No one enjoys staring down the barrels of a gun, so adopt best practice when it comes to carrying yours, whether or not it is loaded, says Jonathan Irby


Knowing how to hold your gun safely should be a priority whether standing on the peg or getting a gun in and out of the slip, says Jonathan Irby.

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It was Mark Hanbury Beaufoy (the Liberal MP and vinegar manufacturer) who wrote the now famous poem A Father’s Advice in 1902. Framed and illustrated it graces an inordinate number of loos and boot rooms, and remains universally applicable today. The first verse is particularly pertinent, when it comes to how to hold your gun safely in the field:

Never, never let your gun

Pointed be at anyone.

That it may unloaded be

Matters not the least to me.

The first shotgun I fired was under the watchful eye of a great family friend and my shooting mentor, the late ‘Uncle John’ Pickering. He, along with my father, were my instructors and between them ensured that the importance of safety was clearly understood. To this day, I remember being told that nobody should ever find themselves looking down the barrels of my gun. If they did, the only person at fault was going to be me. They were my barrels and I was responsible for where they were pointed. Decades later, having worked in the shooting world for more than 20 years, there have been too many times when I have found myself looking down the barrels of someone else’s gun.

But why, where and when has this happened? Were I fit and brave enough to be a flanker on a grouse moor, then I fear my list of ‘twitchy moments’ would be much longer than it is. But I am neither fit nor brave so the truth is that these incidents typically happen when the person holding the gun is, for whatever reason, not aware of their muzzle and where their barrels are pointing. Should you ever find yourself feeling unsafe on a shoot day you must say something. Do not be too reticent. Silence is not an option when it comes to gun safety. It makes no difference whether the day is game shooting on a peg or clay shooting on a stand. The reality is muzzle awareness must be the same.


English law decrees one is innocent until proven guilty. A shotgun must be considered exempt from this legal privilege. Every shotgun is guilty until proven innocent and must be handled as if loaded until it is proven to be empty. This is especially true when it comes to taking a gun out of a slip. In case you wonder why, it is because I have witnessed (more than once) experienced shots take their gun out of the slip, break it open and find it has live cartridges in the chamber.

To avoid this happening one must be able to prove (to yourself and others), that the gun is empty before you finish taking it out of the slip and when you start to put it back in the slip. Do not take it out or put it away with the barrels closed. You could easily find yourself pointing a closed gun at your neighbour who does not know whether the gun is loaded or not.

There is something deeply unsettling about watching somebody try to shake the slip off their gun like a magician trying to remove a tablecloth whilst leaving the plates on the table. Instead, start by opening the slip, draw the gun halfway out and with the barrels still in the slip but pointing in a safe direction and with your finger well away from the trigger, break the gun, check it is empty and now fully remove it from the slip. The process is reversed when putting the gun away such that you start with the gun broken. Put it in halfway, close the gun, continue putting the gun in and then close the slip thereafter.


Too often there can be a lack of awareness when standing on the peg. When Guns chatter all the way to the peg, remove the gun from the slip, make sure the dog is secure, load the gun and wait for the drive to start, they have not stopped to check their surroundings. One must look and take note of where the pickers-up are standing and where the beaters and stops may be located. This is especially important when shooting in valleys. The point is a simple one and it comes back to muzzle awareness. Every person holding a gun must think about where their barrels are pointing – at all times.

While waiting for the drive to start, best practice is to have the gun broken and resting on the arm. Once started, the gun can be closed and rested over the arm. Another stance is with the barrels pointed directly upwards with the arms crossed across the chest. In both positions the gun is under control, the barrels safe and the arms will not get tired. On a clay ground you may see people resting the barrels (of their open gun) on their foot. This is safe and accepted. But this should not be done in the field. The chances are you may be in muddy conditions and filling the end of the barrels with mud is exceptionally dangerous.

Another stance that is often seen is the unbroken gun resting with the barrels on the shoulder (like a soldier on guard duty) but do consider, especially, if shooting in deep valleys, that there may be a picker-up on the bank behind you who, when you rest the gun on your shoulder, is looking at your barrels.

The ‘ready position’ is particularly important on the grouse moor. For safety and speed it is not possible to stand with the gun pointed into the ground in the butt. The gun is often rested on the front of the butt, which works well unless it is stone or it is not stable. However, it can be some time between closing the gun and taking the first shot. To save tiring arms you will often see a gun rested over the shoulder or across the chest at an angle (as mentioned previously). But please consider the loader and your neighbours as you turn and look from left to right. The angle of a line of butts as the ground falls and climbs on the grouse moor means the occupants of the next butt may find themselves looking down your tubes. Equally when the horn blows to signal that no shooting is allowed in front, be sure to hold your gun so the muzzle is pointed upwards to the sky.

When walking up game, holding the gun safely requires muzzle awareness and being sure that the gun is always pointing forwards, above and away from people and dogs. This typically means walking with the gun held in an adapted ready position with your finger completely off or away from the trigger. The stock must be controlled between your front arm and torso, and the muzzle directly in front of you and into the sky.


Loading a side-by-side or over-and-under shotgun is a simple process. Check that the barrels are clear, place a cartridge in each barrel and close the gun. Simple. But the most egregious moments of danger I have encountered have happened at the moment when the gun is being closed. There is a right way and a wrong way to close a gun.

When closing the gun consider where the barrels are pointing at the moment when the breech face locks into the action. Don’t close the gun so it points at your neighbour or anybody else. The barrels must not be pulled up with the front hand. Instead, hold the barrels so they point into the ground (but away from the feet) and pivot the stock to the barrels. In the old days, the phrase was ‘wood to metal’ not ‘metal to wood’. Do be careful not to ‘overdo’ this and have the barrels pointing at your feet when you close the gun.

By closing the gun properly, there is a safeguard against the heart-stopping (but rare) moment when a gun goes off as it is closed. This is most often caused by a mistaken finger on the trigger as the gun is closed or a malfunction, especially with older guns that have enjoyed a ‘good life’ and despite the ingenuity of sears and intercepting sears. In either situation, ensure that barrels are closed so they point away from anyone else.

When loading, try to follow the approach of the special forces who train to the philosophy: ‘slow is smooth, smooth is fast’. If you take time when loading, you will actually be quicker and safer. When shooting a single gun with a loader, pay special attention to where the barrels are when closing the gun. Holding the gun to allow fast loading may mean turning back to a safe position with the gun still open before closing it. Likewise, consider where your dog is and whether it is in a safe place when you close the gun.

“Ladies and gentlemen, anybody with their own gun is asked to carry it empty and closed in their slip or empty and broken over their arm.” I have said these words as part of the safety briefing at The Royal Berkshire Shooting School hundreds of times. Personally, I believe these are the best and only ways to carry your gun.

Some do carry a gun broken and over the shoulder, normally with the stock behind the shoulder and the barrels in front; occasionally you see it the other way. True, the gun is visibly empty, but I am not a fan. Part of my ambivalence to seeing guns carried this way is the fact that in a style reminiscent of Eric Sykes in The Plank, I was once the recipient of a firm whack on the back of the head from the stock of the gun of my neighbour who turned to his left as I turned to my right. I also wince when I see people carry the gun over their shoulder like a yoke – it places undue strain on the mechanism and the stock. By carrying a gun over your shoulder it is more likely somebody will find themselves looking at your barrels. Even though they are empty and the gun open, it is not a good feeling.

It is the responsibility of the individual carrying the gun to ensure they do so in a way that is not only safe but makes their neighbours and everybody else around them feel safe. My real bête noire is walking between drives or to the peg with a closed gun. This was the norm when I grew up, but I didn’t like it then and I certainly don’t like it now. I care not a jot when I am told: “Don’t worry, .it isn’t loaded.” The fact is, I can’t see that it is empty and safe.

It is simple to hold your gun safely when shooting. Just think, can you show yourself and others that your gun is empty. If not, think about where your muzzle and barrels are pointing.

To return to Beaufoy’s verse:

You may kill or you may miss

But at all times think this:

“All the pheasants ever bred

Won’t repay for one man


Jonathan Irby is the managing director of The Royal Berkshire Shooting School