The 4 Rules of Safe Gun Handling. The 10 Commandments of Firearm Safety. The 3 NRA Rules. A quick internet search yields lots of firearm safety lists. And if you’ve started your journey toward becoming a hunter by taking a hunter education class, you’ve surely encountered and been drilled on some version of these. I’m not going to try to reinvent the wheel here. Instead, I wanted to share some of the resources on basic gun safety for hunters that have helped me over the past few years to transition from a nervous newbie to a knowledgeable gun handler. I will also discuss how to put these safety tenets into action on the hunt.
Resources To Start With
While lists of rules are not the most riveting topic out there, there are a number of people who write about them well. One comes from Kathy Jackson of The Cornered Cat. While her articles are not hunting-specific, she writes has a very good article on the four basic rules of firearm safety. The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) also has a nice piece on an expanded set of safety recommendations. Another longer list can be found in the 10 Commandments of Hunter Safety, which tend to be more tailored to people in pursuit of wild game. This is the list that I encountered in my hunter education class.
For visual learners, this video provides a nice introduction to the basic rules:
Putting Safety Into Practice
How do we put all of these do’s and dont’s into practice when we are out in the wilderness? How does basic gun safety apply to the types of scenarios that hunters encounter? Here’s how I handle some core safety recommendations:
All guns are always loaded
The objective of this rule is to instill a deep respect for firearms always, no matter what, no exceptions. For me this means always being very attentive and cautious when I’m around guns, whether I’m the one handling the weapon or I’m just an observer in the situation.
When a gun is in my hand, I try to keep my awareness with that gun always. Are you the type of person who can carry on a thoughtful conversation while driving a car and navigating to your destination without a single mistake? I certainly am not. (Just ask Nick how many times I have missed an exit on the freeway because I was engrossed in a conversation. I’ve learned my lesson.) Seemingly simple tasks like holding a gun and walking with a gun are tasks that should NOT be done mindlessly. The same going on “autopilot” that causes me to miss my freeway exit when engrossed in conversation could translate into irresponsible firearm handling. I keep my attention on that gun because I treat it as if it’s always loaded. The same goes for being around others who are handling guns. I expect them to watch out for me, but it’s my responsibility to be aware of where I’m standing in relation to their muzzles, too. Always treating guns with the utmost respect means never learning bad habits in the first place. Make this a priority from moment one!
Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy
In other words, don’t let end of the gun barrel (where the bullet shoots out) point at any object, animal, or person that you wouldn’t be ok with shooting. And this doesn’t just mean don’t aim at those things, it means don’t let the gun point in that direction for even a split second.
As a hunter this means that you need to be very conscious to prevent your gun from ever facing toward you (including feet and hands!), your hunting partners, your dog, or anything else you don’t intend to kill. This is fairly easy in a highly structured situation such as at your local gun range. It may be more of a challenge in a less structured hunting environment where you and others may be on the move quite a bit and you may need to have your rifle or shotgun at the ready. This presents a tricky situation. For example, when Nick and I rifle hunt, we always walk in a single file line with the shooter (me) in front. If I’m using a two hand ready carry, Nick is safely clear from the muzzle of my rifle as long as he doesn’t walk up along my left side and as long as I don’t suddenly stop and turn 90 degrees to my left. It is very possible carry this way in a safe, cautious manner, but again, this harks back to the awareness issue. If a rabbit suddenly bounds out of a bush to the left, is your instinct going to be to whip around immediately, pointing your gun at someone in the process? Respect for muzzle direction means thinking these scenarios through when hunting with companions and taking the necessary precautions.
This rule also explains why it’s considered poor practice to use a mounted rifle scope to scan the landscape for game. If you don’t know what’s out there you can’t possibly know if you’d be ok with destroying it or not, so don’t point your gun at it. The riflescope is meant for accurately centering your weapon on a target, not for spotting. Instead, use binoculars, a spotting scope, or other dedicated optics to find and identify an animal before you pull your gun out.
Keep your finger off the trigger until the gun is sighted on the target
The links I posted above have addressed this point well, but I will reiterate: the trigger rule sounds totally simple until you realize how easy it could be to mess this up. When I started handling guns this rule really seemed like a no-brainer. But the tendency to want to grip the gun in a way that engages the trigger finger is one I have to consciously fight against. When was the last time you gripped an object with your whole hand but kept your index finger completely straight? It’s not the natural way we tend to grip things. Practice, practice, practice.
Identify your target and what is behind it
Identify your target means so many things. First, identify that what you see is in fact the animal that you think it is. Could that brown blob hidden in the brush be a dog or a person? Have you confirmed, without a doubt, that it is actually a deer? Once you know it’s right animal, you must also identify whether you have the legal right to kill that animal. Following the deer example, is it a doe or a buck? Is it a buck of the right age? Is it a fawn? Guessing is not allowed.
After you have a positive ID on your animal, you are still not ready to shoot. What is the surrounding area like? What might you hit if you miss the deer or if your bullet hits and goes clear through the deer? For example, if I see a legal buck standing at the base of a tall cliff face, I immediately think of the potential that my bullet will ricochet off that rocky backdrop in a dangerous way. Any hard flat surface, including a flat surface of water, presents a ricochet risk. An elk on top of a gorgeous ridge line is another great example. As a hunter I would have no idea what is on the other side of that ridge, so I can’t shoot. Bullets can travel a very long way. Speaking of elk, herd animals pose another challenge to this rule about knowing your target and what’s behind it. If you have a lovely shot on a bull elk but there are a couple of cow elk standing right behind him (in the trajectory of your bullet), you should not take that shot. You need a clear view of the animal and a clear backstop.
Finally, following this rule in a way that is safe and ethical can require more than just care and caution. It can require optics that allow you to see the animal in sufficient detail as well as knowledge about the identifying characteristics of the creatures you hunt. With some animals (such as deer, elk, moose, antelope, and the like) it is fairly obvious which are male and which are female. On the other hand, accurately sexing bears and mountain goats through the spotting scope is challenging even for those with significant expertise.
Unload firearms when not in use
Here’s how I handle this one. In the car, at camp, or at the trailhead, my rifle is always unloaded. By unloaded I mean that the magazine has been taken out and the action is open. I’ve checked the chamber sight and by touch and confirmed that there’s no ammunition anywhere inside. As soon as I transition into “actively hunting”, the magazine goes in. This means that ammunition is connected to the gun but has not moved into a position where it’s ready to shoot. Only when I’m getting set to take a shot and my sights are on the animal will I load a round into the chamber. Then I take a final aim, place my finger on the trigger, and fire. As soon as you confirm that you have an animal down, go through the unload procedures. With all of the excitement, adrenaline, and emotion that a hunt can induce, it might be easy to forget to do this right away. Get it done. At a minimum, check again when I get to the trailhead or car. Finally, even if I’ve checked 10 times and I am convinced the gun is unloaded, I will still treat it like it’s loaded.
Store firearms and ammunition separately
This topic is very important and deserving of its own post. Stay tuned!
While I haven’t weighed in on every safety recommendation you will ever run across, strict adherence to the basic rules should be a priority for every hunter regardless of level of experience or expertise. Additional safety considerations will be discussed in future articles. Is there some aspect of gun safety for hunters that you’d really like to see us cover? Let us know and you may see it up on the site in short order.
Disclaimer: I am not a gun safety expert. My recommendations are based on my own research and personal experience and may be imperfect or not appropriate for your situation. Readers should do their due diligence to make responsible, informed decisions about firearm safety.