Steel Yourself: Everything You Need To Know About Shooting Steel Targets
How to shoot on steel safely, from target thickness and steel type to choosing the correct ammunition for the range.
There are at least five good reasons for shooting steel targets:
You know right away whether you hit or not.
When shooting rifles at longer range, you don’t need to peek through a scope trying to identify your hits – that distinctive ringing sound will tell you!
You don’t have to go down range to change targets all the time.
You get a free workout lugging targets around.
It’s really, really fun.
Of course, safety always comes first in the shooting sports, and there are some particular things you must be aware of and consider when shooting on steel that you don’t have to think about with paper targets.
So let’s talk about a few must-follow procedures for steel target shooting—after we list them, we’ll talk about why they’re critically important.
Don’t use just any steel for targets. Steel targets safe for shooting are made to careful specifications. They’re not only certain thicknesses, but they’re made from hardened steel designed to handle bullet impacts. Matt Teske, President of Competition Target Systems, notes, “We recommend only shooting steel that is hard enough to destroy the bullet on impact. That is why we only use certified AR500 steel for our targets.”
Always know the rating for your steel targets. Different targets are appropriate for rifles and pistols. Some targets may be for rimfire or standard pistol calibers only. Others may be rated for specific rifle calibers. Make sure you know what you’re using.
Pay close attention to manufacturer’s guidelines for safe shooting distances. If the guidelines say not to shoot their pistol targets from closer than 15 yards, then don’t. You’ll find similar distance ratings for rifle targets as well.
If your target shows any signs of cratering, pitting, or cracking, retire it. Throw it in the trash. Use it for ballast in your fishing boat. Make decorative lawn art. Whatever you do, don’t shoot at it anymore.
You don’t need paper for precision shooting. It’s useful and fun to shoot steel with a rifle at long ranges.
The Importance of Safety
Why are these safety rules so important? The primary reason is that mismatching caliber, steel, and distance can yield very unpredictable results. Bullets may penetrate the wrong type of target. They may penetrate and deflect, launching in an unknown direction. Or, they may come right back at you. Sound impossible? Just ask any experienced steel shooter how many times they’ve been hit by fragments. If you follow the safety rules and always wear eye protection, you’ll have little to worry about. As with most other things, it’s careless activity that’ll get you in trouble.
Teske knows a few things about shooting steel. “Our overall guidelines for the minimum, safe shooting distances are 15 yards for pistol and 100 yards for rifle. 3/8” thick plates can handle projectiles hitting at under 2,700 fps up to .30-06. If you’re careful and increase distance considerably, higher calibers can be used. 1/4” plates are intended for handguns and not recommended for use with rifles or magnum pistol calibers. Different weight bullets carry more or less energy at different speeds. We recommend spot-checking your plates when trying different calibers or distances. If the bullet leaves a small mark or nick, increase your distance from the target to reduce wear on your plate.”
Two Portable Targets
For this story, we took a couple of steel targets from Competition Target Systems to the range for some experimentation. We tried out two models, both of which are modular, portable, and easy to tote around in the trunk of your car.
The two targets featured here use variations of the company’s spring-enabled hanger. These hangers use a heavy-duty bolt to attach the target the hanger mount. Between the target and mount is a strong spring. The idea is that the mount angles the target toward the ground while the spring absorbs some of the impact force. These two factors reduce the likelihood of high-speed ricochets.
The other nifty thing about the mounting system is that it’s hidden, and protected, by the steel target, so it’s impossible to hit and damage the mount system with an errant shot.
The 2×4 Pro Target Hanger slides onto the top of a standard 2×4, so you can cut whatever length you prefer to set the target height. The 2×4 Ground base has four sturdy steel legs with sharp points on each end. The wide spacing provides great stability while the pointed ends prevent the whole base from sliding around on the ground.
On this rig, I hung a 3/8-inch thick Mini-size Silhouette Rifle Target. As the name implies, this 9×15-inch target is ready to go for rifle and pistol use as long as you follow safe distance procedures and don’t use steel-core or penetrating bullets. I mounted it on the Pro Target hanger using the center hole, but there are additional holes in each top corner that allow you to hang this one too.
The second target is a 3/8-inch round plate. The one shown here is 10 inches in diameter but you can order them is sizes ranging from four to 12 inches. Since the plates are 3/8-inch thick, you can use them with rifles or pistols. I mounted this one using the T-Post Pro Target Hanger. It uses the same spring assembly as the 2×4 model but slides onto the top of a standard “t” shaped fence post. If you have a fence, just stick the target on top. If you don’t, bring a post with you and hammer it into the ground or haul out a post-hole digger with you.
If you have keen eyes, you might notice I used a “u-shaped” post because I didn’t have any “t” posts handy. With a little encouragement from a mini-sledge hammer, that worked fine too.
Two Approaches to Ammo
When you shoot proper steel targets, ammo doesn’t make holes and pass through—but the mass of the projectile has to go somewhere. Usually, that means it fragments to some degree and ricochets away from the target. Targets like the ones we used help direct fragments in a safe direction – straight to the ground. Even with those safety features, using the right ammo for steel can make a big difference. We used two different types that take different paths to safe steel shooting.
American Eagle’s Syntech uses a solid lead bullet like traditional jacketed bullet types. However, instead of a copper jacket, the lead core is covered with a flexible polymer material. Not only does the polymer coating keep your barrel cleaner and cooler, but it also allows the soft lead bullet to fragment gracefully. Since there is no hard copper jacket, there are fewer sharp pieces flying around after impact.
The other approach is frangible ammo. Generally, it’s made from compressed metal powder, so when it hits a hard target, it turns to dust. Polycase Ammunition has created a whole new way to make bullets. Using a top-secret formulation of polymer goo and copper dust, they create a liquid that can be injection molded into the shape of bullets. The blend hardens and can be loaded just like any other projectile. Because they’re part polymer, the Inceptor bullets are lighter weight but fly at a higher velocity. The benefit for steel shooters is that they act much like traditional frangible ammunition. When they hit steel, they explode into dust with some scattered teeny, tiny bits.
As long as you follow rated caliber, velocity, and distance guidelines, you can use lead or jacketed bullet ammunition too. Just don’t use steel-core or penetrating ammo. When shooting steel, you want to avoid nicking or denting the steel. Remember, those imperfections from abuse can cause bullet fragments to be launched right back at you.
Shooting Some Steel
Wanting a little practice time with pistols, I set up the two targets 15 yards down range and proceeded to mar those nice, pretty, glossy black finishes with a bunch of bullet splatter. I shot both targets with a 9mm Sig Sauer P226 Legion, a Springfield Armory 1911 TRP .45 ACP, and an FN FNX-45 Tactical equipped with a Trijicon RMR optical sight. While the 45 pistols hit with more authority, the targets stood up to it all. At the end of the session, there wasn’t the slightest indication of any nicking or denting in either target, just lots of polymer, lead, and copper bullet splat on the target faces.
The new polymer-coated bullet ammunition is supposed to produce less heat and friction, and leave less residue to clean. Here’s how it performed at the range and in the barrel.
The American Eagle Syntech performed as advertised with the red polymer “jacket” leaving a telltale mark, but virtually disintegrating. The Polycase RNP bullets simply turned to dust when they struck the steel. Jacketed bullets also broke up on the steel but tended to generate more debris. That’s one of the reasons it’s so important to wear proper safety glasses when shooting anything, and certainly when shooting at steel.
When the dust settled, I’d burned through quite a pile of ammunition. There’s something quite satisfying about shooting steel targets. That satisfying “clang” and instant feedback is addictive, and once you get started, it’s hard to stop. Done right, following guidelines and safety procedures, it’s also safe. Better yet, with modular systems like those from Competition Target Systems, it’s surprisingly portable so that you can set up just about anywhere it’s safe to shoot.