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When Dick Cheney mistakenly shot his hunting companion in February, it catapulted hunter safety into the public eye on a scale no one expected. It was an unfortunate accident, but like most accidents, it could have been prevented. The vice president was careless and broke a cardinal rule of hunting safety. He obviously should never have squeezed the trigger when he did.

I’m reminded of a similar scenario that happened to me 30 years ago. A woodcock hunting companion of mine changed his position as we walked through thick cover. I almost drew on a bird that was directly in line with him. Luckily, my pal’s orange hat immediately alerted me to his presence. Had I not seen the hat, I hate to think of the consequences.

Hunting typically causes a degree of excitement, especially when birds are flushing. We have only a second or two to assimilate the information that is quickly unfolding. The brain makes a judgment call, and our body reacts by shouldering the firearm and squeezing the trigger–or not squeezing the trigger.

Because of the lethal nature of firearms, safety is incessantly stressed, as it should be. I’ve been hunting for more than half a century, and I’m never irritated or bored with safety orientations in camps prior to hunting. It’s a subject that must be in the forefront of our minds as we take to the fields and forests in pursuit of game.

WEAR ORANGE Safety doesn’t necessarily refer to your actions. It can also pertain to the actions of others. Because of that, I wear hunter orange whether it’s required or not, unless I’m hunting species that require camo, like turkeys, waterfowl and coyotes. Some hunters think it’s foolish to wear orange clothing; they feel it’s a sign of inexperience or that it will alert the quarry. I disagree with both assumptions. In fact, a hunter who wears orange is far less naive than one who doesn’t.

GUN SMARTS Some hunting accidents occur even though the victim is wearing orange, as in the Cheney incident. There’s no room for being distracted when a group of people are actively hunting or merely walking along. We need to be conscious–every second–of where our muzzle is pointing, even if the firearm is unloaded. Looking down the wrong end of a barrel is unnerving, even if you know the gun is unloaded. It’s always a good idea to put companions at ease by deliberately unloading your gun and announcing the fact. Whenever I pose with an animal I’ve taken, for example, I want my pals to know my gun’s unloaded, so I’ll open the bolt and close it on an empty chamber while everyone is watching. If I’m climbing in rugged, steep terrain, I’ll extract the cartridge from the chamber so all present see me do it. When I cross a fence, my gun is always unloaded and my action is open. It’s a matter of being considerate as well as being safe.

STAY FOCUSED A memory lapse or distraction can create a dangerous situation. I was once in a drop camp for caribou in Alaska. After we got our animals we hunted ptarmigan around camp while waiting for a bush plane to pick us up. The plane arrived earlier than we expected, so we hurried back to camp, set down our shotguns and finished packing. When it was time to board the plane, I picked up my shotgun and, from the force of many decades of habit, checked the magazine. There was no shell in the chamber but the magazine was still loaded. If I hadn’t checked, I might have returned it to the gun case and placed it in the airplane, mistakenly thinking that I had unloaded it when we approached camp.

Some accidents occur out of sheer ignorance. I was once at a shooting range where a man’s gun exploded in his face when he pulled the trigger on a clay target. He had somehow put a 20-gauge shell in the barrel of a 12-gauge shotgun and didn’t realize the smaller shell had lodged in the barrel. He lost two fingers.

Last fall, while packing for a mule deer hunt in Montana, I grabbed a rifle out of my gun cabinet. I was in a hurry and didn’t bother to check it out carefully. I should have, because there were several rifles that looked nearly identical in that area of the cabinet. The next morning, I got out of the truck to start hiking and checked my gun. Imagine my astonishment–and embarrassment–when I realized I’d grabbed a Remington .338 Ultra-Mag instead of my .300 Ultra-Mag. The shells in my pocket were for the .300. We scouted a bit in the prime early morning light and went back to town at midday to buy some .338 cartridges. I’ve always made it a practice to double-check my rifle and ammo before loading a gun. In that case, it paid off.

HUNT WITH A BINOC Carrying a scope-sighted rifle without taking a binocular along is a recipe for disaster. If you see or hear something move in the brush but can’t identify it, you’ll be tempted to check it out with your scope. Heaven forbid it’s a human being. You’ve committed a grievous offense–pointing a firearm at a person. In every one of my seminars, I discuss this scenario and ask my audience how many of them have seen someone aim a rifle at them. Typically about a quarter of the hands go up. That’s far too many. No hands should go up.

BLOOD TRAILS Following a blood trail sets up a potentially dangerous situation, as you have to stoop and bend over frequently to look for blood. Eliminate the possibility of your muzzle waving around by holding your rifle at alert and allowing companions to follow the trail. This is a good idea anyway, because you might need to be ready to take a quick shot if you jump the quarry.

Safety is everyone’s concern, whether you’re waiting in a tree stand, sitting in a duck blind or hiking up a mountain. A hunting accident could change your life forever. There’s no room for error. Even a tiny bit is too much.

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A lot can go wrong when you navigate a fence. Keep your action open and the gun unloaded and pass it to a buddy so you can make a safe crossing. The birds will wait.

Playing It Safe

The right equipment can make any hunting excursion much safer.

1 A blaze orange hat makes a huge difference when you’re hunting in woods, fields or any cover where your torso might be obscured. ($30; 888-455-2253;

2 These multi-lens shooting glasses from Beretta let you see game better under various light conditions and protect your eyes from shot, sticks and other hazards. ($98; 800-636-3420;

3 If you’re in a tree stand, a safety harness, like Loggy Bayou’s Transformer Safety System, is a must. ($80; 870-881-9778;

4 The Pro-Amp BTH earmuffs from Radian let you hear sounds in your environment while deadening the noise from gunshots. ($100; 877-723-4267;