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Firearm Safety At The Shooting Range

80 Percent Arms   |   Mar 18th 2022

Every responsible gun owner knows that it takes skill acquired through practice to become a competent shooter and the ability to shoot well is an extremely perishable skill; if you don’t use it, you lose it. Regardless if you grew up around firearms, learned how to shoot beginning with airsoft guns or if you had to learn through rigid instruction in the military. Most of what any of us have learned is the same no matter where you started your "gun journey." Where the rules of firearm safety begin to differ depends on the environment you are actually shooting and training in.

First and foremost, it is imperative to know the basics and build up from that foundation. The cornerstone of that solid foundation are the 4 rules of firearm safety. If you'd like an in-depth look at these rules, check out our blog on the matter right here at The 4 Essential Rules of Firearm Safety.

Basic Firearm Safety Training

In order to become an accurate and confident shooter you must be as safe as possible, for yourself and others' safety around you.

Trigger Discipline

The most important rule of safety is to know that you are the only safety on a firearm guaranteed to work 100% of the time. Never in the history of firearms has a gun loaded and fired itself; it must be manually done by someone. To be sure the firearm in your possession is safe one basic fundamental way to achieve this is to keep your finger straight and off the trigger until you are on target, ready and intent on firing.

Trigger finger discipline is not necessarily a difficult skill to master, however, it may take some time to build that muscle memory. If you've only been shooting for a short period of time, nothing will feel naturally immediately, which is why we like to teach people good habits early on so that it feels wrong to put your finger on the trigger prematurely. 

One tip that new shooters tend to find useful is to treat the action as simple as pointing your finger. Whether you are on the range or at home, try a few dry runs with an empty and safe firearm, pick it up and point it in a safe direction with your finger off the trigger and out of the trigger guard, then repeat. Building trigger finger discipline into muscle memory is an essential part of safe ownership and use.

Think of it like driving a car. If you see anything that makes you nervous or unsure while traveling on the road. What do you do? Do you slam your foot on the brake? Not unless absolutely necessary, right? The safest thing to do is to take your foot off the accelerator so you aren't speeding towards a potential safety hazard. Instead, we let off of the gas to immediately start slowing down. Likewise, we take our finger off of the trigger anytime we need to take a pause or if something is afoot. 

Situational Awareness Techniques

Continuing with the driving analogy — Anyone who's taken basic driving courses knows that to arrive at your destination safely you should keep eyes on the road, occasionally check mirrors for other drivers and keep a firm grip on the wheel. These are situational awareness techniques for driving. Doing anything else can cause drivers to be distracted which can increase the chances of a collision causing injury or death. The same thought process should be applied when frequenting a shooting range. Ignoring or disregarding obvious safety rules may have the same outcome. This can be achieved by adhering to the 4 rules of firearms safety along with these practical methods you can add to your safe habits to practice situational awareness regardless of where you are:

The Three Segments of Situational Awareness

1. Identifying elements in your environment. 

2. Understanding critical factors, particularly with the decision maker's goals in mind. 

3. Understanding and predicting what may happen in the near future within the situation. 

Bonus. Applying the Shared Mental Model — the concept of a shared understanding among team members for how they should behave in a variety of different situations. Being able to perceive how other shooters may behave depending on their varying levels of experience is an extremely important and useful skill that comes with time and familiarity around firearms and how different shooting ranges may operate. 

What to expect at the rangeOutdoor shooting range

(Photo Source: 80 Percent Arms)

Range hazards might not always be what you expect. Indoor and outdoor ranges have their own benefits, downfalls and different rules to watch out for. One major downside to an indoor range is the limited personal space. The entire time you are in there you’ll likely be confined to one small shooting lane with other shooters on either side of you. In a perfect world this would be fine, unfortunately that’s not always the case. You are not going to know the skill and safety level of people you’ve never met, negligence is always a danger.

Outdoor ranges can provide a good distance between shooters, but this does not negate the fact that it can still be dangerous. From steel targets deflecting rounds back towards the firing line to novice shooters trying out firearms or shooting drills that are out of their ability. In the example image above, the wooden barrier is a visual guide to let shooters know where NOT to aim so that they don't shoot over the berms and risk hitting anything or anyone that may be behind the range even if it is a good distance away. 

If you're a new shooter let's etch this in stone right now; your buddy might make it sound fun to mag dump on a gun you haven't shot before or a larger caliber that you don't have experience with yet. It's perfectly acceptable to say no and gradually work yourself up to it. Or as a general precaution, don't completely fill a magazine on your first go. Try one round at a time and increase more rounds in the mag as your comfort level grows as well. 

Range Etiquette

As previously mentioned, a little bit of research on the range you are going to allows you to plan what to bring along and what to leave at home. There are a lot of Do’s and Don’ts you need to be aware of that you might not have thought of. What is considered proper at one range may be a complete taboo at another establishment. 

Let’s start with the big one, firearms. Which ones can you bring? Well if you're shooting indoors you might not want to bring a shotgun. Many indoor ranges will not allow you to bring them unless you are shooting slugs. This is primarily a safety precaution because if you shoot bird or buckshot you're definitely going to ruin the range's target holders and have a high chance of damaging their equipment. There's also the small chance of ricochets happening which would be extremely dangerous especially since most indoor ranges are not further than 25 yards in length.

For different reasons rifles, whether semi-auto or bolt action, are also typically not allowed at indoor ranges unless they're specifically designed for rifle use (the ones that are 50 to 100 yards in length). The main reason is usually that if the range isn't built for rifle use, it's simply a huge nuisance to other shooters at the range what with the massive concussive force that comes from shooting an AR. Even moreso, if you're using a muzzle brake. While not usually the case, some indoor ranges might also not be rated to stop larger calibers. 

Many of these issues are less of an issue at outdoor ranges but the same rules will apply when the range's equipment's longevity is in question. When thinking about range safety rules, you may not think about the gear you are bringing such as holsters and plate carriers since we practice like we plan to play. It's not unheard of for ranges to not allow tactical kinds of gear either. You may be able to bring your holster but might not be allowed to draw from it, these ranges prefer that you place your firearm on a table and only begin from the low ready position. If you want to wear all of your gear, check on the range's rules first.

Another quick point is that certain ammunition may not be allowed for practice on certain targets. It is 100% certain the range masters and RSO’s will not allow you to shoot steel plates with 5.56 M855 Green Tip ammunition, the steel core of that projectile will cut into the plates and eventually destroy them. Additionally, they may cause fires if there happens to be enough dry brush around your shooting bay. Some ranges even go so far as to not allow visitors to shoot hollow point ammunition on steel targets due to fragmentation. 

General Range Safety RulesIndoor shooting range

(Photo Source: B Brown via Shutterstock)

If you're indoors, generally speaking ranges will want you to keep your firearms at the lane's table and to not move with them anywhere else so as to not accidentally flag other people at the range. Not every range has ballistic walls dividing each lane, or a transparent pane no less like in the example image above. Typically, you can load your mags at tables in the back behind the lanes but ranges will not want you walking around with your firearm in hand. As a courtesy, most indoor ranges also do not allow rapid fire because of the concussive force that creates and how discomforting that may be for the people around you. It's also a safety issue as RSO's don't have any way of knowing a person's shooting ability just by looking at them. And of course, always keep your firearms pointed downrange. To be extra safe, you can even keep your handguns or rifles locked back showing cleared chambers when they're not in use. RSO's working that day will appreciate it. 

It doesn't matter if you've been shooting for 50 years and think know everything about shooting or have been shooting only for 5 minutes and know what you know, here is a huge tip, when you are at the range it's their rules or the road. Almost every professional range will have the general rules listed for you in one form or another. Some will have their range safety rules in a waiver you’ll sign before stepping on the range. They may have their rules posted on boards at the entrance of the range or scattered throughout. You might even see both since there's no such thing as overly conveying their importance.

What do Range Safety Officers do?

When on the range it is very common to see people watching the shooters, likely wearing a red or yellow vest or some type of highly visible clothing. Mostly they will not be talking or playing on their phone, these observant people are the Range Safety Officers. Though they probably are handy with a firearm, they are not there to instruct or give tips, they are there to make sure no violations of range rules occur. If you ever notice something unsafe occurring, find a Range Safety Officer and let them know immediately.

To become a RSO means you have been educated in policy, procedure, and most importantly firearms safety. Many of the RSO’s you will encounter are likely graduates of the NRA Range Safety Officer course. If you are interested in becoming an NRA certified Range Safety Officer, check out their website for more information.

Understanding Range Lingo

Unless you served in the military, law enforcement, or are an avid shooter, some of the phrases used by the Range Safety Officers may be alien to you, we will go over some of the common ones.

Range is Hot - Usually this is said to signify that people are about to start firing so it would be smart to get your eye and ear protection on as fast as possible as soon s as you hear these words being said. 

Range is Cold - Typically said when all shooters at the range are being asked to step away from their lanes, table and to NOT touch their firearms.

Down range! - This can be said in a few different ways but it's meant to alert people around you that someone is going down towards the direction where people have been firing at. Usually, it's something said in the outdoor setting to check target groupings, set up new targets or to repaint targets. But if you hear it, you should loudly shout it out too which prompts others to do the same. 

Cease Fire - A common phrase to not be misunderstood. If you ever hear this at a range, immediately take your finger off the trigger, lower your weapon and assess your surroundings to see what's going on around you.

Make safe - Whether your gun is loaded or not, if you're being told to 'make safe,' it just means to switch your safety function on so that you reduce the chance of a negligent discharge and increase the level of safety for yourself and others in your immediate vicinity. 

Make safe and ready - A more competition-esque phrase that a Range Officer will use as an instruction to let you know you can load your gun, put the safety on, and get ready for that beeper to go off to begin your match's stage. 

Show clear - Competition or not, if a Range Officer is asking you to 'show clear' it means that they're asking you to show your chamber to make sure that there isn't a round in the barrel. 

Show clear and holster - If you're in a shooting range setting where holsters are allowed, this command means to show to a Range Officer your chamber is cleared of any rounds and to holster your handgun afterwards so as to not haphazardly wave it around after whatever you were doing prior. 

Concealed Carry Rules

If you've ever been to a shooting range you've likely seen a sign that says, “no live ammunition beyond this point” or “no loaded firearms in this area”, something to that point. What do you do if you are an everyday concealed carry type person? You would actually be remiss to assume that just because someone opened a gun range, that they'd be completely open to people concealed carrying. At the end of the day, shooting ranges are private businesses and that means that there is liability and insurance involved.

Some ranges might be okay with it and be indifferent, others may have strict rules to keep everyone "safe" in more ways than one. One factor behind this is so that there is less chance of an accidental or negligent discharge while someone is at the range. So don't write off your stricter ranges as "fuddy" too quickly. However, at the end of the day shooting ranges are private property and it is best to comply with these establishments' rules. At the same time, if your concealed stays properly concealed in the holster, how will anyone take an issue with it?

Be smart and stay safe, use your equipment, belt, holster, and firearm properly and keep your loaded firearm secure on your body. The best way to be sure, since not all states have the same attitude and etiquette when it comes to concealed carry, is to research the range by simply calling or looking on their website for their protocol on concealed firearms.

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