Opinions on what makes a good shooting range are as varied as everyone’s favorite ice cream flavor. Some shooters prefer outdoor ranges, while others prefer indoors. Some prefer a heavy presence of range officers, while many seasoned shooters like range officers to observe from afar. I’ve been in the smallest of shooting ranges with five lanes cramped into a busy strip center to out-of-the-way expansive acres of woodlands. Gun ranges do vary in quality and as a gun noob, your first visit to the gun range can be pivotal in your decision to continue participating in the shooting sports or not. No two gun ranges are alike and finding one that makes you feel safe and comfortable is an important step to becoming a regular shooter.
First, your and the range’s focus should be safety. Familiarize yourself with the four basic rules of firearm safety before heading to the range. Each range will most likely have its own set of rules in addition to these. Plenty of ranges do not allow rapid fire. This is when you pop off rounds quickly, one right after the other. A good range will have the four basic safety rules and their rules clearly stated in a highly visible area. The ranges I frequent most often have these rules posted in each shooting lane.
My favorite indoor shooting range has a Range Officer (RO) inside the hot range at all times. He or she should be attentive to everyone’s moves. They are there to keep everyone safe. They should be aggressive enough to stop any unsafe behavior. Further, Range Officers should be knowledgeable enough to offer tips, advice and help if needed. If at any point, people are acting unsafe and no one is doing anything about it, leave the range immediately. It probably isn’t a place you want to return.
Each shooting bay should have a shelf or table to rest your gun while you reload magazines or change targets. This will remind you to keep your gun’s muzzle pointed down range at all times. Further, you can keep ammunition, magazines and other gear on the table.
Every indoor range I use has a computerized, mechanical target retrieval system; however, some outdoor ranges do not. At an outdoor range that does not have any type of target retrieval, you must be diligent when noticing the range is hot (people are firing) and when the range is cold (weapons down, chambers empty and fingers completely off the trigger). To replace targets, the RO will yell commands to cease-fire so you can change out targets. This means you will have to cross the firing line. Depending on your level of comfort with this system, it is best to ask the range in advance if you must cross the firing line to switch out targets.
NIOSH, EPA and OSHA Regulations
The governing bodies of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration all have rules, regulations and recommendations for shooting ranges. These organizations are concerned with employees, clients and the environment’s health due to lead and noise exposure.
Unless you purchase lead-free ammunition, the primer in your ammo most likely contains lead. Firing the gun releases gases from the ammunition and some will blow back in the direction of the shooter. Even more lead gets released when the bullet hits the target and backstop. NIOSH and OSHA regulate lead exposure. Therefore, a responsible gun range will have a high-quality air ventilation and exhaust system using HEPA filters. The systems installed must meet NIOSH and OSHA requirements. If a gun range is too smoky or smelly, it might have an inadequate system.
Inhaling the air and touching lead bullets or eating, drinking or smoking right after shooting can possibly expose you to damaging levels of lead. The range should not allow drinks or food inside the firing range. Further, a sink with warm water should be available at all times so you can wash your hands, arms and face right after shooting. Two products are NIOSH-approved to remove lead—LeadTech wipes and Hygenall.
Lead dust will settle in carpets and may cause a health hazard. The firing range and adjacent rooms should have concrete or tiled floors.
Outdoor ranges are not required to have a filtration or exhaust system, however they should provide fans to direct air away from the shooting bays, especially if the outdoor range has concrete walls and overhead baffles.
Outdoor shooting ranges must abide by the EPA’s Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and the Clean Water Act (CWA) in dealing with hazardous waste. Read the guidelines and the EPA’s recommended best practices here.
Appearances can be deceiving. One of our favorite ranges is set back in the beautiful woods of North Texas. However there is no clubhouse, no store and only primitive porta-pottys. Another local gun range with in a nice brick building with a very popular brand name attached is a little deceiving on the outside. Though it is a very nice range with excellent staff, the inside is cramped and the shooting lanes could use some updating.
Unfortunately, we do tend to judge a book by its cover and when you first walk into a gun range we make a quick, however inappropriate, judgment about the place. If you can’t walk without stepping on brass, the place probably needs some attention.
Does the range keep up with repairs? Are there multiple holes in the walls or ceiling? A good shooting range will be on top of maintenance.
One of my biggest pet peeves is poor lighting. I prefer to have ample lighting throughout the facility. Staff should replace all burned out lights.
My favorite indoor shooting range has a nice check-in front area where you can purchase ammunition and accessories and rent guns. They have plenty of ammo and targets in stock and a very nice unisex restroom. Beyond that is a lounge with sofas, comfy chairs and a table. There is a TV, magazines, sink with hot water, coffee and cold sodas in the waiting area. The place is always sparkling clean, the staff friendly and helpful, and gun smoke in the range has never choked me out.
If you don’t know where to go, start asking people you know who shoot to recommend a range. Search your local firearms forums for suggestions. The National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) has a list of five- and four-star gun ranges based on appearance, customer/member focus, customer/member development, management, community relations and amenities. Cheaperthandirt.com also has a list of ranges you may search, however we have not visited every one and cannot verify or guarantee the quality of the ranges listed.
To read what to expect for your first time at the range, read our post Your First Time at the Range.
Do you already have a favorite range? If so, tell us where and why in the comment section.