How to Safely Shoot Rifles on Public Land
Public land, or Crown Land for Canadians, is a gift to the shooting community. Public land offers a lot of flexibility when setting up a range or a course of fire; however, there are a few downsides. Since it is public land, there are not always clear or established fire directions. Also, when the public does not take care of the land or has some flagrant safety issues, areas can, unfortunately, be shut down. Though you cannot control other people's actions, you can be a good steward of the land and take some steps to mitigate ricochets or errant rounds.
This article will discuss several ways to make shooting on public land a safe and positive experience. Before diving into planning and setting up a range, let's talk about safety and stewardship.
Practice Firearms Safety
Being familiar with and following the Four Rule of Firearm Safety is the foundation for any shooting experience. The Four Rules are:
- Always point your muzzle in a safe direction.
- Treat every firearm as if it was loaded.
- Be sure of the target and what is in front of it and beyond it.
- Keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot.
Following the Four Rules of Firearm Safety keeps bullets from errantly being fired into animals, structures, and humans. Almost as important as not shooting things is treating public land with respect.
Practice Good Stewardship
When I was younger, it only took 15minutes to drive up to our shooting spot in the mountains. We lived in a small town and used logging roads to get to our favorite shooting spots. Unfortunately, our sites were closed over the years due to litter in the form of trash, targets, brass, and shell casings, forest fires from certain rounds, and bullets being fired into populated areas. Wildland firefighters, hikers, and homeowners claimed near misses from recreational shooters, not knowing where their shots were landing.
When shooting on public land, please clean up after yourself and leave the area better than when you found it.
Plan your Range
I took a course setting up field firing ranges for training in the military. We learned how to use maps and templates for whatever caliber you are shooting (9mm, 5.56, 7.62, .50 cal, etc.) to plan safe shooting areas. I will show you how to make a cutout template that factors in caliber, hazards, and the potential for people to walk into your shooting area or field of fire.
- physical copy of a 1:50,000 map
- GPS (or cell phone with GPS app)
- Marker and scissors
Using a map and GPS, find a good shooting spot. If you need information about maps, check out Natural Resources Canada. This site provides a good reference for essential map reading. Once you find a good spot, use Google Earth/Google Maps to study it closely. You are looking for roads, parks, structures, and trails, things that can be in your field of fire and only visible on a map or satellite image.
After you have found both your shooting and target positions, use your phone GPS or a dedicated GPS like a Garmin Inreach:
- Find the location you want to shoot from it on your map and mark it as your firing point (FP)
- Go to where you will place your target and put that location on your map. Once you have both spots marked, you can move on to the next step.
Establish field of fire and Surface Danger Zone
- Head back to your firing point and then use your compass to shoot a bearing to your target. In my example, my target was due south, so 180 degrees.
- Alternatively, you can use your GPS to find the bearing and distance between your FP and target.
- Next, align your compass on your map between the two and draw a nice long line between them. In the next step, extend the line way past your target's target to line up your Surface Danger Zone with your shooting direction. Surface Danger Zone is simply the area downrange of your target where a bullet might land or hit if there is a ricochet.
Factor in your caliber
Templates are a stencil outline placed on a map to see where your bullet can land if it ricochets. "Field firing range safety areas should not overlap other ranges, walking trails or areas likely to be requested by people when the range is in use."
Below are two examples from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (fig1) and the Marine Corps (fig 2). When used on a 1:50,000 scale map, these outline your danger area where bullets can land if they ricochet. Anything inside the trace you outline has the potential for an impact from your shot.
There are a limited number of templates available, but most of them are suitable for multiple calibers. Ex, a .338 Lapua Mag template is used for a .300 Win mag because the .300 WM has less energy than the .338 and will land inside the area outline for .338. The table below (fig 3) shows an example of calibers that all use the same templates. More can be found in the resources listed below. Some calibers like .22 have a much wider ricochet angle than a heavier bullet, so they require their own template. Many of these calibers and templates are built off of commonly used government cartridges.
Each template will also have information about its use.
- Caliber and cartridge information
- Firing point
- Map scale
- Testing conditions like temperature and humidity
Choose a safe shooting Area
- Print and cut out the template for your caliber.
- Place the template firing point on your map firing point.
- Align the middle line (shooting direction) on the template with the line you drew on your map.
- Trace around your template with a pencil or marker. (pro-tip: some permanent markers can be erased from waterproof maps with Mr. Clean magic erasers, mosquito repellent, or hand sanitizer)
- Determine if any critical areas or objects (roads, trails, buildings) fall within the boundaries of your danger area.
As you can see in the image, anything within the purple trace falls within the 5.56 danger area. We can see that part of a trail does cross the path our bullet might take. Other than that, we're generally safe to shoot in that direction.
The blue is our 7.62 NATO/.308 danger template. Since this is much bigger, we see that there are buildings, another road, and a communication tower within the potential impact zone of that bullet.
- If this were a flat piece of land like in the prairies, we would have to make adjustments to our shooting direction, so our impacts don't potentially land on something dangerous. We could limit ourselves to only shooting 5.56, moving our FP or target, or finding a new area altogether. Since this is mountain terrain, we can use a mountain as a backstop to avoid ricochets.
Public land offers people the ability to shoot long-range, who may not otherwise have the opportunity. Using the above templates, or at least a quick study of Google Maps will ensure that trails or buildings are not in your field of fire. Be mindful of migratory pathways and areas where animals drink water and be sure to clean up after yourself.
- For this example we used these SDZ (Surface Danger Zone) templates available from the USMC Range Safety Pocket Guide.
- Additional resources I use for this are from The RCMP Range Design Guidelines from 17 Jan 2014.
- Under section 10 - Field Firing Ranges, you can find information on many considerations of field firing.
- Appendix D: Safety Area Templates on page 111
- Appendix E: Templates Table of Equivalencies (calibers) Page 122
I like to double check that the scale on my traces will match the scale on my map using some simple math. The ones I printed off were labelled for 1:50,000 scale use. After printing this on a standard 8x5”x11” paper in an office printer. I was able to check the scale for accuracy using the following steps
- Measure the distance from the fire point to the maximum range on the template using a ruler or measuring tape in millimeters.
- My measurement was 103mm on the paper from the FP of the template to the end of the trajectory.
- I applied the 1:50000 scale to my measurement
- 103mm x 50,000 = 5,150,000mm.
- I converted this measurement to meters because the template is built for meters:
- 1 meter = 1000mm
- 5,150,000mm / 1000mm = 5150m
- Using simple math this works out to about a 2% difference between what the template says and the actual measurement.