4 Weapons Safety Rules | Marine Corps Firearm Safety

A Marine fires their M16 rifle at cardboard targets

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Firearm safety is paramount to a United States Marine during the entire length of their enlistment or career, regardless of their MOS, or military occupation specialty. And it begins in boot camp when you learn the Marine Corps’ 4 weapons safety rules.

As a Marine Corps recruit, you are issued your M16 rifle during your first week of training. You will begin to know your rifle intimately and carry it with you nearly everywhere you go. Your basic training begins with rifle manual during close-order drill, field-stripping your rifle for cleaning, and assembling your rifle after cleaning. And you will recite the 4 weapons safety rules until you have them memorized — far before you ever fire your weapon.

Marines go through some of the most extensive rifle marksmanship training of the armed forces, and while the standards are constantly changing, Marines qualify at distances up to 500 yards! This means being thoroughly familiar with your rifle and how to employ it properly.

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The Marine Corps uses the following firearm safety rules:

The Marine Corps’ 4 Weapons Safety Rules

You can easily remember the Marine Corps’ 4 weapons safety rules using the following mnemonic: Treat Never Keep Keep.

  1. Treat every weapon as if it were loaded.
  2. Never point a weapon at anything you do not intend to shoot.
  3. Keep your finger straight and off the trigger until you’re ready to fire.
  4. Keep the weapon on “safe” until you intend to fire.

There is also a 5th weapons safety rule that you will learn once you get to the fleet: Know your target and what is beyond it.

Marine Corps Rifle Marksmanship begins with learning the 4 weapons safety rules
A Marine with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit’s Maritime Raid Force fires his M4A1 service rifle during a bilateral shooting package alongside Royal Thai Marines at Camp Lotawin, Kingdom of Thailand. Photo by Cpl. Isaac Cantrell

Breakdown of Marine Corps Firearm Safety Rules

It’s worth breaking down the 4 weapons safety rules and diving into the “why” behind each rule. Even if the firearm rule doesn’t apply to a particular weapon, like a Glock 19 which has no safety, the intent behind them is what primarily prevents negligent discharges and injury from poor weapons handling.

Let’s break it down.

Rule 1: Treat every weapon as if it were loaded.

Rule number one is the most important rule, which is to treat every weapon as if it were loaded. A rifle is a tool for killing the enemy, plain and simple. The first rule of weapons safety ensures that the rifle and every firearm are treated with the appropriate respect. This means when you pick up a weapon, you always check to see if the weapon is loaded and if there is a round in the chamber.

It means never taking a fellow Marine’s word that their weapon is unloaded. Even if the commandant himself hands you a rifle, it is a Marine’s duty to check the weapon and ensure it is loaded or unloaded like the Marine said it is. Once the rifle is in your hands, it is your responsibility, whether they handed you a hot weapon or not.

Rule 2: Never point a weapon at anything you do not intend to shoot.

This goes hand in hand with rule number one. Never point a weapon at anything you do not intend to shoot. Oftentimes, in the Fleet Marine Force, you will hear it as “never point a weapon at anything you do not intend to kill.” This rule means keeping the muzzle of your rifle pointed in a safe direction at all times, regardless of whether it is loaded or not.

However, there are exceptions to this rule during training. One of them includes training with simunitions. Simunitions are like paintballs, contained in small plastic bullets that fire from a special barrel that is changed out on your rifle (it’s blue). These rounds fire at 500 feet per second, which is nearly twice that of a civilian paintball gun. So yeah, they sting.

In any case, whenever you do force-on-force training, there will be a series of weapons checks, and these evolutions are not done around live-fire events, just to ensure that there is no live ammunition present during training.

Rule 3: Keep your finger straight and off the trigger until you’re ready to fire.

This rule is another way to ensure that while handling your weapon, you do not unintentionally pull the trigger. While on patrol or moving in and out of vehicles or tight spaces, it’s possible for your weapon safety switch to get hung up on gear. This rule prevents negligent discharges by ensuring that you keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire your weapon.

Marine Corps 4 weapons safety rules. Rule #3 keep your finger straight and off the trigger until you're ready to fire.
Lance Cpl. Ryan Beckstead, a rifleman with Company F, Battalion Landing Team, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, demonstrates one of the 4 weapons safety rules: keep your finger straight and off the trigger until you’re ready to fire. Photo by Lance Cpl. Angelo Garavito.

Rule 4: Keep the weapon on safe until you intend to fire.

This weapons safety rule means waiting until the last second to flip your weapon on “kill” and fire a shot. At the rifle range, this means that when you’ve been given the go-ahead and the range is “hot”, you still have the weapon on safe until you fully intend on taking the shot. It is the last barrier between your rifle and its target.

These basic firearm safety rules are called the 4 weapons safety rules, but there is one more that you will be familiar with once you get to your Fleet Marine Force unit, especially if you’re in a combat arms MOS like the infantry.

Rule 5: Know your target and what is beyond it.

This rule is known as the “5th and unspoken rule” but it is not less important than the other 4 weapons safety rules. Knowing your target means that you have positive identification or PID, that the target is a threat and you are cleared to legally engage them. Positive identification is usually set in the rules of engagement for a particular area of operations, but someone pointing a weapon at you generally qualifies across the board.

Once you have positive identification, you may run into scenarios where it is still not safe to shoot. In the middle east, terror organizations like ISIS routinely hide amongst civilians or use them as cover. Bullets go through people and walls, so you need to be as sure as possible that you can engage the threat without harming innocent people caught in the gunfire.

The Difference Between A Negligent Discharge and an Accidental Discharge

In the Marine Corps, there is no such thing as an accidental discharge. All non-intentional weapons discharges are considered to be negligent. This means that you are always 100% responsible for your weapon and your weapons handling. It begins with the 4 weapons safety rules learned in Marine Corps recruit training. These are the foundations of proper weapons handling. However, there are cases where accidental discharges may happen if you handle firearms often.

Memorizing the 4 Weapons Safety Rules: Treat Never Keep Keep

You should familiarize yourself with the 4 weapons safety rules, but you may want to wait until recruit training to fully memorize them. Your drill instructors will expect every word repeated accurately, and if you memorize them early with mistakes, it will be more difficult to learn later!

Again, it’s easy to memorize the 4 weapons safety rules by remembering the mnemonic: Treat Never Keep Keep.

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