By Chris Batha
Safe shooting is no accident (excuse the pun). We have heard this time and again since we first picked up a shotgun. However, I still see gun handling that could be considered dangerous—even by experienced shooters who seem to forget that a shotgun is a lethal weapon.
The fact that we use guns in the same manner as other sports equipment, like tennis racquets or baseball bats, perhaps accounts for this casual attitude, but everyone needs to remember that we have a clear and unambiguous responsibility for our and others’ safety while shooting.
While the principles are the same, there are certain safety rules that apply specifically to the type of shooting in which we are participating, be it clay target shooting, upland bird hunting, waterfowling or driven-bird shooting.
Clay Shooting Safety & Etiquette
When someone decides to take up one of the clay-target disciplines, the first thing they are taught is how a shotgun works. This lesson typically is followed by instruction in safe gun handling—e.g., how to load and unload a gun and how to carry it safely. As soon as a gun is removed from the slip or rack, it should be opened and shown to be unloaded until the shooter steps into position to take the shot. After firing, the gun again should be opened, and it should stay that way while being carried to the next station.
The safest way to carry a gun at the range is either empty in a closed slip or open with the gun broken over the arm or its barrel pointing skyward if it is a semi-auto. It is a very uncomfortable feeling to look up and find a shotgun’s muzzles pointing in your direction! In the field I have seen some gun-handling and shooting practices that would have had the shooters being asked to leave a skeet, trap or sporting clays range. In particular, I have witnessed issues with safety catches where hunters have not practiced taking them off as they point and mount their shotguns on the flush. This has led to frustration and the hunters falling into the habit of keeping their safeties off or even having them converted to manual. The safety in a hunting shotgun is automatic for good reason.
Inexperienced hunters should never be afraid to ask for guidance.
Safety & Etiquette in the Field
In the field, proper etiquette and awareness of careful gun-handling practices combine to make a safe hunt. It is no surprise that the person who demonstrates safe gun handling and awareness of his fellow hunters and dog handlers is usually a competent shot.
Many people are introduced to hunting by friends or family, and for the novice the preparation for the hunt, the guides, the dogs, the other hunters and all of the unfamiliar equipment can be a distraction, with gun safety no longer being foremost in their minds. Even experienced hunters in the heat of action can forget or become complacent when it comes to safe gun handling.
Another important aspect is to choose the correct cartridge with the right shot size for the quarry being hunted and to be careful to never mix different-size cartridges, especially 12- and 20-gauge. This lesson is taught in 4H, Scholastic Safety Programs and all state hunter-education courses.
When upland hunting in a group, it is important that hunters maintain straight lines as they walk abreast. Accidents happen when lines become haphazard, with some hunters getting ahead or falling behind and not all members of the party being able to see one another. Recently I heard about a quail hunt during which one hunter broke from the line unannounced to pick up a downed bird. Upon retrieving the bird, the hunter began catching up to the line through the brush. The other hunters, who had continued moving forward, were unaware that their partner had fallen back; and when a quail flew behind them, one swung around and shot his fellow Gun—thankfully not fatally. It was a senseless and avoidable accident.
When shooting upland birds like chukars on steep hills, hunters have to be particularly aware of other Guns’ positions, as the birds tend to swoop low, following the contours of the hillsides.
In a duck blind the agreement has to be that the group either stands to shoot or remains seated. It is imperative that whichever plan is agreed to that it be followed, as accidents happen when some stand to shoot and others do not.
In driven shooting it is important that Guns stay on their pegs or in their grouse butts and that they maintain safe arcs of fire. Furthermore, Guns should be aware of the approaching beaters and the dogs darting in front of or behind the line to pick up downed birds.
Inexperienced hunters should never be afraid to ask for guidance, as there is a certain camaraderie among shooters, and fellow sportsmen often are more than happy to offer advice. After all, we were all beginners once!
Some Safety Statistics
It is not only novice shooters who make mistakes. Every year in the US there are more than 6,000 accidents that occur while people are hunting. Many assume that the highest accident risk is from firearms, but the majority are caused by tripping and falling in rough terrain, falling from deer stands and even automobile accidents driving to and from hunting grounds.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation website (nssf.org) reports that hunting with a shotgun is actually one of the safest outdoor-recreational activities.
The following poem was written by Mark Hanbury Beaufoy in December 1902 for his son, Henry. It is the most famous English poem on shooting safety.
A Father’s Advice
If a sportsman true you’d be,
Listen carefully to me.
Never, never let your gun
Pointed be at anyone.
That it may unloaded be,
Matters not the least to me.
When a hedge or fence you cross
Though of time is cause a loss,
From your gun the cartridge take
For the greater safety’s sake.
If twixt you and the neighboring Gun
Bird shall fly or beast may run,
Let this maxim ere be thine:
“Follow not across the line.”
Stops and beaters oft unseen
Lurk behind some leafy screen.
Calm and steady always be.
“Never shoot where you can’t see.”
You may kill or you may miss
But at all times think this:
“All the pheasants ever bred
Won’t repay for one man dead.”