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Safe and effective range utilization

By Ed Santos
PoliceOne Special Contributor 

Recently I was teaching a low-light Instructor certification class at a host agency indoor range. As a longtime traveling firearms instructor, NRA Range Technical Team Advisory member, NSSF Range Action Specialist, range owner, and indoor range consultant, it was very obvious to me that the host range was routinely being used for training outside the scope of its design.

To date all my published articles have been directed towards low-light firearms training. This last training experience has motivated me to share with you some information from my other world, the world of range design and utilization.

Law enforcement instructors are always looking for ways to challenge their students and provide the highest level of realistic training possible. Often these efforts are complicated by instructor or student availability, budget constraints, equipment and/or facilities. I certainly understand these issues, but when an indoor range is either underutilized or inappropriately used for training, we should all be concerned. I can’t imagine any instructor knowingly putting students at risk by conducting training beyond the design constraints of any facility.

The disconnect in how training is developed and ultimately delivered often comes from the lack of understanding of the facilities’ capabilities or intended use design constraints. It is my hope that this article will clarify some of the misconceptions of indoor ranges and their capabilities, and create enough interest that you do additional research.

The underutilization or inappropriate utilization of indoor ranges should be a concern to us all. If you do not understand the intended range use your indoor facility was designed to accommodate, you may be short changing your students of otherwise realistic training or – worse yet – putting their health or your staff’s health at risk.

The need for realistic training is unquestioned. We need only to look at the Supreme Court’s guidance for hands-on training: Tuttle vs. Oklahoma. The Court strongly suggested the need for realistic firearms training:

“For law enforcement firearms training to be valid, it must incorporate: stress, decision making, attitude, knowledge, skill, shoot-don’t-shoot, moving targets, officer required to move, low light or adverse light shooting, in-service training and shotgun training.”

Our desire to provide realistic training must not compromise the student or instructor in any way. This can only be accomplished by working within the design considerations of the facility.

Facility Considerations and Issues
One of the first questions that must be answered is for what purpose was the range originally designed? Was your range intended to support fixed firing line or dynamic movement while shooting? Will the target system, projectile containment and backstop design accommodate movement or shooting beyond the fixed firing line?

Specific issues to be considered include — but are not limited to — reduced or disrupted airflow, downrange contamination, ballistic control projectile escapement, and range housekeeping. The result of your range design evaluation may require you to alter the way training is delivered. You may have to incorporate the use of green ammo, simulation firearms, or even AirSoft training weapons.

The Training Objective
Only with a clear understanding of your facility capabilities can you determine if your agency’s training objectives can be safely accomplished. A very common “in” term today is “Bring the Street to the Range.”

Just what does that mean? I am sure every one of you have your own ideas on that one. Let’s look at a few of the most common issues that are commonly incorporated in meeting the street to range training objective. Moving while shooting, shooting moving targets, low-light training, advanced weapons manipulations, individual and team tactics.

Cadre Experience and Your Budget
The emphasis of this article is range design and limitations. However, I would be remiss if I did not look at how cadre experience and budget will impact the way training is ultimately delivered. More advanced live fire exercises require an instructor with a higher level of experience. Firing line management becomes more complex with the incorporation of off line movement, 360-degree scans, force-on-force training, and the method of maximizing the effectiveness of square range courses of fire.

Budget resources play a major role in the delivery of training and the overall limitations of working within the design criteria of your facility. Prop design and fabrication costs, mechanical running man vs. robots, homemade vs. purchased, and whether or not you wish to share your props with other agencies.

Thinking Outside the Box
Ultimately we want to incorporate as many tactical realities as possible. A well-designed realistic training program should incorporate movement, verbalization, situational awareness, threat identification/judgment, fleeting/surprise threat/target, multiple threats, disadvantaged shooting position or condition, single handed weapons operation, reactive targets (that don’t go down on one round, or may come back up/out to renew threat) to name a few.

Bad Practices
Below I will list a few of the most common “mistake in utilization” practices that I have encountered over the last year. I have called out two ranges here. In fact, there was a third range that had elements of both examples listed below. In this range, two officers were injured by flying bullet fragments in one day of training about a week before my arrival.

When I was informed of this fact and indicated that my program requires firing forward of the traditional firing line I was instructed to “Go ahead... It would be OK, we do it all the time.”

I DID NOT... We found an outdoor range and training was conducted without incident.

Range A
This was an indoor range where the agency routinely allowed shooters to move and shoot all the way to the backstop. Unfortunately, the range lacked the sufficient number of baffle rows that would ensure ballistic safety. In addition the range had an air exhaust system located mid-way down range. That results in the shooters breathing contaminated air whenever they shot from a position forward of the mid-range exhaust vent.

Range B
Another indoor range allowed shooters to move and shoot from all angles at distances from 75 feet to three feet from the backstop, The problem was the backstop was of a steel funnel design, essentially a series of large 4ft wide by 8ft tall funnels positioned across the entire width of the range. This backstop is not designed to allow cross lane shooting and shooting at extreme close distance to the steel. The result was frequent fragmentation and ricochet of projectiles and or bullet plating flying back at the shooters. This range also has an air circulation system that is not designed for downrange shooting. The required air movement in both velocity and lamellar flow is nonexistent beyond the firing line.

In summary, it is impossible for me to discuss every design or range utilization concern here given the limitations of space and the complexity of these issues. I hope I have provided some motivation for you to look deeper into the way you are utilizing your indoor facilities by application and design. Perhaps after analyzing your capabilities you will find that your facility is capable of supporting more advanced training than you are currently offering. If that is the case, then your students will be better trained and better prepared to win on the street because of the modification to training you will be able to implement.

If you find that you have been exceeding the design capabilities of your facility then again your students will benefit from your training modifications and ultimately be safer during the time they are under your supervision and charge.

About the Author
Ed Santos is the founder of Tactical Services Group, author of "Rule the Night-Win the Fight", and numerous magazine articles on low-light tactics and shooting range design and utilization. Ed is a frequent presenter at National Range Conferences and is considered the nation’s leading range consultant. In 2010 his range was named “Best Range in the USA” by SHOT Business magazine. He is an NRA Ranger Technical Team Advisor and a Range Resource Specialist for the National Shooting Sports Foundation.  Ed can be reached at ed@tacticalservicesgroup.com.

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