Think Smarter, Leaner

New Range Standards

Thirty years ago, if someone wanted to build an indoor shooting range, they would have called the company supplying armored steel and asked the sales representative how large the range should be. Typically, this would have led to an oversized facility with the sales rep sitting on a huge commission check and the range owner left with a huge loan payment covering the building and equipment.

Too often these days, the only business operating expenses analyzed are payroll and utilities while the giant loan payment (or pool of unreturned investor money) goes overlooked as an unavoidable cost of doing business. But why is this monthly payment — often a huge part of your operating expense — so easily brushed off? The answer is simple: it was the cost of entry.

The smarter, leaner range operators I talk to these days see the world differently, and this knowledge is now available to the consumers outside of the traditional sales channels.

In my case, I knew I wanted to build a 10- or 12-lane range somewhere north of Denver. But, as a single engineer at the time, I didn’t have the required funding to outfit a traditional range or qualify for an adequate small business loan, so I began peeling back the layers to figure out why it cost so much to open a range. After some five years of research, 50 equipment quote revisions and 500 industry conversations, I had most of my questions answered, and the answers came in the form of size, shape and efficiency.

Lane width represents a potential cost-saving factor — a 40'-wide building
with 42" lane widths (as opposed to 48") would yield two additional lanes. (Image: Shoot Indoors)

The New Standards

Historically, indoor shooting ranges have provided a weatherproof area to test-fire or practice marksmanship, usually measuring as long as the building permitted. However, in the 1950s, law enforcement agencies developed the standard 25-yard qualification distance, setting the new standard for civilians in the process. After all, what is popular with police tends to become popular with civilians, despite most police encounters taking place within closer distances and the average shooter unable to hit anything accurately beyond a few yards.

Anyone who walks into an indoor range will notice two things: most people are terrible shots, and most targets are hung closer than 7 yards. This means, a majority of the time, customers are using less than 70% of the available range area. Put in financial terms, most new range projects cost above $150 per square foot to build. With 70% unused, owners are staring at over $300,000 of wasted space every day, simply because they were told 25 yards was the standard.

With most range goers exclusively shooting handguns or switching to a pistol after firing off a few rifle rounds, shorter ranges only bother roughly 10% of the customer base.

Having spent a lot of time dialing-in scopes on indoor ranges, I can tell you from personal experience the “click math” is just as easy at 20 yards as it is at 25 yards, and alignment error is almost negligible. Once your range officers learn how to do the math, showing your customers how to sight in a rifle on a 20-yard range is easy. Not to mention a 20-yard range doesn’t require as many rows of baffles to protect the ceiling downrange, meaning more money saved.

Lane width and lane count are other potential cost-saving factors. When I started price shopping, the standard lane width was 4′ (48″), equating to just 10 lanes in a 40′-wide building. However, what I slowly learned over time is most people are comfortable in a 36″ space — the width of a standard doorway. Add a few inches on each side for the divider walls and your 40-foot-wide space can now fit 12 lanes. Today, lane widths of 42″ have become the new standard.

Another benefit of using 42″ lanes is it becomes nearly impossible for two shooters to stand and shoot side-by-side in the same lane. By forcing the issue with a narrower lane, you get the benefit of adding lanes while also lowering the chance of accidents, leading to a much safer environment on the range.

In NSSF’s 2016 Range Survey Report, the average range occupancy was 51.9%. A 10-lane
facility would have significantly smaller costs and likely top that average. (Image: Shoot Indoors)

Less is More

Although I sensed most ranges were overbuilding during my years of research, the biggest shock came from learning just how many thanks to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF). According to their 2016 Range Survey Report, the average range occupancy, or percentage of lanes being used in an average week, was just 51.9%. In other words, the vast majority of range owners who have 20 lanes only used, and really needed, 10.

As a business owner, that’s scary, considering those 10 lanes and the building encasing them added $1 million to the project cost. If you want to run a fun calculation, try estimating how many years it will take to break even on that investment.

The bottom line is smarter and leaner operators are sizing their locations based on reasonable occupancy estimates, building shorter ranges and optimizing every factor they can manage. Larger ranges are what happens when you don’t ask the right questions or simply don’t care about turning a profit.

To those who still think “size matters,” I’ll share some surprising math in my next article that might just change your mind.

B.A. Stear is the founder of Shoot Indoors Franchising LLC, a Colorado-based company which supports a growing number of shooting range franchises under the ‘Shoot Indoors’ brand, and the designer of the patented Taper-Range.