Planning your range from the ground up can be a wonderful, frustrating, rewarding, hair-pulling experience. Building a structure specifically to be a shooting range, however, is not always practical because of location, finances or other considerations. Quite a few buildings can be “made over” into successful and well-designed ranges with a bit of ingenuity and planning.
John Monson, owner of Bill’s Gun Shop & Range in Hudson, Wis., said his decision to convert an existing building to a range was all about location.
“I found the community that I wanted to be in,” he said. “Then I had to either find a property to build on, or buy a distressed property to retrofit. I’d been working on the retrofit concept for a while, and I found a building that had housed a movie theater that I loved.”
Monson said all his ranges—he has three—are contained in what amounts to a concrete box.
“There’s no way a bullet ever leaves my facility,” he said. “What I have is a concrete box inside a box. The theater had 20-foot ceilings; I gutted it and dug all the way down to dirt. I made a big hole in the side of the building, backed a cement truck in and poured new floors. I built concrete walls all the way around for the ‘box,’ and then I backed a semi-truck in that was carrying 42-foot Spancrete planks to make the ceiling.”
The building includes a 3,500-square-foot retail space.
“We also have training rooms and a warehouse,” Monson said. “We have 24 lanes, plus a private three-lane law enforcement bay.”
Offices and storage are upstairs on what was the mezzanine level of the theater.
One challenge Monson faced was finding a building with a high enough roof for him to build in a concrete ceiling.
“Not a lot of one-story buildings have cement roofs,” he said. “The ceilings had to be high enough for me to build a box and put a cement ceiling on it inside.”
Monson also had to deal with city code restrictions.
“Once I found the building, I went to the city planner and told him my concept,” he said. “I had to write a business plan, and I had to have the land re-zoned. Then I still had to have the zoning include the indoor shooting range. I didn’t ask for a variance because a variance can be reviewed; if you get a new city councilman who isn’t a big gun fan, he can change your variance.”
Although the process took longer, Monson asked the city to change the ordinance so his range would be an allowed use of the property in that zone.
“That part took nine months, even though the city was on board and I had a majority vote in favor on the council,” he said. “I still had to get on the next city planning meeting, which takes at least 30 days. Then you have to publicly notify everyone for another 30 days before I can go to vote. Then there’s 30 days after that for a rebuttal. Even though they fast-tracked me, it still took time.”
Monson said converting an existing building was less expensive than building a new one.
“I’m also right in the middle of everything,” he said. “I have Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Target around me. If I had built from scratch I would have had to go two miles from where the action is. You have to be where the action is: it’s all about location, location, location.”
Richard Loomis is sales and range maintenance manager of MAGS Indoor Shooting Range in Moriatry, N.M. He said the building housing the MAGS range originally was a call center.
“The owner, David Tixier, already owned the building,” Loomis said. “He decided to make it either a bowling alley or a shooting range. This being Torrance County, New Mexico, the shooting range made more sense.”
Tixier and Loomis both took the NRA Range Development and Operations Course. Tixier has a business erecting metal buildings, so he decided to do the work on the range himself. He took a barebones blueprint of the building and the information he gained from the NRA course, and talked to some range architects to determine a layout for the interior of the building.
“We put in eight lanes in two bays, with four lanes in each bay,” Loomis said. “We also have retail space.”
Loomis said they had only minor zoning issues. They are located in a commercial business park, and because Tixier is in construction, he knew what questions to ask during the design phase. That meant few hurdles during the actual construction of the range.
“This would have been much more difficult to do if the owner had not had 30 years of experience in the construction and remodeling of metal buildings,” Loomis said. “The whole process went very well because the owner and his brother—who is a general manager and head foreman on his construction crews—had a great deal of experience doing this kind of construction. He also has an experienced crew.”
Tixier elected to go with steel bullet traps; the armor-plated steel sheets used to construct the traps weigh 25 pounds a square foot.
“This building has a side door seven feet tall and seven feet wide,” Loomis said. “For us to get the metal in for the bullet traps, we needed that kind of opening. Installing the metal takes special equipment, because it’s big and heavy and has to be moved around and set in place, and you don’t have a lot of wiggle room on it. You need to have people putting it together who know how to work safely. The crew had never assembled anything like this before, but they had worked with heavy metal in confined quarters. That was a huge benefit, and they put it together quickly and safely.”
Travis James, general manager of The Arms Room in League City, Texas, was running a small gun shop with his father. The shop didn’t have a range, so he and his father decided to add one.
“We started discussing the possibility of building one, and over the course of several months, my dad visited with the city planning committee,” James said. “They suggested that he look at some vacant buildings.”
James and his father looked at two buildings in League City; one was an old Academy Sports building, and the other had been a Circuit City.
“They were both prime real estate and great locations,” James said. “The Academy building was larger than the Circuit City, and was actually our first choice. The property management company was receptive to the idea, but the owners of the property didn’t want guns being shot on their property.”
James and his father tried to explain the safety of shooting ranges, but the owners were having none of it.
“We were talking to the owners of the Circuit City building as well, and they loved the idea,” James said. “Circuit City had built a brand-new building and then vacated it within less than a year. They were very receptive to the idea of a shooting range.”
At first, James and his father thought about leasing the property, but the bank wouldn’t lend money to do that kind of renovation on a leased building. So James and his father bought the building.
“That changed everything,” James said. “It went from a five-year leasehold improvement to a 25-year mortgage, and it made the payments a lot more reasonable.”
James said he worked with a great general contractor. Although the GC they used doesn’t specialize in shooting ranges, he has built a lot of retail stores and could adapt what he already knew to the range environment.
“He had a crew here the morning after we closed,” he said. “He transformed the building almost overnight. Now we have a great location in a prime real-estate area.”
The range has attracted enough attention to be featured in the Wall Street Journal for creative use of a vacated property.
“We basically built another building inside the existing building,” James said. “It was a little tricky, but having a good general contractor made it work pretty easily.”
They struggled a little with the ventilation system.
“We had to think of some creative ways ideas to work with that,” James said. “It’s a big shell building, and all the AC units are mounted on the roof; we had to figure out how to make that work.”
Eventually, they decided to leave all the units on the roof where they were and put the filtration units on the top of the range.
One of the advantages of converting an existing building, James said, was time.
“Had we built from the ground up, it would have taken us six to eight months longer than it did,” he said. “The Circuit City building was essentially ready for us to move into right away; we just had to put what we needed in it. What took the majority of the time was the shooting range component.”
Purchasing prime real estate instead of leasing was more expensive up front, James said.
“Long term, we think we’ll reap the rewards of that,” he said. “We think we’ll have a good customer base and better revenues than if we had built in a lesser location.”
When converting the building to a shooting range, James and his father repurposed everything they could.
“We saved quite a bit of money on light fixtures, because we used all the existing ones,” he said. “The air conditioners that we could re-use for the retail store, we did. We re-used a lot of the bathroom stuff; we even re-used some of the display stuff for a while.”
The whole process, James said, was really fairly simple.
“There are tons of horror stories about building shooting ranges,” he said.
None of them, however, applied to any of these three ranges when they renovated and moved into existing spaces in their towns.