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Firing range etiquette and you - Part 2

Guns pointed downrange, always.

In Part 1 of this two-part post, we talked about the importance of Col. Jeff Cooper's Four Rules of firearms safety, and why firing ranges all seem to do things just a little bit differently. Today we're going to go over a simple list of range rules that maintain proper etiquette at any reputable range without being overly restrictive or dangerously permissive.

To recap, the Four Rules of firearms safety are:

1.) Treat all guns as if they are always loaded.

2.) Never point a gun at anything you aren't willing to destroy.

3.) Keep 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.

Many ranges will have an on-duty range safety officer (RSO). This is a person who is trained to keep people safe while they shoot by identifying and stopping unsafe behavior, clearing stoppages and malfunctions when people's guns don't work as expected, and otherwise overseeing range operations on the firing line. As an NRA certified Chief Range Safety Officer, I train and certify RSOs, who later go on to work in a wide variety of range settings. Some volunteer at Boy Scout rifle shoots. Some work as staff at firing ranges and gun clubs. Some just help family members stay safer when plinking at Coke cans on Uncle Joe's back 40. But all are taught these same basic rules as a starting point:

1.) Eye and ear protection must be worn at all times on the firing range. You only get one set of eyes and ears, so protect them accordingly. Your regular eyeglasses are fine for eye protection, but feel free to add safety glasses over them if desired. If it's an indoor range, consider doubling up with foam earplugs and muffs to protect your hearing. Electronic muffs, which dampen loud noises like gunshots while amplifying softer sounds, allow you to speak in a normal conversational voice on the firing line and hear what's going on around you at all times. If you intend to shoot more than a few times a year, invest in a pair like these from Howard Leight. (Amazon affiliate link)

2.) Open one door at a time as you enter and exit the range. Firing ranges usually have a buffer room between the range and the main part of the facility. Gunshot noises are like butterflies; we stop in the buffer room and close the door behind us before opening the outer door to make sure they can't escape as we leave the range. Make sure one door is closed before you open the other.

3.) All guns must remain holstered or cased until the shooter is at the firing line and the range has been called hot. (A hot range is a range with active shooting going on.) Keep your guns in their cases, sleeves, holsters, or whatever you stored them in to bring them into the range until you're at the firing line and ready to start shooting. The worst thing you can do is walk around behind the firing line with a gun in your hand. It should be unloaded and locked open on the bench rest (that flat platform you load your guns on at the firing line) or securely in a case/holster if you have to leave the line. And even then, it must always be pointed downrange.

4.) All guns must be loaded and chambered ONLY at the firing line, with the muzzle pointed downrange at all times. Believe it or not, there are people who think it's okay to load their gun at a bench or table many feet behind the firing line, and then walk to the firing line with the gun in hand. Imagine that you're standing in your lane with your back to that bench or table. And then you happen to glance over your shoulder and there's a dude waving a gun around just a few feet behind you. Is it loaded? Unloaded? Did he actually just point a loaded gun at you? Is he a garden variety untrained ignoramus or a mass shooter about to light the place up?

Avoid being the source of this existential horror by only loading and chambering rounds at the firing line, with the muzzle pointed downrange at all times. It makes everyone feel better and is a thousand times safer in every way. And it won't get you kicked out for acting like an idiot.

5.) If you observe anything unsafe at the range, you must immediately stop shooting, yell, "CEASE FIRE!", and wait for further instruction from your range safety officer and/or range staff. This is a tough one. Not all firing ranges have RSOs on duty. If you're a newbie, how do you really know what's unsafe? Here's a hint: if you see people doing something that blatantly violates the Four Rules, like going downrange to retrieve dropped ammunition or fallen targets while the range is hot, or pointing guns at each other, or otherwise acting a fool, call a ceasefire. If you're uncomfortable but not sure what to do, safely unload and case your guns, and then leave the range immediately to inform the staff at the counter about what's going on. It's in their best interest to curtail unsafe behavior, and they will probably reassure you that you did the right thing. Your safety is way more important than anyone else's feelings, so when in doubt, get out!

6.) Brass collection must be done when there is no active shooter in a stall. Do not collect other people's brass without their permission. Do not distract, disturb, or otherwise bother shooters while you are trying to retrieve brass. Don't be a greedy jerk, and you will be fine. Also: sweep your own brass and throw away your own targets when you're done shooting. Everyone will love you for it! If you accidentally drop a live round off the bench while loading your gun and it hits the floor, let it go. If you aren't interested in keeping your brass, sweep it out downrange with the broom and leave your stall tidy and ready for the next shooter.

P.S. What is "brass"? It's the ejected cartridge casings that fly out when you shoot a semiautomatic gun, or that you must eject manually from a revolver. People collect it to sell it or reload their own custom ammunition.

7.) Never have more than one shooter in a stall at a time. You will see that competent instructors stand behind one shoulder of the person they're instructing. This allows them to observe the person's fundamentals and help the shooter make adjustments without risking getting flagged (i.e. having their student's gun pointed at them). Stalls tend to be pretty cramped spaces and there's never a reason for more than one person to be shooting from the same stall at a time. Imagine the problems that could arise if two active shooters in a tight space managed to bump into each other and lose their balance while holding loaded firearms. Imagine how easy it would be to flag your buddy while you're both shooting shoulder to shoulder. I've never seen a range that allows this, so follow the standard rules and stand way back while someone is shooting in the stall.

8.) Don't bother other shooters. Don't be nosy. Don't act like you have something to prove. Be nice! This isn't a rule but more of a general suggestion to help you have better range etiquette. There's a certain amount of egotistical insecurity that sometimes permeates the world of firearms like a foul-smelling miasma. Everyone wants to seem like an expert, even when they have no idea what they're doing and can't hit the broad side of a barn. People are often very touchy about their choice of guns and ammunition, holsters, and shooting abilities (or lack thereof). Some people will talk your ear off and be happy to show you what they have and even offer to let you shoot it. Other people will assume you're a federal agent trying to entrap them with some kind of bureaucratic violation so that the black helicopters can swoop down and throw them in prison forever. It's normal and encouraged to make pleasant conversation at the range, but it's also normal and encouraged to read the signs that someone isn't feeling chatty and leave them alone. We call it "range therapy" for a reason, and shooting is not always a social event.

Even if you're the best shooter in the world (you almost certainly aren't), everyone is there to get better and hopefully have a good time. Be kind to the newbies. If you see someone struggling, help them out! This classic post from Greg Ellifritz, whose blog I implore you to follow and read because of its tremendous value to gun owners of all skill levels, describes one scenario in which a frightened and inexperienced woman braved the firing range and happened to find herself next to a highly experienced (and extremely kindhearted) law enforcement officer and firearms instructor. We all started somewhere so please, be nice. Be generous. Be considerate. Be helpful. We were all new once.

9.) Ask questions. Not necessarily of the shooters next to you, but definitely of the range staff and most especially the RSOs. They are there to help you stay safe and have a good time, and they should be more than willing to answer any questions you have about range procedures, rules, and their particular SOPs. It's way better to ask what you fear might be a stupid question than to have someone in an orange vest suddenly barking into your earmuffs that you're breaking the rules and need to leave, now. Some ranges allow steel cased ammo, others don't. Some allow you to shoot shotguns with shot, while others only allow slugs. If you don't know for sure, ask.

10.) Have fun! It's really important to remember that shooting is not just one of the most effective forms of self-defense against a lethal threat, but it's also a sport. And sports require you to build up endurance and strength over time. So when you first start out, your arms may get tired quickly and your neck and shoulders may be sore. Your hands may get small brass burns and possibly blisters and cuts. You might get headaches from the loud noises and constant stress of trying to make all of the moving parts work in tandem to put rounds where you want them to go. It might seem impossible to remember all of your shooting fundamentals at the same time. You might feel overwhelmed by the Four Rules and also the range SOPs, and the seemingly impossible competence of the shooters around you, who may not be very friendly or encouraging.

None of this means that you should give up! It means that shooting is a sport that is new to you, and you should plan to make the best of each and every range session. You're there to learn, refine, and improve your skills, just like everybody else. With time and regular experience, your arms will get stronger and your tolerance for loud noises will vastly increase. Safe gun handling will come more naturally until you can do it as smoothly as you drive your car or operate your coffeemaker. The range staff will recognize you as a regular and greet you with warm smiles. You'll start to enjoy shooting and look forward to your range time. And one day you'll realize that the firing range has become your happy place too.

Stay safe out there!