top of page

Safety Errors and How to Avoid Them

Clay target shooting is a very safe sport for participants and spectators alike, and it’s in all our interests to keep it that way; we must never forget that shotguns have the potential to be deadly when used maliciously or negligently. Mistakes happen when people are doing something new, but also when they’re complacently doing something which is second nature. Taking a dogmatic approach to safety rules is our best defence against all types of mistake.

Human errors are studied minutely in fields such as aviation, and many of the lessons can be carried over into the shooting sports. A key differentiator between different types of error in aviation is whether they are skills-based – the incorrect or inappropriate execution of a familiar task – or rules-based – incorrect or inappropriate action during an unfamiliar task, often due to a misremembered rule. If you’re a beginning shooter, you can expect to find most situations at a shooting ground unfamiliar at first. The best defence against repeated errors is being honest when they occur and being open to learning the lessons they reveal. This is the key to aviation safety.

A fundamental rule which applies to break-action shotguns (and explains part of their popularity over semi-automatic guns) is that your gun must be kept OPEN and unloaded unless:

1) During a lesson, a teaching element requires a closed gun. In this case, both instructor and student will ensure they have NO ammunition on their person, and the gun may only be closed when pointing in a safe direction; or.

2) The gun is being placed into or removed from a gun rack, following the method recommended by the CPSA (explained below); or,

3) The gun is being placed into or removed from a gun slip, again following the method recommended by the CPSA; or,

4) You are on a marked firing point, and it is your turn to shoot, you are ready to shoot and it is safe for you to do so.

The vast majority of safety errors revolve around misapplying or failing to apply this rule. Here are some examples from my own experience.

At a very large Sporting competition in Dubai which had a huge prize fund, a British competitor sat on a deck chair under an open-sided tent whilst waiting for his squad to be called. He put his gun flat across his thighs, closed, and changed the choke tubes. He pointed that gun at several people, me among them. As an apparently experienced clay shooter (his gun was a Kreighoff, which is seldom a first gun), he absolutely knew better.

Another example from Dubai took place on a Skeet range which was overlooked by a restaurant terrace. A right-handed shooter on Station 7 swept the terrace and its occupants with a closed gun. This was most likely an inexperienced shot, not helped in that instance by the “instructor” also being inexperienced and lacking status compared with the shooter (often a problem in very hierarchical societies).

The same error resulted in a closed gun being pointed at me and my wife at a shooting ground in Bedfordshire back in the UK. It is worth remembering that Skeet Station 7 for right-handers and Station 1 for left-handers are hotspots for closed guns leaving the safe zone.

A common reason for that error is trying to eject your empties into the bucket in front of the firing point. As you do so, you rotate the gun to your non-shooting side and end up pointing the barrels, still closed, well away from the safe direction. So what is the simple fix?


Either learn to catch them as you open the gun, or accept that you might have to spend a minute picking up your empties after shooting.

At that same Bedfordshire shooting ground, I passed a stand which was occupied by a group of three shooters. One of them held his gun, an over-and-under, CLOSED and HORIZONTAL in one hand by his side. As he conversed, it swung from the buttocks of the man shooting to the private parts of the third man. Quite why no one said anything before I walked past, I have no idea. I said, “Would you mind opening that gun, please.” His response was shooting’s most pathetic excuse. “It’s not loaded.”

It has been suggested that anyone saying “it’s not loaded” should be required to demonstrate the assertion in their own direction, however I would prefer that you learn the lesson by reading and safe demonstration. The trouble is that “it’s not loaded” can be followed by a lesson which can never be undone, to the detriment of innocent parties.

At more than one shooting ground, I have seen closed guns withdrawn from slips and left closed, sometimes going into racks without having been proved empty. Whilst many game shooters are wonderfully safe and thoughtful shots, there are a few who let the side down and they seem to be prevalent among the gun slip offenders. In late summer and autumn, commercial shooting grounds play host to many people who only shoot clays as preparation for game shooting, and whose knowledge of CPSA safety rules may be lacking.

Sometimes it’s the people you least expect who commit safety errors; at a shooting ground I visited last year, a man started taking his gun out of its slip and correctly operated the top lever whilst the barrels were still in the slip. As he did so, he asked the shooting ground’s owner a question about the gun. The ground owner took the gun from him and CLOSED IT WITHOUT CHECKING THE BREECH then spent a minute or two looking at the closed gun.

And let’s not get started on the popular YouTube star who seems to be physically incapable of leaving a gun open, and is often seen repeatedly opening and closing guns whilst next to, but not in, marked shooting stands.

You might be forgiven for wondering how shooting can be a safe sport given all of these infractions (and both the ground owner and YouTuber really should try much harder to set a good example), but the fact is these are rare occurrences. The vast majority of clay shooters apply the rules correctly and consistently. Everyone who shoots must be prepared to be told they have made an error, me absolutely included, and should endeavour to learn from their infractions and errors.

As a beginner, you are expected to make mistakes. An instructor is there to help and ensure that you learn. An excellent head start is the CPSA Shotgun Skills course.

Gun Racks – The Ins and Outs

This is normally covered in a first lesson, and also forms part of the Shotgun Skills course. Starting from the T position (open gun over forearm, securely held in place), keep the gun open and, in a safe direction, rotate the barrels to the vertical. Then and only then, close the barrels to the action and place the gun in the rack.

To remove the gun from the rack, hold it by the forend and lift it off the rack but keep the barrels pointing vertically up. Operate the top lever to open the gun, allowing anything which might be in the barrels to fall free, then in a safe direction rotate the barrels down and place the open gun over your forearm. Visually inspect the barrels to ensure they are empty and unblocked, and place the gun into the T position.


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page