Your first time at a shooting range is a thrilling experience. A shooting range is a great place for enthusiasts to gather, socialize and get some time to practice with a new or favorite firearm. Most of the time, visiting a gun range is just as exciting for long-time members as it is for newcomers.
It’s important, though, to learn proper gun range etiquette before you step foot in the facility. It’s easy to spot shooters who are undereducated about safe and considerate practices. They’re often disruptive, risky to be near and can cause a lot of stress for others using the range. Familiarizing yourself with the rules early and often will help you avoid accidents.
Not only will learning etiquette prevent you from looking out of place, but it will also keep you and everyone else safe. With knowledge of the right precautions and procedures, you’ll earn the respect of others and feel more confident during your practice. Within a few visits, you’ll likely feel collected, self-reliant and comfortable chatting it up with the regulars.
Etiquette is a crucial part of visiting a shooting range. From basics to specifics, this guide will help you learn how to carry yourself at the gun range and avoid issues.
TERMS YOU SHOULD KNOW
As a general rule to avoid confusion, it’s good to know a few basic terms used at almost any gun range. Some of the most frequently used expressions include:
Firing line: This may be one of the most important to know. The firing line determines where shooters may stand. You must be positioned at the line before loading or firing any weapon, and you must step behind it during cease-fires or if you need to take a break. Before you can step behind the line, you need to have unloaded and locked the slide or cylinder of your firearm open. A painted stripe across the floor may visually represent the firing line.
Downrange: When someone uses the term downrange, they mean the area past the line of fire and where the targets are set — or in other words, anywhere past the shooters. This is important to remember, as it may come up in safety commands. Any individual going downrange is crossing the line of fire and will be walking in front of shooters, which should only occur during a cease-fire.
Hot and cold: Safety officers will often call out ‘hot’ or ‘cold,’ so these are essential terms to understand. When a range is hot, that means shooters are active, or you are permitted to commence firing. During this time, no one should advance past the line of fire. When a range goes cold, that means all shooters have unloaded their weapons and locked them open. Only when a range is cold are you allowed to go downrange. Hot and cold may be used as commands, and you must always follow the rules of a cease-fire.
Backstop: The backstop is simply the wall or barrier behind targets. At indoor facilities, it will just appear as a back wall. At outdoor ranges, the backstop is usually a man-made berm or embankment of soil. It is made to stop stray bullets and projectiles that puncture through targets. Every time you shoot, it is important to shoot straight and parallel to the ground so that the backstop can block your bullets safely.
Lanes: At an indoor facility, each shooter will have their own lane — the area from a shooting stall or booth to the target. The range is made up of multiple lanes running parallel to one another. Every shooter is expected to keep within their lane and fire at their targets only.
Bench: Benches are the tables or counters in each stall where you may rest your firearm once it is unloaded and locked open. While it isn’t crucial to know this term, it may prevent some confusion.
With time and practice, you’ll get used to the lingo and pick up on how to use it. If you forget a term or don’t know what a word means, ask an experienced shooter or staff member and they’ll usually be happy to teach you. Officers may use some of the terms for safety purposes, so you should pay close attention. After a while, they’ll be a part of your regular vocabulary.
THE FUNDAMENTALS OF SAFETY
Before getting into the specifics of gun safety, there are a few universal rules every shooter should practice:
Direction: Regardless of whether or not your weapon is loaded, you should always keep the muzzle pointed downrange. If you need to place the gun down on your bench, it should be unloaded and facing the targets. Once you are ready to start shooting, only direct the muzzle at items you intend to hit.
Surroundings: Always be aware of your surroundings. You should pay attention to your actions and the actions of other shooters on the range. If someone calls for a cease-fire, you need to be able to hear it. Also, know your target and what’s beyond it. Even if your range has a reliable backstop in place, it’s good practice to gain a clear understanding of your surroundings, especially when shooting at outdoor targets.
Intention: When you’re in between rounds, your finger should be off the trigger until you intend to shoot. This may be one of the best ways to prevent mistakes. If you keep your finger out of the trigger guard, there’s much less of a chance of an accidental discharge. As an added precaution, you may want to keep the safety on any time you aren’t ready to fire.
Treatment: As a base rule, treat every firearm as if it is loaded at all times. Even if you’ve double checked the chamber, it’s best to continue handling it with the same regard you would a loaded weapon. Not only will it help you form good habits, but it will also ensure you never make the wrong assumption accidentally.
Even those with years of experience can get overly comfortable and make a misstep now and again. That doesn’t mean it’s acceptable behavior or that you should be negligent when it comes to following accepted practices. You should make it a routine to be a representative of good conduct.
While these are the standard base rules for any shooter, there are further courtesies and policies you should consider when visiting the range.
WHAT EQUIPMENT TO BRING
Having the correct equipment for your handgun and personal safety will not only make your session easier — it will also make it more enjoyable. While rentals are typically available, having personalized gear on hand is convenient. Each item is essential for the safety of you and your fellow shooters. Before making your trip to the range, make sure you pack the essentials, including:
Shooting bag: If you’re bringing your equipment to the range rather than renting, having a shooting bag is a great idea. They make transport and storage more manageable and ensure all of your belongings are in their designated place. By keeping firearms, ammunition and safety gear together, you’ll know where your equipment is at all times. As a plus, you’ll appear more professional and experienced.
Gun case: The safest way to transport your firearm is in a case. Walking into a range with an unprotected weapon will make even the staff uncomfortable. You can either stow the case in a shooting bag or transport it separately. Before you pack it up, be sure to unload your gun and lock the action open. Always unpack and load your firearm according to range rules.
Eye protection: Proper safety glasses are a crucial piece of equipment to bring. Wearing them will prevent debris from getting in your eyes, so you should find a pair that fits your face comfortably and meets OSHA standards. Sunglasses and prescription glasses do not count under OSHA standards. Many ranges won’t let you shoot without proper safety glasses, but some offer rentals for your convenience.
Hearing protection: Gun ranges are loud, especially indoor facilities. Even a single gunshot can cause permanent hearing damage. To protect your hearing, you should wear foam earplugs or earmuffs while shooting. If you have particularly sensitive ears, you can wear both or invest in high-end electronic headphones, which cancel out gunshots while allowing you to hear other sounds as you normally would. You can wear these the entire practice while still engaging in conversations with safety officers and friends.
Repair and maintenance kit: There’s always a chance you’ll need to maintain your firearm while at the range. At the very least, you may need to clean or lubricate it. Bringing a small kit will ensure that you have what you need to keep your gun functioning properly while you practice.
This equipment will help you keep organized and ensure the safety of others. If you show up with everything you need, you’ll have more time on the range and you’ll feel ready to handle just about anything. You can also rent or purchase all your gear — including guns — at most indoor ranges.
READ THE RANGE RULES
Besides the universal best practices, every range has an independent way of operating. It’s essential to get your hands on a copy of your range’s specific regulations and familiarize yourself with them before going in for a session. Once you’re in the facility, you should follow all of their requirements and expectations. This is an easy way to stay safe and earn the respect of the staff and regulars.
Many ranges will ask you to sign a waiver stating that you understand and agree to abide by the rules once you’ve reviewed them. The waiver ensures the facility cannot be held liable in the event anyone injures themselves or another shooter. This is standard procedure.
You should also check the range’s maximum rate of fire and ammunition allowances before bringing in one of your guns. Indoor ranges will have a limit that often permits handguns only and excludes most high-powered rifles. It is crucial to adhere to this limit, as indoor ranges are not equipped for anything outside their posted restrictions.
More than anything, don’t be afraid to ask questions and err on the side of “better safe than sorry.” Introduce yourself to the staff and let them know if it’s your first time at a shooting range. They are there to help you with whatever you need, and they’ll likely appreciate your consideration.
If you have a question while you’re in session, you can also ask another shooter as long as they aren’t actively shooting. Interrupting someone while they’re mid-session should be reserved for emergencies, such as noticeable malfunctions or other immediate dangers. If there are shooters who are clearly between sessions, feel free to ask them for advice or recommendations. You may even find that you strike up a friendship.
Even if you’re familiar with one range’s rules, don’t assume they carry over to other facilities. It’s always best practice to read each center’s regulations thoroughly and ask questions if anything is unclear.
RESPECT THE RANGE SAFETY OFFICER
Most facilities have Range Safety Officers (RSOs) on site. Their job is to ensure every shooter is following the rules, observing proper etiquette and operating their firearms safely. Often, they will yell out commands, such as to initiate cease-fires or tell shooters when it’s okay to continue their session.
As long as you follow the range rules and pay attention to officers when they call out orders, you should be able to avoid problems. If you are doing something improperly and don’t realize it, the RSO will let you know. If you notice someone else is being unsafe, don’t try to coach them. Notify the RSO so they can take care of it.
RSOs often get a bad reputation for being mean, but it’s important to remember that they have to shout in order for shooters to hear them. Don’t take these commands personally. An RSO has a difficult job filled with potential risks, and being strict is the best way to prevent problems.
Because RSOs have a hard job to do, you should treat them with respect. If you want to help make it easier for them, follow every rule and safety precaution. Listen carefully and they’ll have no reason to single you out. RSOs are also there to answer any questions you may have, and they’ll usually appreciate when you ask questions instead of making assumptions.
SAFE LOADING AND UNLOADING
When loading or unloading your firearm, you need to take extra care to avoid the risk of injury. There will likely be active shooters on each side of you, as well as people on break behind you, so keeping them in mind is a necessity.
This is where one of the universal safety rules becomes especially important. While you are loading and unloading your firearm, you need to keep a good grip on the weapon and make sure the muzzle is pointed downrange at all times.
To assure you have a tight hold and to keep your muzzle from pointing anywhere but at the targets, turn your body sideways rather than the gun. This will enable you to safely keep the gun angled downrange while naturally keeping you from turning it towards your neighbors.
WHAT TO DO DURING CEASE-FIRES
At any time during a session, the RSO can call for a cease-fire. This means every shooter has to stop, unload their gun, lock the slide or cylinder open, place it on the bench and step behind the line of fire. Before you step back, be sure you have everything you need for the break because you can’t return past the line until the RSO allows you. These rules are put in place to ensure everyone’s protection.
Cease-fires allow shooters and staff to walk downrange to check equipment or targets, do range maintenance or set new targets up. Those who venture down the lanes are trusting the shooters to keep them safe. Passing the line or touching any gun during a cease-fire is prohibited.
As long as you are behind the firing line, you can take the time to relax. Take the opportunity to socialize with your neighbors and get to know a few of the regulars. Respond to text messages or read a few emails while you wait, or rehydrate and clear your mind before resetting your focus.
Once no one is downrange and everyone is prepared to continue, the RSO will call the command to commence firing, after which you may step past the line and handle your firearm.
If a shooter notices a problem, like a gun malfunction or a person wandering downrange, they can also call for a ceasefire. The command will then be repeated by the RSO to ensure everyone hears and heeds the call.
BE SURE TO CLEAN UP
Common courtesies will get you far at the range. Just as you should anywhere else, be sure to clean up after yourself when you’ve finished using a facility. Pick up any brass, ammo boxes or miscellaneous trash before walking out. Not only will the staff appreciate it, but it ensures the safety of others — you’ll leave no chance of someone tripping or slipping on your leftover debris.
TAKE YOUR TIME
One of the best pieces of advice for a newcomer is to take your time. Accidents are often the result of rushing, and there’s no need to move too quickly.
Much like any new situation, your first experience at a shooting range can be overwhelming. There are a lot of rules and procedures to remember, and the consequences of making a mistake can be severe. Everyone around you understands the feeling, though. Each shooter, no matter how experienced, started just like you.
THE BENEFITS OF VISITING A GUN RANGE
There are many reasons to visit a gun range, and ranges are more than just places for enthusiasts to socialize. New shooters often want to try their hand at target practice purely for the sake of curiosity. Every facility provides an educational experience for men, women and children at any skill level.
The many benefits a shooting range can provide you with include:
Testing out rentals: Most indoor shooting ranges offer rental firearms. If you’re new to shooting or want to try out a new gun model before committing to a purchase, you can rent one to see if you like it. Firearm choices are personal and often depend on the shooter’s hand size, strength, skill level and preferences. Being able to test a few — one at a time — can help you find a new favorite or decide what features you like in a gun.
Low commitment: While clubs and social ranges offer memberships to frequent visitors, many of them will also accept walk-ins. Going as a walk-in means you can show up at any time, pay for your session and leave without needing to sign up as an official member. This allows you to test out the range and see if target shooting is something you’d enjoy as a regular hobby.
Brushing up on skills: If you’re an experienced shooter, gun ranges are the perfect controlled environments to brush up on your skills or learn how to operate a new weapon safely. You can challenge yourself to tighten your groupings or improve on any perceived personal shortcomings as a shooter.
Learning safe habits: Gun ranges are some of the best places to learn how to operate firearms safely. Many of them will offer training for beginners and help answer any questions newcomers may have. Range staff members are happy to help and will encourage you to learn at your own pace. Even older children and young adults are welcome at most gun ranges. They’ll have the opportunity to learn the fundamentals of gun safety and how to operate a weapon in case they ever need to.
Socialization: While it may not be the most significant feature of a gun range, being able to socialize with other enthusiasts is a great benefit. Both experienced and beginning shooters will be able to talk to one another, and older members may be able to teach you a few things. This allows a community to form around the range, and as you find new friends, you’ll likely feel more comfortable.
Becoming a part of a local gun range is an excellent idea for anyone looking to try target shooting. It’s an ideal environment to learn, practice and discover a fun new hobby. Within a few visits, you may even be convinced to sign up for a membership.