Gunfighter Moment – Mike Pannone

Safety vs. protocol: why safety is safe and protocol can be dangerous

The topic of safety is always at the front of every individual and institutions consciousness. The obvious concern is to ensure people are not injured or killed in the conduct of training but safety has taken a turn years ago away from common sense to rote compliance. Often times range protocol is confused with range safety. Range protocol is that which a range complex will or will not allow individuals or groups to do as well as specific control measures and procedures designed, in the eyes of those that created them, to minimize risk. This is counterproductive to learning and good training because it does not require individuals to think and often violates tactical principles. They are designed to replace individual thought and proficiency. The implied task in all training is safety and that translates directly to operational safety.

A few examples:

• “Point your weapon down range” when actually you mean “Point your weapon in a safe direction.”

o Down range is an administratively designated area where projectiles are intended to impact. Conditions and range status will identify it as a direction where a weapon may or may not be safely pointed and discharged.

o A Safe Direction by definition is a conscious decision to point and manipulate a weapon in a direction where a negligent, accidental or mechanical failure discharge cannot harm personnel or equipment.

o Down range is not always a safe direction so regardless of official status be aware. You are responsible for what your weapon does!

• Not allowing someone to pick up a magazine that has been ejected and bounced 6” over the established firing line.

o If it is so unsafe to reach over the firing line 6” (which I have witnessed repeatedly in institutional training both Mil and LE) then it’s probably not safe to even be standing next to the shooters on your left and right. Statistically more people are shot in parking lots at ranges than on the firing line.

• Requiring shooters to drop a magazine on the ground when unloading. The methodology behind this is “if you drop a magazine into your hand on the range you’ll do it in a gunfight.”

o If you can’t separate the difference between being in a gunfight and needing to reload your pistol/rifle versus clearing your system at the end of a firing sequence then you really shouldn’t have one in your hands if you may ever need it under pressure.

Protocol robs the individual of the authority to think and in doing so people will not think because their actions are dictated. There is no individual more dangerous to themselves or others than those in possession of a lethal implement who are not only not thinking but not allowed to think only follow instructions.

I have been in the presence of negligent discharges, some that have resulted in injury and one of three things that are always the first words out of the shooters mouth are either:

“I didn’t see…”

“I didn’t know…”

“I didn’t think…”

The last one is the only one that counts and the cause of the catastrophic failure. YOU DIDN”T THINK!!

Do not confuse protocol with safety! Protocol may or may not enhance safety but safety itself is a standalone concept. There is safe training, high risk safe training and unsafe training.

• Safe training is that which has been managed in a manner where injury is minimized by design and control measures. It is usually very basic in nature and highly structured.

• High Risk safe training is more complex training with an elevated amount of assumed risk but is deemed necessary for operational requirements. It has specific control measures in place to mitigate the chance of mishap or injury.

• Unsafe training is that which assumes an unnecessary amount of risk or more often than not is poorly designed and managed creating unnecessary and potentially catastrophic results. It lends itself to injury and catastrophic results and must never be undertaken.

There is no time when unsafe training is acceptable.


• Treat all weapons as though they are loaded regardless of their perceived condition.

• Never point a weapon at anything you are not willing to kill or damage.

• Keep your weapon on safe and finger off the trigger until your sights are aligned and you have made the conscious decision to fire.

• Know your target, foreground, background, left and right. Be aware of the ballistic capability of your weapon, the intended target and the backstop.

Down range is an administratively designated area where projectiles are intended to impact. Conditions and range status will identify it as a direction where a weapon may or may not be safely pointed and discharged. A Safe Direction by definition is a conscious decision to point and manipulate a weapon in a direction where a negligent, accidental or mechanical failure discharge cannot harm personnel or equipment.

Down range is not always a safe direction

If you have any doubt as to your actions STOP, THINK and then act accordingly because you can’t recall the bullet once it’s gone. Be safe and not a robot. In practice robotic actions are devoid of thought and that is ultimately dangerous. Protocol be damned, think first!

– Mike Pannone


Mike Pannone retired from the Army’s premier assault force (1st SFOD-D) after an explosive breaching injury. A year after his retirement America was attacked on 9/11 and he returned to help serve his country as the head marksmanship instructor at the Federal Air Marshals training course and then moved to help stand up the FAMS Seattle field office. In 2003 he left the FAMS to serve as a PSD detail member and then a detail leader for the State Department during 2003 and 2004 in Baghdad and Tikrit.

In 2005 he served as a ground combat advisor of the Joint Counter IED Task Force and participated on combat operations with various units in Al Anbar province. Upon returning he gave IED awareness briefings to departing units and helped stand up a pre-Iraq surge rifle course with the Asymmetric Warfare Group as a lead instructor. With that experience as well as a career of special operations service in Marine Reconnaissance, Army Special Forces and JSOC to draw from he moved to the private sector teaching planning, leadership, marksmanship and tactics as well as authoring and co-authoring several books such as The M4 Handbook, AK Handbook and Tactical Pistol shooting. Mike also consults for several major rifle and accessory manufacturers to help them field the best possible equipment to the warfighter, law enforcement officer and upstanding civilian end user. He is considered a subject matter expert on the AR based Stoner platform in all its derivatives.

Gunfighter Moment is a weekly feature brought to you by Alias Training & Security Services. Each week Alias brings us a different Trainer and in turn they offer some words of wisdom.

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16 Responses to “Gunfighter Moment – Mike Pannone

  1. IKE says:

    One of the best Gunfighter Moment’s I’ve read.

  2. Chris K. says:

    Well said, this what I like to see from these Gunfighter moments, worthwhile instruction.

  3. bloenoser says:

    Panone is golden as always. Great contribution.

  4. Dellis says:

    This question has always been on my mind….does one train to allow their magazine to drop to the ground or does one train to exchange magazine and replace with fresh full magazine?

    My mind set says to allow to drop when emptied and then reload. I was taught a “tactical” reload but only when safe to do so. I ponder this because when out at the private range with others running drills I see some shooters cringe at the thought of dropping to the ground their $40 magazine and in so doing that they have a hiccup or brain fart in their motion/flow so to speak, as in you see them visibly distracted from their target while they watch their magazine hit dirt.

    Mike always has great insight and advice, be an honor to train with him.

    • Erik says:


      You aren’t off the mark with this; if your mag is empty, drop the damned thing. If it still has ammo, only change it when you have a safe time to do so. Reality is, if you’re shooting, that thing is going to be empty before you even think about putting a fresh mag in.

      As Mr. Pannone talks about, there should be a tangible difference between what you do on a range and a gunfight. Chances are damn slim someone is going to ask you to show clear and safe in the middle of a gunfight, just sayin.


  5. Common Sense says:


    Nothing more needs to be said.

  6. MM says:

    :slow clap:
    Well said, sir.

  7. matt says:

    Very interesting to hear such an experienced voice speak on this subject. I wonder what Mr. Pannone thinks about Mr. Yeager’s crusade against press checks.

  8. GPC says:

    Very well written and reasoned article, which is par for the course.

    I enjoyed it and agree that common sense principles should override rules set up primarily for insurance reasons at ranges and facilities where dynamic training is taking place.

    I’ve spent many years of my life behind other shooters on the line, some beginners, some renters, many students on various entry to mid level pistol courses. The example used to illustrate the difference between “downrange” and “a safe direction” I felt was important for shooters new to dynamic shooting. Most ranges drum into shooters the concept that “keep your muzzle downrange” is the mantra which is the only option for safety, when it shouldn’t be limited to such structure, as it isn’t always the case.

    I hope to see more excellent posts soon.

  9. Ed Hickey says:

    Need to buy more mags so I can clean them at home. My range is outside in the sand & developing a bad habit of not letting them fall free due to them being needed again. I am aware of it & working on it.

    • Ed Hickey says:

      With the shooting sports I do such as IDPA they usually put a tarp down for mag changes. Not very realistic & see the bad habits its causing.

  10. Tim G says:

    Great post Mike. As the director of one of only two firearms and archery ranges on a college campus and open to the public, your column prompted a review of the range SOP I’m curently working on. I can think of at least half a dozen instances where downrange is not safe…such as where there is a shooter between you and the target or a shooter mistakenly loads a weapon behind the firing line.

    Great column.

  11. Joe Sweeney says:

    On reloading the handgun in a high workspace…

    The picture of the reload at the top of this article and the topic of the article itself prompts me to ask this question:

    How do we address the concern of launching rounds out into the community when we hold the handgun high up in our visual plane instead of pointing down/ toward the threat? I completely understand the biomechanical efficiency and robust mechanics and the ability to view the threat area while reloading if the handgun is in a high workspace, but can’t resolve the idea of pointing it up in the air even during a reload when it’s most likely empty. But we never assume the gun is empty because of rule #4. It could very well have a live round in it and could result in cranking a round off at a high angle and out of our control.

    Thanks for a great article and look forward to your response!

    • Ed Hickey says:

      I see what your saying Joe Sweeney & at my range someone would be yelling muzzle but it’s safe to say MP knows what he’s doing! At there level of training a AD or ND isn’t going to happen. I believe the weapon is up high to keep & eye on the threat and still load the mag with his peripheral vision.

    • Henry Wong says:

      Also think of it this way; while it is best if all the safety rules are met, sometimes this physically can’t be the case. A shooter might be breaking rule #4, but as long as they’re aren’t breaking rule #2 they’re ultimately good to go.

  12. BAP45 says:

    So true. I once had a quite the reprimand for bending forward with my empty slung rifle on my back to pick up an empty mag. (which also had a little chamber flag stuffed in it as well) I only had to move it a few inches to keep the muzzle out of the dirt but the reaction I got was just nuts. people were acting like I was popping off rounds in the air.