My last negligent discharge of a firearm occurred 40-plus years ago, in 1977 as I recall. No injury involved. I got home that night and wrote it up for my column in GUNS magazine, that entry titled “Anatomy of an Accidental Discharge” or words to that effect. (The term “negligent discharge” had not yet come into vogue.)
Oh, wait, did I say “last”? Um…make that next to last.
Yesterday I was finishing a training course, and we were about to go into the final shooting qualification. A few students had been jerking their triggers. I called them into a semi-circle to refresh them on the smooth, distributed, straight back press that a trigger demands for a good shot. The trigger on my teaching pistol of the week, a 1911 .45 auto, has too short a pull for someone to see from any distance, so I asked a nearby woman if I could borrow her double action revolver for a quick demonstration. Pointing the muzzle 12 o’clock high, and holding it a bit over my head so everyone could see it, I told them to watch my finger taking up the long trigger pull, and the uninterrupted rise and fall of the hammer and turning of the cylinder that would lead to the surprise trigger break a marksman desires.
It was a surprise trigger break alright. “BANG!”
A few seconds after a .38 Special round went toward the stratosphere from a current production Smith & Wesson Model 66 .357 Magnum, I opened the cylinder and hit the ejector rod, and a single nickel-plated spent casing fell to the ground.
How did that happen? It was a “cold range,” all guns empty and checked as such by RSOs (Range Safety Officers) and the shooters themselves, alike. If you have ever taken one of my classes, you know that we go over safety protocols for over an hour, enforce them rigidly, and emphasize layer after layer of “safety nets.” In the end, that’s why no one was hurt when the revolver went “bang” instead of “click.”
Layer one: Shooter checks the gun. This person is a very experienced, very proficient shooter. However, she usually uses a semiautomatic pistol and this was the first time in a long while she had used and carried a double action revolver. Layer two: the gun had been checked by a very experienced and highly trained range safety officer, before it went into the holster. Layer three: I had glanced at the back of the cylinder and observed no cartridge rims between the rear of the cylinder and the recoil shield of the frame as it came out of the shooter’s holster. Layer four: Confirmed by witnesses, I had opened the cylinder, looked down into it, and seen only empty chambers.
What prevented tragedy was Layer five: the gun pointed skyward, in an area where there was virtually no likelihood of a bullet fired straight up coming down anywhere it couldn’t be safely absorbed.
What happened? The stainless steel Model 66 is a silvery color similar to a nickel-plated cartridge case. Three of us, one of us twice, had looked and failed to see it there. On a lot of revolvers, when cartridges are ejected they can hit the left grip panel, which blocks their exit and allows them to slide back into the cylinder.
The big culprit – on my part, certainly – was “the look that doesn’t see.” Closely associated with complacency, it happens when you’ve looked for something dangerous countless thousands of times and seen nothing there, programming your brain to see nothing there when something is. It’s associated with the fortunately rare tragedy where a hunter who desperately wants to see a deer in the woods spots a hiker wearing gray-brown clothing with a white handkerchief sticking out of his hip pocket, and concludes that he is looking right at his intended quarry, a white-tail deer.
Today’s incident will become part of our safety lecture, as the one in 1977 has been for many years. No matter how many thousands of rounds a year you fire nor how long you’ve been in the game, constant vigilance is the price of safety when operating any potentially dangerous equipment, from vehicles to power tools to, yes, guns.