Essential Gun Safety for Hunters

A man safely hunting with a shotgun

Safety is a key part of a hunter’s experience. You need not only to know how to stay safe but practice those skills regularly. When I first started hunting, we spent a lot of time talking about how to hold the gun; where to point the muzzle; and how to load, shoot, reload, and unload without putting myself or others in danger.

Safety for hunters refers to more than just firearms. However, gun safety is one of the most important aspects of the subject for any hunter. Here’s a closer look at firearm safety specifically for hunters.

The 4 Basic Gun Safety Rules

A man loading shotgun shells into a double barrel shotgun

The hunter education course spends a significant amount of time on safety and specifically gun safety. While each state will have a different take on the hunter education safety curriculum, many focus on the following four basic gun safety rules.

  1. Always treat every firearm as though it’s loaded.
  2. Always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction
  3. Keep your finger outside the trigger guard until you’re ready to shoot
  4. Always be sure of your target and what’s in front of it and behind it.

If you follow these rules, you’ll avoid the vast majority of issues and reduce the risk of having some kind of firearm accident while hunting.

These aren’t the only set of standard rules you can go by. The NRA has three basic rules, the National Shooting Sports Foundation has a somewhat more robust list of 10 gun safety rules, and a few states have hunter education courses that recommend what’s known as the 10 commandments of firearm safety.

These different lists of rules will help keep you safe. Generally, you only need to memorize one set of rules. The four basic gun safety rules are the ones I like because they’re easy to remember. However, there are some excellent points made on other widely accepted lists. Here are few worth remembering

  1. Unload firearms when not in use.
  2. Don’t rely on your gun’s safety.
  3. Never run, jump, or climb with a firearm.
  4. Always use the correct ammunition.

With that said, there’s more to firearm safety than basic rules outlined above.

Transporting, Handling, and Loading Your Firearm

A hunter getting his shotgun out of his truck before a hunt.

When transporting your firearm to your hunting spot, focus on two things: gun safety and following the law.

Laws vary by state. Some require you to unload the gun and have it in a case. Others have more stringent requirements. Make sure to check your state’s laws for transporting a firearm before you head out. No matter what the laws in your area are, you should unload your gun and keep it in a case. I highly recommend a hard case that’s lockable, though I understand the appeal of a lightweight, affordable, and padded soft case.

When you park your vehicle near your hunting spot, don’t load your weapon right away. I doubt you plan on shooting any game alongside the road next to your pickup, so wait until you get at least a little closer to the location you plan to hunt. This eliminates accidents while you’re getting your gear around and putting on all your hunting clothes.

Carrying Your Weapon While Hunting


two men safely carrying their shotguns

Carrying your weapon seems like a no-brainer, but you’ll find doing it safely is tougher than you expect. You need to carry your gun while following the rules outlined above. Usually, this means you point your gun toward the sky or toward the ground. Below is a list of the best ways to safely and comfortably carry your firearm.

Elbow or Side Carry

For the elbow carry, often called the side carry, the butt of the firearm goes in your armpit and the firearm rests on your arm near the elbow pointing towards the ground. This is a comfortable carry, but it doesn’t provide you with much control over the muzzle. Only use it when you’re alone, if no other hunters are in front of you, or if your firearm is unloaded.

Sling Carry

Have a long hike to reach your hunting spot? The sling carry is for you. This carry requires you to have a sling (strap) attached to your rifle or shotgun. You carry the gun with the sling on your shoulder. The firearm rests behind your shoulder. Keep a hand low on the sling to help keep control and to keep it from slipping out of place.

Trail Carry

The trail carry is a single-handed carry, where you have the firearm by your side with the barrel pointing at an angle towards the ground. This carry isn’t recommended in thick foliage because you don’t have much control over the muzzle. Also, avoid this if another hunter is in front of you.

Two-Handed or Ready Carry

The safest and most action-ready carry, the two-handed or ready carry is perfect for thick brush or if game can come up at any moment. With this carry, you place one hand on the stock near the trigger and the other on the forestock. The idea is to be able to easily raise the gun to take a shot.

Cradle Carry

Every carry a football? This carry is similar. You cradle your firearm in the crook of your arm with the muzzle angling towards the sky. This carry is both comfortable and secure. It’s recommended by many hunters.

Shoulder Carry

The shoulder carry is something you’ve likely seen before even if you’ve never hunted. You rest the forestock on your shoulder with one hand on the bottom of the stock and the barrel pointing slightly behind you and towards the sky. It’s not recommended if someone is behind you.

Choosing the Right Carrying Position

A group of hunter carrying their rifles

The proper way to carry your weapon will depend on the terrain and the placement of people and other things around you. Remember, you must always keep the muzzle of your firearm pointed in a safe direction.

Choosing the right carrying position is especially important when you hunt with others. You never want to accidentally point your firearm in the direction of another hunter. I usually end up hunting with one or two other people. If we’re rabbit hunting, we’re moving a lot, and I’ll adjust how I carry my gun as the day goes on to stay safe.

When hunting with others, make sure you know where everyone in your hunting party is at all times. Wearing blaze orange will help you keep tabs on everyone. From there, you can choose the safest carrying position.

Gun Safety with Difficult Terrain and Obstacles

hunter stepping over a fallen branch

Carrying your weapon while you cover flat ground is one thing. When hunting, you’ll rarely be on flat ground. You’ll go up and down steep hills, along muddy trails, over fences, and through thick brush among many other things. Carrying a firearm safely through all this can get tough.

It’s important when covering difficult terrain to always choose the best path to follow and keep an eye out for potential obstacles and hazards. If you come to something, like a fence, that you need to climb over or a downed tree, don’t try to get past it with your gun in your hand.

If you’re with another hunter, let them hold your firearm while you get over the obstacle and then take and hold both your and their firearms, so they can safely follow. If you’re alone, place the firearm on the other side of the obstacle with the muzzle pointed in a safe direction and then proceed over the obstacle. It’s never a bad idea to unload before going over obstacles either.

When hunting from a tree stand, don’t carry your rifle up there with you as you climb. Always use a haul line for all of your gear. This ensures you can focus on climbing and not worry about your gun or gear until you’re safely in the stand.

Firearm safety for hunters is about more than just knowing how to safely and accurately shoot. It’s about knowing how to handle the weapon while you’re in the field.

Do you have a personal story about gun safety while hunting? Leave a comment below.

Essential gun safety for hunters



  1. I love that you put the first rule as always treating the gun as though it’s loaded. You never want to point it at another person, even if you are kidding. My family is going to get a few new guns soon so that we can be protected at home, and hunt for food.

    1. Make sure to get some firearms training. I can’t stress that enough!

  2. My son and I are going hunting this fall and we need to get a new gun to take with us. I love your idea to wait until you are further from the vehicle until you actually load the firearm. We want to be very safe, so I think it’s a great idea to find a local class that we can learn gun safety from.

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