Go to most organised shoots and you’ll usually find that the shooter has to shoot from a specified position, probably from within a cage or as it’s now called, the ‘safety enclosure’. The cage can be made from wood, fence posts, pallets, bales, alkathene pipe, steel tube; you name it you’ll find it somewhere – whatever it’s built from, it is there for a good reason.
Unless you are in the cage you aren’t allowed to put cartridges in your gun; in the cage you’re facing in one direction only and you can’t turn round with the gun closed. You are controlled in how you load the gun and where you point it before and during the shot. Imagine all the shooters putting cartridges in their guns before they walked to the firing point to save a few seconds; they’d be turning round talking to their mates, closing the gun on live cartridges with the barrels pointing straight at someone’s knees – it would be chaotic and downright dangerous, an accident waiting to happen.
The cage comes in several forms but should be designed so that the shooter can swing his gun from side to side without being unduly restricted on crossing clays and it should have a bar across the shooter at about waist height so the gun can be broken but the shooter can’t move forward out of the cage. Some cages are built with a bar across the top but this could be a hindrance on driven targets and should be used with care to avoid damage to the gun.
Wherever you are, whatever clays you shoot, my advice is to use something to restrict gun swing to greatly increase your safety, along with that of everyone else watching. Never load your gun unless you are in the cage.
When you pull the trigger on your shotgun the idea is to put our lead shot in the way of the clay’s flight and smash it to pieces but what happens to the shot after that? Any shot that hits the clay will be deflected and distorted so the speed and trajectory will change or richochet, the rest will carry on into the wide blue yonder. Research suggests that the furthest distance shot travels from any shotgun barrel is around 215 yards. It is also accepted that shot propelled straight up would not necessarily come straight down onto the shooter’s head but could be blown up to 70 yards off course depending on wind strength and direction, hence the 300yd, (275m), safety zone recommended by shooting associations. At most shooting events and grounds the zone should be a continuous strip at least 275m wide strip along the front of all the stands. The Clay Pigeon Shooting Association has more detailed plans showing safe fallout zones and arrangements for various layouts.
Falling shot feels to the uninitiated as if they’ve been shot at when they haven’t; it isn’t a danger to anyone unless they happen to be looking upwards at the time. Having said that, don’t allow shots to be taken unless you are sure there is a safe fallout area, not just in front of the gun but to the side in the case of a cross wind or behind if your targets are overhead driven clays. Bear in mind the shooters that are slower than you; take into account the wide swinging and late firing guns – don’t allow their falling shot to go outside the safe area.
Now you’ve all read about the massive exclusion zone we need for fallout you’re going to say, “hang on, I shoot much nearer to other stands than that!”. We all shoot at gun clubs where the stands are perhaps a few yards apart and we all been there while shot has dropped on us occasionally. This is a bit different, although not necessarily correct, because we as shooters are aware what’s going on and we’re not the general public going about their business; Joe Public is the person that the 275m safety zone is there for. Our layouts should be such that there is no chance that anyone can be shot at directly but this still allows for stands to be set close together in a smaller area than otherwise thought. For instance, one gun could shoot over an earth bank with no chance whatsoever that a second gun could be hit standing 30 yards the other side of the bank – there must be no direct line of site between the shooter’s position and any other person, be he gun or trapper. The main thing we have to remember is that anything in front of a gun that covers another person must be solid – earthworks, sheet steel, sheds, whatever it is must be capable of stopping shot at close range; straw bales look substantial but they won’t stop shot nor will plywood.
Think about what would happen if you couldn’t see a squad in front because of brambles, think also what would happen if someone brought the stock up to the loaded breech with the muzzles pointing forwards and the gun accidentally discharges into and through the bush – I’ve seen the hole in the ground, believe me – a bush won’t stop it.
Probably the most important piece of equipment you’ll need in the shooting field to make the rest of your fellow sportsmen feel safe is a gunslip. Anyone who looks at a slip will be fairly confident that inside it your gun is unloaded and unable to discharge accidentally. I reckon most people buy a gunslip as protection for their gun which of course is a major benefit when you have no gun rack to lay it in, as well as an easy way to carry the gun from place to place. There are loads of options on the market from cheap roll up canvas to very expensive solid leather slips – I’ve bought and tried most of them. My favourite slip is a hand made leather one with a full length zip, end block, buckled flap, protective fleece, strap and carrying handle which covers all my bases for carriage and protection.
Get into the habit of taking your gun to a shoot in a gunslip and only take it out when it’s your turn to shoot; you’ll be surprised how quickly it becomes second nature. When everyone uses a slip or case there aren’t people constantly looking at guns wondering if they are loaded, who owns them or whether their own gun will be scratched or stood on. When the gun is put in the slip it must be empty; eject your last pair on the stand, leave it open on the way back to your gear, check it’s empty, close the gun and immediately put it away. Things can still go wrong, as you will see…
On one occasion when I first started shooting in squads, I was called out as first gun on the stand, I shot my 10 and turned out of the stand to walk away. As the next gun was called, that person unzipped the case and took out an unbroken gun which was pointing towards the referee. Still in that direction, the gun was broken and there were 2 cartridges in it. Make sure it’s empty every time you handle your gun outside the cage.
Part of the art of shooting is to be able to carrry out our sport without making those around us feel the least bit unsafe. The first impression I get from others in my squad is gained from my watching them take the gun out of it’s slip or case – I either feel completely at home with them because they have obviously thought about what they do or I am always a little bit wary. “Why’s that?”, I hear you exclaim, “They’ve only just taken the gun out of it’s slip – it isn’t even loaded yet!”. Yes – that is exactly the point, how do you know it’s not loaded? The gun may have been laying quietly on the ground and it’s obviously safe ‘cos it’s not gone off – perhaps the safety sears have worked and the hammer has already fallen and been caught before hitting the primers, that could well have been the case as above.
What next then? How can anyone be safer? How can anyone tell if it is safe to stand in front of you while the gun is taken out of the slip? It is courteous to others as well as good practice to handle your gun in a safe manner, that should go without saying, so how do we take the gun from the slip safely? If your sleeve has only a buckled end flap, open the flap with the barrels on the ground and pull the gun backwards by the end of the stock until you have access to the top lever; break the gun to show empty chambers then use the grip to pull the gun out from the slip, always with barrels down. If your slip has a full length zip hold the case upright with the barrels on the ground, (that’s what the block is for in some gun sleeves), stock uppermost. Put one hand one the stock end of the slip and undo the zip downwards until you have access to the top lever, you don’t need to go any further. Push the lever, break the gun and with the barrels downward and still covered, use the grip to pull the gun out of the case. There will always be shooters who take their guns out of a slip without breaking them first and it isn’t easy to explain to them that they may know the gun is empty but you don’t – all the while it’s pointing straight at someone’s legs. Unsafe practices shouldn’t be tolerated – lead by example and people are like sheep – they soon follow.