Are rifles more dangerous than shotguns?

Published 10:18 am Friday, August 3, 2012

By Sgt. David Dodson

In May 2011, the County of Goochland passed an ordinance to allow the use of rifles from a stand more than 10 feet above the ground.

The following explains the relative risks of hunting with rifles versus shotguns and provides information to promote the safety and welfare of hunters and others.

The true answer is that neither is dangerous if used properly.

The Law Enforcement Division of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries investigates all hunting-related shooting incidents in the state. Each year, deer hunters using firearms injure about 15 people.

The overwhelming majority are other hunters. To keep this in context, there are about 225,000 licensed hunters in the state. It would be incorrect to say that the use of any type of hunting firearm is statistically unsafe with such a low incidence of injuries.

There is no conclusive data available on how many hunters use rifles versus shotguns in Virginia. A reasonable estimate may be obtained by looking at the areas where rifles are legal and where they are not.

The eastern part of the state generally does not allow the use of rifles, while the western part of the state does. Most hunters choose to use rifles where they are legal because they are more effective at a greater distance.

For our purposes, we will assume that the number of Virginia deer hunters using rifles and shotguns is about equal.

One of the biggest concerns about rifles is that their projectiles will travel a long distance. Fired upward at a perfect angle, a deer rifle bullet may hit the ground two or three miles away.

Many people do not realize that buckshot fired from a shotgun will travel over one-third of a mile with nine to 15 pellets released for each shot.

In reality, however, deer do not fly, and typical shots with both types of firearms are parallel to the ground or lower. This means that both rifle bullets and buckshot usually hit the ground within a few hundred yards.

In Virginia during the last five years, there have been 60, two-party hunting-related shooting incidents involving shotguns, while rifles contributed to 13. There were five fatalities that involved the use of shotguns and three with rifles.

These numbers would seem to indicate that shotguns are more dangerous. However, the numbers may have more to do with the way each firearm is used. A shotgun is often chosen for making fast shots in thick cover, while rifles are more suited for making deliberate, aimed shots when there is more time.

So are rifles more dangerous than shotguns? Either can pose a risk if used improperly.

All hunters should follow basic safety rules, such as be sure of your target and your line of fire and keep the muzzle of your firearm pointed in a safe direction.

Hunters should also plan a safe zone of fire before their quarry shows up.

Because of the small number of hunting injuries, we know that hundreds of thousands of hunters practice safe hunting in Virginia every year. Most hunters are safe, whether they choose shotgun or rifle.

SGT. DAVID DODSON is a Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries conservation police officer, who heads up the Hunter Education Program. He can be reached at