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Matt writes:

I’ve gone to different indoor ranges because I like to rent and shoot different handguns. I can see the fans going, they all say they’re safe. But no matter where, after shooting 200 rounds or so I feel like I smoked three packs of cigarettes. My throat will be hoarse, eyes bloodshot, and I will feel a bit sick. A tissue rubbed in my nose will show powder residue. That’s f’ed up. I also noticed that after spending time at an indoor range, I get headaches like those I got after playing football in high school . . .

I think that is from the noise and vibrations but it got me thinking about health and shooting. Why practice self defense if I’m ushering in an early bout with cancer. (Cancer runs in my family btw.) Do recommend any health practices for indoor ranges? Should I just stick to outdoor ranges? That will be a bummer because they are a lot farther away.

Let me tell you about the range my ex-girlfriend uses. . .

I had driven all the way to the frigid north of the country to hang out and shoot some guns with her. She was pretty into guns, and seemed to spend a good chunk of time on the range, so I figured she had somewhere nice nearby that she liked to go. Boy, was I in for a shock.

We rolled into the range and it was a completely indoor facility bordered by a cement mixing plant next door. There was a gun sales counter up front, and a set of double doors leading to the range. Large glass windows separated the store from the range and to me it looked like they were either really scratched up or deliberately tinted for some reason.

Nope. It was just so smokey in the range that you could barely see inside.

As we were walking into the range, there were a couple gentlemen who were exiting at the same time. As they left the range, they removed the military surplus gas masks they’d been wearing. It was a pretty smart precaution, given the visible awfulness that was floating around in the air in there. Made me wish I’d packed a gas mask myself.

I almost hesitated to go in there when it was our turn to shoot. Then again, I was being led by the hand by a smokin’ hot chick who wanted to shoot my guns. You can probably understand my willingness to risk my lungs and enter the poorly ventilated range.

Anyway, after the range trip I was sneezing large black gobs of snot for about a week. Not healthy in the least.

The reason this range stays open is that it’s the only indoor range within reasonable driving distance. Winters in the frigid north parts of our country can get mighty cold, and when you absolutely need to put some lead downrange, there are very few options that let you do it and stay warm at the same time. So, even though visiting that range probably shortened my lifespan by a few weeks, it was the only option for local snowbound shooters.

Still, there are plenty of excellent indoor ranges out there. The NRA headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia has the best indoor range I’ve ever seen — well lit, well ventilated and well maintained. And in between the two examples I have discussed, ranges follow the bell curve pretty well. Most are okay, while some are excellent and others are virtual death traps.

If you absolutely positively need to use indoor facilities and the range doesn’t have good ventilation, a gas mask isn’t a bad idea. The ones sold at local hardware stores, with the rubber gaskets that seal the mask around your face and replaceable cartridges, will work the best. Paper masks may be okay, but I wouldn’t take the chance.

Wear clothes that you have designated as your “range clothes” and only wear them when going to the range, removing them as soon as you get home. Shower with cold water when you get home, paying special attention to your hair (hot water opens your pores and lets the contaminants in). And, most importantly, don’t eat or drink anything while at the range or before you’ve washed your hands.

However, if there’s an outdoor range that you can get to, that would be my first option. Stay safe, guys.

[Email your firearms-related questions to “Ask Foghorn” via guntruth@me.com. Click here to browse previous posts]

51 Responses to Ask Foghorn: Do Indoor Ranges Pose Health Risks?

  1. I spent a lot of time at an indoor range when serving as a range officer at college (Michigan Tech) – as in, several hours per week. Due to that range’s rather robust ventilation system, I never suffered any ill effects, subjective or otherwise (I usually have my blood tested for lead as part of my yearly physical due to my hobbies and occupation).

    • That was a pretty nice range. Never shot my own stuff there. Only the Ruger .22s in the Army pistol class they offered.

  2. Indoor range near here does not have A/C (which turns it into a sauna any time the temperature is above 50 out), but it does have blowers pushing air down range. I figure moving air down range is the minimum for non-choke-tastic ranges.

    Of course, that’s the only indoor range I’ve shot at, and the other two ranges I’ve been to we’re Fish and Game ranges. Grains of NaCl are suggested unless contraindicated by doctors, pharmacists, or nagging significant others.

    • My indoor range of choice here in the Bay Area (Reed’s) is sufficiently well ventilated that hearing protection is a good idea even when nothing is going bang. After reading some of the comments about visibly smoky indoor ranges, and lead sheen on range surfaces, I don’t think I’ll ever complain about the draftiness at Reed’s ever again.

  3. If I see a range that is smokey, I won’t even consider going in. The smoke is not a big deal. It won’t kill you. The lead will. When the windows and wall padding and floors all have a bit of sheen to them, that’s lead, and even if the air is clear there is usually too much lead in the air. I have a strong preference for outdoor ranges, and especially for ranges where it is open enough to not be lined up in stalls.

    • It isn’t the metalic lead that is dangerous. It’s the lead oxides that are formed from the impact of the bullet on the backstop. Even at 1911 muzzle velocities the impact generates enough heat to vaporize the lead and create dangerous compounds in the air.

      • Until recent “lead free” priming compounds, one of the worst sources of lead in the air at indoor shooting ranges from the compounds produced when lead styphnate primers were used. Lead styphnate was used in the early non-corrosive primers of the US ammo industry, starting in the late 1920’s and was very common until the last 20 years or so.

      • That’s not entirely correct. The most danger is in the vaporous lead compounds that are those produced from the lead in the primers (lead styphnate). Additionally there is often barium nitrate in primers which also can be quite hazardous if inhailed.

      • Regardless where the lead is coming from, having smoky shooting lanes or everything looking shiny is a near guarantee the air filtration sucks and unacceptable lead levels are in the air.

      • Right. And I hear it’s not the fall that kills you, but the sudden impact at the end.

        But he had me, right up to the cold showers. NO NO NO NO NO cold showers for me! You can’t MAKE me take a cold shower.

  4. You are probably just more sensitive to the smoke. That is a common variation among people. Unless you are there every day, all day…. I think you will be fine.

    Indoor ranges will turn off the ventilation system if there is no one shooting. So if you just walked in and no one is shooting, check with the RSO to make sure the ventilation is on.

  5. As an RO for my department, we often use an indoor range. Oregon OSHA rules require a baseline blood lead level check before and one for every 8 hours spent in the range. This is due to the lead styphnate in the primer compound. We also read the rules of the range anytime we pick up brass. Don’t bite your finger nails, smoke, eat, or drink until you have washed your hands.
    Thanks for the great articles, stay safe.

  6. I want to brag about an indoor range: Godfrey’s in Junction City, KS. The brass is rounded up or swept up consistently (unless someone retrieves their own brass, so they know to do it quickly) and the air quality is c-l-e-a-r. I’m sensitive to odors and smoke. Godfrey’s air handling system is top notch. Great owners, awesome/helpful staff, and a very clean environment. Visitors are very polite and considerate too. I’ve been to other indoor ranges. No one has beat Godfrey’s yet.

  7. As someone who has to wear respirators on the job, I am around lots of nasty chemicals, you need to have the correct filters for what you are encountering. There are many different types for the different things you are exposed to. A gas mask is for specific chemical attacks. It may not be able to filter what you want filtered. Maybe I am getting too far into it, but if you’re trying to protect yourself you need the correct tool for the job. I have seen people using the wrong filters and the stuff went through it and made them sick. Just a heads up 🙂

  8. The range that I belong to has wash stations that look like they are part of an ER with long neck fountains and they have this soap

    D-Lead® Liquid Hand Soap
    http://tinyurl.com/btk8pzo

    Which I have since purchase for myself and use to clean up after reloading ammo

  9. The respirators Nick mentioned that seal around your nose and mouth and have replaceable cartridges are fantastic. Just remember that any facial hair where the seal sits will definitely reduce its effectiveness. I use one every time I’m casting bullets and get no hint of fumes or smoke (from the sawdust flux).

    I’ve found the best cartridges are those rated for vapors. When I bought mine it came with cartridges rated for particulates like sawdust and they didn’t cut the mustard when I was casting.

  10. “If you absolutely positively need to use indoor facilities and the range
    doesn’t have good ventilation, a gas mask isn’t a bad idea.”

    Using gas masks presents its own problems. As stated, get one that
    seals around the face. You must shave for a good seal. No seal and
    the mask is useless. There are multiple types of filters. Every time
    you fire, some of the lead becomes atomized (which is why unventilated
    ranges can be bad for your health). The only filter that will stop all
    particulate powder is a HEPA filter. FYI paper dust masks are worthless
    and will not stop anything. Wearing a respirator will also stress your
    body’s systems. This is regardless of fitness level, though you’ll notice
    faster the more out of shape you are. If you are not used to wearing
    a mask, the added stress to your lungs can cause some to become
    light headed and/or hyperventilate.

    All in all, if your range is dirty enough to warrant using a respirator
    of any type, it’s time to find a new range.

  11. A shout-out to Quickshot Range in Atlanta, GA. While it’s always wise to follow the personal clean-up procedures noted above, I feel safe at Quickshot because of the HEPA air filtration system. All smoke etc. is pulled downrange and never hangs in the air. The range is well-lighted, brass swept regularly and there’s always an RO on duty. I wouldn’t risk my health shooting at any place with lower standards.

    • Quickshot: I was there when they opened. Great range, clean and friendly. Actually had one of their memberships early on.

  12. Adequate ventilation needed for say a indoor shooting range of 100’x50’x15′ high would be about 50,000 cfms with many people firing at once and maybe down to 10,000 cfms with just one or two. With each extreme cfm needed 50,000 or 10,000, or any amount in between or even lower than 10,000 say down to 5- 6,000. The range would need to initially spend about 500-1,000 dollars for every 1,000-1,500 cfm exhausted. This doesn’t even count the electrical costs to run the blowers and fans.
    It’s pretty simple, most indoor ranges cannot afford to ventilate the dangerous smoke and gases that firearms produce.
    Anyone ever been in a professional auto paint shop? Not only are the painters and preppers wearing masks most of the time in the work area but there is usually one or more giant blowers at the corners of the ceilings exhausting constantly. Those are not cheap to buy or run, and if filters are added in those are not cheap either
    I haven’t been in a indoor range since my early 20s when the city I lived in had free local indoor range in the basement of a community center where the nra classes were given. We did shoot at an indoor range in az while on vaca once in the late 90s, cleanest one I’ve ever seen and you could actually feel the exhaust power. But I have yet run across one anywhere up here in the mid-west in the last 20 years. They are unheard of in most cities excluding police only ones. Thankfully I have a few private and public outdoor ranges I can hit but then again with 8 month winters up here one has to find the time and brave the weather to get in enough shooting hours a year.
    If only sh*t didn’t cost so much.

    • Lars, I’m not sure if you’re mixing up units of measurement, or just really need to actually go shop for high-volume industrial fannage.

      Here’s but one of about a gajillion sources for industrial fans. 20,000 CFM is a single 48″ fan, that costs less than a grand. It also pulls about 1.5 KwH.

      http://www.industrialfansdirect.com/IND-FA-EF-CM-1.html

      I used to have a full spray booth in a former automotive business. They are quite cheap to buy and run, the only semi-expensive part can be heating the make-up air.

      Honestly, in 30 years of indoor ranges, across 15 States, I’ve never even heard of a range that is smoky unless every lane is full and everybody is furiously dumping their mags.

  13. My favorite indoor range, Gander Mtn. Academy in Lake Mary, FL, is extremely well ventilated. It has the latest in digital target transport, and at least 8 lanes. The downside is the maximum range length is only 55 feet (not yards). Still,great for pistols. They do allow rifles, including shotguns.

  14. A blood lead test should be inexpensive at city/county health center. I had mine tested and was surprised when it showed a modest amount, substantially under the limit for an adult but still greater than zero. Now I try to immediately wash my hands when leaving the range.

  15. I’ve really come to like Speer Lawman Cleanfire practice ammo, especially in 9mm and .45ACP. The spent cases almost look like they haven’t been fired. The .38 Spl isn’t quite as clean but still looks a lot better than regular ammo.

    The guns stay a lot cleaner, too.

    While there’s still smoke, it’s not as bad. The total-metal-jacket protect-me-from-vaporized-lead is nice, I guess, but for me it’s really the cleaner guns & less smoke.

    Other companies make variations on this theme; I’ve had decent luck with Winchester WinClean and CleanRange from Magtech, but I’ve found the Lawman CF to easier to regularly find.

    • The problem is that such ammo is only effective if the entire range is mandated lead-free, and frankly that just sucks to deal with. Places like that, which required totally-jacketed or non-lead projectiles and clean powder/primer charges, were expensive before the current madness. I imagine they’re even worse now… Or out of business.

  16. We are in the process of designing our range and have learned a great deal from NSSF. After speaking with two ventilation companies, I’m not sure how anyone can stay in business with a poorly designed or maintained system. EPA regs are killer tough, but certainly needed. It’s a huge expense but how does one get around not having it? Anyone?

    • One of the upsides of living in CA, I guess — we don’t have a huge number of indoor ranges, but the ones we do have get serious ventilation installed to comply with state regulations.

  17. My main problem with the indoor range by me is that it is scientifically set up to deny you 90% of your brass. My first time there I was planning on putting my G-20 through the wringer but after two mags and only 12 cases to show for it I stashed it and shot 9mm the rest of the hour. 10mm too expensive to be “donating” it to the range.

  18. Back in the early 90’s half of the guys in various indoor shooting leagues I belonged to had elevated lead levels (and strangely enough, considering the dates, mercury). A few of them wore masks with the appropriate cartridge while shooting as ordered by their doctors. Yes, the ventilation at the range was that bad. I shot matches there but practiced safely outside in my “backyard”. The guys affected practically lived in the range practicing 4-5 times a week and competing the others. They eventually upgraded the air handling but many ranges in my area are still sub par IMO.

  19. It continues to surprise me that I am always the only person at the indoor range with a filter mask. I’ve never seen anyone wear one here (I live in Norman, OK). My range has okay ventilation so I am just taking an extra precaution. I believe most of the soot filtered out is just carbon, but better to be safe than sorry if it turns out there’s some lead.

    Btw, question for you all, if you fire lead reloads, I imagine that increases your lead exposure. Who out there wears masks and gloves while reloading? Are primers toxic enough where we should wear gloves and masks?

    Also is there a sure way to clean your reloading bench of lead?

    • From Norman here also and if you go the the range I went to, the precaution of wearing a mask is very benefical. At one point I went once a week and after a month I had my Blood Lead Levels measured. I was surprised it was over the recommended limit.

  20. My indoor range in Chadds Ford, PA, was smokey in the past. My clothes smelled after leaving the range, so I rarely went. They totally renovated the HVAC system and now no trace remains on clothing, a dramatic improvement based on HVAC designed around health standards.

  21. Interesting thoughts. One thing is to wear a long sleeve shirt and ball cap — it keeps a lot of the residue off. My range has the fans blowing but after 200 rounds I feel covered with gunpowder.

    I think the vibrations from shooting guns could be an issue. This book, The Long Walk, says that an Iraq bomb disposal expert got brain damage from the accumulated concussive force of numerous blasts.

  22. A paper respirator, commonly thought of as a dust mask, will do the trick if it is the right spec. Look for a P95 with organic vapor rating. It looks like and is used like a cheap paper mask, but its not. These things are very sophisticated and cost next to nothing. I buy them by the 10 pack for welding and spray can painting. Look online, or a good construction supply house might have them. Gas masks are not the ticket, as previously stated.

  23. Interesting post. It’s amazing what difference a little ventilation can make. I know the range I used to use back home was kind of stuffy, so I reckon having a mask would work wonders in preventing Black Lung.

    Jared – Community Relations; Gunup.com

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