My last negligent discharge of a firearm occurred 40-plus years ago, in 1977 as I recall.  No injury involved.  I got home that night and wrote it up for my column in GUNS magazine, that entry titled “Anatomy of an Accidental Discharge” or words to that effect.  (The term “negligent discharge” had not yet come into vogue.)

Oh, wait, did I say “last”? Um…make that next to last.

Yesterday I was finishing a training course, and we were about to go into the final shooting qualification.  A few students had been jerking their triggers.  I called them into a semi-circle to refresh them on the smooth, distributed, straight back press that a trigger demands for a good shot.  The trigger on my teaching pistol of the week, a 1911 .45 auto, has too short a pull for someone to see from any distance, so I asked a nearby woman if I could borrow her double action revolver for a quick demonstration.  Pointing the muzzle 12 o’clock high, and holding it a bit over my head so everyone could see it, I told them to watch my finger taking up the long trigger pull, and the uninterrupted rise and fall of the hammer and turning of the cylinder that would lead to the surprise trigger break a marksman desires.

It was a surprise trigger break alright.  “BANG!”

A few seconds after a .38 Special round went toward the stratosphere from a current production Smith & Wesson Model 66 .357 Magnum, I opened the cylinder and hit the ejector rod, and a single nickel-plated spent casing fell to the ground.

How did that happen?  It was a “cold range,” all guns empty and checked as such by RSOs (Range Safety Officers) and the shooters themselves, alike.  If you have ever taken one of my classes, you know that we go over safety protocols for over an hour, enforce them rigidly, and emphasize layer after layer of “safety nets.”  In the end, that’s why no one was hurt when the revolver went “bang” instead of “click.”

Layer one: Shooter checks the gun. This person is a very experienced, very proficient shooter. However, she usually uses a semiautomatic pistol and this was the first time in a long while she had used and carried a double action revolver.  Layer two: the gun had been checked by a very experienced and highly trained range safety officer, before it went into the holster.  Layer three: I had glanced at the back of the cylinder and observed no cartridge rims between the rear of the cylinder and the recoil shield of the frame as it came out of the shooter’s holster. Layer four: Confirmed by witnesses, I had opened the cylinder, looked down into it, and seen only empty chambers.

What prevented tragedy was Layer five: the gun pointed skyward, in an area where there was virtually no likelihood of a bullet fired straight up coming down anywhere it couldn’t be safely absorbed.

What happened? The stainless steel Model 66 is a silvery color similar to a nickel-plated cartridge case.  Three of us, one of us twice, had looked and failed to see it there. On a lot of revolvers, when cartridges are ejected they can hit the left grip panel, which blocks their exit and allows them to slide back into the cylinder.

The big culprit – on my part, certainly – was “the look that doesn’t see.”  Closely associated with complacency, it happens when you’ve looked for something dangerous countless thousands of times and seen nothing there, programming your brain to see nothing there when something is.  It’s associated with the fortunately rare tragedy where a hunter who desperately wants to see a deer in the woods spots a hiker wearing gray-brown clothing with a white handkerchief sticking out of his hip pocket, and concludes that he is looking right at his intended quarry, a white-tail deer.

Today’s incident will become part of our safety lecture, as the one in 1977 has been for many years. No matter how many thousands of rounds a year you fire nor how long you’ve been in the game, constant vigilance is the price of safety when operating any potentially dangerous equipment, from vehicles to power tools to, yes, guns.


  1. Mas, So as to avoid confirmation bias when double and triple checking a (presumably) unloaded firearm, what about eliminating the confirmation part. When person 1 hands the checked firearm to person 2 he asks a question, “Is this loaded?” Person 2 does the same thing when he hands it to person 3. Answering a question creates a different mindset (and illicits an investigative response) than confirming that something is so does not.

  2. The only advantage if mistakes is to Learn from them. Safety is something you practice every time you handle any firearm, redundant safety actions are even better sometimes

  3. So, you believe that firing a gun skyward is a “layer of safety”? How about, you got lucky that no one got hurt. Rationalizing that as a layer of safety is a joke.

    • Of course following the rule “never point a gun at anything you don’t intend to shoot, even if the gun is unloaded” is a layer of safety.

    • Hummm. Yes. The Sky is NOT A BACKSTOP. Having worked the cases from New Years, Fourth of July, and seen the injuries & fatalities, bullets shot into the sky do damage well beyond what one would think. Remove this from the teaching. That all having been said, the AD/ND can happen to ANYONE and thanks much for your candor and honesty.

  4. Hello Mas,
    What about incorporating a tactile check? Eye’s can lie, and a secondary sense might be a better check than a second visual confirmation.

    • To John Schoppaul, Agreed! Like we would check the chamber on any firearm with a finger to make sure not only that there’s no cartridge but to also verify physically nothing is there because the eyes can play games under any circumstances.A similar accident happened to me some 40yrs ago while in high school. My dad was a police officer and kept a loaded. 38 revolver in his bureau that I wasn’t supposed to have access to (not sayin he did not have a responsibility to keep it secure) but I wanted to show my best friend how cool I was. I had no experience with handguns. I made the same “layer 4” mistake Mas did. I opened the cylinder turned said pistol upside down and watched as shells fell out, I looked back at the cylinder and saw nothing, no bullets in the gun. I scrolled into the kitchen where my buddy was siting and said “this man’s got a .38” as I pulled the trigger. POP! Went the little snubbie, as a projectile made its way into the wanes coating at eye level into the wall about 4ft from my buddies head. Needless to say I s**t myself. At the time this happened the school near my house was getting out so I ran outside to see if the projectile made its way through the outside wall and it hadn’t. That’s the day that constantly reminds me about the “5” rules of safety and nothing supercedes them.
      1) ALL guns ARE always loaded!
      2) DO NOT point the firearm at anything you are not willing to destroy!
      3) Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target!
      4) Be sure of your target and what’s behind it AND also what’s in front of it!
      5) REPEAT STEPS 1 THROUGH 5! This one I added into my precautions

  5. This just shows it can happen to anybody, and also the need to PERSONALLY VERIFY every time.
    A perfect example of a near catastrophic accident on a range happened to me last year.
    As a TC, RSO, and Shotgun Instructor, I was asked to run the shotgun range at a gun club near me. They were running a Women On Target day.
    As a guest of that club, I had to wait for the “old timers” of that club to open up the range so we could get started. They had BOTH 12 Ga. and 20 Ga. guns and ammunition present.
    I have ONE HARD AND FAST RULE: ABSOLUTELY NO 12’s and 20’s on the range at the same time. In fact, I even got into a rather warm discussion with one of the “old timers,” who INSISTED he knew better than I, and claimed to have superior experience in shotguns and shotgun competition. [By the way, I found out later he was never certified as an instructor]
    Well, while I was watching a new shooter at one position, he was coaching another one 2 stations down. He ended up giving the lady a 12 Ga shotgun thinking it was a 20, and placed a 20 Ga in the chamber. [Thus violating my “One Big Rule!”]
    She closed the action & the gun didn’t fire. They recocked the gun and it again didn’t fre. Luckily, when they opened the action a nice bright yellow shot shell fell out.
    I have already advised the person at that club who asked me to help that day to “please never again ask me to run their shotgun range without COMPLETE AND ABSOLUTE AUTHORITY to ensure it is done safely!

  6. sam,

    Mas is giving his readers a mea culp. He didn’t have to, but, being the responsible and honest man that he is, he has.

    Having met and known many good and honest folks, I have yet to meet anyone who is perfect and that doesn’t occasionally make a mistake. A mature and honest person will acknowledge the fact they are fallible human beings.

    I’ve also known several people who can never admit a mistake of their own and stand ready to take advantage of any opportunity to criticize any minute perception of the failures of others. It makes them feel superior in their own mind I guess. That’s sad.

    Mas, I’d ride the river with you anytime. The self righteous? Nah, I’d rather ride alone.

  7. Mas,
    Thank you for your candor. I agree with Blaine above that it takes guts to admit a mistake. Only then can we learn from them. It serves to remind us of several important lessons. Even experienced and intelligent people can make mistakes.
    Smugness has no place in gun handling as it leads to the complacency that you wrote about. The “I been around guns my whole life and you guys are just a bunch of safety nannies,” attitude has no place.
    Multiple layers of safety can help tragedies and there are reasons for following routine procedures whether its gun safety, pre-flight checklist for pilots, or medical procedures. Writing from a medical perspective redundant checks help to reduce medical errors which admittedly still occur but less frequently. When I write in a hospital chart, the electronic software usually checks if there are any medication interactions with the patient’s other meds, the pharmacist double checks the prescription before sending it the floor, the nurse double checks it before administering it.
    These people aren’t stupid, inexperienced, nor untrusting of their colleagues but they still double check each other. Because we are all human and capable of mistakes and accidents.
    Let’s hope people who read this remember this.

  8. In my opinion, what happens to a bullet when fired up into the air,is best described by Major General Julian S. Hatcher, in a book titled “Hatchers Notebook”. If the bullet is fired more or less perpendicular to the ground it will travel up, stop, and begin to fall. It’s speed when contacting the ground is about 32ft/sec/sec. Hardley lethal.It would be like catching a hail stone. It might sting the hand, but would not be lethal. Mythbusters also proved it.

    On the other hand, if the barrel is angled, say at 45 degrees from vertical, this would be similar to what they do with artillery to increase range. This, of course, could be lethal.

    I am sure that Mas’ unintentional discharge was reasonably vertical.

    On the other hand

    • 32 ft/sec/sec is not a speed or velocity, it is an acceleration. You can have zero speed and still experience 1g acceleration sitting in your chair.

      A bullet’s maximum velocity will be when the drag force falling in air equals the pulling force on the bullet due to gravity (mass x acceleration).

  9. Bullets fired straight up don’t return at anywhere near the speed they left at. Army studied this in 1920 using .30 caliber rounds and concluded not fast enough to be lethal. Mythbusters also tested it out in their own little way, if I’m not mistaken.

  10. I agree that Mas is the real deal, and this admitting an ND is why he is so respected in the industry. Because he is willing to tell the truth, whether or not it makes him bad or good.
    I had an AD, with a shotgun when small game hunting perhaps 30 years ago, when I jumped a rabbit, pulled up to shoot, but then decided to not shoot, and took the safety and put it back on. I then put my gun on my hip, and was talking to my friend, when I heard a BANG and felt a kick on my hip. I actually thought he had shot me, but quickly realized that my gun had went off. What happened was I touched my trigger, and the safety had not fully seated somehow, and it caused the gun to fire. So while it was totally my fault, it was also partly the guns fault. I gave it to my son 4 years ago, and he checked it out, and found there was a factory recall on the gun back in the 1970’s. The gun was made in the 60’s, so it took them a decade or more to figure that there was a problem with the fire controls. But still no excuse for my mistake. And at least I had enough sense to keep the gun safely pointed in the safe direction and not at myself or my friend.

  11. Mas, as always you are an incredibly humble and wise teacher! Thank you for sharing and I am oh, so glad for that nobody got shot!

    I must tell you that my wife and I consider ourselves very fortunate to have learned handgun safety under your tutelage. We had an experience in a CCW class last year wherein range discipline was not maintained to the standard you have instilled in us. The last of three offenders that swept their muzzle across me actually told me I needed to chill out as I had yelled at each of the previous offenders and then at him. I packed up right then and there as the instructor was not getting the message – I probably should have left earlier when the instructor failed to respond after I hollered at the first guy!

    Thanks for all you have taught to me, my wife and countless others – there is no way to know how many lives you have saved or how much of the declining trend in firearms accidents is a direct result of your safety lectures!

  12. Sight and feel. One of the reasons I always use this is the feel breaks us from seeing what we expect and not what is actually there. It is a concept common in crash investigation, the car pulls out into the path of the oncoming car even though the driver looked. Why? the driver expected for a vehicle not to be there and so that is what his/her brain told them instead of the real information. Thanks for the teaching moment. Stay safe.

  13. I have some experience with the design of automatic assembly machines intended to assemble products with a defect rate around a single digit per million pieces. At that low of a DPM you realistically can not have a human performing any of the assembly processes (other than replenishing parts that are automatically fed) for the simple fact that the human organism always makes mistakes. People can do well for short periods of time but inevitably fatigue or distraction sets in. A single bad part can ruin the DPM for a week’s run.

    The answer (for us) was to highly automate the processes with a variety of verifications built-in to the machine to insure not only the product’s quality but also that the machine itself was functioning properly.

    Mas’ experience above is stark evidence of the fallibility of humans despite the layers of safety. No doubt his personal safety record for a ND would be equivalent to a single digit DPM and yet…? Pointing the gun in a safe direction saved the day. If not for that the outcome could have ranged from the same to fatal, or anywhere in between determined only by random chance.

    When we’re handling guns it always behooves us to remember our innate fallibility (distractions, lack of focus, multi-tasking, short cuts, etc.) and take nothing for granted.

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