During the 1950s when hunters routinely wore black-and-red or black-and-green plaids, hunting fatalities took upward to 19 lives per year in Maine alone — a terrific carnage compared to today.

These mistaken-identity or self-inflicted shooting incidents often involved relatives or friends hunting together, creating an obvious horror. Imagine living with the aftermath of killing or maiming a loved one.

My father once told me that in the 1950s and early 1960s, shootings were so common that it worried a majority of deer hunters whenever they hit the woods. In fact, some people quit the sport for fear of being shot.

Most deaths then and now occur in deer season, but bird hunters also had a dismal safety record before hunter orange, which is voluntary wear for them except in the firearms deer season. Birdshot lacks the killing power of a high-powered rifle projectile, though, so victims often survive. Because of that, these incidents generate much less news coverage.

In the 1960s, manufacturers started mass-producing fluorescent-orange clothing, highly visible, even in fog or at twilight. It worked so well that in 1967, the Maine Legislature passed an experimental law that made hunter-orange attire mandatory for hunters in a small section of the state during the firearms deer season. Lawmakers later increased the measure to statewide coverage.

At first, Maine law required one article of hunter-orange clothing for the firearms deer season, but later, state officials added a second hunter-orange item, like a vest, jacket or coat in addition to a hat.

In the 1970s, another law required mandatory hunter-safety courses for new hunters. Thousands of hunters have participated in these courses, also saving countless lives.

After decades of annual shooting fatalities involving hunters, it astounded me when a year first passed without a hunter causing a single loss of life. Since then, we’ve had multiple years with no firearms deaths, so people in the know occasionally say that the most dangerous time of the hunting day occurs when driving to and from the woods.

During the last 20 years in Maine and other states, seasons pass when accidental falls from tree stands take more lives than fatal shootings.

No one could have anticipated that statistic in the 1950s.

This deer season, an uncommonly high number of shootings have generated big-time news coverage, and most stories include interviews with game wardens, cautioning hunters to be sure of their target.

This advice is good as far as it goes, but in my humble opinion, hunters must ask three crucial questions before mounting a firearm:

1. As game wardens have indicated, hunters should ask: Is that movement and noise in the bushes really a deer — not a person or pet?

2. Hunters ignore the next big question the most. Does the shooter have a safe background like a ridge or knoll should the projectile go beyond the target? Don’t shoot where brushy thickets are the backstop.

3. After an ethical hunter establishes the target is indeed a deer and the background is safe, it’s time to ask the most essential hunting question. Can I make a clean kill without wounding the animal and causing suffering?

If the answer is yes to No. 3, hunters have seen the animal well enough to pick out a lethal spot for the shot. In short, it ain’t no human.

Remember a critical point. Many mistaken-identity shootings have occurred when shooters felt positive they were aiming at a game animal. The clean-shot consideration offers an extra safety step.

The following anecdote underscores a second reason beyond safety as to why No. 3 is so important.

Twenty years ago in a raging rainstorm on Quebec’s Anticosti Island, I was sneaking down a forest path, with no other hunters for miles, when a big buck caught my eye. He was standing 100 yards away behind four low conifers growing tightly side by side, which concealed the body. The neck, head and rack were visible and a ridge rose behind the buck, a safe backstop, but the neck or head proved an iffy target in such rain and wind.

For a second, a foolish thought crossed my mind: I surmised that the buck’s body was completely broadside behind the evergreens, so it was tempting to shoot my 175-grain projectile through the thin, brushy obstacle and into the shoulder — a much larger target than a neck.

Unless I’m certain of a clean kill, I never shoot, a good thing. As I would see a few seconds later, the buck was not broadside but quartering toward me. A shot at where I thought the body was located would have hit the viscera. No one wants to gut-shoot a deer. Ever.

And the hunting gods rewarded my patience. The buck stepped through the low conifers and then turned broadside — an easy, open shot.

This topic reminds me of another safety measure. Ethical, safe hunters do not shoot at flashes of white or brown because the odds of success prove way too chancy. I cannot emphasize enough that shooters must see the whole deer to place the projectile for a clean kill.

Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes is a writer, editor and photographer. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]