Most blinds don’t have gun racks. You’ll usually see a gun propped up in the corner of the blind or precariously positioned against an internal rail. Securing (or not securing) guns in this fashion becomes increasingly problematic if there is a dog in the blind.
With all of the discussion about gun control as the 2016 political season goes into full swing, it’s important to preface this article by stating the obvious: “the safest place to be in America is a gun club or a duck blind...and the most vulnerable is a Gun-Free Zone”.
Almost every terrorist attack is committed in an area where citizens are prevented by their government from carrying a weapon for self-defense. Yet liberals continue to deny the obvious — that a well-armed citizenry is the best defense against attacks by those who intend to harm us. Assuming this article goes to press before the 2016 elections, I implore you to exercise your constitutional right to vote. Vote for a candidate who will maintain the gun rights our constitution has uniquely preserved for us over the past 229 years.
That being said, duck hunting and duck blinds present unique challenges to hunters focused on harvesting waterfowl. Probably the most dangerous aspects of waterfowl hunting are the hazards presented by the water environment. I’ve read many more accounts of waterfowl hunters drowning than of firearm accidents in the pursuit of ducks and geese.
If you are new to waterfowling, I highly recommend you take a water safety course before you attempt to take off across a lake or marsh before dawn with decoys, boat or waders, gun, dog, etc. I just received the March/April issue of my Ducks Unlimited Quarterly. They addressed issues relating to water and gun safety in an article titled: “Keep It Safe”. Wade Bourne addresses the water environment issues salient to our sport. His commentary is brief, but the critical safety issues he explores include Boating Mishaps, Shooting Accidents, Thin Ice, Driving Dangers and Getting Lost. Wade has a more extensive list you can review at: http://www.ducks.org/hunting/hunting-safety/waterfowlers-notebook-how-to-stay-safe-on-the-water
I’ll address one water safety issue which nearly cost me my life to point out how unfamiliarity with your environment can be exceedingly dangerous. But then we’ll move on to gun safety, which is much more relevant to Shotgun Sports readers.
It was my first solo hunt on the lake in the 1950’s. I had spotted a floating blind in the south end of the lake where ducks are known to cluster. I had dad’s old 5-hp Evinrude on my 10-foot St. Charles Duck Boat and headed out before dawn with my Herters’ decoy collection and grandfather’s Flues. When I got to the floating blind, I decided I had to put on my waders and get in the shallow water to guide my boat into the floating cedar boughs. I was pretty agile at that age, so it was no great feat to roll over the gunwales without tipping the boat. WHAT A SHOCK! The bottom was pure silt with the consistency of quicksand. I don’t remember how I managed to recover, but I knew had I not maintained a grip on the gunnels, I would have been a goner in those waders. Lesson: NEVER leave the boat in a duck hunting environment without knowing the composition of the bottom beneath the surface of the water.
But in the balance of this article, I’d like to maintain a narrow focus on gun safety issues which confront all of us as we attempt to harvest dabblers and divers in an environment native to the ducks but challenging to all but the most experienced duck hunter.
In his Ducks Unlimited article, Wade does highlight one gun safety issue which I think is paramount. “Veteran waterfowlers should also help monitor other hunters, especially those with little experience, making sure they follow basic rules, such as keeping their guns pointed in a safe direction.” My most cogent experience in this regard was actually in the hills of South Dakota, but the dangers are compounded exponentially in the close confines of a duck blind. The gentleman who organized the pheasant hunt started bringing his mature sons along for company. They weren’t seasoned wingshooters, but they were safe. The second year the sons decided to bring two of their friends along. They were guys who had never shot a shotgun before. They made one trip to their local skeet field days before the trip West, then headed for our hunting area west of Gregory. On the first drive, I made sure I was as far away from these rookies as etiquette would permit. I was not in a position of authority to supervise their safety, but I was veteran enough to ensure my personal safety. When they were on the drive, I made sure I was blocking. But when we got back to the trucks, I became acutely aware they were so unfamiliar with their semi-automatic shotguns they were waving the barrels around horizontally in every conceivable unsafe direction, while they fumbled hopelessly trying to unload the ammunition. I expressed my extreme displeasure with our hunt organizer, but he didn’t share my concerns. That night I made the VERY DIFFICULT decision of heading back the 1,000 miles to Michigan. The joy of the hunt was gone, and I absolutely refused to put my life in jeopardy for a couple of wild birds!
I’ve been hunting ducks for over 60 years and hunting with the same partner for well over 30 years. During that time, I’ve made my share of mistakes, mostly in the area of the water environment in which I was surrounded and inclement weather I chose to ignore, but one axiom has served me well: Learn from your mistakes.
So, let’s get more specific. On average, fully 1.5 to 2 hours of the hunt occurs before daylight. And during that time, the risk of gun accidents should be zero. We spend 20 minutes motoring over a mile across the lake to the blind area and fully half an hour putting out the decoy spread. Dick is trying to row me through our decoy spread area as I toss the decoys according to a pre-determined layout, and Abby is running bow to stern in anticipation of the next decoy splashing in the dark. During this time, the guns are safely stored in waterproof, padded, floating gun cases, and the ammunition secure in a blind bag.
Legal shooting time is still 45 minutes distant. After setting the stool, we dock the boat adjacent to the blind, transport cased guns, ammo, waterfowl bags, etc. into the blind and camouflage the boat. By that time, it is usually about 15 minutes until legal shooting: time to take the guns out of the cases, search for the ammunition we plan to begin the hunt with, ready the guns for the anticipated waterfowl activity and locate them in a secure place. It’s these last 10-15 minutes before legal shooting time gun safety begins to play an increasing role in the hunt. Remember, it’s still 40 minutes before sunrise, and you probably can’t tell the difference between duck species as they pile into the decoys nor can you properly identify ammunition as you load your duck gun.
I nearly blew up my 1940 Ithaca Model 37 in this pre-dawn light. Actually, the dangerous scenario began to unfold in the Duck Hunters room in the lodge. Over the years, I’ve accumulated an assortment of ammunition in every gauge but 28 and .410. Many boxes of ammunition are Bismuth and Nice Shot handloads, and a good many are not in the original boxes. It was a last-minute decision to take my rainy day 12-gauge Ithaca, so at 5:45 a.m. I found myself hastily stuffing a handful of shells in the pockets of my parka. Well over an hour later, in that dangerous 15 minutes before legal shooting, I fed a round in the chamber and fumbled to get two rounds to stay in the magazine. Fortunately, the early morning shooting opportunity didn’t occur, so at first coffee time I decided to investigate the poor fit I had experienced when I fed the Ithaca’s magazine. SHOCK! The two shells which popped out of the magazine and chamber were PURPLE! Need I say more?
Most blinds don’t have gun racks. You’ll usually see a gun propped up in the corner of the blind, or precariously positioned against an internal rail, or even laying on an open area of one of the seats in the blind. Securing (or not securing) guns in this fashion becomes increasingly problematic if there is a dog in the blind. And, if there isn’t now, at some point in your duck hunting career you'll add a canine companion. I can assure you, dogs don’t understand gun safety. At the point in the hunt when you are most distracted by approaching waterfowl when you start blowing on a duck or goose call and ducks are hovering over the decoys, many dogs will move around the blind with reckless abandon. I know, you are supposed to train the dog to stay in place until he is sent for a retrieve, but if you have trained many retrievers, you know protocol can go out the window when ducks are over the decoys. If the guns aren’t secure, you're inviting an accidental discharge.
While there are certainly safety considerations when you are the only hunter in the blind, the risks increase exponentially as the number of hunters expands. I cringe when I see a photo of a pit blind with multiple hunters pointing their barrels skyward attempting to intercept a flock of geese directly overhead. We rarely hunt with more than two hunters in the blind, and on the rare occasion when there are three, we’re all more concerned with safety than we are with hunting ducks.
Dick and I stand shoulder to shoulder when shooting opportunities arise, and we instinctively know the zones of safety which limit our range of motion with our duck guns. We rarely shoot at the same bird unless it is directly out in front of the blind. But I cringe when I see photos of multiple waterfowl hunters shooting from the same blind or blinds in close proximity to each other. Safety risks increase dramatically as the number of hunters goes up.
So now you’ve shot a duck with steel shot, and more often than not, it hits the water diving and swimming. Duck dogs are great for retrieving incapacitated birds, but catching a crippled bird which is running and flapping its way towards the center of the lake can put your canine companion at great risk. Confusion reigns supreme when a crippled duck or goose is down outside of the decoys, and the hunters scramble to board their duck hunting craft in an attempt to run down the game bird. Dick is in charge of unloading his Ruger before we board the boat, and I’m in charge of launching and operating the boat. We NEVER board the boat with a loaded gun. There are game laws which strictly govern this process, but game laws won’t protect you from a poor gun-handling decision when you are frantically trying to catch up to and dispatch a wounded duck or goose. Don’t load the gun and attempt to shoot at the swimming duck until the motor is turned off. And, never attempt to dispatch the bird after your dog goes overboard for the retrieve.
Your choice of guns can impact the level of risk you assume each time you hunt waterfowl. Semi-automatics have been the choice of many since the genius of John Browning impacted our world. The break barrel guns may not be much easier to load, but they are significantly easier to unload. And, they certainly are easier to identify when they are safe. They can be cumbersome to handle in the tight quarters of a blind. But everything considered, I rate our double barrel designs as the safest, followed by the pump, with semi-autos at the bottom of the safety scale. You are free to weigh in and disagree.
But now it’s time to call it quits for the day, so you put your guns in their cases and begin the process of picking up the decoys. There's one more safety risk you need to consider. Several years ago, on a day that ended in inclement weather, we hurriedly picked up the deeks and headed for the lodge. The girls had the cars packed, and it was late, so there wasn’t time to even clean the guns before we headed back to Midland. That evening, I unpacked my gear and reminded myself I had better clean that old damp fowler and dry out the gun case before rust started to set in. Fortunately, I ALWAYS check a gun for ammunition even when I know it’s unloaded. IT WASN’T! I honestly don’t know how it happened except it was obviously the result of CARELESSNESS.
Naturally, the design of the blind plays a significant role in gun safety. Our permanent shore blind has a single bench seat, where the two hunters sit side-by-side, facing the decoy spread. I have a portable boat blind option, and I can assure you it significantly increases safety risks. If you are considering a boat blind, and there will be more than one hunter and his dog using it, please give considerable amount of thought to how you are going to maximize safety for the hunters and dog. It can be a challenge and would require much more space than we have here to consider all of the safety ramifications.
Above: Your choice of guns can impact the level of rish you assume each time you hunt waterfow.
I’ve highlighted just a few of the many safety risks which I’ve tried to minimize over the years, and I’m sure you could add a lengthy list of your own. I implore you to write down your personal areas of concern, review them just before next season and share them with fellow waterfowlers. You’ll be glad you did. SS
Ron Jones is a retired pharmacist of 49 years who confesses his first love after family and God are shotguns and hunting. His first shotgun experience was his grandfather’s 1911 Ithaca Flues 20, and that experience nearly caused him to look for more pleasurable avocations. He admits to missing all 50 targets his father threw with their Remington hand trap, and the experience resulted in a headache which wouldn’t quit. But his love for guns, particularly vintage scatterguns, has remained with him in the ensuing 60 years. Our heritage is important. Preserving and embracing the values and traditions which our forefathers have handed down will enrich the experiences of those who follow. In some small measure, Ron hopes to contribute to that body of knowledge the younger generation embraces.