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Mitigating risk in firearms range operations

Three external factors can impact long-term use of these facilities

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Awareness of the potential impact of range operations on the surrounding community is a critical starting point when planning a new range or assessing those currently in operation.


Firearms ranges are under constant pressure on several fronts. A significant segment of society does not understand the role these ranges play in the maintenance of critical law enforcement firearms and tactical skills. This results in increased scrutiny of range operations.

Within the profession, our primary focus is on the development and delivery of training in a safe and effective manner. While we have a good idea of the limitations of our ranges as it applies to the training cycle, rarely do we consider external factors that can impact the long-term use of these facilities. The three most important considerations are noise, ballistics and toxicity, each of which can be effectively mitigated through proactive facility management practices.

A firearms range requires a significant commitment of capital. With the competing demands on limited law enforcement budgets, range investments are frequently viewed as “one-time” appropriations. Unlike other facility programs, the deferral of firearms maintenance and improvements significantly increase liability and risk.

While current range design methodologies allow ranges to be safely located near developed areas, many ranges were initially constructed in locations removed from both residential and commercial areas. As development begins to encroach on the range, the original design may offer insufficient noise mitigation and ballistic containment. This requires range operators to be aware of these changes and continually assess their facilities and operations to prevent problems from impacting the training cycle.

Awareness of the potential impact of range operations on the surrounding community is a critical starting point when planning a new range or assessing those currently in operation. Public complaints to agency and local political leaders who fund the ranges can result in a sudden cessation of training operations leading to a mad scramble by training managers to find an alternate venue.

Let’s review each of the aforementioned factors and how to minimize their potential impact.

1. Noise

Sound from the discharge of firearms WILL escape an outdoor range. We need to recognize the impact this noise has on businesses and residences in the surrounding area and plan accordingly. While many states have passed laws protecting ranges from lawsuits based on noise emanating from pre-existing ranges, these protections are limited when it comes to newly constructed ranges. Even so, excessive noise can impact your agency’s image with the community. Noise levels can be well within the limits allowed by local ordinances but still result in complaints made to community stakeholders resulting in unwanted pressure on your operations.

Here are some solutions to consider:

  • When planning a new range, work with political leaders and community representatives to communicate the need for the range, set expectations and manage perceptions.
  • Ensure the company you hire to build the range is equipped to address sound issues and include mitigation steps in their proposal. This should include a sound study to document both ambient and firearms training sound levels.
  • Periodically assess existing noise mitigation measures at your range to ensure they remain viable in the face of your changing training cycle and new construction in proximity to the range.
  • Establish policies and procedures to govern the operation of the range to include the types/calibers and hours of operations.
  • Develop a communication process for nearby businesses and residences to ensure they are advised of upcoming training cycles, especially those that involve higher caliber and off-hour operations.

2. Ballistics

This risk category includes two specific items. The first is damage/injury caused by projectiles within the confines of the range. Impact surfaces, targets and other components degrade over time. This can cause projectiles to ricochet in unexpected directions and cause serious injury or death. Additionally, the range components have their design limits, which can be easily exceeded by certain calibers, bullet components and training methodologies.

The second risk regards bullets that escape the range, either through direct fire or ricochet. These errant projectiles carry the risk of serious injury or death to persons and damage to property beyond the range property. Expect these incidents to result in immediate cessation of operations and the initiation of litigation that can result in huge judgments against the range owner/government agency. Shooter error is not a defense, so you must ensure your range facility is properly equipped, operated and maintained to minimize this risk.

Here are some solutions to consider:

  • When planning a new range, ensure the selected contractor addresses the Surface Danger Zone (SDZ) to include the ricochet zone in their proposal. At a minimum, this should include appropriate mitigation steps, including alternate range sites, berm design and overhead baffling, among other measures.
  • For existing ranges, establish the SDZ for the types of weapons to be used on your range. A good resource for this can be found in the applicable military small arms range references. Reassess the SDZ and mitigation measures whenever you introduce new calibers and weapon platforms.
  • Establish a robust preventative maintenance and inspection process for your range to identify degraded range components in a timely manner.
  • Establish policies and procedures to ensure the operation of the range minimizes the potential for bullets to escape and to protect your range from damage. This can be more challenging for private ranges open to the public due to the widely varying shooter proficiency levels combined with a wider breadth of weapons and calibers.

3. Toxicity

Bullets contain lead, which is a highly toxic heavy metal. While not visible to the naked eye, each bullet carries its mass through the target and into the backstop. Over time, these bullets accumulate and are subject to deterioration due to environmental conditions, which can be exacerbated by poorly maintained impact berms.

Lead can migrate off the range as a result of a substandard stormwater management system. In a worst-case scenario, the lead can leech into groundwater and ultimately into sources of drinking water. For example, let’s say you have a small stream that runs near your range. Over time lead may get into that stream and migrate onto the site of a future housing development. When the owners of that property conduct a soil test and identify high levels of lead, you can be assured their first step will be to trace the source of the contamination right back to your range. The cost to mitigate heavy metal toxicity can be astronomical.

Here are some solutions to consider:

  • Establish a lead management plan for your range. This should include, at a minimum, a lead reclamation schedule, and soil testing to minimize the impact of acidic soil on captured bullets. Consider the value of recovered lead in the recycling process, which can result in additional funding for your agency.
  • Examine your impact berms and consider a design that effectively captures the projectiles to minimize the tumbling of rounds up and over the berm. Granulated rubber is a great medium to use, which also maximizes the value of your expended lead due to the efficiency of the recovery process.
  • For new ranges, ensure your selected construction/design firm includes lead management in their proposal, to include a drainage plan.

Firearms ranges that are properly constructed, maintained and operated will ensure a long-term safe training environment. Unfortunately, problems are often not identified until something goes wrong. Ranges must be managed via a holistic view through proper design, construction and maintenance procedures.

Many companies are eager to sell an agency a component for a range and quickly move on to the next sales call. Be wary of firms or consultants that do not take a long-term view in their assessments and proposals. I believe every proposal should be done not only to address current risks but to address those that are likely to develop over a 20 or 30-year period. Be safe and train hard!

Michael Harrigan retired in 2018 as chief of the FBI’s Firearms Training Program following a successful 30-year law enforcement career. He previously served as chief of the FBI’s National Academy Program and held numerous other leadership positions during his 22-year stint with the FBI. He currently provides expert witness support in law enforcement use-of-force and firearms range litigation cases, in addition to consultation services in the operation and improvement of firearms ranges. He can be contacted at