Shooting Accidents

The following information on shooting accidents comes from Chapter 12 of How to Hunt Deer by Edward A. Freeman. How to Hunt Deer is also available to purchase in print.

Deer hunting is one of the safest of sports in spite of the steadily rising number of shooting accidents. Swimming and boating are more dangerous pastimes but accidents to persons engaged in these sports do not seem to affect the public in the same manner as is the case with hunting accidents. There is something repugnant about the thought of one person killing or injuring another with a gun and this is lacking when the killing or injury is caused by more or less natural means or is the result of their own carelessness.

Shooting accidents do happen, and, while they are not very numerous when compared to the number of hunters who are engaged in the sport, each accident causes a general reaction against the sport. Land owners post their land in an effort to protect their lives and property. Hunters stay out of the woods and congregate in open areas where their very presence may be the cause of a regrettable accident if a deer should appear among them. But, worst of all, if these accidents continue, public opinion will demand restrictive laws in an effort to prevent a condition that cannot be remedied as long as there is a human element involved.

There is no way to tell in advance what type of person might shoot another. Surveys do not reveal any definite pattern. The list of men who have accidentally shot others includes hunters of all ages and with all degrees of experience from the rankest amateur to the experienced guide. However, these shooting accidents can be divided into several categories and a knowledge of the more dangerous practices might help in preventing future accidents.

The accidental discharge of a gun is one of the most common. The shooting of another man whom the shooter cannot or does not see is rare and is about the easiest to excuse, although there is no valid reason why such an accident should occur. The most reprehensible type of shooting accident is the one in which one man shoots another in mistake for game. This is the type of accident which arouses the most public indignation and is the most detrimental to the sport of deer hunting.

All of these troubles are caused by negligence, carelessness, or ignorance and they could be prevented if each hunter would see to it that he is properly trained in gun handling and that he is woods-wise enough to recognize game when he sees it. Others may teach a man these things, but only the individual can determine how well he has learned the lessons, and only the individual can recognize potentially dangerous situations and evaluate his actions and reactions when these situations occur. If he should find that he is continually encountering situations where luck has prevented accidents or if he finds that it is difficult to hold his shot until his game is in clear view, he should hunt without a gun or keep out of the woods.

If I were a young man preparing for my first deer hunt, I would get one of those pictures of deer that are printed on sportsmen’s calendars or on the covers of the November issues of hunting magazines and I would study that picture until I could remember every line and feature of the animal. They are beautiful pictures with the deer either standing in glorious splendor or stretched full length in straining flight, perfectly outlined against a contrasting background with the sun reflecting from polished antlers and burnished hair. I would fix the image in my mind so well that when I saw anything like it in the woods or fields, I could look at it and state with perfect assurance: “That is deer.” Not that I would expect to see anything which faintly resembles the picture, for that is a sight which a hunter sees once in a blue moon. But when I saw a farmer’s cow, horse, sheep, pig, chicken or perhaps his hired man, I would know that it was not the game that I was seeking.

It is surprising to find so many hunters in the woods each season who have only the vaguest idea of what a deer looks like. These men kill a surprising amount of domestic livestock each year because of this lack of knowledge, and such ignorance is inexcusable with all of the sources of information which are available to anyone who will go to the trouble to seek it. Occasionally there is some slight excuse for killing livestock in mistake for game, such as the time that a hunter was following a fresh deer track late in the season. He had every right to expect that all domestic animals were safely housed for the winter, but he shot and killed a wild heifer which ran from a thicket that the deer tracks indicated might be the hiding place of a deer. There was no excuse, except ignorance, for the man who stopped his car at the sight of a heifer in a pasture, shot the animal, loaded it on his car and carried it to an inspection station as a deer.

Hunters are human and it is reasonable to expect them to make an occasional mistake in identifying game in the woods. Quite a few moose are killed every year, and, while some of these kills are deliberate, some of them are killed as deer by men who do not know the difference or by men who do not take the time to identify their target. There is no excuse in either case. Aside from the difference in size, moose and deer have different shapes, colors and actions which should make identification easy. Dogs and foxes have nearly fooled me several times and, while I never have shot at any of these animals in mistake for deer, it would take but little imagination to change a large fox into a small deer if the setting were right. These and other animals can be easily mistaken for deer by the amateur who is so “keyed up” that he expects to see a deer at all times and isn’t exactly sure of what he is looking for.

It is to prevent these mistakes that I recommend the study of lithographic prints of the picture deer. I have seen living picture deer on a few occasions and they are an unforgettable sight. When seen at the edge of a field in the early morning sun and with an evergreen background, they are a sight to thrill the heart of any hunter. They are seldom seen under these conditions and when they are it seems a shame to destroy so beautiful a picture. Usually the deer which the hunter sees is nothing but a ghostly shadow drifting across a shaded woods road or, more often, a dodging, bouncing streak of white as the animal seeks safety in flight with its white flag upraised to give the hunter a target which is well above and behind the one he wants to hit.

The instantaneous identification of deer in the woods or fields is almost impossible, until one has hunted for years and seen them under many conditions, for each deer is usually seen in a different setting and from a different angle with different lighting conditions. Without this experience, any animal with the camouflage of the white-tailed would be hard to identify anywhere in its natural wild setting, and many things other than deer are likely to resemble these animals more than the real thing.

Fixing the picture deer in the mind is a sort of negative identification method. Anything which resembles the picture is a deer; and other objects which could be, might be; but such objects call for better identification before shooting.

In my own case, I have always been right when I was sure at the first glance that the object I had sighted was a deer; but when I have seen an object which I thought might have been a deer and had to take a second look for positive identification, I have been mistaken more than half of the time, for the object was something other than a deer. Of course, the hunter will seldom mistake anything else for a running deer (with the possible exception of dogs and red foxes) and most of the objects which he mistakes for standing deer are, more or less, the products of his imagination.

Nearly everyone who hunts deer does so under more or less of a nervous strain; and the greater the desire to kill, the greater this strain will be and the more often he will see deer which are not deer. He concentrates on the desired game to the exclusion of practically everything else and, through a sort of self-hypnotism, everything which he sees or hears has some bearing on deer. He sees a movement in the woods, and the first thought is of deer; and any unidentified object is apt to resemble a deer until proven otherwise. This attitude is liable to cause the hunter to shoot on impulse instead of with calm reasoning.

Often the objects which resemble deer are nothing more than illusions, and all that the hunter has to do to dispel them is to step sideways for a short distance and they will disappear. If the object is a deer, the hunter’s movement will usually cause the animal to leave its position; and a running deer is easily identified. No man should be disappointed about passing up a standing shot at a doubtful target for a shot at a running target which he is sure is a deer. Even if he should miss, there is no harm done and there are usually more deer in the woods. Furthermore, there is always the possibility that the next one he sights will be an easy shot and possibly a better trophy. Many hunters are so anxious to shoot a deer that they miss a lot of the enjoyment which should be a part of the hunt, and this very anxiety causes them to see a deer behind every bit of cover. They do not seem to realize that there are very few areas where deer may be found in such profusion that any moving object which they sight will be one. If there is any such area, we can be sure that other hunters will know about it and they will flock there in such numbers that there will be more chance of sighting hunters than there will be of sighting game.

Sometimes we see deer which are partly hidden so that only a portion of the animal is visible. Perhaps we can only see the legs, part of the animal’s head or some other portion of its body. Often we are sure that the object is a deer, yet positive identification is almost impossible without movement on the part of the animal or a change in position by the hunter so that a clear view of the entire animal can be obtained. It is never safe to shoot at these objects in an attempt to kill or to drive them from cover. It is much better to move towards the most advantageous spot for a clearer view, if this can be done without losing sight of the object, or by walking directly towards it, all the while keeping the gun ready for a quick shot.

I have started quite a few deer in this manner and I failed to bag some of them which I could have killed if I had been willing to take a chance and shoot at an object which I had not positively identified. At other times I have stalked objects which I suspected were deer, only to find some inanimate object at the end of the stalk. I would have felt foolish had I shot at the latter without taking the trouble to make positive identification.

One of the most difficult times to identify objects is during a fog. Fog not only distorts things but it changes coloration. Under this condition, a deer which is standing head-on will resemble a man, a tall stump or some similar object. Even a deer which is walking towards a hunter will sometimes be mistaken for a man. This happened to me on one occasion and I was so surprised when the deer turned broadside and revealed its true identity that I failed to react fast enough to get a shot.

On another occasion I was walking along a country road when I saw what I supposed was a deer. It was walking down the road towards me. Since the animal was getting nearer all of the time, I decided to wait until it turned broadside before I would shoot. It edged over to the side of the road, stopped by a clump of bushes and lifted a hind leg in a manner which was not at all characteristic of the deer species. It was a dog that did not stand over two feet from the ground and the fog had magnified it so that it looked large enough to be a fair-sized deer.

One thing about the danger of fog is that its very obviousness is a warning to all sensible hunters to be doubly careful in identifying their targets before shooting.

One of the most common objects which the hunter mistakes for deer is a formation of dry twigs and roots of an uprooted tree for it appears to be the antlers of a hidden buck. When we consider that probably three-fourths of all of the deer in the woods do not have antlers which can be plainly seen, there is very little chance that the antlers would be the first part of a deer which could be seen. Each of these objects should be investigated, for they often appear to be more realistic than real. In my own hunting, the antlers have been something which I seldom see until the deer has been killed. This would place me at a decided disadvantage if I were to hunt in a state where there was a buck law.

When I have seen a deer, all of my attention is concentrated on the spot where I want to place my bullet. I nearly always have a good idea of the size of the animal and I often know whether it is a buck or a doe without actually seeing the antlers. While this root and twig formation is deceiving, there is no excuse for shooting at it until the body can be seen. I have never known of a case where a buck has been killed by a shot in the antlers.

There is an old, partly decayed stump located in a small clearing in the woods which has caused me to pause and check on several occasions. This stump has no resemblance to a deer except for its brown color, and though this color contains more red than any deer hide I have ever seen, this blotch of color viewed through intervening tree branches is easily mistaken for the body of a deer.

Another stump which I encountered is the exact image of a deer’s head. Something about its position or location prevented me from shooting when I first sighted it, and I approached for better identification. Curled pieces of bark formed the ears, two black knots were the eyes, a piece of weathered bark was located in just the right position to form the nose and a combination of light and shadow caused the outline of the head to stand out from the rest of the stump.

This play of light and shadow can delude a man who possesses the best of eyesight and it even does it on the brightest of days. One evening I thought I saw a deer and, as I was about to shoot, the thought came to me that the deer was standing in rather an odd spot. There was something wrong with the setting—nothing definite, just not natural. I moved to my right about ten feet in order to view the subject from a slightly different angle and the deer’s head became separated from the neck, as it turned into a cluster of dead leaves hanging from the end of a slender limb of a maple. The neck separated from the body and turned into a fence post, and the body transformed into a juniper bush. When I returned to my original position, these objects lined up and formed a perfect silhouette of a deer. The next day, in bright sunlight, when details could be seen, there was nothing there that had any resemblance to a deer.

The only time that I ever shot at an inanimate object in mistake for a deer, it turned out an optical illusion caused by the lighting at that particular time of day. I had sighted a doe which was feeding in an abandoned field partly covered with clumps of alder. She was about two hundred yards from me and, as that was a long shot for my gun I decided to attempt a stalk. While checking the position of the bushes I would need to utilize in approaching the deer, I saw what I thought to be a large buck standing, partly hidden, near a clump of bushes, not over fifty feet from the doe. This buck seemed to be standing with his head in the air, and, judging from his apparent alert position, was watching me. Stalking an alerted deer was out of the question, so I made the necessary allowance for the distance and fired at the buck. He never moved, but the doe ran into the woods at the sound of the shot. I took my time and fired a second shot and the deer still stood there. Knowing that there was something wrong, I started to walk directly towards my buck and before I had covered half of the distance between us, he simply disappeared. Just another case of the light and shade, and along with them the convincing presence of a real live deer had caused the mistake, when the very presence of a feeding deer should have been proof that there were no alerted deer in the vicinity. I had momentarily forgotten the fact that when one deer of a herd is alarmed or alerted, the information is quickly communicated to the others and they all will assume a position of alertness.

When a hunter sees any of these possible illusions, he should change his position so as to view the object from a different angle. It is of no use to try to identify the object without moving, for the longer a man gazes at an object which he hopes is a deer, the more certain he will be that it is a deer, and if he gazes long enough, with the expectation of seeing the object move, it will appear to move, thus completing the deception.

In spite of the tricks which our eyesight sometimes plays on us, sight is the most reliable of our senses when it comes to identifying deer. Sound will sometimes call our attention to some animal which might be an unseen deer, yet if we shoot before making identification by sight, the chances are we will be mistaken and the noise maker will prove to be something other than a deer. A walking deer makes about as much noise as a cat makes while stalking a mouse, unless the ground is honeycombed with frost or covered with a crust of snow. Even when walking over dried leaves, a deer can seldom be heard by the average hunter at a distance of fifty yards. Deer seldom brush hard enough against trees or bushes to be heard or to shake branches. Infrequently they break sticks or limbs, especially while running and when panic-stricken.

Running deer may be heard for some distance if the ground is frozen hard or if they are running through dry leaves. This sound is distinctive to the experienced hunter, but should be used by him as preparation for the sight of the animal, not merely as an excuse for shooting at the apparent position before the animal can be plainly seen. While the fast-moving sound of running footsteps is very apt to be made by a deer, any slow-moving sound might be made by some other animal. If this sound of slow-moving footsteps is accompanied by the sound of breaking sticks or brush, it is probably made by a man—one of the noisiest animals which travel the woods.

While sitting at the foot of a tree in a beech grove waiting for grey squirrels to start their evening harvesting of the many beechnuts in the area, I was surprised to find that a deer had approached to a spot about a hundred feet in back of my position. I had not heard a sound to warn me of its approach; and as it bounded off to the nearest softwood thicket, the sound of its footsteps faded away before the animal reached cover. Later, when the squirrels began to feed, I found their noise in those dry leaves greater than the deer’s after its first few startled jumps.

Another time I sighted a feeding deer before it was aware of my presence and I watched as it approached my hiding place. It was feeding on the twigs and buds of some sort of a bush; and, although it didn’t seem to look where it placed its feet, it never snapped a dry stick or made any other discernible sound as it neared me. It approached until I could hear the sound of its teeth as they sheared the twigs it was eating, yet I heard no other sound until it became aware of my presence and started to run. It doesn’t seem possible that these animals can move around in the woods as silently as they do. When I hear a noise in the woods, I am always a little doubtful if it is a deer until I am actually able to see the animal.

On a few occasions I have been able to smell deer before I saw them. I have never succeeded in killing any of these without a chase, but the odor is so distinctive that there was no mistaking it. On an average day this odor is not noticeable, but when the air is damp and heavy with the threat of rain, all of the forest odors hug the ground; and under these conditions a deer may be located by scent if the air movement is towards the hunter and if the deer has just left its bed. Of course, it is impossible to kill a deer by shooting at its scent.

Since so many inanimate objects may be mistaken for game by hunters who are mentally conditioned to expect to see game, the possibilities of mistaking living objects is very great. When a hunter has nearly decided that an object might be a deer and that object makes definite and unmistakable movements which seem to confirm his opinion, there is an almost irresistible impulse to shoot lest the animal sneak off without allowing a clearer view. This impulse should be resisted.

There is no great harm done by shooting at an inanimate object and, usually, a few dollars will appease the owner of any livestock that might be killed in mistake for game. But the very fact that a mistake has been made reveals a tendency to shoot without proper identification; and unless this tendency is corrected, there is always a strong possibility that sooner or later that hunter may mistake a human for game. Such a tragic mistake cannot be corrected by any amount of regret. No man is entirely immune to making mistakes. My experience with the deer which wasn’t there proved to me that I was not infallible. Since that time I have been doubly cautious while in the woods. I have tried to condition myself to the idea that I am more apt to see another hunter than I am to see a deer, also to view each suspected object with the idea of proving that it is or is not a man.

The idea of wearing clothing of a distinctive color as a protection is good; however, while it undoubtedly prevents many accidents, it does not afford complete protection. The common red and black, or red and green, wool coat or jacket absorbs light rays instead of reflecting them and on cloudy days or at dawn and dusk these fabrics do not show their true color. The newer smooth-finish reflective-fabrics in the bright red color are easily seen at great distances and the color is readily recognized.

My principle objection to the use of red clothing is that it conditions hunters to identify objects by color instead of by their form and actions and as a result they are apt to regard as a deer any object that does not show red. Since the woods are not the exclusive property of deer hunters, this can result in the shooting of nonhunters who have a legal right to be in the woods without being compelled to wear red clothing. When we get down to fundamentals, the hunter is responsible for his actions. It is up to each one to prevent accidental shootings, by his conduct and not by the use of protective clothing. No amount of red or any other colored clothing which he is wearing will prevent him from shooting another person regardless of the clothing that other person is wearing. Although red clothing may prevent him from being the victim, it will never prevent him from shooting another.

Accidents caused by stray bullets are comparatively rare and they could be entirely eliminated by a little care on the part of the shooters. There is usually a background of some sort that will prevent a bullet from traveling very far when we shoot at a deer. If we pass up shots at deer when this background is missing—such as a deer which is seen on the skyline—we can prevent the possibility of hitting an unseen man who may be somewhere in the background. We should never depend upon the body of the deer stopping the bullet. It is too easy to miss, and most of the high-speed bullets have sufficient power to pass through a deer and still possess energy enough to kill or injure any man who might be in the line of fire.

The presence of several hunters at a field or orchard waiting for deer creates a dangerous situation, unless each man is aware of the presence and location of the others.

A few years ago there were eight men watching a twenty-acre field which a deer entered. None of these men were aware of the presence of the others. Twenty-two shots were fired at the deer as it crossed the field. Nobody was hurt by this crossfire, but one bullet hit a stone wall where two men were concealed and the sound of the ricocheting bullet caused them to cower in the protection of the wall until the shooting was over. (The deer was unhurt.) Such a situation creates a condition where a shooting accident might be termed truly accidental. I usually scout such areas before taking a position and warn any other hunters of my presence as well as locate theirs; and if there are too many hunters watching the place, I leave for a safer if less popular feeding ground.

Shootings caused by the accidental discharge of a gun can be prevented in most cases by proper education in gun handling and by instilling into the mind of every gun handler the fact that a gun is a death-dealing instrument that requires constant supervision. These things should be learned at an early age and, since actual hunting by the young is prohibited, the best way to obtain this education is through some gun club where every action of the beginner is under the supervision of a qualified teacher. Some of the rules which are strictly enforced at these clubs are not practical in the woods, but the fundamentals of safety which are stressed are the very things that might at some time save a life.

Death or injury comes out of the muzzle of the gun and if the gun muzzle were never pointed at a human being, no human being would ever be injured by accidental discharge unless the barrel were obstructed and the action could not handle the excessive pressure. The observance of this simple rule would prevent practically all accidents, and its observance should be easy; but think back to the many times that you have looked up to find that a companion’s carelessly held gun was pointed in your direction or you saw some man walk in front of your own gun before you could change its direction. You will see that it requires constant attention to keep that muzzle pointed in a harmless direction.

When a man is alone in the woods, he has only himself to protect and yet hundreds have accidentally shot themselves by grasping their gun by the barrel and handling it in such a way that some object has come in contact with the hammer or trigger with force enough to cause the cartridge to explode. Only recently, there was a case of a youth’s injuring himself by using the butt of his gun as a club to beat the brush in an effort to drive a deer from cover. A few years ago a rabbit hunter stood with his hand on the muzzle of his gun when his dog jumped up and pulled the trigger with his paw. The hunter received a badly mangled hand. These and hundreds of similar incidents could be prevented if hunters would show proper respect for a gun’s potential danger.

Guns are made for the purpose of killing. The firing mechanism is designed to be operated by the trigger finger, yet many men seem to forget that any other object pressing on the trigger will explode the cartridge. Some of the hammer guns can be discharged by some object’s pressing on the hammer, as in cocking, and then releasing the pressure before the gun is fully cocked. As a young man, I was well aware of this danger, having visited one victim of such an accident and having heard of several other cases, all of which had been caused by the accidental discharge of the old hammer shotguns. Since these were shotgun accidents, I assumed that my rifle was immune to such incidents. The hammer could not strike the firing pin unless the trigger was pulled, even if it were released before reaching the full cocked position. I considered the gun to be safe as long as the hammer was down or at the half-cock position, and yet I was able to get myself into a situation in which the gun was accidentally discharged. I was following a deer track across a cedar swamp where the trees were so thick that I was forced to crash my way through, with dead branches continually catching my clothing and impeding progress. In some manner, one of these branches caught in the trigger guard and another came in contact with the hammer. Instead of looking to see what was holding the gun, I gave it a yank in exasperation that discharged the gun. There was no harm done, but since that time I have carried my gun with my right hand in such a position that twigs and branches cannot come in contact with the trigger.

Many a gun, especially of the old hammer type, has been accidentally discharged while the hunter was cocking or uncocking it and his thumb slipped from the hammer. It will pay to be very sure that the gun is pointed in a harmless direction at these times as well as all others.

Most guns are equipped with some safety device. It is there for the hunter’s protection, although many men neglect to make use of this important feature. Some seem to endow a gun with an intelligence. They seem to think that if they use a gun for deer hunting that it will kill nothing but deer. Rabbit and duck hunters sometimes seem to think along the same line, while in reality the gun itself is utterly indifferent about the type of object at which it is pointed. A deer gun will kill a duck or rabbit and a gun that is used for small game will kill a deer or a man as well as the game for which it is intended. Momentary forgetfulness of this fact can cause a disastrous accident to the hunter or to any other person who might be within the range of the gun.

Occasionally a loaded gun will be discharged by a jar on the butt or by falling to the ground when left leaning against some object. Such guns are mechanically defective and should be repaired or discarded, unless they have been especially adjusted for target use. If they are so adjusted, they should never be used in the woods. Hunting guns should have a trigger pull of at least four pounds so that jars and minor pressure on the trigger will not cause the discharge of the gun.

Many a man has been killed or wounded by a supposedly empty gun. The only way to prevent such accidents is to be sure that all cartridges are removed from the gun as soon as the hunter stops hunting and to see that they are never replaced until the beginning of another hunt. Never handle any gun as if it were an empty gun but regard all guns as being loaded and dangerous. As a young man, I, with one companion, spent about three months in the woods. We had three guns with us and they were never unloaded except for the purpose of cleaning. Since we were alone, there was no danger of any stranger’s handling them and absently snapping the hammer; and as we knew that the guns were always loaded, we always treated them as loaded guns. During that time I acquired the habit of considering all guns loaded and even today my first act in handling a gun is to check both the barrel and magazine for any cartridges which might have been left there. It is not safe or practical to keep a loaded gun in a place where other persons may be expected to drop in at any time, for many characters have an almost irresistible desire to handle every gun which they see and many of these people do not have the common courtesy to ask permission before such handling.

The only answer to this empty-gun problem is to have all guns empty and to consider them to be loaded and, while at home, to keep them securely locked in a gun cabinet where children, both young and old, cannot handle them.

Accidents cannot be prevented by any legal means short of prohibiting the use of firearms at all times. Such a prohibition is unthinkable to a hunter and each hunter should do all that is in his power to prevent the possibility of such a prohibition. He can do this by being accident-conscious at all times and by following a few rules which should assure safety in the woods.

Never point a gun at anything that you do not wish to shoot.

Never lean on a gun with the butt on the ground.

Never rest the muzzle of a gun on your foot, unless you have toes to spare.

Never use your finger to remove obstructions in the barrel.

Never attempt to clean the barrel until you are sure that all cartridges are removed from both the magazine and the firing chamber.

Never use a gun for any purpose except that for which it was intended; never use it as a cane, crutch or club.

Never shoot a gun unless there is a background that will stop the bullet well within your sight range.

Never shoot at anything other than game while in the woods and be sure that you have properly identified that game before pulling the trigger. If you feel the need for target practice, go to some target range. Remember that every shot fired in the woods is potentially dangerous to any person who may be in the woods and that the fewer shots fired, the less danger there is of accidents.

Be very careful while loading and unloading guns and while cocking and uncocking the old type of hammer shotguns.

Remember that the safety is on a gun for your protection. Use it.

Never examine another person’s gun without asking permission and never permit anyone to examine your gun until you have checked it to make sure that it is an empty gun.

Never carry a loaded gun at any time except while actually hunting or while on the target range.

Remember that all guns are death-dealing instruments so treat them with the respect that all dangerous weapons deserve.

Above all, never point a gun at a human being.

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Preventing Shooting Accidents while Hunting

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