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How to Build a Firearms Range

Planning to use the right configuration for your agency’s needs and your zoning laws will ensure your range will be used by generations of cops to come.

February 01, 2005  |  by Dave Douglas

Some of us still remember back when Disneyland used to issue coupons for its rides. The coupons started with “A” tickets for the tame kiddie-type rides and graduated all the way up to the “E” coupon for the especially wild rides. Hence the phrase, “you’re in for a real E-Ticket ride.”

Well, if you’ve been tasked by your agency, or you were crazy enough to volunteer to build a firearms range, man, are you in for an E-ticket ride. This has to be perhaps the most challenging administrative undertaking in law enforcement. But the satisfaction of doing it right makes the success of building a new range facility one of the most rewarding.

Just think, by building a new range or even making major upgrades to an existing facility, you have impacted an officer’s ability to perhaps save his or her life or the life of a citizen. On top of that, you are also impacting the training of generations of officers to come.

Once you have built the range, it should last for 20 some odd years or more. I work at a range that was built in 1937 by convict labor. It has had some modifications and upgrades here and there, but it’s served my department for almost 70 years. Imagine how many officers in the academy were trained at the facility or how many have gone through annual qualifications and quarterly training.

The builders of this range have touched the lives of tens of thousands of officers. Now that’s a pretty wonderful legacy if you ask me.

Purpose Built

The first part of building a range facility is figuring out just what you need. What is the range going to be used for? Will your agency be using only handguns on the range? Do you need a place for a rifle-caliber patrol carbine? What about precision rifle training for the SWAT team? Do you police a rural area or an urban area? What about shotguns and less-lethal equipment? What will your hours of operation be? All these and many more questions need to be answered before you start planning your design.

One of the really big questions you need an answer for is, will you be doing only qualification or will your range be used for training as well? That sounds a little silly to a lot of us, but it makes a difference in what you need for the range.

Some administrators tend to lump qualification and training together. While there is some crossover between the two, they demand different range design. Qualification with firearms is primarily a measure of marksmanship and the physical ability to manipulate the gun. Training should be scenario based and not only challenge the officers with some degree of marksmanship, but make them think, solve problems, and implement a plan. You will have a tough time doing that on a static line range.

If you are just teaching basic recruits, you probably only need a qualification type of range. That means you should set your sights on a plan that includes a classroom facility, some turning targets, and shooting distances of 25 to 50 yards, depending on your departmental or state requirements. If all you’re going to do is qualify cops and instruct trainees, then your range should be designed to facilitate instruction in gun-handling fundamentals such as stance, grip, sight alignment, trigger pull, and target identification.

If you are going to add the dimension of training to the needs assessment for your range, it increases the size and equipment requirements significantly. Flexibility would be the catch phrase here. Some of the elements that you must consider for training scenarios are lighting, visual exclusion barriers, and the ability to offer targets at varied distances and positions.

Environmental Impact

OK, that’s the easy stuff. Just about any of us with some training background, firearms training, and common sense can solve the problems associated with designing a great police range. But the areas we don’t have much experience with can make or break the project.

This is not 1930. If you want to build a shooting range in contemporary America, you’re going to need more than some workers and a bulldozer. You’ll need a consultant or a couple of consultants. Oh, yes, and you’ll need an attorney.
Geography is an issue. What type of soils are you dealing with? What is the drainage?

And environmental concerns have killed many a range, including ranges that have been in operation for decades. So environmental planning is a must. Are you building in wetlands? Are there any environmentally protected species habitats in your area? Will your project negatively impact the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Clean Water Act, or the Safe Drinking Water Act?

Here’s an issue that most people don’t think about when designing a range, light pollution. There are such things as “Dark Skies” ordnances. And believe me, they can put a crimp in your plans if you are hoping to light up your range for night training.

OK. You know about environmental impact studies, and you’ve got that knocked. Great. What about historic preservation? Here in coastal California, I’ve seen projects canceled and delayed when pottery from Native American cultures was discovered on the land.

Creature Comforts

Most range designers are very good at creating a facility that’s ideal for shooting. The problem is they don’t think about the people who will be doing the shooting.

When you’ve got a bunch of students out on a range for hours at a time, you have to provide them with some basic creature comforts. And because of the remote locations of many police ranges, providing the basics for the people who train and work at the range can be a major challenge.

Let me come out and be quite blunt. You need toilets. Oh, and you also need a source of potable water. And at a bare minimum you’re going to have to find a way to supply your range with electricity.

Specialty Ranges

All right. Now that we’ve talked about the tough stuff and the basic stuff, let’s talk about the fun stuff. When you’re building a range from scratch, you can make it state of the art. And if you have the resources, you can make it a real training asset.

For example, you may choose to create a custom range that permits 360-degree training. After all, on the streets, threats come at you from all directions, not just from the front.

Be aware, however, that even though circular and horseshoe-shaped ranges are excellent they are resource intensive. In other words, they’re expensive. A multidirectional range requires a lot of space and very vigilant trained instructors. Maintaining safety on such a range is a big job, and it generally involves a one-to-one student-instructor ratio.

Shoot Houses and Other Assets

Of course, if you really want to go first class, include a shoot house in your range plan. A live-fire shoot house is one of the most beneficial range training environments a department can establish. But it’s a Cadillac option that’s expensive to build and maintain.

A much less expensive alternative to a live-fire shoot house is a simulation-fire shoot house designed for use with Simunitions or CQT cartridges.

The benefit of marking cartridges, like Simunitions, is that they can be used in force-on-force training when the proper safety precautions are observed. In contrast, the new CQT product from Simunitions is a potentially lethal round that’s engineered to require a much reduced ballistic backstop area. They are not made for force-on-force training, but they are ideal for agencies that want to build a shoot house and don’t want to or can’t buy all the expensive steel needed to stop conventional bullets.

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