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Firearm Safety: are you safe?

According to experienced professional hunters, the risks are relatively low when hunting the Big Five. The predominant and ever-present danger is a shooting incident where the hunter is usually at fault.

A terrifying moment!

Professional hunters often talk about the first time they observe new clients handling firearms, which is an indication whether the hunt will be a pleasure, an ordeal or even life-threatening. According to experienced professional hunters, the risks are relatively low when hunting the Big Five. The predominant and ever-present danger is a shooting incident where the hunter is usually at fault. Professional hunters believe there is a very good chance of being shot when accompanying the wrong person on a hunt. Stories of ‘terrifying’ moments when a shot ‘went off accidentally’ are rife when recalling stories around the camp fire.

Not many SAHGCA members hunt the big five, I do not. I assume that most of us can relate to similar ‘terrifying moments’ experienced by professional hunters. Recently, I had such an experience on a shooting range. I was part of a detail on the firing point ready to start a rapid fire shooting exercise, with bolts locked, trigger fingers next to the trigger guard and rifle barrels aimed at  the ground at a 45° angle. While waiting for the command from the range officer to shoot, the shottist to my right developed a problem and wanted to draw the attention of the range officer. The shottist looked over his left shoulder (in my direction) to call the range officer. Simultaneously, his body turned to the left with the rifle barrel also swinging in my direction! I observed this from the corner of my eye, still with my rifle in my shoulder – a terrifying moment! No one in his right mind wants to look into the barrel of a loaded hunting rifle. As a hunter I frequently see what damage a bullet from a hunting rifle cause to animals!

I could not do anything because I was concentrating on and responsible for the loaded rifle in my own hands. Before I could say anything, the experienced range officer that stood behind us, saw instantly what was happening. He stepped forward and warned the shottist who quickly rectified the problem by swinging the rifle barrel back in a safe direction. This horrific incident gave me a few new grey hairs!

Firearm ownership is a privilege

We live in an era where people are less inclined to accept responsibility for their actions and are forever ready with excuses to justify negative or unacceptable behaviour. The privilege to own a firearm comes with responsibilities that the owner must accept unconditionally. When you own a firearm, you are always responsible for it without exception. It does not matter if you use it yourself or if someone else uses it.

The responsible firearm owner’s firearm is always locked away in a gun safe or under his personal supervision. It is never left unattended, for example, in a vehicle, at the firing point on a shooting range or where children could have unsupervised access to it.

It is a wonderful privilege to introduce children and adults to firearms and the responsible use thereof, provided it is done in a responsible and safe manner by legal firearm owners. Children must always handle firearms under strict supervision of the owner of the firearm and with permission from their parents.

One often hears about so-called `shooting accidents’. Accidents do not occur by themselves but are the result of negligent behaviour when basic safety rules have been ignored. A pen do not cause a spelling mistake, nor do a match start a fire, people do!

The safe handling of firearms has a lot to do with attitude, similar to the adherence to traffic rules. Negligence and carelessness result in shooting incidents. In certain instances, even experienced shottists cause incidents because they are not paying attention. It is not only novices that make mistakes. The old adage “familiarity breeds contempt” frequently applies. Owing to the repetition of certain actions over a long period, the handling of a firearm  become second nature and sometimes owners get careless and they do not pay attention to what they are doing. Handling a firearm should never become such a routine action that common sense and adherence to basic safety rules are ignored.

The four general rules of firearm safety

Rule 1:  All firearms are always loaded. A firearm is a tool that only functions when it is loaded. Therefore, always assume that all firearms are ready to fire. Even when someone hands you a firearm that is declared `safe’ by that person, always check that it is indeed safe, with the action open and no cartridges in the chamber or magazine.

Rule 2: Never aim a firearm at anything you are not prepared to destroy.  The fact that it is unloaded is besides the point. See Rule 1.

Rule 3: Keep your finger away from the trigger until the target is in your sights or scope. Firearms do not `go off’. Someone/something pulls the trigger! A competent shottist’s finger is always next to the trigger guard until the target is confirmed. Contravention of Rule 3 is responsible for more than 80% of all shooting incidents.

Rule 4: Confirm your target! Never shoot at anything unless it has been positively identified. Never shoot at a shadow, noise, silhouette or anything that you cannot identify clearly. Check what is behind your target. Where would the bullet go if you miss your target or if it penetrates the target?

These are the four general rules for firearm safety. These rules apply always: when on the shooting range; while transporting firearms; handling firearms at home; cleaning a firearm; when on a hunt or when you are defending your life (e.g. a burglar at your house). In applying these four rules, it is clear that there is no such thing as a `shooting accident’.

A firearm must be in a reliable, working condition

While adhering to the four safety rules, it is equally important that the firearm is reliable and in mechanical good working order. Any mechanical part of the firearm can be faulty, e.g. the safety catch or trigger. Therefore, there are only two safety mechanism you can rely on: a well-trained trigger finger (see rule 3 above) and common sense (adhering to the four general rules for firearm safety explained above).

A well-trained trigger finger

Observe shottists at the shooting range to see where they keep their trigger finger after the action has been closed. The trigger finger must be kept next to the trigger guard. The trigger finger only touches the trigger for 2 to 3 seconds before the shottist squeezes the trigger. Often a shottist’s finger will be on the trigger while he/she is still settling down in the shooting position, long before he/she is ready to shoot. That is when unplanned shots are fired! Rule 3 above refers to 80% of shooting incidents caused by trigger fingers being in the wrong place at the wrong time and when the shottist touches the trigger prematurely. Make sure your trigger finger is properly trained. If not, it could have disastrous results with tragic consequences. It is important to correct any problems with trigger finger positioning.

Triggers “too sensitive”!

There is a trend among hunters and particularly competition shottists, to set the rifle’s trigger to respond to a very light touch to fire the shot. These people are taking enormous risks and may get a nasty surprise when a shot goes off unexpectedly.  Once again, this is a shooting incident waiting to happen, with tragic results!

I have witnessed shots going off unexpectedly at shooting ranges (fortunately the barrels were pointed in a safe direction) and the disbelief and shock on the face of the shottist who said: “but my finger was not near the trigger!” In many instances the shottist confirmed that the trigger was set too sensitively, often as light as 150 to 200 grams! When a rifle’s trigger is too sensitive, a mere brush of a sleeve against the trigger can result in the shot going off or even when the action of the rifle is closed. When a rifle is unstable, it is mechanically faulty and very dangerous. Knowingly using such a rifle is tantamount to negligent behaviour and the owner should not use the rifle until the problem has been rectified by a competent gunsmith.

The triggers of hunting rifles should be set at a minimum of 1 200 grams (this is correct, 1,2 kg!). To put this into perspective:  the trigger of a handgun used for self-defence is set between 1.8 en 2.7 kg to avoid a shot from going off unexpectedly because of trigger sensitivity.

Safety catch

A safety catch should never give a false sense of security. The trigger finger must always be next to the trigger guard until you are ready to shoot. The practice to pull the trigger while closing the bolt on a bullet in the chamber is extremely dangerous! The firing pin now rests against the primer and a blow to the rifle butt on a surface such as a rock or the floor of a hunting vehicle, is sufficient to overcome the inertia of the firing pin spring, resulting in an  unexpected shot being fired.

A clean barrel and action, using the correct calibre ammunition

The barrel and action must always be clean with all oil removed before firing a shot. When firing a rifle with too much oil in the barrel, the oil accumulates in front of the bullet as it passes through the barrel. The bullet moves must faster than the oil and the oil creates a barrier in front of the bullet that can result in a damaged barrel with a bulge in the barrel. How much is too much oil? I do not know, but I do not take any chances and push a clean cloth through the barrel to remove any excess oil before shooting. The same applies to water or any other dirt that might have gathered in the barrel for example while hunting – clean the barrel properly before using it again.

Ensure that you have the correct calibre ammunition for your rifle before leaving camp, especially if there are a few hunters using different calibre rifles and ammunition in the same camp. A 308 Winchester cartridge fits in the chamber of a 25-06 Remington (and a 270 Winchester) rifle. When firing the shot, a .308 calibre bullet is forced through the barrel of a .257 or .277 calibre rifle creating a dramatic increase in chamber pressure. This will damage the rifle and may injure the shottist and bystanders. Even the strongest action cannot handle that kind of pressure. Avoid this dangerous situation by using your common sense at all times by ensuring that the correct ammunition is used for every firearm. Do not let individual cartridges lie around, but store them safely in clearly marked plastic or paper ammunition containers.

Firearms in the hunting camp

Always ensure that rifles are made safe when transporting them from the hunting area or shooting range back to the camp, home or to any other location. It is good practice to store the rifle and the bolt separately, especially when there are children or inexperienced persons present in the hunting camp or at home. It is essential to separate ammunition and firearms. By law a firearm should be locked away in a safe when not in use.  

Identify the target before shooting

Identify your target before you shoot! It is easy to make a mistake (even if unintentional) and the following story will explain it clearly: A few years ago, a father took his children and a few of their friends to a known dassie colony to give the children the opportunity to shoot a few dassies. During the course of the afternoon, the children used a 22 Rimfire rifle under supervision to shoot a few dassies as well as a springbok hunting rifle for the longer shots that were required. Safety was a priority throughout this outing during which the children could enjoy the outdoors. By sunset the group made their way back to the farm house along a range of koppies. The farmer’s teenage daughter spotted three dogs about 120 metres away against the koppies. Every farmer knows that stray dogs on a farm are bad news because sooner or later they will start catching animals – for example game or small stock like sheep. Therefore, farmers insist that their employees keep their dogs under control. The standard directive from the farmer is that if dogs are found roaming in the veld, these animals will be shot on sight.

The farmer’s children insisted that they recognised the dogs, knew who they belonged to and that they should be shot. Because there was no evidence that the dogs had caused any damage yet, the hunter decided to scare the dogs by shooting at a rock about 3m above them. Immediately after the shot, three children appeared among the dogs. They were hiding among the rocks when they saw the hunter and the children. The hunter reacted with shock and disbelief when he saw the children and was very relieved that they were unharmed. Die children and dogs were sent on their way with a warning. On arrival at the farmhouse, the hunter told the farmer about the incident. The moral of the story is that one should never become careless when handling a firearm. The more one becomes familiar with firearms, the bigger the chances are that one becomes over confident. Don’t! Always use your common sense.

What not to do with a loaded firearm!

Never embark or disembark a vehicle with a loaded rifle. Always check with your hunting companions that all the firearms on the back or the inside of the vehicle are in a safe condition.

Never climb through a fence or in a tree with a loaded rifle. The shottist must be in full control of his firearm at all times. When you are busy with other tasks, such as climbing a tree or through a fence, you compromise control over the firearm. In that situation a loaded rifle is a deadly companion! Never pull a rifle by the barrel towards you. You will be breaking Rule 2 – never aim a firearm at any object that you do not want to shoot – because you will be directing the rifle barrel towards yourself!

Never shoot at a hard surface or into water!

Never shoot at a hard surface or at water. The bullet can ricochet and hit someone. When target practising, always ensure that there is a suitable sand bank to absorb any bullets. This also applies while hunting when hunters shoot in the heat of the moment without checking what is behind the target. This is a problem on especially smaller hunting farms where people or buildings might be close by in the background. A hunting rifle is potentially dangerous for up to 5 km, depending on the calibre. Even a ricochet bullet from a light 22 rimfire rifle poses a threat for up to 1,5 km. Firearm owners should always remember that ricochet bullets are very dangerous.

The use of alcoholic drinks and other narcotics while handling firearms is prohibited and cannot be tolerated

It is an offence to handle a firearm (air-rifles included) while under the influence of any substance that might have intoxicating or sedating effects. See the Firearms Control Act (Act 60 of 2000) – Section 120 (4). SA Hunters and Game Conservation Association and its branches adhere to the conditions of the Act and therefore do not allow any alcoholic or narcotic substances on shooting ranges under their control. No person (shottist or spectator) who is under the influence of alcohol or other substance will be allowed on a shooting range (e.g. official or unofficial event) and no person (shottist or spectator) may use alcohol during a shooting exercise (official or unofficial event) on a shooting range.

Anyone who contravenes the SAHGCA rules about the use of alcohol will be ordered by the range officer to leave the range without delay. The range officer must report the incident in writing to the branch chairman who must report it to the CEO of SAHGCA for referral to the disciplinary committee. The strict application of these rules regarding alcohol and narcotics are obvious. However, incidents do occur where these rules are challenged and frequently these persons are already under the influence. Any person driving under the influence of alcohol or a narcotic substance and anyone handling a firearm while under the influence of such substances poses an unacceptable risk to him or herself and those around them. The law is quite clear in both cases with drastic consequences to anyone found guilty of contravening the law.

Firearms and alcohol/narcotics do not mix and any transgression in this regard cannot be tolerated under any circumstances and immediate action should be taken against transgressors.

Choose your hunting companions with care

On the shooting range the range officers ensure that everyone abide by the rules and thus the safety of everyone present. Hunting is a completely different story. Choose your hunting companions carefully. This is probably one of the most important aspects when planning your hunt. Unsafe handling of a firearm should not be tolerated. Anyone who is guilty of careless handling of firearms should be reprimanded in no uncertain terms. A hunting companion, who disagrees and does not accept responsibility for his behaviour, is a shooting accident waiting to happen. You could be the victim! I repeat: Choose your hunting companions very carefully.

Earn the respect and appreciation of others by acting impeccably when handling a firearm. It is always a pleasure to watch someone that consistently handles a firearm with the utmost safety. I trust you are one of those firearm owners who are often invited to accompany other shottists and hunters to the range or on a hunt because they feel safe in your company.

Your choice as a responsible firearm owner

As a responsible firearm owner you will come across others who do not practise firearm safety. It is your choice to act or not to act. If you decide to do nothing, you neglect your duty and will blame yourself if something goes wrong and someone gets injured or killed because of negligent behaviour. You could also be the victim of such behaviour.

Only with the attitude of no compromise and proactive behaviour towards transgressors, will you be safe with your shooting or hunting companions. A person that persists with unsafe behaviour and refuses to act appropriately must be informed by his peers that he is not welcome in their company on the shooting range or on the hunt. Do not be afraid to offend someone who is guilty of improper behaviour. It is your responsibility to act decisively and correctly, the alternative – someone will suffer the consequences.

When someone is hurt or killed, it is too late for tears or excuses!

Firearm safety is everyone’s business!

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