As hunters and shooters we all face a responsibility for safe firearms handling and use. Any firearm has the potential to produce injury to you or someone else if not handled properly, but with a little commonsense we can all enjoy our shooting and hunting sports safely and without the possibility of an accident occurring.
Problems unique to shotguns
Within the shotgun world one of the common dangers involves what has become known as the 12/20 burst. This problem exists when a 20-gauge shell is unintentionally fed into a 12-gauge. In this case the 20-gauge round becomes lodged inside the barrel. The shooter being unaware of the blockage then loads a 12-gauge shell and fires the shotgun. Down through the years many shooters have been seriously injured in this manner as the shotgun barrel dramatically ruptures.
This problem has likely become more common since the popularity of the 20-gauge has increased in recent years. But while this 12/20 combination is probably the best known of these predicaments, the same issue can crop up in a 12/28 or a 16/28 type situation.
Possibly an even more common shotgun glitch happens when a load fails to ignite properly. In this case the wad of the subject shell becomes stuck inside the bore and if that wad isn’t cleared from the barrel before another shot is fired severe consequences are sure to eventuate.
That can result in a bulge forming in the barrel or in a worse case it could mean the barrel bursting open. Obviously the best way to prevent this from happening is to check the barrel for any obstructions if you notice any difference in the sound or performance of a shell being fired.
Other bore obstructions
I am personally a bit paranoid when it comes to all types of barrel obstructions and that has resulted in me checking my barrels frequently. I was recently talking with my gunsmith when he showed me a .270 rifle barrel he had just replaced. That barrel was peeled back like a banana skin. In this case the shooter knew dirt and mud had become lodged inside the barrel but thought he had cleared the blockage and later fired the rifle. Fortunately in this case the only injury was to the rifle barrel; the remainder of the rifle proved to be sound and miraculously in this episode there were no injuries to the shooter.
My gunsmith has seen more than his share of similar incidents which have all occurred simply as a direct result of carelessness on the shooter’s part.
You might think shooters would know what calibre their rifle is chambered for, but sometimes the right conditions come together and a wrong cartridge finds its way into a chamber. When this happens it can have severe consequences associated with it.
I am reminded of a story told to me by a friend who sold his own brother a particularly beautifully walnut stocked .270 calibre rifle. My friend presented his brother with the rifle and a supply of his own handloaded ammunition before heading to the firing range. All too soon everyone on that range heard an ear-shattering explosion and saw the .270 lying in pieces on the ground. The barrel had burst, the beautiful wood stock was in pieces and the retina of the brother’s eye had been separated.
Immediately the blame fell on my friend’s handloads. But what proved to be the problem was the fact that the brother had unintentionally brought along some .308 Winchester cartridges which he inadvertently loaded and fired in the .270. Obviously trying to squeeze a .308 calibre bullet down the .270 barrel had resulted in the problem.
It is true that there are only a few combinations like this where a bogus calibre cartridge can be chambered and fired, but when that mixture comes together in this way it can have devastating outcomes associated with it.
As an outdoor writer I frequently fire a great number of different calibre rifles and that sets the scene well for a similar mishap. Recognising that potential, I am possibly more careful than most and as such I find myself frequently checking the head of my cartridges to ensure those match that of the rifle.
Safeties are not foolproof
A safety is a great feature on any firearm, but no one should think these devices provide ironclad assurance against the gun being able to fire. Like all mechanical devices, a safety can on occasion fail.
But aside from a design failure happening sometimes the setting of the safety simply becomes unintentionally changed. Hunters are particularly susceptible to this due to the impediments in the way of brush and other hindrances they face in a normal day in the Outback. The answer to this situation is as simple as checking the position of the safety frequently and repeatedly. But whether the safety is on or not, the gun handler should always have the gun pointing in a safe direction, assuring if it should accidentally go off no damage will be done.
The vast majority of slide- or lever-type safeties are considered to be in the ‘fire’ position as the safety is moved fully forward and when in the rear berth it normally means it is in the ‘safe’ position. I have often equated this to moving the safety forward like you are pushing the bullet out of the barrel of the gun. But this is not always the case.
The safeties on some CZ and Brno rifles and possibly a few others actually operate in the reverse manner; that being the safety is engaged when it is all the way forward and off when it is in the rear position. I have a CZ action like this on my .17 Mach IV rifle, but the safeties on my two other CZ rifles are in the more common configuration. To me this lack of consistency sets the scene for an accident unless the shooter pays careful attention.
A few years ago I read an account of a lion mauling in Africa when a charging beast attacked and the shooter wasn’t familiar with his Brno rifle which possessed this same reverse designed safety. Thinking he had taken the safety off he was unable to make the shot in a timely manner and if my memory serves me correctly, I believe the lion killed the man. So once again, the bottom line here is to be thoroughly aware of the situation and how your firearms operate.
Knowing where your shot will wind up
If your shooting takes place on an established rifle range there has likely been a substantial amount of consideration devoted to successfully stopping and capturing the bullets. On the other hand, when hunting you don’t have that same level of assurance which makes it necessary to think through any target you are shooting at.
Many times your bullet will remain inside the animal, but there is always the chance you might miss your target, or the bullet could even exit out of the critter, then keep on going. For these reasons a hunter must always stay cognisant of what lies beyond the target.
While hunting I have personally passed up on more shots than I prefer to think about simply because the targeted animal was silhouetted on the crest of a hill. With no way to tell where my bullet might wind up in these cases I have reluctantly chosen to pass on those opportunities. Sometimes I have been lucky and my patience has paid off, while other times I had to be satisfied by putting shooting safety ahead of my hunting success.
On one occasion a few years ago my patience paid out when I spotted a fine bull elk that was positioned on the crest of a hill. Not wanting to take the chance of my bullet winding up somewhere I didn’t want it to, I simply waited and watched for what seemed like a very long time before the bull finally wandered off the ridge.
Once I had a solid background behind the bull to stop my bullet, I squeezed off my shot and as the ol’ cliché goes, the rest was history and I made my way to the best bull elk I have ever shot.
Stopping an injury before it happens
When I first started shooting there was very little emphasis placed on the need to wear hearing and eye protection, but these days every shooter should recognise that necessity and take adequate precautions to prevent hearing and eye damage.
But even when well protected in this manner, sometimes injuries can still occur. What has become known in some circles as Weatherby Eye happens when a shooter does not have the buttstock of their rifle firmly anchored in their shoulder. In this case the shooter fires the rifle, the butt of the stock slips under the shooter’s armpit and the rim of the scope makes contact with the shooter’s face.
Most often this happens when shooting at a target high overhead from the prone position. To eliminate this from occurring you must first be cognisant of this potential danger then make sure to always anchor the rifle as high on the shoulder as possible and in a manner preventing the butt from slipping downward.