If done correctly, shooting sports and hunting can be safe, enjoyable activities. However, done in a sloppy, haphazard manner there is potential for bad things to happen. Airguns may not fire with as much energy or have as much range as firearms, but they are still powerful and may cause injury or even death. Consequently, it is just as important to follow the rules of safe gun handling as it is with firearms. Know these rules and keep them in mind constantly. Safe gun handling is an acquired skill that should improve each time you use your airgun. Taking a loose, indifferent attitude is inviting an accident to happen, and once the projectile has been launched, it can not be recalled. Your airgun is only as safe as you are.
Some Rules for Safe Gun Handling
Treat every gun as if it were loaded.
The cardinal rule for safe gun handling is to treat every gun if it were loaded. In that way, the muzzle will be pointed in a safe direction and the action open or the safety “on” until the firing situation arises. The finger should be kept off the trigger until it is time to fire. Airguns and firearms do not fire by themselves but rather by an action by the shooter. One famous gun writer has restated this rule to read, “All guns are loaded!” This means that you should assume the gun is loaded until you know otherwise.
Never allow a gun to point in an unsafe direction or point a gun at anything you would not shoot.
Safe gun handling requires that the muzzle should never be pointed at anything you do not intend to shoot. This includes species that you are not allowed to shoot legally or in locations where shooting is not allowed. Fatalities and other deplorable accidents involving airguns have occurred when someone pointed an airgun in an unsafe direction and pulled the trigger.
Do not shoot at a hard surface or water.
Air rifles do not shoot pellets with sufficient velocity to cause them to break up on impact with a hard surface. Almost any pellet or bullet will ricochet from water unless the angle of impact is large, and in many states it is illegal. Never place a target on a board or other hard surface. Plywood and particle board are particularly dangerous because the glues and resins give a springy surface from which pellets and BBs bounce with great force.
Do not cross a fence or stream with a loaded gun.
If you are crossing a fence there are likely to be times when you can not control the direction the muzzle is pointing. Any sort of slip or stumble could cause accidental firing of the gun in an unsafe direction. Open the action and lay the gun over the fence before crossing it. Slippery spots in streams are also hazardous because if you lose your footing the gun may go in one direction as you go in another. It is not possible to keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction under these conditions.
Keep every airgun unloaded until you are ready to enter the hunting area.
It is often an “I didn’t know it was loaded” situation results in an accident. Make sure that the gun is unloaded both in the chamber and magazine (if the gun has one). Open the breech, look inside, remove the magazine (when applicable), and leave the safety on. Be especially careful with rifles that have a CO2 cylinder in place or a PCP that has air in the reservoir.
Transport only unloaded, cased airguns.
Rules for transporting airguns vary widely from state to state and from locality to locality. While not all states require firearms and airguns to be cased when being transported, the vast majority do. A lockable case or a trigger lock in place can also help convince authorities that you are trying to obey safe practices. A surprising number of shooting accidents occur while trying to manipulate a loaded gun in a confined space.
Store guns unloaded and away from unauthorized persons.
In order to assure that only qualified persons handle airguns, they should be stored properly. Someone who is unfamiliar with the airgun may gain access to the gun but not know how to determine if it is loaded or pressurized with either air or CO2. Make absolutely certain that your gun is unloaded and that it is not pressurized. If it is, moving a pellet into the chamber makes it a loaded gun that may be fired accidentally.
Always wear approved clothing and eye protection.
Many states have requirements regarding wearing blaze orange or some other color when hunting. The reason for this is to make each hunter visible to others who may be in the area and to distinguish a hunter from other objects. Because it requires such a small impact to cause eye damage, protective eyewear should be worn while hunting or practicing.
Know your airgun.
The time to become familiar with your airgun is before you enter the field or woods. Know what each button or lever does and why it is important. While trying to bag game is not the time to have to figure out where the safety is and how it operates. The driver of a race car would certainly not be trying to become familiar with the machine during a race, and a hunter should be thoroughly familiar with the tools before hunting with them. Be thoroughly familiar with your airgun and how it operates by studying the owner’s manual.
Never hunt when mental or motor skills are impaired.
Because the human mind is the key to safe gun handling, one should never engage in any type of shooting sport when tired or under the influence of any substance that influences mental or motor skills. Some medications can cause the user to become drowsy or sluggish, which are physiological effects that are not unlike those produced by alcohol. Positive mental processes and precise physical movements are required to manipulate a gun in a safe, efficient manner.
The rules listed above apply to the use of any type of airgun. However, there are some additional factors that apply to specific types of airguns. When using some break action air rifles, there is a possibility of pulling the trigger to release the piston while the barrel is not snapped in the firing position. This could cause the barrel to fly upward with great force and could cause injury. Make sure that the safety is “on” and that you keep your fingers and clothing away from the trigger area while cocking and loading the rifle. Never fire a break action air rifle without a pellet loaded. The piston will fly forward and damage the front end of the compression chamber because there will be no compressed air to act as a cushion.
Jim House began shooting with a single shot BB gun at a very early age. Now, seventy years later, he is an airgun enthusiast. After a 32-year career as a chemistry professor at Illinois State University, he has written extensively about shooting sports, which has resulted in the books American Air Rifles and CO2 Pistols and Rifles. His books also include The Gun Digest Book of 22 Rimfire and, with his wife Kathleen, Customize the Ruger 10/22. Jim is the Reloading Editor for Gun World magazine and a Contributing Editor for The Varmint Hunter Magazine, The Backwoodsman, Airgun Hobbyist, and The Illinois Shooter. Although a lot of his work is with firearms, he maintains a keen interest in airgunning while also serving as Adjunct Professor of Chemistry at Illinois Wesleyan University.