By Eve Flanigan
Summertime is upon us and the range calls. Whether it’s recreational shooting, training for self-protection or competition, everyone performs better and gets the most out of the experience when they show up prepared for not only shooting, but hot weather as well.
In recent years, I’ve had numerous female students start out strong in a live-fire class, only to experience the onset of heat exhaustion, which can quickly turn to life-threatening heat stroke. Some who insisted they didn’t need sleeves or a hat because they’re naturally dark experienced sunburn—and one had it so severely they developed blisters on the scalp.
The Southwest where I make my home is a sun-drenched region with plenty of summertime heat. But shooters anywhere, especially women, can endanger their health or ruin their day when they fail to respect the importance of preparing the mind and body for range time. Though the heat exhaustion/heat stroke victims I’ve seen are female, this simple advice applies to anyone venturing into the heat for range time. This is especially applicable in the post-COVID lockdown era.
Heat sensitivity is worsened by lack of physical and mental preparation for gun handling and related training. What follows are basic, common-sense guidelines. I am not a physician and this advice is not intended to take the place of personal recommendations from your doctor, so please consult your personal physician to better prepare yourself for summertime range outings.
Water and Salt
Dehydration and electrolyte depletion can cause serious health issues by themselves. In the heat, especially when your brain and body are burning energy, it is critical to arrive at the range well-hydrated and maintain electrolytes for body heat management.
Experts say a few ounces of water taken during frequent, short breaks provide greater benefit than isolated intakes of large amounts. Just as important when you’re in the throes of a practice session or competition is salt. Unless you’re on a medically prescribed salt restriction, the addition of salt to your hydration routine will help immensely. Sports drinks are a generally sound go-to option. As a low-calorie alternative, I sprinkle lime-flavored “beer” salt into my water. The taste is refreshing and the salt replenishes what I’ve sweated away.
Acclimation Equals Resilience
This is perhaps the biggest area of concern when shooting outdoors in soaring temperatures. Many gun owners spend almost all their days in climate-controlled spaces. Lack of acclimation to the heat outside increases the risk of heat-related illness—but endurance is within reach if you take action!
Aim to spend at least 20 minutes outdoors four to six days per week during hot weather, using sensible clothing and hydration. Heat resilience is built faster if at least some of that time is spent doing physical activity rather than simply sitting idly on the front porch. It is not hard to become heat-acclimated, but it won’t happen if you don’t venture outside long enough to activate the body’s cooling response for a sustained period.
Strength and Flexibility
Achieving competence entails staying with your practice session long enough to instill desired skills until they become easy. This means staying behind the gun long enough to develop insight into form and mistakes and maybe even enough time for data collection regarding accuracy, time or load development. Regardless your chosen shooting sport, there will come a time when you need strength and/or suppleness. Tasks like maintaining a cheek weld while prone behind a rifle, holding a handgun at arm’s length, and balancing the fore-end of a shotgun, for instance, all require a measure of upper body strength.
The physical demands of the different shooting sports vary of course. A bull’s-eye shooter on the line at Camp Perry is going to be standing on the field of fire with no shade relief for long periods. A sporting clays competitor may be on a course with shade, but a 100-round course is still going to take at least a couple hours to shoot. And IPSC shooters, well, they don’t call it “action shooting” for no reason. But everyone, regardless of physical condition, can improve or maintain form and endurance by training for strength and flexibility. This doesn’t require a personal trainer, though that’s an option. You know where you feel soreness, weakness or stiffness after an extended range session, so select a conditioning program to address those areas.
Most battles are won or lost before they begin, thanks to mindset. There is something powerful about deciding in advance to have an enjoyable or at least a productive day with your firearm on the range, and while this is no guarantee of fantastic marksmanship, deciding to have a winning attitude regardless is a shortcut to being more resilient to stress, including heat.
Consistently, I have seen the fastest recoveries from temporary heat-related illnesses in my self-defense students who see a greater purpose for being at the range. Those who show up reluctantly, especially women there at the urging of a gun-enthusiast spouse and wanting just to check the box of doing an activity someone else wanted them to do, have recoveries as lethargic as their attitudes. Those who are there for self-directed reasons—being competent in gun safety for the family’s sake or with the goal of being more confident and secure when traveling alone, for instance—experience shorter and usually less severe sick periods.
Attire and Accoutrements
Safety before fashion, always. Low-cut shirts and open-toe shoes or flipflops have no place where hot brass flies through the air and six-legged critters cruise the ground. Neither does long, unsecured hair, which can impair vision and get caught in slings, actions and eyeglass earpieces. A hat-shaped crease around a head of hair when leaving the range is a small inconvenience compared to hot brass landing atop glasses or falling into a shirt collar, searing a spot of skin and risking an unintended discharge if the brass recipient’s finger is on the trigger at the moment the burning starts. Too, a brimmed hat cuts glare from the sights and protects the face from UV light damage, and it keeps flyaway hairs from being a distraction.
Many people who don’t spend long days in the sun believe they’ll feel better wearing minimal clothing. But necks, shoulders, and upper arms burn fast in the hot sun, even on many dark-skinned people. Lightweight collared shirts with sleeves that go to at least the elbow (elbows can be surprisingly vulnerable to heat burns on hard-baked ground), offer powerful and easy protection against burns. Even better, choose UPF-rated material, 100-percent cotton or a cotton blend fabric for sun and abrasion protection of the upper body.
Besides shirts and hats, products like sunscreen, a shemagh, bandana or cooling scarf can provide mighty protection against both burns and the onset of heat fatigue. So long as they don’t get in the way of safe and correct gun handling, make judicious use of such accessories.
Beat the Heat Your Way
Nothing here is likely to surprise, but I hope it will improve your range prep. These tips are given to avoid incidents like the ones that have given me a good fright after individuals came to my class unprepared physically and otherwise, despite guidelines offered in advance. Gun owners, perhaps even more so female ones, derive a sense of pride and independence stemming from their chosen firearm or hobby. It is worth backing that up with the confidence that follows good preparation—and lets you better enjoy your summer range time!