Shooting Safely on Public Lands
What does it mean to shoot safely on public lands?
When referring to the term ‘Safety’, in target shooting, we tend to think only of safe gun handling. While this is certainly our top priority, safety in target practice means more than just gun safety. It is an all-inclusive package we must know and practice when recreating with firearms on public lands.
Inside the big box of safety are several packages we will unpack here. These include;
- Firearms Safety
- Personal Safety
- Public Safety
- Fire Prevention Safety
- Natural Resources Safety
Firearm Safety is an everyday awareness that is taught across all platforms of gun ownership. It is common sense control of the firearm in a manner that helps prevent accidental discharge and unsafe use. To a first-time gun owner, or those who may have little experience, handling a firearm can not only be awkward and intimidating, it can also be a big safety concern. The potential for mishandling a firearm could cause an accidental discharge because of a lack of knowledge and understanding of the four basic firearms safety rules. We’d best review these basic rules before moving on.
- The gun is always loaded! Act and treat every gun as if it were loaded. You do not know for sure until you verify it for yourself.
- Never point the muzzle at anything you are not willing to destroy! Requires constant awareness of where the barrel of your gun is pointed at all times. Always keep it pointed in a safe direction.
- Keep the safety on and your finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire! Develop a habit of being consciously aware of your safety switch and trigger finger position at all times. Never switch the safety off or slip your finger into the trigger guard until you are ready to discharge a bullet.
- Know your target and what is beyond! Look and think before you raise your gun… What and where is my target? What is in front and behind my target? Will the bullet be stopped when it goes through the target? Is the backstop adequate to stop the bullet?
Personal Safety is largely accomplished from the safe handling of a firearm, as mentioned in the four basic safety rules above. In recreational shooting, additional considerations are needed.
- Establish an obvious firing line! The line of positions from which gunfire is directed at targets. A firing line could consist of a simple fold out table where you plan to shoot from. A bright colored rope or caution tape makes for a good firing line. A large tarp can suffice while also catching the spent casings for easy clean up. Orange or yellow caution cones can work as well. Whatever you choose to mark your firing line, instruct everyone present to consider it as the point of no return. No one is to step in front of that firing line when the range is hot.
- Range Hot, Range Cold! These are standard terms used to make everyone aware of the range condition at any time. Range is Hot means active fire is happening now and no one is to enter the range. Range is Cold means that everyone puts down their firearms and does not touch them. As you proceed to walk into the range, you still need to check the firing line for any person handling a firearm. There should be no reloading, cleaning, inspecting or showing-off of any firearm. A gun does not fire by itself. It only has the potential to fire when a person is handling it.
- Keep guns cased when transporting to and from the firing line! With the firearm inside a case, it cannot go off accidentally. There will be no accidental discharge if the gun is properly unloaded and kept in it’s case until reaching the firing line.
- Eyes and Ears! Always protect your eyes and hearing with appropriate protection. It’s well worth the minor investment for ear plugs and safety glasses.
- Situational awareness is something we learn with repetitive practice! Always be aware of your surroundings and what is happening around you. Know where people are, what they are doing, what direction they are shooting and how they are handling their firearms. Be aware of who is walking up behind you, notice how they are carrying their firearms and give them your attention, so you learn of their intentions. Personal safety is all about being aware.
Public safety is the thought we give to being sure that no harm will come to anyone within 3 miles of the shooting range. We all know how a bullet can travel 1 to 3 miles, depending on caliber, through the air and we must give thought to any potential of a round leaving the range. It should never happen.
- Use a high earthen berm backstop! This is the first priority in finding a good/safe place to shoot. A good earth backstop will stop a bullet if you shoot into it. A tree (or stand of trees), stumps, downed logs or even small mounds of dirt (less than 6 feet tall), are not backstops and have multiple concerns in using those to try to stop a bullet. Do not accept anything but an earth backstop at least 6 feet high or better.
- Ricochet prevention! Avoid rocks! They often ricochet the bullet into the wild blue yonder and you have no control over where the round stops. The potential for rock ricochet is greatest in a gravel pit, so, choose your backstop carefully.
- Target placement! The proper placement of a target is in front of the backstop. Not on top or off to the side. The bullet does not stop at the target, it goes through it and stops at what is behind it. Be sure to place your targets in front of the backstop.
- Trails, roadways, waterways and near campgrounds are off limits to target shooting! Never do your shooting down the path of a trail or a road, even if there is a good backstop at the corner. Never shoot into, over or along a body of water. This includes streams, creeks, rivers and lakes.
- Walk the line of fire! Before any rounds are fired, walk the range and look for hazards and concerns. You are looking for anything that might compromise public safety, fire safety and natural resource safety. There should be no trails leading into or near the range, no stumps, debris or rocks behind your target placement and assure no trees or natural features will be affected.
Fire prevention safety is a concern in recreational shooting. Several things can be done to help prevent fires while target shooting.
- Carry fire prevention equipment! A shovel and at least 1 gallon of water is the minimum gear you should take. Better yet, 2 gallons of water and/or a 2 ½ pound fire extinguisher. This prevention equipment is required gear when doing any kind of recreation on public lands during the fire season, however, we recommend taking it every time you go shooting. Place your fire prevention gear at the firing line for immediate access if needed.
- No shooting into trees, stumps or downed logs! Fires can be started inside of trees, stumps or logs. The inside may be deteriorated, dry and hot, just waiting for the spark of a bullet. Considering that many rounds may already be lodged inside, one more round could spark an ember. It can smolder within the wood and later ignite into flames long after you have left.
- Choose a dirt backstop! Avoid solid rock surfaces to lessen bullet ricochet and the spread of uncontrolled bullet fragmentation. When steel and copper core bullets strike a hard surface, a tremendous amount of friction is generated. Friction is heat. Super-heated fragments, very tiny in size, fly off in various directions. They can land in dry tinder and smolder for quite some time. Select non-flammable backstops. Never use stumps, down logs, and trees as they are prime with dry tinder.
- Target selection is important! Steel can be just fine, if the other conditions are met (no dry tinder or weeds, using lead ammo instead of steel or copper core bullets and setting up steel targets over a soil or gravel shooting lane). It is always best to have your steel angled to deflect a downward shrapnel path. Many videos have been done that show the fragmented path of bullets striking steel targets. Those that are angled downward, spread the fragments down into the dirt.
- Tracer rounds and explosives are a no go on public lands! It’s in the rules and the answer is no. Even incendiary devices such as propane bottles and tanks.
Natural resource safety is a concern we should all be thinking of every time we go shooting. Preserving what is natural is important to all of us and we should not be the cause of ruining even a small part of it.
- No targets on trees, stumps or logs! Again, we say this because it’s important. Damage to natural things, living or not, is turning heads and fingers are pointed at target shooters. We should not play any part of injuring or killing trees, brush or destroying materials or natural features in the forest. Let nature be and run its own course, but don’t aid in the destruction of our natural resources.
- Sign Damage! Signs in the forest may not be a natural feature, however, they are something everyone sees, and they serve a valuable purpose. A huge waist of our taxpayer money is spent on replacing signs caused by vandalism. The most common type of vandalism is bullet holes. Bad reflection on gun owners! Never… Never shoot signs in the woods. It is ruining our reputation, destroying all that we work to improve and steals taxpayers’ dollars away from important projects and maintenance.
- Pride and respect for our public lands! Leaving the land in its natural state, like you were never there, is showing your respect and stewardship. Removal of spent casings, hulls, used targets, wood stands and trash is required in the rules. Leaving it clean is something you will be proud of.
Choose your shooting place wisely and use all safety measures outlined above. Share this information with friends and encourage safe shooting on public lands! It’s how we save, improve and preserve recreational target shooting on public lands!