Hunting has grown safer in America since states sparked long-term improvements a half-century ago by making hunter education courses mandatory and blaze orange standard garb.
Those safety advancements still continue. In Wisconsin, no hunters died from gunshots in seven of the past nine firearms deer seasons, even though the state sent an average of 610,000 hunters afield annually during those nine-day events. In contrast, 13 of Wisconsin’s 502,000 deer hunters were shot dead during the 1970 season. Wisconsin suffered no deer season fatalities in 1973, but then went 37 years with at least one fatality each deer season until 2010.
That might sound shocking, but Wisconsin had even darker deer seasons several decades earlier. During its 1914 deer season, it recorded 24 fatal shootings and 26 woundings among 155,000 hunters. That means one out of every 6,458 deer hunters “died in action” that season. If Wisconsin’s deer hunters still got shot at that rate, the state would have suffered 92 fatalities and 100 woundings in November 2018 when it sent 592,000 hunters afield.
Wisconsin’s safety record improved after 1914, but still averaged 27 shootings per 100,000 deer hunters from 1964 to 1973. Hunter education then became mandatory for those born after Jan. 1, 1973, and deer hunters had to don blaze orange starting in 1980. The result? From 2003 through 2013, the state averaged four shootings per 100,000 deer hunters, a nearly sevenfold improvement in 40 years.
Wisconsin’s story isn’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.
Alabama’s safety trends are similar. The state made blaze orange mandatory in 1985 and followed with hunter education in 1993. 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 this decade.
Larry Morrison is a conservation officer with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and a board member of the International Hunter Education Association. He said Wisconsin, Colorado and Alabama mirror national trends the past half-century: steady accident declines from the 1970s through 1990s, and slower but continued improvements the past 20 years.
He said that trend continued the past five years. At MeatEater’s request, Morrison compiled hunting safety data from eight states with consistently thorough annual reports: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio and West Virginia. In 2014, those states reported 165 hunting accidents, 21 of which were fatal. In 2018, the same states reported 69 hunting accidents, of which 10 were fatal.
“Our goal will always be zero incidents, but we know we can’t control everything through statutes and education,” Morrison said. “Hunter education is now mandatory in all 50 states, and most states require fluorescent clothing for big game hunting. Today you’ll have a hard time buying upland hunting clothes in anything but blaze orange. But to make hunting even safer, each hunter must take personal responsibility.”
That’s no generic comment. From 2007 through 2018, self-inflicted and same-party shootings accounted for 87% of Wisconsin’s 277 accidents during its many hunting seasons, ranging from waterfowl to black bears, and wild turkeys to whitetail deer. Those totals included 105 self-inflicted gunshots (38%), and 135 gunshots by someone in the same group (49%).
Deer hunting accounted for 103 (37%) of those 277 shootings, but small-game hunting—squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, pheasants, waterfowl and ruffed grouse—combined for 123 (45%).
Safer Turkey Hunting
Although many assume turkey hunting is especially dangerous because everyone wears camouflage, it ranked fifth with 26 shootings during those 12 Wisconsin seasons. Turkey hunting also proved consistently safe in nationwide surveys by the National Wild Turkey Federation. The NWTF’s Wild Turkey Hunting Safety Task Force in 1991 found the nation’s accident rate was about 8.4 per 100,000 turkey hunters. For comparison, Alabama’s firearms accident rate for all hunting seasons was 14.2 per 100,000 in the 1980s, and 9.5 per 100,000 in the 1990s.
When the NWTF reconvened its safety committee in 1997, the nation’s accident rate was 4.64 per 100,000, roughly half of the 1991 rate. Seven years later the NWTF studied the 158 turkey hunting accidents reported to the IHEA from 2001 to 2004. The most common cause of those shootings (68%) was “failure to identify the target.”
Marisa Lee Futral, hunter education coordinator for Alabama’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said “mistaken for game” is the most common cause for shootings she investigates, but it seldom involves turkey hunting.
“I get maybe one turkey hunting accident every three years,” Futral said. “We have way more accidents involving deer and wild hogs. Typically, the hunter had just seen a deer or hog, saw another movement right after it, and shot another hunter.”
Likewise, when Tom Donovan compiled Montana’s hunting accident data for his 2009 book “Dying to Hunt in Montana,” he found 67 fatal cases of “mistaken for game” in newspaper reports and other sources dating to 1900. Of Montana’s 544 documented hunting fatalities the past 118 years, “mistaken identity” accidents rank No. 2 at 12.3%.
What’s the leading cause of hunting-related shooting deaths in Montana, which mandated hunter-education training in 1958 and blaze-orange clothing in 1972?
“The big contributing factor is having loaded firearms where they shouldn’t be loaded, like inside vehicles, and on ATVs and snowmobiles,” said Wayde Cooperider, Montana’s outdoor skills and safety supervisor for the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Of Montana’s hunting fatalities dating to 1900, 89 (16.4%) were “vehicle related.”
“We see a lot of incidents taking place around vehicles,” Cooperider said. “We had a fatality in 2018 where two guys returned home and were removing their firearms from the vehicle. One gun still had a round chambered. It discharged and killed his hunting partner.”
Vehicle-related shootings also plague Colorado, said Joe Lewandowski, public information officer for Colorado Parks & Wildlife’s southwestern region. Colorado law allows hunters keep bullets in the firearm’s clip or magazine, but not the chamber, when it’s inside a vehicle.
Even so, Lewandowski said the agency advises hunters to load and unload their guns 100 feet from their vehicle. Cooperider advises Montana hunters not to chamber a round until ready to shoot.
“With the distances we’re usually hunting in Montana, we aren’t taking lots of snap-shots,” Cooperider said. “When I polled our 500 to 600 instructors at our hunter-ed workshops this year, I asked how many hunt with a chambered round. About half raised their hands. Then I asked how many of those with chambered rounds ever found their safety disengaged when they took their gun off their shoulder. About half of that group raised their hands. When a safety disengages inadvertently, you want an empty chamber.”
Todd Schaller, chief conservation warden for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, notes that most hunters afield today have taken a hunter-safety course, and worn little besides orange and camo their entire hunting life. Therefore, one should expect safer fields and woodlots today.
Still, those efforts continue. Wisconsin alone has 4,200 active hunter and bowhunter education instructors, offers roughly 900 classes annually, and graduates 20,000 new hunters each year from those courses.
Schaller also credits other factors for safer hunting, including fewer deer drives, more reliable guns and ammo, more guns with built-in safeties, smaller hunting parties, continual tweaks and updates to hunter-ed curriculums, nationwide consistency in training through the IHEA, and more hunting from treestands and elevated box blinds.
“When I was a kid, we commonly hunted pheasants with eight to 10 people,” Schaller said. “Today you see more people hunting alone or in pairs. We also seldom see the neighborhood deer drives that were common 30 years ago. And all those deer hunters in treestands are shooting downward instead of at ground level. That reduces ricochets and stray shots.”
Schaller notes, however, that climbing deer hunters generate a different hazard: injurious falls. Indiana, for example, recently reported 55% of hunting accidents were related to treestands.
Not every state tracks treestand accidents, but Alabama and Georgia record all such falls requiring hospital visits; Alabama since 1973, and Georgia since 1990.
Georgia has recorded 121 hunting fatalities the past 29 years, with treestand falls accounting for 46 (38%) of them. That percentage grew from 34% of hunting fatalities during the 1990s to 41% during the current decade.
Alabama’s data show accident rates involving treestands were one-seventh of those caused by firearms in the 1980s, but then rose steadily until passing firearms this decade (5.4 treestands vs. 4.2 firearms accidents per 100,000).
Futral and Morrison said hunter education classes increasingly stress treestand safety, but even with that emphasis and specialized safety gear like full-body harnesses, these accidents prove as frustrating to prevent as self-inflicted gunshots. Most falls wouldn’t happen if hunters used a sliding tether, or hooked onto overhead steps or the ladder while ascending and descending.
“We’ve done a big push on harnesses, but just because you’re wearing one doesn’t mean you’re using it,” Futral said. “Most falls happen while hunters are climbing up or coming down, but most of them don’t hook onto anything until they’re in the stand. We stress hooking onto something solid the entire time you’re off the ground.”
Safer than Bowling
Meanwhile, hunting’s overall safety record compares well with everyday risks such as car crashes, which killed 40,000 Americans in 2018. The IHEA reports about 1,000 people in the United States and Canada get shot each year while hunting, and fewer than 75 die. That’s 1.9% of the nearly 40,000 firearms-related deaths in the U.S. alone in 2018.
That percentage is nearly identical to a 2014 study by orthopedic surgeons Randall Loder and Neil Farren that examined firearms injuries treated at U.S. hospitals from 1993 to 2008. Of those 1.84 million cases, 35,970 were hunting related, or 1.95%. Further, only 1.5% of the hunting-related cases involved alcohol consumption.
Jennifer Pittman, hunter development program supervisor for Georgia’s DNR, adds that hunting is the nation’s third safest sport with about 50 injuries per 100,000 participants, behind only camping and billiards, according to studies commissioned by the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
Even so, Cooperider contends hunters can be safer. “Many factors must align for a shooting to occur,” he said. “We could make them even less likely if everyone just followed the four basic rules of firearms safety.”
In case you’ve forgotten, they are to treat every gun as if it were loaded, always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction, be sure of your target, and keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot.
Feature image via Captured Creative.