Five Rules of Gun Range Etiquette

Lucky for me I was behind the bulletproof glass waiting my turn to shoot when I observed a young man swagger into the public range, drop his gym bag on a table, and pull a cheap semi-automatic handgun out, muzzle facing backward. With his trigger finger buried to the hilt in the trigger guard, he shoved in a magazine and racked the slide before laying the gun on his shooting table. Next he retrieved a target and stapled it to the cardboard target holder about waist high. I saw paint and debris fly as his first seven bullets went through his target and buried themselves into the brand-new floor 30 yards downrange. Before he even realized his error, a range officer kicked him off the range. Moments later, my number was called. Like I said: Lucky for me.

The young man was likely a decent shooter—after all, every one of the seven shots he fired hit the bull’s-eye—but he didn’t know the first thing about shooting on a public range. Fact is, there’s such a thing as proper range etiquette; it can guarantee a fun and safe time for you and for those around you. Here are five common public range faux pas you should never commit:

1. Never place your finger on the trigger until you’re ready to shoot.

This is the NRA’s second rule of gun safety, and it’s a good one, because abiding by it can prevent most accidents. Sticking your finger inside the trigger guard when you’re picking the gun up off the shooting table is not only unsafe, it immediately screams, “Hey, look at me! I’m a dangerous rookie!” to everyone on the range. So, if you notice other shooters begin looking at you suspiciously like you’ve got the plague, you might be placing your finger on the trigger before your sights are on the target. Instead, keep your trigger finger straightened along the handgun’s frame, outside and above the trigger guard in an exaggerated fashion that other shooters can see from across the parking lot. This lets everyone immediately know that you are safe and have some knowledge of guns…even if you can’t hit the target to save your life.

Keep in mind that gun ranges come in various configurations. Some have automatic target carriers, so shooters never venture beyond the firing line. Others—commonly outdoor ranges—rely on shooters to walk downrange during ceasefires to hang fresh targets. During all ceasefires, or anytime someone is downrange, firearms cannot be handled. Guns should rest on the shooting bench unloaded, with their actions open. Only when the range officer says “Range hot!” and/or everyone is safely behind the firing line can guns be handled again. There are no exceptions.

2. Don’t give unsolicited advice to others on the range.

If they wanted your help, opinion, or oracle-like knowledge of everything relating to firearms, they'd have hired you before they arrived. This bad habit, especially prevalent among men shooters, is one reason more women don't come to the gun range alone; they know as soon as they show up to shoot a few practice rounds and work on their technique, some Sergeant Tackleberry type with a hand cannon on his waist and a desire for a dinner date will begin telling her what she's doing wrong. In reality, she doesn't want to hear anything except the report of her Glock. So keep your nose to your own lane.

3. Never shoot a shotgun loaded with anything except slugs on a public range.

Because all shooters obviously know that shotguns are called shotguns because they shoot a pattern of shot pellets in a wide swath that increases in size as it speeds downrange, I’m always surprised when someone shows up with their new tactical shotgun and begins turning their target—and simultaneously their neighbor’s target—into Swiss cheese. Slugs, on the other hand, are single, solid projectiles, and are fine. But save the birdshot and buckshot for use on private ranges.

4. Be respectful of other shooters before zeroing your large-caliber rifle on a public, indoor range.

Most people visit the range either to hone their bull’s-eye-style shooting skills or to put a few rounds through their new 9mm carry gun. Also, new shooters often are being coached while focusing on the fundamentals. But it’s difficult to focus on anything when the guy on the next lane, who is apparently preparing for a second career in the Navy SEALs, opens fire with his new .338 Lapua Magnum and begins obliterating paper combatants as if he were Chris Kyle. These guns produce tremendous air pressure and shockwaves—especially when equipped with a muzzle brake that actually sends hot gasses back toward the firing line—and generally make everyone on the line lurch with fright each time it’s fired.

First, 50 yards isn’t going to do much in the way of honing any sniper skills. Wait until you can access an outdoor range to zero large-caliber rifles. Everyone, along with your own ears, will appreciate it. And if you simply must fire your big bore or even your muzzle-brake equipped AR-15, first inform the range officer. He’ll likely direct you to a lonely lane on the far end of the line, and everyone will like you better.

5. Never place your target above or below eye level.

Like the young man in the beginning of the story learned, bullets don’t simply stop with they reach their cardboard target and fall harmlessly to the floor. Rather, they zip straight through it and speed to the backstop before safely coming to rest—as long as the target was placed at the shooter’s eye level. On the other hand, if the shooter hangs a target at eye level while standing and then chooses to shoot at it from a sitting position with his gun rested on a shooting bench, guess where the bullet is going? Into the ceiling, that’s where. Too low? Into the floor. Most times on indoor ranges, some insulation or wood baffle material will rain down, the shooter will become red-faced and the range officer will inform him to cease shooting up his beloved range and then order him to re-position his target. But other times the shooter will be held financially responsible for any damage caused.

On outdoor ranges, targets set too high can possibly cause bullets to sail over the distant berm, landing who knows where. These situations are a lawsuit in the making. But they can be avoided altogether if you place your target at eye level so that the gun’s sights, the target the bullet’s flight path and the backstop are will all be on the same plane.

Proper etiquette at a shooting range isn’t just for show. It’ll keep everyone safe, and at the very least, prevent you from being booted out of it.