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Firearms Safety Rule # 5: Check Your Firing Zone

Keep looking. Remember Rule Number 4: Identify your target beyond all doubt.

Ask most people about rule number five and they’ll give you the standard line about not shooting a skylined animal. We should all know the scenario by now …

Late in the afternoon, after a hard day’s hunting, you look up at the ridgeline you just spent an hour bashing your way down only to see the biggest stag you’ve ever seen standing right on the top edge. Silhouetted against the setting sun, you’re torn between getting out a paintbrush and capturing the majestic scene or getting out the rifle and taking a shot at him.

But should you?

You Are Responsible

From the time that projectile leaves the barrel until the time it comes to its final resting place, you’re responsible for that bullet – where it goes, what it hits and what it kills or damages. If you don’t know where that round might end up, then you must think long and hard about whether you should be taking the shot at all. In modern times, most of us have heard about a term that covers this – we’re talking about risk management.

Avoid the Skyline

A .308 can go a couple of kilometres and still cause damage. Sure, it’s dropping faster than a cruise liner’s anchor at that point, but it still has the potential to cause mischief. If you miss that animal on the skyline (or if you hit it in the guts and it passes through), that round is going off into the area behind the ridge. Unless you know and have managed for what lies beyond, it’s not a shot you can take and simply hope that the round doesn’t end up somewhere it shouldn’t.

If an animal doesn’t have a solid backstop behind it, you cannot take the shot with a rifle – please take a deep breath and wait for it to move down that ridgeline.

Except . . .

There’s a common exception here – at least in the real world; I’m sure many of us have, at some point, shot at a possum in a tree with a .22 LR.

This is where it’s vitally important to also be aware of what lies beyond the trees. A .22 LR can still travel a long distance and cause harm at distance – so we need to take a pre-shoot look at what lies beyond. The neighbour’s house? Then it’s a no shoot.

We manage situations like this through ballistics. Maybe an air rifle will do the job – although air rifles also scale in power right up into .22 LR speeds. You might also be able to use a lower-powered option to reduce the potential for rounds to end up in places you don’t want them to. On the other hand, we still need to be aware of humane terminal ballistic capabilities. This is something I’ve managed for a few pest control clients now.

Skipping Rocks

Ever skipped rocks at the beach or on a lake? I would hope so. If not, you need to get out more! Consider this – you’re taking a rock, with likely less than ideal aerodynamics, and throwing it at an angle to get it to skip and bounce over a body of water.

Now, swap out that rock for an aerodynamically optimised projectile and up the speed around forty times (the world record rock skip was 63 FPS) to something like 2600 FPS. You can see why we need to be conscious of exactly where our bullets might be going!

Therefore, large bodies of water at low angles are out, as are riverbeds. Anything hard enough where a ricochet is likely needs to be carefully considered and probably avoided.

Where Are Your Hunting Partners?

Another situation can arise when hunting with another person. Good practice would suggest only the person in front of the group should be actively hunting. If someone is following behind who also has a rifle, clear rules should be in place regarding if (no) and when (never) that person behind can take a shot at an animal they spot.

Additionally, suppose you’re in front and have identified an animal you want to take a shot at; in that case, you also need to positively identify where your hunting buddy is.

The thing with everyone wearing camo in the bush (another reason I like blaze clothing) is that it’s relatively easy for the person following, if distracted, to get ahead of the shooter. Before you commit to that shot, you need to look around and identify where your partner is. It’s not good enough to think you know where they are – just as it’s not good enough to think you know what you’re shooting at. Beyond all doubt is the proper standard here.

Cones of Fire

This is a term that most people who’ve spent any time at a shooting range will be familiar with – mainly if it was on a pistol range. ‘Do not break the 180’ is a rule you learn very quickly. That is, with an imaginary line going out to the left and right of you – you need to ensure that at no point does the barrel of your firearm point backwards, away from downrange, back towards other people at the range.

Now, while there isn’t always a clear ‘downrange’ when you find yourself out in the bush, it’s still a good idea to consider the idea of a cone of fire – where your safety margin is regarding a round not going where you want or expect it to. Therefore, you try to keep non-shooters behind the shooter’s barrel, and don’t shoot towards other people, buildings or anything you don’t want to potentially harm or damage.

An excellent example of this would be out hunting, heading back towards an established campsite or hut, and coming upon an animal just before you reach your destination. If you’re pointing towards the hut – where there’s a potential for other hunters and trampers to be – you need to get yourself into a better position where the backdrop doesn’t possibly include people or property.

This Also Applies to Your Range!

Regardless of whether it’s an established range or simply you and a couple of mates setting something up at the back of the farm for fun, you still need to be aware of how you’re setting up your targets to ensure you have an adequate backdrop and there’s nothing between you and the target that shouldn’t be. I’ve seen ranges set up where there’s a house behind the target! Sure, we all like to think we never miss, but risk management is about the ‘what if’ as much as it is the ‘we hope’. Think about what might happen if you get the shot wrong and send a round sailing off down behind the targets – where will it end up?

Recently, we had a gentleman shooting his .22 LR in an urban area – he sent a round over the fence through the wall of the neighbour’s house and injured an elderly man with the projectile hitting him in the shoulder. This is an extremely bad look for firearms owners in New Zealand! … something we need to avoid. Built-up areas are not the place to be sorting out firearms – centrefire or rimfire – I’d even suggest you need to think about airguns these days as well.

Make sure you have a solid backdrop, be it when zeroing in an air rifle in the backyard or shooting long range – let’s ensure we stay safe and remain responsible with our shooting.

Situational Awareness

Don’t know which way you’re facing? You need to improve your situational awareness – as so much safety is covered by having this knowledge. Being aware of what’s going on around you at any given time is a good thing, but it’s even more critical when you have a firearm in your hands and are considering taking a shot at something.

Modern times are an attention economy, and sadly, many of us are training ourselves out of any situational awareness by spending so much time staring at our screens and becoming oblivious to what’s happening around us. Have you ever nearly run someone down while they cross the road looking at a phone? Or ever scared yourself by suddenly looking up from the phone and realising a car is bearing down on you as you cross the road? It’s a similar concept – but with firearms.

Magnified Optics – a Boon and a Curse

Rifle scopes have allowed us to do a lot more ballistically with rifles – to see further, shoot further and to shoot more accurately – but … that small tube between your eyes and the world also brings with it the risk of tunnel vision and target fixation.

Tunnel vision is what you get when your peripheral vision closes down and all you ‘see’ is what’s presented to you through the scope. Most scopes, especially as they zoom in, reduce your field of view – simply meaning you cannot see as wide or as much as your eyes usually can.

Add in target fixation – the tendency to fixate on what we’re looking at – and you have a recipe for people losing their situational awareness; they’re only aware of what they’re looking at – not what else might be happening in the fluid environment around them.

Keep Looking

Many things can happen in those final moments leading up to taking a shot; animals move, people move, you move – it’s fluid.

You might realise that the animal you’re lining up isn’t alone – there may be a more suitable animal in the group; you might realise that while you have a stag in your sights, the bigger, more dominant stag has just walked into the clearing.

You might suddenly realise that your hunting buddy – who hasn’t noticed you’ve stopped (all that camo) – has managed to walk past you, in front of the muzzle, and is about to get between you and your target.

You might spot another blaze vest coming in from the other direction – as multiple hunters stalk in on that one loud stag roaring through the forest.

Suppose you’re trying to shoot at a moving target. In that case, you’re moving, your cone of fire is moving, and the backdrop behind the target is moving – many things to keep under control in an already stressful situation; this is applicable with both animals on the hoof and ducks and other birds in flight.

Make sure you don’t follow that target right onto your hunting companion – no-one likes to be flagged by a gun. An excellent option for maimais is to drive poles into the ground that limit how far around a shooter can actually swing; though, I’d also suggest that if you find yourself regularly hitting those poles, you need to take a step back and consider your approach.

There are plenty of things that can happen, so you need to maintain your situational awareness right up to the point you break the shot – constant risk management in a changing environment.

Look Close, Look Far

Don’t just look at what’s going on beyond your intended target; you also need to be conscious of what’s happening between you and your target – is there anything in that space that could cause the projectile to be deflected and deviate from its intended aim?

Are you trying to shoot through heavy scrub to get to the animal in the bush? What might happen if you hit a small twig or branch? If there’s so much stuff in the way, is it a good shot to take? Can you positively identify the whole animal in the first place? A head poking out through a small hole in the bush isn’t enough to tell you the entire picture. Trying to shoot around a branch is also an excellent setup for a round to get deflected into who knows where hitting who knows what!

Spotlighting, shooting from or around vehicles … understand mechanical decoupling … the fact that your scope is mounted over and higher than the barrel itself – all these are situations where you need to check your firing zone carefully. I know of at least one death in NZ where a shooter managed to shoot into the top of a ute – the projectile deflected and killed one of the occupants in the cab. Don’t rest your gun on the bonnet, roof or any other part of a vehicle and try to take a shot!

Spotlighting, Thermals, and Night Shooting

While we’re discussing spotlighting, we should also talk about thermal scopes. Increasing in popularity, thermals are a great option for night-time pest control – but they bring their own risks. A thermal scope reduces your situational awareness and ability to identify potential dangers around your target as you’re only receiving a limited amount of information through the scope. Compound this by shooting in the dark, and you have a situation where you need to be very aware of what’s around and behind your intended shooting direction. If in doubt, don’t take that shot!

Often, if we’re out doing pest control, we use a minimum of two people spotting and confirming ID of the target. Two thermal handhelds are used to find and initially identify targets, then we switch over to a torch and eyes (or bino) to positively identify the target species before shooting. No shot is taken until both have confirmed that what they’re looking at is a valid target animal. 

Is Your Firearm Zeroed Properly? Do You Know How It Shoots?

I’ve potentially left the best for last. While not directly a part of rule number five – knowing and understanding where your firearm shoots is crucial. It’s part of the responsibility you have for that projectile once it leaves the barrel.

In my day job of setting up rifles for people over at Precision Shooter, I’m often astounded at the rifles that come in ‘already zeroed’ that are actually nowhere near correct. Maybe a ‘pie plate’ at 100 metres – though I’ve seen even worse than that.

If we’re trying to be ethical and safe hunters, then our rifles must be shooting where we think they are. ‘Good enough’ is not good enough in this area. If you don’t know how to properly zero a rifle, find someone who does. Your local deerstalkers club could be a good point of reference (although I’ve seen some terrible advice on ranges over the years), and I’m always here to help.

Also, if you’ve been watching videos online of people shooting animals at ever-increasing ranges – and decided you want to have a go yourself – then you also need to understand what your rifle is doing at those distances … what your scope does when you turn that dial on top and what you need to be turning it to.

I’ve seen more than a few rounds go much shorter and much further than the shooter expected on our courses – usually the result of some bad data or bad knowledge. Part of owning a long-range rig is understanding how they work. We can’t be taking pot shots and hoping for the best – both for ethical and safety reasons. If you send a round sailing over the horizon because you had your rifle dialled incorrectly, it’s on you. You are responsible.

Check Your Firing Zone

Rule number five is about the responsibility you have when you decide to shoot your rifle – being aware of what you could hit between yourself and the target and beyond the target as well.

If there’s any doubt or any potential for harm or damage, then it’s not a shot you can take. Wait. Be patient. A better opportunity will present itself.

Read the full series on Firearms Safety here.

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