Everyone is nervous about their first time, so it’s OK if you feel a bit timid, tentative, or even flustered. If you feel some performance anxiety, just take comfort in the thought that millions of others have gone before you, and their experiences turned out to be positive. Feel better?
Now let’s talk about your first visit to the shooting range in more detail.
Part of the reason we apprehensive humans get all worked up about doing things for the first time is that we don’t know exactly what to expect. When we’re doing something for the first time and will be in the company of other, more experienced people, our insecurities rage to the forefront like a tsunami of anxiety. If we screw up, we’ll be laughingstocks and publicly humiliated just like a Congress Critter caught with his phone… Never mind, you get the idea.
There are too many people who buy a gun, but never go to the range, or have only gone that one time when their friend took them. But there's no real reason a shooting range should be intimidating. With the goal of making your first range experience a truly excellent one, let’s talk about what you can expect, so you can be ready before you walk through the door for the first time.
The more you know about how shooting ranges work, the less hesitant you’ll be. With that new confidence, you can focus on having a good (and safe) experience. To cover almost all of the range-type bases, first, we’ll talk about two types you’re most likely to encounter: indoor and outdoor. Later, we’ll talk about a couple of universal policies that apply to almost all ranges.
Indoor Shooting Facilities
Setups and Gear
The shooting facility most likely to be near your home or work is an indoor range. While there are some private clubs, these are almost always for-profit businesses. Most of them have a gun store attached, of variable size, so they can sell range users guns (or rent them), ammo, targets, and other accessories like hearing and eye protection.
As a result, to shoot at a facility like this, you don’t need to have all the right gear before you arrive. If you’re unsure about ammo, targets, or other accessories you might need, you’ll be able to get some professional advice and buy what you need once there.
In fact, at most ranges, you don’t even need a gun. I remember being completely freaked out when I first drove by a shooting range with a big “Guns for Rent!” sign out front. That was before I knew what that really meant. No, you can’t go in, rent one, and take it with to use about town. What it does mean is that the range will have an assortment of pistols, and sometimes rifles, that you can “rent” to use on that range during your visit.
This is a great way for someone to try target shooting even before they own a gun. It’s also a great way to try out a few different models or calibers before you decide on a gun to buy. Typically, there will be an inexpensive flat fee for gun rentals.
Most ranges will also charge a fee for range time by the hour. You can get around this by becoming a member (at most ranges) and paying either a monthly or annual flat rate instead of a by-the-hour rate tallied every time you come to shoot. At some ranges, being a member gets a you a reduced rate, while at other the hourly rate is eliminated all together.
If you have your own gun, safety gear, and ammo, that’s all you need. If you do bring your own ammunition, many ranges will want to see it before you shoot. It’s OK; they’re just making sure that your ammo type won’t be unsafe with the type of target backstops at that facility. It’s all about safety.
The Preamble and Documents
Before you can shoot, you’ll need to understand the range’s safety rules and procedures. More and more ranges are using short videos to show you exactly what you need to know.
You’ll also probably have to sign a waiver stating that you understand, and will abide by, all range safety policies. It’ll also waive the range’s liability should you hurt yourself or someone else. That’s all normal and expected.
Pay attention to these lists of rules, as many ranges will have some specific things they may or may not allow. Always double check the rules, which are usually posted somewhere prominent, or ask a range officer before trying something new or something you haven’t done at that range before. For example, some trap ranges do not permit pump shotguns with a pistol grip, some pistol ranges only allow the use of factory ammunition, and some prohibit any drills that include drawing from a holster.
The Basic Rules
As far as gun handling and shooting procedures, details vary, but you can expect some of the following rules to be on the list. These exist for your safety and that of your range neighbors, so make sure you understand and follow them carefully.
- Guns shouldn’t be loaded until on the firing line and ready to shoot.
- Make sure that the muzzle of your gun is pointed down range at all times.
- Keep your gun in a case until you’re in position on the shooting line.
- Shoot at your target only and never across lanes.
- Be careful not to shoot towards the floor, ceiling, or side walls. Ricocheting bullets can damage the facility, and they can also end up coming back toward the line. Targets are hung at a certain height for a reason.
- Don’t hang a smaller target on the bottom of a large one. That might cause you to inadvertently aim at the floor, especially when the target is farther down range.
- Unless the range staff tells you otherwise, use paper targets only. Paper is safe to shoot since bullets pass straight through without deflecting in unpredictable directions. It also leaves very little range trash behind and, of course, doesn’t create any fragments. Most indoor ranges have mechanical target holders that you can bring to your position to hang targets, then send back down range for shooting.
- Be sure to stay close to the firing line. Don’t shoot from behind the line - no one should ever be even partially in front of your gun or anyone else’s.
- Always, always, always keep eye and ear protection on while at the range. Indoor ranges are loud, so many experienced shooters use both in-ear and exterior ear muffs to reduce dangerous noise levels. Even a single gunshot without hearing protection will cause permanent hearing loss.
Many indoor ranges have a safety officer who’s responsible for watching the shooting line. If you’re unsure of anything, be sure to ask that person - that’s why they’re around, and they’re usually wearing something that designates them as the RSO. If they call you out about something you’re doing wrong, don’t get upset. Absorb what they’re telling you and correct your behavior. Safety is the number one goal.
Outdoor Shooting Facilities
Shooting outdoors is fun. Often you can shoot targets at longer distances, the light is always better, and it’s not as loud as there are no close walls to contain and amplify the noise—plus there’s just more room.
Changing Targets and Ceasefires
One big difference between indoor and outdoor ranges is that you usually have to walk down range to set and change targets. Since it’s obviously dangerous to do this while people are shooting—outdoor ranges will have "hot" and "cold" range procedures, and this is the biggest aspect you’ll have to get used to.
Again, follow the specific instructions given by your shooting range, but generally speaking, here’s how it works:
“Cold range!” is both a command and status that means absolutely no shooting or gun handling. Remember, guns are ALWAYS LOADED (Rule 1) so under no circumstance is it OK to touch a gun while the range is cold.
If there is a range officer on duty, that person will usually call “Cold range!” at timed intervals to allow people to place, change, or remove targets if they so choose.
Some ranges have a line painted on the ground several feet behind the firing line, sometimes called a safety line. When the range is cold, anyone who is not downrange changing a target stays behind the line until the range is hot again. That helps make sure everyone stays away from the guns while others are down range.
During a ceasefire, some ranges may ask that you leave your firearm on the bench or at the firing line, unloaded, with the action open and a chamber flag inserted, so it can be visually inspected from a distance.
Most handguns come with an orange, plastic chamber flag and similar ones can be purchased at any gun shop, but simple, cheap, and effective chamber flags for use in any firearm can be made from brightly-colored zip ties. Find some neon green or blaze orange ties and draw them shut nearly all the way, until a loop of about 1-1/2 inches is left. At the range, insert the trailing end into the open action so the loop is protruding. Make a bunch and throw them in your range bag, you’ll lose plenty.
When targets have been changed and everyone is back behind the safety line, the range safety officer will call something like “Range is hot!” That means it’s OK to move back to your shooting position and resume firing.
While shooting at an outdoor range, most of the same safety procedures apply as with indoor ranges:
- There will be a backstop down range, usually in the form of a huge pile of dirt or a berm. Don’t shoot over, it because bullets can travel for miles and you're responsible for every one that you fire, and “a bullet is forever.”
- Likewise, don’t shoot at the ground because bullets can skip and also fly over the backstop or berm or travel in unpredictable directions.
- Don’t shoot across the range or at other people’s targets.
- Be sure to shoot from the firing line and don’t shoot from a position where any other shooters are even partially in front of you.
- Hearing and eye protection is just as important when shooting outside, so always use that.
- Be sure to remove your targets when you’re finished, so others won’t have to clean up your mess. Many outdoor ranges will expect you to pick up your spent brass cartridge cases too, just don’t step in front of the firing line to get them unless the range is cold.
General Safety Practices
Every range has specific procedures, so be sure you understand them wherever you shoot. There are some general practices that apply most anywhere, so unless you hear otherwise, follow these practices:
- When transporting your gun from the car to and from the range, keep it unloaded, action open, and in a case until you get to your firing position on the line. Most ranges don’t want people walking around with exposed guns.
- At some outdoor ranges, there’s no choice, so in these situations be very sure to keep the action open, and the muzzle pointed in a safe direction.
- Don’t load your gun until the range is hot and you're in a position to fire. Likewise, unload completely before you leave the firing line.
- It’s always a good idea to use chamber flags at any type of range. As we discussed, you can even make your own if you don’t have any handy.
- Whether indoors or out, be sensitive to the fact that other shooters are nearby. Be especially careful about your muzzle discipline. Don’t allow the muzzle of your gun to point in any unsafe direction or at anyone else, even for a split second. Shooting is safe as long as everyone faithfully obeys the safety rules.
That’s a short description of what you can expect at the most common types of shooting ranges. Just remember, you can never go wrong asking questions. Most shooters are not only happy, but thrilled, to help out new shooters and range officers would much rather answer a question about safety than be forced to reprimand a shooter on the firing line. When in doubt, just ask. Most importantly, be safe and have fun!