So you’ve bought your first gun and now you’re ready for the shooting range, right?
As beginner shooters, we are all eager to get down to business and start sending rounds downrange. Though, before you even get to the range, there are some important things you’ll need to keep in mind. Here are a few tips to help introduce you to shooting range basics and etiquette.
Indoor Range or Outdoor Range?
There are two types of ranges: indoor ranges and outdoor ranges. Ultimately, which is the better option is up to you; however, I recommend for beginners to start at an indoor range. Here’s why.
I find indoor ranges an ideal place for beginner shooters to start practicing. For starters, one of the biggest advantages for new shooters is that, at an indoor range, there are always staff readily available. Whether you have questions about renting a gun, clearing a malfunction, advice on effective shooting stance, or just firearms in general, there is always someone either on the lanes or just behind the counter, who can assist you at an indoor range. At first, it can be intimidating to be the one asking all of the questions. Though, do not be scared because their job is to help you.
Unfortunately, the downside of the indoor range is the noise. Being indoors does have its drawbacks, especially when target practicing, but you can always double up on ear protection—I’ll discuss that more later. When you get to the firing line, there generally will be a range officer (or RO) on duty. The role of the range officer is to make sure everyone is following the rules of of the range and is shooting safely. If you have a problem or question about your firearm, the range officer is the first person you can go to for help.
Once you have become more proficient, you can always move on to outdoor ranges. Some outdoor ranges feature range officers and other employees about the grounds as you would find in an indoor range. However, there are many outdoor ranges—both public and private—that leave you on your own. Some of these outdoor ranges may have a RO patrolling around, but they may not have the opportunity to stay as nearby as a new shooter may need.
On the other hand, outdoor ranges often allow for more privacy, more freedom with ammunition and firearms allowed, as well as offering more space to shoot. If you can bring a qualified experienced shooter along for the trip to serve as your acting RO, you can still enjoy these benefits with the peace of mind of another’s assistance, should you need it. These are all important points for new shooters to consider when making that decision to head out to the range.
Preparing for the Range
Know Your Gun
Before you even get to the range, you need to know your gun. Once you have bought your first firearm, you’ll need to practice manipulating it at home WITHOUT ammo. Get used to racking the slide or your semi-automatic, or releasing the cylinder of your revolver. Practice loading up your magazines using inert snap caps.
Simulate operating the gun and pulling the trigger—again only on a safe and cleared firearm Don’t even practice with live ammunition in the same room. Field strip your gun and put it back together. Repeat these exercises until you feel like you know your gun inside and out. Use this time practicing with a safe and unloaded firearm to learn how to use it safely. Being familiar with your firearms operation before you get to the range takes out some of the stress of learning a new activity, and by the time you load up on the firing lanes, you’ll already be prepared.
Follow the Four Rules of Firearm Safety
In addition to knowing how to use and operate your own firearm, you’ll also need to follow the 4 Rules of Gun Safety. Whether you’re unfamiliar or have heard them before, here’s a refresher:
- Always treat every gun as if it were loaded.
- Never point the gun at anything you are not willing to destroy.
- Always keep your finger off the trigger and out of the trigger guard until you are ready to fire.
- Always be sure of your target and what is behind it.
Memorize and understand these golden rules before you get to the range, but don’t forget—these rules apply to all firearms no matter where you’re handling them. Just because you’re at home and you’re “pretty sure” you cleared your gun doesn’t mean you can get complacent with firearms safety.
Bring the Right Gear
There are many things you can bring with you to the range, but I’m just going to touch on some of the essentials.
Adequate hearing protection is a must. When it comes to covering your ears, there are a wide array of choices. For my own protection, I use a combination of earplugs and an active volume control earmuff, like the Electronic Shooting Earmuffs pictured right. At indoor ranges, I often use both in-the-ear plugs and over-the-ear muffs, that’s what I call doubling up. Because of the special microphone my ear protection, the headphones I use allow me to hear conversation while still muffling gunfire.
As a new shooter, communicating with others on the firing line—especially to the range officer—is paramount. In the past, I’ve seen new shooters attempt to remove their ear protection on the range to better participate in conversation. Consequently, the range officer on duty will chew them out. Never take off your gear once you are on the firing floor. It can’t protect you when you aren’t using it.
Eye protection is another important item when it comes to safety. When selecting your gear, it’s important to have eye appropriate glasses specifically for shooting. Pick something comfortable. Once worn, always keep it on at the range. Bring a small handkerchief or cloth to wipe your glasses so nothing will block your vision.
As for shooting targets, you can purchase targets at the range or bring your own. If you’re a first-timer, you may want to use targets provided by the range–some ranges have specific rules about the kinds of targets they allow (e.g., no person-shaped silhouettes, etc.). Once you practice frequently and get more comfortable with what you like to shoot, and with what your range’s target rules are, transitioning to bringing your own targets is a cinch.
Last but not least, don’t forget the ammo! When I bring my own ammo, I usually keep them in their boxes and store them inside my gear container (more on that in just a sec). Of course, you can always purchase ammo at the range if you prefer. In fact, some ranges require that you only fire their ammunition. If you’re not sure what kinds of ammo is allowed, don’t be shy—ask first.
Keep Your Gear in One Place
When going to the shooting range, it’s so much easier to have all of your gear in one container. In the past, I’ve seen new shooters bring multiple bags with different pieces of gear in different containers. With so many different items in multiple storage containers, not only is it difficult to find the components you want, it’s easy to forget something after you’ve finished shooting. To keep your gear in one location, but still have separate organized compartments for things like safety gear, ammunition, tools, and the firearms themselves, it’s helpful to find a gear bag with multiple compartments.
A simple bag or container will do. Mine is similar to a fishing tackle box with multiple compartments for the things I need.
I’ve seen both men and women plan poorly for this, and pay for it. When you go to the shooting range, your bound to have a better experience if you dress appropriately. As a sporting activity, the atmosphere is very casual, and depending on the outing, you may be at the range for several hours. Wear comfortable pants—I prefer jeans—and an adequately covering top. I like to wear long-sleeved tops so that I do not get burned either by the sun, if at an outdoor range, or by hot brass flying—a concern at indoor and outdoor ranges.
Be sure to wear comfortable shoes since you will be on your feet most of the time. I always try to make the most of every range trip, so I rarely spend less than a few hours every time I visit. That kind of time on one’s feet can get uncomfortable if the range goer is sporting impractical footwear. This often-overlooked aspect of shooting prep is especially helpful when shooting in outdoor ranges, which are susceptible to precipitation. Ladies seem to fall victim to impractical footwear more than males (I love heels, but they aren’t well suited for the range). The burn risk mentioned above is also affected by shoe choice. Open toed shoes, like sandals, put those toes and tops of feet at risk for making an uncomfortably hot catch.
At the Range
Follow the Rules of the Range
Once you arrive at the range, keep your gear in the car. Go inside and tell the staff you are there to shoot. If you’re a beginner shooter, be upfront and tell them you’re fairly new; that will help the range staff better anticipate any questions or concerns you may have arising from your inexperience. They will go over the basic rules of the range, and give you the opportunity to ask questions. If you had any, before you get out to the firing lines is the time to bring it up. While this may seem simple, it’s an easy way to avoid breaking range rules and keep your visit fun and safe.
If you bring your own gun, some ranges will require that someone checks your gun to make sure it is clear. This is the time you can go back to your car and retrieve your gear.
Always Point Your Gun down Range
This is one of the most important rules of gun safety: always point your gun down range. Whether you are shooting, inserting a magazine (or removing one), aiming, or even just talking with the friend you brought to shoot with you, your gun should always be pointed down range. As one of the basic rules of firearms safety, this is extremely important. If you have a question for the range officer, always set down your cleared gun pointing down range first before you go to seek the officer out. Never ever leave the firing line with the gun in your hand, especially not loaded. Clear the firearm and lock the slide open, or leave the cylinder free. I’ve seen cases where beginner shooters have turned around to look for the range officers, gun in hand, unknowingly flagging (that is, pointing the muzzle at someone) several other shooters. This is a big “no-no.”
Watch Where You Load and Unload Your Gun
Most ranges have specific areas where they want you to uncase/case or unholster/holster firearms. While you might be pulling an unloaded firearm out of your case to get it prepped before you step into your lane, those around you who are following the first rule of firearms safety don’t think it’s unloaded, and that is worrisome.
When you set your gun down, always keep the slide open or cylinder exposed pointed down range. As basic range etiquette, this shows others your gun is unloaded. After you finish shooting, you may want to reload a magazine or get another target. When you do this, it’s basic range etiquette to lay the gun down, slide open or cylinder exposed. This will give people peace of mind the gun is unloaded.
Never Touch Your Gun During a Cease-Fire
On occasion, there will be ranges that institute cease-fire policies, whether to address an issue downrange, give shooters a chance to swap out targets, or if there’s some information that needs to be communicated to the shooters on the line. Upon a cease-fire command, usually from the range officer, everyone on the firing line must stop shooting. During a cease fire, clear your gun, lay it on the shooting bench/table and step away. Some ranges also require you to place a chamber flag within the chamber (to indicate the gun is clear). When you first get to the range, the staff will alert you of any cease-fire policies .
Shooting in a shared space sucks when the people around you aren’t respectful of the other shooters or the facility and can make a great range experience sour in a hurry. If you have a question, it’s best to ask the range officer on duty. Do not bother others while they are shooting. Now, I’m not suggesting that you can’t be social and enjoy your time, but while you’re on the firing line, your focus needs to be on making sure you handle your firearms safely. Trying to shout over ear protection and gunfire is already challenging without having to worry about a loaded gun in your hands. Especially as a newer shooter, it’s best to save your conversations until you can have them off the shooting floor.
Only Handle Your Own Gun
Do not ask others to handle their gun or give your gun to someone else. This is a big mistake for new shooters and large liability. Even if you think it’s harmless, the only gun you should be handling at the range is your own (unless you are renting). You just don’t know how safe another shooter will be with a gun that isn’t their own, and vice-versa, if it isn’t your gun, on the firing line is a bad time to learn how to use it.
I once made the mistake of handing over my Ruger GP100 revolver to a patrol officer at an outdoor range who wanted to discuss with me some of the basics of single action versus double action. In the middle of my target shooting, he asked to see my gun. Thinking it harmless, I gave it to him and he cocked the hammer back for single action. Before I knew it, the patrol officer’s finger was on the trigger, and as he was talking, he unintentionally fired the revolver right in front of me. Good thing I was standing a bit behind him, otherwise I would almost certainly have been shot; the officer did not have the Ruger pointed downrange. Although no one was hurt, my lesson was learned. Remember: treat every gun as loaded, keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to fire, and keep your gun pointed downrange.
Going to the shooting range can be an intimidating, but exciting experience for any beginner shooter. Getting familiar with shooting range basics and range etiquette will help alleviate your fears and become a proficient shooter at the range. With the right equipment, the right dress, and the right attitude you’ll have a more safe—and more fun—experience.
Featured image courtesy of contributor Ratha Grimes via Wikimedia Commons.