How to Build a Firearms Range

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.”

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.[PAGEBREAK]

Immediate Feedback

Whether in a shoot house or on a range, steel targets are a must for every well-designed firearms training facility (See “Target Acquisition” on page 22). The immediate feedback of the ringing steel is a favorite of most shooters.

That’s great for the shooters and the instructors, but it can be tough on the range designer. Ranges employing steel targets require a lot of land. And you need to be especially careful of splatter and ricochets.

Also, instructors have to be on their toes to make sure the students are set up at a safe distance from the steel before engaging the targets. You want to avoid fragments of the bullets or the targets from flying back to the firing line.

And make sure that your steel targets are made of high-quality steel. AR 500 steel, with its high carbon content, is probably the best choice. Softer steel will pock mark and not produce reliable results for bullet destruction and splatter angles.

Gun Requirements

You know this, but it bears mentioning. Every gun type requires a different type of range setup. We’ve touched on this a little bit, but let’s look at how rifle rounds require serious shoot house and range precautions.

Rifle-caliber patrol carbines are primarily a stand-off or perimeter weapons system. They can be used as entry guns, but that depends on your department’s philosophy. Many departments use a pistol-caliber carbine like the HK MP-5 as an entry gun.

For range designers, MP-5s are easy. A shoot house set up for pistols will do quite well for shoulder-fired, pistol caliber guns, even on full auto. But if your department uses rifle calibers as its primary shoulder-fired entry gun, the steel and target systems in your shoot house need to be more robust, and that translates into more expense.

As a stand-off or perimeter gun, the rifle caliber carbine needs a range facility of at least 50 yards or more ideally, 100 yards. That’s a lot of dirt and it requires a lot of land. Some agencies use smaller targets to simulate the greater distances.

This actually works pretty well. The .223 Remington primarily used in AR-15 and Mini-14 platforms has a very flat trajectory, so the simulated distance targets can provide a realistic shooting experience. However, if you are building a range to accommodate precision rifles for your department’s tactical team, you need at least 300 yards.

Stopping Bullets

Unless your new range is out in the middle of East Nowhere, rifle activity will require significant back stops and overhead baffling, especially if you plan to shoot .308 Winchester cartridges or something more powerful.

Safety is the first concern for any firearms training facility. It’s critical that your range planning incorporate safety features both for the officers who use it and for anyone who might be downrange.

If you don’t go with overhead baffling and a highly efficient bullet trap system or other projectile containment systems, you need to consider safe downrange areas well past your target area and berms.

Remember, 9mm, .40 S&W, and .45 ACP rounds fired from pistols can carry well past one mile. Higher-velocity rounds like the .223 Remington from your agency’s AR-15 can carry more than a mile and a half. And .308 Winchester rounds from precision rifles can land with lethal force more than two-and-a-half miles from where they were fired.

It’s Worth It

After reading this, you may now be scratching your head and throwing up your arms and saying, “I quit.”

But if you really want to build a range for your agency, don’t give up. The rewards from completing a range project actually do outweigh the challenges.

At the risk of sounding maudlin, I ask you to remember that your work will help cops train for many, many years and that will save someone’s life.

Sgt. Dave Douglas is the rangemaster of the San Diego Police Department, a veteran law enforcement officer, and a Police contributing editor.

Target Acquisition

It used to be that all you needed for targets on a range was a bunch of paper silhouettes or standard bulls-eye targets. No more. Like everything else today, targets are available in so many varieties that they’ll make your head spin.

The following is a quick look at some of the target systems available for law enforcement ranges.

Independently turning or computer-controlled targets are a must for scenario-based training. These target systems vary from really expensive independently computer-controlled targets to moderately priced easy-to-use systems.

Provo, Utah-based Action Target produces some very versatile systems. Action Target’s computer-controlled target systems can be easily programmed to react to a push of a button. And the company’s Smart Range 2000 software can control hundreds of turning, moving, and pop-up targets from one small notebook computer. It can also count the number of hits on a target, control lighting, and even generate sound effects like return fire sounds, sirens, verbal challenges from the suspect, or submission in a “don’t shoot” scenario. The computer system can even keep track of an individual shooter’s records and act as a range management program.

Blackwater Target Systems, a division of the same company that runs the Blackwater Training Center in North Carolina, is proud of its patent-pending “BEAR” system. The “BEAR” is a versatile target system that uses AR-500 steel and proprietary software, “Blackwater BART,” which lets you design scenarios and use the system remotely. The “BEAR” can be customized to meet your training needs and budget. The training system includes six paper turners per section that can easily be configured as pop-ups or swingers, two pneumatic six-plate steel racks, one steel or paper mover, and five or 10 static-steel positions for static plates. Once you have completed your site preparation, the “BEAR” can be installed and ready to use in 90 minutes. The “Rolling BEAR” offers the same features in a self-contained, highway-capable trailer.

Duelatron Target Systems from Advanced Training Systems of Saint Paul, Minn., is another great source for high-tech target systems. The company has been producing excellent turning systems for the military and law enforcement for more than 30 years. Duelatron offers a unique blend of turning systems for qualifications and a combination of pop-up plus turning targets that can reveal both good guy and bad guy targets on the same backing. Duelatron systems are also computer controlled and user programmable.

On the less expensive side of the turning target equation is Elite Target Systems’ TAC II Target system. Elite Target Systems is based in the beautiful Colorado Rockies town of Pagosa Springs. Its system offers two linked turning targets in an easily portable configuration that weighs 26 pounds, including the battery. The TAC II is controlled with a credit card-sized remote the range officer can carry in his or her pocket. It, too, is programmable for a number of different presentation times and intervals. This system is especially suited for setting multiple targets at varying ranges from the shooter. It is also well suited for precision rifle training because it can be activated by remote control at distances out to 300-plus yards.

Founded on the principle that range equipment should be durable and long lasting, PortaTarget is proud of the fact that some of the portable targets the company built in the early 1980s are still functional. Located in Grant, Fla., PortaTarget manufactures a variety of sturdy, heavy-duty utilitarian steel targets. Although the company gets its name from its portable targets, a permanent pneumatic unit is now available, as well. One of the company’s most versatile offerings is its pneumatic multi-function target. It reconfigures from one function to three others in less than a minute, for four completely different target practice opportunities: 90-degree turner, swing out, pop up, and sideways pop up functions. The system can be used with paper targets and wooden firing strips, not included. A group of several multi-function targets operating at different settings can be highly effective in training. Each operates with its own air cylinder.

More Target Resources

Beacon Target Turner

LaRue Tactical

Metalmasters Target Systems

Qualification Targets

Range Systems

Realistic Target Company

Specialty Targets

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