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Hunters Safety & The Educated Thumb

By John Simeone

This has been worrying me for about 10 years so hear me out…Uncle John

Buck Massey and Suzie on a LA Quail Hunt - Photo by John SimeonWhen I walked into the room to take the class to become a Hunter Safety instructor, one of the New Mexico Wildlife officers told me who the instructor was. He was George Lamb, a retired major in the Army, somewhere in his 80’s and known as the “Last of the real cowboys.” Then I was shown the book by the great gun writer Elmer Keith, and within the pages of “Hell, I Was There” was a full chapter devoted to George Lamb, Keith’s number one hunting partner.

He walked in and laid the test on my desk first. I made 100% and handed it back to him, and I noted a hint of a smile, and then he said “Anything less than perfect in hunter safety is just plain wrong.” That’s a lot to live up to so it makes me worry when I see a new generation of hunters go into the field, without the proper training.

In Robert Ruark’s book, “The Old Man and the Boy” the first chapter talks about quail hunting and how one keeps the safety on until the moment the birds flush. Today that is one of the most difficult little things to get over on new hunters, especially if they are Policemen or Military.

With Police, they are taught to keep the shotgun usually a pump action, locked but not loaded with the safety off all the time. When getting out of a patrol car they gain a physiological advantage of racking the pump gun in the face of a bad guy, which in itself will usually cause surrender. However they have a problem moving from point A to point B with the shotgun on “hot” and many times this results in an accidental discharge. Sooner or later they find the trigger.

Soldiers are taught to keep the safety on when moving to contact with the enemy and much like bird hunters they disengage the safety when raising the weapon. All well and good, up until the movie “Black Hawk Down” where a Delta Force NCO was found to have his safety off in a crowd of people and was caught by a Company Commander. His sarcastic answer was his trigger finger was his safety, which was just plain Hollywood gun stupidity. In real life it would have never happened, but if it did the NCO would have been relieved of duty and probably court marshaled for insubordination.

In World War Two, The Battle of Hendricks Field was started early and the element of surprise lost because a Private was walking around with his safety off on his M-1, and had an accidental discharge in the face of the enemy.

Up until just recently the battle rifle of the Military had a relatively long barrel. The M-1, M-14 and the M-16 rifles were all taught to be carried at “Port Arms” during an engagement; to a bird hunter this would be the two hand carry. Now we have the M-4 a chopped off M-16 with a collapsible stock for use when wearing body armor and a short 16 inch barrel. It is usually carried muzzle down to an engagement, in much the same manner as a sub machine gun. This is ideal for urban warfare, and safe in combat, but when the soldier goes home on leave to hunt with grandpa during the pheasant season there will be hell to pay.

So here is Sgt York Jr. getting his butt chewed out by Grandpa York for improper gun handling in the hunting field. “I thought the Army taught you how to handle firearms?” is usually the first question, not knowing about the new way to carry the M-4, while the poor young GI is just going by second nature and what he was taught.

Well upland bird hunting is not a bounding over watch in combat. There are protocols of wing shooting, and sorry to say X-generation, but the old way here is the only way. If you walk around with your safety off, while stumbling around with a long barreled shotgun in the down position this creates a real problem, not to mention that you look ridicules to everyone else that sees you.

If a bird gets up you must pass your expensive well trained bird dog with the muzzle first before you even get the drop on the bird and sooner or later Old Duke gets shot in the ass. Using the two hand carry-port arms puts the bird first and the dog area is clear, coming over the top. That’s pretty easy to understand but when you have young soldiers and cops in the field getting them to listen can be a guide’s or Sr. Hunter’s nightmare. So the only recourse is “The Old way or the Highway.”

The new hunter should practice with an unloaded gun, smoothly mounting the shotgun while disengaging the safety on the way up, and reversing the process on the way down. On my Remington and Browning shotguns I touch the safety off with my trigger finger on the way up and re engage the safety with my thumb on the way down from my shoulder. One should never take one step, with out first re engaging the safety on a locked and loaded hunting weapon. This process cures the itchy trigger finger and you develop an educated thumb for the safety catch instead. Of course you still keep your finger off the trigger up until the moment of firing, while the mechanical safety is there in case you take a fall with the gun.

Now we all know you can’t completely idiot proof a gun or certainly the almighty will create a better idiot, so the best way to stay safe is to be completely familiarized with the firearm. For instance the H&R handy gun, with the exposed hammer that so many hunters were trained on, can be practiced with when dismantled. A new youth hunter can cock and uncock the gun over and over until it becomes second nature, any other firearm can be practiced with when unloaded and in a safe area. It’s all about repetition and getting everything right before you go hunting.

A few years ago in the state of Louisiana, they allowed prior military and post qualified police officers the option of not taking a Hunter Safety course just because some bureaucrat thought the course was a hassle. This was not a good idea. There are just too many subtle differences in Combat, Police work and Hunting. The Hunter Safety course is simple enough but the differences are taught and this is paramount. The cut off is a birth date before 1969, after that it seems everybody in the US lost their gun savvy, being raised by soccer moms instead of two parent families. Maybe it works but as far as gun training in the field, Police, Military and Hunters are different in their gun handling so if your hunting, go by the hunting way of doing things and keep the fields safe…Pass it on.