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Shooting Range Safety and Sound Reduction

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I had originally wanted to write a basic range construction article before I broached the specifics of any range topics, but recent local events have provided an opportunity to help educate our neighbors and homeowners on this critical issue. A range under construction in Livingston Parish, Louisiana, is causing significant consternation among the local residents, and now is the perfect time to arm them, and the builder, with accurate and specific knowledge of modern shooting range construction.

The entire local controversy goes beyond range design and safety questions; I will not address it here as it appears to be making its way through the town hall all on its own. The aim of this article is to educate everyone involved about the current best practices of safety and sound reduction for outdoor shooting ranges.

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What Is a Safe Shooting Range?

Nothing in life is 100% safe. This is especially true for shooting ranges. Besides the obvious, highly unlikely possibility of getting shot (something I had never heard of happening before Chris Kyle), there are a number of other risks involved. Ricochets, bullets skipping over berms, hearing damage, and lead contamination are the most common risks associated with shooting ranges.

A safe shooting range works to mitigate all of these risks as much as possible while maintaining large numbers of shooters on the firing line at any given time.

A small number of shooting ranges cater to more advanced and inherently unsafe shooting activities, but risks here too can be managed by thoughtful range construction.

In the end, absolute safety is the responsibility of the shooters and the range officers. The range officers must be trained to appropriately handle any shooting environment that the range offers. The range officer is the last line of defense against any unsafe activity.

Ricochets Are Real and They Can Kill

I have a scar on my elbow from my own bullet. At the time, I was seated in a car, firing a handgun through the windshield. The bullet went through the glass, struck a hard steel target, then came back through the glass and struck me in the elbow. It hit me hard enough I actually dropped the gun into my lap. The range had improperly set up the steel targets given the angle at which we were shooting. This caused an avoidable injury and educated everyone involved in the importance of safety. It could have been worse. I will not include any pictures of this subject, but there are a multitude of ricochet injuries on the internet.

This steel target is damaged and should be replaced.
This steel target is damaged and should be replaced. | Source

Many shooting ranges use steel targets because they have a distinctive ring when they are struck which provides instant feedback. They are also very durable and can be shot over and over before needing replacement. The angle at which these steel targets are set up determines the ricochet area. They must be tilted slightly toward the firing line in order to ensure the bullets ricochet into the ground, and not back toward the shooter or into the air.

Regular inspection and replacement of steel targets is required in order to prevent a safety hazard. Once the steel targets show signs of craters, they must be replaced. Dents and craters in the targets cause bullets to ricochet at odd angles and can harm the shooter or exit the range.

Berms

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Side Berms

Shooting range with lots of side berms.
Shooting range with lots of side berms. | Source

Eyebrow Above the Berm

An example of a very nice eyebrow used to collect ricochets.
An example of a very nice eyebrow used to collect ricochets. | Source

A berm or backstop is an integral part of the shooting range, and a key factor in safety. Berms must be a minimum of 15 feet high, with a recommended height of at least 20 feet. They are usually constructed with clay and covered with topsoil to promote grass growth and prevent erosion.

Most modern ranges now have full length side berms to trap errant bullets and allow multiple firing angles. These side berms also separate the range into multiple "bays" so shooters can be down range without causing a halt to the entire shooting range. As an added benefit, the side berms drastically reduce noise.

Depending on the construction material, the risk of bullets skipping off the berms can be high. Many newer berms are now constructed with "Eyebrows", devices used to trap bullets that ricochet off the face of the berm and could be hazardous to surrounding areas.

Shooting range berms require regular maintenance, and must be periodically "mined" as both part of the lead management plan, and to reduce the chance of bullets skipping off the berm.

Lead Management Plan

A lead management plan is required by the EPA for new commercial shooting ranges. It is complicated, but I will break it down into the key points, and you can read it directly from the EPA here.

Lead management is especially important when ranges are near wetlands or populated areas. An estimated 80,000 tons of lead is made into civilian use bullets and fired every year in the USA. A large portion of the 160 million pounds of lead fired out of guns every year winds up in shooting range berms, or blanketing the range as lead dust particles.

Lead exposure is dangerous to everyone, but children are especially vulnerable. When exposed to as little as 10 micrograms per deciliter (a very small amount), children can suffer from brain damage, learning and behavioral problems, slowed growth, and impaired motor functions.The major pathways for lead exposure are ingestion or breathing lead dust. Lead dust is fired out of all guns using lead bullets, but the particles are very heavy and are unlikely to leave the range while airborne.

Thankfully, the risk of lead exposure is already relatively low, and a proper lead management plan reduces the risk further by managing these factors:

  • Soil Characteristics
  • Topography and Runoff
  • Ground Water Depth
  • Vegetation
  • Accessibility for Reclamation
  • Volume of lead fired into the berms
  • Shooter hygiene

Soil characteristics help determine the mobility of the lead particles. Acidic soils are higher risk for lead contamination, but also provide a better environment for vegetation, which can help to reduce the mobility of runoff.

Topography and runoff direction determines drainage of contaminated water, and should be naturally filtered through gravel and other filters before being allowed to drain off the property. This is the primary concern of lead management for shooting ranges near wetlands and populated areas. On site bodies of water have a Very High risk of lead contamination.

Ground water depth is a concern to low areas where lead can drain into the communal water system. This can lead to remote lead exposure of off site areas.

Vegetation may absorb the lead and enter the local wildlife food supply, but can also reduce the speed of runoff and risk of draining contaminated water into surrounding areas. Some plants can extract lead ions from the soil, reducing ground contamination.

The volume of lead fired into the berms determines how often they need to be mined. A high volume of lead leads to more regular berm mining. Some ranges may go as long as 10 years or more without mining their berms.

Finally, shooter hygiene is a major part of lead management. The highest risk of lead exposure is to the shooters themselves. Shooters and range officers should only shoot in well ventilated areas, refrain from touching their faces, and have absolutely no food or drink on the firing line. When finished shooting, the shooter should wash their hands with soap and cold water, and remove outer articles of clothing. These rules must be enforced by the range in order to prevent lead exposure to clients and staff.

Sound Reduction

What is sound? Sound is a pressure wave that travels through a medium, in this case air. All waves have two properties: frequency and amplitude. You may remember this from physics class! Frequency is the pitch of the sound, and amplitude is the volume, or how loud it is. Gun shots are very loud, which means they have a high amplitude. This amplitude is measured as decibels, or dB.

Surprisingly, the human ear does not quite register a short sound (less than .02 seconds) as loud as the same amplitude of a long or constant sound. This means that gunshots are actually louder than we thank they are. Regardless, they are still loud enough to damage hearing and cause issues with surrounding areas.

There are a number of sound reduction techniques in use by modern outdoor shooting ranges, some of which (along with a detailed explanation of sound propagation) can be found here.

dB levels are measured on a logarithmic scale, which means that roughly a 1-2 dB increase doubles the amplitude of sound produced. Each dB matters.

Common Sounds and How Loud They Are

Sound Source
Sound Pressure Level
Evaluation
Jet Engine
140 dB
Deafening
Rock Concert
120 dB
Painful
Football Stadium
100 dB
Very Loud
Loud Alarm Clock
80 dB
Loud
Conversational speech
60 dB
Moderate
Unverified noise levels from http://www.nssf.org/ranges/rangeresources/library/NSRS/04PolicyTrack/SoundAttenuation.pdf

dB Level of Common Calibers

Caliber
dB
.22 Long Rifle
130 dB
5.56mm
155 dB
.308
156 dB
.30-06
163 dB
9mm
159 dB
.45 ACP
157 dB
Unverified noise level from http://m14forum.com/hearing/78442-various-noise-levels-firearms.html
Covered shooting position and full berm enclosure
Covered shooting position and full berm enclosure | Source
Example of overhead baffles
Example of overhead baffles | Source
Typical farm tractor
Typical farm tractor | Source

Sound Reduction Techniques

There are a number of sound reduction techniques used to deflect and dampen sound waves, and are very effective when used in conjunction with each other. Obviously, distance is a major factor when measuring sound, but sounds can travel a long way over water or flat land.

The most effective sound reducing strategies utilize high berms, covered shooting positions, side berms, baffles, and barriers behind the firing line. Using only high berms and side berms, noise from shooting can be reduced down to 70dB when measured 200 meters from the firing line. With the addition of covered shooting positions and a rear barrier, noise can be reduced to 60dB or below. A large highway is generally measured around 70dB.

Overhead baffles are impossible to estimate because their construction varies wildly. A single baffle may reduce noise by a small amount, whereas an extensive baffle system may reduce noise by an additional 10 dB or more.

It is possible to have an outdoor shooting range completely drowned out by an urban center if the range is constructed with sound reduction in mind. In a rural setting, where background noise is generally around the 45dB mark, the immediate neighbors will definitely know there is a shooting range next door. There will not, however, be an uncomfortably high level of volume to the sound. In comparison, a typical farm tractor may produce 80-85dB. Those of us with tractors know that they are in fact, loud, but not terribly so.

Outdoor shooting ranges that take sound reduction seriously can mitigate the vast majority of noise pollution, and avoid being bad neighbors to local residences.

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The Modern Shooting Range

When modern outdoor shooting ranges make safety and sound reduction a priority, they set themselves up for commercial success and have the opportunity to be a positive influence on the community. With only 9,000 shooting ranges in the nation, we as shooters need more options to practice our hobby, and are almost universally enthusiastic about new ranges. We do, however, insist new commercial ranges strictly adhere to the best practices created by the NRA and NSSF in order to comply with all EPA regulations, and to foster a positive relationship with local residents and neighbors. The industry is plagued by a slanted media, a hostile federal government, and an aging consumer base. The last thing the we need is to alienate the same people we depend on in order to grow into the future.

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