Some hunters hate blaze orange so much they wear it only under threat of state-sanctioned fines. Others consider it a base color in their standard hunting wardrobe, and won’t leave their truck without it.
Either way, no one can deny blaze orange’s brilliance protects hunters. It has virtually eliminated “mistaken-for-game” shooting accidents in big-game hunting and slashed “unseen victim” woundings across North America’s fields, forests, and fencerows. Hunter-safety data verify those claims in reports dating to the mid-1900s when hunting’s uniform was red-plaid wool in the deer woods and brown canvas duck in the uplands.
As New York outdoor writer Dave Henderson claimed in 2015, “Hunter Orange” is the biggest advance in hunting safety since the mechanical trigger safety on firearms in the late 1800s. “Your senses immediately translate blaze orange as manmade, and thus, not a target,” Henderson wrote.
Some would even argue that blaze-orange hats, vests, and coats have prevented more hunting-related shootings than the continent’s vaunted hunter-education programs since Massachusetts became the first state to mandate its use in 1961. But no matter how such things get judged, blaze-orange gear and hunter-education programs have made hunting safer since jointly rising to prominence in the 1960s and ’70s.
Wisconsin, for example, recorded 26 woundings and 24 fatal shootings among 155,000 hunters during its 1914 deer season. That means one of every 6,458 Wisconsin deer hunters was shot dead that season, while another one in 5,961 was wounded.
If this famous deer hunting state had suffered similar rates during its November 2022 gun season, it would have buried 86 hunters and treated 93 wounds when it sent 555,000 hunters afield. Instead, despite fielding 3.6 times more hunters than in 1914, Wisconsin recorded only one fatal shooting and eight woundings during its nine-day gun-deer season. That’s one wounding for every 69,375 hunters, a 12-fold improvement over 1914’s rate; and one fatality in 555,000 hunters, an 86-fold upgrade.
Those who dismiss 1914 as prehistoric shouldn’t assume such tragedies vanished by mid-century. In 1958, Wisconsin recorded a record 26 hunting fatalities in 181 shootings, and the next year it suffered 25 hunting fatalities in 216 shootings. Just seven years later, the state endured a record 300-plus shootings during its 1966 hunting seasons, which included 432,111 licensed hunters during the gun-deer season.
Deadly data like those jump-started Wisconsin’s hunter-education program in 1967, along with strong suggestions to wear blaze orange. The state mandated blaze orange for gun-deer hunting in 1980, and in 1985 mandated hunter education for those born after Jan. 1, 1973.
Hunter-education training is now mandatory in all 50 states, and most states (41) require fluorescent-orange clothing for big-game hunting. In addition, at least 15 states require blaze orange for small-game hunting, and 10 states allow hunters to wear blaze pink as a safe alternative.
The shift to blaze orange wasn’t all by mandate. Even where it’s optional, hunters sometimes struggle to find upland clothes without blaze-orange swaths and highlights, said Larry Morrison, a conservation officer with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, and a board member of the International Hunter Education Association (IHEA). Morrison told MeatEater the IHEA’s goal will always be zero incidents, but statutes and education can’t control every action and situation.
Sometimes safe behavior requires visible warnings, and blaze orange delivers. It’s so manifestly man-made and so striking to the human eye that it cuts through the stress and intense focus of hunters reacting to game. That’s important whether wing-shooting or big-game hunting, given how “buck fever” triggers adrenaline surges that can cloud the judgment of even seasoned hunters.
In an ironic twist, we can trace blaze-orange’s accident-slashing origins to a 1933 accident on a railroad loading dock that nearly killed Bob Switzer, a University of California student working a summer job. When Switzer awoke from a coma with blurred vision, a concussion, and a detached retina, his doctor recommended avoiding bright lights as much as possible.
Switzer’s father, a pharmacist, turned the family’s basement into a darkroom, where Bob helped his younger brother, Joe, enhance his magician skills by making objects appear and disappear on a darkened stage with help from ultraviolet light and fluorescent colors. The brothers, aided by Joe’s training as a chemist, began those efforts by taking a black light into their father’s pharmacy to see which chemicals and compounds glowed. They eventually mixed those compounds, including Murine eye wash, with alcohol and white shellac to create a yellow fluorescent paint that glowed under black light.
By 1936 the Switzer brothers were creating paints that reflected visible daylight colors while also absorbing and transforming ultraviolet wavelengths into that color. The Switzers patented these intense, stunning inks and paints as DayGlo fluorescents, and their business boomed as companies used their products to create eye-grabbing advertisements.
DayGlo fluorescents were two to four times brighter than the colors’ standard hues. They’re also more visible in low light, such as dusk and dawn, and in fog and haze. The brothers next developed fluorescent dyes for coloring fabrics, with Bob creating the first piece of high-visibility clothing by dyeing his wife's wedding dress.
The U.S. military spent $12 million during World War II on DayGlo products for signal flags, safety symbols, buoys for underwater mines, and flight-deck uniforms for aircraft carrier crews. Those advances helped the Navy master nighttime air-combat operations, a tactic Japan never possessed.
Soon after the war, fluorescent greens, yellows, and oranges took over the civilian safety arena, highlighting traffic cones, road barriers, and slow-moving vehicle decals. They’ve also become standard colors for safety vests and headwear for police, firefighters, highway workers, crossing guards, and construction workers. And in recreation, runners and bicyclists wear fluorescent-colored caps, shirts, shorts, and shoes so motorists easily see them.
But blaze orange and blaze pink became hunting’s chief safety colors, and that choice was scientifically driven. The U.S. Army, for example, proved over 60 years ago that blaze orange was far more visible than the standard red hunting garb commonly worn in previous decades. It also far outperformed the yellow caps, jackets, and pants increasingly worn after WWII.
A famous October 1960 article in Field & Stream magazine by Frank Woolner detailed the Army’s in-depth study at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. Assisting the Army was the American Optical Co., the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Game, and the state’s Division of Law Enforcement. Optometrists helped the researchers choose over 1,100 men from the Strategic Army Corps as a representative sample of American males, which meant 9% of them had color-vision problems.
To learn which colors stood out in various conditions and backgrounds, the researchers conducted the test from October 1959 through January 1960. The soldiers had to shoot at stationary and moving pop-up targets within 4 seconds at varying distances and light levels. Using white as their control color, the researchers tested six bright colors: standard red and yellow; and the latest DayGlo fluorescents, which were trade-named Blaze Orange, Fire Orange, Neon Red, and Arc Yellow.
During the multi-month study, not one soldier, including those with color-vision problems, confused Blaze Orange with another color. Neon Red finished second, Fire Orange, third; and Arc Yellow, fourth. Standard red and yellow performed the worst. In fact, yellow proved potentially dangerous because soldiers mistook it as white after 40 yards, which could make a glove or cap look like a fleeing whitetail in some situations.
Subsequent tests by agencies and universities also found that people see blaze orange in brushy or wooded backgrounds more easily than they do fluorescent greens or yellows, even though those colors appear brighter. In addition, orange and pink fluorescents outperform yellows and greens once those colors get soiled by dirt or grime. However, fluorescent yellows contrast more than blaze orange in the more complex backgrounds of construction zones around roads, highways, and new buildings.
Given those variables, the trend today in “high visibility safety apparel” is two-tone pairings of fluorescent orange with yellows or greens. These combinations, often used with reflective silver stripes, deliver maximum contrast in complex backgrounds, making them better for officers and workers who never know where their job might take them.
Tim Lawhern—a retired Wisconsin conservation warden, shooting-scene investigator, and longtime hunter-education administrator—said hunter-safety experts have long seen value in two-tone fluorescent gear. He even wears a blaze-orange Browning hunting jacket with fluorescent yellow covering its collar, upper chest, and upper back.
The two-tone concept hasn’t caught on in hunter education, but Lawhern believes it delivers the ultimate visibility. “We used to do ‘sightability’ tests with camo-blaze orange, solid blaze orange, and blaze orange and fluorescent lime green, and those two bright colors created the most contrast,” he said. “It’s very hard to miss. Everyone saw it sooner. Those colors contrast with each other, and they’re two starkly different colors not seen in nature. The downside is that game animals also seem to pick it out better than just blaze orange.”
Speaking of which, hunters often fear that blaze orange’s brilliance alerts deer, elk, and other game. Scientific studies since the late 1980s, however, prove that a deer’s retina lacks the cones—photoreceptors that provide color vision and fine-detail vision—to see blaze orange the way humans see it.
The deer’s eyes, however, are sensitive to blues, and probably to clothes washed in UV brighteners, no matter if you’re wearing camo or blaze orange. In fact, studies at the University of Georgia found that deer likely see blues up to 20 times better than humans can. That means they see blues better than humans see reds, which says a lot, given how well the human eye sees red-spectrum colors like blaze orange. The deer’s blue-spectrum vision helps it see best when deer move most: during the dim light of dawn and dusk.
The Georgia researchers think deer probably see blaze orange as brown or gray, but will pick you out easily if you’re silhouetted in an open background. High, low, or at ground level, a deer’s highest visual priority is detecting movement as quickly and far away as possible. Karl Miller, professor emeritus at UGA, suggests hunters keep that in mind when fretting about colors or the best camo patterns.
“All that hype you hear about blaze orange or ultraviolet light are minor issues compared to the deer’s ability to detect movements,” Miller said. “The bottom line is that the less you move, the harder it is for deer to see you, no matter what you wear or where you sit.”
Lawhern agrees, and suggests hunters worry more about choosing blaze-orange gear that’s quiet, comfortable, and visible from the sides—not just front and back. He notes that most hunters today use camo outerwear as their core pants and jacket, and throw on a blaze-orange vest and hat during firearms seasons.
“Deer hunting has changed the past 25 to 30 years,” Lawhern said. “Back in the 1980s and ’90s, we preached that you should wear blaze orange on your head, torso, and legs. We would’ve said ‘head to toe,’ but no one makes blaze-orange boots. During the 1900s, hunters risked getting shot when someone saw legs moving in thick brush. These days, deer hunters don’t walk around much, except to go out to their stand before dawn and return after dark. Big deer drives have also disappeared, and few hunters even try still-hunting. Hunters are generally safer, too. You just don’t hear anyone talking about ‘sound shots’ anymore. With all those behavioral changes, we no longer insist on blaze-orange pants.”
In fact, with most deer hunters committed to elevated stands, game wardens also report fewer ricochets and “victim moved into line of fire” incidents. After all, elevated “sniper nests” help hunters see and identify their target, and aim most shots into the ground.
Meanwhile, most states have seen hunting-related shootings plummet. During the past 10 years, Wisconsin recorded zero shooting deaths during six of its firearms deer seasons. It also suffered only one shooting fatality during three seasons, but three fatalities during the 2015 deer season.
Wisconsin’s history and trends aren’t unique. Colorado began offering voluntary hunter-education training in the 1950s and first mandated blaze orange in 1968. The state averaged 10.1 hunting fatalities annually during the 1960s, but since 2000 has cut its average to one fatality annually.
Likewise, Alabama made blaze orange mandatory in 1985-86 and followed with hunter education in 1993-94. The state averaged 9.5 shootings per 100,000 hunters during the 1970s, five per 100,000 from 2000 to 2010, and 4.2 per 100,000 from 2011 to 2020.
Lawhern and other hunter-safety officials, however, urge caution when comparing states to each other, given wide variances in terrain, habitats, game species, season lengths, hunter numbers, and hunting tactics. Oregon, for example, requires hunters younger than 17 to wear a blaze-orange hat or garment that’s visible from all sides above the waist. Everyone older chooses what they’ll wear.
Even so, Oregon’s hunting fatalities and shooting incidents have declined at rates resembling those in previous examples. In a 2010 study, “Hunter Orange Report to the Commission,” the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife noted: “It is not possible to attribute the decline to any specific reason.”
Further, outerwear’s visibility isn’t a factor in self-inflicted shootings, or those caused by dangerous gun-handling within groups as hunters load or unload, drop a gun, trip or stumble, or catch a trigger on a branch or other object. Wisconsin data show that 40% of all hunting-related shootings were self-inflicted from 2008 to 2014, before jumping to 46% of shootings since 2015. Further, self-inflicted and same-group shootings made up 79% of Wisconsin’s hunting-related shootings in the past 15 years.
Still, no one thinks blaze orange is growing obsolete. Forty-one states still mandate it, while Oregon and eight other states still “strongly encourage” its use. After all, hunter safety requires a multi-pronged effort.
“The impacts of all those safety efforts are cumulative, and you can’t easily separate them,” Lawhern said. “We’re seeing better rifles, scopes, shotguns, and other equipment, as well as fewer exposed-hammer rifles with no backup safety. We also see good examples of safer, more ethical hunting practices on TV shows and videos. You see hunters waiting for the right shot, and making one-shot kills. Deliberate shots prevent careless shooting.
“Almost everyone carries a smartphone, too, which reduces shooting deaths because we can summon help faster than ever,” Lawhern continued. “Unfortunately, we’re seeing fewer hunters in much of the country, especially east of the Mississippi, but fewer hunters probably mean fewer incidents, too.
“The list goes on, but blaze orange still makes for safer hunting, and it’s still probably the most important single factor in preventing shooting incidents.”