Safety first

Are you taking safety in the field seriously enough? Will O’Meara takes you through the essential safety measures before, during and after a stalk

The auld ‘health and safety’ is a sure topic to induce that glazed-over, thousand-yard stare from any audience, but when the topic is surrounding rifles and hunting, it should be far more worthy of attention, right? Well, it should be, and if you think you know it all, think again.

In the office environment we have safety statements and risk assessments for everything from a paper cut to a caffeine overdose. In the military we do the same, but the risks more include things like hypothermia, bullet holes, and falling out of flying machines.

Hunting is a hobby for most, a time of relaxation and enjoyment, and as a result most recreational hunters never sit down and think about the possible risks in quite the same way as we do in a professional environment. When you look at hunting in a clinical matter it’s not difficult to readily come up with a list of possible risks involving knives, firearms, extreme terrain, and vehicles to name a few. We cannot live our life in constant worry or without risk, but we should definitely plan for when things go wrong. This article is not designed to stop you pursuing your passion or seeking adventure – I hope it will facilitate more adventure not less.

Nightmare scenario

Safety starts at home. What can go wrong, will go wrong. An example of this that comes to mind is a story of a friend of a friend, based in the UK. This experienced hunter always took great care and attention with the safety of his firearms. On one particular day he took his new .300WSM out of the safe, and handed it to his friend. There was no bolt or magazine in the rifle, as he always stored these separately. He retrieved the bolt as his friend admired the new rifle. Fitting the bolt, he said, “Try the trigger.” His friend looked to see no magazine fitted to the rifle, closed the bolt, shouldered the rifle and touched the trigger.

You need to know your chamber state – that means visually checking

It is hard to even imagine the fright that both men got when the boom of the shot went off. It is even more unimaginable what their shock would have been on hearing the scream of the man’s wife as the ballistic tip bullet tore through wall, into the next room and her shoulder. This is a true story. The lady survived the accident, but not without a lengthy treatment in hospital.

So what happened? We’ve all done it: gone to the range in the excitement of setting up and zeroing a new rifle. On this occasion the guy decided to finish up with a grouping practice. He loaded four rounds into the magazine and settled in at 100 yards to shoot a group. He fired the first three shots, and as he chambered the fourth he noted that the group looked to be just a ragged hole. He removed the bolt and walked up to confirm. On closer inspection he noted that, yes, indeed the group was phenomenally just a ragged hole. The same as any of us, he was delighted, and packed up his kit happy to be the proud owner of a tack driver in a serious calibre.

But he stored the rifle without bolt or magazine… so how did it fire a shot? What happened was that the fourth round that he fed into the chamber was push-fed in. He didn’t close the bolt so the extractor never engaged in the rim of the case. So when he removed the bolt, there was a round in the chamber. He stored the gun muzzle-up in the safe so it was bad luck that that short, fat .300 WSM case stayed in the chamber overnight and remained there… waiting.The lesson we can all learn from the clarity of 20/20 hindsight is that a visual check of the chamber is always necessary.

Strange things can and do happen – a broken extractor could yield a similar result. Check, always visually check. Every time someone hands you a rifle, check the safety, remove the mag, open the bolt and look in the chamber. Keep your firearm in a quality safe, store the bolt and ammo safely and separately, be mindful. And get insurance. If you are reading this and you don’t have hunting insurance, stop, get on the web and buy insurance now – you’ll be glad of it if something happens.

Vehicle safety

Quad, four-wheeler, ATV, call it what you will. It is an exceptional tool for the recovery of deer carcases but it is not without its dangers. I have used the quad in a professional and recreational capacity and while they are a handy tool, they need to be treated with respect.

One of the main concerns with a quad is a roll over. The most impressive addition to a quad that I have used is the use of dual wheels on the rear axle. Clic are one such make that can detach easily and attach securely – they really widen the stance of the vehicle and make a roll over almost impossible. Almost… They also add considerable capability for crossing soft ground, and as such they also cause less damage to the ground. All in all I believe they are the best addition to any quad that I have used in my years.

Whatever hunting situation you are in, be aware of the hazards, and mitigate or accept the risk.

On mountain terrain the chance of flipping the quad is always there and there have been many accidents where a quad has flipped backwards on a steep ascent. The danger here is that the most natural reaction can be to try and save yourself from being crushed by using your feet to stop the bike falling on you – the inevitable result is breaking a leg or a hip.

Alternative methods of recovery range from pony to packs, and each needs to be well thought out using reliable equipment designed for the task. For dragging or backpacking out the meat, you can prepare by conditioning the body. This can take the format of off-season strength and endurance training to ensure you are as fit as possible. It should also include task-specific training such as weighted cardio using a backpack or dragging a sled. These preparations will ensure that you build your physical conditioning in a progressive manner and that your kit and equipment fits correctly and is fit for purpose.

People might throw their eyes to heaven at the thought of physical preparation for the hunt, but think about its benefits. Such training will make you stronger, it will help prevent injury, it will ensure speedy recovery, allow you to perform these physical tasks as you get older, and it will also make the experience become more enjoyable. Fitness is a habit – a little bit everyday will add up over time. A good philosophy to apply here is, “being weak never came in handy.”

First aid

If you spend a considerable amount of your time around firearms and in remote and rugged locations, you should be equipped to deal with injuries that can range from gunshot wounds, to cuts from knives, to a sprained ankle. You and your first aid kit should know how to deal with a gunshot wound, know how to give CPR and how to field-treat everything from a broken limb to an upset stomach. As well as knowing the first aid to administer in a wilderness scenario, you should also know how to initiate a rescue – it can be as simple as a phone call to the mountain rescue or coastguard – and how to keep a casualty stable and comfortable while help arrives.

Firearm safety

Firearms handling should be a point of pride. Your confidence in the safe state of your firearm should be based on your attention to detail. As I said, it is always important to check your chamber is empty. At the beginning of a hunt I will check that the chamber is empty and demonstrate to my hunting partner that it is so. I will close the bolt and fit the full magazine.

It is good practice to have your safety catch on safe, if only to ingrain that good habit and to give everyone else the visual reassurance that the firearm is safe. This may take some manipulation for certain rifles but in my opinion it is worth the effort.

Treat the muzzle of the rifle like a laser. It should never sweep through or point at another person regardless of the state of the weapon. To demonstrate such discipline can only be interpreted as competence on your behalf.

The sharper it is, the safer it is. Pay attention to knife handling regardless of your experience.

It continues to surprise me that people often suggest loading the rifle at the early stage of a stalk. The stalk is perhaps the most likely stage of the hunt for an accidental discharge of the rifle to occur. It is my long-term habit only to load the rifle once I am set up in the final firing position. The load can be done almost silently by drawing the bolt back halfway and feeding a round directly into the chamber. For this purpose I usually carry spare rounds in my bino harness and on the stock of the rifle. The added bonus of this is that I can have my magazine full plus an additional round in the chamber, giving me a total of five rounds for my .270 Win.

A word on the Blaser-style straight pull. I have owned a couple of Blaser’s and found them to be nice to shoot and well made – a useful and adaptable tool. I get the mechanics of having a live round in the chamber of a Blaser and the cocking of the gun, but I don’t agree with having a round in the chamber. It’s unsafe.

I suppose an element of this is mechanical mistrust, based on years of seeing things that “shouldn’t be possible” happening through freak and unforeseen series of events. The main reason, however, is based on my own experience. With a traditional bolt rifle I am always super-disciplined about loading and unloading, checking the chamber and applying the safety. This can all happen in a matter of seconds. A good example is where you have a failed stalk or have to move a few yards to a different firing position. The process with a bolt-action rifle is quite definite and has a few parts to it. With the Blaser-style action, however, you simply cock or de-cock the little button. The process is so small and so un-deliberate that it can on occasion, in the heat of the moment, get overlooked. In a situation like a high-seat this may not be such a big deal, but in a gritty dynamic stalk it can be a major risk. For me, in a spot and stalk scenario, I believe that if you don’t have time to load the rifle, then the opportunity has passed. So what! There will be other opportunities.

The final moment

On taking the shot we should all be aware that a safe backdrop is required. Despite this obvious safety point, I am surprised with the amount of videos online that show a shot taken at an animal on a skyline. No matter how remote the chance this may present a danger, it is an unnecessary risk.

Without turning this into a DSC manual, it is worth considering the safety issues that can occur after the shot. I’ve seen hunters overcome with emotions visibly shaking after the shot. The main points after the shot and during the follow up are the same as during the stalk.

It is my experience that on approaching a deer that has been shot, they can often be very much alive and may require further action to swiftly and humanely dispatch. This can be especially true with a head or neck shot. As experienced hunters we don’t really put a whole load of thought into this, but when you sit down and analyse the prospect of approaching a wounded animal of – in the case of a red stag – up to 300kg who is armed with sharpened antlers and built of wild muscle, then surely some amount of caution is in order. There is no secret recipe here other than to use observation and caution, be aware of your backdrop and ricochet potential if a follow-up shot is required, and use caution with your knife.

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