Practical pistol range commands and safety procedures

Practical pistol shooting has the best safety record of all shooting sports. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. That’s because we’ve long recognized the potential dangers inherent in handling pistols in a dynamic, hyper-competitive and high speed environment, and have developed a comprehensive set of immutable rules and procedures to minimize the risks.

Clear, two-way communication between you and your range officer / instructor is one of the crucial cornerstones of range safety. There’s no room for assumptions and miscues when handling and shooting firearms, particularly in a dynamic sport and with a group of people. The need for clear communication and control of the firing line is even greater in an instructional setting, where both shooters and instructors can become easily distracted by the demands of imparting and processing a high volume of information, learning new and challenging techniques, managing egos and fatigue.

range-timer-ro-2For this reason, the practical shooting community has developed consistent range commands and procedures to make sure everyone knows what they and their fellow shooters are doing at all times. These commands are issued as consistently and clearly as possible to avoid misunderstandings that can lead to potentially tragic consequences, and must be obeyed immediately and fully.

New practical competitors sometimes misunderstand the role of the range officer. The RO’s don’t bark their range commands stridently just to boost their ego by playing drill instructor or to intimidate the shooter. Indeed, the range officer’s only job is to assist the shooter in negotiating the course of fire as safely and fairly as possible. You should welcome the unambiguous sense of security and clarity of purpose that clearly issued range commands can bring to your performance. Your RO is on your side. Keep him there with a positive and compliant attitude!

The controlled range
Four basic concepts are central to practical range safety: shooter responsibility, an understanding of the course of fire, the “cold range”, and the concept of no gun handling except under direct supervision of a range officer.

On a cold range, all handguns are always to be holstered, unloaded with the magazine removed, and hammer down on an empty chamber. No handling of firearms is ever permitted, except by direction of a range officer or in the safe handling area. There are many good reasons why we run a cold range and never handle our guns behind the firing line, and the practice is so successful and widely accepted as to not be a worthy subject for debate. These rules are reflected in our first set of range commands.

Load and make ready
Let’s image we are following a shooter through a stage at a USPSA match. When the shooter begins a stage or drill on the firing line, she will arrive with a holstered, unloaded pistol and loaded magazines in belt pouches and pockets. The range officer will first announce, “Eyes and ears on, the range is going hot!” He will then will ask, “Does the shooter understand the course of fire?” Once our shooter answers affirmatively, she will be directed as follows: “The shooter understands the course of fire. The range is clear. Shooter, load and make ready!”

At the load and make ready command, the shooter can do one of two things. If she suddenly feels some confusion as to what she’d supposed to do, she can always stop and ask for further directions from the range officer. If she’s prepared, she should draw her pistol, insert a magazine, charge the chamber, make safe, remove that magazine and stow it in a back pocket, and replace it with a fully loaded one. Then, she should verify the pistol is safe and holster it.

range-timer-roThe beep
Once her pistol is loaded and holstered, the range officer will ask, “Is the shooter ready?” A verbal “Yes” or nod will bring the next command, “Shooter ready…Standby!” Ideally, the start signal will follow from three to five seconds after the “Standby” command, and may be an electronic “beep,” a visual cue or perhaps a helpful tap on the shoulder if the shooter states she can’t hear the timer go off. After “Standby” the shooter can generally still stop the process, but after the start signal, she’s on the clock and is completely responsible for every aspect of her performance with the possible exception of a range equipment failure.

That doesn’t mean the RO cuts her loose to fend for herself. Again, the RO’s job is to assist the shooter through the stage as safely as possible. He has a responsibility to prevent safety problems from developing, and correct the shooter if she gets close to doing something unsafe.
Finally, he must stop the shooter immediately if her gun handling or behavior crosses the line from edgy to overtly unsafe in any way.

range-timer-ro-3Your RO is happiest when a shooter succeeds in properly and safely executing his course of fire. No RO likes to disqualify a competitor, as to do so runs against his ethical motivation as a positively helpful asset to the shooter. Thus, he will communicate corrections and warnings when appropriate, if possible before the shooter crosses that line to potential disaster. Such corrective warnings usually concern gun handling faults.

“Finger!” and other warnings
Our shooter is running through the course, dropping a Pepper popper through a window and moving to her left to engage more targets from the next position. Suddenly, the word “Finger!” pierces her intense concentration, and she immediately responds by placing her trigger finger back to where it always belongs when not actively engaging a target: straight along side the frame outside the trigger guard.

This is an example of a subjective call that the range officer has the prerogative of correcting with a verbal command. If she had not immediately removed her finger form the guard, the RO would have been very justified in stopping her and sending her home for the day.

But, our right-handed heroine heeded the RO’s warning and continues on, still moving to her left. She executes a perfectly programmed reload, only to hear “Muzzle!” To reach the magazine release with her thumb, she shifted her pistol around and thus brought the bore close to the dreaded 90 degree plane to the backstop. Once again, our experienced if a bit sloppy shooter reacts instantly, turning the muzzle downrange where it belongs.

Two more positions and she’s done with this complex course. She flops prone to engage a few more Pepper poppers through a low mousehole in a wall, and hears “Muzzle!” again. How can that be? Her pistol is pointed right downrange. What the RO saw was her support hand coming dangerously close to being swept by the muzzle as she clambered up from the prone position.
Rattled, she drops a few points on her last set of targets, catches her breath and waits for the final commands to complete the stage, with her pistol pointed straight downrange and her finger straight alongside the frame where it belongs.

Unload and show clear
At this point, the RO will say, “If the shooter is finished… unload, show clear, slide down, hammer down, holster a safe weapon.” In reality, this is a series of commands that the shooter is required to execute in response, rather than getting ahead of the RO. This is a crucial point: at the end of a stage, the shooter is likely to be flush with emotions, a bit winded and very distractible. She wants to talk about her run, but there’s plenty of time to dissect her performance later.

This is when negligent discharges can happen, so it’s absolutely vital for her to regain her composure and follow the range officer’s commands precisely, promptly and with complete control of her weapon. When the RO asks, “If the shooter is finished…” she should take that opportunity to breathe, make sure she is handling her pistol safely and wait for the next command.

Upon “Unload and show clear,” she will first drop the magazine and stow it in a pocket, then eject the round from the chamber and let it fall to the ground. It’s amazing how strongly that ejected round calls to us, but just let it drop! Do not attempt to catch it in your palm, and for damn sure don’t flip the round into the air and catch it with a flourish. We’re handling weapons, not footballs. That sort of needless macho showboating by a few idiot hotshots gave IPSC shooters a black eye back in the 80’s and prompted a rule to stop it. Now, it will earn you a match DQ as well as a reputation for recklessness that can turn an edgy incident into another DQ next time around.

Next, she locks her slide to the rear, all the while keeping her pistol pointed safely straight downrange. Your RO will visually inspect the chamber and magazine well to verify the weapon is completely unloaded. Don’t take his opinion for it, though; check it yourself. You are ultimately responsible for the condition of your firearm.

Upon the “Slide down” command, our shooter drops the slide on an empty chamber. The RO will then issue the command “Hammer down,” which is her cue to pull the trigger and dry fire straight and level into the backstop to prove the pistol is unloaded. If something goes bang instead of click, she’d be done. But that didn’t happen, so the RO will next command her to “Holster a safe weapon.” Now it’s time to holster your pistol, taking care to avoid sweeping your hand or body as you do. At this time, the RO will state, “The range is safe, you may go downrange to score, reset and tape targets.” He’ll shake your hand and conduct you through the scoring process.

“Freeze!” The dreaded word
Warnings are intended to correct marginal situations and prevent them from becoming real hazards to your safety and the safety of others on the range. However, some gun handling errors are either so egregious or happen so quickly that a warning is either inadequate or can’t be issued in time. A few typical examples of gun handling errors which warrant immediate disqualification include pointing the muzzle up-range past the 90 degree plane to the backstop (called “breaking the 180” in IPSC parlance), sweeping any portion of your body with the muzzle, an unintended or negligent discharge when not actively engaging a target, dropping or losing control of a weapon or failing to heed an RO’s safety warning.

If your gun handling does cross that line and becomes unsafe at any point, the RO is obligated to stop you immediately. The command to “Freeze!” means just that, to instantly stop whatever you are doing in your tracks, point your pistol safely downrange with your finger out of the trigger guard and wait for further instructions.

Indeed, besides keeping the shooter safe, “Freeze” is sometimes called to prevent the shooter from inadvertently putting another at greater risk. For example, I’ve been stopped several times over the years when photographers climbed the berm for a better view or, most memorably when an unattended child wandered downrange behind the prop walls of my stage. “Freeze” does NOT mean you know better and can continue in the hope that the RO will change his mind, nor is it a signal to engage in a spirited discussion on the line. It means to instantly stop.

Firing line control: Shut up and shoot!
Most of the range commands we’ll use during group training exercises will be similar to the commands we’ve just covered, with a few additions. First, we must realize that the range officers cannot see everything that a line of 15 shooters are doing at all times. Thus, it’s absolutely crucial to everyone’s safety that each shooter hears and complies with all range commands immediately, and does not deviate in any way from the programmed activity.

Remember that weird kid in school who hummed and talked to himself during tests? We must keep small talk and discussion to a minimum when handling firearms on the line. It’s natural for us to want to discuss what we’re doing with our fellow students, but such side talk on the line often creates misunderstandings and distractions which lead to safety issues and which dilute the educational experience for everyone. Our focus is on developing a set of subconsciously executed skills, and too much discussion at the expense of focused repetition is anathema to this learning process. That counts for your instructors, too. If we’re talking too much while you’re trying to shoot, tell us! Remember, you alone are responsible for the consequences of your decision to handle any firearm. However, we all have a moral responsibility to be aware of what other shooters are doing around us and correct them if they veer towards becoming unsafe. If you see someone do something that looks unsafe to you, stop him! Don’t feel intimidated and wait for your instructor to catch it before tragedy ensues. If you overreacted or misunderstood, no one will criticize you. If you’re right in stopping someone, we’ll all thank you.

A few more rules and commands apply to the group firing line. No one is to leave the line for any reason until he has unloaded and shown clear to the designated range officer. In some cases, that designated range officer may be the shooter next to you, but in every case the instructor always has the final word and issues the commands to load, unload and show clear.

You’ll hear the “Eyes and ears, the line is going hot!” announcement every time we prepare to load up to begin a new string. Does that mean we can take our eye protection off when no one is shooting? Not at all. Please keep your eye protection on at all times on the range. We won’t ask you to wear your hearing protection when we’re discussing techniques and so forth, but eye protection is always mandatory. Safety and poise go together. Learning to shoot at a high level can be stressful, and our egos want to get involved in the process. Please, lets agree to take that undue pressure off our performance. A frustrated or even angry shooter boiling with negative emotions can’t learn and isn’t safe. You’ll be most receptive to new techniques and a safer shooter when you’re poised and enjoying yourself. Remember, we run a disciplined firing line to assist you, to free you up from doubt about what you’re doing so you can simply focus on the safe execution of the designated task at hand.

More than anything, range safety is applied common sense. If your intuition tells you something looks or feels wrong, it probably is. Horseplay, showboating or any unnecessary, purposeless gun handling is to be avoided! Chaos with a group of armed individuals isn’t fun! By working together responsibly we will support each other and create a safe and secure learning environment. And, have a lot of fun while we’re at it. After all, that’s the point.