Firearm and Muzzleloader Safety: Because Stupid Does Not Wear Off

No one likes to read about safety. No one likes to be corrected or scolded. Everyone likes to think that just because it didn't happen to them, it didn't happen. Even when firearms do fail, when there is a scare but no missing body parts, it is the source of laughter and amusement. That is, of course, unless it happens to you. Manufacturers beg and plead with you to both read and completely understand your owner's manual before you attempt so much as operate your weapon. Do you? Do you really?

We assume a lot of things. We assume, for example, that the drugs our doctor tells us to take are safe. We are unfortunately terminally naive in some cases. I received a firearm a few days ago to inspect and report upon. Normally, I wouldn't consider handling, using, or reviewing a firearm to be anything more than a regular event. After all, that is what gunwriters are charged with doing. This firearm is oddly different. Its owner is quite dead at the moment and this is the exact firearm involved. It is one thing to see pictures and read police reports, but quite a different thing when “the gun” that took a life and destroyed a young family in the process in your direct possession.

We have short memories. It was just a little over a year ago that Pfizer agreed to settle for $2.3 billion dollars. Pfizer subsidiary Pharmacia & Upjohn is paying a criminal fine of $1.3 billion, a record in American judicial history. Misbranding drugs and paying kickbacks to doctors isn't something you might think about everyday, but it happens. It may give you a headache to try to wrap yourself around $2.3 billion dollars, but that is what happened. Blindly trusting automobile makers, tire makers, doctors, toymakers, and drug companies hasn't worked out so well in the recent past. Educating yourself and taking a defensive posture is only smart. You might think that the firearms industry is the only industry in the world completely immune to corruption, shady deals, and putting profits before safety. Some gun companies are better, far better than others.

The smarmiest of the lot aren't hard to spot and I've mentioned who they are and the basis for it. In my opinion, there are obviously certain brands and products to specifically avoid, such as "CVA" branded muzzleloaders and the long-problematic Remington 700 rifle, the Model 700 already the subject of countless complaints, some seventy-four lawsuits, and associated with some twenty-four deaths. The Model 700 was the subject of several previous safety recalls as well as related models: the recalled Model 600 and the safety-recalled Model 710. The 700 has been the subject of exposes by CBS ("60 Minutes") and more recently, CNBC. Published in USA Today (Oct. 29, 2010), the police department in Portland, Maine, has become the latest law enforcement agency to stop using the Remington over concerns the gun can go off without the trigger being pulled, according to Portland Police Chief James Craig. See for more extensive treatment of the matter. What a miserable mess.

The manufacturer of "CVA" branded product (Dikar) has admitted in open court to the fraudulent stampings of proof-marks on their recently manufactured product, despite the fact the guns were never fired at all, much less proof-fired as indicated by the barrel stamp. This is not at all what I would call either honorable or trustworthy-- deceptive is far more like it, in my opinion. CVA guns have been the subject of many recent personal injury lawsuits, as you might imagine. See for more detail.

Lester Roane of H. P. White Laboratories remarked to me that in countries where reloading is practically unheard of, some of the most catastrophic failures are equally practically unheard of. It is no thin coincidence. Nevertheless, firearms cannot function without human intervention and if they were not lethal, they wouldn't be useful. The best firearms can only be idiot-resistant, but not idiot-proof.

Most everyone has always heard “keep your gun pointed in a safe direction.” Sounds good, doesn't it? It is a very good idea, of course, to keep a firearm pointed in a harmless direction whenever possible, but that's just part of the picture. Is your holster always pointed in a safe direction? Ever heard of fanny packs, ever heard of concealed carry? If you hunt and use a sling, certainly you know that a slinged gun is always pointed in a harmless direction. Walk, climb, navigate over or around obstacles-- all of that precludes a truly safe direction. If you trip, stumble, or fall-- the safe direction idea no longer exists. For this reason, short sound-bytes and witticisms do not at all cover the bases, they simply cannot. If you want to be as safe as possible, you need awareness and a more defensive mindset. Presume that you are going to trip or stumble, that your son or daughter will as well, and that your best hunting buddy will also. If you start thinking that way, many things start to take care of themselves based on common sense. You'll carry chamber-empty more often, your muzzleloader will be deprimed or decapped more often and that will also be the case for your family and friends.

It may sound like this thing we loathe called “inconvenience.” Yes, it is just that from time to time, but if you want to be as safe as possible, a little temporary inconvenience is such a small price to pay. You might think that unintentional or accidental discharges are “unusual.” Of course they are, but that is precisely what accidents are in the first place: the rare, the unexpected, the not normally seen. We don’t have “gaper's blocks” for watching paint dry, after all.

Mechanical devices fail. Triggers fail. Guns go off without a trigger pull. I've learned to expect this even on brand new guns I've reviewed and I haven't been disappointed. One new gun in particular went bang ever time the safety was taken off. I congratulated the manufacturer on the MOA groups I shot, using the safety . . . now that's an accurate safety. Guns may also discharge when you close the bolt or action. Sure, it may well be a manufacturing defect but arguing about that can wait for another day. The point is that you didn't get hurt nor did anybody else when you closed that action, because you were smart enough to anticipate that.

Not everyone looks at the headstamp of the ammunition they are loading. Sometimes, the wrong ammo gets loaded. A .270 can be fired in a 7mm RemMag, and case failure has resulted. The 22-250, 6 BR, 243, 6mm, 250 Sav, 257 Roberts 6.5-08, 7-08, 300 Sav, 308, 358 22 PPC, 220 Swift, 6 PPC, and 35 Rem cartridges have all been fired in .25-06 Remington chambered rifles, to cite just one example. Headspace rupture, sidewall failure, and insufficient case neck clearance are all potentially lethal problems. A bore obstruction from the wrong ammo can cause spectacular problems with the next shot. Using ammo not head-stamped the same as the chamber in your firearm is a problem you can always prevent.

Leaving a muzzleloader loaded overnight is box of rocks level stupid. It is comparatively easy to load a pre-loaded gun, and people do it every year. Proper use of a witness mark on your ramrod mechanically prevents bench errors. Not everyone does this of course, and too many muzzleloading hunters are incapable of removing their ramrod before firing their muzzleloaders. This wasn't always the case. In the civil war, shooting out your ramrod didn't happen very often. Since it rendered you defenseless, it was close to suicide-- a practice that is generally non-repeatable.

We all know what we know and don't know what we cannot know. That reloading powder you got from a garage sale or a buddy gave you, what do you know about it? I know that it is garbage and it is imbecilic to try to use powder of unknown parentage. It is also unsmart to shoot somebody else's reloads. It is also sea-slug stupid to swap reloading components just because you have them, just because they seem to fit, or just because “you heard” they were okay. Powder isn't just powder, not at all, so if you use something not specifically recommended by the manufacturer you are completely responsible for the result. Mixing powders for any reason is an incredible achievement of spectacular stupidity.

If you have any training in a sport where life-support equipment is involved, you'll remember that a sport is a completely elective activity. If you are on prescription medication that could possibly interfere with your judgment, you abort the planned activity. You abort the skydive, you abort the scuba dive. That's the way I was trained before my first parachute jump, that's the way I was trained in scuba diving. Something isn't right, you immediately abort. That includes not feeling well, a fight with your wife, or just not feeling alert. The only good dive is a safe dive and the only good hunt is a safe hunt. That's what “safety first” means, not safety when it is convenient, or safety if it doesn't cost you extra time or extra money for that matter. If you are harried, stressed, upset, or not feeling well, it may not be in your best interests to carry a loaded firearm. It most certainly is not in the best interests of anyone around you.

It is human nature to try to bend rules as we go along, to suit our convenience. I'm not aware of any doctor that prescribes Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet, or Darvon with the additional note that “firearm use is allowed.” If stuff like that is in your blood stream, you may well be a menace.

If all of this makes you feel a little bit guilty or queasy, then I'm personally delighted. I've personally witnessed many firearm injuries, injuries that could easily have been avoided. Possession of a parachute does not qualify you to jump out of a plane and mere possession of firearm does not qualify anyone to use it. People of otherwise great intelligence can do some remarkably dangerous things; ask Dick Cheney. The greatest room in the world is the room for improvement. We can all improve safety practices, not just our own but of those around us. It does nothing beneficial to dwell on old hunts, it is the next hunt or the next day at the range where we can make a difference.

Old guns in unknown condition are just that. It is also sometimes inconvenient to get old guns inspected or professionally serviced. Is that an excuse? Is that what we want to teach our kids? Merely stating “be careful” or “be safe” is no substitute for teaching and reminding those we love how to think defensively, and proactively. That is the motivation for all this. Who wants a loved one to get injured unnecessarily?

I should apologize for this article, it isn't my most entertaining work. It will likely irritate those who are easily irritated. You might better understand it if you understood the firearm report I'm working on right now. There is no particular rush, as the previous owner is still quite dead. He never lived to enjoy the birth of his first child. That's quite enough, far more than enough, to inspire this article.


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