That big buck that’s been leaving those huge, split-toe tracks near your favorite stand finally shows up during shooting hours. You try to concentrate on the crosshairs and squeeze the trigger. As the echo of the muzzle blast ripples through the woods, the buck snaps his head up and looks around for the thunder, then prances into the thicket with his white tail held high in alert.

It was obvious that the deer was unscathed and you sit there in utter amazement that the shot was a clean miss. As the adrenaline finally starts to subside, the questions flood your brain – was it buck fever or even worse, is the scope not sighted in correctly. Did the gun get bumped or were you just looking at the enormous antlers instead of the deer’s shoulder?

The only way to accurately answer those questions is to check the accuracy of your firearm, preferably in a place with a nice bench rest. I’ve seen too many holes in truck beds or hoods to suggest one try to perform the accuracy check with a vehicle as the rest.

If you’re fortunate, there will be one of the public shooting ranges operated by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division (WFF) in your area. There are 11 ranges scattered throughout the state that gives the hunter or shooter everything needed to test for the proper functioning of a firearm and/or the sighting devices.

Starting in northwest Alabama, nine of the ranges are solely operated by Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. Those ranges are at the Freedom Hills Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Colbert County; Swan Creek WMA in Limestone County; Sam Murphy WMA in Lamar County; Skyline WMA in Jackson County; Cahaba WMA in Shelby County; Coosa WMA in Coosa County; Barbour WMA in Barbour County; Oakmulgee WMA in Hale County and the Upper Delta WMA in Baldwin County.

Two of the public shooting ranges are operated in partnerships with county governments – Marengo Public Shooting Range in Marengo County just outside Linden and the Etowah Public Shooting Range in Etowah County near Gadsden.

Ray Metzler, WFF’s Hunter Education Coordinator, said all the ranges have an area for clay-bird shooting with shotguns, as well as rifle/pistol ranges with target ranges up to 100 yards. Two of the ranges – Skyline and Etowah – have ranges up to 200 yards. All the rifle/pistol ranges have impact berms at least 20 feet tall, the height recommended by the National Rifle Association.

“They all have concrete pads and benches,” Metzler said. “All of them but two have a covered shooting line. The ranges at Coosa and Cahaba don"t have covers on the shooting lines. You still get direct sun at those two ranges, but hopefully we'll able to cover those in the not too distant future.”

Anyone can use the ranges as long as they possess a valid Alabama hunting or fishing license, a wildlife management area license or a Wildlife Heritage License.

“They can shoot paper targets only on the rifle ranges,” Metzler said. “They need to take some sort of paper target with them and some means of attaching that paper target to a holder. Some of the ranges utilize strings and you can take clothes pins to hold the target. Some of the ranges have some type of wire, like chicken wire that you can attach the targets to.

“We don’t allow them to bring in tin or aluminum cans or metal objects to shoot because of the problems those cause. The metal ends up causing problems for lawn mower tires and people walking. And we don’t want anything out on the range that could cause a ricochet.”

Metzler said the people who utilize a range at the same time need to coordinate plans on when to attach targets or any other activity down range.

“Obviously, people are allowed to go down range only when the line is cold,” he said. “You need to work that out with the other people on the line. You want to move in unison, you might say. Everybody goes down range at the same time.”

When the line goes cold and anyone is starting to go down range, all guns need to be unloaded with the safety on and the action open. All guns should always be pointed down range toward the berm area.

“We don’t want anyone walking around the range with a loaded firearm,” Metzler said. “They can pull up in their vehicle, unload and put the firearms on the bench. Then when they’re done, they make sure the firearms are unloaded, put back in the case and then put back in the car. That keeps everyone safe.”

Metzler wishes he had the money and land areas to build more shooting ranges because of the demand for these type facilities.

“The ones we have are highly utilized, all of them, especially this time of year,” he said. “A while back several of us were coming back from a meeting and we stopped by the range at the Upper Delta WMA. We had put some sod down earlier in the year and I wanted to see how it was doing. We got there at 9:30-10 o'clock in the morning and there were seven folks there using it in the middle of the week, and that thing is out in the middle of nowhere.

“The ranges at Gadsden, Swan Creek, Skyline, Cahaba and Oakmulgee are really utilized a lot.”

Metzler said James Altiere, one of the regional hunter education coordinators, has been scouting Choctaw County for a suitable location for a range, which must meet certain specifications.

“A suitable site should be wide enough for at least 10 benches,” Metzler said. “We have two ranges – Coosa and Cahaba – which only have six or seven benches. We could use 40 benches at the Cahaba because of the proximity to Birmingham. We’re looking for places on the edge of urban areas where it would be close enough proximity that people could travel there on a regular basis.

“You have to have a sufficient backstop and that varies. If you’re shooting into a mountain, your fallout doesn’t need to be as long. We’re looking for a sufficient safety zone behind it and a cooperative partner – county government, sheriff's department or other partner. Or it could be on one of our wildlife management areas.”

Metzler said he plans to look at Lowndes WMA for a possible range site after additional land was purchased through the Forever Wild program.

“We’re going to look hard at Lowndes WMA because it’s within 30 minutes of Montgomery,” he said.

For those who plan to use any of the ranges, Metzler reminds everyone to utilize eye and ear protection

“People can go to and they can look at the ranges and they can download and print targets,” he said. “The main thing, as always, is to be safe when handling firearms.”

PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) To ensure the safety of the shooting range at the Upper Delta Wildlife Management Area, large metal tubes were constructed to shoot through. Steve Barnett, Upper Delta manager, demonstrates the method used to shoot through the tubes. In the bottom photo, renowned outdoor writer Wade Bourne uses the rifle range at Swan Creek WMA during the recent Southeastern Outdoor Press Association Conference in October.