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How Hunting Accidents Happen and How to Prevent Them

Injuries in the field can have devastating results. Here's what you need to know to keep yourself, your hunting partners, and your gun dogs safe.

How Hunting Accidents Happen and How to Prevent Them

Hunting safely is a combination of recognizing hazards and acting in a way to ensure all parties involved leave the hunt unharmed. (Photo By: Brad Fitzpatrick)

Hunting is, statistically speaking, a very safe sport. According to the most recent National Shooting Sports Foundation statistics, accidental shootings of all kinds have declined 47.1 percent over the last 20 years. Americans are 120 times more likely to die in an automobile accident than from an unintentional shooting, and your odds of being injured while bowling, water skiing, and fishing are all higher than the chances you’ll be injured hunting with a firearm.

Nevertheless, hunting accidents do happen, and the results can be dreadful. You can reduce the risk of injury this year by remembering these eight basic safety principles for upland hunters.  

pheasant hunter with ring-necked pheasant rooster
The end goal of every hunt should be to have a fun and safe outing; a bird in the hand is just icing on the cake. (Photo By: Brad Fitzpatrick)

Communication is Key

Upland hunting draws us to remote locations, but you must always be certain that you have the ability to reach medical help. Cell phones may work, but I won’t trust my life to the quality of my cell phone coverage. Satellite communicators like the Garmin inReach are a much better option, and they are small and light enough to fit in a pack or even a vest pocket. Never head to the field without leaving behind a detailed account of exactly where you’ll be hunting. If you aren’t able to call for help, search and rescue teams have a much better chance of coming to your assistance if they know where to begin looking.

Establish Ground Rules

Don’t assume everyone in your hunting party knows the rules of safe gun handling and proper etiquette in the field. Even experienced hunters can benefit from a reminder of basic safety protocols. The excitement of a day in the field can distract even seasoned hunters, and relatively new hunters may feel embarrassed or ashamed to ask basic questions. Establish safety rules early and make certain everyone understands and follows them.

upland bird hunters talking
Have a chat with your hunting partners before a hunt to outline how the group will remain safe. (Photo By: Brad Fitzpatrick)

Keep the Chamber Open 

There’s no need to load a shell into the chamber of your shotgun before you’ve entered the field. Your chamber should also remain empty when you’re crossing barriers like creeks and fences or when you’re handling dogs. Keeping the chamber empty until you’re in active pursuit and ready to shoot helps prevent accidents, but the most basic tenant of gun safety remains to treat all firearms, regardless of condition, as though they’re loaded. Maintain good finger and muzzle discipline even when you believe the gun to be unloaded.

Control your Muzzle 

Anyone who handles a firearm must control the muzzle of their gun at all times. The best bet is to keep your muzzle pointed up and away from dogs, handlers, and hunters. On more than one occasion I’ve seen a hunter stop to adjust a dog collar or pick up a downed bird and completely lose track of their muzzle position, flagging others in the process. Keeping the muzzle pointed up also prevents snagging the barrel in brush or dropping the muzzle into mud and plugging it. Firing a shotgun with a plugged barrel is extremely dangerous, so if you think there’s a chance your firearm is plugged stop hunting, empty the firearm, and check the barrel without ever pointing the muzzle at your face.

upland bird hunters practicing safe gun handling
Pointing your muzzle skyward is usually a safe direction in most situations. (Photo By: Brad Fitzpatrick)

Trigger Finger Discipline

There’s no reason to position your finger inside the trigger guard until the moment you’re ready to fire on a bird. Resting a finger inside the trigger guard greatly increases the odds of a negligent discharge and should never be tolerated by any shooters. You’ll have plenty of time to find the trigger when you mount your shotgun and begin your swing. Never rely on your safety to prevent the gun from firing, either.

Wear Hearing and Eye Protection 

Don’t go afield without hearing and eye protection. Modern electronic hearing protection devices like TETRA Hearing’s AlphaShields are lightweight and fit comfortably in the ear and allow you to speak normally while still protecting against damaging noise. Safety glasses should be worn at all times, and make sure that your glasses feature ANSI Z87.1 impact rated lenses. This will protect you from errant pellets as well as briars and branches. Hearing and vision loss can be permanent but are completely preventable.

upland bird hunter with TETRA Hearing AlphaShields
Hearing protection doesn't have to limit your experience; modern electronic devices both enhance the subtle sounds of the hunt and protect your ears from damaging decibels. (Photo By: Chris Ingram)

Make a Plan and Stick to It

Before you enter a field be certain that everyone is in line and that everyone understands their safe shooting lanes. Develop a plan and stick to it, and if you see someone falling behind or getting ahead of the line of shooters (you should be shoulder-to-shoulder with clear lanes of fire ahead) stop the hunt and reestablish your line. Always allow birds to rise well above head height before firing and know your target and what is beyond it. Don’t become so focused on the target that you lose track of other hunters and dogs. Wearing blaze orange makes it much easier for other hunters to see you even when they are focused on a bird, but it’s every hunter’s responsibility to know where their companions are before firing.

Don’t Be Afraid to Back Out 

I’ve walked away from hunts before, and I don’t regret it. In one case I was with a group of hunters chasing wild pheasants and the guides elected to position half the hunters at the end of the field as blockers. The blockers may have been experienced hunters and careful with their shots, but I wasn’t comfortable in the situation and so I went back to the truck. It’s not always easy to tell your hunting companion that you don’t feel safe in the field with them, but it’s sometimes necessary to prevent accidents.

These are just a few cautions and courtesies to follow when in the field, but safe hunting really becomes an adopted mindset. It’s a modification of behavior and a constant attention to recognizing and mitigating hazards as they come up. While true accidents do happen, most are completely preventable. Don’t allow your overeager energy to obscure your better judgment and never be afraid to openly communicate your concerns with the other hunters in your party.

upland bird hunter in blaze orange
While many parts of a hunt can be somewhat unpredictable, you can always control your own safety. (Photo By: Brad Fitzpatrick)
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