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Range Designers Step Up To Today’s Challenges

‘Give me land, lots of land.’

December 01, 2000  |  by Mark Watford, AIA

An aerial shot of the LeMoore Naval Air Station shooting range in California, which covers 420 acres, gives some idea of the amount of land needed to ensure safety.

Increased urbanization has created new conflicts with shooting ranges used by law enforcement agencies, defense installations, as well as civilian gun clubs across the United States and Canada. Ranges have been closed, relocated or reconstructed because of increasing concerns and incidents related to safety, noise and lead pollution.  News about problems at shooting ranges is abundant.

Many organizations using shooting ranges, especially police departments, wrestle with finding enough land to maintain surface danger zones - the area of land in which a bullet may land - as well as protecting people inside and outside the facility from misguided rounds and excessive noise. There is a point at which the cost of additional property and resources necessary to build a new range must be weighed against the likelihood of an accident or noise intrusion.

Shooting ranges, as we all are aware, imply risk by their very nature. Ricocheting bullets, misfires and missed targets can all lead to injury, death and property damage. But in the case of outdoor ranges, with adequate property and proper design, these risks can be nearly eliminated. Ensuring the safety of the shooters - as well as those who live, work and play nearby - should be the number-one concern of range operators.

The Design

Most organizations building new shooting ranges prefer they be built outdoors because an open-air facility can be healthier for range users, more conducive to practical, real-world training, and is usually less expensive to build and maintain.

However, property can be costly and not having enough land can lead to fatal mishaps or injuries. According to a Seattle Times story in 1997, a stray bullet from a shooting range in Everett, Wash., struck a teacher a mile away.  Two years later, a newly constructed police training range in King County, Wash., was closed down for the first of several times because of numerous ricocheting bullets leaving the protection of earthen berms.  And as recently as two months ago, the Times reported that a 50-year-old range in Seattle was closed after numerous instances of stray bullets knocking out windows in cars and businesses.

This range is a prime example of growing urban areas encroaching on pre-existing outdoor shooting ranges.

King County Sheriff's Department spokesman John Urquhart told the Seattle Times, "The basic, inherent danger of an urban, outdoor gun range is that you run the risk of losing rounds and injuring someone. It's like a pig farmer who one day finds himself right in the middle of an urban area. It is only a matter of time, probably, before they're going to have to move."

Many instances similar to these occur around the country because of improper range design, property planning and municipal land zoning. To ensure safety, outdoor ranges must have access to a large expanse of property, and range design specialists should be consulted on the project as soon as possible to develop a safe design.

The architectural firm of Brown Reynolds Watford follows recommendations published by the military that include guidelines for various types of ranges. Depending on the caliber of small-arms ammunition intended for use on the range and the number of stations, different range distances are recommended.

With more than 18,000 active military small-arms ranges and decades of experience, the military concludes that safety is the primary issue and should not be sacrificed for land usage.  According to Military Handbook 1027/3b, "The range design must promote safe, efficient operation and yet be affordable to construct and maintain."  This Department of Defense manual includes various charts, graphs and illustrations that emphasize the desire for safety and adequate land usage.

For example, a range allowing a .45-caliber pistol as the highest caliber weapon would be required to have a surface danger zone (SDZ) of 1,500 meters or 1,650 yards, the equivalent of 161/2 football fields. A 9 mm pistol range requires an SDZ of 1,740 meters (1,914 yards), and a .38-caliber revolver needs a SDZ of between 1,600 and 1,900 meters (1,760 and 2,090 yards), depending on the type of cartridge.

While certain safety precautions - such as the use of berms, baffling and concrete barriers - can be taken in design and construction, nothing can take the place of sufficient land.

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