Earlier this year New Zealand-based Hunter Safety Lab visited the Shooting, Hunting, and Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show in Las Vegas. While the start-up company’s booth might have been lost among all the big names, their product intrigued those who saw it. Unlike the rows of other guns and gear on display, visitors were hard-pressed to categorize the Kiwi company’s flagship product. It’s called the IRIS, and its creators say it could save lives.

While it may look like a gimmick right out of a modern-day sci-fi flick, its designers hope it’s the wave of the future. The IRIS—short for Infrared Retroreflector Identification System—is the brainchild of avid hunters Michael Scott and David Grove. The design is simple and elegant: the IRIS sensor can be mounted on a rifle scope or shotgun barrel and runs off its own AA lithium battery. When turned on, it emits pulses of infrared light that are invisible to the naked eye. When these pulses come into contact with IRIS-detectable clothing, the sensor flashes and audibly alerts the shooter. With a range of up to 200 yards, its creators hope that it will prevent accidental shootings in the field of both hunters and their dogs.

You can see a short demo of the device below:

It is an ambitious design, but many hunters are skeptical about the needs for such a device. Is it reliable? Is it heavy? Is it even necessary at all?

Weighing in at roughly 2.5 ounces and about the size of a small flashlight, the IRIS is not likely to throw off a hunter’s aim. As for the more in-depth questions, I was lucky enough to interview Michael Scott via email to frame his creation in his own words.

Daniel Xu: One of the first questions that many hunters ask is “are accidental shootings even that big of a problem in hunting?” How do you respond to this?

Michael: Thanks to hunter education and blaze orange, hunting today is relatively safe, but according to IHEA (International Hunter Education Association) data there are still around 600 to 800 accidental hunting-related shootings every year in the United States, with about a hundred fatalities. When it comes to preventable accidents, even a single accident is one too many, and each represents a tragedy to those involved. Imagine telling the wife and kids of your hunting buddy you’d accidentally killed him, or telling your wife you’d shot and killed your son after mistaking him for a turkey. This happens every year to hunters who never dreamed it would happen to them. Yes, the chances are relatively low, but the consequences are too awful to imagine. What’s a few hundred dollars compared to that?

One big concern hunters have with the IRIS is that it may supplant traditional gun safety rules (like muzzle and trigger control). What do you think about this?

Like any piece of safety gear, IRIS provides an additional degree of protection but will never be a replacement for common sense or the basic rules of hunter safety.

Just as safe hunters don’t rely on the gun’s safety catch to replace muzzle discipline, and don’t rely on seeing blaze-orange on the target, safe hunters don’t rely on IRIS to determine whether it’s safe to fire. No device in the world that can tell the difference between a human and an animal or say whether it’s safe to shoot or not—that’s your responsibility! What IRIS can do is warn you that it’s not safe to shoot if it sees IRIS material on the target.

It’s important to understand that IRIS can never be a target identification tool because it only sees where the muzzle is pointed. One of the most important rules of firearm safety is “Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy.” Unless you’re aiming at the target before identifying it, IRIS can play no role in the target identification process. All it does is give a last-second warning if it sees IRIS material on the target.

As far as muzzle control is concerned, IRIS helps reinforce another key rule of firearm safety: “Keep your gun pointed in a safe direction.” Who doesn’t want to know their buddy is sweeping them with their muzzle? If you’re using IRIS, you’re going to know about it!

According to Hunter Safety Lab, the IRIS is lightweight and weatherproof, and runs off one AA lithium battery with a 120-hour lifespan.
According to Hunter Safety Lab, the IRIS is lightweight and weatherproof, and runs off one AA lithium battery with a 120-hour lifespan.

In a parallel trend, automotive manufacturers are increasingly incorporating active safety technology into their vehicles. Technology such as lane departure warning systems and blind-spot monitoring is designed to help prevent crashes. Like IRIS, these active safety systems don’t replace the driver’s responsibility to follow the rules, use the mirrors, steer the car, or use the brakes, but they do add an additional degree of safety that will ultimately save lives.

We sometimes get people saying IRIS isn’t necessary because “if you can’t tell the difference between a deer and a person you should get out of the woods,” but this is like saying people shouldn’t get into a car if they are going to crash or aren’t a good driver. Everyone thinks they’re a good driver and no one gets into their car intending to crash, but wherever the capacity for human error exists, accidents happen. If we can reduce these accidents and make hunting a safer pastime, then we have achieved what we set out to do.

Isn’t IRIS only effective if everyone wears it?

People frequently ask this question, but the simple answer lies in hunting accident stats. Most hunters only hunt with people they know and trust, and yet two out of three hunting accident victims are shot by their hunting partner. Even if just you and your hunting buddies use IRIS, you’d benefit.

Do you have a plan for making smaller IRIS-detectable clothing—like patches you can apply to everyday clothing—that will replace the vests?

During early IRIS user trials, we asked people to apply IRIS patches to their own clothing, but soon discovered people aren’t that great at following instructions. Correct patch placement is really important in achieving good all-around coverage, so we decided pre-placed patches were the way to go. In addition, many people were concerned about layering: what happened when they wanted to remove their IRIS-detectable garment, or put something on over it? The feedback we received was: make it easy, give me a lightweight vest that can go over the top of whatever else I’m wearing, and don’t make me think.

We will also be offering IRIS accessory sticker kits, but these are intended for placement on backpacks, jacket sleeves, and even hunting dogs, not to replace the IRIS vest itself.

Tell me a bit about how you came up with the idea for the IRIS. Were you personally affected by an accidental shooting?

It all started about four years ago when David and I were hunting with a friend on the South Island of New Zealand. A red stag was roaring nearby in thick bush, and before I realised it, both of them had loaded up and disappeared after the deer! With two hunters out-of-sight, and the deer moving about, I started to get nervous that someone was going to get shot! I’d read about so many hunting accidents where someone shoots their their mate, that—although I trusted these guys—I seriously began to worry.

Coming from a product-design background, and having been involved in mountaineering for many years where we regularly used a variety of technical safety equipment, it suddenly crossed my mind that it would be awesome if, somehow, hunters could be warned if their gun was mistakenly aimed at a person. The deer got away that day after David stepped on a wasp’s nest, but the idea lived on.

Before starting the technical development, we spent more than a year researching hunting accidents to make sure what we designed was really going to be effective. The last thing we wanted to do was make something that was fundamentally flawed, and what we learned really influenced our design and was quite eye-opening. We learned that despite what many people assume, most hunting accidents aren’t caused by a reckless newbie snap-shooting at sound or movement, they’re caused by experienced hunters who genuinely thought they’d identified their target beyond doubt and couldn’t believe what happened. We found that most victims are shot by their own hunting partner, with roughly half the victims are wearing blaze orange. The average accident distance is just 40 yards!

Since we began working on IRIS, two people we personally know here in New Zealand—both really experienced and respected hunters—have shot and killed other hunters after mistaking them for deer, both at less than 40 yards. These accidents, plus the hundreds of other tragic stories we’ve read about have really spurred us on to get IRIS out there.

You can find more information about the IRIS sensor on the Hunter Safety Lab website, or read OutdoorHub’s initial coverage of the product here.

Images courtesy Hunter Safety Lab

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  • Greg

    I would like to see a comparison of how it reacts to wildlife.

  • Shallow_pocket_taxpayer

    I would like some pricing information. Affordability is an important factor. I have been a hunting safety instructor for 16 years. I teach my students that if you can not see the entire animal, or bird, do not shoot. A viable game target, in the open, will never look like a person. This system could be helpful, but as the website says, it is NOT a replacement for safe firearms handling.

    • Daniel Xu

      Hunter Safety Lab produced only a limited production run and the IRIS is still not widely available. You may contact Hunter Safety Lab directly on their Facebook page or website for pricing.

      • Shallow_pocket_taxpayer

        Thank You Daniel