The Chinese philosopher Laozi said, “The journey of a thousand miles, begins with one step.” Every shooter no matter how long they have been shooting has been to the range for the first time. It can be an anxiety producing event especially if you are going by yourself. As a trainer, I have had many, many people come through classes who have never ever held a gun or been on a range before. There are definitely some things you can do to lessen the anxiety and make that first trip to the range a little less scary and a lot more fun. After all, if that first trip to the range is unenjoyable, the likelihood of you returning is much less. Here are some things to consider prior to your first range visit:
Having your own gear is always going to help you feel more comfortable. If you are going to rent a gun from the range, you may not know how that gun operates, or what I call the firearm's ‘manual of arms'. If you are unfamiliar with the safety switch, slide stop, magazine release etc. this will definitely have you focusing on other things rather than your firearm fundamentals. I suggest, familiarizing yourself with the firearm you intend to use prior to getting to the range. Practice dry firing at home, and understand exactly how to manipulate that firearm so the act of simply operating the gun isn't a scary proposition. Use your own eye and ear protection. Yes, most ranges will rent you these items. I recommend purchasing your own so you can ensure you have stuff that not only fits but feels comfortable. If you get some rental safety glasses that are uncomfortable or so scratched up it is hard to see, it isn't very ideal. Also, if you plan on shooting more than once in your life (which you probably should, especially if you plan on carrying for self-defense) eye and ear protection are a necessary investment.
It goes without saying that using a firearm is an inherently dangerous act. Following simple safety rules will ensure you, or anyone else is NEVER injured. Here are the safety rules you should always follow, anytime you are around firearms:
- Treat every firearm as if it were loaded. (Perform a visual and physical inspection of every firearm you intend on handling. Even if someone hands you a firearm and says it is clear.)
- Never point a firearm at anything you do not intend to shoot. (No matter what the condition of the firearm, loaded/unloaded, never point it at anything you would not want to put a hole through.)
- Keep the firearm unloaded, until ready for use. (A firearm on your body that is designated for self-defense is ready for use when that incident arises and should be loaded. That same firearm left on a table waiting to be cleaned or on the bench in between strings of fire is NOT ready to be used. In these situations, it should be unloaded.)
- Keep your finger off the trigger until ready to fire. (Firearms do not shoot bullets by themselves. They require physical manipulation of the trigger in order to work. As long as your finger or another object does not pull the trigger, the firearm will not fire. Your trigger finger should be off the trigger and along the frame of the firearm until you are aimed in on your target. When you decide you want to take the shot your finger should move to the trigger and begin the trigger squeeze. After completing your shooting, your finger should go back to the frame and off the trigger. I see this as a problem especially for shooters who are receiving instruction. They leave their finger on the trigger as the instructor is giving them pointers etc. and the gun is aimed at the ground by their side. A potentially dangerous situation.)
- Keep the firearm pointed in a safe direction. (Similar to not pointing the firearm at anything you do not intend to shoot. A safe direction is downrange, toward your target, 45 degrees at the ground etc.)
- Identify your target and what is beyond. (Most static ranges, especially indoor ranges are designed with extremely large backstops. Occasionally you may be at a range or shooting on property that requires you to ensure the backdrop behind the backstop is clear of any potential hazard, i.e. animals, people etc. Always ensure you are shooting at the correct target and the area behind your target is clear.)
Where you choose to shoot can make a huge difference, especially for the first time shooter. I prefer shooting outdoors if at all possible for several reasons. First, the sound and concussion of the gunshot are much greater indoors. This is the worst thing for a new shooter that is anxious about the loud noises and the shockwaves coming from shooting. Additionally, if the indoor range is crowded, the gunshots from other shooters will be a huge distraction and source of anxiety. Secondly, indoor ranges can feel claustrophobic and that can make some feel uneasy. Being outdoors in the sun and fresh air feels more natural and can be a big psychological help for the shooter. Thirdly, indoor ranges are often times broken into lanes or bays separated by little walls between the shooters. Having an unknown person shooting a firearm, standing a few feet away from you, separated by a plastic wall makes me uneasy. I have seen some very poor gun safety in my life and I can't feel comfortable to focus on my drills if I am scared there is a reckless gun handler standing 3 feet away; so I can imagine how a brand new shooter feels.
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I would recommend your first trip to the range be with someone rather than all alone. This could be a trusted friend or relative with prior knowledge of firearms, or better yet a certified instructor. Taking an introductory, one on one handgun class as your first trip to the range is the best idea. I don't recommend going with your best friend, who may also be going to the range for their first time ever. This is not a good combination for obvious reasons. Having someone who can catch potential safety concerns and shooting fundamental issues is preferable to someone who has never been shooting before. I would also refrain from going to the range for the first time as a group. Group dynamics sometimes encourage carelessness and the assumption that someone else is in charge of safety concerns. In a group, if one person sees something potentially unsafe, but no one else says anything, they may not speak up.
For your first time at the range, you have enough to worry about. Trying to see how fast you can shoot or running difficult drills is absolutely unnecessary, counter-productive and potentially unsafe. Work on the fundamentals of shooting and get over the shock of shooting a firearm. Experience all that goes into shooting before trying to test your skills. It takes time to become proficient, quick and comfortable with a firearm. Don't rush the process and try to cram 1o years of firearm experience into 1 hour. That is a recipe for bad habits and unsafe conditions.
Once you are ready to wrap it up at the range, you should do a few things. Double or triple check your firearm is unloaded. The biggest oversight for new shooters is the round in the chamber. You can't ever check this too many times. Clean up all your trash and if necessary spent casings. This is just something ingrained in me, and I feel practicing good shooting etiquette includes cleaning up after yourself. Clean and maintain your firearm per your owners manual. Ensure you wash your hands and change your clothes before playing with young children or especially if you are pregnant. This is very important if you have been shooting at an indoor range. Many of the components of the powder charge are potentially unsafe in large dosages. Try to minimize your exposure to these components by washing your hands after shooting and cleaning firearms.
Now you are ready to go ENJOY your first of many trips to the range! Be safe and have fun!