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Safe direction

One thing that often surprises me about firearms instructors is how much we take for granted. This little business of a “safe direction,” for example. We often teach our students to chant the rule (“Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction,” as the NRA puts it) … without defining what a safe direction really is.

For those who don’t already know this, a safe direction is

  • somewhere that, if shot, would cause only minimal, acceptable property damage; and
  • somewhere that you can absolutely, positively guarantee the bullet won’t keep going after it lands there.

That’s a rather dry definition, but it covers the bases well enough. Unfortunately, many students need these concepts fleshed out a bit more. When presenting this idea, I like to ask my students, “Okay, that’s the basic idea. Everyone, right now, point to the safest direction in this classroom.” Some point without hesitation, and of those, many get it wrong. Others dither, or sit on their hands looking perplexed. That provides us with an excellent opportunity to discuss things that do, or do not, stop bullets.

Unless built of brick or stone, interior and exterior walls do not reliably stop bullets. Bullets zip right through sheetrock and paneling. Insulation barely slows them down. Windows simply shatter. Exterior siding rarely stops them. This means you cannot simply point at an apparently-solid wall and call it a “safe direction.” Yet many people do just that, instinctively thinking of a wall as something that would be safe to point the gun at, so we need to make sure our students understand these factors very clearly.

But what does that leave us with? Are we completely unable to handle our firearms as long as we are inside a building? Not quite, but it’s important to understand what we’re doing and why.

Of course, in your own home you can and should make a safe backstop that you can trust. But it’s a little different when traveling. When you’re on the road, you have to be a little more thoughtful and creative. (Unless you choose to travel with a — recommended! — Safe Direction ballistic containment product of your own.)

On the ground floor of a building, you can usually point the gun at the floor without too much risk. This does not work if you have a basement level underneath you, and of course it does not work if you’re standing on the second floor. Keep in mind, however, that a discharge straight into the floor may send a ricochet straight back up. You’re much safer with the gun pointed at a downward angle of 45 degrees or so — say two feet in front of you — than you are with it pointed straight down.

Some people want to point the gun at the ceiling. This is a very bad idea if you’re on the ground floor of a multi-story building, and almost as bad if you’re on the top level with nothing above you but roof. Roofs and second-story floors do not stop bullets any more reliably than walls do. A certain number of people are killed by falling bullets every year. 1

So what’s the solution? What if you’re in a hotel room, on the second or third floor of a multi-story building, surrounded by other rooms that almost certainly have people in them? Is there a safe direction? How can you safely handle your firearm if you must?

If you have a need to handle your firearm in an environment like that, here’s my advice: visualize yanking all the sheet rock off the walls, so you’re looking at just the bare skeleton of the building around you. You can see 2×4′s every few feet along all the walls. Those might stop bullets, but there’s no way to know exactly where they are with the sheet rock and paint in place.

Support structures come together in the lower, outer corners of the room.

However, still looking at the skeleton of the building, you know that major support beams always come together along the floor at the outer corners of the room. You don’t have to see through walls to know where the outer corners of the room are, or to spot the location where both walls come together and meet the floor. So your safe(r) direction in that environment would be the corner of the floor of the room along an outside wall. Since support beams come together where the corners of the room come together, the corner of the floor on an outside wall is your best bet for hitting a support beam instead of a blank stretch of sheet rock. That makes it your safest  direction in that environment.

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Footnotes

  1. Yes, I’ve seen the Mythbusters episode. I’ve also seen the obituaries.

14 Responses to Safe direction

  1. Words that make me cringe; “For the purposes of this class, the safe direction is…” You are so right. I have a cinderblock wall in my basement, that is underground, and a Kevlar vest, so I’m covered. Traveling, I hadn’t considered that, and I shoot Glock so if I need to clean I have to pull the trigger. What about the little room safes? Do you think they would be an effective backstop?

    • I would worry about ricochet potential. Also, I know my big safe at home makes a good backstop, because I know what it’s made of, but I’m not sure how well built the little safes are. I know that refrigerators (another tempting object you can sometimes find in hotel rooms) do not reliably stop bullets.

  2. Pitmaster says:

    When I’m in a hotel and handle a firearm I point it at pillows that are stacked on the mattress. The firearm is pointed down towards the pillows so if a round discharged it would have to through all of the pillows, the mattress, box springs, and the floor. This isn’t a good idea for mattresses that have air coils in them. Also, for me a safe direction a loaded handgun is IN the holster and on my belt. When off my belt it is stored in the opened nightstand drawer.

  3. Miguel says:

    A quick note on “shooting straight up in the air.” Yes, Mythbusters showed us that if you shoot a gun straight (90 degrees) up, gravity will eventually stop the bullet’s forward movement, it will fall and only reach terminal velocity which is much less than the regular velocity coming out of the barrel.
    But they forgot to analyze one important detail: People do not shoot straight up, specially if they are drunk out of their gourds in New Years or Fourth of July. They may shot the first time somewhat vertically or a crude approximation, but after that they let the arm angle down and soon enough you have rounds going somewhere with still enough velocity to kill somebody. If the arm reaches the 45 degree, you have achieved the perfect storm of sending a projectile the farthest away it can achieve with its forward velocity and thus lethality.
    I had the unfortunate “pleasure” of watching idiots do a shooting celebratory discharges and most of them start shooting while looking away. It takes about two shots for their arms to reach that 45 degree angle and that is a scary thing to watch.
    Quick math: A regular 9mm round will usually come out of the barrel at 1100 feet per second. That means the bullet is capable of covering the distance of 1100 feet or 366 yards (three and a half football fields)in one second if gravity is not a factor. When we shoot horizontally, gravity usually takes over sooner than the full distance, but if we angle up…..tragedy might ensue.

    • larryarnold says:

      The Texas Hunter Education charts show a typical centerfire handgun will shoot about a mile and a quarter at the max angle, which I believe is about 30 degrees above horizontal, not 45. (Air drag)

      Rifle calibers show more variation, with 7mm Magnum max range at 5 miles or so.

  4. rob pincus says:

    WOW.. I refer you back to your own recent (…and excellent) article about Instructor Ethics.

    I think it is ethically questionable to focus on Property Damage as the prime directive for what defines a “safe direction”.

    The focus should be on PERSONAL Safety, not property damage.
    -RJP

    • WOW yourself, Rob! :D Go back and read what I wrote: “… would cause ONLY minimal, acceptable property damage.”

      If you somehow read that to include dead babies or something, I’m not sure how you got there. Can you tell me more?

      Thanks for the kind words re the other article. Much appreciated.

      • rob pincus says:

        Marty Hayes (Firearms Academy of Seattle) proposed this definition as appropriate also recently and I had the same reaction… as have many other instructors. Not even mentioning keeping people safe seems to miss the point of a “safety” rule entirely. The rule is not a “property protection” rule… it is a “safety rule” that should be focused on keeping people safer, yet people are not even mentioned in either of your defining bullet points. I think the definitions take for granted that your students understand that protecting people is really what the rule should be focused on.
        As an instructor, I want people focused on the primarily important aspects of any rule, theory, hypothesis, edict, idea or statement that I share…. and when it comes to my safety rules, “property damage” is somewhere far below important. I don’t want PEOPLE to get hurt.

        As for the property damage issue, taken literally, the things that are going to be damaged least by bullets are the things that the bullets skip off of, which could actually INCREASE danger to bystanders, if a gun goes off… so, I think there are several flaws here.

        One that seems obvious is that there are some items designed to absorb bullets for safety reasons, like kevlar vests, that specifically are damaged and should be replaced after they have absorbed in a bullet…. so, SIGNIFICANT property damage occurs when they are struck by a bullet. Most would agree that the cinder-block with a vest wrapped around it meets the definition of “safe direction” when clearing a gun at home or conducting dry fire training, but it does not meet your definition.

        The definition we use for safe direction is:

        “A direction that, If the gun goes off, no one is likely to get hurt.”

        • Tom Walls says:

          Rob, Kathy responded completely in her response to you… ‘Go back and read what I wrote: “… would cause ONLY minimal, acceptable property damage.”
          “ONLY” covers the “no people hurt” issue thoroughly and simply.
          Once a round is fired it is stopped by something… intended backstop, terminal ground impact if one of the infamous “fired into the air” rounds, game animals etc. Or a human being. During administrative gun handling I want any unintentionally discharged round to STOP in a place of my choosing, with minimal damage. That would not be a living thing, hence the general term “property”.
          Pretty simple concept.

          • rob pincus says:

            I don’t take protecting people for granted…. rather than force the student to make the leap to the idea that while we are talking about “property” we also mean “people”, I’d rather just talk about people.

            If you thought Kathy had it covered, why jump in? To my point, I think that the choice of addressing property overcomplicates the situation, which is why these clarifications and discussions have become necessary.

            If this article had been titled “What do we mean by a “Safe Backstop?” and not addressed safety rules at all, but rather just addressed where to point a gun AFTER you have made sure it is not pointed at a person, I think it would’ve been awesome.

            -RJP

    • larryarnold says:

      Talking about limiting the possibility a bullet will penetrate a ceiling, wall, or floor isn’t about avoiding property damage to the structure, it’s about limiting the possibility you might hit someone on the other side. Which is a valid part of “Point your gun in a safe direction.”

  5. Tom Walls says:

    I suspect failure to be awarded the RJP Seal of Awesomeness is survivable.

  6. Smokey says:

    So what is lacking in Col.Cooper’s rule “never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy”

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