Why You Should Be Shooting Steel Targets and Some Guidelines

Most shooters routinely shoot paper plates, cardboard, or paper targets, but shooting steel targets is a fun choice to consider. What are the advantages of shooting steel targets? What are the differences between steel targets and what are the key safety guidelines to follow? Col Ben helps you by giving his ideas and suggestions for shooting steel.

Why You Should Be Shooting Steel Targets and Some Guidelines

Most shooters out-of-habit shoot paper plates, cardboard, or paper targets, but shooting Steel Targets is a fun choice to consider. But why shoot steel targets? What type of steel targets are available and are their important differences in steel metals and compositions?

What are the guidelines to follow for safety, ricochets, shooting distances, selecting steel and target thickness, etc.? What safety rules should a shooter follow and are there differences between rifles and handguns rules? What steel product do I recommend for typical handgun practice and at what price? Do all steel targets crater and get pitted?

I want to help with your shooting practices and in deciding if steel targets are for you… and which one do I specifically suggest and why.

Rogue Steel AR500 Steel Silhouette Target and Stand
Rogue Steel AR500 Steel Silhouette Target and Stand

Why Shoot Steel Targets

I like to shoot quality steel targets because they can be quickly setup and shot at until you’re out of ammo or get tired. Just put one end of the 2″x4″ in your tension mount at the top and the other end in the stand’s bottom. Attach the target to the mount with a carriage bolt and wing nut. You’re good to go.

With steel targets, you can get more practice time in a given session, because there is no pause to replace or repair targets. However, all steel targets are not created equally. Anything softer than AR500 and AR550 steel can deform with repeated impact. But, for example, AR500 retains its flat shape after heavy use and helps ensure that bullets fragment entirely and are uniformly dispersed.

Recognize that shooting at scrap steel metal or other softer and not heat-treated steel targets can yield unpredictable results and undesirable ricochets. There are many different, positive reasons folks have for shooting steel. I think it is simply pure fun and love that “ring” sound.

Here are my reasons for shooting steel targets:

  • Instant confirmation of target hit or miss
  • Audio “ring” sound and visual feedback
  • Steel targets last very long time – thousands of hits (if you follow the manufacturer’s guidelines); for pistol use, probably a lifetime; bullets bounce off or vaporize upon impact with heat-treated, hardened steel
  • No paper target holes to patch/cover
  • No frequent trips downrange to change targets
  • Not affected by rain, wind, or weather conditions
  • Fast target changes – quick spray with inexpensive spray paint
  • Easy to assemble & easy to transport/portable
  • Made in the U.S.A.
  • Fun to shoot!

Like I mentioned, all steel is not the same. Are you ready for this: The World Steel Association says there are over 3,500 different grades of steel. There are basically four types of steel:

  1. Carbon (carbon and iron mixture)
  2. Alloy (up to 10% or so of other elements like aluminum, titanium, & copper are added for various reasons)
  3. Stainless (chromium and nickel with a little carbon)
  4. Tool steel (contains tungsten, molybdenum, and cobalt to increase heat resistance)

The industry generally recognizes that for steel targets to be functional and safe, they should be made of high quality, heat-treated, through-hardened steel that has a Brinell Hardness Number (BHN) of at least 500. The temperature metals are heated to, and the rate of cooling after Heat Treatment can significantly change metal’s properties. Steel undergoes Heat Treatment to improve its strength, hardness, ductility, and corrosion resistance. The proper steel provides sufficient strength, toughness, and impact resistance. The hardened steel must be hard and strong enough to destroy the bullet upon impact completely.

This combination of hardness and strength is found in AR500 Steel and AR550 Steel. For example, some manufacturers, like Rogue Shooting Targets, use AR500 Steel and others use milder AR400 and other milder steel versions. Here’s a general comparison.

Rogue AR500 Steel Reactive Popper Targets
Rogue AR500 Steel Reactive Popper Targets

AR500 VS. AR400-Mild Steel

  • AR500 Steel works for both handguns and rifles; Lower grades of steel can be dangerous and do not last as long
  • AR500 Steel is Heat Treated to a higher hardness of about 500 BHN; Other mild steel is not heat treated
  • AR500 Steel targets can usually handle rifle hits with velocities near 3,000 fps but shoot at a distance further out where the impact will be at less than 3,000 fps
  • AR500 Steel usually deforms very little
Rogue Shooting Targets 3/8" Thick AR500 Steel Round Gong with 15 Hits at 13 Yards - No Craters or Pitting
Rogue Shooting Targets 3/8″ Thick AR500 Steel Round Gong with 15 Hits at 13 Yards – No Craters or Pitting

Thickness also plays a role in appropriate steel targets to prevent cratering and pitting. Of course, it varies by gun caliber, velocities, energies, distance, etc. Here are some general guidelines for AR500 Steel Target thickness and shooting steel:

General Manufacturer’s Guidelines For AR500 Steel Target & Thickness

  • 1/4″ AR500 Steel – withstand pistol rounds from .22 up to about .44 Mag; Thinner and designed to move and ring louder with pistol rounds
  • 3/8″ AR500 Steel – withstand pistol & rifle rounds up to about 7.62; Ensure bullet velocity is below 3,000 fps at the point of impact (to avoid pitting) and less than 3,500 ft lbs energy at impact. Generally can be used with large magnums 300 yards and beyond.
    NOTE: 3/8″ AR500 Steel works for large pistol calibers, e.g., .45, 9mm, .38 Sp.
  • 1/2″ AR500 Steel – withstand rifle rounds up to .338; Preferred for military and police training; Ensure bullet velocity is below 3,000 fps (to avoid pitting). Can be used with 50BMG at approximately 400 yards and beyond.
    NOTE: Both 3/8″ and 1/2″ targets have .530″ hole cut for 1/2″ hardened carriage bolt in heavy duty tension holder
  • AR500 Steel Targets (from Rogue Shooting Targets) are made by laser cut for precision

Recognize that you shoot steel targets at your own risk. There is always a chance of some splatter errantly coming back toward you, but that risk is generally low (depending mainly on distance and caliber shot) and if it does occur, and you are wearing proper eye protection and clothing, there should not be a significant chance of injury. But, honestly, there is always some chance, no matter how small a risk. So follow these safety rules for shooting steel, as well as to preserve the longevity of the steel target.

Safety Rules For Steel Targets

  • Always follow all firearms safety rules at all times when shooting.
  • Always use certified eye protection (ANSI Z87.1) with side shields and ear protection.
  • Pistol Distance: 10 yards minimum distance from the target; Maximum 1,500 fps lead ammo
    NOTE: IDPA Rule 2.15 requires steel targets be engaged at 10 yards or more.
  • Rifle Distance: 100 yards minimum distance from the target; Depends on rifle, caliber & ammo; Maximum 3,000 fps.
    NOTE: Back up until bullet speed is generally below 2,850 fps at the target to avoid pitting; If a bullet leaves a mark, increase your distance from the target.
  • Do not shoot armor-piercing, steel core/steel jacket, solid copper bullets, or other hardened bullets. Do not weld or modify plate.
  • Shoot steel targets straight on, not at steep angles; Consider many uncontrollable directions and dangers of flat steel splatters (your decision).
  • Ensure target face is angled downward so bullet splatter can be directed toward the ground.
    NOTE: The tension mounting angles the target downward toward the ground, and the spring absorbs some impact force. The mounting is hidden behind the target, so it is protected from stray shots that might damage it.
  • Watch for ricochets; Shoot at longer distances to prevent damage to the target.
    NOTE: While most of the lead and copper rounds fragment and deflect at 20 degrees, always wear safety glasses and setup target in safe location and distance.
    NOTE: Bullets can deflect and go in unknown and unpredictable directions; Bullets can penetrate the wrong type of target.
  • Never Shoot BBs, pellets, or Air Soft at thicker targets, since they do not have sufficient force to splatter and will bounce back.
  • Shoot frangible ammo on steel to generate less fragmentation, but regular jacketed handgun ammo may also be considered (your decision).
  • Bullet lead splatter may be hot; do not use in dry grass due to fire risk; Use caution
  • If the target becomes bent, cratered or damaged in any way, replace it.
  • Shoot steel targets at your own risk; Make your own choices and decisions.

* Rogue Shooting Targets, Author, and USA Carry Assume no responsibility or liability for misuse or not following safety rules or guidelines.

Rogue Steel Swinging Target
Rogue Steel Swinging Target

General Suggestions For Shooting Steel Targets

  • Angle target face downward to help deflect splatter toward the ground
  • Generally, the closer the target will be shot, the more the angle of target downward
  • Shooters and spectators should wear certified eye and ear protection and appropriate clothing for protection
  • Use inexpensive white or orange/red fluorescent spray paint to repaint over target hits
    NOTE: Targets come from manufacturer unpainted (oil & shoot, paint or leave unpainted)
  • Close handgun targets ring loud & are easier to hear hits (caliber dependent – be safe)
  • Long-Distance targets usually have quieter rings (caliber dependent – be safe)
  • Target ring is usually louder on larger targets
  • Target ring is higher pitched on thinner targets
  • Consider “ring” is covered up by gunshot sound, especially at closer distances
  • Use a 2″x4″x8 foot piece of pressure-treated wood (about $4.00) as an upright to hold target to save on cost and weight; Cut as preferred for desired height.

Now that I’ve gone over the reasons on why you should be shooting steel targets and some general guidelines, be sure to check out my Rogue Shooting Targets 3/8″x10″ AR500 Steel Gong and Stand review.

Special Discount Code

Rogue Shooting Targets has offered a 10% Special Discount through July 31, 2018, for their products. When ordering online or by phone (see contact info below), mention Col Ben or use the following discount code to receive 10% off of your purchase.

Discount Code: ColBen10

Photos: By Author and Rogue Shooting Targets, LLC.

* This personal opinion article is meant for general information & educational purposes only, and the author strongly recommends that you seek counsel from an attorney for legal advice and your own personal certified weapons trainer for proper guidance about shooting & using YOUR firearms, self-defense and concealed carry. It should not be relied upon as accurate for all shooters & the author assumes no responsibility for anyone’s use of the information and shall not be liable for any improper or incorrect use of the information or any damages or injuries incurred whatsoever.

© 2018 Col Benjamin Findley. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced in whole or in part by mechanical means, photocopying, electronic reproduction, scanning, or any other means without prior written permission. For copyright information, contact Col Ben Findley at ColBFF@gmail.com.

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"Col Ben" is retired with 30 years service in the U.S. Air Force, with joint services Special Ops duty and training, and is Air Force qualified as "Expert" in small arms. He is a Vietnam-era Veteran. Ben is an experienced NRA-Certified Pistol Instructor, NRA Range Safety Officer, and FL Concealed Carry License Instructor. Ben recently wrote the book "Concealed Carry and Handgun Essentials for Personal Protection" (second printing) with 57 comprehensive Chapters about concealed carry and handgun principles, techniques, and tips for both experienced and new shooters. His reference book is endorsed by several organizations and is available on his website at FloridaHandgunsTraining.com. Contact him at ColBFF@gmail.com.
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