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

Steel targets have been around for a very long time, but it has only been in the last few years that the market has truly taken off. Rather than just a novelty training tool used only by law enforcement, steel targets are now a staple of weekend camping trips, competitive shooting events, and gun clubs across the country. With that increase has also come a slough of brands, designs, and claims about what makes a steel target good or bad . . .

In Making Sense of Steel Targets: Part 1, we discussed some myths about steel targets as well as the science that goes into the design and manufacturing. In this edition, we’re going to show exactly what happens when a bullet hits a steel target and how the target design affects the resulting splatter pattern for better or for worse.

What’s in the Design?

When making a steel target, there is far more to consider than just what type of steel it’s made of. The hardness of the steel is an important starting point, of course, (check out part 1 for more information on that) but a poor design can turn even the highest quality armor steel into a very dangerous shooting accessory.

The key to a safe steel target is creating a consistent and predictable splatter pattern. This means that the target needs to be made of an armor steel hard enough to completely shatter a bullet upon impact without deforming (we make our targets out of AR500 armor steel for handguns and AR550 armor steel for rifles). It also means that the target face needs to be flat and smooth and that the angle needs to be downward to direct fragments away from the shooter.

To illustrate these points, we conducted a number of tests with various ammunition types and steel target designs in front of a high speed camera. This first video shows a .45 caliber handgun round hitting an Action Target PT Static steel target.

This test and others show that when a bullet shatters on a hard flat surface, the fragments spread in a radial pattern within 20 degrees of the target face. The downward angle of the target (15 degrees in this case) aids in dissipating some of the bullet’s energy by spreading the impact out over a wider area and also directs the majority of the splatter down toward the feet of the target.

This second video shows the same angle as the target is shot with a .223 caliber rifle round. Even with the increased velocity, the end results are exactly the same. The bullet shatters completely and spreads in a radial pattern. Paint chips can be seen floating off the front and back of the target at the end of the clip.

After shooting on one of these targets for a while, you would see a perfect line in the dirt at the feet of the target from the splatter predictably and consistently coming off the target face at the same angle.

The Dangers of Mild Steel

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s the school of thought that says, “Just grab whatever steel you can find at the junk yard, and it will work just fine as a target.” 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.

In this next video, we learned the hard way that it is never a good idea to shoot at mild steel. Several years ago, the US Army came to Action Target with questions about the ballistic properties of various kinds of steel. At the time, we were building ballistic shoot housecomplexes for the military, and naturally, they wondered if they could get away with using cheaper materials instead of expensive AR500 armor steel. We conducted the following experiment using a sheet of 1/2″ mild steel and a military rifle firing 7.62x39mm ammunition. The test was conducted at close range behind a barricade to simulate shoot house conditions.

In the video, the bullet can be seen completely penetrating the steel leaving a clean hole where the target sticker had been. However, not all of the bullet passes through the hole. The jacket is stripped off and appears to travel directly back toward the shooter at nearly half the original speed of the bullet.

In reality, that stripped jacket was almost deadly. The Action Target employee who pulled the trigger was behind a barricade, but just enough of him was exposed that the jacket knocked off his hat and took a large chunk of his scalp with it.

This is an extreme example as far as safety is concerned, but it provides an important lesson in regard to using soft steel as a shooting target. Non-armor steel (defined here as anything less than AR400) deforms and flexes when shot causing an elastic reaction which can deflect bullet fragments in unpredictable directions. It’s also easily pitted and cratered which ruins the uniformity of the shooting surface, and as shown in this example, it can strip the jacket off a bullet as it passes through.

Brackets, Bolts and Clamps

Many steel targets on the market today are designed with exposed brackets, bolt heads, and clamps. The reasoning behind this is that it allows the target head to be reversed for extended life and even wear and tear on both sides of the target. The unintended consequence, however, is that it creates an uneven shooting surface that affects the predictability of the bullet splatter increasing the likelihood that bullet fragments will come back at the shooter. Instead of a radial pattern that comes off the target face from 0 to 20 degrees like we saw in the first two clips using Action Target steel targets, a direct hit on a bolt head or bracket or even secondary splatter can deflect fragments in any number of directions.

In this example, a .40 caliber bullet was fired directly at the bottom clamp of a steel target. Watch closely as bullet fragments scatter in several directions including back toward the shooter.

Here, a .223 bullet hits the same steel target with exposed clamps in the middle of the shooting surface. The target face is flat and is angled down which is good, but notice what happens when the splatter reaches the edge of the target where the clamps are located. Secondary splatter is created as the fragments are redirected from their safe course toward the feet of the target.

Even more common than clamps are targets that are bolted onto a chain or target stand. In this clip, a 9mm handgun round hits the bottom half of an exposed bolt head sending bullet fragments all over the place.

A bullet doesn’t have to hit the bolt dead on to cause unsafe splatter. Just like the clamp, a bullet can hit the flat part of a target surface and then be redirected by bouncing off the bolt. Watch closely as some of the splatter hits the exposed bolt head and is deflected at a steeper angle.

What Does This Mean for You?

At this point, you may be wondering if your hanging gong target that has an exposed bolt head is going to lead to your early demise. The truth is, accidents involving steel targets that end in serious injury or death are rare (though, they do happen), and the further you are from your target, the less likely it is that you will ever be hit with debris travelling fast enough to do significant damage. The point is, you can greatly reduce the risk of shooting on steel targets (especially at close ranges) by choosing a target that is designed to ensure predictable splatter and is made of the right material.

Here at Action Target, we believe that we make the safest steel targets on the market. Extreme care goes into every product we make to ensure that the you can train well, compete hard, and have fun without having to worry about ricochets and splatter coming back at you. So whether you’re a first-time shooter or an experienced marksman, trust the experts to take care of your steel target needs.

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

18 Responses to Making Sense of Steel Targets – Part 2

  1. AR400, AR450 and AR500 aren’t “armor steel.” There are steels that are “armor steels” and specifically tested for resistance to penetration, breakage and deformation under impact of projectiles.

    ARxxx steels are “abrasion resistant” steels, hence the “AR” in the name. They’re used in applications where you have repeated earth/concrete/soil/gravel/ore to steel contact. Things like backhoe buckets, cutting edges for front loaders, rippers, deep plow shanks, trenching hoes, dump truck beds, etc.

    Put this up there with my gripe about the twaddle of “machined from billet” in the gun industry.

      • No, they’re cut from plate.

        If they’re doing the job competently, they’re using a laser or a waterjet cutter. With these high-hardness steels, if you use a torch or plasma cutter, you change (significantly) the hardness in the HAZ (heat affected zone) and I’ve seen plasma-cut plates spall at the edges when hit with a rifle round.

  2. This article explains much to me..”In the video, the bullet can be seen completely penetrating the steel leaving a clean hole where the target sticker had been. However, not all of the bullet passes through the hole. The jacket is stripped off and appears to travel directly back toward the shooter at nearly half the original speed of the bullet..”

    That experience was almost mirrored by a friend, who lost part of his ear, and thankfully, not his life. I have seen many “accidents” or “accidents waiting to happen” with steel targets in the past and most likely all were made of mild/soft steel. I have not used steel targets since. I have not wanted to take the chance.

  3. After a tank farm installation I acquired six leftover 8″ stainless steel plates that were 5/8″ thick. Mounted then with bolts and old water pipe (at an angle). Been shooting at them for 30 years. Pistol calibers only mind you. Even at 15 yards I’ve never had a problem.

    Rifle calibers on the other hand will sail straight through em. Even my 7mm TCU at 100 yards looked like a drilled hole. Don’t know if I agree with the hardness requirement at least not for pistol.

  4. How much does the target steel hardness matter at ranges of 400 or more meters when shot with rifles (.243, .308)?

  5. My Son and I attended a Seminar last year @ Action Target. After that visit, we ordered all of our Indoor Range equipment from them. Should be up and running by 1 July, by far the best equipment and people in that industry.

  6. Seems like a great promotional piece for action target. Wish them well they proved they have done their homework

  7. I know nothing about this subject. However, every video shown includes static targets. I am not saying that ATI makes bad stuff, but it almost seems like a straw man argument. Every “inferior” homemade scrap steel target that I have ever seen either swings, falls, or spins, thus absorbing energy. Every test example show is based on ATI’s seemingly proprietary static design, which would obviously require extremely high grade steel. Apples and oranges IMO. Any thoughts?

    • It’s part of the overall issue in steel targets. A reactive target becomes a was to dissipate some of the energy of the bullet strike, rather than have the plate absorb all of it.

      A larger part of the issue is the distance to the target. I’ve gotten lead “splash back” from .22LR rounds when I’m too close – even to AR500 plates. This is why you should wear eye protection at the range.

      The ARxxx plates certainly stand up to rifle fire better than A36 steel (one of the most common grades of steel you find as rolled plate). ARxxx steels are not armor steel, however. Most steel target companies using ARxxx steels are using them because they’re a good step up from A36 plate, but much less expensive than real armor steel.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *