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Firing range etiquette and you - Part 1


Ah, the firing range--this is my happy place. Few things are more relaxing than creating a series of small explosions just a foot or two from my face, feeling hot brass whip through the air and (hopefully) not land on my skin or get stuck in my shirt sleeve, smelling and tasting that gunpowder/lead/heavy metal perfume as it wafts along on a gentle breeze...

Whether it's indoors or outdoors, public firing ranges have fairly standardized rules and etiquette. Each commercial range will have its own standard operating procedures (SOP) that the range safety officers (RSOs) are obligated to follow. These SOPs were almost always created as a collaborative effort by the range owner's lawyer and their insurance underwriter. This is why the rules can vary from range to range, and also why RSOs don't have much, if any, leeway when it comes to letting you bend the rules. The way they're written is the way they have to be.

At a private range, like say your Uncle Joe's back 40, where you spent your summers plinking .22s at cans and bottles without eye or ear protection, it's easy to get complacent about safety. The rules are unofficial, nobody is really watching you, and you probably won't get kicked out if you mess up unless you do something completely insane. At a public range, violating the rules can earn you anything from a stern rebuke by the RSO or range staff to being permanently banned from ever shooting there again, and possibly some phone calls made to ensure you're banned from the other local ranges too. Shooting guns is serious business, especially when you're shooting them where other people could potentially be harmed by your negligence.

In the interest of making your range experiences more pleasant and a whole lot safer for everyone, I've put together a short list of universal rules that will conform to the SOPs of just about any decent firing range out there, while giving you the peace of mind that you aren't endangering yourself or others. Follow these rules and you're not very likely to have an irate RSO screaming at you in front of a group of shocked and/or vaguely amused onlookers. Again, all range SOPs are different and your range may have additional rules that aren't covered here. Always ask to see the posted list of rules and if your range requires a mandatory safety briefing for first-timers, pay attention. Trust me: there are few worse feelings than doing something stupid with a gun and getting publicly shamed for it. (Don't ask me how I know.)

First, we'll talk about Col. Jeff Cooper's Four Rules of firearms safety. Col. Cooper was a giant among men for many reasons, but his Four Rules have endured long after his passing and continue to be the foundation of every other serious gun organization's own proprietary safety rules. If you follow the Four Rules 100% of the time, you will never have a negligent discharge. You might have a gun malfunction ("slam fire") that results in it firing unexpectedly, but following the rules perfectly will still keep anyone from getting hurt even in that extremely unlikely scenario.

1.) Always treat all guns as if they are always loaded. Nothing is scarier than someone casually handing me a gun and saying, "Don't worry, it's not loaded." Hearing this tells me two things: this person doesn't know anything about safe gun handling, and also this gun is probably loaded. I will never forget the lady who arrived to my basic pistol class and drew her .45 1911 handgun from a purse holster and then acted offended when I rushed over to take it from her and clear it. She insisted that her husband had unloaded it for her; in fact it had a full magazine inserted, with a round in the chamber. She'd been waving it around the room with her finger on the trigger before I stopped her. I still cringe when I think about what could have happened that day and now have much stricter classroom policies to prevent another such occurrence in future.

There is no such thing as an unloaded gun. Get in the habit of unloading and locking open any gun you handle, as soon as you pick it up. Leave it locked open until you're at the firing line and ready to load it for a day of shooting. Why close the action and take the risk of a mixup until it's absolutely necessary?

2.) Never point a gun at anything you aren't willing to destroy. What do we mean by destroy? Well, I'm not referring to destroying property, like that heirloom Persian rug you would just hate to put a bullet hole into. When we say "destroy," what we mean is "kill, maim, or permanently injure." It's very easy to destroy a person's life forever with a firearm, even if they don't die outright from the shot. They could be paralyzed, given brain damage, blinded, or pierced and mangled in ways that will never heal but will permanently destroy their quality of life and incapacitate them. The muzzle of your gun, i.e. the end of the barrel where the bullets come out, should never be pointed at anything you aren't willing to ruin, living or otherwise. I like to ask my students to think of their gun as having a laser coming out of the end of it, a laser that can travel a mile or more without stopping. Don't burn anyone with your laser and, even if your gun mysteriously "goes off" through no fault of your own, no one will get hurt. Except maybe your Persian rug.

3.) Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target and you are ready to fire. The original version of this rule is simpler, omitting the part about your sights being on target. Unfortunately, many people tend to be very literal and may misunderstand this to mean that they can have their finger on the trigger any time that they're visiting the range and "ready to fire." As soon as your sights come off your target, your finger should come off the trigger. Practice handling your gun or, better yet, a replica of a gun, with your trigger finger high off the trigger ("in register") and along the frame of the gun. It needs to be nice and high because humans have a grasp reflex that makes us clench our fingers when startled. If something goes BANG in the stall next to you and makes you flinch, you want that finger to slide harmlessly along the frame above the trigger guard, not suddenly find its way into the trigger guard and onto the trigger.

Make it a habit and you'll find yourself having perfect trigger discipline with everything you pick up--spray bottles, your cordless drill, your kid's Nerf gun. This is a good thing, so embrace it! A gun will not "go off" unless something activates the trigger. Most of the time when someone shoots their gun unintentionally, it was their trigger finger that did it. Get your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target and you're ready to fire.

4.) Know your target and what's beyond it. This one sounds so simple and obvious. I mean, who is just like wildly shooting at a paper target nailed to a tree in the woods, Yosemite Sam-style, without a care in the world as to what's behind that paper? Well, lots of people. And it's not just about shooting on a range. Every bullet that comes out of your gun has your name on it, whether you're shooting at a paper silhouette or an actual bad guy on the streets. You absolutely must be sure that you are shooting at something or someone that you intend to shoot at. You must be sure that if you miss your target, no one will get hurt. You must be sure that if the bullet goes through your target, no one will be hurt. This is harder than it sounds, especially in a defensive real world situation where there are few, if any, guaranteed safe backstops. And when we're panicked and untrained, it can be tempting to go full Yosemite Sam in a darkened bedroom when we hear something unexpected at the door--even if that unexpected something is our child or spouse getting home late. Know your target--and what's beyond it.

These are the Four Rules that everyone talks about and far too many refuse to follow consistently. In the second part of this post, we'll talk about what to expect when you visit a firing range, how to behave, questions to ask, things to do and things not to do, and most importantly, how to have fun. Shooting is FUN! We'll discuss it further tomorrow.

Until then, stay safe out there!

Ready for Part 2 of this post? Click here to read it.

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