I’d like to take the opportunity to preface this article with a few disclaimers and a little clarification. In NO way do I profess to be an expert or authority on any of the topics which Kevin and Suzanne may be gracious enough to allow me to expound upon in the future. However, for more than a half century as an Albanian, I’ve had the blessing of being exposed to much of the best and the worst that our region has to offer. I’ve also been blessed with the opportunity of hearing the dreams, aspirations and anecdotes of the generations before me who shared with me a deep and abiding passion for the history, culture and traditions found in Albany and Southwest Georgia.
For many in Southwest Georgia no fall tradition runs deeper than that of “The Hunt” where the quarry of the day may include squirrel, rabbit, dove, duck, deer or quail. Regardless of the species, for most of us each of these challenging species have one common denominator? We use a gun to hunt them.
To say that hunting has been a passion of mine for most of my life would be an understatement. Growing up in the pre-computer era I began my days afield under the supervision of my father, and an assortment of honorary uncles. Each provided instruction not only on handling firearms safely but understanding the tremendous responsibility that we assume each time we handle a loaded firearm.
As a young neophyte studying the related arts of hunting and shooting someone thought to give me a copy of the “Ten Commandments of Hunting Safety”. Over the past four decades had I and my hunting companions followed these simple tenets none of the following anecdotes would have transpired. In reading these accounts do not let any feeble attempt at humor on my part in recounting the lessons that were learned diminish the fatality that could have resulted in each instance.
Always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction. There is nothing more disconcerting than to suddenly find the muzzle of a firearm pointed in your direction. If this doesn’t make the hair on your neck stand up, this article is dedicated to you whether you are the pointer or the pointee. On one of my earliest quail hunts, I accidently discharged my shotgun as I stumbled into a stump hole. As the sudden echo of the blast faded, I’m sure the startled expression on my face eroded any credibility from the alibi of a phantom single bird flushing unseen to him which I offered for the mysterious discharge. At the moment my mentor saw an apprehensive and chagrined youth; my mind’s eye was picturing him as a headless specter haunting me for eternity. It was so staggering was the occurrence that I can clearly recall it to this day.
Treat every firearm as if it were loaded. I’ll never forget the consequences which occurred when a friend’s mother questioned whether or not our guns were unloaded as we entered his home following an early morning squirrel hunt. . The report of his .22 rifle and her shattering crystal chandelier contradicted his reply. It is the responsibility of anyone handling a firearm to immediately check to see that it is not loaded when they are handed a firearm of pick it up. Remember, just because the clip has been removed, there may still be a cartridge in the chamber. How many times have you read or heard the statement, “I didn’t know it was loaded,” as the explanation for a fatal firearms accident? Fortunately I have only witnessed the death of a chandelier, sofa, duck boat, transmission and a front tire as the result of this rule being violated.
Always make sure the firearm is unloaded and keep the action open except when hunting or preparing to shoot. Although this rule is almost identical to the previous, I do not believe it can be c overstated. If no other rule was remembered and followed, the majority of firearms accidents would be dramatically reduced. A sportsman carrying a firearm with the action “broken” or open is an indicator of experience. I believe that shooters should take the safety “off” as the firearm is being raised to fire. It should be immediately put back “on” following the shot or when the shooter decides not to fire.
Be sure the barrel and action are clear of obstructions and that you have the proper ammunition for the firearm you are carrying. I never felt any guilt over the profit I made during three decades of gun repair work that resulted from those that have ignored this commandment. Mud and water are the common culprits for “banana” and “ballooned” barrels in firearms where the obstruction generally destroys the barrel near the muzzle. However, the results of a 28-gauge shotgun shell in a 20-gauge gun or a 20-gauge shell in a 12-gauge gun generally results in a catastrophic rupture in the barrel near the forend, not only damaging the firearm but severing a few fingers in the process along with facial and ocular damage. The closest thing to a fatal firearms accident I have observed occurred on a dove shoot when a hunter unknowingly fired a load of buckshot at a low flying bird knocking another shooter down and puncturing his lung.
Be sure of your target and what is beyond before you pull the trigger. Each year numerous fatalities have no physical characteristics in common. It only takes a second to be sure that a shot is safe. No quarry is worth a rushed or unsafe shot. Having been peppered on two occasions by bird shot I know from experience it only takes a split second to make the wrong decision. Fortunately for me the physical damage was minimal. For other victims the results have to frequently been fatal. However, I am a little jumpy considering the three strike theory. Far too many jeeps, mules, pointers and hunting wagons bear the battle scars resulting from this commandment being broken. “You can never pull a shot back once you pull the trigger,” is one of the earliest admonitions I recall from my father and other mentors. Remember Newton’s theory of gravity, “what goes up must come down” now take into consideration that even the puny .22 can travel more than a mile before striking a target somewhere down range when fired at an elevated angle.
Never point a firearm at anything you do not want to shoot. Avoid all horseplay with any firearm. As my interest in gun ownership increased with age, my father made a deal with me. If I cleaned my toy guns each day before putting them away and did not point one at anyone for a year, I could then seriously consider adding a real firearm to my growing collection. This would prove to be a challenge growing up in an era when playing “Army” and “Cowboys and Indians” were still politically correct. Therefore, I was forced to throw knives and grenades or use equally fictional flamethrowers following numerous paternal proclamations of, “I guess it will be a year from today” whenever I was observed pointing a toy gun at my neighborhood foes. This rule was so deeply ingrained into my subconscious that the first time I ever pointed a paintball gun at someone during a midlife fire-fight I literally froze and broke out in a cold sweat. “During the same period a neighbor lost the sight of his left eye participating in a BB gun war, giving credence to the parental admonition, “you’ll put your eye out.”
Never climb a fence or tree or jump a ditch with a loaded firearm. I believe the violation of this commandment is one of the most common. It soon becomes easy to delude ourselves with self professed expertise that these rules only apply to others. After all, “it won’t happen to me”; “I know what I’m doing.” However it only takes a few minutes to unload and reload. Few of us are able to shoot well while hanging by one hand, balancing on a limb or straddling a strand of barbwire. The safety on a fire arm is designed to prevent the gun being fired when the trigger is accidently pulled. However, it is a man made device and therefore prone to eventual failure. A severe enough shock when the firearm is dropped or hit may result in the firing pin being released and the gun firing when the shooter has little or no control on where the muzzle is pointed.
Never shot at a flat hard surface or water. If you have ever violated this commandment you quickly realize how far a bullet can travel as it skips across the water’s surface. (See 5th commandment) While shooting handguns I have witnessed a .45 colt fired at a rock ricochet back, striking the shooter son in the forehead. Fortunately, the soft lead projectile was nearly spent and merely stunned youth. However, the look of horror on the father’s face with the realization of what might have resulted remains with me to this day.
Store firearms and ammunition separately. IF you don’t keep your firearms locked at least keep the ammunition locked in a separate place. This will accomplish at least two things. First, if a child or intruder finds your firearm they still have to locate the ammunition before they can combine the two. It also requires the shooter to take a moment to insure that they are selecting the correct ammunition for the firearm and application. (See rule 4).
Avoid alcohol and other drugs before and while shooting. There was a time in my life when I adhered to this rule to the point that I would leave the field if I saw others violating it. Unfortunately, there have been times since that point where I became far too comfortable in participating in shoots and hunts that were little more than a rolling cocktail party. There is no room for impaired judgment or motor skills when handling a firearm.
Many nimrods’ having read this will be convinced that these rules no longer apply to them because of the expertise they have accumulated over their years afield. In many ways I have begun to think it is safer to hunt with the novice who is fearful of making a mistake than the expert that believes they will never make one. I have intentionally italicized the word accident in this article because, in reality there would be no accidents if these ten simple rules were followed each time a firearm was handled. Follow them and the shooting sports will provide you with a lifetime of glorious memories. Ignore them once and risk a lifetime of nightmares. If I sound a little preachy in this first article, “The Commandments” made me do it.
Albany resident Tom Seegmueller is an outdoorsman, historian, disability rights advocate and freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.