Rifle Safety in the Field
- By Peter Jones
This is an important subject and one which is crucial to get right. One careless incident in the field and your host or stalking partner can lose confidence in you and you can very easily get yourself a bad reputation. The repercussions of course can also be far, far worse.
As a deer stalking guide I have seen my share of poor rifle safety, from accidental discharges to rifles that have been loaded when they shouldn't be. I do not intend to reveal specific incidents or to provide here a comprehensive list of all the do's and don'ts, however perhaps I can take a moment to highlight the most common mistakes that I have witnessed and the rules which to my mind are the most important to remember.
A regular South African client of mine and lifelong hunter Brad Rigden coined a phrase passed on to him from his father which I have since used myself, it is a phrase which will stay with me because I think it makes an important point. "The devil loads your gun when you're not looking".
As with many routine manual operations and especially when distracted, the mind has an extraordinary ability to perform an action without any conscious thought. We do not register all the many manual tasks that we carry out in our daily lives, turning off the gas on the cooker, putting on our seat belts etc. It is possible therefore to perform a task without committing it to conscious thought. Loading and unloading your rifle should not fall into this category!
For this reason my first rule is always, always double check your rifle. Do not assume that you have unloaded it or indeed that someone else has done so. Check, check, check. Ninety nine times out of a hundred you will be simply going through the motions but one day I can assure you, you will be extremely glad that you did!
The next two rules are the two golden rules that I insist upon when out stalking with guests. The first of these is that we should always be sure of a safe backstop when taking a shot. In our crowded country with walkers often in places that they shouldn't be and with high powered rifles who's lethal potential can travel miles, we must know where our bullet is going to end up. There is nothing that leaves a sicker feeling in the stomach than not being sure where your shot went. One wayward shot and you will have lost your shooting, your licence and maybe very much worse. It's just not worth the risk.
The second golden rule is with regard to muzzle awareness. No matter if your gun is loaded or supposedly not, your muzzle should never be pointing at anyone. I say to beginners that they should imagine that their rifle whether loaded or not is firing a constant stream of bullets and with that in mind they should always be aware as to where the muzzle is pointing. Careful as I am you would be amazed how often I have turned around to see a full bore rifle pointing up my a**se and to be frank when it happens it is enough to make my blood run cold!
On this point I have found during many outings hunting that man has not lost his natural inclination to become extremely tunnel visioned when hunting. As a result keep in mind that muzzle awareness is usually at its most lax when our prey is in sight. It is during these final moments that the mind has an extraordinary ability to cut out all other stimulus and this includes a detailed awareness of our actions and peripheral surroundings. It is crucial therefore to above all remember where your weapon is pointing.
Another regular occurrence worth mentioning in relation to muzzle awareness is with regard to rifles slung muzzle up and over the shoulder. It makes me smile as I write this because it is with such frequency that this happen's that it has become second nature for me to know where to stand! With a moderated gun remember that the rifle muzzle will weigh down and sag backward over your shoulder, not in a vertical position as intended but usually in a diagonal position which, let's just say, tends to sag about face height of anyone stood behind you! This is particularly so when a pair of binoculars are raised in both hands.
So to recap these three simple points to good rifle safety in the field:
1) Firstly be conscious of where your muzzle is pointing. It is a simple fact that if you never point your gun at someone then that someone will never accidentally get shot.
2) Secondly be sure of a safe back stop. There will always be another chance at a deer. There won't be however if you have placed a shot the night before through Mrs Miggin's bedroom window.
3) Finally always check if a rifle is loaded and then double check cos' one day you'll be very grateful you did!!