Complete Article: Bringing New Shooters to the Range

1 Important points at the beginning

I am a range safety officer (RSO) for a private gun club which allows members to bring guests. Many people have their first experience with firearms when a member brings them to our range as a guest. I am writing this article to help any experienced shooter who plans to bring new shooters to the range. I have a fair bit to say about this subject, but I want to put some key points at the beginning. If you only have time for three points, here they are, in order of importance.

  • First, emphasize "ALWAYS keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot." This is the second safety rule in the NRA gun safety rules. It is also the most neglected. New shooters need to learn correct hand and finger position at the beginning. When holding a firearm, the trigger finger should be straight and resting on the side of the frame. The finger should not touch the trigger until the sights are on target.
  • Second, when firing, give people only one cartridge at a time until you know how they will react. This is especially important for semi-autos. Do not have more than one round in the magazine until you know the person can maintain control of the firearm after the shot. Basically, single shot firearms are best for beginners. With a new shooter, make your repeater into a single shot for the first few shots.
  • Third, teach beginners about firearms at home before you come to the range. Teach a lesson in your living room with no live ammunition present. You need to do quite a bit of talking before beginners can shoot, and a live range is a hard place for them to learn. I want to emphasize again, have no live ammunition in the area during this lesson.

These points are not the most critical safety issues, but they are important points that are frequently overlooked.

Hopefully, you will have time and interest to read the rest of this article, but if not, these points will help avoid some common problems. You will have to forgive me if I mention the same points again below. They are worthy of extra mention.

2 Intro

As I mentioned above, I am a range safety officer (RSO) for a private gun club which allows members to bring guests. Bringing new people to the range is an American tradition and helps insure the future of shooting sports. But introducing people to firearms also includes significant responsibilities. When I see a club member bringing inexperienced guests, I always hope that the member has a plan. Otherwise, people's first experience at the range can include watching someone get corrected by the RSO. That is no fun for anyone, including me.

Many parts of this article apply both to inexperienced adults and to children, but having children at the range can involve additional concerns which will be discussed where necessary. Some parts of this article specifically mention pistols, but many points apply to any firearm.

3 You are a mentor

If you are bringing inexperienced shooters to the range, you are a mentor. In addition to teaching a physical skill, you will provide guidance on the attitude and responsibility required to safely handle firearms.

Since, the term "firearm instructor" implies a formal certification, I will use the term "mentor" in this article to describe anyone in the teaching role.

4 Gut check, are you the right mentor?

Before teaching beginners, do a quick gut check and think for a moment: "Am I the right mentor for these students?" Teaching can be emotionally charged, especially when firearms are involved. If you say "stop", the person must stop immediately, without thinking about it first. With spouses, significant others and children, these interactions can be uncomfortable. Remember that if there are problems at the range, the RSO may need to get involved, and that may be even more uncomfortable.

Also, are you comfortable reviewing firearms safety and demonstrating the mechanics of using firearms? If your gun handling is a little rusty, you might want to brush up before you have an audience.

At this point, many of you will feel definitely ready to bring new shooters to the range. That is a good thing. Teaching new shooters is a great American tradition, and it can create lasting memories. I myself have some of these memories from nearly forty years ago. My family did not own guns. Some of my first shooting experiences were with an old family friend who was a sort of extra grandfather to me. He preferred lever action rifles with a peep sight. It is no coincidence that I own such a rifle, and I think of him when I shoot it.

5 Other education opportunities

If your gut check suggests that you or your students would benefit from outside training, there are many choices available. The NRA offers many courses for beginners, and the NRA training programs are well planned and executed. You can also search online for firearms training in your state and find lots of resources.

I also want to make a special mention of junior rifle programs. As an RSO, when children come to the range, I usually say hello to their parents. When the parent tells me their child has been in our club's junior rifle program, I know what I am going to see next. These kids can shoot. Their safety and gun handling is excellent, right on par with trained adults. It is a great thing to see. This junior rifle program meets one evening a week for nineteen weeks a year. Lots of kids love it and do it for a number of years. That amount of training, combined with good coaching and kids sharp eyesight, produces phenomenal results.

6 Goals for beginners

When bringing beginners to the range, think about the goals that will be achieved during their first few range days. Many people want to get to the range and fire off a bunch of rounds. You may have guessed that I am not a believer in that goal. Here are my goals for a new shooter's first first few visits to the range.

  • They should know how to unload a gun and make it safe.
  • While unloading, they should keep the muzzle in a safe direction and keep their finger off the trigger.
  • They should get familiar with firing a gun.
  • They should have a good time.
  • I hope they also learn to hit a target, but that's gravy.

These goals tie directly to my earlier point about starting with only one round per magazine. Beginners should get comfortable with loading and unloading procedures. By starting with just one round in the magazine, they will get a lot of practice handling the firearm and changing magazines. After they are comfortable with one round, have them load two or three. By the time they have shot 30 rounds, they will have switched magazines more than ten times and they will start to know how the gun works.

Often, new shooters only have good focus for 30 or 40 rounds. I have seen people start a new shooter by loading a full magazine into the gun for them. These new shooters may shoot 40 rounds on their first day without ever loading the gun themselves. I don't think that makes their day easier; really it kind of cheats them. At the end of the day, that person has shot a gun, but they still can't use one.

7 Equipment for training beginners

To create a positive experience for new shooters, you need the right equipment. For both rifle and pistol, people should start with a .22 if possible. The low noise and minimal recoil of a .22 allows beginners to stay focused on fundamentals. If you don't have a .22, you should think about getting one. You'll enjoy shooting it too.

Semi-autos are not ideal for beginners, but they are fine if you handle them properly. As mentioned above, load only one round at a time until you know the person can maintain control of the firearm. Loading one round is easiest if you have several magazines and can load one round in each one. If you don't have many magazines, this may be the excuse to buy more.

You need dummy rounds or snap caps for training. People should learn basic firearm handling in a safe quiet area. The basic handling drills should include load, unload, make safe, and dry fire. I'll discuss this more below, but dummy rounds are a requirement.

Think carefully about what guns beginners will use when they are ready to move up from a .22. I am going to specifically discuss handguns here because I see the most issues with them. Several factors make guns harder to shoot. These factors include: firing a more powerful round, having a smaller grip size, lighter overall weight, heavier trigger pull, and shorter sight radius. In short, many popular handguns for carry and concealment are very difficult to shoot. These guns are not suitable for introducing beginners to centerfire. Many beginners will be ready to shoot these guns fairly soon, but often not on the first day.

Full sized pistols service pistols in .38 special and 9mm are the best choice for when people are ready to move up from a .22 to a centerfire. I personally love snub-nosed double-action-only revolvers, but they are hard to shoot, and people need to work up to them.

If you do not have a .22, it may be OK to start some beginners with a full sized pistol in .38 special or 9mm. This is a judgment call based on the confidence and competence of the individual. A full size pistol is really preferable here, and using a smaller or more powerful handgun will make training much more difficult.

8 Some general notes on teaching

When you bring new people to the range, you are actually coaching an athletic activity. You need to guide people through basic skills before moving to more complex skills which rely on those basics. This is not always exciting, but it is how people learn every physical skill.

Stay within peoples capabilities. If people have never shot before, their first shots should be with a .22 from a benchrest position. This position lets them really focus on sight picture and trigger pull. Some people will need a bit of practice before they can visualize the sights correctly. Other people may be ready to shoot centerfires from standing position within a few minutes. Watch each person and see that they are comfortable and have good control before moving to a harder skill. I see a lot of issues caused by people doing things they are not ready for just because other people are doing them.

If you are working with children, or with students who are nervous about firearms, it is important to start with a .22 rifle. Rimfire rifles are the easiest and quietest firearms to shoot, and it is important to make a positive first impression for young or nervous shooters.

Set realistic goals for the first few lessons. Good goals might be: learn safe gun handling, get comfortable loading and clearing the firearm, put many shots into a great big target, have a good time. Many times someone coaching a new shooter has told me that the person needs to fire a very powerful gun on the first day for some "important" reason. The reason might be "that's our house gun" or "everyone should experience big magnums". All people really learn from moving ahead too quickly is how to flinch. Flinching is a natural instinct, so it is easy to teach. Let's teach control instead.

You should be careful not to teach too much at once. People need an introduction to firearms safety, operation of firearms, and fundamentals of shooting before they can safely take their first shots. Do not include things at the beginning which could safely wait until later. For someone who is new to firearms, even the basics can be an overwhelming amount of information.

I also want to mention trying to be quick with firearms. Being quick is a very advanced skill and people should not do anything quickly until their basics are solid.

Now that I have discussed not pushing people ahead too quickly, I want to talk about one exception. Sometimes people are convinced that they can't do something which they really can. Part of being a good coach is helping people move through these barriers successfully, so in some cases you may need to push people a little.

9 Teach the basics in a safe area

One of my points at the beginning of this article is that you should teach an introductory lesson before going to the range. You can teach this lesson just before going to the range, but doing it a day or two in advance can also be effective.

I often see people bring new shooters to the range, unpack their gear, and then give an introduction on each firearm. The range is a loud and distracting place, especially for beginners. It works much better at the range if you are reviewing material that everyone is already familiar with. Also, at the range the RSO is required to respond to any firearm with the action closed as though it were loaded. This fact can complicate demonstrations.

There are many things you may want to discuss with new shooters before you get to the range. I have written a separate article with a basic lesson plan. For now, here is a general overview.

  • Have no live ammunition in the practice area.
  • Gun Safety. I recommend using the NRA's three rules of gun safety.
  • Function of the firearms which will be used.
  • How to load, unload, and make safe. Dummy rounds are required for this. Every student should practice loading and clearing the guns before getting to the range. Declare a safe direction and practice safety rules.
  • Dry fire with dummy rounds. You should cover the basics of shooting and position. My article about the basic lesson plan covers this area in more detail.
  • Range commands and procedures. Describe the commands used at your range and any range specific procedures. Cover the commands you will use and any commands the Range officers will use.

Obviously, the above list is a brief summary. As an experienced shooter, you should be prepared to speak a bit about each of these points.

10 Safety gear

You should have enough eye and ear protection for everyone in your party. Make sure people keep their safety gear on if anyone is firing in the area. Beginners often take their ear protection off without realizing who else is firing nearby.

Ear protection has a number rating called NRR that tells how much sound it reduces. Get the highest NRR rating that you can. Sound causes flinch at least as much as recoil. Better hearing protection is an advantage, especially for beginners. Some people may also want to use double protection with ear muffs over foam ear inserts. Make sure people can still hear commands, but they usually still can.

Double check ear protection on children. Ear muff type protectors may not seal correctly on children. Children may also have trouble getting foam ear inserts in place properly. Also, children often won't say anything if there is a problem, but they may tell you by putting their hands over their ears. It is a good idea to protect children's hearing by using both ear muffs and foam ear inserts.

Proper clothing and footwear are also an important type of safety gear. Everyone at the range should wear shoes and clothes that provide reasonable coverage and do not have openings that will catch spent brass. Open toed shoes do not provide enough protection at the range. Baseball caps help keep brass off your head and face and are a good idea.

11 Lead safety

Generally, lead safety is a very minor concern for shooters, but it still deserves its own brief section. Lead is different from most of the safety concerns in this article because its affects are long term, rather than immediate and acute.

The affects of lead are of particular concern for children because lead affects development. It is commonly recommended that pregnant women should not shoot. Children who cannot keep their hands out of their mouths should not handle guns or even visit the range.

Most ranges prohibit any eating on the ranges and this is an important safety issue. After shooting, make sure everyone washes thoroughly before handling food.

12 Handgun Safety with Beginners

There are two safety issues about teaching beginners which need special mention.

  • Do not have two people's hands on a loaded pistol.
  • Do not have a discussion while a gun is loaded.

If a beginner has loaded a pistol and is ready to fire, you can give them quick cues like "check your grip" or "finger off the trigger". If they are not sure what to do, then have them clear the gun and start again. If they cannot clear the gun, have them put it down pointing downrange and review how to clear it. Do not reach over and touch the person and the loaded gun to correct their grip. There is a saying that "If no one is specifically in charge of something, then no one is in charge of it." If two people are touching a loaded handgun, then no one nearby knows who is in charge of controlling the muzzle.

Also, if a new shooter has a substantial question while holding a loaded pistol, like "How is the sight picture supposed to look?", then clear the gun before reviewing the answer. Very quick questions are fine, but if the person is not really ready to shoot, then clear the gun before discussing the answer. Beginners do not yet have safe instincts, so if they are holding a loaded handgun, their full attention needs to be focused on it.

If children are learning to shoot a rifle from a rest, then it is OK for an adult to keep a hand on the rifle. In this situation it is OK for two people to touch the firearm because the muzzle is firmly controlled.

I should also mention again, that the RSO is required to respond to any firearm with the action closed as though it were loaded. If you clear the gun and then work with a new shooter to correct their stance and grip, you must keep the muzzle downrange. However, it is still important that the gun be unloaded, since you are not ready to shoot during this discussion.

If it is necessary to clear guns several times and review the fundamentals, do not become frustrated or let your students be discouraged. If your students learn to clear guns while maintaining muzzle control, then you are an excellent teacher and a worthy mentor. Actual shooting skills will follow soon enough.

13 Getting Started at the Range

When you get to the range, you should start with a review of the lesson that you already gave in a comfortable location. Hopefully, this review will be quick, but if people have questions, it is easiest to get them at the beginning.

If you have beginners who have never shot before, they will need one on one supervision at the beginning. You should start with only one gun, and only one person shooting at a time. If you have experienced assistants helping you, they can each supervise one shooter. Some beginners will need one on one supervision for their whole first day. Others will be ready to shoot on their own sooner. I recommend no more than two inexperienced shooters at a time per mentor.

As mentioned above, start each person with only one round. Continue having the person shoot single rounds until they are comfortable firing the gun. Stay focused on the the shooter, not the target. Some people are ready to load several rounds quite quickly, while others need to fire lots of single rounds to get settled.

Beginners will often begin to lose focus after a little while on the range. Pay close attention as people start to get tired. Beginners who know the safety rules have not yet really learned them, so the muzzle may wander as people lose focus.

As the mentor, you should not plan to do much shooting. You will likely want to demonstrate firing the guns, but overall, a day of teaching will not be a range day for you.

14 Range Setup

When people take their first shots, they should start with a large target at short range. Keep in mind that hitting a paper plate at 7 yards with a pistol is a good performance for a beginner. For handguns, five to ten yards is a good starting distance. For rifles, up to 25 yards is OK to start with.

Beginners often make mistakes that cause widely missed shots. If the distance is too great, these shots can be far from the intended target. You should stay at short ranges until the new shooters have consistent control at these distances. Often, that will not happen on the first day.

Make sure the targets are easy to see, and easy to hit. Getting a bunch of hits on the target should be part of the positive experience for new shooters. I recommend using even larger pieces of paper for the target backing so that you can see where the misses land. Examining missed shots helps diagnose the mistakes that caused them. If your range requires you to use longer distances, then the targets should be quite large.

Do not be concerned about accuracy with new shooters. Accuracy on the first day is not important. Keep the focus on practicing fundamentals and having a good time. Over time, good fundamentals will lead to good accuracy, but the important thing on the first day is to have a safe and positive experience.

Interactive targets are fun, and instant feedback is helpful for shooters of all levels. Balloons, shoot and see targets, and steel plates are all good, depending on what is permitted at your range. For steel, make sure it is a safe distance away.

Many beginners do best if they start from a benchrested position. If you want to use a benchrested position, think about what props you will use to make the position stable and comfortable. Sandbags, small rolls of carpet and wooden boxes can all be useful.

15 Special note about double action

Be especially careful of heavy double action triggers with beginners. Many people who shoot well with a light single action trigger cannot control a heavy double action trigger. Often, they shoot into the ground in front of the target. This happens with revolvers and with traditional double/single action semi-auto pistols. Make sure people can dry fire the double action trigger without moving the sights before they do live fire with double action. Many shooters will not be ready for double action live fire on their first day.

Note, that guns like Glocks with much lighter double action triggers do not cause this issue. It is the 10 pound double action triggers on revolvers and traditional double action autos which are difficult to control.

16 Conclusion

I hope this article will help you make a safe and enjoyable plan for introducing new shooters to the range. Mentoring new shooters is an American tradition and is an important contribution to the future of shooting sports. My hope is that by writing this article I can make a small contribution to lots of new shooters.

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