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The Flexible Firing Range

Because the next war will always be different, firing ranges must have flexible designs.

Military training facilities must simulate as closely as possible the scenarios that will confront America’s troops while being flexible to meet new demands. Above, Marines go through fire sustainment training at Firing Range O’Brien 1, Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan. U.S. MARINE CORPS PHOTO BY LANCE CPL. JUSTIN WILLIAMS

The conditions under which American soldiers must fight, as well as the technology used on both sides of a conflict, are constantly changing. To maintain readiness for such engagements, the military’s training facilities, including firing ranges, must simulate as closely as possible the environment that will confront our troops.

Combat soldiers may find themselves securing buildings in an urban environment, protecting a rural village or pounding enemy lines. Troops may be fighting individually or with small or large units. They may be fighting terrorists as part of a platoon or with a special operations force.

To represent scenarios such as these, training and firing range designs must tackle the following challenges: staying flexible enough to allow for easy reconfiguration; mastering the complexities of specialized installations; managing surface danger zones; and selecting and maintaining the right materials.


Training and firing ranges are living, breathing assets that demand unique design and management to stay mission-ready, and the need to allow for renovation. A new range built to develop new skills may need to be quickly reconfigurable, as corroborated by the Department of the Army manual, Training Ranges: “Live-fire ranges and facilities will be even more important for units in the future as they must be able to deploy and be operational within ninety-six hours in a combat zone.”

U.S. Army ranges also must change to accommodate more powerful and more lethal weapon systems. As Training Ranges notes: “With greater firepower and maneuver capabilities, the requirement for range land will continue to grow. Acquiring additional range lands will be difficult, so sustaining our current range lands becomes a critical task. Challenges to range land acquisition include: encroachment of commercial and private development, protection of threatened and endangered species, loss of wetlands, prevention of soil, surface and ground water contamination, deterioration of air quality and noise effects.”

The first solution to this challenge is to provide training and firing ranges that enable more than one kind of training. The second is to include in the initial design the ability to reconfigure facilities to meet new demands quickly and economically.

More sustainable and low-maintenance materials are being used in design and renovations of training and firing ranges to ensure better long-term cost management. U.S. ARMY PHOTO BY STAFF SGT. AMANDA SMOLINSKI


At Fort Campbell, Ky., one of the training ranges contains a sniper rappelling tower. This example shows how a single facility can serve a variety of training needs. Each face of the five-story tower is finished with a different material: stucco, vinyl, stone and concrete. These materials all provide a different feel for a rappelling soldier. The tower also doubles as a station in a firing range. Removable wall panels allow for live fire from inside the building at targets located down the range. Trainees can practice shooting from different heights and from rooftops that are constructed with varying slopes from materials such as metal, shingles and clay tiles.


At the regional training center at Fort A.P. Hill, Va., the Asymmetric Warfare Group trains fighters to identify and take advantage of vulnerabilities in attacking enemies. Its training complex provides highly specialized training on an urban range called the Military Operations Urban Terrain Battle Lab Area. The complex consists of 22 buildings and three kinds of sites—urban, village and primitive.

The urban site is the most developed. It has 11 buildings, including a five-story hotel/apartment building; five-story government building/embassy; underground subway station and track; transit station building; mosque and church; hospital/clinic; a school with a basement and fenced compound; a bank; emergency service station/jail; and a power plant.

The village site has a two-story hotel and restaurant, government building, post office, religious facility, storage building with a walled compound and a school. The primitive site has a mud hut, two checkpoint buildings, four sheds and a stone privy. A road network in the Battle Lab Area trains drivers to overcome unexpected obstacles, including a water hazard, sand hazard, tunnel hazard and riprap hazard.


A key safety challenge in firing range design involves managing surface danger zones. For instance, when Fort Hunter Liggett, Calif., designed a machine-gun range with seven lanes, the initial design placed three lanes for 50-caliber rounds on the south side of the range and four lanes for 7.62x51-mm rounds on the north side.

Further analysis revealed that the 6,500-M surface danger zones (for 50-caliber rounds) put one of the roads inside the installation at risk. To remedy this, designers exchanged the 50-caliber lanes with the 7.62x51-mm lanes. These rounds had a range of only 5,300-M for the surface danger zone and would fall well short of the road. Moving the 50-caliber lanes to the north side of the range provided the extra length necessary to isolate the danger zone.

To better manage long-term costs of training ranges, vendors are developing materials that limit maintenance.


As U.S. military involvement in the Middle East winds down, interest in urban training ranges may wane. What happens to these sites becomes a long-term management issue. Fewer funds will be available to maintain existing facilities, making it more difficult to upgrade and reconfigure them to meet training challenges. Moreover, when facilities are modified, the changes are often motivated by a need to reduce maintenance costs. Examples include smaller grass-covered areas to mow, target emplacements that require less re-grading at the berms, and better protection for power and communications lines.

Budgets also must balance the cost of materials with user requirements. There is a wide range of materials to choose from, with an equally wide range of price tags. Live Fire Shoot houses require bullet-absorbing wall systems to protect the training personnel as well as the areas adjacent to the facility. There are various types of wall systems that can provide ballistic protection, but initial maintenance costs vary significantly. Sand-filled plywood walls offer inexpensive initial costs, but require extensive maintenance to keep the facility operational. On the other hand, rubber-faced steel plate wall systems require high upfront investment but have little to no maintenance costs.

To better manage long-term costs of training ranges, vendors are developing materials that limit maintenance. Shock-absorbing concrete, for instance, improves safety by reducing ricochets. Rounds that do not penetrate simply fall in front of the concrete. Shock absorbing concrete also reduces maintenance costs by containing rounds and by reducing lead leaching. Because less lead leaches into the soil, environmental cleanup costs are lower. And shock-absorbing concrete, when it reaches the end of its use at the site, can be classified as industrial waste instead of hazardous waste, which lowers its disposal costs.


Flexible firing range designs have proven their worth by providing facilities that support multiple protocols of training, by managing surface danger zones and by utilizing creative and cost-effective low-maintenance materials.

These designs ensure that training ranges can be kept in good repair after a war and can be returned to service quickly when the need for new marksmen arises.

Chris Lowe, P.E., M.SAME, is Project Manager/Civil Engineer, Mason & Hanger, a Day & Zimmermann Company; 859-252-9980, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..