How to Find a Place to Shoot

Owning a gun is a very strong responsibility. You have at your hand a force that can kill and destroy with a flick of your finger. If you have a permit to carry that tool, your responsibility is even larger — you must know how to use it, and use it well. You need to be taught how to use it properly, you need to take courses in safety and firearm ownership law, and most of all, you need to practice.

The purpose of the armed citizen is to stop an attacker. Not necessarily to kill an attacker, but to stop him. That may only require showing the weapon, or it may require actually firing it. But if you do need to fire your gun, you need to be certain of your target. When you hit the attacker, placing your shots where they stand the greatest chance of stopping him is critical. You also need to be cognizant of what is behind the attacker, in case your bullet goes through the attacker and past him. What if there is a child behind the attacker? You may need to shift your point of aim so you can’t hit the child if the bullet over-penetrates. You need to be sure of your skill so you can place your shots accurately and safely. Missing your target can be worse, if the bullet starts bouncing around the neighborhood.

The key to this is practice. I practice at least once a month, sometimes more. I practice with all of my weapons, even the ones I don’t carry on a regular basis, so I don’t become rusty with them. I make certain I am proficient with the ammunition I am going to be carrying in the weapon, as the choice of ammo can affect the accuracy, sometimes to a great degree. My little .22 auto pistol is useful for off-hand work, practice with my left hand only, as if I use the little gun at all in an emergency it would be as a backup gun, and likely in my off hand. I practice drawing from an in-the-waistband holster, so I can be sure that I can get to my weapon if I am surprised, or need it in a hurry, and still be accurate.

But all of this implies that I have someplace to practice IN. You need a RANGE. In part I of this article, I will describe one kind of gun range. In part II, I will describe the typical gun club. And in the final installment, I will give tips on where to find both kinds of ranges in your neighborhood.

The choice of a firing range is a complex thing, and it takes into account many factors. Some of them are matters of convenience, some of aesthetics, some of health. Some are matters of economy, and some are even matters of legality. You need to weigh them all very carefully when choosing a range, or you can end up spending a lot of money on a facility that will not suit your needs, and you won’t use it enough to make a difference in your skill.

The first thing to consider is the kind of firing range you want to join. There are two basic sorts: firing ranges, and gun clubs. A firing range is usually a commercial venture, more of a store with a gun range, or a gun range with a store, and is there primarily to do business. They are there to make a profit. They will frequently have guns for sale, and teach classes. Most will sell ammunition, targets, and other accessories as well, and may even rent guns to those using the range if local laws permit.

Most ranges of this sort are indoor ranges, with long, narrow lanes set up in heavily armored and soundproofed areas for the shooters to use. The lanes themselves can be of varying degrees of advancement, from primitive to highly technological. The most primitive have a pile of sand at the far end with a sloping plate of steel behind it to catch the bullets and drive them downward. Targets are manually hung. Range officials must control when everybody shoots and when everybody puts down their weapons so targets may be retrieved and hung, so no one is in front of the firing line at the wrong time. More modern ranges have automated target systems, much like garage-door openers or electric clotheslines that run your targets out to varying distances, and you are free to fire at will. No one goes past the firing line, ever, at those ranges.

The backstops vary at ranges depending on their advancement. The most advanced ranges use a spiralling steel trap, sometimes flooded with oil or water, to slow the bullets as they fly into it. These keep the amount of lead dust from smashed bullets from flying into the air where it can be breathed by the range users. Lead contamination is becoming a big issue in some areas, and some manufacturers are experimenting with lead-free ammunition to try to cut down on the danger of lead poisoning. You should always wash your hands thoroughly after shooting, especially before you eat or put your hands anywhere near your mouth. The residue of lead particles from your bullets can get into your system that way.

Advanced air replacement and filtering systems are required in ranges to remove smoke and metal particles. The most advanced use true HEPA filtering, and you can barely smell powder in the range itself, even when a lot of people are firing. If a range is smoky or hazy, it is a good sign that their air filtration is substandard. Besides being unhealthy, it’s uncomfortable and smelly, and hard to see through.

Also, you may want to ask a range how often they clean the lanes, and whether they vacuum them or simply broom-sweep them. The safest lanes vacuum them with HEPA-filtered vacuums. Even the most efficient gun does not burn every grain of gunpowder, and sometimes unburned powder flies from the barrel of the gun to land on the floor of the lane. When a lot of shooters have been shooting for a long time, a lot of unfired powder can collect on the floor from this. If it is simply swept, unburned powder can find its way into cracks and crevices and present a constant danger, should a spark find it! This actually happened once, to a range in the Philadelphia suburbs! The resulting explosion blew out an entire wall of their range. Now they vacuum instead of sweeping.

Many firing ranges offer membership programs. You can save a great deal of money by paying for a membership and getting large, or even unlimited range time. When range time costs anywhere from $8 to $20 an hour, depending on the range, it adds up fast. A single payment of $100 to $200 can pay for itself in range time savings in no time, depending on how often you practice.

Some things to be careful of with firing ranges:

o Ask what limits they have on the kinds of guns that can be used there. Some indoor ranges do not allow “Magnum” ammunition to be fired, usually because their backstops are insufficient to stop the high-velocity rounds. Some ranges will allow any weapons, including full-automatic or even long weapons like rifles and shotguns. This may offer increased opportunity for home safety you never anticipated…or may limit you more than you expected. I had to turn down a range because I could not fire my principal carry weapon with the ammunition I would normally carry in it because it was Magnum.

o Make sure you can bring outside ammunition or supplies to the range. Some ranges that sell ammunition and supplies require that you purchase the ammo and targets you shoot at their range from them. They don’t allow you to purchase bulk ammo from the Internet or other lower-cost sources and bring it with you. This can force you to spend premium prices on ammunition you would not normally use, or ammunition you do not necessarily like for one reason or another simply because it is all the range is selling for your weapon. Some brands of ammunition are “dirtier” than others — they leave more residue in the gun after firing, and require more effort to clean the gun later. Some brands leave more lead fouling in the barrel. Some have less powder, or are differently shaped, or don’t feed well in your auto-loader for some reason. If there is another range in your area that does not have this restriction, it is wise to check it out and see if you can do business with them instead. You will benefit more by travelling farther, if necessary.

o Check prices. Some ranges charge much less than others. Some charge much more than others. Some will give you a cut rate for half an hour, if you want to duck in on your lunch hour.

Some will let you share lanes for a nominal extra charge, others will charge full rate for each person, so you might as well each have a lane to yourself. Some ranges charge outrageously for their hourly rate so they can urge you to buy their memberships.

Be wary…make sure you really want to shoot there for other reasons than just to save money on the range fees.

o Are the people friendly? Nothing can spoil a relationship with a range faster than surly employees. Ask questions. Swap stories. Check out new guns, if they have them for sale. Try renting a new gun for a a day and see how you like it, then chat up the salesperson who rented it to you for a while on its merits. Get to know the people behind the counter and see if you can develop a rapport with them. If you take classes at this range, it is likely you will be learning from one of them at one time or another. If you find them surly and uncommunicative, or you find them to be a bunch of Rambo- wannabes, it may not be the right range for you.

This can be especially critical for some people. The Pink Pistols is a national group of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered gunowners who believe in carrying guns for self-defense. They get together to practice on a regular basis, and need to find ranges where the help does not object to gay people coming in, sometimes in large groups, to shoot. If the owners are bigots, the group can’t feel comfortable practicing there. Also, some ranges, when approached, have welcomed them, making it clear that the “family” memberships they have will apply to domestic partners equally. So talk to your range owners!

Gun Clubs

The other kind of range is the Gun Club. Most gun clubs are outdoor affairs, and tend to be privately owned. They are not usually businesses like the ranges, and don’t have stores attached to them. They may or may not have indoor range space, but it usually isn’t as fancy as what you would find in a commerical range. It tends to be of the more primitive sort, with hand-mounted targets and range captains and the simplest of backstops. Limits on power of ammunition are common, with Magnum ammo being frequently forbidden. Outdoor ranges are far more common.

Most gun clubs will have space for pistol, rifle, and shotgun, with much effort devoted to trap and sport shooting. You will find that the emphasis at these clubs is placed squarely on hunters. They practice not for self-defense, but for going out in the woods and shooting animals. The emphasis is totally different, and you may find that your needs are not truly met there. They will not have ammunition or supplies for sale, so you’ll have to go to the gun store anyway, and many of the gun stores you might have to go to would be AT the ranges in the first place.

Many gun clubs require that their members “pitch in” and help maintain the grounds from time to time. It’s truly a club, not like the YMCA, where you buy a card and can go all you want for a year. You paid an initiation and dues, and are expected to perform duties to the club as well as reap the benefits. Sometimes there are extra benefits from this — sometimes clubs can get training courses for little or no extra money, or they do not charge members like they would charge the general public.

Keep in mind also that with an outdoor range, weather plays a part. If you are in a part of the country that has bad winters, you may not be able to practice for several months of the year because the range is under multiple feet of snow. It may be raining on the day of your big practice session. You may get to the range, get all set up, raise the gun to shoot, and it may start hailing. It is hot in the summer, cold in the winter, wet when it is rainy, dusty when it is dry. And HEPA filters keep the smell of skunk from bothering you in an indoor range!

Outdoor ranges and clubs do have their advantages. They tend to be cheaper. A firing range can cost upward of $125 to join for a year. I have seen outdoor gun clubs that cost only $40 a year, after a one-time $50 initiation fee. In Pennsylvania, you can even find certain areas of State Game Lands where you can shoot for free, with certain restrictions. (No quick draw, only 3 rounds in the gun at one time, no rapid fire. Don’t get caught breaking those rules…the fines are astronomical!) You get to enjoy the fresh air. Some clubs are actually “sportsmens’ clubs”, and have facilities for archery and fishing as well as for firearms, so you might find hobby interests there too.

Also, the level of camaraderie at such a club tends to be higher, and they are more of a social organization than a commercial range. It is not uncommon for clubs to hold social events such as picnics, or even dances for the members. They also host events for other organizations, such as the NRA and the Second Amendment Sisters. You may find that involvement with these activities outweigh any negative aspects of the more communal nature of these clubs.

There are also legal advantages to a gun club in some circumstances. For example, the state of New Jersey has some of the most draconian laws regarding firearms in any of the 50 states. The relevant passages state that if you are going to a gun RANGE to shoot, you must go directly there and directly back home, with no intervening stops, not even for gasoline. If you belong, however to a gun CLUB, and are going THERE to shoot, you may make intervening stops, say, for lunch, to get gas, to stop to go to the bathroom, to buy ammo at Wal-Mart, what-have-you. Why they made this distinction is anybody’s guess…but it is there, and if you live in New Jersey (or another state with similar laws), it makes sense to take advantage of it.

Okay, you know the difference between ’em…how do you FIND the consarned things? They hide them. You can’t see ’em from the street these days. Your best bet is in the yellow pages, on the Internet, or by word of mouth.

Gun clubs cover a lot of ground, and tend to be in more rural settings, in wooded areas. They don’t have much in the way of signs, and if they did, you can’t go in there anyway unless you’re a member, and if you did go in anyway, there probably wouldn’t be anyone there to see most of the time anyhow. You need to call or write to a gun club first and talk to someone in charge of new memberships, and fill out a membership form.

Look for phone numbers on their signs, if they have them, and write them down. When you call, say you are interested in becoming a member. Some clubs will send you a form in the mail, some will want to interview you in private, and some will simply ask you to attend a club meeting and apply to the group at that time. Since these are usually run as true clubs, there will likely be two fees up front — the initiation fee and your dues. The initiation fee will be a one-time charge, and may be substantial. The dues will likely be smaller, and may, in many circumstances be pro-rated based on the time of year that you apply. Applying in the Fall can save you some money the first year!

Firing ranges are notoriously hard to find, because zoning laws tend to put them in fairly industrial areas where the structures are stronger than your typical storefront. They need concrete walls and floors, and special insurance, and lots of places won’t let them move in. So they tend to be in out-of-the way places, such as industrial parks and behind strip malls. These places are hard to advertise with signs at street level, so you’re not going to find them that way. You will need to find them in the phone book, on the Net, or be told where they are by someone who has been there…but once you find them, they’re easy to join.

Firing ranges are more like businesses, and will simply have you fill out a form and charge your credit card or take a check for your fee. It isn’t a club, you’re paying what amounts to a subscription, though some ranges will call it a “club” to give it a taste of camaraderie. They’ll call it a “membership”, and even have discounts on merchandise and everything. But it isn’t really a club unless they have meetings and by-laws and stuff like that — it’s more like a shopping club like Sam’s Club or Costco. You pay your fee and you get your goods.

In the Yellow Pages, the key words to look for are “Rifle & Pistol Ranges” first, then under “Guns” next. Some online Yellow Pages have a “Gun Safety & Marksmanship Instruction” category that usually includes firing ranges, since they frequently sell training courses. Some gun clubs will also put themselves in that category because they have training available, so keep this point in mind.

On the Internet, you can use a search engine such as Excite or Google to look for ‘Firing Range’ or ‘Gun Club’ and the name of your nearest large city, or you can go to a large shooters’ portal site such as Shooters.com and look through their directory. You can find both firing ranges and gun clubs this way, frequently interspersed in the same set of listings.

One extremely good directory of both ranges and gun clubs can be found at www.wheretoshoot.org. Their database is extensive, and can be limited by zipcode or by area code. They claim to be able to limit the search by the type of facility — airgun, handgun, rifle, shotgun, archery, and/or hunting oriented — but my test of this feature was dubious in result. The range I frequent only came up when I chose the “all” option in this section of the search. Choosing “handgun”, “rifle”, and “shotgun” — or any combination therof — did not locate my range, even though I know they provide these services. I would resist the tempatation to use that part of the search, and simply limit it to location searches, then go by name.

Another relatively new listing is at www.rodandgunclub.com. They are so new, they don’t have very many private clubs or ranges listed, but they do have a lot of the State-run game lands and park ranges listed. I suspect that they will acquire more private range listings as time goes on, so keep an eye on them.

A clue to tell the ranges from the clubs is if you see a reference to “Rod and Gun” in the name. If you see this, you can pretty much be sure it is a gun club and not a firing range, because they support fishing and other sporting activities.

One last suggestion is to not discount the word of mouth in finding a good place to shoot. Talk to the people at your local gun shop and find out where THEY shoot. Talk to the other shooters, and find out what they think of the local clubs. Some of the clubs may require the sponsorship of another member to get you in the door, and having someone to vouch for you may be just what you need. It also might help you find someone to shoot *with*, something that never hurts!

So, now you know what kinds of ranges there are, and you know how to find them. Go on out and practice, practice, practice!

So, whichever you choose, indoor firing range or gun club, make sure you go as often as you can manage and practice, practice, practice!

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