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  • Rowan

So you've got a what?

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

So you have a gun now, either fresh from the gun store, or maybe it is still sitting in the box from when you got it, and you've never taken it to the range. Now what?

Gun in case
Throw a lock on here and you have a viable storage solution

There are a lot of people out there with firearms who are far from firearm enthusiasts or gun nuts. Maybe the gun belongs to your spouse, or it was given to you, maybe you just moved to an area with a more gun-friendly culture and you thought you should have one, or maybe you saw recent events and decided having a gun was a good idea for protection, but you aren't really sure what to do next. What steps should you take to be a responsible gun owner?


A good start is storing your firearm safely. I'm going to do a whole article on storage, but ideally your firearm storage option should protect your firearm from the elements, prevent unauthorized access, and deter theft. If you are expecting to be able to use a firearm for self-defense it needs to be accessible to you, and quickly. Just because you have a handgun doesn't mean you need to go out and buy a huge and expensive safe.

Vaultek Case
Cases like this keep your gun secure but allow fast access

Learn How It Works

I don't think you have to be an expert on firearms or at all mechanically inclined, but learning the basics of how your firearm functions will help you understand how to handle it safely. If a gun feels like some complicated and unpredictable device in your hands you are going to be uncomfortable and unsure handling it. You might not know exactly how your car engine works, but you understand what the brakes and the gas do, how to shift the transmission, how to adjust the seats, use the indicators and wipers etc. A car is far more complicated than a gun! Either have someone who really understands explain it to you, or there are a ton of great videos on YouTube that will explain it for you with visuals.

Learn the 4 Fundamental Safety Rules

Now that you have an idea of how your gun functions you will have a better understanding and appreciation of the 4 fundamental safety rules.

  1. Treat all guns as if they were loaded. This means that even if you know a gun is unloaded you still treat it as if it was loaded. You do not do anything with a gun that you wouldn't do if you knew it was loaded. We would never point an unloaded gun at someone, no matter how certain you might be that it is empty.

  2. Keep guns pointed in a safe direction. Imagine there is a laser beam coming out of the barrel of your gun. We do not want that laser beam to pass over anything we wouldn't want to destroy. At a shooting range this usually means guns are always pointed down range, or at the ground. Never pass your hand in front of the barrel, never look down the barrel, and never point the barrel at any parts of yourself or anyone else. Always being conscious of where your gun is pointed takes both constant attention and practice, but the more you do it the more it will become second nature.

  3. Always keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot. Keep your trigger finger away from the trigger and place it straight against the frame of the gun. This is to ensure even if you were to flinch or bump into something, the gun is not going to go off. Guns don't go off by themselves, the vast majority of accidents come from carelessness and complacency.

  4. Be aware of your target's background, foreground, and your surroundings. When you shoot things bullets will often pass through the target you are shooting. Be cognizant of where your bullets are going to go, whether or not anything is going to pass between you and the target, and keep track of what is going on around you.

Here are a few bonus rules that will help keep you safe:

Never try to catch a falling gun. Much like a knife...if you drop a gun let it hit the ground. Modern guns will not go off just because they got dropped.

If a hot shell casing lands down your shirt...try not to panic! Having a shell casing eject from the gun and land on bare skin hurts, but accidentally shooting yourself while you try and grab it will hurt more.

Always wear eye and ear protection. Real life isn't like the movies. Shooting guns without ear protection is a fast track to hearing ringing in your ears for the rest of your life. Likewise, we always want to protect our eyes. From flying shell casings to unburnt gunpowder and bullet spalling, you do not want anything hitting you in the eye!

Safety First
Don't become a statistic, be responsible!

Learn How the Controls Work

Just like with a car your gun has various controls. Become familiar with how to use the slide release, magazine release, and trigger. You've already learned what each control does but get used to actually using them until you are comfortable with how they work.

Get Some Accessories

Before we ever go to a range we are going to need some hearing protection and some eye protection. This does not have to be expensive. You can get a basic pair of earmuffs for $20 and use your sunglasses (no glass lenses!) or some basic safety glasses to start. You are also probably going to want some ammo. Make sure the ammo you get matches the gun you are using. If you are not sure what to get ask someone who knows guns or sells ammo. There is a difference between ammo you use to practice with, and ammo you use for self-defense. You want to start with practice ammo as it will be much cheaper and you don't need fancy ammo to shoot paper.

Eye and ear protection
Always wear eye and ear protection!

Learn the Fundamentals of Shooting

Advanced Fundamentals Class
These students just finished my advanced fundamentals course

Alright! It's finally time to actually start to learn how to shoot. Now I'm a firearm instructor so you'd probably expect me to tell you that you have to go to a trained professional with a long list of credentials to learn how to shoot. I will say going to a good instructor is the fastest and most efficient way to learn how to shoot, but you absolutely can teach yourself the basics. Just like anything else, there is a wealth of information out there in places like YouTube. For much of my early shooting career, I was self-taught. I could not afford quality training and there weren't many good training options near me.

Early on I read books and watched hundreds of videos from a huge variety of sources and instructors. In my journey along the way, I ran into a lot of bad information and had to learn what sources I trusted. I definitely picked up some bad habits that I had to train out of as I progressed. With that being said, I was able to teach myself to a fairly high level of proficiency.

So what is the value of a quality instructor vs teaching yourself? The first benefit is speed.

Watching hours of video and trying to figure out who is giving good information takes time, and if you don't already have a good knowledge base it will be hard to know who is good and who isn't. It is easy to get enthralled by a video with great production quality and a camouflage-wearing SWAT ninja telling you everything you need to know, but what works for that guy may not work for you. A quality instructor has hopefully already vetted what he or she is teaching, and can match those techniques to what will work for you. In addition, a YouTube video cannot show you what you are doing wrong. An instructor who knows what they are doing will be able to diagnose and correct mistakes and bad habits before they become ingrained in your training. Having a trained eye on you at the range can also help keep you safe and avoid any dangerous gun handling.

The next major benefit is efficiency. Ammo is expensive. If I go to the range without a plan I can easily shoot hundreds of rounds of ammo and finish my range session realizing I didn't really improve, because I didn't train with focus and intention. When I have students doing private sessions I have specific drills and techniques that I match to each student depending on their skill level and goals. You can stand around at the range and shoot a bullseye target all day without ever getting much better, and the reality is that for a lot of people that is what they call training.

Shooting with instructor
Having a professional guide you in your training saves time and money in the long run

Ok...I did that, now what?

Congratulations! You are already doing better than most people! You now have the knowledge and skills to safely handle your firearm, store it safely, and take it to the range and practice. Where do you go from here? I think the next step is to figure out what your goals are in regards to your firearm proficiency.

For some people this basic level of proficiency is all they are looking for, and there is nothing wrong with that. This basic understanding means you can safely and confidently handle a firearm without being a danger to yourself or others.

For many people their goal in firearm ownership is to have a gun for protection. If you want to be able to use your firearm for self-defense or the defense of others, you owe it to yourself (and to them!) to go beyond this basic level of proficiency.

The skills required to successfully utilize a firearm for self-defense go beyond simply being able to hit your target at the range. Understanding how to avoid a lethal encounter, how to shoot under stress, and how to deal with the legal ramifications of a shooting, these are all elements that go beyond just knowing how to shoot.

If you plan on owning a gun for protection you should seek out comprehensive training that addresses the full picture of actual self-defense. The skills and ability needed to hit a target at the end of your bedroom hallway are vastly different than those needed if you want to go running after an active shooter. Be realistic with your goals and train accordingly.

Woman in shoot house
Going beyond flat-range training

Have fun!

Shooting doesn't always have to be so serious. There are a ton of ways to have fun with your newfound skills. From simply pushing yourself at the range and building your skills to trying competition shooting and getting together with other shooters. Sometimes I get too focused on drills and measuring my performance and forget how much fun it can be to go out with some friends and shoot. Don't be too hard on yourself and don't forget to have fun!

Shooting from prone
Get out there and have fun!

PS has been a while and maybe you have shot a bunch of rounds. Now might be a good time to go on YouTube and figure out how to take your gun apart and clean it. Don't worry about it too much though. I routinely shoot thousands of rounds through my guns between cleanings and they do just fine. If it starts having problems...probably time to clean it!

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