If safety were as fascinating as hunting, there'd be no problem for those of us who go afield every fall.

But firearms safety is dull. If only the NRA would recast its endlessly quoted Ten Commandments of safe firearms handling in the firebreathing language of its fund-raising letters, maybe somebody could get past No. IV without nodding off.

That is, firearms safety is dull until the rifle you just cleaned and know isn't loaded goes off, like mine did once while I was aiming at myself in a mirror to check my stance.

The bullet hole that appeared between the eyes of my image in that mirror has remained vivid in my memory for 30 years. I'm still, and hope to be always, afraid that any gun in my hand -- or anybody else's -- is about to go off.

Safe gun-handling is principle become practice become habit, and it's a do-it-yourself thing. The next question is how to protect yourself from those guys out there whose daddies didn't wrap their Red Ryder BB guns around the pump handle the day they accidentally shot Sis in the butt.

While the woods around here are not nearly so full of lead-slinging slobs as most nonhunters seem to think, it only takes one jerk to punch your ticket. The best thing to do is to hunt where they don't, which is to say, stay off public land if you can.

The ideal is a nice patch of woods and fields owned by a fierce old farmer who won't let anybody but you hunt there, or the fenced and guarded estate of the rich guy whose daughter's life you saved by halting her runaway carriage.

Both of the above are fairy tales, of course, so the alternative, since we have to hunt where others do, is to hunt smart, hard and far. Your average slob will seldom go as far as a couple of hundred yards from his car, and even your above-average slob is hardly ever found as much as a mile from the road. Go farther. Get a topo map (the U.S. Geological Survey office at 1200 South Eads Street in Crystal City has 71/2-minute quadrangles of every square foot of this region) and scout the ground before the season.

Make the acquaintance of local residents and get their advice. Seek out the game warden, who generally knows the ground better than anyone else, and who is the most valuable friend any hunter can have, although most wardens are so overworked they have little time to sit around and chew the fat.

And wear blaze orange, the brightest you can find. Wear a blaze-orange hat, a blaze-orange coat (with a blaze- orange vest underneath, so you can take off the coat if it gets too warm), blaze-orange pants, blaze-orange gloves and, if you can find them, blaze-orange boots with blaze- orange laces. Use a blaze-orange handkerchief. Pack along any shade of toilet paper except white, and keep your hindquarters low when using it. I have a friend whose intestinal difficulties were instantly cured by a hunter who mistook him for a white-tailed deer.

No, deer are not colorblind, at least not entirely, never mind what they told you in that hunter-safety course. Yes, they and all the other animals can see you farther when you come blaze-oranging through the woods. But if you're downwind and sitting still or moving in super-slow motion, as you should be, they won't give a damn.

I wear my blaze-orange clown suit every time I go afield during hunting season, whether I'm hunting or just hiking, and it hasn't cost me anything except a few snickers from people whose opinions I don't value. It makes me feel like some grotesque fireplug, but I have stalked to within spitting distance of browsing deer, and have had squirrels nibble on my blaze-orange bootlaces.

The bird-watching books all say not to wear bright clothing when birding because it puts the little darlings off. I find I check off just as many speces on my list whatever I'm wearing. Wild turkeys, said to be so keen they can see a brown-eyed man blink behind his camouflage mask at fifty paces, have walked right up to me with as little concern as if I were an abandoned fire engine. And the turkeys I worry about, the ones who carry a flask of Wild Turkey on their hips, see me every time.