Competitive Shooting

Choosing the Right Steel Target

Person shooting steel target with pistol

At one time, steel targets were used only in long-range competitions. Today, practically every outdoor range uses some type of steel target.

Once the original investment is met, you save time and money, as steel doesn’t have to be replaced and changed as often as paper and cardboard.

Steel also offers an immediate reaction to the shot. You don’t have to walk down the line to measure your group or count the bullet holes.

Some would say this adds a greater degree of realism.

steel targets
A pair of poppers waiting for a pistol match.

Steel Target Benefits

A long of list of things you don’t need when using steel targets, includes tape, a staple gun and a marking pen.

Occasionally, perhaps you may wish to paint the targets, but then, it isn’t completely necessary.

Steel targets have a specific set of safety rules and training recommendations as well.

It isn’t enough to set up the targets and start shooting. If you are shooting for fun, ok, but you need to follow safety rules just the same.

As for training, it isn’t always precision bull’s-eye shooting. We need to get fast center hits in personal-defense training.

A steel target has unique attributes that help. You are not recording a score with steel, but rather, practicing to save your life by getting hits.

steel targets
These steel targets (plates) are hanging from a chain. In this manner, the bullet moves the plate and this movement is a reflection of the spot on the target you have hit. The bullet is deflected to the ground as well.

Ensuring a Proper Setup

The target must be set up with a little give.

Hanging from a chain or perched on a reaction target with a spring, the steel target, sometimes called a reaction target, reacts to the shot.

You will hit the target in the center and it will move straight back and then reset after being hit.

Sometimes a rack of steel targets, called plates, is knocked down and then reset as one unit. I like the instant feedback.

The gong reacts with a different timbre depending on whether it is hit with a fast 9mm Luger or a slow .45 ACP.

If you hit the plate/gong in the center, it recoils straight back.

If to one, side it tilts toward that side, if high, less reaction, and if low, it tips toward the bottom in the case of a free-hanging steel plate.

Other types simply tell you that you have hit the plate with less degree of feedback.

You learn the balance of speed and accuracy with immediate feedback. I don’t like firing a string of shots on paper as a test of combat ability.

A group never saved a life. Getting a fast hit does.

Once you use paper to get the gun sighted in, you have the ability to direct fire into the center of the target.

You may have to slow down a little to get hits at first, but while speed is good, accuracy is final.

shooting range
A mix of targets is a good idea for training.

Safety and Protection Advice

Hearing and eye protection is important all the time, but especially with steel targets.

You want a good fit and quality glasses, as there is always a chance that a piece of copper or lead may bounce back and strike your eyes.

The geometry of the shot is such that a straight line between the eyes and the sights may result in a ricochet straight to the rear.

When the bullet strikes the target, the ideal action is to move the target to the rear. The bullet is slowed, flattens and falls to the ground.

The more powerful the firearm, the greater the chance of splatter.

As an example, while I shoot steel plates with a .308 rifle, I do so only when the plate is set at 50 yards.

Frangible bullets are not necessary if you are following the safety rules.

Frangible bullets are great for training very close to plates and if you have a vehicle on the range that is fired into as part of training.

Not many of us do this, and it works out well to use standard ammunition.

steel target
This old plate has taken thousands of hits and remains in use on a weekly basis.

Your Best Steel Target Options

All steel isn’t created equal. Targets intended for handguns will shatter or be penetrated easily by .223 and .30-caliber rifles.

Heavy rifle targets will fail to reset when hit by pistol bullets. Generally, pistol targets are manufactured at about 3/8-inch thickness.

A rifle target should be ½-inch thick. These will last many thousands of rounds before they need replacement.

Tempering is an arcane subject, but factory steel targets from CheaperThanDirt! are properly tempered.

When set up, the area the target occupies should be reasonably free of debris.

The bullets will angle into the ground when the steel target is properly set, no need to create flying missiles.

The splatter zone is usually a maximum of 15 yards with pistol targets.

It is easy to set up white poster board to check the true splatter zone, but I recommend 10 yards as the minimum shooting distance.

I practice quickly drawing and getting on target, then getting the correct sight picture along with a smooth trigger press.

Fire, repeat, get a hit and speed up only when you have been consistent in hitting the target.

Conclusion: Steel Targets

Steel targets are not only fun, they offer excellent training potential.

Do you like practicing with steel targets? Let us know in the comments section below!

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

1 Comment;

  1. Keep in mind that a larger, thinner target will ring more loudly than a smaller, thicker one. For your 500yd+ targets consider going with 3/8 for rifles 300 mag or lighter.

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