Steel Targets 101

Steel targets can make great targets for most shooting purposes because they give the shooter both audible and visual feedback when struck. The average paper target is fine for zeroing and some other shooting activities but as distances increase it can become difficult to determine where the bullet is impacting without a spotting scope.

It seems that there has been an explosion in steel target manufacturers in the past few years so finding one within a certain budget shouldn’t be too difficult. However, for the first time buyer trying to determine which one is best might be a bit of a challenge so hopefully some of the following points will help. For most of this article though I’ll be talking about steel targets in relation to long range shooting with center fire rifles, however some of it filters down to other types of shooting as well.

Steel Target Materials and Construction

Nearly all of the reputable manufacturers of steel targets will use AR500 steel in the construction of their targets that are designed for use with centerfire ammunition. So what does AR500 mean? AR500 is a designation for steel meaning Abrasion Resistant with a 500 on the Brinell scale which is roughly the same hardness as armor plating. However, not all AR500 steel is exactly 500 on the Brinell scale and like most things there is an allowable tolerance depending on the manufacturer, usually the range is about 470-520. Having a lower Brinell hardness doesn’t mean the target is defective, it will still last for many thousands of rounds. Before AR500 became prevalent in steel target manufacturing, T-1 steel was widely used for targets and it has a Brinell hardness of 235-300 so keep that in mind.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I would never, ever recommend using any steel besides AR500 for shooting with a centerfire cartridge. I’ve seen people use everything from mild steel plates to brake rotors for targets and this can present a few issues in regards to safety. Firstly those materials were never designed to take the impact of a bullet moving faster than the speed of sound so it’s not exactly predictable what will happen to it once that occurs. Depending on the range and bullet type it may severely crater the surface of the target or simply pass right through it, reducing its effectiveness as a visual and audible indicator. As a steel target becomes cratered and deformed it also increases the chances for a ricochet that can potentially come back at the shooter or others nearby. I think many people have seen the video of the gentleman shooting a steel plate with a .50 caliber rifle and had the bullet come back and hit his earmuffs. Using an improper type of steel was no doubt a contributing factor, in addition to being too close to the target but it illustrates my point of using the proper materials. No matter how cheap or plentiful a type of steel is or how well you think it will work for a target pony up and buy one made from AR500 steel from a reputable manufacturer first.

Now steel targets don’t just materialize into the shapes and sizes that everyone buys them in, they are usually cut out of larger sheets. A manufacturer has to be careful about which methods are used to cut the steel since cutting generates heat and large amounts of heat can reduce the hardness of the steel. The methods used depend on the manufacturer but generally they will either be cut using a plasma, laser, or water jet cutter. Plasma cutting is the fastest and cheapest method used to cut AR500, however it also has its drawbacks. Plasma cutting can introduce a great amount of heat into the target, especially along the edges, which softens the steel and reduces its properties. This heat affected zone around the edges of the target can be dented if it takes a direct hit or even crack after repeated use. Using a laser to cut the steel does create a heat affected zone however the highly focused beam means that it is much smaller compared to plasma cutting. Water jet cutting is the most expensive but probably the best method for cutting AR500 still since it introduces the least amount of heat into the steel so that it retains its hardness.

Some manufacturers will also weld brackets to their targets to facilitate being mounted to a pop up stand or other fixture. Obviously welding creates heat, lots of heat, which can drastically soften the steel if it done improperly. Mike Gibson of MGM targets recommends short beads when welding on AR500 that are allowed to get cold to the touch before moving on as opposed to a long, continuous bead. This will hopefully reduce the amount of the heat going into the steel and remove too much temper from the steel. I have several targets that have welded brackets on the back for mounting on a 2” X 2” post and I’ve only noticed an issue with one of them that was done by a local machine shop.

Target Designs

Steel targets come in hundreds of shapes and sizes to fit nearly any shooting style from varmint to tactical precision rifle shooting. It’s purely personal preference as to which one is best for an individual and what they feel will work for them. Some of the common shapes that are found are IPSC/Torso targets, Pepper Poppers, circles, squares, and rectangle shaped targets. For the most part these are practical shapes that can reflect specific targets and vital zones for training and evaluation purposes. Other shapes are also made to look like Prairie Dogs, Stars, Triangles, or other animals so there’s pretty much a target for any type of shooting.


12? Circle, LV Steel IPSC, and MGM Popper on the range.

Sometimes which target size is best is the topic of conversation as some shooters simply aren’t sure what will work for their needs. Just as with the target’s shape, its size is personal preference but it should be appropriate to the shooter’s type of shooting, skill level ,and the typical ranges that they’ll be shooting at. For precision rifle shooting I’ve found that a target about 12” X 24” is a good size for bolt and semi-auto guns all the way out to 1000 yards. A target this size is good for defensive training at closer distances while still being a target that can challenge the shooter at longer ranges. I also have a couple of targets from LV Steel that are 15” X 25”, which I’ve found to work pretty good at longer distances especially with new shooters. While this target is a little on the big side it can allow a shooter that doesn’t have perfect dope to get on target and make corrections from there.

Target Mounting

Mounting a target so that it can be safely shot can be accomplished in many ways and manufacturers usually offer customers a few options. The cheapest option is a set of holes in the target so that it can be hung from a cross bar and allowed to swing when hit. This works out pretty well since the swinging target indicates to the shooter that the target was hit and then of course there is the audible ring shortly after that. Swinging targets work well in areas where there is plenty of room to set up the stand with little brush or grass to obscure the shooter’s view of the target. Through the years shooters have used all sorts of materials to hang their targets from steel cable to old fire hose. Chains are still popular because they’re easy to acquire and easy to replace should a bullet cut the chain or otherwise damage it. I always keep a bit of chain, some extra bolts, and a socket wrench when I go shooting so that I can quickly change them out in the field. Old sections of conveyor belt have become very popular as an alternative to steel chain since it is more resistant to bullet impacts. If a bullet does hit it, it simply passes through leaving a small hole and the target still upright. Now in regards to bolts and mounting hardware for use with steel targets it’s widely accepted that Grade 8 bolts are the best option for strength and longevity.


Run of the mill hanging steel targets using chain.

Many companies also offer spring loaded bases so that the targets will automatically reset after being hit but these have some of the same drawbacks as swinging targets. Tall grass or dips in the terrain can easily hide the average popper, which is something to think about when choosing a target set up. I purchased a 10” X 17” IPSC popper a while back thinking it was going to be great for this field that I sometimes shot in with friends of mine. Unfortunately I didn’t consider that in addition to taller grass and a natural rise in the terrain the target was all but invisible when we were back at the shooting position. That was a hard way to learn that just because you can see it when you’re standing up doesn’t mean you’ll be able to see it when you’re prone or even sitting.


This is an example of how terrain can mask or partially mask a hanging target or popper. The target in the foreground has the lower third obstructed by a low rise in the field about 50 yards in front of it.

Another method that is used by a lot of manufacturers to mount a target is to use a static base that holds the target in one place and doesn’t allow for much movement. The type of static base will depend on the manufacturer but I particularly like the drive in the ground bases for the areas that I typically shoot in. I’ve found that static steel targets work well to get the target up higher to clear grass and terrain. Since there is usually only a single post, either a 2” X 2” or 2” X 4” piece of lumber, holding the target up there are no chains or uprights to get hit by bullets. If the post takes a round then it is usually pretty easy to just replace it and drive on.


LV Steel 15? X 25? IPSC on a stick.

One of the downsides to static steel targets is that given the nature of the mounting system there isn’t a lot of movement from the target when it is hit. At longer ranges this means it can be difficult under certain conditions to tell if the target was actually hit, especially if the shooter didn’t hear a distinctive ring.

Safety

Even though steel targets are made from abrasion resistant, hardened steel that doesn’t mean they are impervious to bullet impacts for an indefinite amount of time. The old saying that “speed kills” aptly applies to steel targets too, even those in the 3/8” thick AR500 variety. Generally speaking a steel target will last a long time if it is shot no closer than 100 yards with your typical .308 Winchester cartridge. However with some of the more capable long range rounds spitting out long, skinny bullets at high speed this can be problematic. Cartridges such as the 22-250, .243 Ackley Improved, and 7mm RM have been known to crater or otherwise damage steel targets when shot at too close of a distance. If a shooter has a rifle that falls into this category then it may be a good idea to step up to a thicker ½” AR500 plate and impose a safe minimum distance to preserve the steel. However if the primary purpose of the target is to be shot at close distance then angling it downward about 20° will help deflect bullet fragments into the ground and help prevent ricochets. Eye protection should also be worn by all shooters to prevent possible stray fragments from entering the eye and causing injury.

In case anyone missed it earlier, here is the video of the gentleman being struck by a ricochet:

Painting

Usually when a target comes from the manufacturer it is painted white but obviously as it gets used this paint is blown off by bullet impacts. This necessitates having to repaint the target frequently to clean the target up and cover previous impacts for the next go around. In the past I’ve used the cheapest white spray paints that I could get at the hardware store and it worked out alright. I’ve been changing it up though by using more expensive spray paints from Rustoleum and it’s actually been working out pretty good. In the past the cheaper spray paints would require more coats to cover up the dark impact spots and create a clean, white surface. Now even though the Rustoleum spray paints cost more I found that it required less paint to cover up impacts so in the long run I was saving by having to buy fewer cans. Of course other colors besides white can be used to paint the targets to make them as visible or hard to see as the shooter wants. I was a match earlier in the year where during one stage the targets were camouflaged and the shooter had to find all of the targets to engage. It was certainly a challenge that went beyond seeing the same old white target and engaging with up to two rounds. In my range box I usually keep a couple cans of red, orange, and black spray pants to mix things up.

Another way to mix it up with steel targets is to make simple stencils that have different shapes or images that can add training value to the target. Just adding a circle or square to the target’s center of mass gives the shooter a more precise aiming point on the target as opposed to the blank white surface. Different shapes and images can be used to create target ID and discrimination scenarios such as between hostage takers and victims. Stencils are very easy to make from available materials such as paper or cardboard, a utility knife, and a pencil or marker. I’ve found that the flexible cutting boards that are available at most places that sell kitchenware make for an inexpensive and effective stencil. Since they are made from plastic they are easy cut and their generous size makes it easy to fit multiple shapes onto one sheet.


Stencils made from flexible cutting boards.

Final Thoughts

Steel targets can be a fun and safe target for long range shooting when they are utilized properly. On top of that they’re also an effective training tool that the shooter can use to develop their skills in a variety of areas. It’s important though to remember that you are shooting a hardened steel target with a high velocity bullet so please take the proper safety precautions to prevent injuries. I’d like to finish up by saying that even though it seems cheaper to make your own steel targets I recommend ponying up and buying from an established manufacturer. In the long run it will probably lead to fewer headaches and it will just add piece of mind to know that you’re getting something designed to be a target. Below are just a few of the manufacturers that I’d recommend checking out if you’re in the market for some steel targets.

Big Dog Steel - Bigdogsteel.com

JC Steel Targets - Jcsteeltargets.com

LV Steel Targets - Lvsteel.com

Mike Gibson Manufacturing (MGM) - Mgmtargets.com

Outback Welding Steel Target Systems - Outbackweldingtargets.com

Spindrift Tactical - Spindrift tactical.com