May 05, 2020
By David M. Fortier
I’ve seen it far too many times. A shooter excited to finally have the chance to make it to the range suddenly runs into an unexpected problem and his happy day is sadly cut short. Sure sometimes it’s just bad luck, but most of the time the issue could have been addressed with better planning. Usually it’s a small problem which crops up suddenly where you need something you didn’t expect to. Examples would be running out of staples to hang targets, a stuck case in a chamber and no cleaning rod to knock it free or a loose optic mount and no tool to tighten it. Relatively minor things, but which bring the fun to a sudden end. Sometimes data is lost by not having the right tools to record it. Then there is precious time lost while searching through poorly organized gear. Remember, you only have so many opportunities to get to the range, right? So it pays to have your gear well organized to make the most of the time you do have. The range is my work place, so over the past 21 years I’ve learned what to pack and what to leave home. While I understand everyone has different needs, perhaps some of these suggestions will make your next trip to the range a bit more productive and fun.
The place to start is with a way to carry your gear. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive; it just needs to get it from point A to point B. I’ve shot High Power with shooters who carried their gear in a simple five gallon bucket. While this sufficed, there are better options. I suggest something with both sturdy handles and, if large, a shoulder strap. Being able to sling a range bag over your shoulder frees up a hand to carry something else. Carefully consider how much gear you might need to carry in it and then go bigger. You’ll usually find yourself stuffing more into it then you planned on.
You should also consider whether you’d prefer it to be discreet. Depending upon where you live it might be better to have a bag which didn’t scream ‘gun’. If so you may wish to avoid certain colors and having it covered in MOLLE PALS webbing, Velcro and morale patches. Whatever you choose should be sturdy enough to take the weight of the amount of ammunition you plan on stuffing into it. Being padded to protect your gear, spotting scope and handguns is also a wise choice. Whatever gear bag you pick, just make sure it’s big enough for your needs and offers some pockets for organizing. Having everything dumped into one big hole is not optimum. I have a friend who dumps all his SAE and metric ¼, ⅜ and ½ inch sockets along with his wrenches all haphazardly into one container. It makes finding the socket you need a chore. Organization is your friend and the same is true for your range bag.
I suggest keeping hearing and eye protection in your range bag so it’s always there when you need it. Never risk permanent hearing loss by shooting without proper hearing protection. All you young pups out-there who think you’re invincible, listen up. Hearing loss is no joke and is preventable. Take care of your hearing, or lose it. I highly recommend buying a quantity of good quality ear plugs and keeping a bunch in a zip lock bag. Stuff that into you’re a pocket in your range bag. That way you’ll always have them when you need them. Plus you’ll always have extras to hand out when your friend forgets his.
In addition to the plugs I highly recommend a ‘good’ set of ear muff hearing protectors. Be very selective when choosing hearing protectors. Keep in mind they are not all created equal. Make sure you check their Noise Reduction Rating which you’ll find in dBs. Many popular electronic muffs only have a NRR of 19 to 22 dBs which might not be enough to prevent hearing loss. I prefer something with an NRR of at least 30 and personally use Browning HDR hearing protectors with an NRR of 37 dB. The vast majority of time I will also wear plugs. Plugs typically have an NRR of 28 to 33 dBs. Be very careful with your hearing, once you lose it, it’s gone forever.
The same goes for your eyesight. Keep a pair of quality protective eye wear in your bag too. Over the years I’ve had improperly loaded factory ammunition blew a rifle up in my hands and pepper my face with bits of metal. I’ve had gouges put in protective lenses from fired cases impacting them. Hopefully you never need the protection, but if you do, you’ll be glad you did. What about if you wear corrective lenses? I suggest considering a pair of dedicated eyewear for range use. Check out www.TacticalRX.com for high quality prescription shooting glasses. They are what I use.
Without a doubt, the most important gun on the line is a good staple gun. If you’re shooting paper targets and need a way to attach them to a backer I suggest a good quality staple gun. They are inexpensive, so just do it. While you’re at it, buy a bunch of staples. They don’t need to be super long; we’re not building a house. But while you’re at the store just pick up more then you think you’ll need. They’re cheap and that way you’ll have them. Then keep a packet of staples in your range bag. There is nothing worse than walking down to post targets and suddenly noticing you’re out of staples. I like Arrow’s compact JT-21M stapler. It’s small, takes up little room yet gets the job done as well as a full size stapler. If you look around you can find one for around $15.
After you shoot some groups you’ll want to measure how you did, right? So toss in a small 3 foot tape measure or ruler. If you are doing precision work you might consider a digital/analog caliper, but I don’t. Normally I just use a small tape measure and then get fussy with a caliper at home if the target warrants it. A small tape measure can be had for a couple dollars and takes up little space. Recently I came across LaRue Tactical’s six-inch tempered steel La Ruler. One side has edges graduated in 10ths and 50ths, while the edges on the flip-side are graduated in 0.5mm and 1mm. Finely-etched black lines on a satin steel background make it easier to read with minimal glare. Simple to use, highly practical and built with LaRue quality this is a great piece of kit. Priced at just $10, you’ll realize its value the first time you use it.
I keep a pen, #2 pencil and a black Sharpie marker to record data and mark on targets. I am usually firing a wide variety of loads during accuracy testing, so having something to record data on the targets is important. I prefer a good pen but will readily admit a traditional #2 pencil works no matter what. A black marker is always useful for marking hits on paper, writing on glossy targets or simply recording data. Complementing these is a small notebook. This allows me to record anything important such as weather conditions, loads, accuracy, velocities or for taking general notes.
Another useful item is a shot timer. You can’t really gauge your speed and progress without a good timer. Without one you are only guessing at any improvements made in speed as you try to tune, adjust and improve your shooting. A shot timer can track your splits (time between shots), draw times, reload times, target transition times, etc. Really any performance metric you wish to measure. A timer can also be used to add a lil stress to a drill by making you shoot inside a time limit. Keep in mind you don’t need to be an IPSC or IDPA competitor to find one useful. ANY shooter can benefit from using a shot time.
If you’re doing rifle work, a good spotting scope can save you a lot of walking. A quick glance through a spotting scope can reveal what your group looks like. While checking targets is useful, they are capable of doing a whole lot more. You can use them to read mirage so you know what the wind is doing and how much of a correction to make. If you are spotting for a buddy you can watch their trace so you know exactly where they are hitting and get them on target fast. Buy a quality unit and don’t make the mistake of scrimping on the tripod or stand. A good tripod or stand is very important, so keep that in mind. Personally I like Meopta spotting scopes and Ewing tripods, but they’re expensive. Buy something you can afford, learn how to use it as a tool, and you will save both time and ammo.
I highly recommend putting together a small toolkit to have with you. It doesn’t have to be fancy and it doesn’t have to be expensive. Start by taking a look at your rifles, shotguns and pistols. Do they require any firearm specific tools, such a front sight tool or combo tool? Next check to see what they have for fasteners, don’t forget their optic mounts and accessories. You’ll likely need a couple flat bits, a Torx and perhaps some Allens. A bit driver and the corresponding bits will come in handy and will not take up much room. You might need a wrench or two. Depending upon where they are located you might get away with an adjustable wrench rather than multiple sizes of individual wrenches. As they don’t take up much space I like to have both SAE and metric Allen wrench sets. A couple punches and a small hammer might also be useful, but don’t over-do it. Basically you just want enough tools to address any unforeseen problems which might crop up, but not too much that it adds excessive weight and bulk to your range bag.
If you shoot steel case ammo through an AR I also highly recommend having a steel cleaning rod. I keep an RPK-74 steel one-piece rod in my truck just for this, but a simple sectioned rod stuffed away would work. Plus it’s useful for clearing a muzzle full of snow or mud from a fall as well. Personally I don’t keep a bunch of cleaning gear in my range bag, just a small bottle of lube.
Spare batteries are a must as well. Not just for your firearm accessories either, but for anything you might be using at the range. I always have a couple spare 9 volt batteries for my Oehler 35P chronograph. Having your chrono shut down in the middle of a string only to find you don’t have a spare battery should only happen once. It’s a good idea to pack some AAs and AAAs as well if you have anything which needs those like a windmeter or shot timer. Plus, spare batteries for any electronic devices on your firearms. Buying a few of each type will not cost very much, and will save you a headache down the road.
Certain times of year in Maine the mosquitoes and black flies get so thick you can barely see your front sight. While I don’t have to worry about that here in Kansas, I used to carry bug repellant. A small bottle of DEET can make your time on the range a bit more comfortable. Some sunscreen isn’t a bad idea either. This is especially true if you burn easily. An energy bar or two stuffed away will make your belly cease grumbling so you can concentrate. They don’t take up hardly any room but can give you a needed boost. A couple bottles of water are a good idea too. I used to bring a gallon jug with me when I was practicing for High Power matches in the summer. I keep a light rain jacket in my truck along with a hat and gloves, just in case.
A chronograph to measure velocity can be a highly useful tool. This is something that I use all the time. It’s handy for testing handloads or checking how fast factory loads are clocking out of an individual firearm. Once you know how fast a certain load is running then you can use that information to develop come-up data for your rifle. Currently there are a number of good quality chronographs available on the market. I’ve used an Oehler 35P for perhaps the last decade or more. It was a great investment and I am very happy with it. That said, I’ve switched to a Doppler radar unit called the Labradar. To use you simply turn it on, place it on the bench next to the rifle and aim it at your target. Hit a button and start shooting. The Labradar unit not only measures the bullet’s velocity at the muzzle but reads it as it travels down range. There’s no sky screens to set up, no hole to shoot through, nothing to get blown over in the wind, no need for certain lighting conditions. As you shoot your data is displayed on a large easy to read screen.
I carry a few band-aids in my gear, just in case. Small cuts, especially on the hands, can happen. A band-aid usually is all that’s needed. On the opposite end of the spectrum I also carry a blow-out kit, just in case. If you are around firearms, it only makes sense to have a medical kit on hand capable of treating gunshot wounds. I’m not talking about a standard first aid kit either, but a kit designed specifically to treat critical blood loss, an obstructed airway or tension pneumothorax (sucking chest wound). While this is one of those things you hope you never need, it’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. Along the same lines I always have my charged cell phone with me on the range. I know one person in the industry who had a rifle blow up on him causing massive blood loss from an arm injury. He would have died if he wasn’t able to get immediate help. So consider throwing a blow-out kit in with your gear.
My last comment concerns paper targets. While targets seem like a relatively straightforward item, you need to use the right ones to maximize your performance. When shooting for accuracy with iron sights, make sure you have a target which is large enough and well defined enough for you to properly index on. This is especially true with open sights like you find on an AK or a Mauser Kar 98k. It doesn’t need to be fancy, just something which stands out well against your front sight. I’ve shot some excellent groups using just a piece of plain white copy paper stapled onto a dark backer. The bottom of the white paper stands out distinctly from the black front sight minimizing elevation errors. One drill my rifle coach would have me do for High Power was to turn a regulation 200 or 300 yard target around and shoot at the back. Then he’d have me walk down, flip it around and score it. You’d be surprised at what a high score you can post simply aiming for center like this.
When it comes to targets for use with optics you need to take into account the amount of magnification and your reticle design. I try to have a relatively small aiming point for whatever magnification I am using. Some people like circles, some like squares and some dots to aim at. The main point is for it not to be too big. When your aiming point is excessively large it’s easy to get sloppy.
Hopefully you found this useful and perhaps I brought up something you may not have thought of before. The main point of this article is just to make you think and consider if there might be some piece of gear which might improve your time on the range. Whatever you bring for gear, make sure you bring a friend and have fun!