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McKean Minute: Accidental gun discharges – More common than you think

Last year’s hunting season was deadly in my home state of Montana. Two hunters were wounded when they were accidentally shot in the field; two others were killed.

One of those victims was Mike Drexler, an elk hunter who was shot by his best friend for the worst and most common reason: his friend, Jay Maisano, loaded a live round in the chamber of his rifle as they approached a downed bull elk. Maisano slipped, the gun went off, and Drexler died in the field.

Maisano has spent much of the time since the tragedy talking about the details of that day. He takes full responsibility. But he also makes pains to note that he ordinarily never carried a gun with a round in the chamber. That day was an aberration. What isn’t, he notes, is accidental discharges. Maisano says that many, if not most, people who have responded to his story have disclosed their own stories of accidental discharges in the field.

Most, thankfully, haven’t ended in tragedy, but any accidental gunshot is potentially life-ending, or at least life-altering.

With Maisano’s experience in mind, a room full of Montana Hunter Education instructors last week shared their own incidents of accidental discharges. Over 80 percent recounted some experience with a gun that went off inadvertently at some point over their years as hunters.

That’s a lot of accidental gunfire, especially at the hands of folks who are certified to teach gun safety. Some were guns that went off inadvertently in vehicles. Others were guns that “suddenly” fired in the field. One or two went off when the operator assumed they were unloaded.

The take-away is that all those discharges happened because the gun handler had a loaded cartridge in the chamber long before or after they intended to shoot. In some cases, the safety failed. In others, they didn’t know a round was in the chamber when the trigger was pulled. In all the cases these Hunter Ed instructors recounted, the incident didn’t have more dire consequences because the gun’s muzzle was pointed in a safe direction, away from people (though in some cases, not away from pickup transmissions).

The take-away: Do not carry a gun with a loaded round in the chamber. Load only when you are settled and ready to shoot. Remove it when you move. It’s admittedly more difficult with upland hunting, when you’re at a disadvantage when a rooster or grouse flushes, but carrying a loaded round requires even more vigilance for upland hunters, walking as we do over uneven terrain, watching out for dogs and hunting partners and erratic-flying birds.

But in most cases, when you’re rifle hunting, you have time to cycle a round into the chamber, aim, and pull the trigger. If you’re worried about being slow on the draw, then load a round once you get set in a stand. But walking and moving with a loaded round is flirting with trouble.

This whole conversation has me thinking, and asking. I’ve been quizzing my buddies – have they had an accidental discharge? About half say they have. So, what about you? I’d like to know how common it is in the wider world. Let’s have a conversation about this, one that hopefully ends with some change in behavior. After all, no deer, or elk, or antelope, or rabbit is worth the risk of accidentally shooting yourself, your buddy, a family member. Or a pickup.

The Selflessness of Access

You hear this a lot – that the biggest impediment to hunting and fishing more often is a place to do it. Access is a bottleneck.

But, is it?

Do we have an access problem, in the sense that there’s not enough real estate to go around? Or do we have a problem sharing the access that we’ve worked hard to get and keep?

Those are two pretty different ways of looking at the foundational ingredient of hunting: a place to do it. The situation changes according to region, land ownership, the type of game we’re hunting, and even the season that we’re in the field. But one constant is that we have a hard time sharing our best spots.

See if you recognize yourself in this scenario: You cherish the idea of a fellowship of sportsmen, each of us working on behalf of wildlife and wild places. You love the idea that we’re stronger as a community, whether we’re raising money for wetlands at a Ducks Unlimited banquet or buying hunting licenses to fund biologists and game wardens.

But if you see another duck hunter in your favorite spot on the marsh on opening day, you are not filled with collegiality. You curse them as slob poachers, or ignorant hacks who don’t appreciate the spot nearly as much as you do.

The same goes for your hard-earned lease of prime deer-hunting land. It took you years to find the spot, negotiate with the landowner, and scrape together the funds to pay the lease. Years more to clear ground, plant food plots, and implement your management plan to produce older bucks with heavier racks. You’ll be damned if you’re going to invite a stranger to exploit all your work.

But isn’t that exactly what we should be doing if we want hunting to outlast our own participation in it? Shouldn’t we offer up spots in our duck blind to people just getting started? Shouldn’t we invite beginning hunters to sit over our food plots and reap the benefits we’ve created with years of careful management?

Before you call me a dunder-headed Commie, hear me out. Those beginners are going to go somewhere, we hope. They will probably spend a few years of frustration, squandering otherwise good days looking for access, maybe inadvertently trespassing, or maybe messing up a public-land honey hole because they don’t know better. If they’re really tenacious, they’ll survive those early frustrations and create their own access and traditions and eventually flourish. Don’t believe me? Look at your own trajectory. Turned out okay for you, didn’t it?

Now look at the alternative. Share your access with a beginner. Show them how to properly care for the place and the resource. Get them started with early success. Share the bounty of your own hard-won access. If you do it right, they will start their careers as hunters from a place of confidence. And then they’ll find their own spots. Who knows, maybe they’ll even share them with you. You don’t have to overdo it, or share a limited resource. But if each of us gave a few days and acres of our precious places, then suddenly, America doesn’t have an access problem.

McKean Minute: When Mentoring Becomes Enabling

A few years ago, Josh invited a neighbor who had never hunted before to join him on the family place. The mentoring relationship stuck, and the neighbor became an accomplished hunter. Then last year, the neighbor showed up with his four kids. Could Josh please teach them how to hunt, he asked?

“I didn’t really know how to respond,” Josh told me last week. “I mean, I’m happy to do it. I really enjoy taking new people out, and besides, I like these people. They’re my neighbors. But we don’t have that much room at my family place, and besides….” Continue reading McKean Minute: When Mentoring Becomes Enabling

McKean Minute: My county is better than your county

Chambers of commerce in flyover country grasp at any opportunity to market their communities to the wider world. That’s why you get such curious designations as World’s Largest Frying Pan (Rose Hill, North Carolina), and Biggest Ball of Twine (Cawker City, Kansas). My friend and fellow Powderhooker, Eric Dinger, tells me that his hometown of Luverne, Minnesota, plans to build the world’s largest nutcracker.

In my case, my hometown (Glasgow, Montana) had the unfortunate designation last summer of being named the most remote town in America. For most rural places, that’s the fast lane to oblivion, but chambers of commerce being what they are—unapologetic promoters—mine embraced the distinction by printing banners and shirts proclaiming Glasgow as the official “Middle of Nowhere.” Continue reading McKean Minute: My county is better than your county

McKean Minute: Step Up – Become a Hunter Education Instructor

Over the next few months, nearly three-quarters of a million Americans will be certified to become hunters. They’re the graduates of each state’s Hunter Education and Bowhunter Education programs, and the numbers are impressive. The rolling  average for the past 10 years is that somewhere around 650,000 new hunters are certified annually through state-delivered courses, many of which are held in the winter and spring months.

Who teaches these beginning hunters? I do, along with some 50,000 fellow hunter education instructors. Continue reading McKean Minute: Step Up – Become a Hunter Education Instructor

McKean Minute: Resolve to Mentor in 2019

I’ve been on an evangelistic roll in this space for the past month or so, extolling the virtues of mentoring new hunters. Hopefully my one-note chorus hasn’t turned you away from the subject, because I have one more post on the topic before I return to our regularly scheduled programming of bad dogs, good kids, and the hard-won rewards of late-season roosters and ice fishing. Continue reading McKean Minute: Resolve to Mentor in 2019

Holiday Gift Guide Part 2: Spending Those Gift Cards

If you’re a sportsman or woman there’s a 59% chance you received a gift card to Cabela’s or Bass Pro and if you didn’t there’s probably a 98% chance you have an old one sitting around that you’ve totally forgotten about from previous years. Love em or hate em, the money is spent and you’re stuck with some decisions to make. Luckily for you we compiled some of our favorite items to redeem gift cards for.

Continue reading Holiday Gift Guide Part 2: Spending Those Gift Cards

McKean Minute: To Mentor Is To Give. Literally

Anybody can look like an ace deer hunter when there are plenty of deer around. Thanks to an abundance of cervids, I looked pretty good to my apprentice hunters this fall. Each of the beginning hunters I took out shot deer. Maybe not trophy bucks, but after all, that wasn’t the goal.

Then my longtime friend Chris asked me to take him goose hunting. Chris is an accomplished big-game hunter, but he’s just never been in the right place at the time the geese were there, and because he’s seen my occasional success with honkers, he asked me to show him the ropes. Continue reading McKean Minute: To Mentor Is To Give. Literally

McKean Minute: Unwritten – The Secret Code of the Outdoors

My friend Pete asked to borrow my 870 Wingmaster for a weekend. He had been invited on a pheasant hunt and didn’t have a shotgun.

So I loaned him one of mine. When I got that Remington back fully two years later, the receiver was rusty and the stock so scratched and dinged that I’d guess it had bounced around a pickup bed filled with fencing supplies. Continue reading McKean Minute: Unwritten – The Secret Code of the Outdoors

McKean Minute: Grip and Grin 3.0

We call them “grip-and-grins.” You’ve seen them, and probably participated in more than a few, that pose with our quarry after a successful outing. I’ve seen you too, beaming like a flashlight while hoisting an outsized fish or thrusting the antlers of a deer or elk to the camera as though they were the Stanley Cup.

We hunters and anglers have been gripping and grinning as long as we’ve had instruments to record the moment. Whether faded tintypes in a museum or time-bleached Polaroids from the family album or digital photos shared by social media, these images have in common the electric joy of unexpected success. The best of these photos draw you in. You want to know more about the moment—where and when it happened? Who took the photo? The story of the hunt? Continue reading McKean Minute: Grip and Grin 3.0