By Jack Ammerman

Not knowing when to take off your gun’s safety might cause a lot lot of heartache… and some upset hunting partners.

Years ago, I learned to hunt ducks and geese with some guys from work. One of them had waterfowling experience with his dad, so he was our “expert.” Although we had all hunted before: rabbits, pheasants, partridge, squirrels, and of course, whitetail deer, those journeys into the wild found us with distances between us as we walked the fields or hunkered down in separate hunting areas. Standing knee-deep in a flooded cornfield with decoys out in front of you tends to keep hunters closer together than when you’re rabbit hunting.

We had some ducks circle high above our heads and as we tried sweet-talking them down, I heard a familiar “click.” I was certain that someone had just taken the safety off. The birds overhead were still way too high to shoot at, so I assumed that the guy was seeing something that I wasn’t that was closer to the decoys. I scanned the area and saw no ducks. My mind was still processing what I saw when the mile-high ducks headed away and my buddy clicked his safety back on.

I was uneasy about this situation, but it may have been a fluke. I waited until the next flock of ducks tried to decide whether our shiny faces were a threat. The “click” came again. This time, I spoke out. “Put your safety back on. Those ducks are too far to shoot.” About that time, the overhead ducks left our airspace and headed to greener pastures. Of course, I got the blame for talking and scaring the ducks, but that was the least of my concerns.

We had a long, serious talk about gun safety while awaiting the next flock. His point of view was, “I’ve always done it like this. Nobody’s gotten shot yet, except for the ducks.” I pointed out that we all started duck hunting simultaneously and his “always” has been a matter of weeks. I appealed to the others for a consensus. “If he loses his footing in the muck as he’s turning to shoot, and a broken corn stalk hits his trigger and you get shot, do I call your wife first or the coroner?” The guy interjected, “Okay, wise guy. When do you take your gun off safety?” It was an easy reply. “A half second before that trigger gets pulled.” I asked the other two when their guns went “hot.” Both of them replied, “the same.”

My co-worker and I hunted together for years after that. He may have been a little disgruntled, but I’ll take disgruntled over a shooting accident any day.

This story was prompted after I recently read about a Michigan pheasant hunter with a shotgun on the ground, leaning against their side, and their dog jumped onto them. The hunter was transported to the hospital and is still alive. There are far too many accidents with shotguns. Some people call them accidental discharges, while others call them negligent discharges. When the paramedics do what they do best, it doesn’t matter what it’s called.

For a few seasons, I hunted geese with a young man with a crippled left hand. He learned the hard way. He had his hand over the barrel of his shotgun as he rested the stock on the ground. Somehow, I don’t remember just how, though, the trigger got pulled. Whatever pulled the trigger did not click the safety off also. It was already unsafe. I won’t go into the fact that he was unsafe with his hand over the barrel. My focus today is on the physical safety locking switch on the firearm.

The Winchester Model 1897 pump-action shotgun was introduced in 1897 and featured a sliding safety switch on the top of the receiver, just behind the trigger guard. Many other manufacturers followed suit, and by the early 20th century, most shotguns included some form of safety switch near the trigger guard.

Today, it’s unheard of to find a shotgun that doesn’t have a safety.

Perhaps we need common sense to use it appropriately.

Jack Ammerman has written articles, short stories and instructional columns professionally for over two decades. First published in Gun Dog Magazine in 1994, he is an ardent supporter of MUCC and chairs the MUCC Firearm, Sport Shooting and Range Policy Board Committee.