As of 2021, 15.2 million Americans hold hunting licenses, allowing them to participate in a time-honored tradition and treasured pastime. Because of the efforts of organizations like the International Hunter Education Association (IHEA) and hunting and wildlife education programs, hunting has become even safer, and injuries have significantly decreased over the past several decades.
We’ve tracked down hunting accident statistics published by various hunting and safety-related organizations, media, and academic research teams. Using the data we’ve found, we hope to shed light on the actual injury risk while participating in one of our country’s favorite outdoor activities.
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What Qualifies as a Hunting Accident?
By standard definition, a hunting accident is when someone sustains an injury, whether fatal or non-fatal, during hunting activities. The most common causes of hunting incidents are tree stand falls and accidental discharge of a firearm or bow.
Hunters must follow strict safety protocols while handling firearms, but accidents can happen when hunters ignore the rules. Gunshot injuries occur when a hunter fails to identify the target or recklessly swings their gun toward game. Careless handling of firearms can also cause self-inflicted injuries if the weapon discharges unintentionally.
Injuries from tree stand accidents far outweigh the number of firearm-related incidents. Falls from ten to 30 feet high can be fatal or disabling, which is why hunter education programs emphasize the necessity of using the proper safety gear at all times.
Many states require a hunter education certificate to obtain a hunting license, which shows that the applicant has learned proper firearm handling, ethical shot placement, and state regulations. Even if your state doesn’t require it, you should strongly consider taking a class because it gives you the opportunity to learn from experienced hunters.
Fatal Hunting Accident Statistics
According to a report by the National Safety Council, the odds of dying from an accidental gun discharge in the U.S. are 1 in 7,998. When you narrow those accidents down to hunting, specifically, the chances become even smaller. The IHEA reports that fewer than 100 hunters die yearly from firearm accidents.
Educational programs on firearm safety have had a significant role in bringing accidental fatalities down by 42% over the last 20 years.
While hunters should be mindful of firearm safety, tree stands are actually the biggest threat. A tree stand is a raised platform hunters use as a vantage point, enabling them to spot animals from a discreet location. Hunters get hurt falling from tree stands much more often than they receive an injury from unintentional firearm discharge.
A study found that 300 to 500 hunters in the U.S. die in tree stand accidents annually, and 6,000 sustain injuries from falls. Almost 80% of falls happen while the hunter ascends or descends the tree stand. One of the leading causes of tree stand deaths is the lack of a safety harness, which attaches to the tree and prevents the hunter from falling if the stand fails.
Hunting Injury Statistics
A 2014 study on recreational hunting injuries reveals that of 1.8 million emergency department visits for firearm-related injuries from 1993 to 2008, 1.95% were hunting injuries. The mortality rate for hunters was 0.6%, while non-hunter firearm injuries had a 5.3% mortality rate. The study reports that, overall, firearm injuries involving hunters were unintentional and non-life threatening.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) estimated in a 2018 report that 4,700 hunters were injured that year, including accidents related to firearms and tree stands. However, hunting has a much lower injury risk than sports like basketball, football, and cycling.
The following are the number of injuries per 100,000 participants for popular sporting activities in the US in 2018:
- Football: 4,013
- Basketball: 1,749
- Skateboarding: 1,506
- Soccer: 1,443
- Bicycle riding: 1,120
- Hunting: 27
According to the data above, you’re 149 times more likely to get an injury from football than from hunting. On the list of 28 sporting activities, hunting is the second-to-most safe activity behind billiards.
U.S. Hunting Accident Statistics by State
While hunting is a popular sport across the U.S., some states have much larger populations of hunters than others. Each state has hunting regulations to preserve wildlife ecosystems, establishing certain times of the year when people can hunt game. Additionally, hunters can only participate in the activity in certain areas.
Urbanization and farmland development are causing hunting lands to shrink, leading to a decline in hunting licenses. Environmental activists might see the decrease as a good thing, but the proceeds from firearm taxes and hunting licenses go toward conservation efforts.
Statistics from states with the most registered hunters according to U.S. Census data from 2020 include:
- Texas: 1,120,620
- Pennsylvania: 930,815
- Tennessee: 684,364
- Wisconsin: 680,733
- Michigan: 665,431
- Georgia: 625,142
- North Carolina: 603,995
- Oklahoma: 558,374
- New York: 556,897
- Minnesota: 550,087
It’s crucial to note that while tree stand accidents are by far the cause of most hunting-related injuries, most official hunting accident reports only record incidents involving firearms.
Texas has over a million registered hunters, with a total hunting license income of over $46 million. In 2021, hunting accidents were at a record low, with just 12 recorded incidents, including one fatality. The majority of the casualties were caused by swinging on game. An important rule when hunting is to keep firearms pointed in a safe direction, but some hunters are inexperienced or act carelessly.
The single Texas hunting fatality in 2021 was due to a hunter unloading their rifle with a cartridge still in the chamber and accidentally discharging the gun at the victim. None of the incidents involved a law violation. The report states that hunting incidents in recent years were highly preventable because of hunter education and training.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission recorded 26 hunting-related shooting incidents in 2019, with four fatalities. The number had decreased from the previous year and marked the seventh successive year with less than 30 incidents, which the report attributed to mandatory hunter education in Pennsylvania.
About 42% of the accidents were due to “victim in the line of sight,” and 31% were caused by “unintended discharge.” The age group with the highest incident rate was 17 to 50 at 1.29 incidents per 100,000 hunters. The over-50 age group had an incident rate of 0.82 per 100,000 participants.
Tree stand accidents were not in the incident summary, but a report that analyzed hunting-related data between 1987 and 2006 revealed that about 2.73 people per 100,000 licensed hunters in Pennsylvania in total during that period (n=499) sustained injuries from tree stand falls. Around 1.4% of cases were fatal.
In 2020, a gun safety advocacy group in Tennessee reported 18 unintentional shooting accidents, one of which involved hunting. An off-duty wildlife officer unintentionally shot two hunters who received treatment for their injuries and survived.
The firearm mortality rate in Tennessee was 21.3 incidents per 100,000 people in 2020, but the vast majority of the firearm-related fatalities were due to violent crime or self-inflicted. One source says that an average of 1.6% of gun deaths in Tennessee are unintentional.
In Wisconsin, about 11.7% of the population are hunting license holders, one of the highest percentages in the country. Wisconsin has had a good run in recent years in terms of lack of hunting injuries, with most deer hunting seasons passing by with no fatal accidents.
In 2021, there were 12 recorded hunting incidents, including one accidental death. The fatality happened when the shooter knocked over his firearm, causing it to discharge and hit the victim accidentally. Most recorded incidents were due to accidental discharge and careless firearms handling.
During the 2018-2019 hunting season, Michigan emergency medical staff saw 20 patients
with injuries from falling out of a tree stand while hunting. One patient had a spinal cord injury, one fractured their pelvis, and 11 had fractured vertebrae.
In 2022, Michigan’s Department of National Resources recorded three hunting-related incidents, with no fatalities. The last hunting related fatality was in 2020 when a hunter mistook the victim for a deer and shot them with a crossbow. Overall, the incidents are usually a mix of accidental discharge, mechanical failure, and failure to identify the target.
Georgia is one of the few states in the U.S. where hunting is rising rather than declining. The number of licensed hunters grew from around 400,000 in 2015 to over 600,000 in 2020.
According to the law enforcement division reports from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the state had 27 hunting incidents in 2020, down from 36 in 2019. Specific information about the hunting incidents was not in the reports.
North Carolina has over 600,000 licensed hunters, making up almost 6% of the population. The state’s Wildlife Resources Commission published the following information about the 2019-20 hunting season:
- Total hunting incidents: 48
- Tree stand-related: 21 (44% of incidents)
- Firearm-related: 39 (81% of incidents)
- Fatal: 4
The state of Oklahoma had 826 firearm-related deaths (not necessarily hunting-related) in 2020 in total, with a mortality rate of 20.7 per 100,000 people. Around 1% of gun deaths in the state were unintentional.
Oklahoma had 60 unintentional fatalities involving firearms from 2004 to 2010, averaging nine deaths yearly. The record shows that 15% of these fatalities were hunting-related.
In 2021, New York had nine hunting-related firearm incidents, the lowest number of incidents the state has had since 1949 when the average incident rate was 22.3 per 100,000 hunters. In recent years, the average is 1.5 hunting incidents per 100,000 hunters.
The state passed new hunting regulations, including a requirement that hunters wear a minimum of 250 square inches of fluorescent orange or pink material for visibility. The single fatality was a victim who did not wear fluorescent material, and the shooter incorrectly identified them as game.
Of the nine hunting incidents in 2021:
- 1 shooter had no hunter education or license
- 2 were self-inflicted injuries
- 1 was fatal
Minnesota had a two-year streak of zero fatalities in 2019 and 2020, with 23 hunting incidents in total. In 2020, six of the 11 incidents were self-inflicted. Most of the accidents occurred while loading the firearm or careless handling.
In the first half of 2022, Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources noted nine hunting incidents, none of which were fatal.
Deer Hunting Accident Statistics
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s most recent five-year report showed 11.5 million hunters in 2016, and 9.2 million were hunting big game, such as deer, elk, and wild turkey. Deer hunters are the majority of hunters involved in most hunting accidents.
Most states have been keeping records of deer hunting accidents since the 1940s, and the data show that the activity was formerly significantly more dangerous for hunters. The 1960s were particularly hazardous, with hundreds of fatalities annually in the U.S.
Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources has a website page with an excellent example of the drastic decline in deer hunting accidents. The highest number was in 1964, with 149 incidents and ten fatalities. In 2020, there were 11 incidents and zero deaths.
Gun Hunting Accident Statistics
While hunting-related fatalities were not uncommon in the past, safety regulations and hunter education have greatly impacted hunting incident rates over the past few decades. The rate of unintentional firearm fatalities in 2018 was only 0.1 per 100,000 people, a historical low in the U.S.
Bow Hunting Accidents
Bow hunting accidents are much less common than incidents involving rifles, shotguns, handguns, and tree stands. For example, in the Michigan during the 2020 season, only two incidents were bow-related. One was due to a mechanical error, and the other was a failure to identify the target.
Many bow hunting accidents are not recorded as such due to their nature. For instance, if a hunter falls and is cut by a broadhead during the fall, it is usually not recorded as a hunting accident, even though the hunter may have needed many stitches.
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The IHEA hunting incident database has 111 recorded crossbow incidents. Crossbow injuries make up .78% of the total entries, which include accidents related to firearms and tree stands.
Again, many crossbow accidents are not reported as hunting accidents. The most common crossbow injury is letting the fingers get in the way of the crossbow string.
Most of the best crossbow brands are very aware of this issue and continue to improve on safety measures to help ensure the hunter keeps his fingers below the crossbow rail where the string travels.
Tree Stand Accident Statistics
Researchers in Wisconsin used public data to determine the lifetime odds of getting a tree stand-related injury for various types of hunters. The following are lifetime risk percentages for individuals who actively participate in hunting for over 50 years:
- All deer hunters: 2.8%
- Hunters that only use firearms: 1.1%
- Hunters that use firearms and archery: 5%
Hunters that use both firearms and archery consistently have a greater chance of injury than those who only use a gun or a bow for hunting. The study acknowledges that hunters that use both firearms and bows have more opportunities for accidents, so they have greater exposure to the risk.
The Wisconsin study indicates a lower risk of tree stand accidents than a past statistic published in the Deer and Deer Hunting Magazine in 1993, which stated that hunters have a 1 in 3 chance of a tree stand accident.
You could attribute the difference in these statistics to the types of data the researchers used to draw their conclusions. The magazine reported survey answers from readers and hunting enthusiasts, while the Wisconsin researchers used medical records and hunting participation data on hunters with a broad spectrum of experience.
The 1993 magazine survey helped bring awareness to the need for more safety education on tree stands. That survey revealed that most tree stand accidents happen while the hunter is ascending or descending the stand. Many hunters admitted they didn’t always wear a safety harness while climbing.
How Many Tree Stand Accidents Happen per Year?
Firearm incidents are typically well-documented, but tree stand injuries often fly under the radar. However, an IHEA study discovered that the U.S. has had 300 to 500 tree stand fatalities annually. Another 6,000 received injuries when falling from elevated hunting stands. Of those injuries, 80% required surgery, 30% involved spinal fractures, and 10% caused permanent disabilities.
In most tree stand accidents, the hunter was not wearing a harness or attached to an anchor. The Department of Natural Resources suggests that hunters use a lifeline when going up or down to prevent a fall. A past survey of Wisconsin hunters revealed that two-thirds of hunters who use tree stands owned a harness, but less than a third used it.
When Do Tree Stand Accidents Occur?
Many people theorize that tree stand accidents happen because of inebriation while hunting, but the studies prove something else is the primary cause. Researchers in Wisconsin studied over 300 tree stand incidents; only 24 injuries involved intoxication.
A survey in the 1990s that asked hunters about tree stand accidents showed that most falls happen while climbing up or down. The Wisconsin study confirmed the survey results, revealing the following statistics on where falls are most likely to occur:
- Climbing into the stand: 27%
- Climbing down the stand: 27%
- Sitting in the stand: 23%
- Attaching the stand: 16%
As you can see, there is significant risk of a fall when attaching a hang on tree stand. Please wear a harness and lifeline when hanging your tree stand as well as hunting from it.
Many hunters believe that a ladder stand is the safest tree stand and that you don't need to be connected to the tree when you are climbing up or down, because it is the same as a ladder, but the statistics don't lie.
Climbing Tree Stand Accidents
Here is a great video that show how to safely use a climbing tree stand.
According to the survey above, 86% of the 11 million deer hunters in the U.S. used a tree stand and 23% fell from the platform. These accidents resulted in over 100,000 disabling injuries.
In the Wisconsin study, the researchers discovered the following insights about tree stand safety:
- 84% of hunters own a tree stand
- 62% of hunters own a safety harness
- 31% “always” use a harness
- 14% “usually” use a harness
When the survey asked hunters why they didn’t always wear a harness when using a tree stand, the responses included the following:
- The hunter is extra careful while climbing up and down: 40%
- The hunter has never fallen from the stand: 39%
- The hunter doesn’t own a harness: 20%
- The harness is difficult to use: 14%
- It takes too long to climb the stand: 5%
Many hunters feel safer in a climbing tree stand because you are in the tree stand as you ascend and descend, but statistics show that you still need to wear a safety harness while using a climber.
Most Common Hunting Accidents
The most common hunting accidents include the following:
- Tree stand falls
- Unintentional firearm discharge
- Failure to identify the target
- Weapon malfunction
- Animal attacks
Hunting-related incidents are almost always preventable because they usually occur due to hunter judgment mistakes or safety violations. Friendly fire happens when a hunter doesn’t correctly identify a target before shooting, and many states make fluorescent colors mandatory for hunters to prevent that problem.
Firearm-related injuries typically happen when hunters don’t respect the basic firearm safety rules, such as treating every gun as if it’s loaded and pointing the muzzle away from people. Hunters should also ensure they handle their firearms properly when traveling through the terrain. Many of the incidents recorded in the reports above involve hunters dropping their loaded weapons while changing locations.
Another common reason for hunting injuries is a lack of practice and control. If you want to improve your firearm handling, it’s best to practice by visiting gun ranges, taking online courses, or learning from seasoned hunters. Once you have excellent control, you’re much less likely to make a mistake while firing your weapon.
Sometimes the accident isn’t the hunter’s fault. Malfunctioning firearms can also cause hunting injuries but are usually preventable through adequate maintenance. Guns can have mechanical failures even with proper care, but buying quality equipment can lower the chance of hardware issues.
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There Are 4 Main Causes Of Hunting Accidents
The most common causes of firearm-related accidents include the following:
- Failure to identify the target
- Shooter swinging firearm on game
- Careless firearm handling
- Victim out of shooter’s sight
“Failure to identify the target” describes a situation where the hunter mistakes a person for a deer or other game and fires their weapon at the victim. Hunters should wear bright colors so others can easily identify them through the trees and brush.
“Swinging on game” is a failure to wait for the target to enter a safe shooting zone. The hunter eagerly swings their weapon toward the deer and shoots, not realizing a person is in their path. It’s vital always to point your firearm in a safe direction.
Final Thoughts: Don’t Become a Statistic
Although hunting accidents are at historic lows, safety lessons should continue at the forefront of hunter education. Following the rules would have prevented injuries from happening in the vast majority of hunting incidents. The next time you think about skipping the safety harness when climbing your tree stand, remember how many hunters regret making the same decision—and those who didn’t live to regret it.
We were surprised to learn that hypothermia and frostbite are not considered hunting injuries, but there are many hunters that fall prey to the injuries every year as well.