This article originally appeared at actiontarget.com and is reprinted here with permission.

A few weeks ago, a popular industry review web site did a torture test of a small steel target designed for rifles. The reviewer shot just about everything he had at the target and hit every square inch of it to see how it would react. In the end, it didn’t fare so well. The writer had some great insights and suggestions for how the manufacturer could improve on its product. What was most interesting about the review, however, was the comments section. It seemed that just about everyone had an opinion about shooting steel targets from what type of steel should be used, what type of ammo should be shot at them, how steel targets should be made, who should make them, and where you can find cheap knock-offs . . .

Some of the comments were well thought out and adequately informed, but far more were based on incorrect knowledge and were often downright dangerous. With such a smorgasbord of opinions, it can be difficult for anyone new to shooting steel targets to make sense of it all.

We’ve reposted several of the comments below and have attempted to clear up many of the myths that seem to plague the subject.

Comment 1:

“If you want to shoot at steel stuff, look to the vehicle salvage yard. Disc brake rotors and brake drums are good, and you can get them cheap and sometimes for free.”

Shooting junk steel is a very bad idea. While many believe that steel is steel, there is actually a huge difference between the scrap steel you find at your local salvage yard and ballistically safe armor steel used in steel targets. Shooting at metal objects that aren’t designed to be shot at will cause dangerous ricochet that can result in serious injury or even death. While it may seem fun at the time, it’s not worth the risk.

Comment 2:

“Your local welder will make you a target with high carbon, American ‘plow steel,’ the same steel used for metallic silhouettes. Shoot at it with any caliber you desire.”

There are a couple issues with this comment. First, asking your local welder to make you some steel targets can be risky business. Manufacturing steel targets that are both durable and safe takes very specific knowledge about steel types, welding techniques, and ballistic design. Unless your local welder has ample experience with the ballistic qualities of steel and safe target design, you may end up playing a form of Russian roulette when you take your target to the range.

Second, plow steel (American or otherwise) is not nearly hard enough to be considered ballistically sound. The same goes for mild steel, boiler plate, T-1, and all the variations in between.

To better understand steel hardness, let’s take a minute to talk about how the hardness of metals is determined. A Swedish engineer named Johan August Brinell created a hardness test that is the standard used today. The Brinell hardness test is conducted by pressing a metal ball (usually made of tungsten carbide) of known diameter and hardness into a metal plate with a standard applied force. The Brinell Hardness Number (BHN) is calculated from the diameter of the indentation created in the metal being tested. The smaller the indentation, the harder the metal.

Brinell hardness numbers can range from 5 (lead) to as high as 4,600 (rhenium diboride). Your average mild steel has a BHN of about 120.  Plow steel and boiler plate (both generic terms for high carbon steel) generally have a max BHN of 200. Compare that to the through hardened armor steel Action Target uses which either has a BHN of 500 (handgun grade) or 550 (rifle grade). These armor steels are designated as AR500 or AR550 (AR standing for Abrasion Resistant).

When a bullet strikes a completely flat armor steel target, it shatters with the fragments coming off the face of the target in a radial pattern at a predictable angle between 0 and 20 degrees. When a bullet strikes a target made of soft steel, the steel may deform and flex causing most if not all of the bullet to fly off the target face at an unpredictable angle. This results in a target that shoots back.

Ballistic tests done by Action Target have shown that a minimum hardness of 500 is needed to withstand standard handgun rounds, and a minimum hardness of 550 is needed to withstand most rifle rounds. But even at that hardness, armor steel still has its limitations.

Comment 3:

“I have my local welder cut me target plates out of AR400 steel. I know the AR400 is softer, but I believe that may actually help prevent ricocheting by allowing the plates to absorb more impact energy through deformation. I would actually recommend the AR400 for that reason alone.”

This guy is moving in the right direction. He has recognized that in order to be a safe steel target, it needs to be made of armor steel. Where he goes wrong, however, is the assumption that absorbing impact energy through deformation is a good thing. The goal of a good steel target is to completely shatter the projectile while maintaining its complete uniformity. If the target is too soft, the bullet may not shatter completely due to impact absorption and will come off the target at an unpredictable angle. After several shots, a target made of soft steel will be covered in dents and craters which means a much higher chance of bullet fragments coming back at the shooter.

At Action Target, we design all of our targets ensure a completely flat shooting surface and predictable bullet splatter every time. We never have exposed bolts, clamps, or brackets on the shooting surface, and every target is made of armor steel that has been tested in-house to make sure it meets our stringent ballistic standards. Our targets are also designed to have a slanted target face to direct the majority bullet splatter down toward the feet of the target and away from the shooter.

Comment 4:

“I’m a cowboy action shooter, and we only use steel targets with lead, round nose, soft bullets. That’s all these are meant for! Steel targets are not meant for .44 Mags or jacketed bullets.”

This comment is actually a little too conservative. Steel targets, if they are designed correctly and made from the right hardness of armor steel, can actually withstand a lot of punishment. Our handgun targets are made of 3/8” AR500 armor steel and can be shot with any standard pistol round including .44 Magnum and jacketed bullets at distances as close as 10 yards.

In fact, Action Target hosts an annual Law Enforcement Training Camp at its headquarters in Provo, Utah, where more than a hundred law enforcement firearms instructors spend a week shooting at steel targets and often with jacketed ammo. After thousands of rounds, the steel is perfectly flat and smooth without any dents or divots. Even more importantly, the officers are free of any shrapnel wounds from ricocheting bullet fragments off the steel targets.

Comment 5:

“I have a 2’ × 3’ foot sheet of metal that is only half inch thick but stops ss109 green tip. I found it on an industrial site somewhere, and it’s heavy in weight but pretty impressive. I couldn’t find out what it was used for, but it sure would work well as vehicle armor.”

Number one, it is never a good idea to shoot steel that you find just lying around. Number two, if you want to be able to shoot your steel target on more than just one outing, do not shoot SS109 green tip at it. Steel targets, no matter the hardness of the steel, will not hold up to green tip, steel core, or any kind of armor piercing ammunition. Penetrator ammo will do its job and penetrate or at least cause big dents and divots. Even if the bullet doesn’t go completely through the steel, the flatness of the shooting surface will be compromised making it unsafe to shoot at.

Comment 6:

“I have the scar from the jacket of a 7.62 x 39 steel core that bounced back and buried itself in my upper left bicep. That taught me my lesson about shooting rifle rounds at steel under 50 yards.”

It sounds like this guy learned his lessons the hard way. As we discussed before, it’s not a good idea to shoot steel core ammo at a steel target. Even if it doesn’t puncture it entirely, steel core and any other kind of penetrator ammo will quickly render your steel target unsafe to use by leaving deformations which will cause unpredictable splatter and ricochet when hit. Steel core ammo also has the tendency to send shrapnel back at the shooter. As the steel core of the bullet passes through the steel target, the jacket is stripped and can ricochet back.

The distance at which he was shooting is also an issue. The general guideline for shooting rifle rounds at a steel target (3/8” AR550 armor steel) is 100 yards for any standard round under 3,000 fps muzzle velocity. For faster rounds, such as .223 which often exceeds 3,000 fps, move back to 150 or 200 yards. Shooting at distances closer than 100 yards will not only increase the likelihood of ricochet, but it may damage your target.

Another thing to consider is that the surface you place your steel target on can also lead to splatter and ricochet coming back at you. Always be conscientious of any rocks in the area that could lead to secondary ricochet. Soft surfaces like sand, soil, pea gravel, or grass work the best.

So the next time you’re reading the comments section of an article or perusing a forum talking about steel targets, don’t get caught up in all of the varying opinions from self-proclaimed experts. There is definitely a right way and a wrong way to make steel targets. If done right, steel targets can be an invaluable training tool and an incredibly fun shooting accessory. At Action Target, we have been manufacturing steel targets and preaching their benefits for more than 25 years. Trust the experts.

This article originally appeared at actiontarget.com and is reprinted here with permission.

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51 Responses to Making Sense of Steel Targets – Part 1

  1. “but far more were based on incorrect knowledge and were often downright dangerous. “

    Geezer science on the Internet? Say it isn’t so.

    Be very, very careful what you put into that head, because you will never, ever get it out.
    —Thomas Cardinal Wolsey (1471-1530)

    • Opinions on the internet about steel targets are like robot assholes. Everyone has one, and they usually stink like steel and rust and robot cooties.

  2. I have a question: There has been a lot of debate about whether or not a full metal jacket round could create a fire by sparks that came from the round hitting a steel target. In Utah, I was recently told by a DWR Ranger that they will soon be fining those caught using steel core ammunition for this reason. Are there any studies that show that this is true?

    • I’m not a metallurgist, but I work around machine shop machines, and yes, steel on steel, at the kind of energy in a bullet, could throw “sparks” which are actually little globules of molten metal.

      I was kind of astonished that they’re talking about shooting straight into a flat plate. I’d have thought that that would be verboten like the barrel pointing rule. I’ve been assuming that the target would be tilted at at least a 45° angle so the bullets would be deflected down into the ground.

      • I would think the only way you would get sparks would be with steel core. Copper and lead should (heavy, heavy emphasis on should) be soft enough that you’re not going to be flinging molten material. They’ll get hotter than hell from the deformation of the round, but not in the “steel on steel” throwing sparks kind of way.

        Being the enginerd that I am I filled several pages with calculations a while back trying to disprove the Forest Service testing that shooting could cause forest fires. The math involved in the various stages of heat transfer gets really ugly, really fast.

    • Full metal jacket and steel core do not exclusively go hand in hand. Your kinda talking about two different things… at least in most cases for most people.

  3. Good answers, good subject. I noticed that nothing was mentioned about the angle the plating should be placed at. I remember many years ago, at my former high school, they had an indoor range for use with 22 rim fire only. The whole back stop was steel placed at about 45 degrees, or so. and the bullets deflected down to a thick bed of sand. Don’t know the composition of the steel.

    • Our local National Guard Amory had the same thing. I modeled all my backstops off of their concept. Even though my trapping material is in front of my layered steel sled, the steel is angled at 45 degrees to deflect what goes through 2 feet of soft wood back towards the wood/ground.

  4. “Another thing to consider is that the surface you place your steel target on can also lead to splatter and ricochet coming back at you. Always be conscientious of any rocks in the area that could lead to secondary ricochet. Soft surfaces like sand, soil, pea gravel, or grass work the best.”

    If you ever see pictures from US Steel Nationals or the World Speed Shooting Championships, you will note that they put bales of hay under each steel target. That is to prevent the bullets fragments from striking the ground or target stands which can possibly ricochet toward people.

  5. I don’t ever need to shoot at steel targets. I cannot understand a benefit to me or anyone I know, so I won’t do it.

    • Feedback is more immediate and useful, leading to faster correction and improvement of technique, at a reduced ammunition cost (fewer rounds used for the same improvement). And its fun to hear the DING!

    • As Harry Callahan would say, “a good man always knows his limitations.” However, should you wish to go beyond punching holes in paper, the benefits of steel shooting are many. For defensive shooting, suggest you might read Bill Rogers’ book Be Fast, Be Accurate, Be the Best for one explanation. Look at some of Todd Green’s videos (pistol-training.com) at Rogers’ Shooting School and his AAR’s that accompany them.

    • Metallic Silhouettes is very challenging; standing, no-sling offhand, one shot per target and you don’t just have to hit it, you have to knock it down.

      Targets are chickens (200 m), pig (300 m), turkey 385 m) and ram (500 m); these ranges are for big bore rifle. The turkey is generally held to be the hardest, most challenging. 10 of each animal, and one shot at each. Knock it down for a point, so 40 is perfect score. Scores of 40 are rare enough.

      And if that’s not hard enough, there’s also the Steel Safari, which I’d sure like to shoot. Targets are at unknown ranges (over 800 yards) and from really crazy shooting positions. Tests skill in range estimation, wind doping and applying marksmanship and again, so far as I remember…one shot per target for score.

      Lots of fun to be had with steel, and very challenging shooting to boot.

    • It’s the sensory feedback not unlike that of plinking tin cans. There is a satisfactory “ping” when hit and if a hanging or knock down type target the visual confirmation and satisfaction when the target moves. Then there is the factor of being able to hit the target all day long without having to stop and go hang another target because it’s all shot up.

  6. Nice article. Could you also go into why they cost so much, why that cost varies so much from place to place even though the designs and specs seem so similar, and are there any products you know of out there that should be avoided?

    • Obviously if you are just purchasing the plates, the cost comes from the plates. These can be priced at any steel shop, if they dont have AR500 they may be able to get it.

      After that, its the welding, the bolts, the springs, etc, labor, insurance, etc etc etc. Its incredible how fast it adds up. Then figure in what percentage a small product business needs to make on the sale to keep the doors open, the overhead, shop help etc, and you get the point.

      Not cheap being a manufacturer in the USA lol.

  7. Seriously? You can get legit AR500 targets as cheap as 20 dollars, why would you try to go cheap with something that can kill you?

  8. I have shot thousands of rounds of .45 colt 250gr RNFP ammo ( much of it black hills the rest reloads using their brass) and the quality of the targets at som of the smaller clubs can be very variable I keep a selection of shooting glasses of different sizes in my cart and som times I have wished for something like a welders mask.

    I have never been hit with lead spatter while shooting myself even with close targets that have a pockmarked surface resembling the moon. I have been cut on exposed parts of my face (noting deep but enough to draw blood an sting quite a bit) when I am acting as a marker indicating hits and misses or less often as a timer.

    Most larger clubs have high quality steel that they do not leave out for strangers to shoot at with high speed FMJ ammo and wreck.
    But the small club that puts on a 6 stage shoot for one weekend a month for 6 months of the year and does not lock up its steel sometimes takes a “we can use them for another season” policy
    I will say even at these down at the heels clubs that I have never seen them try to use steel that has had holes shot through them.
    The most powerful ammo shot in most cowboy action shooting is250gr RNFP .45 colt at about 950fps from pistols and perhaps 1250 from the rifles. But the speed is not the only thing that can cause spatter from steel that should have been replaced. One of the worst splash injuries I have seen at one of these marginal clubs (the club in this case was not SASS affiliated ) was a divot from a markers ear that needed a butterfly to close it and the gun in this case was a .36 navy colt shooting a round soft lead ball over black powder. I do not shoot at that club any more. The steel there had been semi dished from over use. I learned that they had their steel 3rd hand as other clubs had retired it as below standard not once but twice.
    It is not smart to cut corners on steel and as I have grown old in the sport I now look at the steel before I pay my shoot fee when I go to a place I have not shot before and if it is not IMHO good enough I do not do the shoot.

    • “I have never been hit with lead spatter while shooting myself”

      Of course the bullet won’t spatter going into your flesh. How often do you do this? 😀

      Throw Mama from the train!

  9. I have “holed” an Action target…it turns out “armor piercing” ammo pierces armor plate…who knew?

    Realistically, I have 10s of thousands of rounds on Action Targets and have never had to eat a piece of lead or jacket off one. Cowboy shooting at small flubs is kinda scary…pockmarked steel equals far too many “ouches!”

    Michael B

  10. I don’t know, I would rather see holes than hear a ping. Oh I heard a ping, then my buddy says yep, but where did you hit it? I know I could paint it every time, but still love to see a hole. Be careful out there and wear Kevlar no ping and no holes.

  11. Both paper and steel have their place. Accuracy down to the inch is not always the objective. With steel you get instant feedback even at hundreds of yards, without a spotter or scope. And you don’t spend half your time replacing targets.

  12. There is just no comparison to shooting steel. Bullseye shooting is fun, but how hard is it to put ten rounds in the x at a 100 yards? Not just everybody has the room to shoot long range, but shooting steel is a different story. Immediate feedback, more realistic training, the benefits of steel are many.

  13. And here I thought cowboy ‘action’ shooting used such squib loads that ricochets were more likely to roll back and stop when they hit your cowboy ‘action’ boot. You deadeye, you. Is there any cowboy ‘action’ shooting that uses real ammo?

    On another note my dad and I were shooting once upon a time at a local trash dump in which was an old cast iron bathtub conveniently oriented so that we could shoot into it and hit the bottom. Dad was shooting my AR and I was shooting my Ruger .44 carbine. At one point we heard a fierce buzzing noise whip by us. We both turned to follow it and wound up facing each other. We were standing about 3′ apart. We both informally agreed at that point to not shoot at the iron bathtub anymore. 😉

    • If by ‘squib’ you mean relatively low velocity loadings generally meant to mimic the ballistics of black powder cartridges in common use during the ‘cow boy’ period, then yes, CBA shooters use ‘squibs’. However, a typical .45 Colt loading for CBAS will drive a 230 grain projectile 750-850 FPS, or to about 330ftlbs of energy. That’s not exactly ‘high powered’ but it’s in the high middle of the range of energy developed by a typical 9mm factory loading and nothing to walk out in front of.

  14. A Crossman pump BB gun and a bag of 100 Soldiers for a Dollar! and a box of BB’s kept us amused at local sand pits for years. I have plans along those lines for a certain granddaughter once she’s grown enough to be able to reach the trigger…

  15. …the secret of steel has always carried with it a mystery. You must learn its riddle…you must learn its discipline, for no one, no one in this world can you trust, not men, not women, not beasts… This you can trust.

  16. People ask why shoot steel targets. Immediate feedback. Particularly during shooting at speed, how do I know which shots hit the target? I fire ten shots, I walk down there and see 9 hits. I might know which of the 9 hit the target. But with a steel target, I don’t need to walk down there as I can hear if the shot hit or not.

    Steel targets also have another advantage, if you acceptable accuracy zone is the size of the steel target, you either hit the target or not. There are no “almost” hits like you get with paper.

        • Well, I was thinking different sizes. Like a central segment that goes DING! and a larger rectangle behind it that goes SPANG! and a sort of a rectangular ring that goes BLONG! Or little rectangles, tuned like a steelpan. The mind boggles at the array of possibilities!

  17. I use ranger SF for any close shooting at steel targets, there’s even less chance for a ricochet when there’s no bullet to bounce back…

  18. Isn’t it a good idea to keep the steel plate at a downwards angle so that ricochets go down instead of back at you?

    • As long as the steel plate is flat. Also, tipping the plate 45 degrees reduces the relative velocity of the bullet to the surface of the plate by 30%. The glancing effect helps maintain the steels flatness. The same reason your car windshield can skip a heavy rock off the glass with just a chip instead of blasting through or spider-webbing.

  19. A friend of mine made his own steel target once, appropriate steel, appropriate hardness, he even had “flappers” welded on the back side to keep the front clean.

    It took a lot of punishment from the rifle rounds we threw at it. Then I moved up to try my 1911. The very first round something hit me just above the eyebrow. I was bleeding pretty good and my honest first thought was “don’t let me be the IGOTD.”

    Turns out it was the damn casing. I have since learned that throwing brass straight back is relatively common with a 1911, and the little bastard managed to hit the half inch gap between my ball cap and glasses.

    Steel or paper, safety glasses folks.

  20. I was interested to see that they listed pea gravel as a soft surface to set your target. I always that you treated pea gravel like you do any other rocks. Does anybody have the reason why to this reasoning?

    • Pea gravel is small enough, in general, to absorb the impact of the bullet without sending shards of rock and lead everywhere.

  21. Sweet blog! I found it while searching on Yahoo News.

    Do you have any tips on how to get listed in Yahoo News?
    I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there!
    Cheers

  22. OK guys, here is the skinny on shooting steel targets that might cause a fire. Its not the lead or copper thats the major problem, even though spent bullets land on the ground, their really hot, try to pick one up, just joking. I have lots of cold roll steel targets at various ranges from 15 yards out to 440 yards. The real fire danger is the round (like a 5.56mm) GOING THROUGH the steel plate. Them there holes left in the plate is evidence that steel went some where. In this case your bullet is acting as a lubricate on the steel plate but the impact for a passing bullet causes a spark show and molten metal to fall to the ground.

    Have you ever shoot a steel plate in very low light, it will answer itself. And if you shoot copper bullets at a thing like a hard rock, the copper comes off as molten copper and can be seen as sparks. Its not sparks, its melted copper. The answer is that bullets fired from our guns can very easily cause fires. Be safe and don’t burn down your neighbors or endanger yourself. Don’t take my word, do some testing on your part. Thanks for listening if you got this far,, Robert

  23. When I shoot 223 at 1/2 ” mild steel at 50 yards the energy release causes the steel to melt and crater at the point of impact. The question I have is…. if both pieces of steel is melting at point of impact, can it be dangerous from 50 yds away? and how can it if it is melted?

    The same 223 ammo form an AR pistol will not have enough velocity to melt the steel, so I can see that bouncing. Most splatter I have seen if from slower moving .22’s. I have also seen a complete bounce back from a slow moving 45 acp. I got hit in the chest with it, but not nearly enough force to be dangerous.

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