Model 1897? The Model 1897, and shotguns like it, do not have a separate safety catch.
The procedure for rendering a loaded Model 1897 safe is to place your thumb on the hammer, press the trigger, and allow the hammer to move forward slowly. Take your finger off the trigger and allow the hammer to continue forward until it stops at the half-cock position.
Always ensure that the muzzle of your shotgun is pointing in a safe direction at all times (Rule #2).
The Bottom Line
If you follow the four basic gun safety rules, you’ll be a safe, responsible shooter. Combined with a thorough knowledge of your shotgun, you should be able to both avoid accidents and help others.