Target shooting at a gun range is a fun, family-friendly, and satisfying activity that brings joy to millions of gun owners, hunters, and firearms enthusiasts. Whether you enjoy benchrest shooting for seriously tiny groups, plinking, training for personal defense, or just informal range shooting to exercise your guns and have fun, visiting a shooting range can be safer, more convenient, and more enjoyable than trying to find a suitable place to shoot on public land.
However, it’s important to know the safety rules when visiting a gun range, be it a formal indoor or outdoor range with safety officers and designated benches, shooting stations, or an informal outdoor public range. In this article, we will review some of the most important rules and best safety practices you need to know to make the most of the range experience and have a safe, fun time.
Top 10 safety rules to follow when visiting a gun range
1. Follow the four basic rules of gun safety at all times
There are debates about the proper wording of the four rules of gun safety, but these are the essential points:
Treat all guns as if they’re loaded unless you personally, immediately, and visually verify otherwise. Another way to put this is all guns are always loaded.
Never allow the muzzle/barrel of any gun to point at anything you are not willing to shoot and destroy. This includes the shooter’s legs, feet, hands, other people, etc.
Keep your finger off the trigger and outside the trigger guard until your sights are on the target and you are ready to shoot.
Be sure of your target and what is behind it. For example, don’t shoot at a target on the crest of a hill, as you have no idea where that bullet will go.
You might also be interested in reading our article on: Tips for First Time Gun Owners.
Video: Range Etiquette
2. Quickly follow the commands or instructions of any range safety officers
Whether you are on a formal, regulated range with safety officers in attendance or a self-service range with benches and a firing line in place but no other supervision, you need to be familiar with the basic range commands that either will be used by range safety officers on a supervised range, or by you and other shooters on an unregulated range. These are in addition to the basic firearm safety rules above, and you should learn to use and follow them when on a shooting range.
Some basic range commands include:
This is arguably the most important command given at a range and is the only range command that can be called by anyone, anywhere, and at any time. If you, a range safety officer, another shooter, or even a spectator, sees anything unsafe or that could present a hazard, they can and should call out cease-fire. A cease-fire command should be immediately followed. Even if you have the final shot of the best group of your life lined up and your finger is applying pressure to the trigger, when you hear the cease-fire command, immediately stop what you’re doing, take your finger off the trigger, freeze in place, and wait for further instructions.
Don’t unload your firearm to make it safe.
Don’t turn around to find the person who called the cease-fire.
Just freeze what you’re doing, and at that point, the safety officer (if present) can decide what follow-up instructions or actions are appropriate, such as unload, open the action, insert chamber flag, or similar.
Range is cold
This command is almost always preceded by a cease fire command and the instructions to unload, display a safe firearm (open actions, remove bolts, lock slides back, insert chamber flags if required), and back away from the shooting bench or firing line. No one should handle or approach any firearms when the range is cold command is given. Everyone must remain behind a line, typically marked behind the shooting benches, or if unmarked, they should move well behind the shooting area and away from the shooting benches or firing line. After a range is cold command is given, all shooters must wait for further instructions from the safety officer.
This command is given to let all shooters know that one or more people are going down range in the shooting lanes, usually to retrieve targets or put up fresh ones. No one should be standing near or sitting at shooting benches or handling firearms during this time. Anyone seeing these actions should immediately let others know, especially the range safety officer, if present. If you’re on a non-regulated range with a couple of other shooters, you can agree among yourselves when you want to call a cease-fire, call a cold range, and head down range to place or retrieve your targets.
Video: Police Instructor Risks Life by Dodging Bullets on Range
Ready on the right, ready on the left, all ready on the firing line
In a formal indoor or outdoor range staffed with range safety officers, these commands are sometimes given before firing can resume. When the ready on the right command is called, the safety officer will look down the shooting line's right side to ensure everyone is ready. If any shooter is not ready to resume shooting, he or she should inform the officer. If the safety officer sees that everyone on the right is ready, he/she will call ready on the left and similarly look along the left side of the firing line to ensure readiness. Let the range safety officer know if you’re sitting there and aren’t ready to resume firing. If everything looks good, the safety officer will call out ready on the firing line or often all ready on the firing line. The officer looks along the firing line again as a final check. Again, let the officer know if you are not ready to resume shooting or see anything potentially unsafe.
Range is hot
This command means that shooters can begin firing, and nobody should be moving downrange under any circumstances. The only command to follow on a hot range is cease-fire.
If you’re on a range with staff or range safety officers, it is very important to listen and follow all instructions, even if you may feel like the rules are silly or shouldn’t apply to you. Your life may depend on it.
Also, remember that range safety officers, while they may come across as abrupt or humorless, are often unpaid volunteers who give their time to help make the range a safer and more pleasant place to shoot for everyone. They have a tough and often thankless job and must deal with many difficult situations caused by inconsiderate or ignorant shooters. Be patient and civil with them, and don’t be afraid to ask questions or seek help if you have any issues.
3. Un-case and case all firearms at the bench only, and never during a cease-fire
You should carry all firearms you want to take to the range in either their original handgun cases, a range bag, or rifle/shotgun cases. You should only open these containers/bags at the bench on the firing line and only when the range is hot or when handling firearms is allowed. If you enter the range during a cease fire or cold range situation, you will be asked not to approach the bench or handle any guns until the range is declared hot, at which point you can place your bags/cases on the bench and carefully open them. If you find your rifles or handguns pointed backward (away from the downrange area/backstop) when you open your cases or bags, close them and turn them so the muzzles are pointing downrange before you remove the firearms from their cases.
It should go without saying, but any and all firearms you bring to the range should be double-checked to verify they are thoroughly unloaded before transporting them to or from the range. Chamber flags are recommended and may be required, depending on the range. A chamber flag is a (typically) polymer device, usually bright in color, inserted into the chamber of an unloaded firearm as a signal to observers that the chamber is unloaded.
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4. Read and follow any posted range rules for that specific range
Different ranges have different rules according to the preferences and priorities of the owners and managers of the range. Even if you’re an experienced shooter and very familiar with the rules at one range, don’t assume they are the same elsewhere.
Some examples of range rules that may apply to one range but may not apply to another are things like:
No rapid fire. No more than one shot per second may be fired.
No full-auto fire or bump-fire.
No drawing/presenting from holsters or re-holstering on the firing line.
No shooting reactive targets/food/glass/etc.
No centerfire rifles with muzzle brakes or compensators.
No picking up any spent brass that hits the floor.
You may find these rules annoying, inconvenient, or even ridiculous. But remember, this isn’t your range nor your property. You are a guest, and it’s your responsibility to conform to the rules of this particular range. If you don’t like the rules of a range or the way they are enforced, you are free to choose somewhere else to shoot. Don’t make it an issue or argue with range officers. If you make a mistake or break the rules and a range officer calls you on it, own your mistake and apologize.
5. Keep the muzzle pointed downrange at all times
This is a range-specific extension of the second of the four rules: Never allow the muzzle/barrel of any gun to point at anything you are not willing to shoot and destroy. On a standard rifle/pistol shooting range, the only safe direction where your muzzle should be pointing is downrange, toward the backstop. You shouldn’t turn a handgun sideways to check a malfunction or load/unload. Rather turn your body if needed so you can safely manipulate the firearm while keeping it generally pointed downrange.
Similarly, when you set a rifle, handgun, or shotgun on the shooting bench, the muzzle should be pointing downrange, not sideways across the table/bench.
If you’re out in the woods, carrying your gun with the muzzle pointed down, sideways, or up may be safe depending on conditions and your proximity to other people, but these directions are almost always inappropriate on a range. Ricochets can bounce bullets off walls and ceilings, and there may be people to the left and right of you along the firing line. Be considerate and safe, and always keep your guns pointed toward the target backstop or berm.
Note: This rule applies to general pistol/rifle shooting ranges, not to dedicated shotgun ranges such as trap, skeet, or sporting clays ranges. It’s common (and safe) for waiting for shooters to rest the muzzle of an unloaded/action-open shotgun on a padded surface on the ground during a session of trap shooting, for example, and of course, shotgunners will point their muzzles into the air to shoot airborne clay targets. Learn and follow the rules for your particular discipline.
6. Follow the range’s requirements for approved bullets, projectiles, and targets
Just because you’re on a formal shooting range, you shouldn’t assume that anything goes as far as bullets and ammunition. Far from it. Many ranges have restrictions on the types of projectiles they allow to be fired at their backstops or targets. Some may prohibit any ammunition with a magnetic bullet, whether steel jacketed, bi-metal jacketed, steel core, or steel shot. This can be to prevent damage to expensive bullet traps and backstops, to prevent dangerous ricochets, or to help prevent sparking or fires caused by steel projectiles.
Some ranges may even prohibit steel-cased or aluminum-cased ammunition, even if the projectiles aren’t magnetic, because they recycle their used range brass and don’t want to deal with sorting out the steel or aluminum cases. Certain ranges may not allow reloaded or hand-loaded ammunition, preferring to specify factory ammunition in factory boxes. A few ranges may require that you purchase any ammo you shoot on that range from the range itself (though this is typically not the case). Be sure to read the range’s list of approved ammunition. If you’re unsure whether your ammo contains any steel, it’s easy to check using a magnet.
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Even if you’re shooting outdoors at an unregulated shooting range or just out in the boonies, you should be aware that sparks from target shooting in dry areas have caused huge wildfires in drier areas and ended with shooting areas permanently closed down. Steel-jacketed or steel-core ammunition has been blamed for sparking these destructive wildfires, so be aware and be considerate.
Some ranges may require the use of a certain type of paper or polymer target for various reasons and may require you to use staples rather than tape, or on the other hand, may prohibit the use of staples when attaching targets to backers. Be sure to read and follow the rules of your particular range regarding hanging targets.
7. Use the correct ammunition for your firearm
Along the same lines as the above rule to always use ammunition approved for use on any particular range is the rule always to confirm that you are using the correct ammunition for your firearm. This is another rule that may seem silly for experienced shooters. Still, anyone who has shot a lot or taken firearms of multiple calibers to the range simultaneously will tell you of potential or actual mixups in using the wrong ammo for a particular gun. Sometimes the result will be a mechanical jam, say if you attempt to feed a .40 S&W cartridge into a 9mm pistol. Other mixups can result in potentially dangerous conditions, such as chambering a .308 Winchester cartridge into a .270 Winchester or .30-06 rifles.
One mistake that catches a lot of new shooters out is trying to load 9mm Parabellum ammunition into a 9mm Browning Kurz pistol (the German/European name for the .380 ACP cartridge) or vice versa. Suppose you buy 9mm Browning Kurz or 9mm Br. Kurz ammunition from a European manufacturer. In that case, it may not say .380 ACP on it anywhere, and some people have loaded this into their 9mm Parabellum handguns, assuming it’s 9mm ammo. Usually, nothing too bad happens in this case. Still, you may experience ruptured cases, powder debris to your face and hands, and certainly poor accuracy and reliability, but it’s something to be aware of.
Some types of handguns or rifles are only rated for standard ammunition loaded to historical levels of pressure and may be dangerous to fire with ammunition loaded to modern +P+ or Ruger-only levels of power. Know your firearm and what ammunition is safe to use in it.
One ammo mixup that has blown up several shotguns is dropping a 20 gauge cartridge into the bore of a 12 gauge shotgun. The 20 gauge shell will go into the barrel just far enough to allow loading of a 12 gauge shell behind it, and if the gun is fired in this condition, it can explode, injuring you or worse. Pay attention, and keep different calibers of ammunition off of the bench at the same time.
8. Don’t shoot wood, glass, rubber/tires, or un-hardened metal targets
This applies primarily to informal outdoor shooting ranges, where people may bring junk to shoot (and usually leave it for others to clean up). You may be tempted to shoot tree stumps, railroad ties, or other wood items. You might want to see if your gun can shoot through some tires or a tree or if your .38 can penetrate an old car door or mild steel plate. Don’t do it. Many people have been injured and even killed by bullets bouncing back toward the shooter after being fired at these types of targets, which can be surprisingly springy. Usually, steel shot, BBs, or .22LR projectiles are the worst for this type of bounce-back, but even .50 BMG rifles have been known to send projectiles back toward the shooter when conditions are right.
9. If your firearm doesn’t fire properly when you pull the trigger, take extra care to check for hang-fires and squibs
Occasionally you may get a misfire, which is what it’s called when a cartridge doesn’t go off properly. This is commonly known as a dud and can be due to defective ammunition, a manufacturing defect in your firearm, a broken part, a weak mainspring, or a combination of the above. Typically misfires are not dangerous. You simply unload the defective round from the chamber and replace it with a fresh cartridge. However, in rare cases, a hangfire can occur, where sparks or embers from the priming compound take longer than normal to ignite the primary powder charge. This can result in a very dangerous situation where the cartridge explodes as you open the action or the gun fires after pointing it somewhere other than safely downrange.
Video: Man Shooting Shotgun Has Hangfire, Looks Down Barrel of Gun, and Almost Shoots Head Off
For this reason, many ranges require waiting at least 5-10 seconds (some up to 30 seconds) with the muzzle pointed downrange before opening the action after experiencing a misfire or hangfire, in case that round goes off unexpectedly. It’s a good idea to wait at least a few seconds after a misfire. If you’re not in the middle of a firefight, you can spare the time to wait and be extra safe.
Another dangerous condition can occur due to a squib round, where no/insufficient powder is loaded into the cartridge or the powder didn’t ignite properly, but the primer went off. In this situation, the projectile/s can be fired into the barrel of the gun by the force of the primer but may be lodged there, causing a potentially catastrophic blockage if you fire another round behind it. So if you get a pop or an fssss rather than the normal loud bang, be sure to examine the spent cartridge carefully, and if possible, remove the bolt or hinge the action of your firearm open and look down the bore from the breech (rear) end (keeping the muzzle downrange) to make sure the barrel is clear before firing another shot. If you can’t safely look down the barrel from the rear with your particular firearm, call a cease-fire and ask a range officer if they have a squib rod or even a cleaning rod that they can use to check your barrel for obstructions. NEVER try to fire a squibbed projectile out of the barrel. It can blow up your gun and injure or kill you or bystanders.
Video: Handgun Malfunctions Explained - A Squib Load or Round
10. Always wear ear and eye protection, and appropriate clothing
Some old-timers feel they don’t need to wear earplugs or shooting earmuffs when in the field or hunting and may not wear eye protection either. This is a personal choice (though silly, in our opinion). However, on a shooting range, wearing ear and eye protection is almost always required by the rules of the range, and even in rare cases where it isn’t, you should still wear them. Guns are extremely loud (particularly indoors). One shot can permanently damage your hearing. Fragments of projectiles or targets can often bounce back toward the shooting line, particularly when shooting steel targets. There may also be high-speed gasses, metal particles, or burning powder flakes near your face when shooting any firearm. Quality eye and ear protection is an absolute must.
In addition to ear and eye protection, don’t wear tank tops, low-cut blouses, shirts with very loose collars/necklines, or similar attire to a shooting range. This applies particularly when shooting semi-automatic firearms that launch sizzling hot brass next to you. This can bounce off range lane barriers or other objects and land in your neck or cleavage. This may sound funny, but it can cause serious burns and scarring and create a potential safety hazard if a shooter with a loaded gun suddenly gets hot brass down his or her neck or chest. A similar recommendation is to avoid open-toed shoes or sandals when attending a shooting range.
Store your guns in a Liberty Safe to protect them and others
After your day at the range, clean your guns, protect them from corrosion, and keep them securely locked away in a quality, humidity-controlled gun safe, vault room, or handgun vault. This not only keeps your guns looking and functioning like new, but it keeps them out of the hands of thieves, children, and unauthorized users.