When it comes to handling loaded guns, it is absolutely impossible to be too careful.
By Craig Boddington
We talk endlessly about the relative dangers of one member of the Big Five versus another. Statistically, even hunting dangerous game is a whole lot safer than a lot of other popular pastimes—but I am convinced that the most dangerous creature of all is another human with a firearm. For a guide, who is often in front, the risks are obvious. I am not resentful of guides who are anal about checking chambers and not allowing rounds to be chambered until permission is given. This just makes sense, and I was that way back when I was doing a little guiding. I’m the same way with my kids, but it’s actually worse when you’re hunting with a stranger with unknown safety habits—and a level of excitability that is also unknown.
In rough country like this a cartridge should not be in the chamber. Period!
Last year, in Zimbabwe alone, I am aware of three accidental discharges that resulted in serious injuries—all of them occurred while hunting buffalo, which does create a high level of excitement. In one case a great young professional hunter lost an arm. In another, the hunter was apparently resting the muzzles of his double on his foot while waiting to hear the buffalo’s death bellow. Much of that foot is now missing. In the other, apparently the buffalo charged. The client took a step back and fell, putting a bullet through his professional hunter’s right shoulder. Amazingly, the PH had the presence of mind to switch his rifle to his left shoulder and stop the buffalo! Just a year ago, too, my old Coues deer guide, Ramon Valenzuela, was killed when his hunter was setting up for a shot on a steeply slanting rock. He slipped, the rifle went end over end, and fired into Ramon’s body when it hit the ground.
Many current firearms, including modern semiautomatic pistols and rifles like the Krieghoff, Blaser, and this new Sauer 101 have “cocking and de-cocking” devices rather than “safeties.” When de-cocked it is technically safe to carry a round in the chamber…but it is probably a better plan to follow traditional safety protocols…especially if you also use firearms with traditional “safeties.”
In a recent issue of Sports Afield, my colleague Kevin Robertson—“Doctari”—wrote about an accidental discharge that occurred when he had the rifle slung over one shoulder. His brand-new sling separated and the rifle fell, firing when the butt hit the ground, fortunately somewhere up into the air. Kevin doesn’t really know if the mechanical safety failed or if he might have fouled the safety in his attempt to catch the rifle. Either way, I’m sure it was a very embarrassing event, and I admire his courage in writing about it. I’ve seen a lot of accidental discharges (“ADs”) on the range and in the field. Few of us talk about them because they are embarrassing, and especially guys like us are supposed to be above such foibles.
Whether you’re walking in on a pointed quail or a wounded buffalo—or anything else—it is best to train yourself to disengage the safety as you are mounting the gun to fire; a firearm should never be “off safe” when you’re walking.
It can happen. I’ve written about mine previously, but I’ll recount them just so it doesn’t appear I’m the pot calling the kettle black. The most embarrassing was on a mule deer hunt in Sonora. My rifle didn’t arrive, and the only rifle available was an old CZ with a “backward” safety—unlike most firearms, forward is “safe,” back is “fire.” I had never seen such a safety, so I was trying to make sure I understood it and, you bet, I put a round straight up in the air. Another time, in Ethiopia, I was taking a rest against a tree to shoot at a gerenuk. As I moved the rifle into position the trigger caught a twig and the .340 Weatherby fired, jarring me considerably, scaring hell out of the gerenuk, and angering my PH to no end! The third was on a self-guided hunt in Alaska. I shot a big black bear at very close range, but he wasn’t down, and the rifle fired when I worked the bolt.
Postmortems are always good in such cases—especially when nobody got hurt. The first was just plain stupid. The second, well, I shouldn’t have slipped the safety off before I had the rifle in position. On the third, I genuinely don’t know what happened. It might have been a true mechanical failure. Or my cold, wet hand could have snagged the trigger without me feeling it. I just don’t know, but in all three cases nothing bad happened because the muzzle was under control and not pointed in an unsafe direction. Mechanical failures that cause a discharge are rare, but not unknown. However, when the wrong stars align it is possible for a lot of mechanical safeties to be inadvertently (and thus unknowingly) brushed or rubbed into the “fire” position—which now means you have an accident looking for a place to happen.
I have a double rifle over my shoulder, and since we’re 50 yards from an elephant bull I’ll bet that double is loaded. We all make this mistake, but it is a mistake: The muzzles are out of control, and if the sling breaks or the sling swivel stud comes loose, the rifle may go anywhere.
It seems to me that there two primary fail-safes: An empty chamber until you’re in an “action imminent” mode, and absolute muzzle control whenever there’s a round in the chamber. The mechanical safety is thus a backup for momentary lapses such as a slip or a fall. Ideally, the safety should never be released until you are actually ready to shoot. In a fast-breaking situation, like quail hunting, the safety should be released as the gun comes up—never when you’re walking in on a point. In a deliberate situation, such as taking a shot off of a rest, the safety shouldn’t be released until you’re ready to shoot—and then it should be re-engaged before you move from the spot for any reason. Yes, this is a rule most of us have broken—like I did in Ethiopia—but when you break it, you are invoking Murphy’s Law.
I have often written, and strongly believe, that a round should never be chambered unless you are able to completely control the firearm. We all know that vehicles and chambered rounds don’t go together, and no thinking person would put a loaded rifle into a saddle scabbard. But I also think it’s a very bad idea to sling a loaded rifle. This is because the muzzle is now out of control, and the safety is out of sight for visual inspection. In Kevin Robertson’s case it wasn’t even a momentary lapse; he put the rifle over his shoulder simply so he could use both hands to fold up his shooting sticks. Most of us, me included, might have done exactly the same thing—but Murphy was lying in wait, and that’s the moment the sling broke.
The older I get the more I realize that you just cannot be careful enough . . . and the corollary of this is, it is impossible to be too careful. It is far better to lose a shooting opportunity than to take a chance. Don’t load the rifle until you need to, unload it or open the action when negotiating obstacles, and pay attention to where your muzzle is pointed. It is impossible to have an AD if the chamber is empty . . . but if the muzzle is pointed in a safe direction, then an AD means only ringing ears and a red face. Absent muzzle control, it can be deadly.
It takes two hands to glass, so of course the rifle goes over the shoulder. If the chamber is empty there is no potential problem…but if the chamber is loaded this is a momentary lapse that Mr. Murphy (of Murphy’s Law) is waiting for.