Monday, December 8, 2014

Gun Safety, The Remington Decision

This past week saw the announcement by Remington that as part of a settlement in a class action lawsuit, Remington would replace the trigger/safety units on what essentially amounts to almost every Model 700 rifle made. That's about 8 million rifles.

In the long, drawn out affair that is the Remington 700 trigger we've been made privy to a lot of sad stories of people who were killed or maimed by their friends and relatives in accidents that a bunch of folks have sourced back to the trigger safety. Some of the stories are heart-wrenching at the best and soul crushing at the worst. It is without judgement on these folks that I present the following. This is not a piece written as a "coulda, woulda, shoulda" type piece or condemnation of those folk's skills or even an implication that they lacked skills. I've done some stupid stuff in the field, and so have most other folks if they'll own up to it- the only difference is that we're all still vertical.

So I'll present here the "4 Rules of Firearm Handling" for about thousandth time in my career and for at least the 5th time in print. Why? Because no matter how safe you think you are- you need to read it again. You need to teach it, again. Until you recite it in your sleep. I don't take credit for the 4 Rules, they are widely attributed to Jeff Cooper, the inventor of the Modern Technique, which is really a fancy way of saying he taught us to fight and kill with something other than a musket or a Colt Single Action revolver.

So here they are.

1. All Guns are Always Loaded- this does not mean, as has been widely disseminated, that you keep all guns loaded, all the time. It means that you treat every gun, in any condition like it has live ammo in the chamber. What Rule 1 establishes is uniformity of purpose. You don't have to memorize rules for loaded and unloaded guns. Just treat them like they are all loaded, regardless, because some of them are and some aren't and the single most frequent thing heard after a negligent discharge is "I didn't know it was loaded." Rule 1 dispenses with that- they are ALL loaded whether they have ammunition or not.

2. Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy- to further simplify this rule is to say, don't point a gun at something you don't intend to shoot. This rule encompasses a prohibition against all kinds of acts- horseplay, "scoping" for game with the riflescope, and general inattentiveness to where you are pointing a weapon. It is this rule that makes the whole "faulty safety" concept so infuriating. If the weapon was managed as to not point at other people, then the material condition of the safety is irrelevant. That is not to alleviate a maker of responsibility for their wares, but guns are mechanical devices and can, for a wide variety of reasons, become broken, jammed, dirty, ill adjusted and just flat fail- but when the safety fails Rule 2 keeps us alive.

3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target- this one suffers the most. When many people pick up a gun, their finger moves to the trigger as if by forces as inevitable as gravity. I've seen this one cause a negligent discharge in an action pistol match. Luckily for the everyone around, the shooter was observing Rule 2 and the shot hit the dirt several feet downrange. The Range Master was not understanding- disqualified from the match and unable to return to the facility until he completed a hunter education or range safety course. Keep your "booger hook off the bang switch" until you're ready to shoot. You see this one so commonly broken by the Hollywood action star it has become modus operandi for the masses. Bad show.

4. Be sure of your target- even in this advanced age of safety training and an endless stream of information at our fingertips, you still hear the occasional moron talking trash at the hardware store about "brush shots" or "sound shots". Often people chuckle at such foolish, I wish it was an immediate "Get out of jail free" card to whip the bejeezus out of them on the spot. You simply must positively identify your target and, furthermore, what is behind it before you put your finger on the trigger and fire. Hunter education has done much to hammer this home and blaze orange requirements make it easier but there is room to improve as "hunting accidents" still happen.

There are the 4 Rules (with commentary by me)...can you improve upon these? Certainly, but adherence to these 4 will prevent most injuries.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Worst...and Best Shot of my Hunting Career

The fall hunting season had been an aggravation. I had sustained a substantial back injury right out of the gate by hauling an inflatable raft over a mountain goat path masquerading itself as a portage around a waterfall. Neither my partner or I had expected it to be nearly so rough but we got into a position of having half of our camp on one side and half on the other as darkness began to fall and at that time I made a terrible decision. I strapped the entire rolled up raft onto my pack and took off down the mountain. Somewhere halfway down I stepped on a piece of inclined rock and something in my lower back just let go. The pain was immense but I managed to get the raft the rest of the way to water. The rest of the trip was horrible. I even managed to yell at a bear sniffing around the camp that night in such a cross voice the bear scampered off. I was pretty happy about that, I doubt I could have even gotten up if I'd wanted.

A trip to the doctor confirmed what I feared- an aggravation of an old injury. He would do his best to keep me out of surgery but I had to do my part. Which essentially was- don't carry anything and take it easy. I protested to the doc (who was also a hunter) that I had a long anticipated goat hunt planned in just two weeks. He looked at me sternly and just replied, "No, you don't." So the fall just drug on... I went on some hunts, all taking it easy. In the car, close to the road, on the wheeler. Several attempts to camp just led to frustration and a long sleepless night of not getting a wink of sleep. Unable to get any rest, I pulled out of one trip early and cancelled another all together. I will say, that I have some very good friends and hunting partners. Gary was very understanding when I had to leave early from camp and he was excellent about helping me not hurt myself worse than I already was. Another friend of mine who I was mentoring volunteered to ride along on a weekend hunt and serve as chief packer in exchange for showing him how to field dress an animal should we be so fortunate to get one.

The hunt commenced pretty normally. We rolled through several of my favorite areas and seeing nothing, travelled further west looking for the herds. We came to a feature called "Crazy Notch" and on the western side of the most unlikely mountain pass you'll see we found them. We climbed a small pressure ridge and spotted several dozen caribou over the next 7 or 8 hours but none came within rifle range except for one cow. She was about 250 yards away and I believed she'd come closer, instead she vanished. I must admit I was feeling the pressure at this point. We were 6 weeks into the season, the bottom of the freezer was visible and I had a new hunter along for the ride. Sometimes when you feel that internal pressure- you don't always make good decisions.

As we made our way back through the steep sided pass just a few minutes before dark, my partner spotted a couple of caribou on the side near the top. They were traveling quickly and would soon be over the summit. I made a snap decision and made perhaps the worst shot of my hunting career. I snapped into sitting position and looped into the sling. I peered through the scope in the dim light and settled the crosshairs just as the animals stopped and peered back down the steep slope at us. Ka BOOM! I have noticed the sound our Germanic brethren call the kugelschlag several times over my life- that is the sound of a bullet striking the ribs of a slab sided animal. It sounds like a guy whacking a side of beef with a mallet or a bat, or in odd instances like a cardboard box being dropping on cement. At close range the sound of impact isn't very distinct against the report of the rifle but at about 150 yards it will stand out as a distinctly separate noise.

Except in this case that sound of bullet striking home occurred much later than I thought it should. I had made a terrible shot in the fact I had been so focused that I didn't realize that this animal was over 350 yards away. Much further than I thought- the worst shot of my career.

I worked the bolt quickly found the cow again in the scope. She was regaining her footing and started to run to the west on a course that would take her over the summit in just a couple of seconds. I applied generous lead- with the crosshairs standing out in front of the animal- and caressed the trigger again. Ka BOOM! The rifle thundered in the tight canyon we were in and I heard the sound of the bullet striking home again, this time accompanied by a sharp crack as the bullet found bone. The cow tumbled from inertia end over end through the bushes and for a second I thought she might fall all the way to the bottom before coming to rest on a small ledge.

My inexperienced partner looked at me in disbelief and exclaimed, "What a shot! That was unbelievable!". I was shaking badly, knowing that the second hit was a lot of luck and without it we'd be headed to the top to conduct a long and, likely, fruitless tracking job in the dark. We dropped our rifles and stripped packs down to just essentials given the steep nature of the terrain. I dropped my .357 Magnum into my pocket as afterthought thinking it would be a comfort packing the meat back down to the road in the dark and not wanting to haul a rifle all the way up the steep face. We made our way up quickly and had to detour around several vertical sections. My partner was a big guy and much heavier laden than I and I wanted to find the animal while we still had a little trace of light in the sky so I sprinted ahead. When I found the ledge, the caribou did the most unexpected thing- which was tried to stand.  She was unable due to a broken shoulder and spine. I grew sick to my stomach and drew the small revolver and fired twice. I'm certainly not a novice with a pistol but due to adrenaline, fatigue and lack of breath, I just flat missed despite being only a few yards away.

By this time I was growing more disturbed. I take every effort to prevent this kind of thing and I was only so much happier that my partner was still down the mountain. I briefly considered that I just had 3 rounds left in the cylinder so I charged the last few feet and fired a single action shot at near point blank range and caribou collapsed. Finally. Down for good. I shouted back to my partner who had no idea what had just transpired that all was well and that I had finished off the caribou with the pistol. I walked into the low bushes and though about retching for a moment and stripped off my jacket to let the cool mountain breeze dry me off as my partner made his way up and the sun's rays in the West faded to dark. I was relieved. Meat at last.

My partner was in shock when he finally saw the animal on the ground- much larger than he expected. He'd never been this close to any large, wild animal before and its size impressed him. I had regained my composure somewhat and was able to resume my role as mentor as we took some photographs. The distance would later turn out to be 356 yards and a 58 degree up angle. I've passed up much better shots than this on numerous occasions and I can't exactly pinpoint why I took it this time but thankful I was. My first shot had hit a little far back and had destroyed the liver. It was a fatal hit but not immediately so. The second had hit the shoulder blade and due to the extreme uphill angle, smashed the spine. The caribou was indeed only moments from succumbing to the wounds and unable to escape when I topped out and perhaps the time wasn't as long as it seemed right then. I was pretty happy to have the handgun to apply a quick coup de' grace and finish what I started.

Later that night after the work was done and we had the caribou off the mountain, after we had made camp, eaten a quick meal and turned in; my aching back stirred me from slumber. I painfully crawled from the tent into the cold mountain air. There was a layer of ice on the fly and built a small fire. Looking skyward and shivering, the aurora borealis blazed overhead. We had meat on the pole, a fire in the camp and an Aurora in the sky- all was right with the world.