Essential Gear for the Firearm Range—Hearing Protection
May 30, 2023
By Jennifer L.S. Pearsall
Noise-induced hearing loss is permanent—and preventable. Don’t skimp on this essential piece of gear.
Every single one of us passionate about firearms and shooting sincerely hopes every new person who gives it a try finds that same level of enjoyment and entertainment. If that describes you after a couple trips to the range and you know you’ve been bitten by the bug that comes from skillfully drilling holes in paper targets, you’re probably already thinking about how to spend more time at this new pursuit. You’re also probably wondering about what gear you’ll need to do it.
The truth is there is no end to the shooting gear you’ll acquire over time. No gun owner I’ve ever known is anything less than a bonified gear junkie. But that’s nothing that should steer you away from what might very well be your new favorite pastime. Every pursuit, short of checkers and chess, comes with boatloads of gear. Think about the last thing you dived into. Skiing? Horseback riding? Backpacking? Canoeing? Paddleboarding? Camping? Tennis? Pickleball? Now think about how much of your garage and how many closets are devoted to all the stuff those hobbies require. Go ahead, I’ll wait … .
While it’s likely you’ll become a gear junkie just like the rest of us, you may also not want to make a huge investment in high-end gear when you’re starting out. Fair enough, but I’ll add two points to consider. One, having pursued several shooting sports with zeal over many years, I continuously upgraded my gear because I started with the cheap stuff, and it just didn’t cut it as my skills and scores improved. In retrospect, if I’d started with even a step or two up from the cheap seats, I’d have saved thousands of dollars during the some 15 or so years I competed and I’d probably have gotten better at the sports I’d chosen faster. Second, if I were to start from scratch and do it all over again, there are three items that would have made my days on the range more comfortable and enjoyable right off the bat: hearing protection, eye protection, and the right range bag. Let’s tackle hearing protection first.
Ear protection comes in all sorts of forms and price points. Here’s a rundown and some tips to help you decide.
- Foam ear plugs—
- You should buy a dozen packets of these, including some connected by a soft-plastic string. They get most of the job done and are great both in an emergency (e.g., you left your other ear protection at home), and for doubling up under ear muffs. Notice I said they get “most” of the job done. Inserted properly, good-quality foam ear plugs will reduce a great amount of range noise—but not all of it. If you have someone in the lane next you who’s shooting a compensated pistol in a hot caliber, you’re probably going to be uncomfortable, though your hearing will still be largely protected. Another drawback is that they’re generally good for one-time use, and if they loosen up while you’re shooting, your hearing will be compromised.
- Molded ear plugs—
- These are definitely a step up from foamies. I discovered them years ago when I was shooting competitive sporting clays and never looked back. The soft/solid silicone plugs were produced out of molds taken from each of my ears, and they provided an excellent seal that didn’t come close to giving me that water-in-your-ears stuffy feeling some ear inserts can cause. They were ridiculously comfortable, and because I was shotgun shooting, there was no ear muff cup to get in the way of the gun stock on my shoulder. Best of all, they never changed shape and came clean with a little warm water and dish soap, so they lasted forever. Today custom ear plugs of silicone or soft acrylic are a cinch to find via a Google search. You can also find them with electronics that allow you to hear normal conversation while cutting out the high decibels of gunfire.
- Over-the-head ear muffs—
- These run the gamut in styles and pricing. On the low end are those with thin plastic housings and a flexible vinyl or plastic covering over the foam on the inside of the cups that fits around your ears. Far on the other end are those loaded with advanced electronics, including Bluetooth. Outside of shotgunning, where I still prefer to use my molded ear plugs, I would never start on the low end. Such ear muffs tend to have cups with a thin overall profile and lack durability; the vinyl over the foam often deteriorates due to sweat, and it also tears easily, leaving the foam exposed. But the real detraction is their lack of comfort. I also find them hot, and many on the really inexpensive side lack adequate adjustment regarding how they fit over your head. Now, that’s not to say all budget-saver earmuffs are a waste—Peltor, one of the best names in the business, makes a number of simple, over-the head muffs for $25 or less—but if you can afford more, I’d absolutely opt for a muff with electronics. You’ll be able to hear range commands and your shooting partners or the people in the lanes next to you almost as easily as you would if you were sitting next to them on a park bench, and the cut-off response to gunfire is instantaneous. As you might imagine, electronic ear muffs have a wide price range dependent on the number of included features. You’ll find the vast majority in the $100 to $200 range, though there are several brands and models that run in the $500 to $700+ range. Unless you’re ready to jump into competitive shooting, all in, cannon-ball into the pool, there’s no sense forking out that upper range. But, if you can manage something in the couple Benjamins range, do it. Once you start spending more time on the range, the extra comfort you’ll enjoy and the ability to converse with others on the line will be worth the price.
One last note on over-the-head muffs: Try on as many models as you can and make an effort to discover what’s the most comfortable for you. I often experience headaches from headbands that pinch too tightly, so shopping for a set of muffs that lessens that didn’t cause that problem was essential to finding the one that was right for me. If you really want to try a bunch before you commit, shop through Amazon where, if you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can usually return for free.
Noise Reduction Rating
For whatever ear protection you decide on, the one specification you should pay attention to amongst all the marketing descriptions and specifications you’ll encounter is the Noise Reduction Rating or NRR.
Noises around the 70 decibel (dB) mark sustained for long periods can begin to damage your hearing. Up that to the level of 120 dB and the damage can be instant. Normal human conversation runs about 60 dB, your leaf blower is likely somewhere in the 80 to 85 dB range, and a person yelling directly into your ear runs up to 110 dB.
Most unsuppressed gunfire runs 140+ dB, so, when shopping for hearing protection, you’ll want to search for those products that have an NRR of somewhere around 22. I found numerous models that listed their NRRs at 19, and that may be fine, depending on your shooting situation. If you’re shooting on an enclosed indoor range that has numerous shooting lanes and allows a robust range of calibers, including magnum rifle rounds, you’ll want ear protection with the highest rating. Likewise with an outdoor range in which rifle shooting and handgun shooting take place on the same line, especially those ranges that have a roof over the line that amplifies gunfire. Working on a smaller range that allows pistol shooting only, you may be just fine with something in an NRR 19 rating. Remember, you can always add foam ear plugs under an ear muff with a lower rating.)
No matter what you choose, being comfortable and adequately protected are a big part of enjoying time shooting on the range. More importantly, hearing protection is critical to keeping your hearing at its best. Noise-related hearing loss is irreversible, and quality hearing protection worn when shooting can go a long way toward keeping you out of the audiologist’s office.
Firearm Range Etiquette
May 23, 2023
By Jennifer L.S. Pearsall
This isn’t some forks on the left, spoons on the right, Miss Manners type of thing. It’s about keeping everyone safe.
Firearm ranges are usually found in one of three ways: 1) they have a range safety officer (RSO) physically on the range for the duration of a shooting period or competition; 2) the range and its safety are monitored by the participants on the line; or 3) the range has close-circuit video monitoring. Here’s what to expect from each.
RSOs on the Range
You will most often find a range with an RSO as a constant, physical presence at top-end facilities, both indoors and out, that have a full complement of amenities such as private VIP lounges, food and beverage services, and event hosting. These businesses have worked to be “destination” ranges that draw not just a steady stream of local patrons but tourists and other visitors to the area who make a point to enjoy all these ranges have to offer. RSOs will also be present on all stages or shooting lines of various shooting competitions and at special events, clubs, and ranges that are open to the general public.
There’s really only one thing you should know about an on-range RSO: Their word is law. If they tell you to do something, do it and ask questions later. If they tell you there’s a cease-fire, you stop firing now, not after you finish off the last three shots in your magazine. If they tell you to step back three feet from the firing line and that someone is going downrange to make a target carrier repair, do not take your range bag or gun or ammunition or anything else with you, and don’t check on your stuff or organize it while such a command is in effect. And, if an RSO asks you to pack up your gear and leave the range, follow their instructions and do it. You can have the conversation about why once you’ve left the range.
If it sounds strict, well, it is. It has to be. The RSO monitoring a firing line of multiple shooters is there solely to keep everyone safe, period. That person sees things you can’t see because of where you are on the line, such as when someone (maybe even you) gets lax about where their muzzle is pointing, a finger inside the trigger guard during a holster draw, a premature discharge that puts a hole in the range’s drop ceiling … . For those who are chronically careless and unsafe—it happens, just like there are chronically careless and unsafe vehicle drivers—the RSO is responsible for removing that person from the range.
RSOs are in charge of issuing the commands to cease fire, unload and step back from the bench, permission to reload and get ready, and the one we all love to hear, “Range is hot,” meaning you may proceed to fire. Such commands are necessary on bare-bone outdoor ranges so that shooters may go downrange to retrieve and reset targets safely, on any range so that a person can take care of a malfunctioning gun in such a way that others on the line remain safe, and so that repairs can be made to target holders, among other reasons.
RSOs working competitive shooting matches and tournaments have the same job—keep everyone safe. You may find such an RSO working an individual stage of an action-shooting sport, in which case they may also be the person holding the start/stop timer or activating a clays trap. These same RSOs are also multi-tasking, keeping an eye on the members of the squad on deck waiting to take their turn, or overseeing a line of precision target shooters, issuing commands as needed to start and stop timed firing sequences and effect the lowering and raising of automatic targets. In other words, such RSOs have a lot that requires their attention, so you will find them serious and focused on their duties.
The other thing you need to know about an on-range RSO is that they are there to help. Have a jammed gun? Set it on the bench with the muzzle pointed downrange and ask them to help you clear it. Having trouble loading a magazine? Ask them to help—and don’t be surprised when they tell you there’s a great magazine loader available in the retail store.
You can help an RSO do their job as well. They are, by and large, just one person watching several people at one time and, unlike your mother, they do not have eyes in the back of their heads. If you see another person on the line whose actions are unsafe, set your gun down, grab the RSO, and tell them about the incident. You are not being a snitch, and no one (except maybe the person with the problem, if they’re going to be a jerk about these things) will ever think badly about you for pointing out a safety problem.
Every Shooter is a Range Safety Officer
There are tons of ranges that don’t have full-time, always-on-range RSOs. When it comes to firearms, that may seem a questionable practice, but the truth is most people who handle firearms, once they have the safety basics down, understand that safety on the range is their responsibility, the responsibility of the person next to them, and the responsibility of the person 10 lanes down.
Speaking as a firearm owner of more than 30 years and as someone who’s hunted all over North America and shot on ranges big, small, luxurious, and hard-scrabble across the country, I can tell you this: We monitor each other. None of us with even a modicum of experience handling firearms have any problem helping another person on the firing line correct their actions or asking them to leave the range if their behavior is egregious. By and large we do it politely but firmly enough to get your attention and take the situation seriously, just as someone corrected our flawed handling when we were starting out. Every single one of us has made mistakes as we learned how to shoot, and you’re going to make them too.
CCT and Video Monitoring
You may come across indoor ranges (and some outdoor ranges) that use CCT or video monitoring of their shooting lanes. It’s a practical way to keep an eye on things when a full-time, always-on-range RSO is unavailable or isn’t an economical option for the business. It’s also a smart way to keep an eye on rental guns coming and going from pro shops or catch the occasional thief pilfering a cleaning kit, holster or other piece of gear from the retail store before they hit the range. The drawback regarding safety monitoring is that it’s kind of like having a “Lifeguard on Duty” sign up, but the lifeguard is at the ice-cream shack hamming it up with the pretty girls: He’s got an eye on the water—some of the time.
It's unlikely a range with this kind of setup has someone watching the cameras full time. More likely, the counter staff or a couple of back-office people are glancing at the monitors periodically as they go about waiting on customers, stocking shelves, and performing other tasks.
Such setups can and should be viewed as a safety asset: Some eyes on an active shooting line are better than no eyes. But the reality is that just as in the outdoor range or private gun club that completely lacks an on-range RSO, you and every other shooter on the line are responsible for your safety and the safety of those around you. If you see something, help the person correct the problem. If it’s a big problem, wave at the cameras for attention and then exit the range and grab a staff member who can make it right. And no matter whether it’s the person in the lane next to yours or the full-time RSO, take what we say in the manner in which it’s offered and be nice about it. It’s far better to thank the person who reminded you not to sweep your toes as you struggle to rack the slide on your pistol than it is the EMT who has to come stop the bleeding.
Going it Alone—Finding a Shooting Range, Part VII
May 16, 2023
By Jennifer L.S. Pearsall
The rules of the road are as much about etiquette as they are about safety. Same goes for the rules you’ll encounter at your firearm range.
Most of today’s modern ranges, especially those indoor facilities, take great pride in having their first-time students walk away feeling they’ve accomplished something important and looking forward to the next step. If that describes you, then that next step should be about getting comfortable on the range shooting by yourself.
The Rental Gun Counter is Your New Best Friend
The vast majority of today’s well-equipped indoor ranges have a variety of firearms available for rental on their range. If you have not yet purchased a firearm, this is the perfect way to get more comfortable with how various firearms work, what recoil across different calibers and firearm sizes feels like, and how the many different models fit and feel in your hands. While we’re focusing on handguns here, lots of ranges also have rifles and shotguns for rent; the outdoor clays range I used to shoot at regularly in Virginia had a bunch of rental shotguns for skeet, trap, and sporting clays, for instance, and today, many well-appointed indoor ranges also rent rifles and shotguns. Some ranges even rent full-auto firearms that, when you’re ready—and I can tell you this from experience—you will quickly discover are more fun than Christmas, New Year’s, the 4th of July, and your birthday all wrapped up in one big bash. But, I’m a little ahead of myself here, so back to the handguns.
First-time shooting classes generally keep things simple regarding the guns used during instruction. Revolvers and semi-automatics chambered in the very low-recoil .22 LR are predominantly used, especially in classes for students who have never handled a firearm before and are apprehensive about the experience. Others may combine the use of .22 LR handguns with, say, a revolver in .38 Special or a semi-automatic in 9mm, because most people quickly progress from the .22 to these larger but still easy-to-handle calibers.
For your first time on the range alone, it’s not at all a bad choice to rent a gun of the same caliber and action (revolver or semi-automatic) you used in your introductory class. Doesn’t have to be the exact same model, but if you were successful enough shooting that caliber your first time handling a gun and now feel comfortable using the range on your own, it keeps things simple. You’re at least a little familiar with that type of gun and the caliber’s recoil, and, so, you can now begin to practice and refine the basics of grip, sight alignment, trigger control, and the mechanical manipulations of the gun that you learned in that first class.
At the range check-in and rental counter, be open with the staff. Tell them you have recently taken a class for novices and that you’d like to shoot something similar to what you used in that session. Attentive, customer-service-oriented staff will make a recommendation, likely go over the basic rules of safety quickly with you, and then review how the gun you’re renting operates.
You will need to buy the range’s ammunition—it’s their gun, and they want to ensure that the ammo running through it is factory fresh and not the handloads a friend has given you. With the exception of ammunition designed specifically for defensive use, target ammunition comes in boxes of 50 rounds; .22 LR target or “plinking” ammo also commonly comes in 100-count containers.
Don’t Overdo It
Until you gain confidence and your skills and accuracy build, stick with one box of whatever you’re shooting for those first few times alone on the range. You’re using new muscles in a new way, and as you are progressing thoughtfully and deliberately though the mental checklist of safety behaviors, as well as how you’re gripping the gun and steadying your sights to keep them aligned, fatigue can set in quickly. When you’re new to shooting, you may find half a box of 9mm is just fine for a first session when you’re working on your marksmanship at a slow and careful pace.
Keep in mind, too, that you always want to end shooting on a good note. Let’s say you’ve shot two magazines of 10 rounds each and your groups are starting to get tighter. But you’re feeling a bit of a knot at the base of your neck, and when you start the third magazine, you can’t seem to get the sights to stay in line and your first two shots go astray. Take a break, set the gun on the bench—unloaded and pointed downrange—and go get a bottle of water outside the range enclosure. Now, go back and take two or three more shots. If they hit where you were aiming, unload, pack it up, and go home—you’ve had a good day on the range. If they don’t hit, unload, pack it up and go home. Continuing to shoot as your body fatigues and target hits continue to wander does nothing but reinforce bad habits, including things like an inconsistent grip, bad trigger pulls, incorrect sight alignment, and other ills.
Tip! If you’ve haven’t shot all the ammunition you purchased with a rental gun, save it in its original box, often with the store’s price sticker on it, and the receipt. In most cases, the range will let you use that ammo with the next gun you rent from them. Just ask them first. Like I said, they don’t want handloaded/reloaded ammunition in their guns, nor do they want ammo purchased from another retailer.
Of course, you can also stop halfway through a box of ammunition and swap out your first rental for a different make and model. This is a great way to start becoming familiar with the wealth of gun brands and models out there while shooting a caliber with which you’re becoming comfortable. It’s also a way to see how different a caliber can feel when the size and weight of the gun changes, something that will be important when you start exploring purchasing firearms for specific purposes.
In our next column, range etiquette is the topic of the day. Stay tuned!
Firearm Safety—Making Good Habits Perfect Habits
May 9, 2023
By Jennifer L.S. Pearsall
Your first class on firearm safety and handling does not make you a person who safely handles firearms. Getting there is about making it all a habit.
I started my career in the firearm industry at a retailer and indoor range in Northern Virginia. I worked at that store back in the early 1990s, and over my nearly eight years there as the sales manager, I developed what I call the “driver’s ed” approach to helping people new to guns gain a better, more thorough understanding of firearm safety than the safety rules posted at the range would ever provide them. Here’s how it works.
From Mental Checklist to Automatic Performance
Whether you’ve taken a first-time shooting instruction class or are preparing to, what you’ll learn there is not a one-and-done deal. Safe firearm handling is really about acquiring a practiced set of good habits that, over time, will become ingrained and performed automatically. When I had a person new to firearms at my sales counter, I would go over the same basic rules we talked about in the last column:
- Treat every firearm as if it was loaded, every time you touch one.
- Always keep your firearm pointed in a safe direction.
- Never point a firearm at anything you do not intend to destroy.
- Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to fire.
Those basics seem simple enough to grasp, but when you’re considering making a firearm part of your daily life, whether for target shooting, home defense, or concealed carry, they become a much more complex compendium of ideas.
For my customers, I likened getting to know these rules to how most of us learned to drive a car. With a parent or driver’s ed instructor in the front passenger seat every time we got behind the wheel to practice newly learned skills, you were probably reminded, repeatedly, to proceed through a preparation checklist before you were allowed to put the vehicle into gear. You checked your mirrors, checked that everyone was wearing seatbelts, verified where windshield wiper, headlight, and flasher buttons were located, verified your turn signals were working, and then checked your mirrors again before beginning to move the car.
Checking all those things you need to check before you move a vehicle out of park, especially the mirrors, was not an automatic process when you began to drive on your own. That process evolved over time and with hundreds of hours spent behind the wheel. Now, as an adult with decades of driving experience, you no longer consciously think about checking your mirrors or backup camera before you back out of the driveway. You just do it, because you’ve done it so many times it’s now an automatic, reflexive action.
That’s how gun safety works. You must first practice the four basics above by thinking about them every time you approach a gun to handle it. Over time, and with enough repetition, proper and safe handling will become automatic.
A Real-Life, Real-Time Approach to Firearm Safety
If you’ve successfully completed a first-time shooters class, you undoubtedly had someone beside you every step of the way while you were on the range. The instructor may even have loaded the gun with a single shot and handed it to you, reminding you to keep it pointed at the target downrange any time you might have been tempted to swing it a different direction. They also told you to keep your finger off the trigger, again and again, as you learned how to line up the sights, load the gun, or remove a magazine. But that instructor isn’t going to be by your side going forward, so it’s up to you to go through that checklist of safety rules yourself until they are so ingrained they become automatic.
Now, take into consideration that life with a firearm doesn’t exist solely on the shooting range. It takes place with your gun at home in a safe, with your gun in a concealed carry holster, with a shotgun on the way to the skeet range, with a rifle on the way to a long-range match, with a handgun stored in a backpack for a backcountry hike, with your Biofire Smart Gun® sitting on your nightstand, etc.
You’re at the range, in your assigned lane, and put your handgun case on the bench in front of you. You open the case and see that the gun is oriented so that it is pointing toward you or someone in the next lane. What do you do? Treat it as if it is loaded, which means keep your and rotate the case or, with your finger off the trigger, rotate the gun in the case so that its muzzle is pointed downrange before you fully pick up that firearm to handle.
At home, you want to store your handgun in a small safe housed in your nightstand or office. Where is the muzzle pointed as you put it in and take it out of the safe? Is it pointed at the wall adjacent to your child’s room or toward your spouse or partner? Consider finding a different storage location. That won’t always be possible without also untenably compromising your speed of access, and that’s why keeping your finger off the trigger needs to be a very conscious and automatic habit. That’s what keeps you and others safe when bad things happen in the middle of the night and your hands are shaking.
You’ve rushed through the door with your second-grader in tow and an arm full of groceries. You set the groceries on the counter, just as the phone rings with a call from your kid’s teacher. You know there was a problem at school, dinner needs to be started, and your second-grader is throwing a fit. All of this is going on, the pressure’s building, and you just want to get on with it, so you know what you do? You let the groceries sit on the counter. You let the call go to voice mail. And you let your second-grader go on with his meltdown because you are going to do the right thing and lock up that gun in your purse before anything else gets done.
You’ve arrived home from work and want to change clothes and get rid of the belt and holster you’ve been wearing all day with your carry firearm. Where is the gun’s muzzle pointed as you remove the loaded gun from the holster? Be conscious of walls, ceilings, and floors that have people and pets behind, above and below them. Depending on your setup, the garage with a solid cement floor might be the safest place to divest yourself of the gun you carry all day before you secure it elsewhere.
Starting to see the thought path? You would never back out of your driveway without looking in the rearview mirror or taking in the view from your backup camera. In the same vein, assessing which rooms your family members are in before you remove your holstered carry gun is your firearm safety “rearview mirror.” When you first bring a firearm into your home, you will need to think about this every day as you come and go and handle that gun. Do that enough times and you will begin to automatically put the safe handling of your firearm first. Always. That is something that everyone can certainly, literally, live with.
A Place for Everyone—Finding a Shooting Range, Part VI
May 2, 2023
By Jennifer L.S. Pearsall
Learning to shoot doesn’t begin and end with a range and an instructor. In fact, it’s the feeling of camaraderie and family so many experience their first time on the range that keeps them coming back and exploring all that firearm ownership and the shooting sports have to offer.
While Googling is the fastest and easiest way to find both a firearm range and instructor who can help you take your first shots, there are many other resources out there for shooters and firearm owners of all skill levels, including beginners, that you may not know to look for. Collectively, the following rundown represents a variety of groups and organizations working to improve and promote safe and responsible firearm ownership and use. Some of them go about that through hands-on training for groups of like-minded people, others do their work through activism and politics. What and who you want to get involved with is entirely up to you, we’re just letting you know what’s out there. Three notes:
First, every organization we’ve listed here has a national footing. There also are hundreds of secondary organizations, local club chapters of the national organizations, and groups of like-minded people across the country who formed their own shooting clubs at their local ranges. Though we couldn’t possibly list all those smaller clubs and national chapter off-shoots here, this should give you a start before you start Googling.
Second, none of what you’ll read here is an endorsement or promotion of these organizations, and we’ve presented them in alphabetical order to keep it neutral. We’ve also specifically not included those groups considered radical, with ties to militias, that are explicitly racist or discriminatory, or that promote gun control and the dissolution of the 2nd Amendment. Finally, shooting-sports organizations will be covered in another column.
- 4-H Shooting Sports—This youth education and mentoring organization may be best known for helping kids win blue ribbons at the county fair with an Angus steer or a jar of jam, it’s also well-regarded for its youth-oriented curriculums on firearm safety, shooting instruction, and hunting skills.
- A Girl and a Gun—With hundreds of chapters and classes taught at ranges all across the country, A Girl and a Gun is a women’s only organization that provides education and friendly competition to its members in handgun, rifle, and shotgun disciplines.
- American Women Who Bear Arms—This is a Second Amendment advocacy and information organization that works to give women a voice in this arena.
- American Muslim Gun Owners Association—Established as a community-service Facebook group, the “American Muslim Gun Owners Association provides a forum for Muslims to express their love and appreciation for American ideals of Firearms & Personal Liberty.”
- Armed Equality—Primarily developed for the benefit of the LGBTQ+ community, Armed Equality seeks to build “a strong and inclusive community of diverse individuals who seek the skills needed to defend their lives” and is “dedicated to the defense and protection of all Americans, from all walks of life, especially targeted minorities.
- Asian Pacific American Gun Owners Association—APAGOA is a non-profit organization that advocates for firearm safety education and provides news and education pertaining generally to firearm ownership for all gun owners and specifically Asian Pacific Americans.
- Black Guns Matter—Founded by hip-hop artist Maj Toure, Black Guns Matter is a non-profit organization that seeks to provide education about Second Amendment rights and promote a better understanding of U.S. gun culture to African Americans, especially those in urban communities.
- Black Gun Owners Association—Membership in BGOA automatically enrolls you in a gun club in your state. A non-profit, BGOA focuses on safety, education, Second Amendment rights, and camaraderie, while also providing insurance, range, training, and vendor discount resources for its members.
- Boy Scouts of America/Scouting Shooting Sports—A standard-bearer in providing firearm safety and skills education to millions of boys, Boy Scouts of America also serves as an introduction to the many shooting sports for its members, beginning with its Cub Scouts.
- Civilian Marksmanship Program—An official U.S. charter organization, the Office of the Director of Civilian Marksmanship was created in 1903 by an act of Congress. Its long and revered history of teaching marksmanship to Americans from all walks of life is one worth reading. Today, the CMP focuses sharply on youth development and competition for all ages, with a wide range of competitions across the country, including the annual National Matches held each year at Camp Perry, Ohio. Select firearm models often used in competition, including surplus military long guns such as an M1 Garand or an M1911 pistol, can also be obtained by U.S. citizens who are CMP members, and the CMP e-store has a robust offering of everything from ammunition and targets to books and memorabilia.
- Diva Women Outdoors Worldwide—DIVA WOW, for short, is an all-volunteer organization that works to help women develop safe firearm handling and shooting skills, provides friendly competition, and support their other pursuits in the outdoors.
- EmPOWERed—EmPOWERed says it is a project of Gun Owners of America and a movement with foundations on high-school and college campuses nationwide. The movement focuses on gun rights as women’s rights, particularly when it comes to self-defense and Second Amendment issues.
- G.R.I.T.S. (Girls Really Into Shooting)—Focusing on educating about and promoting firearm safety and the shooting sports to women, G.R.I.T.S. has chapters across the country, though the majority are in the South and Southeast. The organization holds numerous events throughout the year for its members, who also enjoy a number of range and gear discounts as part of their membership.
- Gun Owners of America—Founded in 1976, GOA is a lobbying organization that works at the local, state, and national levels to fight anti-gun legislation and preserve the 2nd Amendment.
- Huey P. Newton Gun Club—named for the activist and founder of the Black Panthers Party political organization, the Huey P. Newton Gun Club states that it is “an organization of members from various different groups/organizations coming together in unity to practice our 2nd amendment right "To bear Arms.” … We desire a world of peace, justice, and equality for all humanity, and specifically people of color.” The group is especially focused on educating the Black community, especially its youth, ending police brutality against Black and Brown people, and ending Black-on-Black violence and self-hatred.
- InHER Piece Ladies Shooting Clubs—Though founded only in 2020, InHer Piece encourages women from all walks of life and background to discover the resources available, many of which have been networked by the organization itself, that enable them to exercise their 2nd Amendment rights. The shooting clubs are dedicated to providing a “‘safe place’ for diversity within the shooting sports and firearm community.”
- Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership—The non-profit JPFO is a membership-based human-rights group, based in Washington, D.C., that welcomes people of all faiths who seek to preserve and exercise their 2nd Amendment rights.
- Latino Rifle Association—Still young, having been founded in 2020, the LRA is a non-profit membership organization that advocates for gun rights and among the Latino community and Latino gun owners.
- National African American Gun Association/Black Girls Shoot!—This well-regarded national organization has a stated mission of working to “to establish a fellowship by educating on the rich legacy of gun ownership by African Americans, offering training that supports safe gun use for self-defense and sportsmanship, and advocating for the inalienable right to self-defense for African Americans.” Welcoming people of all races, religions, and social and racial perspectives, the NAAGO has a goal of having “every African American introduced to firearm use for home protection, competitive shooting, and outdoor recreational activities.” Black Girls Shoot is a recognized chapter of the NAAGA.
- National Association for Gun Rights—This gun-rights advocacy group has approximately 4.5 millions. The organization is on the front lines protecting American gun rights through its PAC and Super Pac, it offers an excellent “Bill Watch” section on its website, and it has an active Foundation that has filed a number of important lawsuits on behalf of legal firearm owners.
- National Rifle Association—Founded in 1871, the NRA is America’s oldest organization dedicated to firearm safety and marksmanship training. Over its many decades, it myriad programs have provided education and resources to millions of hunters, shooting sports participants, law enforcement professionals, and private gun owners and collectors, and self-defense and concealed-carry practitioners across the country. Its lobbying arm, the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, works on the local, state, and federal levels to preserve 2nd Amendment rights for American citizens.
- National Shooting Sports Foundation—NSSF is the trade association for the American firearm industry, providing numerous resources and support to the industry’s manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors, retailers, and ranges. It is the owner of the annual SHOT Show—Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade Show—a trade-only show that sees the debut of thousands of new products to the consumer market. Its government affairs team works on the state and national levels to fight legislation that impinges on the industry’s legal ability to conduct business, while also supporting those bills that enhance 2nd Amendment rights. The organization’s consumer websites, LetsGoShooting.org and LetsGoHunting.org offer a plethora of education and event resources, while its flagship Project ChildSafe program is the standard-bearer in educating the public about safe and responsible firearm storage.
- Operation Blazing Swords—With membership open to anyone, Operation Blazing Swords champions firearm safety education and training, discussion about whether firearm ownership is the right decision for an individual, and the resources that provide a comfortable and welcoming environment for the LGBTQ+ community. Founded after the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016, this non-profit boasts a roster of more than 1,500 instructors, all volunteers, that are available at nearly 1,000 locations across the 50 states.
- Pink Pistols—An organization with international standing, the Pink Pistols has 45 chapters in the U.S. that are “dedicated to the legal, safe, and responsible use of firearms for self-defense of the sexual-minority community.” Its website offers a listing of LGBT-friendly instructors, intelligent discourse on the issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community and firearm ownership, and information about its political activism. It works in partnership and is part of Operation Blazing Swords.
- Second Amendment Foundation—SAF is a non-profit, membership-based, and politically active organization that seeks to educate the public and appointed officials about America’s “Constitutional heritage to privately own and possess firearms.”
- Shooting for Women Alliance—This organization has been training women and families on the safe handling of firearms since 2003. Its singular shooting facility, the Family Fun Indoor Range, is in the founder’s home state of Tennessee, and its annual conference draws women from all over the country for its insightful seminars and shooting instruction.
- Socialist Rifle Association—With a “mission to uphold the right of the working class to keep and bear arms and maintain the skills necessary for self and community defense,” the Socialist Rifle Association is a non-profit social-welfare organization incorporated in Wichita, Kansas. Its website states that it works “to create a platform, environment, and community of members and like-minded individuals that are free of reactionary influences and prejudices, such as racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and other discriminatory ideologies.”
- State Associations—Each of this country’s states has its own rifle and pistol association that offer a wide array of safety, training, and range facility resources to its members. These associations are recognized by and affiliated with the NRA but operate independently from that organization; you do not need to be a member of the NRA to join your state’s rifle and pistol association.
- The Hispanic American Rifle Association—Based in Tombstone, Arizona, this organization encourages “those citizens of Hispanic descent to participate in and enjoy benefits from the great heritage recognized by the Bill of Rights to our Constitution, certainly including the Second Amendment and its language ensuring the right of the individual to keep and bear arms.”
- The Liberal Gun Club—This membership-based organization offers training and marksmanship events across the country, while also providing a space for those of moderate and liberal political leanings to express their voices and debate opinions on firearm ownership and legislation.
- The Well Armed Woman—Carrie Lightfoot founded TWAW when, after the difficulties of a violent relationship and years of stalking in its aftermath, she realized she needed to take responsibility for her life and safety. Today, TWAW is one of the country’s most recognized and well-respected organizations when it comes to training women in the safe use and handling of firearms, self-defense, and concealed carry.
- United States Concealed Carry Association—claiming more than 680,000 active members, USCCA offers myriad online training resources on firearm handling, self-defense, and concealed carry, a listing of partner range facilities, self-defense liability insurance, and a host of other benefits, including access to USCCA’s attorney network to aid them in the event of a self-defense shooting.
- Women on Target—A program of the NRA, Women on Target was developed to encourage women interested in exploring firearms and their uses to take the plunge. Clinics are available for first-time shooters across the country in half- or full-day sessions.
Have a club or organization that promotes the safe, responsible, and recreational use of firearms by Americans legally able to own them? Tell us about it and we’ll add to our growing list of shooting and training resources available to Biofire Smart Gun® owners. Doesn’t have to be a national organization. We welcome learning about any club or group that you’ve found welcoming, encouraging, and supportive in your recreational target shooting and self-defense journey, even those local only to you, so that we can help others make the same worthwhile discovery.
Help, I Can’t Find One!—Finding a Shooting Range, Part V
April 25, 2023
By Jennifer L.S. Pearsall
Not everyone lives near or has easy access to a firearm range and shooting instruction. Here’s what to do if you’re looking to learn how to safely handle a firearm but your community lacks these important resources.
In our very first column, I discussed the one step you should take to obtain safety and handling instruction if you’ve never before fired a gun: finding a range. There are many top-notch facilities out there, and more than a few that’ll do for just about anyone without being the “destination” ranges so many modern facilities have become. And yet, not everyone has access to a firearms range.
So, what do you do if you’ve made the decision to learn to be safe with and skillfully shoot a firearm, but a Google search of “shooting ranges near me” turns up squat? That’s a real concern for those who live where there simply isn’t enough of a customer base to keep a range in business, and it can also be a challenge in populated areas of states with strict firearm regulations, such as New York. We have four resources to help solve that problem.
State Rifle and Pistol Clubs
Instead of Googling “shooting ranges near me,” search for the rifle and pistol club in your state. All 50 states have a state rifle and pistol association. They are affiliated with and recognized by the National Rifle Association (NRA) but are independent organizations.
Wait. Stop. Let me finish. That is not an endorsement of the NRA, and we at Biofire fully realize that not everyone looks on the NRA favorably these days. I’m simply giving you an explanation of how the state associations are connected to the national organization. You do not need to join the NRA to contact or join your state association or, for that matter, take advantage of many of the resources NRA provides to firearm owners, NRA members or not.
When you contact your state association, tell them where you live and ask what range or instructors they recommend for first-time safety and firearm handling training that doesn’t require you drive all the way across your state. If you live near a state line, you could also contact the state association for the neighboring state and ask the same questions.
While well-appointed ranges may be harder to find depending on how off the grid or rural your location, it likely won’t be difficult at all to find an NRA-certified instructor. As before, no judgement or endorsement here. I’m simply supplying you with the information about what’s out there and why.
Nearly every certified firearm safety and handling instructor will be NRA certified because the NRA set the standards for teaching and the curriculums going all the way back to its founding in 1871. There are hundreds of other training courses and “certificates of achievement” you can find, but the NRA is almost exclusively responsible for establishing and evolving basic firearm handling and safety training curriculums.
That said, you’ll likely have no trouble finding one or a dozen NRA-certified instructors because people who shoot like to teach others to shoot and take great pride in being certified safety instructors. Another plus to this: If you’re living way out there, one of your neighbors is probably an NRA-certified instructor who has or knows of a place to shoot, even if it’s a homemade range on their own property. They might also utilize public ranges available on many national forests and grasslands or state land ranges open to public use. These are super resources worth checking out if that’s where an instructor takes you, because you’ll be able to use these ranges on your own when you’ve become safe, comfortable, and confident in your firearm skills.
NRA Training Classes
The NRA has dozens of training classes available in all 50 states, and it even offers remote learning. This page details the listings. Simply choose the course you want, plug in your zip code toward the bottom of the page, and select a search of 10 to 500 miles from your location. You can also do an all-inclusive search by state.
For those new to shooting, and particularly if you can’t get to a range or an instructor right away, it’s not at all a bad idea to start with the online NRA Basics of Pistol Shooting Course. It contains a broad overview of firearm safety basics, types of handguns, guidance on how to choose the one right for you, an overview of ammunition basics, fundamental shooting skills, and handgun cleaning and maintenance, among others. There’s a robust eight hours of online learning across 11 classes, and you can take them at your own pace. Simply log off when you’ve had enough and log back in to pick up where you left off.
For getting down to business with live-fire and hands-on teaching, this same NRA Basics course is offered as an in-person, instructor-led class and also as a “blended” format, in which you’ll have access to online courses that you’ll then follow with in-person instruction. Again, simply check the course you desire here, then search via zip-code radius or by state for availability.
NSSF First Shots
NSSF—the National Shooting Sports Foundation—is the trade association for the firearm industry, and this non-profit also offers a number of resources for consumers. Its First Shots program was developed to provide an easy-to-implement, first-time-shooter training program to the organization’s member ranges. NSSF provides the curriculum, classroom supplies, and other supporting materials to the range, so all the range has to do is have an instructor host the class. The program became a hit because, aside from the benefit of getting new customers through the ranges’ doors, First Shots was designed to ensure each participant is successful with their first shots. Nearly everyone who takes a First Shots seminar says they come away feeling like they’ve overcome any apprehension or fear about shooting, with many having had such a great experience that they immediately make an appointment for another course or more range time.
Another valuable resource for first-time gun owners from NSSF is LetsGoShooting.org. Tap the “New Shooters” tab at the top of the page to learn more about First Shots, what you can expect your first time on a shooting range, firearm safety rules, and a comprehensive listing of the various shooting sports you’ll want to explore once you get the basics down. LetsGoShooting.org also has a great “Where to Shoot” section that geo-locates ranges for a given radius (five to 160 miles) from a zip-code search, and you also have the ability to narrow your search to desired range amenities, such as a clubhouse, women and youth programs, sport competition availability, and retail stores.
In our next column, we’ll detail a long list of additional resources that help new shooters get started on the right foot and help you discover just how rewarding learning how to shoot can be.
The Safety Primer—Finding a Shooting Range, Part IV
April 18, 2023
By Jennifer L.S. Pearsall
A little prep before you arrive for your class can make the experience of taking your first shots a smooth and enjoyable process.
In our last several columns, we’ve talked about finding a range that welcomes first-time shooters and interviewing an instructor so that you feel you’ll benefit from your time with them and have a comfortable, enjoyable experience taking your first shots. You know what to expect when you get to the range, you’ve paid for or put a deposit on the class you want to take, the babysitter is lined up for the kiddos, and you’re ready to roll. What’s next?
It wouldn’t at all be out of line to do a little bit of homework before you arrive for your class, and that homework should start with a review of the basic rules of firearm safety. You can find these rules anywhere on the internet with a quick Google search, but details matter, and the rules, in many ways, are tied together. In fact, I have a hard time putting one before the other, that’s how closely related they all are, so they’re best taken collectively. Yes, your instructor is absolutely going to cover these, but knowing a little bit about this subject up front is how you start to understand how critical—no, I take that back, how collectively essential—these rules are when it comes to being a firearm owner and keeping both you and those around you safe.
Safety First, Last, and Always
- Treat every firearm as if it is loaded, every time you touch one.—“I didn’t know it was loaded,” is something you read about and hear far too often in reports of an accidental shooting. For me, this rule, above all else, is the one that should be front and center in your mind every time you touch a firearm. You can put this instantly to use during your very first time taking shooting instruction. Both during the classroom time, when your instructor is letting you handle unloaded demonstration guns so that you can understand how they function, and on the range when the instructor is working with you to get your first shots on target, that instructor will likely verify the gun is unloaded and hand it to you. The minute you put your hands on that firearm, you should do exactly the same thing: verify it’s unloaded. That should earn you a thumbs-up from the instructor, while also beginning to build the one habit that will keep you and those around you safe no matter what firearm is in your hands.
- Always keep your firearm pointed in a safe direction.—This might seem like a “duh” statement. Of course you should keep your gun pointed in a safe direction. But just what is a safe direction? Your instructor will almost certainly have a couple or several firearms in the classroom for demonstration. They will be unloaded, and the instructor should show you they’re unloaded. (They may also use dummy guns, totally inert models that have the look and feel of a firearm but do not fire ammunition.) Now, take a glance at the first rule and the next—treat every firearm as if it were loaded, and never point a gun at anything you don’t intend to destroy—and “safe direction” can be hard to discern. As the instructor lets you handle or examine one of the demonstration guns, where are you pointing it? The floor is usually safe, but one of your classmates says something behind you and, as you naturally turn around to talk to them, that gun in your hand turns right around with you, sweeping the toes, feet, and legs of others in the class. And with that you’ve just broken the first rule. Relax. This happens to lots of first-time shooters, and it’s why classes like this don’t have live ammunition in them off the range or, at the very least, the ammo is completely separated from any of the demonstration guns. But, now that you’ve read this, you have a better chance of not making this mistake.
- Never point a firearm at anything you don’t intend to destroy.—This rule naturally follows the first because any time you pick up a firearm, its muzzle is pointed at something. On the range, the muzzle is always pointed downrange—always. What you’ll need to be conscious of is where downrange it’s pointed as you, say, open up the cylinder of a revolver to empty the empty cases or load new rounds, or pull back the slide of a semi-automatic or remove the magazine. Loading and unloading, clearing a jam or other malfunction, or adjusting sights and optics all require movement with the gun in your hand, so you must always be aware of where that muzzle is pointed as you go about these perfectly normal manipulations.
- Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to fire.—If everyone who ever came across a firearm took this and the first rule to heart, there would never be an accidental shooting. Repeat after me: Guns do not fire by themselves. They require the pull of a trigger to operate. Keeping your finger off the trigger is probably the hardest thing to do when you’re new to handling firearms. Your trigger finger, your index finger, naturally curves around with the others when you go to grip something, and guns are designed so that you can easily and naturally access the trigger. Go find a canister of hairspray or other slim-ish cylinder you can comfortably grip with your entire hand. Now, increase the strength of your grip with just your pinkie, ring finger, and middle fingers. Tough to do without also having your index finger move inward, even just a little, isn’t it? That little bit of movement on a gun’s trigger could be enough to fire the gun. During any shooting class, your trigger finger is to remain off the trigger and outside/alongside the trigger guard until you have both hands gripping the gun as your instructor shows you, your sights are lined up on the target, and you have been given permission to fire. You still have to think about keeping your finger off the trigger when you’re done shooting, and especially during all those same times you’re mindful of where the muzzle is pointed, such as during unloading and unloading, manipulation of the cylinder or slide, and even when putting the gun away for safe storage.
Safety Off the Range
Firearm safety is not relegated to a firearm range under an instructor’s guidance. It’s something that, once you decide to own a firearm and, hopefully, take up one of the many available recreational shooting sports, you will practice and adhere to every time you touch a gun. How you begin to think about this is fodder for the next column.
Prepping for Your First Shooting Class—Finding a Shooting Range, Part III
April 11, 2023
By Jennifer L.S. Pearsall
You wouldn’t go skydiving or zip-lining without asking a bunch of questions about the places and people running such excursions. Your search for a range that offers the experience you’re looking for should take the same approach.
We’ve now talked about how to find a handgun range and encouraged you to have a conversation with your potential instructor before committing. If you’ve done this much homework and everything feels good, you’re off to a great start, but there are still some details you should cover before you hand over your class fee.
You almost surely asked either the staff of the range you’ve chosen or the instructor of the class you want to take what’s included in the fee. The range staff and instructor get that question all the time, and, so, likely have a pretty standard response. However, that doesn’t mean all the bases have been covered. Staff who recite the same information over and over again in almost any industry, from ranges to restaurants to bowling alleys, sometimes forget what it’s like to be a first-time visitor or erroneously assume that some things are common knowledge. Here are five questions to ask that could head off a surprise (or surprise expense) during your first visit.
- Are eye and ear protection included? Any time you’re shooting, indoors or out, you must wear eye and ear protection. For your eyes, glasses that have an ANSI/SEA Z87 high-impact rating are the standard. Ear protection can be as minimal as the cheap, soft-foam insertable ear plugs, but for firing anything larger than a .22-caliber, especially on an indoor range, over-the-ear sound-reducing muffs are a much better choice. If you’re particularly noise-sensitive, pair the foam plugs with the muffs. Top-end ranges may have electronic ear muffs available for class students and range rental and, if so, take advantage of them, as they are best-in-class at safely reducing the decibel level of gunfire while allowing you to clearly hear conversation and range commands. If the range didn’t tell you up front, ask if protective eye- and ear-wear are provided as part of the class you’re taking. The majority of the time they will be, though some ranges have been known to charge a small rental fee (and just as often enough will refund that rental fee if you later buy eye or ear protection).
- Is ammunition provided? This could go either way. Many first-time-shooter group classes utilize .22-caliber rimfire pistols and revolvers, and because you’ll spend half the time in a classroom setting and half the time on the range observing instructors working with your fellow classmates and having your own time on the target, there won’t be a large number of rounds fired. With such curricula, the range often supplies the required and inexpensive .22 LR ammunition. Some, of course, will not, so ask how much you’ll be expected to pay for the standard box of 50 or 100 rounds. If you do not want to take home leftover ammunition, ensure that you’ll be able to fire all the rounds you buy either in the class or after the class with a shooting lane rental. Likewise if you’re shooting any other caliber during your first class (.38 Special revolvers and 9mm semi-automatics are common in first-time shooting-skills classes).
- Do I earn any kind of certificate for completing the class? This isn’t about something to tack to the wall of your home office. Rather, successful completion of basic safety and firearm handling classes can satisfy the education requirements many states have in place for obtaining a concealed carry license. Some states or locales also require such education before you’re allowed to purchase a firearm or ammunition. You may not need or want that permit right away, but having that certificate in your back pocket when you do go to apply for your carry license or satisfy an education requirement for firearm ownership will put you one leg up on the process.
- What ID do I need to take my first firearm safety class? The answer to this depends on where in the U.S. you live. In the least restrictive states, a valid, non-expired driver’s license, passport, or state-issued photo ID that shows you’re at least 21 years of age will be the minimum. On the other end of the spectrum are states like Illinois. Illinois requires its citizens to obtain a Firearm Owners Identification Card (FOID) before they are allowed to purchase ammunition or firearms. We read through the range and class requirements of several ranges in that state, and while it looks like you probably don’t need this permit to take a first-time novice shooter class, every range is different, so ask the question. Too, because the laws change frequently in states like Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, California, and others with stringent requirements regarding firearm and ammunition ownership and possession, a range may require its state’s version of the Illinois FOID in order to protect itself from liability. Ask the staff and/or the instructor of the range you’re interviewing exactly what IDs are required beyond a driver’s license in order to take their courses and, afterward, buy ammunition or rent a gun for time on the range after your class is over.
- Is there a rain check or guarantee policy for my class? First-time shooting instruction classes have been in high demand following record gun sales across the country during the first and second year of the pandemic. Classes can be booked months in advance and frequently have waiting lists in the event of a dropout. What you want to make sure of is that if your kid gets sick or you have a last-minute deadline at work you can’t miss, you can use the deposit or full fee amount you’ve put down to reserve your spot in another class.
As for guarantees, I can’t say I’ve ever seen one, but “Your satisfaction guaranteed or your money back” is common enough in a lot of consumer-facing industries. Doesn’t hurt to ask. Just don’t be a jerk and ask for your class fee back because you didn’t instantly become an expert marksman during your first hour on the range. If, on the other hand, the instructor was rude, unsafe, or otherwise out of line, talk to management and explain, calmly, what you observed. If an instructor is an ongoing problem, rather than a person having the odd bad day, the range probably already knows about it. Your feedback can help the staff make smart choices about working with that instructor to modify their behavior or replacing them with someone better attuned to what customer service means.. Having this kind of conversation can also open the door to retaking the class with another instructor without paying a second fee.
The vast majority of today’s firearm ranges and shooting instructors sincerely want to see you succeed. They know that no one is a natural-born marksman. Handling a firearm safely, accurately, and skillfully takes time and practice, and because every single instructor out there had someone, probably even several someones, teach them everything they know, most genuinely believe it’s their obligation and deeply felt responsibility to pass on what they know to anyone who’s interested.
If you’re reading this, you’re interested. Find the range and instructor that feels right to you, and the rest will fall into place.
In our next column, we’ll talk about what you can expect during your first safety and firearm handling class or lesson.
Instructor Interviews—Finding a Shooting Range, Part II
April 4, 2023
By Jennifer L.S. Pearsall
Firearm instructors, as you might expect, come with all sorts of personalities, talents, opinions, and attitudes. Finding one that jives with your personality, talents, opinions, and attitudes makes all the difference when it comes to ensuring your first shots aren’t your last shots.
We last talked about why finding a handgun range is a critical first step in deciding to own a firearm for the first time. You wouldn’t buy a car without having learned how to drive beforehand, would you? Same logic applies here.
I’m going to cut to the chase and say it out loud: No one is born knowing how to handle and shoot a gun safely. Some may take to the necessary skill sets to be an accurate shooter better than others, but before you can even get there, you need someone to show you the ropes and keep you from injuring yourself or someone else. Those someones are certified shooting instructors, so let’s talk about how to find the one that’s right for you and what you want to accomplish.
Can I Speak with the Instructor?
In our first column about finding a range for your first-time instruction, I gave an example of what the ideal conversation with range staff might look like, one that included the employee on the phone saying they had an instructor they thought would be a great fit for you. Super—that means you’ve told the range enough about yourself and why you want to learn to shoot that the range feels confident making a recommendation. You could stop there, but why not take it one step further and talk to the instructor directly? Any range worth its salt should be more than willing to make that conversation happen.
So, what should that conversation look like? If the range has provided you with the list of topics that’ll be covered in your introductory class, then any number of questions can be on your ask-the-instructor list:
- What kinds of firearms and calibers do you use for the first shots and why?
- Do you cover both revolvers and semi-automatics in the class?
- The range recommended a small group class, but I think I might be more comfortable with one-on-one instruction. Would you tell me the pros and cons of each?
- Can I bring my own firearm to the class?
- Do I need to have a holster?
- I’m taking this class because I’m considering buying a handgun for home defense. Do you provide guidance on the types of guns I should be considering and recommend other classes I should take?
- How much shooting will I do in the class?
- Is ammunition included with the class or will I need to buy that when I get there?
Really, you can ask anything that comes to mind, and, at this point, there are no stupid questions. But the one thing few people think to ask about is the instructor’s background. You can tell a lot about a person by the conversation on the phone. Are they enthusiastic about teaching you and teaching beginners in general? What got them interested in shooting and teaching? What certifications do they hold? You might also ask if they have a military or law enforcement background. Not everyone’s comfortable with that these days, and that’s fine, but remember that most people with those career backgrounds have a wealth of experience with firearms and, if they’re teaching at a public or private range, they’re able and to pass that knowledge on to you.
Overall, pay attention not just to the answers but also to the tone of the conversation. An instructor providing rote, by-the-book answers, who sounds bored, who doesn’t engage with you and ask why you want to learn to shoot, and especially one who conveys the attitude that this is all serious business might get the job done, but is that all you want? No! Whether you’re coming to this first lesson with enthusiasm or apprehension, you want a great experience. Not just okay, not just good, but a great class that leaves you wanting more, more, more. Why? Because this is not a one and done deal.
Learning to safely handle and accurately shoot any firearm takes time, instruction, and practice, but the first steps to get there can go two ways. A thoughtful, skilled instructor who “gets” you can help set you on a path to be successful no matter what your end-goal of owning a firearm is. If you have the bad and truly unusual fortune to run into the odd duck who leaves you disappointed, unsure of what to do next, or more apprehensive than you were when you first arrived at the range, that instructor hasn’t done their job—and it’s almost a guarantee you will cross “learn to shoot” off your bucket list of life accomplishments.
To put a finer point on this, while learning to shoot is indeed serious business, it should also be enjoyable. You do not need an instructor whose methods are a direct reflection of their days as a Marine Corps drill sergeant (well, unless that’s something you respond to). You do not need someone who berates you or someone else for making a mistake. And you definitely don’t want one you overhear talking to other range staff about “what a pain the newbie classes are.” What you want, what you really, really want (earworm the Spice Girls!), is someone who still remembers how tickled they were the first time they hit a target—and can’t wait to see your grin when you do it too.
A New Gun Owner’s First Stop—Finding a Shooting Range, Part I
March 28, 2023
By Jennifer L.S. Pearsall
Firearm ranges, both inside and outside, are gathering places for sport, competition, everyday practice, and, above all else, friends who encourage each other to succeed. But if you’ve never held or fired a gun, how do you find your home, home on the range?
So, you’ve arrived at the decision that you’d like to learn how to handle a firearm (and for the sake of this discussion, we’re going to focus on handguns). Doesn’t matter why, not at this early stage. What’s important is that, as with anything new, there’s a learning curve, and that means you’ll need to find someone who can teach you the ropes.
Google, without a doubt, is the best place to start. Type “shooting ranges near me” or “firearm shooting instruction” in the search bar. Go ahead, I’ll wait … .
Choices, Choices, Choices
For those who live in fairly suburban and larger metropolitan areas, there’s a good chance you’ll have number of firearm dealers and shooting facilities to choose from. This really is a case of more is better, because shooting ranges and the instructors they employ come in all shapes, sizes, and attitudes. Let’s, then, talk about how to narrow down those choices and find the range that’s right for you.
If it were me, I’d first look at indoor shooting facilities. They are climate-controlled (which means you can comfortably use them year-round) and insect-free, and the vast majority of today’s indoor ranges have great staff members and instructors who are passionate about making sure you are safe, that you learn how to be safe, and that you have a first-time experience that makes you want to come back for more.
That may sound like a lot of rah-rah fluff, but I’ve been in the firearm industry for more than 30 years and speak from experience. Back in the 1990s, my first job in the industry was as a sales associate for a firearm dealer in Northern Virginia that had two, 10-lane indoor ranges behind the retail sales floor. It was pretty advanced for its day and a welcome change for many people whose primary experience with indoor ranges had been the dark, dingy, and dirty facilities for which range operators had earned a poor reputation over the years.
That first job was a long time ago, and I can tell you that today’s ranges make the one I worked for look like dried gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe. Can you still find those dark and dingy dealers and ranges where cigarette smoke hangs in the air like fog over San Francisco Bay? Sure you can. But it’s fair to say they’re a dying breed. Now, almost no matter where you live, you can find any number of ranges that go out of their way to make sure you’re having the time of your life and doing so in a bright, clean, modern facility with automated target systems, integrated games, state-of-the-art ventilation systems, and knowledgeable, accommodating staff members.
An Actual Phone Call
With that said, let’s get back to the assumption that you have at least a few ranges nearby you. Start with the one closest to your work or home, the one you’d be likely to visit the most out of convenience once you get this ball rolling, and pick up the phone. That’s right, you need to make an actual phone call. Don’t text the range, don’t fill out their online form for more information, call. This is how the conversation should go:
“Thank you for calling Shooter’s Paradise, how can I help you?”
“Hi, I’m Katherine/Bob/Leticia/Hakeem/Mei/Joon. I’ve never shot or handled a firearm before, and I’d like to speak with someone about learning how to shoot a handgun.”
This simple statement conveys a lot to the person on the other end of the phone, namely that you have no experience with firearms but have a desire to learn, but also that you have been completely up front about that. Yes, there are folks out there who think they should “instinctively” know how to shoot and safely handle a firearm and, yes, they’ll lie to range operators about their experience to save face. You know what? They’re also the ones that’ll inadvertently shoot the ceiling or the range bench or the floor in front of them—or hurt someone or themselves. Don’t be that person. Be honest about what you don’t know and even what you think you do.
Ideally, the staff member on the phone will first ask why you want to learn to shoot. Tell them! You thought it might be a valuable life skill to acquire. You are exploring owning a handgun for everyday concealed carry or home defense. You went camping with friends and watched them and their kids have a blast shooting tin cans off a fence post. A co-worker shoots competitively and, after seeing some of her videos, you think it might be a great new sport to try. Also, tell them how you’re feeling about your decision to learn to shoot—whether you’re excited about it, anxious, or even terrified—whether you’d be more comfortable with a male or female instructor, and whether you’d prefer a group class or one-on-one instruction.
Why give them this kind of information? Especially for ranges that offer a wide variety of training and a roster of instructors, they want to make sure they match you with the introductory class and instructor from which you’ll benefit and enjoy the most. Even for ranges that offer just a few classes and one or two instructors, how they approach and teach someone who’s looking forward to the experience should be different from teaching someone who’s petrified of it all.
The answers you get from this initial conversation dictate whether you ask for more information or move on to the next range in your Google search. The ideal response: “We hold a first-time gun-handling safety class every other week that would be a great way to get you started, and we’d like to pair you with Roberta who, like you, was really apprehensive about learning to shoot when she first started. She’s been with us for several years now, and her students just love her.” If you get something along the lines of “We don’t offer one-on-one instruction and we’re really booked up for this month’s beginners’ class, so if you want a slot for next month’s class, you better book now,” move on to the next range. You don’t need that kind of pressure, and though you may have to drive a little further, there’s a better fit out there.