Operational Guidelines & Procedures

Certain operational roles in public safety mandate the requirement for a lethal force response, issued in the form of a firearm. Depending on the role, the firearms are usually limited to smalls arms only in the form of handguns and longarms. With the provision of firearms comes the necessity for appropriate training and regulations governing the issue and use of these operational tools.

If operational personnel decide to undertake job roles that require a lethal force option, they have an obligation to be highly competent in the use of that tool, which includes appropriate knowledge and skills for safe and professional use of that tool in an operational context (as opposed to simply a training context). In the first instance, the burden of responsibility falls to the individual user to survive the operational environment, physically and legally.

This information aims to outline the basics of firearm guidelines, functions, safety considerations and justifications for operational use. It is not designed as a definitive source or a replacement for proper training as required by agencies and regulators.



A firearm means any device, whether or not assembled or in parts and whether or not operable or complete or temporarily or permanently inoperable or incomplete which is designed or adapted to discharge shot or a bullet or other missile by the expansion of gases produced in the device by the ignition of strongly combustible materials or by compressed air or other gases, whether stored in the device in pressurised containers or produced in the device by mechanical means, or which has the appearance of such a device.

A handgun means a firearm that is reasonably capable of being carried or concealed about the person, or is reasonably capable of being raised and fired by 1 hand, or is not more than 65cm in length measured parallel to the barrel.

A longarm means any firearm other than a handgun.

Cartridge ammunition means having a bullet or other projectile and a priming device fixed to or enclosed in a cartridge case which is composed wholly or partly of material other than paper.

Possession includes actual physical possession of the firearm, or custody or control of the firearm, or having and exercising access to the firearm, either solely or in common with others.

Carry includes the carriage of a firearm either as a whole or in parts and either by more than 1 person.

A prohibited person means a person who is serving a term of imprisonment for an indictable offence, assault or an offence under the Drugs, Poisons & Controlled Substances Act, or who is subject to an intervention order.


A person may be issued a firearms license for the occupation of security guard or prison guard, for target shooting, or for an official, commercial or prescribed purpose or for a purpose authorised by an Act or regulations. The applicant must demonstrate the purpose that the licence is required for. Security or prison guards must hold a licence under the Private Security Act 2004 or be a prison officer and produce evidence that they perform duties as a security or prison officer. Target shooters must be and continue to be a member of an approved firearm target shooting club. Official or commercial purpose applicants must produce evidence that the licence is required for that purpose.

A firearms license must not be issued if the applicant or any responsible person in relation to the application is a prohibited person, under 18 years old, a fit and proper person and that there is no information as to criminal activities. Further, it must be seen that the applicant can possess, carry or use a firearm without being a danger to public safety or peace, has satisfactorily completed a course of firearms safety and can comply with the storage requirements set out by or under the Act. Finally, that the issue of the licence is not against the public interest.


The general storage requirements for firearms and ammunition are as follows:

  • Handgun: stored in a locked steel safe of a thickness that is not easily penetrable
  • Longarm: storedin a receptacle constructed of hard wood or steel that is not easily penetrable
  • Ammunition: stored in a locked container separate from the safe in which firearms are stored

If the receptacle weighs less than 150kg (empty) it must be fixed to the frame of the floor or wall of the premises in such a manner that it is not easily removable, and locked with a lock of sturdy construction when any firearms are stored in it. Where more than 15 firearms are stored on a premises an effective alarm system that complies with Australian standards must be fitted, that in the event of an intrusion activates an audible alarm warning device and external visible alarm warning light. The key to the firearms storage receptacle should be carried by the license holder or kept securely in a separate room from the receptacle when it is not being accessed.

Firearms Safety

Safety is the most important aspect of firearms handling. Accidents with firearms do not just happen, they occur if 2 factors are present at the same time – an unsafe condition and an unsafe act– andresult from carelessness and failure to use common sense. A firearm is capable of inflicting serious trauma, and the handler is responsible for the consequences of using the firearm.

Safety precautions should be carried out at all times – when passing and receiving a firearm, before and after storage, before handling or cleaning a firearm, and before and after practice. Always wear appropriate protective equipment when training with firearms, keep the firearm in good operating condition and use correctly fitting equipment. Use mechanical safeties, but don’t rely on them entirely.

General Safety Rules

A firearm should be considered loaded at all times. Never leave a firearm unattended and always store a firearm correctly in line with regulations.

Do not mix firearms with alcohol or drugs. By law a person must not carry or use a firearm if that person is under the influence of intoxicating liquor or a drug.

Always ensure trigger finger discipline to prevent an unintentional discharge. Keep the finger off the trigger until the firearm is on target and you intend to fire. The fingers may clench when are startled, under extreme stress, about to lose the firearm in a struggle, or if destabilised. The proper position for the trigger finger off trigger is on the frame of the firearm, outside the trigger guard. The finger should be off trigger when drawing or holstering the firearm, moving with the firearm drawn, or conducting reloading or rectification procedures.

Always ensure muzzle discipline to maintain a safe direction, which is the direction that if the firearm to discharge there would be no loss of life, no injury to people and minimal damage to property.

Always pass and receive a firearm correctly, being open (breech exposed) and empty (no ammunition in firearm) with the butt forward (grip towards receiver) and muzzle facing down (safe direction).

Dry firing is the practice of pressing the trigger on an unloaded firearm. The key consideration for dry firing is safety, to ensure the firearm is not loaded. Circumstances when dry firing may be appropriate include pre-duty inspection (function test), practise (trigger control), range clearance (ease springs) and cleaning (function test, ease springs).

Mechanical Operations

Understanding the firearm is important in being able to handle it safely and use it effectively. Officers should spend time familiarising themselves with the parts and functions of their duty firearm. Maintaining operational functionality starts with understanding the components and functions.

Firearm Functions

There are 8 basic functions of a firearm:

  • Load: cartridge enters firearm
  • Feed: cartridge enters breech
  • Lock: breech closes/seals
  • Cock: firing mechanism moves rearward
  • Fire: firing mechanism moves forward, shot discharges
  • Unlock: breech opens/unseals
  • Extract: case exits breech
  • Eject: case exits firearm

Firearms do not accidentally discharge, presuming the firearm is properly serviced and maintained. Accidental discharge relates to the mechanics of the firearm itself, independent of the operator. For a firearm to discharge it must be properly maintained and functioning, loaded with ammunition and have the trigger pressed (cf. unintentional discharge which is operator related). The only time a firearm should discharge is when the operator makes a conscious choice to do so.

Revolvers and pistols differ both in terms of parts and functions. Revolvers have rotating cylinder, cylinder release latch, extractor star, exposed firing pin (some models), no external safety device, mechanical operation only, linear and rotational forces, trigger/cylinder/hammer connected, round in breech is not round to fire, manual extraction and ejection. Pistols have a slide, slide lock, recoil spring, magazine, external safety and decock mechanism (some models), combination of mechanical and gas operation, linear forces only, round in breech fires, automatic extraction and ejection.

Firearm Actions

The 2 types of firearms actions are double and single. These terms describe the stages the working parts move through before releasing the firing mechanism for discharge.

Double action involves the working parts moving to the rear to cock and set the firing mechanism, and then moving forward to discharge the shot. It requires a heavier trigger press with the firing mechanism starting from a non-cocked position. Double action is generally safer, as the effects of stress on the trigger finger in causing an unintentional discharge are less; however, the larger trigger press in double action can result in a less accurate shot.

Single action involves the working parts moving forward from a cocked position to discharge the shot. A key consideration for single action is safety, as there is less trigger pressure required to discharge the firearm, an important factor under survival stress; however, the smaller trigger press in single action can result in a more accurate shot as there is less movement of the firearm.

Firearm Procedures

The principles for manipulating firearms are the same regardless of technique. Use consistent methods that work under stress, and tactile indexing to locate gear and handle the firearm without taking eyes off the subject. Irrespective of procedures, ensure safety procedures.

An emergency reload is done when an officer has fired all the rounds, and therefore must reload to stay in the fight. It is a tactical necessity. A tactical reload is done when an officer has fired some rounds, and wants to top up the firearm back to fully loaded. It is a tactical choice.

Of the 8 functions there are 4 that can malfunction and cause the firearm to stop working correctly – failure to feed, fire, extract and eject. Officers should know possible causes of these malfunctions and procedures for rectifying them so they can keep their firearm operational.

A primary rectification is doneif the firearm fails to discharge when the trigger is pressed initially. For revolvers, pressing the trigger again allows the firearm to bypass that cartridge and rotate to the next functional one. For pistols, use tap/rack to clears problems such as improperly seated magazine, defective round, stove-piped casing, slide not in battery. These procedures can be performed quickly in most situations. Though best done behind cover, they can be done swiftly enough for officers to render a firearm operable while staying in the threat zone.

A secondary rectification is used whena primary rectification fails to fix the issue and is effective in clearing most malfunctions that are not cleared by the primary method. For revolvers, conduct a tactical reload, preferably behind cover and check the firing pin if possible to eliminate the possibility that it is damaged and not striking the primer properly. For pistols, use drop/work/tap/rack to clear malfunctions not cleared by the primary method, such as defective magazine or cartridge, double feed and empty in the chamber.

Regardless of the procedure, use cover if available or remain mobile, remain aware of the threat and surrounding environment, and maintain trigger and muzzle discipline. Carrying several reloading options not only provides more shots, it also clears malfunctions that bind the firearms action. Be aware that it may not be ammunition-related, but a mechanical malfunction. If officers are unable to rectify an issue, consider tactical disengagement from the situation.

Operational Use

The use of a firearm depends on the assessment of the threat posed by a subject and circumstances. Where there exists a threat to life officers may be justified in using potential lethal force. For officers to justify discharging a firearm they need to demonstrate that other options were not appropriate for adequate safety and control, either for themselves, those in the vicinity, or both. Totality of circumstances will be considered in the aftermath to test if other alternatives were more appropriate.


It is important for officers to differentiate between use and discharge of a firearm. Use is exposing, indicating, touching, drawing and aiming the firearm in response to officer assessment of a perceived threat. Discharge is pressing the trigger causing the firearm to fire a bullet. The justifications for discharge are as a last resort, and when innocent persons are not in danger, and in reasonable self-defence to a real and impending threat to life, where real means the threat actually exists and impending means threat to life is happening now.

In discharging a firearm the sole intention is to stop the real and impending threat to life. There are no circumstances for firing warning shots, because officers are responsible for every projectile, warning shots may not stop the threat to life, and there is no regulatory discretion for this option. If any doubt exists about being justified in using a firearm, officers should not draw the firearm at all.

Target Engagement

The process of target engagement, when a subject poses a threat to life and the officer is discharging their firearm to stop the threat, involves 4 stages:

  • Perceive: incoming data from the 5 senses alerting officers to a potential threat
  • Recognize: actually identifying the threat as real and impending
  • Decide: cognitively choosing an appropriate response
  • Act: presenting the firearm and gaining sight picture on the threat

The point of aim should be the centre of seen mass, because smaller targets may be missed and officers are accountable for every shot, and a minor target may not stop the threat to life.

Always know the target and beyond. If officers intend to discharge their firearm, they must be sure that they have properly identified their target and know what is behind it. Verbal challenges should be used to help identify a questionable subject, and in poor light use illumination to clearly identify a potential threat. In a situation where shooting may be justified, there may be innocent bystanders beyond the intended target, and the presence of these people may cause officers to hold their fire. Modern ammunition can penetrate several interior plasterboard walls, and some bullets can pass through exterior walls and retain enough energy to injure someone on the other side. Duty ammunition with good stopping power but low penetration capability is preferable.

Multiple shots may be justified in some situations when the real and impending threat to life continues after the preceding shot and requires subsequent shots to stop it. After firing each shot officers must assess the situation to determine if the real and impending threat to life is continuing. It can be difficult to count the number of shots fired under stress, and officers should ensure they don’t shoot the firearm dry because of a panic reaction. When engaged in an armed confrontation with multiple subjects, officers should engage the subject who poses the most immediate threat to life.

Officers are required to justify their actions and possibly prove in court that the threat to life was real and impending. Even if lethal force is justified, officers may choose not to shoot because of a danger to others. The use of the firearm comes down to personal assessment of the situation and the risk level posed by the subject. Lethal force means lethal consequences.

Richard Kay
Richard Kay is an internationally certified tactical instructor-trainer, director and senior trainer of Modern Combatives, a provider of operational safety training for the public safety sector.