Shotgun sports are exciting and they offer a great opportunity to improve your shooting skills, but safety is top priority.
The number of kids and young adults competing in shotgun sports has increased dramatically over the last decade. Since my own days as a college shooter in the early 2000s, the number of universities fielding teams at the annual ACUI Championship in San Antonio has more than tripled, and the state of Minnesota fielded over six thousand shooters for last year’s youth shotgun championship. Young or old, shotgun sports are a great way to improve your skill set, make new friends and spend quality time on the range. But, as with all shooting sports, safety is critical.
Trap, skeet, and five stand competitions are typically conducted on standardized courses where shooters move from one position to the next during the course of competition. Sporting clays generally require the shooter to move through the course as they would if they were playing golf, breaking targets at various stations. Regardless of which discipline you practice, here are some key things to keep in mind when shooting competitive shotgun events.
1. Hearing and Eye Protection: Wearing hearing and eye protection on the range should be as natural as fastening your seatbelt when you get into a vehicle. In many cases, hearing and vision loss is irreversible, so don’t take any risks when shooting. Ear plugs work well for most shotgun events and don’t interfere with your gun mount. These can be very inexpensive foam plugs purchased at a sporting goods store or supermarket, or more sophisticated digital models that are custom-fit to your ear and only cancel loud noises. There are a variety of safety glasses available, and many have interchangeable lenses to match ambient conditions.
2. Leave the Action Open: This is one of the first instructions that every shotgun shooter should receive as part of their fundamental training. When you aren’t on the shooting pad and planning to fire, be certain that the action of your shotgun is open. For a double, that means breaking the action, and for pumps or semiautos, the chamber needs to be left open. You should never load your shotgun until you are in position and ready to fire. On the trap range it’s tempting to reload after you fire, but don’t make that mistake.
3. Control the Muzzle: This is one of the primary tenets of gun safety. Muzzle awareness is critical regardless of firearm type, and the same rules that apply to rifles and handguns apply to shotguns as well. The muzzle should always be pointed in a safe direction, and generally that means keeping the gun pointed in the air. There was a trend a few years ago that seems (thankfully) to be dying within shotgun sports, and that is resting the muzzle of the gun on the foot, usually on a leather tab. Some shooters will argue that if the action is open this is safe, but there have been accidents in the past that cost negligent shooters dearly.
4. Trigger Finger: Keep your finger outside the trigger guard until you are ready to fire, regardless of the condition of the action or muzzle direction. So many shooters get into the habit of picking up a gun and immediately resting their finger on the trigger. This is a major mistake that can have dire consequences.
5. Manual Safety: Safeties are, as is often stated, mechanical devices, and those mechanical devices can fail. Some shotguns, particularly double shotguns, have automatic safeties; the safety engages when the gun is opened. Others do not. Regardless of what type of safety you have, you need to learn how the gun operates and keep the safety on until ready to fire. Having a gun in the safe position is no substitute for proper firearm handling.
6. Be Aware: You hope that everyone on the range is responsible, but that isn’t always the case, unfortunately. One mistake with a gun can be your last, and whether that mistake is yours or someone else’s is of little consequence if you are in front of their firearm when the gun fires. Be certain not to step ahead of the line of shooters and don’t go downrange until a ceasefire is called. Watch for unsafe gun handling by others and immediately address the situation. I’ve never been in a situation where other shooters wouldn’t comply with gun safety rules, but if they don’t you need to stay away.