At one point in my life, I got bored with going to the shooting range just to punch holes in paper. Don’t get me wrong, I loved shooting, but after awhile it just got repetitive. But, as luck would have it, before I fell too deep into despair I landed a job with a steel-target company and discovered the joy of steel targets, rekindling my love of the sport. Although I have since moved on from that job, my love of steel still rings true to this day.
To newbies, shooting on steel is usually pretty awesome because of the instant gratification it brings when they hit the target — the cling and clang followed by actual movement. But newbies might also find it challenging because instead of shooting a 36×24-inch paper target where mistakes are clearly marked, the target is an 8-inch plate that’s hit or miss. And if it’s a miss, it’s hard to tell if it was high or low, right or left. All of your bad habits are exposed when you shoot steel, but the challenge is part of the fun.
Steel targets come in a variety of shapes, styles and functions. The set up can be as complex as a series of plates that swing from one side to the other to test a shooter’s quickness and accuracy, or as simple as a gong set up out yonder just waiting to be rung.
Common set ups, and some of my personal favorites, are the Plate Rack and the Hostage Target, both made by Action Target. The two are just as challenging as they are entertaining.
The Plate Rack is a series of 8-inch plates that you shoot in order. You shoot one, it falls over and you move on to the next. It’s designed to challenge speed more so than accuracy.
The Hostage Target is a traditional torso target that has a 4-inch swinger plate behind the head of the torso. Basically it simulates a bad guy using a hostage as a shield. This design tests a shooter’s reaction and accuracy, and it’s just plain fun as the target swings back and forth.
But, like I said, there are any number of variations and combinations for steel targets. Figuring out what you like shouldn’t be hard, but if you’re really serious…
Finest steel, hottest fire
My experience comes from prior work experience with Action Target, which is what I know and am most familiar with. The company has a free guide to shooting steel and goes into more detail about the science of it, much more than necessary for a down and dirty guide like this.
With any new shooting activity, it’s best to know the rules and practices before getting into it.
Understand what the target was designed for: To simplify this, steel targets can be broken down into three categories: rimfire, handgun and rifle. The targets are rated based on the hardness of the steel, so the faster the bullet, the harder the steel needs to be. While rifle-rated steel can withstand handgun and rimfire shooting, it doesn’t work the other way around. I have literally seen rifle rounds pierce handgun-rated steel like paper.
Use appropriate ammunition, like FMJ, ball ammo (if allowed where you are shooting) or frangible. Don’t use steel core, green tip, or any other armor piecing or penetrator rounds.
Finally understand the appropriate distances to shoot. Most manufacturers recommend 7 to 10 yards as the minimum distances to shoot on steel for both rimfire and handgun calibers. Rifle distances usually start at 100 yards, but some calibers require up to 300 yards for minimum safe distances. And FYI, .50 BMG will destroy steel targets.
Do not shoot on damaged steel: Damaged steel can create unpredictable splatter patterns and that can be very harmful. If you’re unfamiliar with splatter, it’s when the bullet impacts something hard and shatters into tiny pieces.
Steel targets are designed to break the bullet apart and channel the splatter, but if the target is damaged it could affect how the bullet breaks apart and direct the splatter in a harmful direction.
Trust me: you do not want to get hit by a super hot, super fast piece of lead in any way shape or form.
Use steel targets made by a manufacturer: A good steel target will last years if used properly, so it’s worth investing in. Buy from a legitimate manufacturer like Action Target or MGM (Those are the brands I’m most familiar with and have personally used).
I would advise against making steel targets at home just to save a few bucks. If a steel target is not designed correctly, it could really hurt someone or worse. While I have seen some quality homemade steel targets, those are the exception, not the rule. It just isn’t worth the risk.
Shooting on steel changed shooting for me, period. Honestly, I think some of my best days out shooting have involved steel targets, so get out and try it.