Due to the near infinite types of weapons now available, both historic and modern, there is no way to cover all the details of every firearm. Instead, this is meant as more of a guide to help understand a few basic concepts in dealing with firearms. You are ultimately responsible for your own actions, so by taking some steps to make sure everyone is safe, you ensure that everyone has an enjoyable experience, and most importantly stays unharmed.
With deer season fast approaching in my home state, I thought I would take a bit of time to document a few ways to help stay safe while dealing with firearms. This is by no means a complete list of things you should know, so take the time to get to know as many details as possible in regards to the operation of any firearm you are going to use. Firearms are to be treated with respect, but don't need to be feared to the point of total avoidance. If you are looking to own your first, have someone train you on how to handle it before you purchase it.
One final thing before I get started- Instructables member NachoMahma has pointed out an excellent instructable by Skunkbait which is much along the same lines as this instructable. I'm not sure how I missed it before starting my own instructable, but it's nice to see we have a lot of the same information, and each has a few things the other doesn't mention. If you are interested in learning more, I suggest you read both. Skunkbait also has an instructable dedicated entirely to the storage of firearms and goes much more in-depth on that section.
Step 1: Some Perspective on Firearms
Firearms are largely responsible for the formation and sustained independence of the United States, where I am a citizen. After the first amendment and the five freedoms it guarantees, I feel that the second amendment may be the next most important freedom we are guaranteed. Owning and operation of firearms is a big responsibility, and requires constant vigilance in order to ensure the safety of yourself and others around you. If you are not willing to take the steps required to do this, you should reconsider owning a firearm.
Step 2: Storage of Weapons and Ammunition
You may think that you don't need any special storage for your firearms, but that would be a mistake. Even if you are kind of anti-social like myself, you're probably going to have people in your house on occasion. You can never anticipate the actions of someone else, especially if they are young, or if alcohol or another judgment-impairing substance is involved. Firearms are notorious for bringing out what I refer to as Idiot-Syndrome, where otherwise intelligent and sane people basically go on a power-trip while wielding a weapon.
So, how do you properly store a firearm? For starters, you should separate the ammunition from the actual weapon. Empty out all the ammo that the gun holds, and be sure to also clear the barrel. Move the ammo to another room, where it is temperature and humidity controlled and otherwise less open to visitors. If you have children, it should absolutely be locked. Even if it is forbidden for them to touch, all it takes is a few moments of inattention for tragedy to strike. If you don't have a gun safe, the weapon itself should be placed on a rack that is high out of reach for young people. Again, it is useful to place them in a room that is infrequently used by visitors.
Step 3: Never Point at Something You're Not Willing to Kill
If everyone followed this one simple rule, despite all of the other safety precautions you should follow, there wouldn't be tragic accidents. Always point your weapon in a safe direction!
Step 4: Chamber Empty, Safety On, Finger Off Trigger
First, never chamber a round until you are getting ready to fire. This can mean different things- if you are target shooting, you'll want to wait until the target is set and the lane is clear before you chamber your round. If you are hunting, you may want to chamber something after you are set in your stand or you get to the area you're planning to walk. If you need to climb a stand or go through rough terrain, you should un-chamber your round until you are in the clear again.
Whether or not you choose to chamber a round while you are hunting for game, you should still set your safety. It is very quick and easy to slide the safety off and still take a shot right away. The fraction of a second you would save getting a shot off quicker could cost you or someone else their life. Not really a good tradeoff. Learn where your safety is and practice putting it in safety mode and placing it in fire mode so you don't fumble around too much it when you need it. Also, never assume that because the safety is on that your gun won't fire. You still need to follow the never point a gun at something you're not willing to kill rule. A safety is mechanical, and like anything else mechanical it can and will break down with enough use.
Finally, don't place your finger on the trigger until you are ready to fire. This is a pretty common mistake among inexperienced users, because when you see people using guns, that is where their fingers always seem to be. On a pistol, you generally keep your trigger finger down the barrel until you are ready to fire, and on a shotgun or rifle it's often left on the stock with the rest of your trigger hand. Just be conscious of not holding the gun with your finger in the trigger if you don't intend to fire it.
Step 5: See What You Shoot
If you are hunting, don't shoot at noises. Deer and other game are infinitely quieter than humans, so chances are that if you hear something it's another person and not what you are trying to find. It's okay to investigate the noise if you like, but don't do so with the barrel of your weapon.
If you are trap shooting or target shooting, you want to make sure that not only the line of sight is clear, but everything surrounding your area is too. Be mindful of farm animals, fellow humans, and even property that could be damaged.
You will probably also want nice clear shooting lanes. Even if you are hunting, you can clear certain areas of brush so that you have a nice lane to where your game is likely to cross. This is best done a fair amount of time before when you actually want to use it so that when the season rolls around, your scent and general presence are not causing animals to avoid the area. If you are target shooting, you want a nice open area so nothing can effect your shot.
Finally, just because you recognize something as an animal, you should still make sure to take time to see what is around it before firing at it. If you are hunting with other people, account for where they are in relation to the shot you are considering. Make sure that no other people have wandered into the area, even if you are on private land. Most states also have rules about what animals can be legally harvested. Know the local regulations about the game you are hunting and make sure you are following the proper rules and procedures. Also, if you see one animal, there is a good chance there may be others with it, depending on the species you are hunting. You may want to consider taking one of them instead- either it's better quality or you have a better shot. Only when you see that everything appears to be in order should you decide to fire.
Step 6: One Shot, One Kill
There are certain tips and tricks that can help you become a more accurate shooter. You should be familiar with your weapon, and have it sighted in for your own eyes. Everyone sights in a weapon just a bit differently. Practice shooting enough until you are fairly accurate. Never take a shot that is beyond your range of accuracy.
While you have everything sighted in and are ready to take a shot, there are a few things that can help you. First of all, never rush a shot. You not only want to see your target, you want the gun to rest on your target. This is much harder if your target is moving. When your skill level is a bit higher, you can practice leading a target. Rolling clay pigeons are an excellent way to learn this skill. If you have time, take a deep breath, and let it half way out, then hold your breath. Instead of then just pulling the trigger, gently squeeze the trigger. By doing this, you won't know exactly when the gun is going to go off, and it will keep you from pulling a shot up or off to the side.
Finally, if you are choosing to hunt for game, have the proper respect for what you are hunting. Learn where you should fire to cleanly and quickly kill that type of game. Don't take a shot where you are more likely to just injure an animal instead of killing it. While it's my belief that hunting is okay and that state-regulated population controls are better than the natural order or prey-predator starvation swings, I also believe that injuring an animal and letting it suffer is wrong. If you're not certain you are taking a kill-shot, let it pass. More than likely, you'll have plenty of chances to harvest a comparable animal.
Step 7: Parting Words of Advice
As for myself, I prefer to hunt in groups of three or smaller. It is easy to keep track of your fellow hunters, and you can always have open firing lanes that are not endangering those around you.
When your children are old enough, teach them about firearms. If you supervise them and teach, they will learn to respect them. If you hide them and keep it a big secret, their curiosity may get the better of them. In my opinion, It is far better for you to have a hand in their understanding of firearms. Even if they are responsible, never let them handle or operate a firearm without supervision.
If you are out in the field, wear orange so other hunters can spot you easily. Most game that you'll be after is color-blind anyway, so you're not losing any hunting advantage. You don't want to be mistaken for something that's hiding. Just because you follow the safety rules doesn't mean that everyone else will.
Finally, I know that not everyone will agree with some of the opinions presented in this instructable. That is okay, all opinions are welcome. However, please keep any comments constructive, useful, and within the confines of the be nice policy. Remember that we are on instructables and not on youtube, so lets keep it that way.
This has been instructable number 12... if you have further tips, please leave them in the comment box, and I may even get around to including some of them in the instructable in the future. One final note, if any boy scouts upload a pic of your shooting merit badge, I will award some digital patches to you guys. Have fun, enjoy, and above all, be safe.