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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.