I first published this article at my Gun Path blog. Republishing here as that site is no longer in use.
Your first time visiting a gun range can be a bit intimidating. Even if you’re an experienced marksman and hunter, a lack of familiarity with basic shooting-range etiquette can make your first experience there daunting. Well, I’d like to make it less daunting. In this article I’ll address a few of the unknowns first timers might worry about, as well as offer some advice on things every shooter must take into account when going to a gun range.
Note that most of this information is applicable to any gun range, but some is perhaps more specific to indoor ranges. Let context be your guide.
Inexperience doesn’t matter. Safety does.
Both the staff and the shooters at a gun range love to see beginners there; it warms the heart to see someone decide begin their firearms education or hone their skills. So don’t try and hide the fact that you’re inexperienced and ignorant of many gun-range conventions. Embrace and be open about your ignorance; it’s the surest way to endear yourself to the people there. Pretending you know things you do not will produce the opposite response.
On the other hand, they do care very much if you are unsafe or unaware of basic firearm safety. So the most pressing concern for a first timer to the gun range is a solid familiarity with basic gun safety and handling. So before you go to a gun range, you should either take a gun-safety class or seek some comprehensive safety instruction from an experienced friend. Then you should spend ample time practicing the physical conventions of safe firearm handling so that they become habitual. The fastest way to draw the ire and suspicion of people at a gun range is to display unsafe behavior and gun handling.
At check-in the staff will probably ask you…
- Have you shot with us before?
- Basically, they’re interested to know whether or not you’re familiar with their range and its specific rules. Since you’re not, you’ll likely be asked to read their rules. Do, and read them carefully. Then ask any questions you may yet have; that’s what this first step at check-in is all about.
- What are you shooting today?
- They’ll want to know if you’re shooting pistols or long guns (rifles and shotguns), for a couple of reasons. First, ranges often have separate bays for pistols and long guns, since long guns are usually louder and often require longer lanes and perhaps a different backstop. Also, if you’re shooting a rifle, they’ll often want to inspect your ammo. Because of this, if you’re shooting a rifle and using a magazine, don’t load your magazines before you get to the range since you’ll probably be asked to unload them all for an ammo inspection (so they can make sure you’re not shooting ammo they don’t allow).
- Do you have eyes and ears?
- They’re referring to eye and ear protection. Glasses or shooting glasses and either ear plugs or earmuffs (or both in combination!) are required at all times in an indoor shooting bay or around the outdoor range. Make sure you bring both or are prepared to purchase them there. Many smart shooters wear ear plugs with their earmuffs when at an indoor range.
- Do you need any ammo today?
- Most ranges sell ammo, so you can choose to bring your own or just pick it up there. Note, that many ranges have limits on how many boxes you can buy and/or when you can buy (some will sell you ammo only if you’re about to shoot, but not when you’re about to leave).
- Do you need any extra targets?
- Some ranges will give you one free target, but will have targets for sale, too. You can choose to bring your own or purchase targets there.
General Advice & Etiquette
- The range safety officer (RSO) is your friend and is there to help
- Don’t be afraid to ask the RSO for help or advice or general questions! You will have questions. Heck, I’m at the range a few times a week and I still have questions sometimes. Just speak up! Unanswered questions can compromise safety and enjoyment and the RSO wants to answer your questions; that’s one of the main reasons he or she is there.
- Get a range bag.
- It’s useful and efficient to bring your gun(s) and accessories to the range packed neatly in a durable bag of some sort. This might be a small sports duffel bag or it might be one made specifically as a range bag. Unless you’re shooting several guns of various types, it is unlikely that you’ll ever need anything more than something large enough for 1 to 2 pistols, eyes & ears, 2-5 boxes of ammo, a rag/towel, some masking tape, a multi tool, notepad, and a pen (I happen to use a shoulder bag made for a laptop computer). The style and brand of your bag doesn’t matter. What matters is that your guns are protected and the bag’s construction can bear the weight of your equipment.
- Wear a ball cap.
- When you’re in a shooting lane with a semi-auto pistol or rifle, your ejected brass will often bounce around a bit before hitting the ground. It is not uncommon for ejected brass to bounce into your face and if you’re not wearing a hat it can lodge between your eye protection and your face. Trust me when I say that you do not want this to happen, as that brass is extremely hot. The last thing anyone holding a ready-to-fire weapon needs is to convulse madly in an attempt to deal with a hot shell casing burning his/her cheek or eyeball. The bill of a hat keeps that from happening.
- Trust me on this, as I speak from direct personal experience!
- Take your lane and hang your target.
- Many first timers are unsure what to do once they step into the shooting bay, but it’s really pretty straightforward. Walk to your assigned lane, put down your stuff, hang your target and unpack your gun and ammo. You may quickly be approached by the range safety officer to ensure you know the basic rules—or share them if you don’t—but other than that you can just go about your business.
- Unpack your gun, magazines, and ammo – but only 1 gun at a time, 1 box of ammo at a time.
- Unless your range requires otherwise, don’t unpack several guns and lots of ammo and spread/stack them all over your shooting bench. That’s a messy and dangerous situation and just asks for weapons and/or ammo to get knocked onto the floor. Make a habit of having only the weapon you’re firing and the 1 box of ammo you’re using on your bench at any given time. keep the rest in your range bag(s) on the floor. Replenish individually as needed.
- When your gun is on the bench, lock the slide open or, with a revolver, have the cylinder empty and open.
- Most ranges will have this requirement in their rules, but it is a safe, smart, and reassuring practice to maintain regardless. A gun range is not a place for uncertainty. A gun resting on a bench is an uncertainty unless it is open for all to see that it is unloaded and/or disabled.
- Keep your gun pointed downrange. Always.
- Again, most ranges will have this as a requirement, but a firearm pointed in any direction other than downrange is, by definition, unsafe. Note that downrange means straight downrange and not up or down in the general direction of downrange (the range does not consider it safe that the floor or the ceiling is targeted by your muzzle). Failing to keep the muzzle of your loaded or unloaded weapon downrange is one of the surest ways to get yourself asked to leave the range.
- Mostly, mind your own business and let others mind theirs.
- No one will be watching you, except the RSO to ensure you are safe. So don’t worry about doing well or looking experienced for the rest of the people there. They’re doing their own thing.
- Note that when a person puts on earplugs/earmuffs and steps into a walled shooting bay lane, s/he tends to descend into his/her own world. Just as when someone is driving alone in their car, they’re in what they consider to be a private space. This will be true for you and it is true for the others in the lanes nearby. It can be a delicate matter to invade that private space, even with a friendly message or request. If you have a request or question of one of the other shooters that you don’t know personally, it is usually best to ask the RSO to be your proxy.
- Note that this admonition is not to say that the gun range is an unfriendly place. Quite the contrary, in fact. When folks are just standing around in the bay, conversations among strangers are commonplace. It just means that when someone is in a lane shooting, interruptions are not so innocuous as they might otherwise be.
- Make sure you understand your range’s firing-rate rules.
- Many ranges, indoor ranges especially, have maximum-rate-of-fire rules. A common standard is, “no faster than one shot per second.” Whatever the rule at your range, be sure you know what it is. If it’s not listed specifically in the range rules, ask the RSO.
- Mind your ejected brass.
- Semi-auto firearms eject their brass with each shot, typically to the right. While most range lanes have walls that block your brass from hitting nearby shooters, some lanes’ walls are positioned such that it is possible for you to stand too-far forward in the lane and eject your brass into the lane next to you. This is very annoying and even dangerous for the person in that lane, so be mindful of where your brass is going and how your position in your lane affects that.
- Malfunctions happen.
- Hopefully not on your first trip, but you will eventually experience a malfunction at the range. Before you go to a gun range, make sure you know how to deal with various types of malfunctions calmly, sensibly, and above all safely. Call your RSO to your bay if you have any question about the malfunction (but be sure not to compromise safety in doing so).
- Load your magazines with only five rounds at a time.
- Five is an arbitrary number, but it is a good idea for several reasons to make a habit of loading a specific, small amount of ammo in your magazines every time at the range. Firstly, keeping count on your rounds fired with a specific magazine can help in determining if you’ve had a malfunction. For instance, if you pull the trigger and it goes “click”—or—if it fires and the slide locks back, does that mean the gun is empty or does it indicate a misfire or failure to feed? Knowing your shots fired vs. your magazine round count helps you to be sure of what’s going on. Also, most ammo boxes (especially those for handguns) are configured in rows of five, so loading five rounds in your magazine is useful in managing your shot sequences for specific drills.
- Clean up.
- Shooting at the range necessarily means that brass gets strewn about on the floor. Your range will have a way of dealing with that, which may include you cleaning up your own brass or the RSO may do it for you. If you’re not sure which is the proper policy, ask. Or better yet, offer to clean up for yourself using the broom or squeegee that is in the shooting bay for that purpose. If you’re saving your brass (for reloads or resale), be sure to tell the RSO before you begin shooting. In any case, be sure to clean up your brass before you leave the range.
- Record the number of rounds you fired.
- It’s a good practice to keep an accurate count on the number of rounds you’ve put through a gun. This helps with maintenance schedules and when attempting to diagnose a functional problem. In the event you decide to sell your gun, potential buyers will want to know how many rounds the gun has fired in its lifetime. I recommend you keep detailed records for each of your guns.
- Maybe let the barrel cool.
- After you’ve put 50 to 300 rounds through your gun, the barrel is likely quite hot and you should wait before packing it away in your range bag. When you’re finished shooting, lock the slide or bolt back, place the gun on the bench, and chill for a bit. Maybe watch other shooters (discretely) or have a brief chat with the RSO or other shooters who are hanging about. After a few minutes, check the slide/barrel for temperature and when it’s not so hot as to melt/burn your gun rag/bag, wipe it down and pack it away.
- Wipe down your gear.
- Before you put them away, wipe down your magazines and gun with a rag or towel. They’ll have gunpowder residue on them and even though you’ll clean them later, you don’t want to pack dirty gear away in your bag.
- Wash your hands and face with cold water.
- After shooting, especially if you shot a pistol, your hands will have visible gun powder stains on them, but what’s not necessarily visible is that your hands, bare arms, and face will have gunpowder residue on them. If you’re done, hopefully before you leave the range, go and wash your hands and face in cold water to remove the residue.
I hope this helped
When you’ve internalized your gun-safety habits and have acquired the minimum equipment, don’t wait—go to the range! Go alone or go with a friend, but go…and have fun. Then maybe share here in the comments how things went.