By Gordon Whittington
It couldn’t happen to you. No way. You’ve owned a muzzleloader for years and have shot quite a few deer with it. Safe shooting long ago became a habit.
All that makes you just the person I want to talk to.
In the same way many tree stand accidents involve people who’d never previously come close to falling, so it is with gun accidents. Whether on the range or in the woods, your first mistake could be your last.
Two accidents that victimized dear friends last year illustrate how abruptly things can go wrong, even for hunters who have spent decades handling and using muzzleloaders with no problem. Coincidentally, while these guys weren’t hunting together, both mishaps occurred during the Kansas muzzleloader season.
One of these life-changing moments took place on the shooting range. The guy had loaned his inline muzzleloader to a friend to use for a few days, and it had been returned just in time for my friend to get everything ready for his own hunt.
To make sure the rifle was still zeroed in, a quick check at the range was in order. My friend dropped in a fresh load, then settled in on the bench and lined up the bull’s-eye.
What happened next was catastrophic. The muzzleloader and scope blew apart. Pieces went everywhere. To make things worse, one of those pieces was the end of my friend’s left index finger, leaving a bloody stump. The missing portion of that digit was never found.
What caused this accident? My friend was told the gun had been unloaded before it was returned, but that wasn’t totally true; the borrower had removed only the primer. That might have constituted legal “unloading” for transport during the season, but it was a far cry from truly unloading the gun. My friend had then packed another bullet and more pellets on top of those already in the barrel, added a fresh 209 Magnum primer and then, in squeezing the trigger, ignited a double load. The pressure had been too much for the gun to handle.
Avoiding this should have been easy. But my friend was so sure the gun was unloaded that he’d ignored the obvious warning sign: that he couldn’t push the ramrod in all the way when seating his fresh load. He hadn’t marked his ramrod to indicate when the proper charge seating depth had been reached, so he had no inkling a load already was in there.
Of course, the problem really began before that final load was pushed down the muzzle. My friend had dismissed the first rule of firearms safety: Assume every gun is loaded. Simple miscommunication had given him a false sense of security on that. He hadn’t checked to see if the gun really was empty — and without a marked ramrod, he had no easy way to know. In retrospect, he’s fortunate all he lost was part of a finger.
My other buddy’s trouble occurred while hunting. He was in a ground blind, and he was shooting a buck. The big deer had already been mortally wounded by my friend’s first shot but was still on his feet and in range. Seeing a chance for a quick follow-up shot, the hunter dropped in more pellets, chased them with a bullet and shoved his ramrod down the barrel to firmly seat all the components. He then hurriedly popped another primer into place, found the deer’s vitals in his scope and touched the trigger.
Notice any steps missing from this list? Here’s one: Remove the ramrod from the barrel before shooting.
We all know to do this. My friend certainly did. Yet in the heat of the moment, he forgot. And thus, at the instant the trigger was pulled, there was a clear illustration of Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Like a massively overweight bullet, the ramrod flew forward — and with equal force, the gun flew backwards. The extreme recoil broke my friend’s right shoulder.
Recovering the buck took far less time than recovering from the injury. But my friend considers himself fortunate. It’s easy to imagine how leaving his ramrod in the barrel could have had a far worse outcome.
Let me stress that neither of these mishaps was due to equipment failure. Each resulted from a lapse in focus, nothing more: human error, if you will. And their victims were men I consider highly proficient in muzzleloading. So never assume it can’t happen to you. An accident can happen to any of us — anytime, anywhere. Let’s all challenge ourselves not to become the next example of what can go wrong in the blink of an eye.