September 24, 2014
By Keith Wood
A recent move put me a short drive from the family farm and the subsequent ability to create something I've always wanted: my own shooting range.
I'd have unlimited access 24 hours per day and 365 days per year. Better yet, I wouldn't have anyone banging away one bench over with an SKS while I'm trying to squeeze every ¼ MOA out of a precision custom rifle. Having the place all to myself was the goal, but building a range also meant building my own facilities, and that included a shooting bench.
I didn't want a shooting bench — I needed a shooting bench. When I test rifles for publications, I can't lean over the hood of my Tahoe with the rifle rested on a rolled-up jacket to determine accuracy. A writer needs a dead-solid platform from which to test the accuracy potential of rifles.
No folding table or mobile setup will do. When a rifle shows up for evaluation, I have a duty to the publication to evaluate it fairly, a duty to the manufacturer to shoot it to its potential, and a duty to the readers to conduct an unbiased test. All of this means that everyone is counting on me to get it right: no "wobbly bench" excuses allowed.
Steady benches can be built from wood, and that's certainly the easy way to go, but I wanted to do this project once and do it right. I live in southeast Alabama, which means lots of sunshine, rainfall, heat and humidity — factors that are hard on lumber.
Did I mention that my range does double duty as a cow pasture? That's right, a 1,500-pound bull may decide to use my precious bench as a back-scratcher. To do this right, the bench had to be built from poured concrete.
That's when I set out to build the ultimate shooting bench that would invite accurate shooting for generations to come.
Construction happened in three phases: first creating the slab foundation, then the support pillars (legs), and finally the table. I'll discuss each phase, starting with the foundation:
Build Tabletop Forms
Building the form for the tabletop was the most difficult part of the job. I happened to have a skilled carpenter named Pete working on remodeling my house at the time, and I enlisted his help in building the form. Pete constructed the outside dimensions using 2x4s and created a bottom with plywood.
You can use whatever dimensions suit your needs, but I made mine 36 ' wide x 48 ' long and 20 ' wide at the narrow section at the rear. I wanted the bench to be sufficiently large to hold plenty of ammunition, a spotting scope and other equipment since it will be the only table in the area.
Pour the Pillars
Once the legs were locked into place by our short pour, completing the columns was as simple as filling each tube and troweling the top surface flat. One of the tubes was canted a bit, so a piece of lumber was used to brace it at the correct angle.
Set the Pillars
Wet concrete has a tendency to go where it wants to go, and we were afraid that it might push the sonotube forms upward if we filled them completely with one pour. Instead, we poured 1/3 of a bag of concrete into each tube to secure them in place. A piece of scrap wood was used to ensure that no voids or large air bubbles were under the surface of the mix. These tubes were rechecked to ensure proper positioning and left to cure overnight.
Prepare the Pillars
Let the slab cure for at least 24 hours before pouring the legs, longer if you have the time. For pouring the table legs, pre-made cardboard tubes are the only way to go. Often called 'sonotubes, ' they are available in different diameters and can be cut to a desired length. Determine how high you want your bench and subtract 3.5-inches for the height of the table. I built this bench 34-inches tall. Measure carefully and cut the three legs to fit. Arrange the legs on top of your rebar and ensure that they are both plumb and level.
Cure the Foundation
The slab is flat, dry and ready for the next steps.
Add Pillar Rebar Forms
Secure the rebar with a homemade form, such as the one pictured, and trowel the surface smooth. You'll want to keep troweling as the concrete hardens, bearing down harder and harder with the tool as time progresses. An edge tool cuts the sharp edge off the slab and gives you a nice rounded finish.
Insert Pillar Rebar
Rebar is used to tie the slab structurally into the legs of the table. We used 12-inch sections of rebar with a 90-degree bend on the end that went into the slab. Establish where you want the columns to be positioned and insert the rebar into the wet mix.
Smooth the Foundation
Once the surface is fairly level, it's time to float the concrete using a float tool. A good magnesium float does an almost idiot-proof job of smoothing out the surface of the wet concrete.
Level the Foundation
When you have sufficient mix inside the form, you need to screed the concrete using a 2x4 to level out the surface. Simply move the board across the top of the form in a sawing motion — you did remember to leave the stakes in place, didn't you?
Mix Concrete & Pour Foundation
Concrete companies require a minimum batch order, which means bags of Quikrete-style concrete are the way to go. Determine the amount of concrete you need using Quikrete's online materials calculator. Buy a couple of extra bags, as running out in the middle of a pour would be bad news. Follow the mixing instructions on the bag, and pour the concrete into your form in as few batches as possible.
Rebar, chicken wire or metal fencing will add strength to the concrete — just cut it to ensure that it fits inside the form.
Lay the Foundation Forms
Begin by picking a suitable spot with a direct line of sight to your target berm. Level the ground by digging to uniform depth, and build a form using 2x4s. Ensure that the form is level with the ground, square to the target and measures evenly from corner to corner. Stakes hammered into the ground at regular intervals will ensure that the form doesn't swell outward under the mass of wet concrete. Leave the stakes in place until the concrete sets.
Pour the Tabletop
You can pour the tabletop at the same time you're pouring the slab, but that's not a necessity. Fill the bench form the same way that you filled the slab and trowel it smooth. The surface doesn't have to be perfect since it will become the bottom of the table when you turn it over, but be sure to round the corners. Once it's cured overnight, remove the form and set the top on the pillars. At the dimensions we used, my bench top weighed 350 pounds so we used a tractor and nylon towing straps to set it. Once you have it where you want it, use liquid nails to secure it to the tops of the pillars.
Prepare the Tabletop
He even lined the bottom of the form with angled trim to create a beveled edge once the finished top was turned over — a bead of caulk would be enough to break the sharp edge if you don't want the bevel. To make the top smooth so recoil wouldn't leave elbow skin on the table, the bottom of the form was lined with plastic sheeting.
Range is Hot!
When all is said & done, you'll have a sturdy shooting platform that's built to last. With a bit of maintenance, this thing will be standing long after you and I are in the ground. There's plenty of labor involved, but the total material cost was less than $250.