My first encounter with hot brass was memorable, and not in a good way. I was at an indoor range and had forgotten my ball cap that day. Not surprisingly, then, while firing a string of shots one of the ejected casings bounced off of the lane’s wall and lodged between my shooting glasses and my right eye (Always wear a ball cap!).
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As you might expect, I found the ~500F brass against the corner of my eye quite uncomfortable and disconcerting. Naturally, I convulsed and swatted at my glasses to get the brass dislodged while holding my still-hot pistol in my other hand. Though I would not attribute it to skill, I managed to keep the pistol at arm’s length and the muzzle pointing downrange during this brief ordeal. I sustained a welt on my eyelid and face, but either by luck or ingrained habit I maintained safety. Afterward, I remember feeling completely unprepared for something like that.
As an example, here is a video of a trained warrior dealing with some hot brass:
I say by luck or ingrained habit because I’m not entirely sure that safe gun-handling habits were deeply enough ingrained in me at that point in my training to have guaranteed my safe handling during the painful surprise. I had begun handling firearms daily only a few months prior to that point, so I expect I was still occasionally unsafe when not deliberately thinking about safety.
Which brings up what I think is an important issue:
Safe habits—as defined by the 4 rules of firearms safety—are not something you can learn by reciting rules no matter how many times or for how long you do it because they have to be unconsciously perfect habits. In other words, they’re not something you can think about, but something you have to automatically do despite distraction.
Therefore, firearms safety is attained only through continual, physical repetition under a great variety of circumstances, while under the supervision of someone who is catching your mistakes and continually reinforcing proper behaviors. In other words, only when you are unconsciously incapable of unsafe acts are you actually safe with firearms. Until that point, when something incredibly startling happens while you have a firearm your hand, you will react dangerously rather than responding in a habitually safe manner without thinking about safety.
Since that first event, I’ve had many encounters with hot brass, but thanks to prolonged and continual repetition and 3rd-party reinforcement of my safe firearms handling, I now automatically and unconsciously respond to startling stimulus in a safe manner (on which I am tested virtually every week). But it took time and dedicated effort to develop automatically safe habits.
Hot brass is the stimulus for all manner of negligent shootings every year. But only, I suggest, when hot brass comes into contact with unprepared, unsafe people. Training matters and one can learn to become safe when dealing with hot brass, but I’ve never seen a hot-brass drill or course of education on hot brass for new shooters.
Thinking back on my first hot-brass event, it occurs to me that nothing in my basic firearms safety training prepared me in any direct way for the unexpected and completely startling event of getting burning-hot brass stuck against my skin while holding a hot weapon. Instructors and friends had made reference to the discomfort of hot brass, but the reality of it was harsher and far more potentially dangerous than I imagined before that experience.
A recent tragedy highlights the grave danger potential of hot brass:
Sarasota father who accidentally shot his son: ‘The gun didn’t kill my boy. I did.’
When Clayton Brumby fired his last shot, he said a smoking hot casing flew out of the pistol and went down the back of his shirt. Both arms flailed up in the air, he said, his finger still on the trigger. The gun fired. “Dad, Stephen’s been shot,” the father heard his 24-year-old son shriek…
News of this recent tragedy made my heart ache for the boy, his father, and the family. I can’t help thinking, There but for the grace of God go I. It is a story of something that could happen at any time on any day of the week in any town in America.
While I have seen some examples of extraordinary self control and safety while others caught hot brass, I’ve never witnessed an unsafe response to it (a testament to the folks I train and compete with). I have heard some pretty hairy stories from the range safety officers at various gun ranges, though.
What to do?
Given the near certainty of hot-brass encounters for those who shoot semiautomatic or automatic firearms, it seems to me that deliberate preparation for painfully startling and otherwise surprising stimulus should be compulsory in fundamental firearms training. Such preparation could help shooters to safely and appropriately deal with hot brass and a host of other startling circumstances that could arise while someone is holding a hot firearm.
I can think of various safe and non-injurious ways to train students to maintain safety while being painfully or otherwise surprised. As I am not a firearms instructor, though, I will not recommend any here. Even so, responsible instructors should recommend and include such things in their courses. Some do, as I’ve seen, but never in the primary stages of training. It always seems to be left as a component of more advanced classes.
Hot brass is an equal-opportunity hazard for all shooters, regardless of training and experience. New shooters may be more likely to encounter it due to having not learned to take some simple clothing/footwear-related preventative steps. Therefore, hot-brass precautions should be as fundamental as the 4 rules of firearm safety.
There are things that shooters can do to help prevent hot brass from interrupting their shooting time. Here are a few I can recommend to help keep you brass free:
Wear a ball cap every time you shoot.
We don’t wear these things just to look cool while shooting. The brim of the ball cap prevents brass from getting into your face and from getting stuck behind your shooting glasses.
Don’t shoot while wearing a loose collar or a low-cut blouse.
Ejected hot brass seems to be adept at finding openings in your clothing. Don’t offer up any openings. If you wear a button-up shirt, button all the way to ensure your collar has no gap in front or back. Also, a woman’s low-cut blouse is a champion brass catcher! I’ve seen a couple and have heard tell of many women get their breasts burned by brass and even shoot themselves when it happens.
Don’t snatch your pistol back to high-ready position immediately after a shot.
If you press off a round and then are silly enough to immediately snatch your hands back to high-ready position, you can very easily catch the brass in the crook between your bicep and forearm. This is especially true when moving and shooting outdoors or while shooting in a walled lane, as the brass will bounce off of the wall and back at you. (Furthermore, this behavior is anathema to good sense, as your should demonstrate followthrough for reasons relating to accuracy AND situational awareness.)
Don’t wear flip flops, sandals, or opened toe/top shoes while shooting.
Brass generally ends up on the ground and if your shoes have openings, brass can and will find its way into them. Even untied/loosely-tied tops on boots or shoes will collect hot brass. And hot brass in your shoes is difficult to extract quickly and gets held tightly to your skin!
Just as important and perhaps more so, be a friend to those you shoot with, by uncompromisingly reinforcing safe habits and allowing no breach of safety to go unaddressed. For it is ONLY by having gun safety uncompromisingly required, modeled, and reinforced that we learn to actually become safe gun handlers.
If you shoot, you will encounter a hot-brass moment. Probably many of them. Do your part to prevent that hazard and prepare for the painful surprise, because your response to that surprise can put your life and the lives of all around you in grave danger.
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