The shot startled my hunting pals, stopped my heart for about a minute and flooded me with a wave of guilt and embarrassment that hasn’t fully receded to this day.
Beyond the sheer stupidity of the thing on my part, what happened was that while working the action I didn’t close the bolt all the way during the unloading process. On all but the last round I had pushed the bolt forward enough so that the extractor was able to get a grip on the cartridges (this was a push-feed design in .30-06) and eject them smoothly. But with that last cartridge all I had done was shove it up into the chamber and, when I worked the bolt back and forth to make sure I had “cleared” the gun, it remained right there.
I even looked down into the magazine of the rifle (but not up into the chamber) to visually check that it was “empty” before I closed that bolt.
Thankfully, the gun was pointed in a safe direction.
Since that day, I’ve taken to peering deep into the actions of my rifles and poking my fingers around in there like I’m looking for a lost diamond when I unload. I’m sure it looks somewhat silly to the other folks on the range and in deer camp but I think that’s a very small price to pay.