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Are Shotguns Safer Than Rifles?

This commonly held belief is why some states ban rifles for hunting; But the facts might surprise them.

By Jeff Johnston

The Myth: Shotguns Are Safer than Rifles for Hunting

The Reasoning: Because shotgun slugs have lower velocities than modern centerfire rounds, they are less powerful and cannot travel as far, and therefore there is less chance that an errant shot could injure or kill a bystander. This is why states like Iowa and Illinois ban rifles for deer hunting and only allow shotgun slugs or ballistically similar muzzleloaders, right?

The Investigation: I called the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and asked for verification—after all, few people dispute that modern rifles are more accurate and have a greater maximum range on game than shotguns, so it could be that state departments are simply afraid that legalizing a more efficient arm will result in too many deer being killed. But I was promptly told by a customer service representative that “There are too many [human] populated areas [to use rifles]” and that "It's absolutely a safety issue.”

But something smells like a deer gut pile in the Alabama woods.

First off, it’s established that hunting is one of the safest sports. It is safer than bowling. Football, wrestling, swimming and all the contact sports aren’t even close. See here for complete stats provided by NSSF. Most of the accidents in hunting are attributed to tree stand falls and failure to identify the target. It doesn't matter how "safe" your firearm is if you fall out of a tree or mistake your target. So the only logical reason why states think rifles are more dangerous than shotguns is that if the target is missed and a bullet ricochets, rifle bullets go farther making more people potentially vulnerable to an unintentional shooting.

But ponder this question first asked by Todd S. Bacastow, Ph.D. in his study, “Do shotguns and Muzzleloaders Pose Less Risk Than Centerfire Rifles for Hunting Deer in Pennsylvania?"

The Question: If held three feet off the ground and fired parallel to the ground (and assuming no obstacle blocks it) what travels farther, a 150-grain, .30-06 bullet fired at 2910 fps, or a 385-grain slug shot at 1900 fps?

It’s the .30-06, because, although the two bullets would hit the ground at the same time, the .30-06 would travel farther because it's traveling faster, right?

The Data: As Bacastow’s data, taken from the Armaments Engineering and Technology Center at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J., indicates, there is a 100 percent chance that both projectiles will ricochet when they hit the ground if shot at a zero degree angle. And when they ricochet, something strange happens. Because the heavier-constructed, slower traveling slug retains “95 percent of its energy and excellent ballistic characteristics after initially hitting the ground” on average it travels farther in total distance than the .30-06. Check out the graphs in the study for the precise numbers. So if you said .30-06—under the specified shot angle conditions—you are wrong. Shotgun slugs tend to ricochet further. (Keep in mind, of course, that as shot angle is increased, the before-ricochet distance increases as ricochet distance decreases, and therefore the .30-06 travels farther when shot angles increase past about 5 degrees.)

The Anti-Spin: While anti-gunners might use this counter-intuitive information to simply say, "OK then, shotguns are just as dangerous as rifles” and try to ban both for hunting, the reality is, both are statistically extremely safe. The anti's hate hunting and are scared of a hunter's tools, so they will always spin it. Meanwhile, I’m calling 1-800 BullShooters on Iowa and Illinois and the handful of other states that cite rifles are more dangerous than shotguns as a reason to ban them for hunting. If hunters follow the NRA’s rules of safe gun handling, there would never be an accident, regardless of the arm used. Also, many hunters hunt from elevated treestands, which dramatically decreases the chance of ricochet.

The Conclusion: Rifles are just as safe as shotguns. Facts, ballistic data and state-injury statistics prove it.

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15 Responses to Are Shotguns Safer Than Rifles?

Corey Norton wrote:
November 09, 2012

Its not an issue of safety. It's one more step at taking our guns. If you ban rifles from hunting, the next step is to ban from the state. Reason, you have no use for a rifle for hunting. So there's no reson for you to own one. Just another swing at our gun rights

October 29, 2012

As A DEC Hunter Safety Instructor,I find that the rifle is safer then shotgun slug, due to the fact a rifle bullet losses most of its volocity after peneatrating a animal because of mushrooming and bullet fragmenting will travel less> Where a one once slug goes through and barley losses any bullet weight.personally I believe it keeps most of its terminal volocity.

mgd wrote:
October 19, 2012

Cayuga County, NY has added center fire rifle this season. This county has always been shotgun, handgun, or muzzle loader.

Wayne Beebe wrote:
October 17, 2012

Something not mentioned is how a shotgun sabot round performs when fired from a fully rifled barrel. Although not in the .30-06 class, it has nearly the same ballistics as a .30-30 with the perennial favorite 170 grain, yet it is allowed in Wisconsin's "Shotgun Zone" while a .30-30 is not. Go figure.

Cecil Powell wrote:
October 16, 2012

The reason Iowa has the "big boys" is because the only leagal weapon during the rut is a bow!

iichiile' wrote:
August 31, 2012

A 500 yard shot in Ohio? Really?

Doug wrote:
August 28, 2012

NJ is also Shotgun and muzzleloader only as far as I know, at least it was when I left in 1990. And that was the same line they gave us back then, shotguns don't go as far and therefore are safer......

Skinns wrote:
August 28, 2012

Things are fine just the way they are here in Ohio. The last thing we need is a bunch of carpet baggers riding around shooting big bucks 400-500 yards away off the road with a high powered rifle in gun season. Why do you think Ohio, Illinois and Iowa have the big boys?

MrMe wrote:
August 28, 2012

Hunting here in Texas, cattle are always a concern which is easily addressed with bullet selection. A fragmenting bullet rarely passes through but delivers devestating kill wounds.

MrMe wrote:
August 28, 2012

If anti's were able to apply logic, they wouldn't be anti's.

Matt wrote:
August 27, 2012

As an Illinois hunter, I would settle for an interim solution, such as allowing centerfire rifles in elevated stands. In addition, I would say that, since most rifles are topped with scopes, hunters might actually have a better view of most game, which increases our ability to take safe, responsible shots.

Harry wrote:
August 27, 2012

A hunting club I hunt in allows only muzzleloaders for deer hunting because I'm limited to 1 deliberate good killing shot. No chance for throwing lead after a terminal shot at a running animal. Unless the animal drops almost always the hunter will shoot again at the moving deer with no thought of whats beyond the target. The background was only part of the thought process of the first still target. Makes some sense, when I might be one of the hunters who is now in the back ground. Just my opinion! I like my center fires in the right woods and locations. Remember to vote in November. The possibility really does exist that it may be your last hunt with a firearm. IN GOD WE TRUST

LEW wrote:
August 27, 2012

Tompkins County, NY voted against allowing rifles. Thaks for the inforamtion. Your analysis would not change their prejudice. Several anti -rifle people wouldn't even enter the discussion with me. Usually, level headed,but still opinionated. No discussion allowed on that one...

jEFF wILLIAMS wrote:
August 27, 2012

Arrogance. Inorance. KW. REALLY?

KW wrote:
August 24, 2012

Once again, JJ drops the logic bomb...