How to Load, Discharge, and Clear a Rifle Safely
These 3 essential steps are must-know basics for rifle owners
- Loading a rifle is a multi-step process
- Loading procedure varies by rifle type
- Proper rifle discharge requires a suitable stance and trigger management
- Clearing a rifle can be as simple as a three-step process
Responsible firearms practice means remembering to care for your own safety as well as those around you. Knowing how to successfully manage the three core competencies of rifle shooting is one way to do it, and your way to ensure the rifle itself gets the care and consideration it requires to function optimally.
Handling a firearm in TV and movies typically goes without a hitch. Rounds load quickly, they fire without incident, and firearms are always in good working condition. In the real world, rifle owners need to know the right way to load, fire, and clear their firearm to avoid jams and other problems. This guide will highlight how to operate a rifle as well as the pitfalls that good practice will avoid.
The correct way to load a rifle
Your first three steps in rifle loading are shared by every other firearm: Point the muzzle in a safe direction (up is generally best) where it won’t harm people or property in the event of an accidental discharge. Basic firearm etiquette also requires keeping your firing finger as far as possible from the trigger and, as obvious as it sounds, check the rifle isn’t already loaded.
The fourth step is to clear the chamber of any obstructions. Refer to the third section of this blog before proceeding if this is necessary. Risk-free loading next depends on the safety mechanism of the rifle, which can be one of several designs, including wing, pivot, cross-bolt, and slide. Always engage the safety while loading if this does not impede opening the action.
The right way to continue loading a rifle differs between models. For example, an AR-15 accepts magazines that create a two-stage loading process. Loading the magazine involves placing the rounds in it, bullet-forward, one on top of the other. The magazine is then pushed into place on the rifle and firmly pulled to check it isn’t loose before pulling the charging handle to the rear or pushing the bolt release button on the side of the rifle.
Loading a bolt-action rifle involves pulling the bolt handle up and back, sliding in the round or rounds, and locking the bolt back in place by pushing it forward and down (the most common method). The round is then chambered and ready to fire.
Loading other popular rifle types
Here’s a quick overview of loading some other designs. Always apply the golden rules of firearm etiquette and clear any debris or blockages before proceeding:
- Lever-action: Select the proper rifle cartridge and pass it through the loading gate into the magazine. Feed the cartridge into the chamber and lock it in place by pulling the lever up to close the action.
- Semi-automatics (non-AR/AK style): Open the action by pulling the bolt’s operating handle back and locking or holding it in the open position. Insert a round into the magazine, then pull back again on the bolt and let it return to the forward position on its own.
- Pump-action: Select the correct ammunition before squeezing the round slowly into the magazine. Close the action by bringing the forestock to the forward position and cycle the action to bring the round from the magazine into the chamber.
- Break-action: Push the butt firmly against your hip to provide the necessary support while pulling the barrel down into place until you hear and/or feel the click. Slide the round into the magazine with your non-supporting hand before swinging the barrel firmly up and back into position. Never take your supporting hand off the barrel.
The right way to discharge a rifle
Start by selecting the proper shooting position and grip. This is necessary to provide the stability for a good shot. Next, place the rifle stock firmly into your shoulder and press your cheek into the stock. It’s recommended to lean forward to compensate for the backward force of recoil. Failure to do so can cause inaccurate and potentially hazardous discharges as well as injure your shoulder.
The position of your supporting hand varies according to comfort level. It can be near the magazine, be midway along the barrel, or towards the front of the rifle, but in all cases, your supporting hand should be helping to secure the rifle into your shoulder.
Aiming and firing a rifle properly
Aim the rifle only at the target you wish to fire on — never point a rifle at anything else, even if you believe it’s unloaded.
Rifles have several different sights typically classified as scope, open, or aperture. Relatively speaking, scopes make aiming easiest thanks to magnification and crosshairs. Open sights require aligning the rear sight notch with the front sight until there is an equal amount of space on either side of the front sight.
Aperture sights have a ring positioned near the shooter’s eye instead of a rear sight notch and the front sight must be centered in the ring. This is generally accepted as a more accurate design than open sights as it eliminates the loss of focus inherent with the open aim design (the human eye can’t keep three points in clear focus).
It’s recommended to keep both eyes open when aiming without a scope to reduce eye strain and to fire as quickly as possible without rushing. The reasoning here is that other firing fundamentals, like taking a deep breath and holding as you fire and minimizing firearm movement, become more difficult over prolonged periods, and stopping to refocus with one eye can mean holding those steps longer.
Apply pressure to the trigger steadily and slowly until the rifle fires the round but remember this is only half the firing process. Follow through by fully depressing the trigger equally slowly and steadily to avoid the rifle jerking.
How to clear a rifle safely
Let’s use the AR-15 again as an example. Keeping fingers away from the trigger, engage the safety, and remove the magazine. Grip the charging handle and pull the bolt back until it is open and view the chamber to confirm it’s empty. You may find it’s jammed; in which case you must carefully apply a three-step process to clear it.
First, lock the bolt to the rear of the rifle and detach the magazine, which may be faulty. Rotate the rifle to where the projection port is facing the ground and cycle the action a few times before inserting a new magazine. Cycle a new round into the chamber and engage any forward assist mechanism to help the round into place.
Alternatively, you could clear a rifle by pushing firmly up on a magazine to make sure it’s firmly inserted, then pull the charging handle fully back which should eject any round blocking the chamber. Release the charging handle and load the next round. Engage the forward assist to position the round for firing.
The right way to clear a rifle depends on the model, so consult the manufacturer’s guide for specific instructions. It’s also a good idea to speak to an experienced firearms seller or trainer who can provide guidance on design-specific best practices.
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