The Confluence of Safety and Etiquette in Sporting Clays

Jul 28, 2023 | Shooting Tips | 0 comments

Author:  Luther Cutts, Head Instructor (NSCA Level 3), Shotgun Competitor

If you are reading this, you are likely one of the many people who really enjoys shooting sporting clays. We are a large and diverse group, ranging in age from our teens to those of us in our 80s, people from every walk of life. There are a lot of varied opinions within our population – what is the best gun, the best load, the best gauge, or the best target presentation.

One thing that we all seem to agree on, however, is safety. If this were not a safe sport, I am confident that the number of people shooting sporting clays would decrease by at least 95%. There is no way I am going to take my friends and family to a place where they would be exposed to unsafe practices and risk them being injured or worse. People who are unsafe with a firearm are not those I want to have anything to do with. Thankfully, 99.9% of the people I see at the club demonstrate good safety practices. One of the real attractions of going to Silver Willow is the effort everyone puts into being safe.


Safety is a non-negotiable element of all shooting sports in Canada. I think we can agree that the following are the safety norms at Silver Willow:

  • Rounds in the firearm only when the shooter has the muzzle through the shooting station port,
  • Firearms not through the shooting port are unloaded, with the actions open,
  • Actions always remain open unless the firearm is a hinge-action AND it is in a rack or on a cart,
  • Not only must the shooter be safe, but they must be seen as being safe, and
  • The muzzle of the firearm is always pointed in a safe direction.

There are unwritten rules that compliment these safety fundamentals – such as encouraging people not to walk with a closed action. If you remove your shotgun from your cart, it is better to walk the few steps to and from the shooting position with the action open, as opposed to leaving it closed.

I think I would be hard-pressed to find anyone who believes that safe gun handling is a bad thing.

Having investigated far too many firearms accidents, I am a firm believer in two fundamental safety practices that should keep us all out of trouble. First, treat every firearm as through it is loaded. Even when you know it is unloaded, if you treat it as though it is loaded anyway, you will always be in good shape. Second, always point the muzzle in the safest available direction. Always does not mean most of the time – it means all the time. Finally, an unloaded firearm does not excuse unsafe gun handling. Ever.


According to the online dictionary, etiquette is defined as:

Conventional requirement or custom in regard to social behavior or observance; prescriptive usage, especially in polite society or for ceremonial intercourse; propriety of conduct as established in any class or community or for any occasion; good manners; polite behavior.

While this is all good, what jumps out of this definition, in my view, is “good manners; polite behaviour”. Being seen as being polite and having good manners is never a bad thing. As one spends more time immersed in the game of sporting clays, one learns of “the little things” that are considered good etiquette. These group norms don’t make the game any safer necessarily, but they do show those around you that you have been paying attention, and you have added some polish to your suite of behaviours and actions.

Some examples are:

  • When coming up behind a group shooting at a station, the waiting group stands back and does not interfere with the group shooting,
  • If driving a cart, instead of roaring past the stand when a shooter is engaging targets, stop and allow the shooter to finish their targets
  • Flattening your cartridge boxes when tossing them in the garbage, and
  • Throwing your empty hulls into the garbage bin at the stand.

These few examples of what many consider good manners and polite behaviour have nothing to do with safety. Those who do not follow these norms are not considered unsafe, and they are still great people to shoot with and to see around the course.

There are times when safety and etiquette come together, and mixing these two concepts together can produce some confusing and at times frustrating situations. The most obvious of these situations involves how we carry our firearms between stations. We all agree that the firearm must be unloaded, and the action must be open when we are carrying our firearms on the sporting clays range. If we do this, we have satisfied the safety requirement for moving our firearm between stations.

There are some etiquette rules that come into play when carrying our firearms, and they are:

Break or Hinge Action

It is generally accepted that carrying your unloaded over/under, single shot, or side-by-side shotgun broken open and either across your forearm or over your shoulder with the muzzles to the front is safe and polite manner to carry an unloaded firearm.

I believe the rationale for having the muzzles to the front is rather simple – if our muzzles are within our field of view, we are more aware of them and where they are pointed. We are also less likely to bang into anything or anyone with our barrels when they are in front of us. In my view, this is a sign of a considerate, polished shooter, aware of those around her.

There are some shooters, however, who prefer to carry their shotgun open and unloaded, but with the muzzles to the rear.

While this is not in alignment with some of the generally accepted practices found in sporting clays, it is not a problem either. Admittedly, there is a slight chance that folks carrying their shotgun in this manner may accidentally strike something or someone with their barrels, it is highly unlikely that they are going to cause any injury to anyone else if they were to make contact. Since we are primarily concerned with preventing serious or fatal injuries, carrying a hinge action firearm in this manner does not offend the safety requirements we are all obliged to meet.

Pump Action and Semiautomatic Action

There are typically fewer of the pump action and semiautomatic shotguns on the clay target course, but they still need to be handled safely. When moving between stands, either carrying the shotgun or having it in a cart, the action must always be open. You knowing your firearm is safe and unloaded is important, but it is as important that anyone you encounter on the course also knows your firearm is safe. The preferred method is carrying the unloaded, open shotgun with the muzzle pointed upwards. Carrying the open and unloaded firearm with the muzzle pointed down is less desirable but is still safe. Carrying the open and unloaded firearm horizontally is discouraged.

The easiest way to accomplish this is to leave the action open and orient the firearm so that anyone approaching you can see the action is open. I have chamber flags which I use when I am shooting a 12-gauge pump or autoloader – I would use them for my other guns, but I can only find them in 12-gauge. What seems to meet most peoples’ needs are to have the action open and facing away from the individual handling the firearm, so everyone approaching can see that the action is open. You know your firearm is safe – let everyone else see for themselves that it is safe too.


Everyone on the course at Silver Willow has the solemn responsibility to ensure that they and everyone around them is safe and conducting themselves safely. At the same time, we also need to keep the proper perspective on the distinction between safety requirements and observing etiquette. We must also apply common sense to these situations and do what makes the most sense. As with most rules, there are exceptions.

I recall one instance in which I finished shooting, and there was a small crowd of people right up against the stand. I had to work my way through this group, so I flipped my unloaded and open shotgun around, and led with my recoil pad as I weaved between the people. Muzzles were not to the front, but in this circumstance, this made the most sense. There are likely other instances in which not having the muzzles to the front makes complete sense – and as long as the firearm is unloaded and the action open, these temporary and rare departures from the norm are allowable, provided they are done safely.