When I first started shooting I began on a public indoor range. I wasn’t a member of a club. I didn’t have any guns of my own to shoot. So I practiced with rented firearms, shooting in a lane alongside lots of other shooters. While waiting for Massachusetts to process my paperwork while and to convince my parents to let me store a gun or two in the house (I was a college student at the time) I spent a significant period of time at the public range. After I bought my first guns I continued to shoot at the public range out of convenience. It was a great facility but I enjoyed shooting there. Except . . .

One thing you learn pretty quickly when you shoot at a public range: not everyone has a working knowledge or respect for firearm safety. Most commercial ranges will rent a pistol to any schmuck who walks in off the street; people who have a better chance of reciting Star Trek’s opening monologue than the four safety rules.

I’ve seen more dubious examples of gun handling than I can remember. But here are a few that linger in my memory:

  • Turning a firearm and pointing it directly to the shooter’s side to clear a malfunction (muzzle pointed directly at his neighbor on the left)
  • Turning 180 degrees with a loaded pistol in order to take a look at the sights in better light
  • Returning a pistol to a retention holster by holding the flap open with the weak hand and sweeping that hand every time
  • Shooters who show up, fire some shots with one hand, gangster style, and then get excited that they hit the backer
  • The macho guy demonstrating the functions of a revolver to his girlfriend while pointing it at me while I’m downrange changing targets when the line was supposed to be cold

When I look back at some of the things I’ve seen, not only am I surprised I’m still alive, I’m amazed I didn’t soil myself at least once a week.

As I gained experience, I quickly realized if I wanted to enjoy range time and leave without any extra holes, I needed to adopt some standard practices. Here’s How I Stay Alive at Public Ranges Without Really Trying.

Bring a partner

Soon after I started shooting, I managed to get my girlfriend (now my wife) involved. She enjoyed outshooting me almost as much as I didn’t. Having another set of eyes and only one lane between us means that, at any given time, one of us can step back and keep an eye on those around us.

If I see something dubious happening I have three options: help the offender see the error of his or her ways, contact the Range Safety Officer (RSO) or bug out.

Most people who make scary ass safety mistakes are brand new shooters. They usually appreciate it when more experienced shooters provide them with helpful suggestions on how not to shoot themselves and those around them usually appreciated. Depending of course on how the information is presented. [ED: The rabbi’s standard response—remember I shoot back—may not work every time.]

When the advice doesn’t go over well or something about the offender tells me that confrontation isn’t a good idea, I either go talk to a range safety officer and have them sort it out or grab my wife and we get the hell off the range. To that end, it’s a good idea to make sure your shooting buddy understands that when either of you say it’s time to leave, it’s time to leave.

Be alert

Maintaining situational awareness is hardly ever a bad idea when people are holding and/or using firearms in your vicinity. When I first enter a public range, I size everyone up and try to get an idea of who is a safe shooter and who is most likely to ruin my day. Or my life.

And then I keep my wits about me and my head on a swivel. I usually step back after each string. I use reloading as an opportunity to keep tabs on what the people in the stalls near me are doing. I can’t see them through the dividers when I’m on the line, but I can get a global view of any threats when I step back. If I perceived any safety issues, I exercised my binary approach.

Bonus! You get to practice your situational awareness all the time with real threats!

Shoot during off-peak hours

Keep the odds in your favor. The commercial range I use is always packed on weekends. If I rock up at peak times, I spend an hour waiting for range time. In a room. With strangers walking around with guns. When I finally get a spot there are already 11 other lanes full of people shooting. That’s a minimum of 11 potentially unsafe shooters.

If I show up during on a weekday morning, I might have the range to myself or share it with only a few other shooters. Shooting more-or-less alone is much safer than shooting with a bunch of potential knuckleheads.

Body armor

OK, I don’t do it but you hear plenty of stories about shooters wearing body armor at the range. Some are pathetic mall ninjas living out their dreams and some are cops practicing with their duty gear and some are RSOs. Far be it for me to criticize people trying to increase their chances of getting home that day. Shit happens.

A public range is no place to be complacent about your surroundings. A little Spidey sense can go a long way to increasing your chances of walking out the front door when you’re finished shooting. If you can’t avoid public ranges, you can still make the experience as safe and rewarding as possible.

Nick Savery is the author of www.IndestructibleTraining.com, a blog discussing integrating training across a variety of systems and platforms for the purposes of self-defense.

37 Responses to Training Tip: How to Survive a Public Range Session

  1. I think the key one is shoot when the range is not busy. My town of 100k people only has one public range and it gets hoppin, but I can usually manage to find a time here and there during the day and there are only 1-2 other people.

    • If there were a street in town where it was guaranteed that people would inadvertently point loaded guns at you with their finger on the trigger, would you avoid it at all costs, or would you stand in the middle of the street while paying $15 an hour for the privilege?

      The public ranges that I have been to have been horrific and I advise everyone to find a safer place to shoot.

      If safety is an issue on the range, that range qualifies as a “stupid place.”

  2. I realize that there is indeed a risk, but I honestly can’t recall an accidental shooting incident happening in a public range. I do seem to recall many years ago, a couple of bad guys that went to an outdoor range and deliberately shot the other shooters to be able to steal their weapons. Having said that, I do keep alert while shooting at any range, and since I recently applied for a job (wish me luck) as a range officer, this is indeed something timely for me to think about.

    • You’re referring to Michael Platt and William Matix from the infamous 1986 Miami shootout, where two bankrobbers under surveillance by the FBI killed two agents and wounded six others. It led to law enforcement moving away from 9 mm and calibers beginning with “3”, when it became known how the killers continued running and gunning after having received what proved to be fatal wounds — just not wounds that would keep them from killing cops before succumbing themselves.

      Platt and Matix were former military — one had been an MP, the other an Army Ranger — who were thought to have played a part in the suspicious deaths of each other’s wives.

      They acquired weapons by going to remote areas where people would go to plink, murder the unsuspecting plinkers, take their guns and leave the corpses to rot.

      There are multiple lessons to be learned from this duo, including never shoot off the beaten path without having someone to watch your back.

      I’ve read the forensic analysis — available on Amazon — which points out how one of the killers was leaving arterial spray on the fender of an FBI agent’s car as he stalked the man, great gouts of blood, but he still managed to kill the agent.

      One round from an agent’s revolver snapped the bone in the shooter’s forearm, leaving him unable to hold a weapon; he simply shouldered his rifle with the other arm, using the hand with the shattered bone to pull the trigger … and another agent went down.

      One of the survivors told of looking into the eyes of the gunman before he was shot by the robber, and noting that he was smiling, even though bleeding out.

      Another agent noted that this was simply an example of what happens when confronting two determined men who simply would not be taken alive; wounds that would have incapacitated 90 percent of the population were merely annoyances to them.

      I’ve been much more cautious when shooting on public lands, ever since reading about these two.

  3. I always wear a Kevlar vest under my shirt when I go to the shooting range. Shooting is inherently dangerous and a vest won’t stop all bullets all the time, but I feel safer with it on. I’ve read posts on forums where people bash the idea of a vest at the range, saying “if you need a vest, you need to go to another range.” but you can’t control what other people are doing, so I wear my vest.

  4. Always be extra alert when a bunch of young shooters are around. On my last trip to the range there was a group of young 20 somethings who planned on renting assault rifles (real select fire ones). What could go wrong? Fortunately I was heading for the pistol side.

  5. I go to a local DNR range pretty regularly. There have been some tense moments. The worst thing that has happened to me was actually when someone else put them self in danger through their own stupidity. Some guy drove up, hopped out of his car, walked up to the firing line and, without breaking stride, yelled “DOWN RANGE” and walked out to set up his target. About 15 people were on the line with hot weapons, including my girlfriend. She was in the middle of squeezing off a shot with my Glock. Without really thinking I stepped up and grabbed her wrists and pointed the gun away from the idiot while yelling “Get back on the line!” in my best command voice. The guy turned around with a dumb look on his face, but he didn’t walk back to the line. I repeated my demand just as loud as the first time and he slowly walked back. After I had taken my Glock back from my girlfriend and cleared it I looked around. The range was dead quiet, everyone was staring at me with concern and surprise. I declared the range cold and packed it up for the day. Next time something like this happens I’ll probably just point any hot weapons at the ground while I clear them. Yelling at stupid people is just not worth it in that situation. 

  6. Kind of ironic that for all the talk on TTAG about the importance of avoiding dangerous people/situations we regularly put ourselves in close quarters with armed strangers. Going when it isn’t busy is usually not an option for me due to my work schedule, but the place seems to attract mainly regulars who tend to be safety conscious. I try to be alert to what others are doing and I can think of only one occasion when I decided that going home early would be a sensible thing to do. I am not aware of any accidental shootings at local public ranges but there was a suicide at one not long ago. I cannot imagine what that must have been like for other shooters there at the time or the staff.

  7. I always select the right most firing point. Yes, I shoot left handed but more importantly it places me in a safer position with right handed shooters to my left.

  8. At the free public range I go to, I have learned a few things for making my time there more enjoyable:

    1) Go early in the morning, preferably Sundays.

    2) You can’t look at ANYBODY and decide whether they will be a safe shooter or not. Young, old, military, etc. I have seen terrible behavior from everybody imaginable.

    3) Do not be afraid to YELL YOUR LUNGS OUT if you see somebody violating safety rules. Often they may not be aware (because they are ill- or misinformed) and just as often other people will thank you for it.

    I’ve decided to become the range officer when I’m there, even if it makes me an asshole. Only one person needs to get hurt at one of these public ranges before they get shut down.

  9. Most reader’s here will never encounter an armed bad guy or pull their gun in a DGU. A far greater number, though, have been swept by a careless shooter at the range. I’d fathom to say that almost everyone has a story to tell about when a hot gun was pointed in their direction, if they were safety conscious enough to notice. I know I have. A few months ago, a new shooter, loaded Glock 23 pointed at my chest when she turned to say something to someone behind her. *facepalm*

    I think this is a great article. Thanks Nick.

    • Thanks for the compliment.

      My best gun pointed at me story on the range was a little over a year ago at work. I used to write software for a military contractor and happened to be downrange looking at a target when demoing a system to a customer. I happened to look back to see a coworker back at the firing range playing with an M4 with a an M320 40mm grenade launcher attached.

  10. Had a situation at a range in Memphis, TN while at a trade show with a co-worker. The scary thing is that the guys in question were likely not new shooters. It seemed as if they were practicing a set drill from a defensive shooting class, or they gleamed the info from internet information, video or a book. Before EVERY shot or multi-shot group, the gentlemen in question shouted “STOP! DON’T MAKE ME SHOOT!” before firing away. Distracting as it was, it was a public range and wasn’t against the range rules.

    However, if your “advanced training drills” distract the shooter enough where they forget to take their finger off the trigger while doing a “tactical reload” with the muzzle pointing at me in the next stall, that is enough to make me want to leave. Luckily, there was a RSO available and the issue was addressed. However, even after being reminded of the rules, after switching to drills involving snap caps and clearing of malfunctions, the shooters were still pointing to their left, and the dividers certainly were not armor plate.

    We packed up and left after this and more continued (you’d think the RO would be watching them closer at this point).

    Oh and another thing, the same shooters while swapping places were bringing their firearms out behind the line of fire to load their snap caps/live rounds into their mags, followed by slamming the mags into their pistols, hitting the slide release and holstering all while still behind the line of fire. The funny thing is that the drills they were doing were actually probably helpful and smart things to train, but not if it makes them forget the 4 rules in addition to the Range rules.

  11. I used to shoot at an outdoor range when I started out, and that poses its own safety hazards. At an indoor range one can see what everyone else is doing, and should there be any shady behavior one can spot it and leave at once.

    Outdoors, spotting someone 30 feet away who is sweeping your side of the range becomes quite difficult.

  12. I am glad to say that it’s maybe 1 out of every 20 times I go to a public range I see something iffy. Very glad.

  13. This conversation strikes me as being a lot like the anti-gun argument. “if it’s there, something could happen!”. Well of course, but the bottom line is that there is no epidemic of NDs, even ones where nobody is injured, at ranges.

    • I’ve been fortunate to never experience an ND myself despite the close calls I mentioned above. One public range not far from me had an ND in the lobby when a customer was returning a rented gun that happened to still be loaded.

      I wouldn’t advocate taking away the privilege of being able to draw from the holster, shoot fast, or load to capacity. I would on the other hand strongly advocate for following the common sense safety rules.

  14. Excellent article, thanks. I’m fortunate in that I can practice on my parents’ land, but I’ve been considering indoor ranges for very bad weather days, as well. While looking at a few, some of what I’ve seen concerns me. Some of this concern was heightened after a local range accident ( If interested, http://news-herald.com/articles/2012/02/14/news/nh5093934.txt for the update).

    I suppose every range has to carefully consider how many people it will allow in at the same time, if they need to limit the number of new shooters so they can be better helped and instructed (and new shooters have to be willing to identify themselves as such), etc. In short, they need to ensure the focus on range fees never eclipses safety. I think the best chance is to find a smaller range and, as the article states, go during off hours. As the article also makes clear, it’s also each shooter’s responsibility to remain aware of his or her surroundings and situation.

  15. Huh. I muzzled a guy with a .22 once, when I was a kid. It was my first time holding a rifle. I said sorry, and pointed gun away from him. Then there was that time when some guy started blasting an old computer monitor with birdshot, which ricocheted.

    Aside from those two occasions, I haven’t seen any unsafe behavior at the range. I must not shoot often enough.

  16. I grew up shooting on my parent’s land initially, then in a secluded gravel pit frequented by locals (I grew up in the countryside). I only started going to ranges in recent years – after I moved to the city… but didn’t want to give up my shooting habits.

    The range I go to now clearly has had some safety violations, and they have setup the rules accordingly. The range is outdoors but the shooters are indoors, with a locked door separating them (only the RO has a key). Only one round is permitted in a rifle at any time, no multiple shots. No rimfire on the rifle range, only the 25 yard pistol range (they make an exception for my .17hmr thankfully). No open sights past 50 yards. Lots of restrictions? Yes. But things are kept locked down tight and safety is very good.

    …In contrast to the first range I went to years ago. I rented a 1911. When I arrived the clerk was annoyed – why hadn’t I called in advance (I had, a few hours before, to book). There was no RO on duty. So he got Bubba who was practicing on the line at the time to play RO for me and my friend. We went out, I fired for a while, and he called a ceasefire. Me, being new to handguns at the time, I put the safety on and put the gun pointing downrange – it was still loaded, and I knew it was. I hadn’t been on a range before then, and Bubba had not explained any rules to me. Ignorance is no excuse but I didn’t know any better.

    Bubba strides over to examine my groupings. All ready to give me some advice, he picks up the 1911 and points it over my head. I IMMEDIATELY yell at him – the gun is live. He sheepishly points it downrange, drops the mag, and clears it properly – as he should have when he initially picked up a 1911 with a closed slide and a mag inserted. In hindsight I thought it was pretty surreal that I had given this supposed RO a lesson in always assuming the gun was loaded, and his reaction was one of a schoolboy caught doing something wrong – he looked like a kicked puppy. He should have berated ME for leaving it loaded on a ceasefire.

    I never went back to that range.

  17. Good article. One point I would add is that all of this applies at private ranges as well. Sometimes it worse at private ranges since the RSO (if there is one) and everyone assumes only “qualified” shooters are there so people let thier guard down.

  18. I enjoy shooting from time to time at the Barnstable Town Range. There’s no RSO. While not everyone there is an experienced shooter, everyone is very polite, respectful and careful. We police ourselves and do it well.

  19. Shame on anyone who tolerates that crap.

    Go find a good range. They exist.

    I work as an RSO, so i’m not even going to go into all the stupid crap that happens.

    But in my experence, a good range will have at least the following:

    A full time RSO on the line, all the time.

    If its indoor, it will have armored steel dividers.

    It will have retractable targets, not the type you need to cross the firing line to change.

    It will NOT be open to the general public.

    I know how many people bitch and moan about the stuff that goes on at public ranges, but they freak out when they hear about our reasonable membership rates.

  20. I try to go to ranges that are not heavily used.
    Outdoor ranges on a crappy day are usually very safe as the fair weather morons are not present.

  21. when I was a lot younger, I went to the now infamous Rampart Shooting Range in Colorado Springs, CO three times.The range consisted of a few metal tables and a 100yd digout in the dirt. No RSO, no shop, no anything. The first time I was too young to know much about how a good range should work, but if memory serves I don’t remember any bad behaviors exept for poor accuracy on my part. Fast forward a bit and the second time I went there I was old enough to know my hand from my ass, and I realized that Rampart consisted of every retard and wannabe gangbanger who’d been kicked out of all the respectable ranges. Maybe I have a terrible memory, or maybe it had changed to that, but I called it quits after seeing an idiot try to dual wield 2 Desert Eagles. Third time I went, I was conviced to go by a few buddies who hadn’t been there in a while. Oh how dumb we were, the third time, the A-holes wouldn’t even stop to change out targets, because they were shooting at the dirt and missing, and frankly I expected at any moment to see a group of PIRA/Abu Sayat/Neo-Nazis step out of a truck, say hi to everyone and blast away. Really. But of course all good things come to an end, and a year or two ago, the luck mine at Rampart dried up, and someone got shot. The authorities shut the place down, and I was kinda sad ’cause now the idiots may slither back into the general shooting population.
    Of course, I now go to a secluded little “range” in the middle of nowhere. It is the same set up as Rampart was, with nothing there but a digout, but this place is nice because a total of maybe 50 people know of its existence, and it is so damn nice that noone is talking about it.
    Still, it is public, so I always go with friends, and no one messes with J the amazing Korean or Dusty the amazing Jew 😉
    Wait, crap no they’re all mad ’cause I talked about fight club…errr I mean the range. Looks like I-dpsofjdslfldkjfdijf

  22. Man, can I relate- I have been one of the clueless, who has innocently performed more than one dumb$#it move, and been graciously educated. I have a long way to go, but for any other newbs here, a couple of lessons learned-

    1. TAKE THE CLASSES! Even the pro’s hit the batting cages. Saves you time and money unlearning bad habits later.

    2. ASK QUESTIONS! If staff makes you feel stupid answering them, then IMMEDIATELY go somewhere else. Who else is afraid to ask for the simple advice that might save YOUR life, to avoid their boo-boo next to you…?

    3. Watch and learn. This is a shout-out to a range called “Ironsights” in So Cal, with the same wide range of customers as anywhere else, but with a solid core of what appear to be some REALLY good shooters there, local LEO and USMC pro’s. A quality indicator, and a big FREE benefit if you pay attention.

  23. I used to go to a local public range up here in the Twin Cities that is pretty popular. I actually brought my dad to go shoot their automatics for a couple of hours one day. Anyway he was unimpressed with the safety of the range. We sat there on a busy day after we got done shooting and watched the violations occur (to the credit of the place the range officers addressed them quickly but that still will not stop someone from getting hurt when it is too late). He told me he would not go back there again. Fast forward a few months, I am there having a great day of practice when I feel a rush of hot air
    go by me. I disregarded it and kept shooting. I turned around to get more ammo from my bag and the girl in the stall next to me told me “you are bleeding all over your face.”. I looked in the windows and saw I was bleeding heavily from several shrapnel cuts. I promptly went to the bathroom to hopefully stop the bleeding and counted at least six cuts. The manager came to check on me as did several of the employees who were helpful. I had to get stitches and still have a little scar by my ear.

    It ended up being the same girl who pointed out my bleeding who had done it. She was shooting with her boyfriend and they had the target at three feet. She didn’t know really know how to shoot and one of her rounds almost was shot straight up and it hit the target holders and part of the cable. It hit at the perfect angle to come back at me and it did. I was the reason why the range would no longer allow shooting at three feet and painted a thick red line pointing that out. I no longer use their range.

  24. Coming from a paranoid anti-gun family, I learned a lot about firearms on the fly. I am sure that I must have done a FAIR share of boo-boos out there in Northern California and scared a good number of other shooters with my idiocy. All I can say now, 4 decades later is – “I am so sorry and I never wound up killing anyone accidentally nor have I ventilated any part of my anatomy in the intervening years” Lucky, I guess

  25. Thanks for a great post. You describe perfectly what the gun control folks are always talking about. Too many gun owners or gun users are unfit and irresponsible. You guys love to pretend that “gun owners” are typically defined by the standards of the Armed Intelligentsia. Unfortunately that’s not the case.

    • “Too many gun owners or gun users are unfit and irresponsible.”

      How many is “too many”? Is it 50%, or 10% or 6 guys? Senator Ted Kennedy’s car killed more people than any of my firearms. Auto accidents kill tens of thousands of people each and every year. Firearm deaths are MUCH lower, and I’m including accident and deliberate murders. Yep, I’ve been muzzled a couple of times in my entire life on a range, and took it as a moment to teach safety. I drive 35,000 miles a year and have a “close call” at least once a week. I’d be more in favor of banning cars than guns, cars are more dangerous to me personally, operated by people that should be walking (I have never seen a shooter text on his phone while shooting).

  26. I used to hunt public land until one deer opener I was checking the surroundings with my binox and saw someone looking at me . . . through his scope. His mounted scope. With a kid next to him. I walked out to my car and never went back there.

  27. Mikeb, the average gun owner is very concious of safety. And certainly the average concealed carry permit holder is since, they have gone to the time trouble and expense of learning to and practicing carrying. My experience is that the problems at public ranges are the people who are are renting a gun and using it as a form of entertainment. The instances of injury and death are few and far between (thank goodness) which I think proves that a big majority know what they are doing. Don’t forget, Guns save lives.

    • Dale you’re not being objective. You’re using your experience of serious gun owners and calling that the average. Can’t you admit that many are not serious? The overall average of all gun owners is pretty poor in the fitness and responsibility areas. Just look around.

      • “Just look around”? That’s it? That’s your logic process? Do you see the flaw in drawing conclusions from subjective observation?

  28. So true. I finally gave up and quit going to my local gun range. Even during off hours you’d get crowds of young would-be gang bangers coming in, renting a bunch of guns and shooting wildly. I joined a local Sporting club that offers pistol and rifle ranges, trap, skeet, sporting clays, archery and muzzleloaders. It’s 25 miles away (the local range is only 4) but a year’s membership costs less than two monthly trips to the local range for half-hour sessions.

  29. a friend of mine got shot at their IPSC club tournament many moons ago. friend R was working on his gun outside the safety area. the fact that nobody was alarmed was a contributor to the coming ND. he did the gun clear routine in the wrong order: cocked his gun, removed his magazine, and then fired the gun.

    yep. the bullet bounced from the ground and a large fragment lodged itself into the thumb of friend G. a lot of blood was spraying around.

    his thumb could have easily been a vital part of his body.

    since then the group has been religious about gun safety. they even conducted a safety seminar for the whole team. both guys are still friends.

    safe shooting to everybody!

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