The New Hunter Safety
Hunting is sort of an interesting cultural meme. The percent of Americans who actually hunt is somewhere in the 5% range. This coincides strongly to the amount of Americans who actively oppose hunting with protests and whatnot which is also 5%. The percent of Americans who support hunting is roughly 50%, and of course this means the percent of Americans who passively act against hunting is also roughly 50%. Ask any two people on the street why they support or don't support hunting and there will be as many answers to the question as there will be people asked. The new Hunter Safety has a DVD which does exactly this - a roaming camera goes around and asks people if they hunt, if they fish, if they oppose or support hunting and fishing and how they feel about it. Needless to say it wasn't filmed in Philadelphia. The vignettes range from the strange moral equivalence that puts animals on equal footing with people all the way to the guy who recalls hunting in World War 2 simply because they didn't want to loot. Captain America there looks about 100 years old, and later goes on to talk about handing down the tradition, and the moral equivalence guy who is definitely some kind of faggot later goes on to mention how he protests hunting. Every shade is represented here, and the middle seems to be people who support hunting as wildlife management ("raccoons keep knocking over my garbage can") and the other side talking about how they don't like the idea of shooters around their neighborhood. Neither of the "middle grounds" has ever been a gun in the woods and the protesters clearly have some kind of anti-gun bias which isn't represented in the film.
The middle grounds are the people the film focuses on, there's no attempt to reach out to the anti-hunting folk as they're called. Not anti-hunters, the film goes a long way towards depersonalizing hunting, but antihunting folk. Honestly from the pro-gun perspective this seems strange since the best argument towards firearms is that people kill people with tools that happen to be guns, but ultimately people kill people. Ergo, people kill animals in hunting situations and nonhunting situations, so any protest against hunting is a protest against hunters. No-one calls grandma who accidentally hits a deer a hunter, but anyone engaged in hunting is surely a hunter. Perspective aside, each of the shades of opinion gets a cut of time to teach lessons on hunting. "Don't engage protesters, don't point weapons at protesters which is what they want you to do". Other less extreme viewpoints are treated as scenarios. The woman with the raccoon problem would best be served with a trap, but she understands the idea of an unchecked animal population. Raccoon's predators, for instance, don't usually operate in suburbia. Everyone's back yard is lousy with squirrels because there's no big cats anymore and hawks can't open trashcan lids. The other opinion - represented by the infamous "hunting wolves from the helicopter" video - emphasizes wildlife management. Although I suspect it would have been even more effective if they showed the aftermath of grandma's car hitting a deer. The politics behind that in PA however range from mundane to obscene and the current deer-kill hotspot (Valley Forge state park) is using "birth control" darts on deer. Your tax dollars at work, I can't wait until some kid finds a needle in the grass from a lost dart.
After the politics it's a fairly standard affair showing how to conduct yourself in the field. Two rednecks drinking beer while driving pull off the road to shoot a deer. They take the dead animal, toss it over the hood, and proceed to drive drunkenly through suburbia offending everyone with their antics, conduct and corpse. There's a warning there about how this can get you fined and your hunting license revoked, but the people engaged in poaching aren't licensed anyway and most hunt by night.
My wife said the whole thing was boring, and followed up by a written test. My wife falls into the camp of people who approve of hunting but have never done it. This year will be her first year in the field. My other buddy has always liked guns and fast cars, but never gone hunting. He's interested in the idea of delicious food running around the woods. Both of them had to take the course and said it was largely common sense. I was just blown away by the idea it was a DVD. Back when I took it 15 years ago, it was just lecture.
After a day of massively boring classwork and DVDs, the class goes outside. Frankly I feel like the lecture I got would have better been served by example and if anyone from the Pennsylvania Game Commission ever reads this, I hope they understand the DVD is nice but no-one seriously wants to be the degenerates portrayed as the "bad example" in your film. While the social commentary is interesting, most people would best be served being taught how to actually hunt. The 5% statistic means that unless you know someone who hunts, you'll never be exposed to it. There's people out there looking for the experience and looking for how to actually do it, but they're not served well with the current education course.
The format in the field goes from "don't drink and drive" to actual examples of safe shots. Don't shoot at animals which aren't in season and don't shoot at animals which aren't game animals. There's a walk around the woods to present some shooting situations and what to do in each. This obviously depends on where you're taking the course, but the local one has archery targets (foam animals) set up in the woods. Some of them have blaze orange around them, some of them have no proper backstops, some of them are presented climbing trees. There's discussion about using rimfires against animals in trees (the official stance is "don't do it") and using shotguns and bows for "safe shots". This is where things fall short in my opinion. There's no mention of how to properly move in the woods, or how to actually listen for animals. There was barely a discussion about kill zones. There's plenty of discussion about safety but none about hunting.
I came to the realization that my geocaching buddy didn't really have a real world idea of how a shotgun worked (choke and shot size versus distance). My wife didn't know how to move through the woods. Neither one of them knew what animals sounded like versus any other movement of the leaves. In short, the Game Commission taught them everything about being safe but nothing about actual hunting. If you have it, go out with a friend who hunts. Nothing beats firsthand experience. If you can, go bird hunting first. It's frustrating as all hell to get the aiming down but once you understand it, there's plenty of shooting opportunities if you're in the right place. Move up to small game. The skills you will need to cultivate to making the jump are moving quietly in the woods and listening. You also will take your newfound understanding of how the shotgun works and can apply it to shooting through cover. Ammo becomes a concern here, off brand #6s someone used on doves suddenly won't hold up to shooting through brush. It's no longer sufficient to still hunt, although you can, but the squirrels will stay in cover to avoid you. Finally once someone kills a few squirrels, they should have developed the skills to go after deer, where things like wind and UV visibility factor into the hunt.
The game commission, strangely, doesn't teach you a lick of this.
If you have the chance, the definitive guide in my opinion is Shots at Whitetails. Everyone who is interested in sneaking through the woods and hunting should read it and take it to heart. The best time to practice hunting skills is hiking during the off season. Bring along the squirrel article and look for oak. Look for the dreys. Figure out how to move through the woods. The biggest obstacle for new people learning to hunt isn't the shooting - anyone can do that at the range - but moving and listening and finding game. Still hunting birds is a good intro to it, but movement is what it takes to actually hunt. The hunters education course just had people stomping around in a group. My two biggest tips - when you're looking around, don't move your feet, and when you're moving your feet, pick them straight up and put them straight back down. Don't buy any of this Pocahontas Disney bullshit about rolling your feet or any such crap. You will be much quieter if you follow those two rules. Spend about equal time moving and looking if you have a lot of area to cover, and if you think there might be game in an area, spend even more time looking than moving. Get into the habit of placing your feet so you can twist your body to look around without changing your stance. Every time you move you attract attention, and if you make noise, it's only made worse. Go hiking during the off season and scout the area and practice these skills. Also as much as I advocate earplugs, the earmuff crowd likes them because they can walk around with them off and just shrug them on when it's shooting time. It's entirely personal preference, but I highly suggest wearing the earmuffs or earplugs you plan on hunting with while you practice your woodsmenship.
Finding a Place To Hunt
Pennsylvania has state game land maps in clickable format. These are your best bets. Other states have different formats and it's important that you ask about it when you get your hunting license. In fact, before actually getting into this whole sport, you should make sure there's a place to hunt. The laws are different state to state but I've got a better grasp on them since I wrote the squirrel article. Basically if you're hunting anywhere but home you need the out of state license. This is costly and other states may require you to take their hunter safety course (New Jersey). At very least, before you opt to hunt in another state, try your home state first. Unless you're from Alaska, your state should have a licensing authority, and the licensing authority will have maps to show you where you can hunt. Some states such as Iowa have no state game lands at all because it's all farms, at which point bribing the farmer with a a gift basket will work well to get you permission to hunt on the land. Other states, such a Maine, have their own unique licensing scheme (one license per animal per species) and also permit hunting in the state parks which may require additional fees. The only point I want anyone to take from this section is that you should figure out where you can hunt first, then develop skills in the woods, then take the required class. Enjoy hiking first, then you can learn to enjoy hunting.
Buying a Gun
This also doesn't get covered in hunter safety and it bugged me a bit. The local gun shops do OK, and they're a fine place to learn your local laws. Some states require paperwork on all transfers, some states (Pennsylvania) allow for person-to-person transfers in state. What this means is that if someone is selling a gun to someone else in state, it's perfectly legal to pay in cash for a longarm. I happen to like using gunbroker to purchase guns. For PA, this means shipping it to an FFL, then having them do the background check and then I pick up the gun. I pay the seller for it on gunbroker, plus the shipping, plus the transfer fees. The old H&R my grandfather had was a good example of "cheap good starter guns". It's a full choke 410 shotgun. If it were on the market, it might be worth $50, because I got it with a bent firing pin. It's OK to buy guns in marginal condition if you can get parts for them. In our case, H&R was really easy to deal with. I give them the serial number and a credit card, and they ship me the firing pin. The only gotcha was that you need to be comfortable with gunsmithing to make the most of this. In the case of the 410, that means using a brass punch to knock the pins out, then wrestling with the thing to get the firing pin out because it's bent. The new firing pin was 1/8th, the old one was 3/32nds of an inch. Not a problem drilling the receiver, but do keep in mind you're working on a small scale. But, if you're thinking you will have to spend $300 on a gun to get into the sport, there's plenty of guns out there which need a bit of love and care and are perfectly serviceable weapons.
The old joke between any two hunters in the woods is, "What are you hunting?" "Oh, I haven't hunted anything - I'm taking my gun for a walk".