Stick to Your Safe Zone-of-Fire!
By Steve Hall, Texas Parks & Wildlife Hunter Education Coordinator
Photos courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
“Hunting is safe — and getting safer” is an adage used in hunter education safety programs, due mainly to their success in reducing hunting accidents throughout North America. In the ’60s and ’70s, Texans were involved in over 100 injuries and 30 fatalities each year. Today, the annual average is under 20 injuries and between 1 and 3 fatalities, over 2/3 of which were caused by hunters who hadn’t attended the training. Either they were accompanied or exempt — born prior to September 2, 1971 – or they were in violation of the hunter education regulation, the number one citation written by Texas game wardens.
Of the injuries reported today, the most common involve dove hunters swinging on game outside of the safe zone of fire. Simply put, some dove hunters shoot towards their hunting companions while swinging their shotguns on fast-flying doves, many coming down to land in the field or near a water source. Swinging on game outside of a safe zone is considered a lapse in hunter judgment. In addition to the shooter’s error, others may be at fault, such as companions not communicating their locations to one another or otherwise moving into unwise positions when changing spots or retrieving downed birds. Restraint is, perhaps, the biggest factor. The hunter is so eager to get or take the shot, he or she extends the swing way beyond the normal field of view. Some call it target fixation — focused only on the bird and not what is beyond, to the side or in front of the target. And since dove hunters do not typically wear hunter orange clothing like quail and pheasant hunters, communicating safe zones with each other prior to shooting is a necessary safety strategy.
In the 2019 fall season, Texas dove hunters enjoyed good weather and a good harvest. The opener also produced the most dove hunting incidents in two weeks than there were in each of the previous ten years — an anomaly of sorts. Almost half of the incidents involved multiple shooters in a field firing on doves when one hunter was struck with pellets. Upon investigation, it was difficult to ascertain who actually fired the shell that caused injury. However, it points to the fact that dove hunting is a very social affair for most hunters, and determining safe zones and especially communicating them with one another is a more difficult task.
In such cases, it is imperative that hunters line themselves up to shoot only in front of the line and not to the sides or behind the line — similar to groups of pheasant hunters marching down a field and keeping in a straight line and sticking to safe zones in front of the line. It is also wise only to take shots into “blue sky” and not towards the landscape or ground. Many guides get upset whenever their dogs get close to being shot, so the blue sky rule is strictly enforced. This should be the same for dove hunters.
On opening day of the 2019 dove season, several incidents occurred that exemplify the typical accident scenarios. In one, a dad and two of his sons were in a position some 20 yards from his third son, a 12-year old swinging on a dove that was headed straight towards them. He fired as his muzzle aligned with the dad’s lower leg, which received approximately 20 injurious pellets. Another son standing five yards behind the dad also was struck by a few pellets, collectively, in the forearm, abdomen, and leg. One factor that may have led to the accident was that the 12-year-old was exempt from hunter education as long as he was accompanied by the father. Accompanied means within reasonable voice control, so one can surmise that 20 yards was too far for the father to be able to assist with safety and judgment factors of his young son.
This last dove season also showed a spike in faulty equipment incidents. Usually, we might see one of these incidents every three to four years; however, in 2019, four incidents occurred. Of the four, the one typically covered in the hunter education course is the classic “20/12” barrel blowup. It involves a hunter, in this case, exempted from taking hunter education because he had a military ID, putting a 20 gauge shell into the shotgun and upon failure to discharge, loading a 12 gauge in behind the 20 gauge shell. These errors almost always cause a severe split in the barrel upon discharge — some causing injury to the shooter.
Following the most important rule of hunting safety —Always point the muzzle in a safe direction would reduce incidents to single digits in Texas, with only faulty equipment, mistaken for game and a few other accident types occurring beyond careless handling.
For more information, visit Texas Parks and Wildlife website at: tpwd.texas.gov/education/