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The LPH Companion, FIREARMS, Part 5: The Use and Care of Firearms

By Gianni Bauce

This is the fifth in a series of articles on firearms with specific reference to the Firearms syllabus of the Learner Hunters/Guides exams. The topics to be covered in separate posts are:

Part 1 – Safety & Firearms

Part 2 – Types of Firearm & the Parts of a Firearm

Part 3 – Ammunition

Part 4 – Ballistics

Part 5 – The Use & Care of Firearms

Part 6 – Firearms & the Law

This section concerns many different aspects of the practical use of firearms, as follows:

  • Choosing which firearm to buy
  • What happens when you pull the trigger
  • Some terms describing what happens when a shot is fired
  • Shot malfunctions
  • Loading a gun (to ensure safety)
  • Rifle carrying positions
  • Shooting technique
  • Shooting positions
  • How to operate a bolt action rifle
  • Shot placement
  • Care of firearms
  • Gun cleaning – importance
  • Gun cleaning equipment and procedure
  • Gun storage

The Use of Firearms

Choosing Which Firearm to Buy

When you are setting out to buy a firearm there are some important considerations affected by the use to which you will put the firearm and your budget.
  • Price of the firearm? Only you can judge how a given firearm will fit into your budget.
  • Weight of the firearm? Do you see yourself carrying this firearm with you for great distances in the bush or are you going to be using it at a firing range near your home?
  • Recoil? Does the firearm have a strong recoil which is likely to affect you badly?
  • Range? Picture the environment in which you would be most likely to operate and estimate the average distance between you and your potential target.
  • Availability of ammunition? Choose a weapon with ammunition that is fairly easily available on the market, like .375 calibre.
  • Price of ammunition? Paying for your weapon happens once but the price of ammunition has to be paid repeatedly.

What Happens When You Pull the Trigger

  1. The trigger is pulled.
  2. The sear releases the firing pin, that, pushed by the spring, knocks the primer into the cartridge. (Primer – chemical and/or device responsible for causing propellant combustion.)

3. The primer detonates, producing a spark which travels through the flash hole, igniting the propellent.

4. The propellent detonates, causing a sudden change of status, from solid to gas and, as a consequence, increasing the pressure in the sealed cartridge case.

5. The pressure that develops forces the bullet out, leaving the crimp and the cartridge case, and travelling through the bore of the barrel. If the bore is rifled, the grooves of the rifling gives the bullet a spinning rotation that can reach 200 000 RPM and stabilises the trajectory of the projectile.

Some Terms Describing What Happens When a Shot Is Fired

Lock time

The interval between pulling the trigger and the exploding of the primer. Several factors affect the lock time:

  • Mass of the firing pin assembly;
  • Distance the firing pin must travel to reach the primer;
  • Tension of the firing pin spring;
  • Dirt in the firing pin assembly.


The backward movement of a firearm as a result of firing.

Remember Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion? “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”. In the case of firearms, when a gun fires and the bullet flies out of the muzzle, the same amount of force required to fire the bullet also comes back toward the shooter. This force causes recoil, helping the slide to cycle through, but also forcing the gun back toward the shooter. To counteract flinching (see below), it is important to learn how to anticipate and control recoil.

The following factors affect the recoil:
  • Calibre
  • Thickness of the butt or recoil pad (surface area over which the recoil is dispersed);
  • Shape of the stock;
  • Front grip or fore-stock grip shape and diameter;
  • Shape and diameter of the pistol grip or neck of the stock;
  • Use or presence of a muzzle-break or Magna potting;
  • Weight of firearm.
  • Burning rate of powder in cartridge.
  • Your position while shooting.

Muzzle lift

The forcing of the muzzle upwards as a result of recoil. It may be exaggerated by poor stock design.


Unwanted motion of the shooter’s body when anticipating the recoil and loud bang. When one anticipates recoil, one tends to push forward or drop the muzzle of the gun, which usually results in a low shot on the target.

How to stop flinching

  • Practice a good grip. With a proper grip, your hands and arms help mitigate as much of the recoil as possible, making the shooting experience more comfortable and enjoyable while improving your ability to place follow-up shots on target.
  • Practice a good trigger squeeze technique. (“Trigger squeeze” is a specific movement that mimics making a fist or shaking someone’s hand.) This smooth, consistent motion minimizes the gun barrel’s up and down movement, helping it to stay on target through the shooting process. Start slowly. Each shot should come as a result of a careful thought process and steady trigger squeeze. Then pick the pace a bit until you feel comfortable and see results at a higher speed.
  • Move only your trigger finger during trigger squeeze. If the other fingers move, you might be applying sideward pressure to the gun which will disturb the sight alignment.
  • Practice with a low calibre/recoil weapon (e.g.  .22). By working on all the fundamentals with a smaller caliber, you can focus on shooting mechanics and then translate them back to the bigger guns when you are ready.
  • Wear good ear protection. The less noise you hear, the less you flinch.
  • Sometimes try moving from target to target in a continuous shot pattern, not stopping between shots. This transition drill will help you focus on keeping the gun up because you know you have to shoot another target before you can bring it down.
  • Some people use mental distraction – repeating a word or a phrase in their mind to take their concentration from the expected bang and flinching.
  • Recognise that is all in your head. Flinching when shooting is almost entirely mental and is the anticipation of and the response to something unpleasant (such as the recoil or gunshot noise). Neither of these two things are actually going to hurt you.

Shot Malfunctions

A firearm is a machine and therefore can malfunction. The following are some malfunctions that can have serious implications in the field.

Hangfire – a delay between striking of the primer and ignition of the propellant.

Symptoms a hangfire?

The trigger is pulled but only a “click” sound is produced and no shot goes off immediately. Detonation, however, occurs later.

Causes of a hangfire?

Usually caused by faulty, old or inadequate primer (propellent is then not ignited properly). Can also be caused by insufficient powder, a too-short firing pin or too light a spring which cannot strike with sufficient force.

What to do about a hangfire?

The rifle must be kept pointing in a safe direction. Wait for at least 20 seconds before trying to unlock bolt. Tip weapon to one side & pull bolt back so cartridge falls to ground – not going off in your face.

Misfire – the complete failure of cartridge to fire after the primer has been struck.

Symptom of a misfire?

The trigger is pulled, but only a “click” sound is produced and no shot goes off.

Causes of a misfire?

Can be caused by wet powder, safety catch on, broken firing pin, excessive headspace, obstruction in the bore, wrong cartridge size or defective primer.

What to do about a misfire?

Treat the misfire as a hangfire. The rifle must be kept pointing in a safe direction. Wait for at least 20 seconds before trying to unlock bolt. Tip weapon to one side & pull bolt back so cartridge falls to ground – not going off in your face.

Squib load – a weak detonation which do not supply enough energy to propel the bullet.

Symptom of a squib load?

When the shot is fired, the sound is more of a “pop”, with a little recoil.

Causes of squib load?

Usually caused by insufficient or contaminated propellent

What to do about a squib load

 A squib load is extremely dangerous as the bullet head may be lodged inside the barrel and a subsequent shot fired would result in the explosion of the firearm. Check the barrel for obstruction and, if any, remove it before using the weapon again.

Misfeed or jam – when a round does not chamber properly.

Symptom of a misfeed?

The action gets stuck and the new round is not fed.

Causes of misfeed?

Usually caused by incorrect insertion of the magazine (detachable magazine) or defective rounds.

What to do about a misfeed?

Do not withdraw the bolt and try forcing the bolt forwards. This will merely pick up the next round from your magazine and jam it further. Use your thumb to draw the round back to the magazine and then re-chamber. Check your magazine and ensure that it is in its correct position.

Loading a Gun (ensuring safety)

These are the procedures for loading a rifle and making it safe before starting walking. Before starting to describe the procedure, it is important to know the meaning of the following:

  • Loading your rifle means filling the magazine (but not the chamber)
  • Load and make safe means having the magazine full but the chamber empty and firing pin relaxed
  • Cocking the rifle means chambering a round (getting a cartridge into the chamber)
  • Load (in ammunition) refers to filling a cartridge with the propellent.

Load & Make Safe

This procedure ensures that the rifle is carried ready for use, but in a safe way, to prevent accidental discharges. To load and make the rifle safe, apply the following procedure:

  1. Move away from other people and ensure that the muzzle is facing in a safe direction.
  2. Insert cartridges into the magazine (one at a time), making sure that each bullet is seated against the back of the magazine box.
  3. Open the bolt and pull it back completely.
  4. Hold the rifle with breech open and muzzle facing downwards.
  5. Check that the chamber is empty, using your little finger.
  6. Press cartridges down to allow bolt to slide over the top of them and slide the bolt forwards halfway (without picking up any round from the magazine).
  7. Check the chamber again with your little finger.
  8. Slide the bolt the rest of the way forwards, squeezing the trigger.
  9. Lock the bolt end fully, and gently release the firing pin (releasing the trigger).
  10.  Squeeze the trigger again, maintaining safe muzzle direction, to ensure that the firing pin is in the relaxed position.

Rifle Carrying Positions

These are the positions in which the rifle should be carried during hunting or guiding, where one should be ready to deal with dangerous game.

State of Readiness:

The rifle should be loaded and made safe (magazine full, chamber empty, firing pin relaxed, finger check carried out).

Carrying position (on a standard walk):

The rifle should be carried in the non-shooting hand (although fatigue may necessitate alternating this periodically). Carrying with the magazine plate in your palm will generally ensure that the weapon is comfortably balanced with barrel facing downwards. If a sling is used, it should be carried in such way that barrel faces downwards.

Resting positions

NEVER rest with your hand over muzzle, or the muzzle resting on your foot


The recoil pad is on the ground, with barrel facing upwards, away from your face and any bystander.


Same rifle position, but you rest the rifle barrel against your shoulder if you need to free up your hands

Alert position

Bring recoil pad up to rest against your hip, ensuring swift access to the rifle should you require it. This position should be adopted whenever you enter an area where your visibility is restricted.

Ready position

When anticipating danger, the rifle should be held in the ready position. Bring the stock up to your armpit or carry the rifle across your body (keep the stock close to your shoulder) and your left hand ready on the fore-stock.

Shooting Technique

  • Stand slightly side-on to target. Left foot forwards for the right-handed rifle shooter (right foot forward for left-hander).
  • Slightly bend the knee of the front foot, to place weight comfortably. This will help to absorb some of the recoil and prevent you ending up on your back.
  • Leading hand is placed far forward enough to steady the weapon (on the fore-stock).
  • Using your palm, firmly left the bolt handle and slide back fully.
  • Slide bolt forward and lock it.
  • Ensure that the recoil pad is pulled firmly into your shoulder, before releasing a shot.
  • Squeeze the trigger (do not pull it).

Shooting Positions

There are four standard rifle shooting position: prone, standing, sitting and kneeling.

Prone position

The shooter lies on the ground with the chest and both elbows on the ground, supporting the rifle. It is the steadiest of the four positions because it is the easiest to hold. It is the best position for mastering the fundamental of shooting (breath control, trigger squeeze, follow through).

Sitting position

The shooter sits on the ground with folded legs and both arms supported on the legs. This is the second steadiest position.

Kneeling position

The shooter places the knee on the “trigger pulling” on the ground, whilst the other leg is bent and supports the fore-stock holding arm. Only one arm (the fore-stock holding arm) rests on the leg. It is the third steadiest position.

Standing position

The shooter stands with neither arm supported. It is the most difficult position for firing an accurate shot. Smooth natural motion will produce the best shot.

How to Operate a Bolt-action Rifle

Once you have fired a shot and there is a spent cartridge in the chamber, there are a number of processes needed in order to prepare your rifle for firing another shot. These operations are as follow:

  1. Lift the bolt handle

This unlocks the bolt (unlocking) and half cocks the firing pin.

2. Draw bolt back fully

The spent cartridge is extracted from the chamber by the extractor (extraction) and is thrown clear of the breech by the ejector (ejection). The next cartridge is ready to be chambered due to upwards pressure by the magazine spring.

3. Slide bolt forward again

Top cartridge is pushed forward from the magazine and fed into the chamber (feeding and chambering).

4. Bolt handle pushed downward

This locks the bolt (locking) and it completes the cocking process by fully cocking the firing pin.

5. Trigger squeeze

Sear pulled downward, releasing the firing pin (firing). Firing pin trust forward by tension of the main spring, causing the shot to be fired and relaxes the firing pin mechanism.

Shot Placement

The following article on shot placement is by John McAdams, Shot Placement on African Game: Where Should You Aim?  (

As an ethical hunter, the vast majority of your shots should be aimed at the heart/lung area of the animal. Only in specific circumstances, such as a charge situation or a close range shot on an elephant, should you aim for the brain. Compared to the rest of the head, the brain is a relatively small and well protected target. The head also moves more than any other part of the body. These factors combine to present an increased risk of a wounded animal by aiming at the brain and accidentally hitting the jaw or nose, for instance. As a result, the brain is a high-risk target that you should only shoot at when absolutely necessary. The neck/spine is a target similar to the brain. A good shot will bring the animal down instantly, but it is still a relatively small target and moves almost as much as the brain.

The heart/lung area however, presents a large, typically stationary target on an animal. Shots with large enough calibre bullets of the proper construction will typically bring the animal down very quickly with a minimum of suffering and tracking involved.


In general, the shoulders on antelope are set a little bit farther back on the body than on deer. With that in mind, here is the single most important piece of shot placement advice I’d give to hunters on their first African safari:

On a broadside animal, aim at the middle of the shoulder about 1/3 the way up the body. That shot placement will squarely hit both lungs and the heart.

Do NOT aim behind the shoulder. Shooting just behind the shoulder … will either nick the back of the lungs (if you’re lucky) or hit the paunch (if you’re not) on most species of plains game. Either way, you’ll be in for a much longer day than if you aim for the middle of the shoulder.

If the animal is quartering towards you, you’ll of course need to aim a bit farther forward to compensate. Likewise, place your shot a bit further backwards if the animal is quartering away from you.


At the same time, shot placement can also vary significantly for some species of African game.

For instance, cats, such as leopards and lions, have vitals that are positioned slightly further to the rear than on antelope. Shooting a lion or a leopard on or even slightly behind the shoulder could potentially result in a bullet that travels in front of the lungs and heart, which generally results in an unpleasant combination for both the hunter and the cat.

The real challenge is to visualize the location of the heart/lung area (also known as the “boiler room”) on an animal and properly place your shot regardless of the circumstances.

Care of Firearms

Gun cleaning – importance

External factors can affect the performance of a weapon. With exposure to the elements such as rain, wind and dust, the weapon needs to be cleaned regularly. (If you are caught in the rain and your weapon is wet, ensure that it is dried off thoroughly and cleaned. If you expect rain, give your rifle a light coat of oil.)

Some internal phenomena also affect your weapon’s performance. The main internal factors are corrosion, fouling and leading.

  • Corrosion – powder gasses travelling along the barrel can affect the bore surface by depositing obstructive and corrosive material, which can obstruct and/or set off rust.
  • Fouling – metal or powder residue is deposited in the barrel of a firearm as a result of firing.
  • Leading – metal fouling which determines lead deposit in the bore from shooting lead bullet.

How often should a weapon be cleaned?

  • A quick clean should be carried out every few day
  • A full strip and clean should be carried out every few weeks.
  • After every shooting practice, the weapon has to be cleaned.
  • Before any planned shooting exercise, you need to check all the screws of your rifle are tight and look for cracks in the stock.

Gun Cleaning Equipment and Procedure


A gun cleaning kit is composed of the following items:

2X4 cotton lint cloth – used on a jag for wiping the bore clean and leaving a thin film of oil to prevent rust.

Bore snake – used by being pulled through the barrel to ensure the bore is cleaned and clear from any potential obstruction quickly and effectively.

Brass jags (slotted and solid) – for carrying the cotton lint cloth

Cleaning rod – a rod that drives the jag or brush through the barrel.

Copper bore brush – for loosening dirt in the chamber and barrel.

Gun oil – gives your weapon a film of protecting oil that counters and prevents rust.

London oil – protects the wooden stock against drying out and cracking.

Nitro-solvent – removes tough carbon residues that may build up in the chamber or in the barrel after shooting.

Gun Cleaning Procedure

Use the above-described cleaning kit to carry out the following procedure to clean your rifle:

  1. Make sure you are alone.
  2. The weapon must be unloaded and made safe.
  3. Remove the bolt from the rifle.
  4. Place nitro-solvent onto a clean piece of 2×4 and run it through the bore of the barrel a few times, using the cleaning rod and the brass jag.
  5. Give the bore a good scrub with the bronze wire-brass.
  6. Run dry 2×4 patches through the bore, until they come out clean.
  7. Run a lightly oiled 2×4 patch through the bore.
  8. Wipe off excess dust and closely examine the bolt and mechanisms for any problems.
  9. Put gun oil onto the clean 2×4 piece and wipe the outside of the rifle down, to leave a thin protective coating of oil.
  10. Clean and oil the bolt, ensuring there’s no dirty on the bolt face, in the firing-pin hole, extractor or ejector.
  11. Check all parts and workings of the rifle.  Tighten screws. Check that the sights are in order.
  12. Reassemble and place back in the safe.

Gun Storage

Preparing a weapon for storage

  1. Clean thoroughly inside and out.
  2. Wipe fingerprints away with an ammonia-free cleaner. (Natural salts from your hands can be an entry point for rust.)
  3. Leave a LIGHT layer of lubrication on all metal surfaces to create a thin coating to seal them.
  4. Treat wood stocks with wax to help prevent swelling or cracking of the wood.
  5. De-cock your firearm – relieves tension in the springs and other components.

Keeping a weapon safe from being used inappropriately (including increased risk of suicide, homicide, and unintentional injury for household members)

  • Preferably not visible (displaying guns in glass cabinets or wall racks is an invitation to thieves and curious children);
  • Unloaded;
  • In a separate place from ammunition;
  • Locked up in a secure place such as a gun safe or at the very least by using safety devices such as trigger or cable locks

Securing methods –from least to most secure

  • Trigger locks 
  • Cable locks 
  • Gun cases 
  • Strong boxes and security cases 
  • Locking gun cabinets 
  • Gun safes 

Keeping a weapon safe from environmental damage

Guns need to be stored:

  • Horizontally, or with the muzzle pointing down. (When guns are stored upright, gravity pulls gun oil downward into the action, which forms a sticky film. Oil also can drain onto the stock, softening the wood.)
  • In a cool environment – temperature of 21⁰C (70⁰F);
  • In a dry environment – a constant 50% humidity or drier and where dry air can circulate round them (not in a waterproof, fabric, leather or non-breathable case of any kind). Ideally stored with a dehumidifier, silica gel, or vacuum sealing unit prevent rust;
  • Avoiding over-crowding – causing nicks and scratches when weapons are placed in or removed from a gun safe.


Firearms are extremely complicated and delicate mechanisms. They need to be stored, maintained and used with great care and attention so that they can perform as they are designed to perform when the occasion arises.

Gianni Bauce

Gee Bauce - Safari guide specialising in guiding for Italian parties, and author of books on a wide variety of topics, including LPH support material.

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