What you need to know before going to a shooting range

December 31, 2015                 7m read time
Kirsten Akens

Louds noises. Guns everywhere. Shooting ranges can be intimidating places to first-timers. To ease some of that discomfort, we talked to Alex Rennert, a member of the USA Shooting National Team in shotgun, about how to prepare and what to expect.

Pistol, rifle, or shotgun?

You might already know what you want to shoot, but if you don’t, Rennert suggests starting with one of two options. “If you're looking to go shoot rifles and pistols, it's probably easiest to start with a .22 caliber, just because it's not nearly as loud and it doesn't kick. For somebody that's completely new to guns, it'll allow them to get the fundamentals down.”

If you want to try shooting moving targets like the clay pigeons, try and get a semi-automatic, says Rennert. “That's going to be where the firearm uses some of the gasses from the propellant to cycle the action and it's going to make the recoil lighter. Most ranges that rent guns will have semi-autos because of that beginner factor.”

Teacher showing how to shoot Dennis Steen

Teacher showing how to shoot

Dennis Steen


Protect your head, shoulders, knees and toes.

Most ranges will have basic eye and ear protection that you can rent, or you can buy your own at your local sporting goods store. “Disposable earplugs work best in the shotgun games, because the big headphones kind of get in the way of the gun sometimes,” says Rennert. “In pistol shooting, there's nothing on your face, so you can kind of wear anything. With rifles, it depends on your rifle and how it fits. I prefer the foam ear plugs and those are super cheap.”

You’ve maybe heard that your flip-flops and other open-toed shoes are outlawed at ranges. Rennert says even that varies location by location. But he’s pretty clear about his opinion.

“I would always suggest wearing some sort of athletic shoe if you're going to go shoot guns. The range may not require you to wear closed-toe shoes, but if you're shooting rifle-pistol, you're going to be expelling hot brass. If it lands on your toe it might hurt a little bit. So it's always a good idea to treat it as a sport and dress accordingly.”

For the same reason, choose a T-shirt instead of a tank top. Hot brass down the front of the chest is no good.

Buck up, little camper.

Try to not get discouraged, especially in the clay target sports, says Rennert. “You're trying to shoot a target that's moving anywhere between 45 and 70-something miles an hour,” he says. So when it’s your very first time, “Go out there with an open mind that, ‘Hey I might only hit two out of 25.’” Or maybe even nothing. Although Rennert says usually instructors can get you to hit at least a couple, “it could be a little tough at first.”

Got a question? Ask it.

Don’t be afraid to ask as many questions as you need. “Most people out at the shotgun range are more than happy to help you, even if they're not there as instructors. The shooting community is extremely friendly. And of course we're always trying to grow the sport so most of us are very, very eager to help new shooters.”

At his range in Florida*, Rennert adds, “we have people come in that are completely green to the sport, and we build them up through the basics. You gotta come out with that open attitude to learn and to listen and take instruction from us.”

Wear your pain with pride.

“If you're going to go shoot shotguns for the first time, be prepared. You will have a black and blue mark on your shoulder,” Rennert says. “It doesn't matter if you're a big strong guy, if you don't know how to put the gun in just perfectly, you will have a bruise the next day. It may not hurt, but you'll have a bruise … I've got a permanent bruise. I don't think it ever goes away. I've been shooting for 10 years. It's just a line on my shoulder now.”

A shotgun tattoo? “Yeah. Basically,” he says.

Oh, and he says your face may be a little sore as well from the kickback. And maybe the shoulders and arms too from holding the weight of the gun.

Good time for a “don’t get discouraged” reminder.

And stop thinking so much.

You’ve done your research, picked your range, selected your gun. Once you get into the actual shooting, Rennert says, “The less you can think, the better you're gonna shoot.”

You have to just see the target and shoot the target. “It eventually becomes subconscious and second-nature. You just do it, but as a beginner, you're gonna think more.”

And especially for clay target shooting, trust your eyes. “It's such a visual sport,” he says. “So you have to be able to see the target to hit the target. In the clay target games, you're gonna want to try to aim. And you can't.”

Shooting targets at an outdoor range Frank Fennema

Shooting targets at an outdoor range

Frank Fennema


Ace your shot.

It takes time to build up both your mental and physical game to be a strong shooter. But if you’ve got your tennis game down, you might already be ahead of the crowd. “Any of the sports that involve a small object traveling at high speeds toward and/or away from you, transition fairly well—for at least shotgun—tennis, baseball, racquetball, golf.” And if you’re a reader, pick up “The Inner Game of Tennis.” Rennert says lots of trainers in shooting read W. Timothy Gallwey’s book “for the mental side of things.”

Use your Google skills.

“You could walk into a shooting range with a driver's license and some money and that's it. Say ‘I've never done this before. Set me up,’” Rennert says. However, every range runs its business a little differently, from fees to rental options to shoe requirements.

“Do a little bit of research about the range and the instruction that the range offers. Check to see if the range has NRA-certified shooting instructors. That just means that the people working the range have gone through the necessary courses to know how to properly teach you firearm safety. That doesn't necessarily mean that people at the club don't know how to teach firearm safety, it's just that extra certification that gives you some peace of mind.”

Find out if the range rents firearms. A lot of rifle-pistol ranges do, Rennert says, but not a lot of shotgun ranges do, so it’s definitely something good to check. “That way you don't have to worry about going out and buying a gun before you've ever even shot one to see if you like it or not.”

When it comes to safety training, each range also, well, ranges. Some give 15-minute briefings covering the basics: the parts of the gun, how to hold it, stance, etc. Some ranges require two-to-four-hour safety courses. Choose which you think is best for you. Either way, it all goes back to the pre-trip research. As Rennert says, you don’t want to show up ready to get rolling, and then find out you have four hours of classroom before you even touch a gun.

And finally, find out their policies on individual training. Some ranges provide one-on-one assistance. Others charge an extra fee for that. “My range,” Rennert says, “ ... we get a ton of new shooters. So when you show up, you're getting attention and we're going to stand with you the whole time. That's just kind of how we work it.”

Time flies when you’re having fun. And that’s okay.

If it’s your first time shooting a gun, Rennert says, the most important thing is to just have fun pulling the trigger. When you return to the range—and he says, you will, because it’s addictive—then you can start looking to improve yourself as a shooter, working on accuracy and precision.

“Same goes with shotgun,” he adds. “The first couple shots that we have a brand new shooter take, we won't even throw a clay target. We're just going to have them shoot it out into the air. Just to get used to it, and then we'll start throwing clay targets. And most of the time we'll just throw straightaways, so they don't have to worry about the side-to-side, because that's just another variable that a shooter has to think about, and you don't really want them to be burdened with that on their first attempt at clay target shooting.”

Beware of the addiction.

“You could go from something that might have been a one-time, ‘Hey, let's go try this experience’ to ‘This is now my job five days a week training, so I could go international.’”

Why, yes, Rennert is speaking from experience.

“I started out in Boy Scouts. I thought it was just going to be a merit badge. It ended up I'm out here living at the Olympic Training Center, shooting shotguns six, seven days a week, and it's going to be my career for the next 20 years. So, yeah, it happens. It's just that kind of sport. You get so addicted to it that it becomes your life.”

*When Rennert isn’t training at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, he manages the Gator Skeet and Trap Club in Gainesville, Florida, a USA Shooting Certified Training Center.

Kirsten Akens

Kirsten is an award-winning journalist, editor, photographer and practicing yogi based in Colorado. A lover of books, balasana, baked goods, blogging, and Boston terriers, she also has an unnatural affection for alliteration.

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