The Cornered Cat
Watching shooters

By now, nearly everyone in the competition side of the shooting world has seen the following video, as have many of us within the self-defense and training side of things. It’s disconcerting to watch, and because it’s disconcerting, it’s tempting to react to it in emotional ways — by getting angry rather than thoughtful, by pulling out our virtual pitchforks to storm the castle and burn the heretics at the stake.

There may be a place for emotional reactions, but I’d like to set those things aside here so that we can really think about what happened. We can explore how it happened, and discuss how we — as shooters, as observers, and as instructors — could prevent something similar happening to us on our ranges and in our clubs. Even if you do not play action shooting games, you’ll find something here that you can use to help keep yourself and the people around you safe.

As I’ve said many times in the past, the only thing worse than a bad mistake, is a bad mistake nobody learns anything from. So let’s learn!

The video

You can also watch the video on YouTube at

What happened

As you see on the embedded video, a man ended up downrange and in the line of fire during a match. He was apparently picking up brass — you can see the rakelike tool he was using for that, briefly, on the video at 00:31 — and did not realize that the taping crew and observers had all left the bay in preparation for the next shooter. He was completely focused on his task and may not have noticed when the shooter began his run through the stage.

As the shooter and RO come around the vision barrier, the man cries out.

The shooter did an excellent job of stopping — instantly! — as soon as he realized there was a problem. He took his finger off the trigger and immediately lifted the gun to high ready, with the muzzle as far away from the brass picker as he could reasonably get it. He then turns to the RO and asks, “What’s going on?”

The RO tells the shooter to stop, and the shooter thanks the RO.

Some responses

Many people have suggested that the video should have been kept under wraps. “Way to give the antis more ammo!” wrote one angry commenter in an expletive-filled rant on a private forum. Another, in a calmer venue, wrote, “In my opinion posting it for the whole world to see does a disservice to this organization.”

The political fear in these posts is palpable. We’re afraid that “they” are going to take our guns away. Or that local clubs will stop hosting action pistol matches. We’re afraid of the social backlash if non-shooters widely believe that shooting sports could be dangerous rather than simply fun.

It’s an understandable fear. It’s also both irrelevant and unreasonable: irrelvant because the video exists, and unreasonable because the only thing that keeps our shooting sports safe is our ongoing community commitment to learn from rare incidents like this.

The only way to learn from a mistake is to first admit that a mistake was made. This may be a painful truth, but it is a truth.

The lessons

There are five roles we can see people playing in this video: the brass picker, the RO, the assistant, the shooter, and the observers. Each of these roles puts us in a position to prevent the kind of danger we see here. Each of the people we see in these roles on the video did some things exactly right and each also made some mistakes. Let’s take them, one at a time, and put ourselves in each person’s role.

Whups… before we do that, let me handle the human issue here: we aren’t burning the heretic at the stake today. We are putting ourselves in each role because at some point, as members of the firearms community, we are likely to find ourselves in exactly these roles. There’s absolutely nothing that happens on this video that any one of us could not do tomorrow. That’s why we should learn from what happened, today.

The Brass Picker

During a match, many people must go into the bay during the lull between shooters. We go downrange to score targets, tape or reset the targets, and to pick up brass. Picking up brass could technically wait until the match is completely over and all shooting has stopped. Unfortunately, waiting that long would mean that some shooters wouldn’t get their brass back for reloading. “No brass picking during the match” is an unpopular rule, and few embrace it.

In order to play the game at all, we do have to score and reset the targets. This means there’s no way to avoid having people walking into the stage at the end of each run, even if we don’t allow brass picking. The challenge is, how do we make sure that those people have left before we start the next shooter?

We’ll talk about the RO’s responsibilities in a moment. But for us, the people who participate in matches, oberve them or assist with them, it’s very simple indeed: it is 100% our responsibility to get out of the way before the shooting starts.

Whether we went downrange to set targets or for any other reason, it’s completely on us to be aware of what other people are doing. When other people start leaving the area, it’s our job to see them leaving and go with them. If someone else has to remind us that the shooting is about to start, we’ve just ducked our own personal responsibility to protect ourselves.

The Range Safety Officer

Many people have observed — rightly, I believe — that the primary fault for this dangerous situation fell into the lap of the RSO. Here’s what the shooting club said about that:

The primary fault naturally lies with a complacent RO, who did not make the extra effort to verify that the course of fire (with particularly poor visibility) was clear before starting the next shooter. Lesson: don’t pick up the clock unless you are prepared to perform the duties of the RO with the seriousness and thoroughness that the job requires.

Just like firearms instructors, range officers hold a heavy responsibility to keep their people safe. When the job is done well, shooters and bystanders may not even realize just how much work these folks are putting into that job. But make no mistake: it is work, and it does require our full attention while we’re doing it.

There’s a careful procedure I use whenever I work inside a deep bay like this, whether it’s in the context of a class, at a match, or even just informally shooting with friends. Keeping shooters safe is a high-focus task, and because human attention spans are limited, we have to carefully budget our focus while we’re working to be sure we see the right things. This is how I do it.

Because prevention is far better than cure when it comes to group safety, I’m obsessive about clearing the bay after each shooter. When we go into the deep part of the bay to tape or reset targets, I make a conscious effort to be the one standing closest to the berm while we finish that job, and I try to never step toward the open end of the bay ahead of anyone else. I don’t care who it is, or what they’re doing here; if it’s my job to be sure nobody is downrange when the shooting starts, then whenever someone comes into the  bay, I stay either right next to them or between them and the back berm until they leave. That way, I can escort them out and be sure they won’t still be there when the shooting starts.

When we’re done taping or resetting targets, I deliberately look around, glancing behind every target and looking either around or under any vision-blocking props as we leave the bay. This helps me be sure nobody will still be downrange when the shooting starts.

Before I give any commands to the shooter, I  quickly count my ducklings — the squad or students — to be sure all are present. If I come up short for any reason, I ask who’s missing and where they went. If the answers are at all nebulous, I walk back into the bay to be sure nobody got left behind in there.

After I have cleared the bay, primary responsibility for the surroundings shifts to the assistant and my focus shifts to the shooter. This has to happen because keeping people safe is a high-focus task and it’s impossible to do it very well when your attention is divided. This is why most matches have both an RO and an assistant RO on every stage. Nobody can see it all!

As the shooter loads and makes ready, I watch his (her) hands. Not interested in the targets anymore at this point, because I know they’re clear and won’t move. But I’m going to watch the trigger finger to see how it behaves, the muzzle to stay in safe directions within the rules of the game we’re playing, and the shooter’s general body language so that I can anticipate times I may need to step in and grab for a drifting muzzle.

Whenever we do the job of the range safety officer, it is 100% our responsibility to make sure the range is clear before the shooting starts.

The Assistant

The assistant’s primary job is to keep general awareness on the surrounding environment, which includes being sure that the group stays where they were told to stay. It’s the assistant’s responsibility to see and stop morons who walk over the top of the berm to get a good picture, idiots who remove their protective eyewear to scratch an itch, and nincompoops who pull off their ear protection for whatever reason. The assistant will also be running the clipboard, but they’d better not be watching the shooter, except maybe for keeping an eye out for the shooter’s  foot faults in cover (if that’s within the game rules).

The RO will very likely not see any of the things the assistant must watch, because the RO’s full attention will focus on the shooter’s hands from the moment the shooter begins handling the firearm. Both the RO and the assistant need to be ready to call CEASEFIRE at any time. But we don’t have the same spheres of responsibility. By dividing our tasks, we’re better prepared to see potential problems before any danger develops.

Whenever we work as an assistant safety officer, it is 100% our responsibility to make sure the range stays clear after the shooting starts.

The Spectator

At shooting events like this, there are always spectators. In this case, one of the spectators had a video camera and that’s why you and I (who weren’t at the match) are aware of what happened.

But what about the people who were at the match? When we are at a match, not shooting and not working as an RO, is there anything we can do to help the people around us stay safe?

There sure is! We should keep our eyes up and speak up if we see something wrong. As much as possible, we should keep our attention focused on what’s happening inside the stage. Not only will this help prevent similiar incidents to the one we see in the video, it also helps us be sure we aren’t caught with our hearing protection down around our necks and our eye protection resting on the brim of our ballcaps when the shooting starts.

As spectators, it is 100% our responsibility to alert range staff and shooters whenever we see an unsafe condition happening, or about to happen, on the range.

The Shooter

In many ways, the shooter was the hero in this piece. If you’ve never played an action shooting game, you may not realize just how many different piece of information bombard the shooters’ brains — all at the same time! — while we’re shooting a stage. Keeping track of all those details takes our full attention, and there’s not a lot of room for unexpected information coming in. We’re also often fully adrenalized, which makes it easier to react and harder to think.

This shooter did very well in how he responded to the unexpected presence of a live person where a person was definitely not supposed to be. He deserves full kudos for that.

Let’s talk about something that could and should have happened before the shooting started, though. Every time we pick up a gun — for any reason whatsoever including just playing a game with our friends — we know that we’ll be held accountable for where our bullets land.

When we shoot a high-focus game, it’s good to have safety officers and squad mates we can trust to do their jobs, but even the most trustworthy associates cannot take full responsibility for where our bullets land when we’re the ones holding the gun. It will be our legal, emotional, and financial nightmare if one of our bullets hits someone. That’s the grim reality and there’s no erasing it.

That’s why, even inside the context of a game or class where we have a supervising safety officer, it’s still important for us as shooters to glance underneath the vision barriers before we step into the shooting box. That quick look can tell us immediately if there are any human legs mixed in among the target stands inside the bay, and can prevent this kind of close call.

When the rules of the game or the setup of the stage don’t allow us to make that quick glance, as shooters we know we’ll be completely at the mercy of the RO and assistant to do their jobs. That makes it even more important that when we’re on deck, we watch the procedures as they clear the range for us. We should be aware of what the other shooters on the squad are doing, and we should notice if anyone in our group wanders off. Focusing on stage strategies shouldn’t stop us from noticing whether everyone has come out of the bay before we begin shooting.

As shooters, it is 100% our responsibility to make sure nobody is standing in the area where we are about to shoot.

Personal Responsibility

Shooting sports remain among the safest sports we can play, with an injury record far below that of most of most other competitive outdoor games. The reason this is true is that people within the firearms community, by and large, embrace the concept of personal responsibility for our actions. We know that safety isn’t “everyone’s” job; it is the job of each one of us, individually and personally.

We also know that our community will stay safe as long as each one of us does the job we need to do to help keep our events safe. When one of us fails our own responsibility, we know we have an army of others prepared to step in and take up the slack. This shared commitment to safety is one of the most beautiful things about the firearms community.

That’s why close calls like this are rare, and it’s also why we work so hard to learn from them. Whether it’s at a formal match or class, or simply playing with friends on the range on a sunny afternoon, shooters and spectators must embrace their own personal responsibilities. It’s how we keep each other safe.

2 Responses to Watching shooters

  1. larryarnold says:

    Many people have suggested that the video should have been kept under wraps. “Way to give the antis more ammo!” wrote one angry commenter in an expletive-filled rant on a private forum. Another, in a calmer venue, wrote, “In my opinion posting it for the whole world to see does a disservice to this organization.”
    “Truth will out” dates back at least to Shakespeare.
    I have a lot of experience in public relations. One of my ironclad rules is, “No matter how bad the truth is, if you try to hide it the rumors will be worse.”

  2. Miguel says:

    This is ONE way to do safety checks, NOT the only way.
    At IDPA Matches run by our club and at Sponsored matches, the clearing of a stage is done by the Score Keeper (also a certified Safety Officer). The farthest target will be scored last and the SK check for all the targets being pasted and will kick anybody present out of the Course of Fire.
    Regular matches can be somewhat flexible about brass picking, but once the order has been given to vacate, a shooter has to leave or risk a DQ. At Sponsored matches, the Dead Brass rule must be set as it is too busy to be herding Brass Chickens around and run and efficient match.
    As SO/RSO, don’t be afraid to be perceived as an a-hole because you do enforce safety. It is a much lighter cross to bear than being the SO/RSO who let the stage get out of control and somebody get hurt.

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