What to Expect Your First Time at an Outdoor Range

Everyone I’ve ever taken shooting at an outdoor range loved the adventure. If you’re new to shooting, though, going by yourself can be an intimidating experience fraught with worry and uncertainty. No problem! We’ll make sure we cover everything you need to know to have a fun, safe and non-nerve-wracking experience.

Outdoor ranges fall into a few categories: clubs, public ranges and private property. Since private property won’t have other shooters or supervision, we’ll focus on the first two types. Both clubs and public ranges can be supervised or unsupervised. What I mean by “supervised” is that a designated Range Safety Officer (RSO) is on duty to keep an eye on things and to make sure everyone is behaving safely.

As with any new activity, you need to know two things: the rules and the etiquette. Rules and procedures keep everyone safe. Etiquette keeps everyone civil and facilitates fun (less the anxiety). If you’re being safe and taking actions to show other shooters that you’re being safe, you’ve already covered most of the requirements. If you know the unwritten rules, or etiquette, everyone else will love having you there and all will have a good time.

Outdoor shooting range lanes numbered 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16 featuring heavy wooden benches, seats , beams and a roofGeneral Safety Considerations

Every gun range of any type will expect you to follow the universal rules of gun safety. While wording may vary, the principles are the same:

1) Treat every gun as if it’s loaded — always.
2) Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to fire.
3) Don’t point a gun at anything you’re not willing to destroy.
4) Be sure of your target and your backstop.

Ranges may publish variations, clarifications and extensions to these basic rules. You may also encounter “cold” rules, meaning that guns can’t be loaded — at all — unless you’re on the firing line and ready to shoot. You can learn nuances like that with some basic pre-arrival planning.

Pre-Arrival Planning

While all ranges share the same basic safety procedures, some rules and policies vary. Before you go, check to see if the range has a website. If you can find the rules ahead of time, that will help avoid any confusion upon arrival.

Unload all of your guns at home and put them in cases for transport. You don’t want to bring a loaded firearm to any range. The idea is to minimize handling loaded firearms until you’re ready to shoot from the designated shooting position.

Arrival Procedures and Etiquette

As you arrive, be sure to put on both your ear and eye protection right away. If others are shooting, you’ll want ear protection — even if parking is not next to the firing line. Rifles are especially loud! Eye protection is a must because you don’t know what others are shooting and ricochets are always a possibility.

When you get to the range and move gear from the car to the shooting line, be sure that all guns are not only unloaded with actions open but also in closed cases. While not always possible, it’s a great safety habit to only uncase your firearms once they are in position on the firing line, pointed downrange, and the range is in a “hot” condition. Hold that thought; we’ll come back to it in a minute.

Next you’ll want to verify (if you couldn’t from your pre-arrival research) if the range is supervised by an RSO or self-monitored. If there is an RSO present, check in with that person and let him or her know it’s your first time to that facility so he or she can direct you. For self-serve ranges, find your desired shooting position and set up your gear (not including your firearms). We’ll talk about that next.

Shooting Procedures and Etiquette

Ranges operate in two modes: hot and cold. When the range is “cold,” there is no handling of firearms — period. That’s the time for people to go downrange to set and check targets. As you might guess, a “hot” range is when everyone is shooting.

Targets set up at various distances on an utdoor shooting range on a sunny day, with a large dirt berm in the background

If there is an RSO present, he or she will often set the hot and cold range times by shouting something like, "We're going cold!" If not, it’s done by mutual agreement. You or anyone else can ask others on the firing line to “go cold.” Remember, others are wearing ear protection, so it’s important to verify hot and cold status with each person on the line so that everyone is clear on the status. If it’s your first time, just wait until others call for hot and cold range time. You’ll get the hang of it quickly enough.

Cold Means "Hands Off"

Some ranges will have a painted line behind the shooting bench. During a cold range, everyone is supposed to stand behind that line and well away from firearms if they’re not downrange working on targets. If there is no line, it’s good etiquette to stand far away from your shooting bench so everyone else can clearly see you are not handling guns when the range is cold.

If someone else at the facility is handling a firearm during a cold range time, you have three choices. Alert the RSO, if one is present. You can ask that person to please stop while the range is cold, or you can leave. Remember rule No. 1: A gun is ALWAYS loaded, so never touch your gun when the range is cold or tolerate anyone else doing the same. That's how people get shot.

While shooting, always be sure that your direction of fire is straight away from your position so that projectiles land safely in the backstop. Don’t shoot across shooting lanes; that’s unsafe and considered rude, as is shooting at others’ targets.

Remember, always make sure the muzzle of your firearm is pointed downrange. That applies whether it is sitting on the table, getting loaded or unloaded, or anything else. Be rigorous about monitoring the muzzle direction at all times.

A variety of semi-automatic pistols and a revolver all sitting on a wooden plank shooting bench with their muzzles pointed downrange. A few red boxes of American eagle brand ammunition are dispersed among the handguns

Departure Procedures and Etiquette

When you’re finished and ready to leave, be sure to unload your guns and put them away in cases while the range is still hot. Remember, you're not supposed to handle guns at all during a cold range. Once it’s cold, you retrieve your targets and bring your gear and cased firearms back to the car.

When shooting at outdoor ranges, it might be tempting to bring glass, old electronics or other junk for targets. Don’t. Trash like this clutters up a range and makes a mess. Anti-gunners love to point to trashed range areas as examples of why people shouldn’t be allowed to shoot on public lands. Besides, shooting at objects not rated for bullet impact can be dangerous. Fragments and even bullets can bounce straight back at the firing line. If you want to shoot steel targets, check in advance that the range allows it and only use proper steel targets according to manufacturers’ recommended caliber and distance guidelines.

Be Safe and Smart

Thinking about being safe and making it clear to other shooters that you are being safe is most of the battle. Do that, and you’ll have a great outdoor-range experience. If you’re ever confused or not sure of a procedure, don’t hesitate to ask the Range Safety Officer if there is one — that’s why he or she is there. If there is no RSO, you’ll find that other shooters are happy to help.

Stay tuned for more shooting range tips. Next time, we’ll discuss shooting for the first time at an indoor range.