Tips & Hints for November 2012

The Safety Habit

The Safety Habit

28 November 2012


Accidents or injuries attributable to experienced air rifle shooters are extremely rare. A shooting colleague of mine once made a passing comment which has always stuck in my mind. He said "There is no such thing as an accident with a gun ... there can only be negligence". The more I reflected on this, the more I had to concur. The key to safe gun handling is discipline and habit. Many of the "bad news" tales we read in a press all too eager to condemn gun ownership have little to do with safety. Most are deliberate criminal acts with "malice aforethought". Sadly, we occasionally hear of  tragedies (usually involving children) which are the direct result of negligence on the part of the guns owner. One problem, I suspect, is that some people under-estimate how little power is needed to puncture even a human skull or vital organ. The gun owner who fails to acknowledge the latent danger of a pellet expelled at 12 ft/lb from a muzzle shouldn't really own an air rifle. Thankfully, the majority of airgun owners fully understand this. Safety advice for the air rifle shooter is abundant. The BASC Codes Of Practice are excellent and should be made compulsory reading for any first-time airgun buyer. I'm lucky to have been shooting air rifles safely for well over 30 years. Luck is probably the wrong description. It's because I have the safety "habit". Let me describe some of the habits I've developed over the years which are now “second nature”.

Let's start with the gun itself. There are few guns on the shelf now without a safety catch and I always insist that any newcomer I teach to shoot has one on their gun. The catch disables the trigger mechanism until the shooter makes a conscious decision to fire. You note I said “few” as, unbelievably, there are still some unsafe guns on the market. As someone responsible for the Health & Safety of some 200 employees in my 'day job' I hold a NEBOSH qualification. I was taught the four layers to the structure of a risk/hazard management hierarchy. Eliminate, Reduce, Isolate or Contain (remember the acronym ERIC). The only way to fully eliminate the risk of an accidental, un-intentional shot is to not have a gun. Not an option for me! The safety catch, though, properly used reduces risk. Why have a gun without one? Even with one, you need discipline and habit. Some safety catches automatically engage once the gun is cocked. This is common on modern spring-powered rifles such as the Weihrauch HW97. A brilliant safety feature. Other guns, like my multi-shot BSA Ultra SE or HW100KS rely on the shooter to engage the catch. This is the first safety habit to learn. Dis-engage safety, shoot, cock, engage safety. Over and over until it becomes second nature ... and it will. If I didn't have a safety catch, I would be forced to hunt without a pellet in the breech. This would be the only acceptable way to move around my permission. Which would mean that I would have to cock the gun when an opportunity presented itself. This would both disturb quarry and delay my reaction. Again ... why not have a gun with a safety catch which can be slipped off swiftly and innocuously to engage the trigger? 

I'm not fussy enough to weigh and measure pellets. Life is too short, but I do check the integrity of each pellet before I load it, either in a spring gun breech or a PCP magazine. Distorted pellets can be "fliers". Pellet transport is therefore important. A proper container or pouch will minimise damage to pellet skirts. True safety means knowing exactly where your pellet will go when it leaves the rifle muzzle. That also means knowing your shooting ground intimately. Where are the backstops? Where are the risk areas ... footpaths, livestock, buildings, roads? I will never shoot over ground until I've explored it closely. Even with a legal limit air rifle.

Checking your rifle's zero regularly is very important in managing safety. Not just to ensure clean despatch of quarry but also to avoid wayward shots. It is rare for such a low powered gun to shift zero to an extent that would endanger anyone or anything .. but it is that habitual zero-check which tells the shooter that the rifle is aligned properly and working safely in every respect. It's as important as checking the tyre pressures on your car.

Walking around your shoot with a rifle is generally the time of highest risk. I always stalk with the safety catch engaged. It will never be disengaged until quarry is actually in my sights (i.e. I intend to shoot). Even when rough shooting. This self-discipline means that you have to make a conscious decision to disengage the safety catch. It becomes habit ... but gives you that split second to re-consider the shot in all its aspects. Quarry recognition, it's presentation and a suitable backstop need to be confirmed in milliseconds before releasing the shot. With the safety catch engaged while walking, trip hazards and stumbles present less risk of accidental discharge. My finger will never be on the trigger anyway until I'm ready to shoot. It will be held outside the trigger guard. Habit. 

Elevated shots, into trees or onto rooftops, need to be very carefully considered. Do you know what is beyond your target, on the blind side? Can you be sure there are no people or livestock? If you're not sure, you shouldn't shoot.

Air rifle safety isn't just about using the rifle. It's also about conduct and sensible behaviour. Such as never pointing a muzzle at anything you don't intend to shoot. It's about carrying your gun "muzzle-down" while walking, even when you're on your own. Habit. That word again. So ingrained and instinctive in me that when my lurcher is ranging around me, the gun barrel is never in a position where it could accidentally injure the dog. Sometimes the barrel is up, as in slung over the shoulder, safety catch on. If ... and this occasionally happens ... I bump into a stranger or trespasser, I will drop the muzzle to the ground, discharge the pellet, withdraw the magazine and shoulder the gun. I will explain that the gun is "inactive" and that they are safe. Then I'll explain that they are walking in area where I could be shooting and that I have written permission of access in my possession. Do they? They usually leave swiftly if they haven't. If they claim they have, I will call the landowner on my mobile to verify.

Crossing barriers is another high risk area. Climbing gates, negotiating stiles or traversing fences .. particularly barbed wire. The gun should be passed across, safety catch on, then recovered when you're safely over and reloaded. Some would say that the magazine should be removed but as an experienced hunter, I can't hold by this as being practical. I frequently cross barriers to creep up on warrens and to discharge the rifle to clear the breech before crossing would risk disturbing my quarry. It can also introduce another danger. That of double-loading a pellet when you restore the magazine. 

Another discipline .. another habit to learn ..  is to discharge the rifle before packing it into the gun-slip when you finish hunting. Fire the pellet into the ground, remove the magazine, then fire it again. Just to be sure. All it costs is air. When I get home, my air rifles (legal limit or FAC) are locked in a gun cabinet. Teens are notoriously inquisitive around air guns. I know .. unbelievably, I was one once! Better to remove any temptation.

My final point is about insurance. BASC and other reputable shooting organisations (NGO, NOBS, CLA etc) will insure your activity for a pittance. You wouldn't drive a motor vehicle without cover, so why shoot a gun without cover? A good driver hopefully never has to call upon that insurance cover. Nor should a safe shooter. 

Please. For the sake of our sport, our reputation, your own well-being and the friends and family around you ... make safety a "habit". 

Ian Barnett
November 2012