Steel targets are interactive and make for a fun range day. But shooting steel requires you to follow some safety protocols to avoid ricochets and shrapnel. photo from Windigo Images

The sound of a bullet hitting a steel target provides an immediate signal that you’re on target. That makes shooting at steel targets are a great way to develop skills such as speed and accuracy, while also making shooting fun. As a range master at a police department, I had found that incorporating steel into my firearms training had an immediate and positive impact on officers’ shooting fundamentals and their enthusiasm. It was one method of increasing speed and accuracy that just can’t be replicated with paper targets.

However, after a few damaged car windshields and some minor injuries on and behind the firing line, I quickly realized my responsibility was to ensure that officers were shooting at safe distances. I also had to inspect the condition of the steel targets I inherited, and soon recognized the dangers associated with shooting damaged or poorly designed steel targets.

To reduce the risk of injury, you need to understand the characteristics of steel targets. There are several factors that determine the quality and safety of a steel target. Here’s what you need to know.

Brinell Hardness Number

The Brinell Hardness Number (BHN) is a value assigned to steel targets that can range from 150 to 700, with hardness increasing as the number increases. The lower the BHN, the easier the target is damaged. The damage done to a steel target also depends on the ammunition used. When shooting steel targets, select a target with a BHN of at least 500-550. This should allow you to shoot the most common handgun calibers without damaging the target.

Damage to a steel target is the result of extreme and focused heat—mainly bullets striking the target. The faster the bullet travels, the more heat that is produced, and the greater the likelihood of divots and dents. Targets with visible damage should not be used for up-close shooting because the divots will create an unpredictable and potentially dangerous splatter of shrapnel, posing a danger to the shooter and observers. For this reason, you should have targets dedicated to rifle shooting and others dedicated to handguns. Never shoot a target with visible dimples and damage up close.

Eye Protection and Safe Distances

Although the majority of the shrapnel on a smooth target will be deflected away from the shooter, there’s always the possibility that some fragments will ricochet back, so it is vital to wear wrap around, OSHA-approved glasses, a baseball hat, long sleeves, and long pants. Action Target provides these shooting distance guidelines

Handgun: Shoot from no closer than 8 yards.

Rifle: The shooter should keep in mind the caliber and bullet velocity and start no closer than 100 yards, checking for visible damage after every shot.

Shotgun with slugs: At least 100 yards away to start. If there is no damage, shooters can move closer incrementally. Once damage is observed, you will know you are too close.

Also, make sure to identify any bolts, brackets, or clips that protrude from the front of the target. Anything other than a completely smooth target can redirect bullet fragments in unanticipated and potentially dangerous directions.

**Construction and Angle of the Plate **

Inspect the target stand to make sure that the base has an angle that won’t ricochet shrapnel back at the firing line. Remember not every shooter will hit the target, and some bullets may hit the base.

Many targets keep the plate at 90-degree angle from the ground. I don’t think it takes an engineer to deduce that shooting at a target that is perpendicular to the ground might increase the likelihood of sending a shrapnel right back at the shooter. I prefer targets such as those from Action Targets that have the plate angled downward, and have seen fewer injuries with these types of configurations on the range at the police department where I had worked.