Here's what to know when purchasing, using and maintaining an increasingly popular shooting accessory.
If you’re in the over 30 crowd, you remember a time where steel targets were more of a niche item. Unless you had access to a silhouette range, you shot at paper targets and correlated the placement of shots based on environmental and shooter performance variables. If you had a spotter or somebody in the target pits to score each shot you had a decent feedback loop.
However, if you were shooting on your own you did your best to make improvements based on this delayed feedback loop. Those craving a more instant feedback loop could leave the square range and shoot at a variety of junk targets (cans, bottles, appliances, old cars, etc.). Besides the safety issues associated with shooting at junk, you would quickly run out of targets and were left with a big mess to clean up.
Fast forward to today and steel targets have become almost ubiquitous. Why have steel targets become so popular? Here are some observations:
They provide instant feedback - an impact on target is rewarded with target movement and an often an audible 'ping'. In many cases, you can also see where your shot went on the target.
They are more entertaining to hit than paper
They can represent certain scenarios such as a hunting trip, hostage rescue, good guys vs bad guys, etc.
Unlike paper, they don’t deteriorate in the rain and can be used over and over again
They are low maintenance – you set them at a distance and forget them. There is no requirement to have somebody in the target pits to score them and no need to tape up or replace them after each shooter. Presently it is the norm for entire tactical/practical shooting matches to be held without a single piece of paper being perforated.
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If you like to shoot on public land, you can set up steel targets as far as you can practically shoot. If your local shooting club allows the use of steel targets, you can refine your skills with an economical and portable setup. If it is legal to shoot on your own property, there are a wide variety of steel targets available to set up your home firing range.
How is a Steel Target Made?
If you've shot at pieces of scrap steel before you may have noticed they quickly become perforated with bullet holes after one shooting session. So what’s special about the steel used in targets? It all comes down to the type of steel used. Steel targets that are designed and manufactured for use with firearms are hardened, similar to armor plating, and will resist deformation as bullets impact them.
Steel targets are rated by the hardness of the steel. For example, AR 500 is the most common material used for steel targets. AR 500 stands for "Abrasion Resistant" and has a Brinell Hardness rating of 500. AR 500 has a higher hardness rating than AR 400 which is also used for steel targets but is not as durable due to its lower hardness rating.
Target manufacturers purchase steel in large sheets and cut targets various sizes and shapes using several methods. Jake Vibbert of JC Steel Targets provides some insight:
"Our AR500 steel is hand selected, making sure we only get the highest grade materials (we’ll show customers the certifications upon request). We then lay our entire sheet of AR500 down to be cut with a computer programmed Robotic laser cutting arm with tru-hole technology. It creates a super product, leaving very smooth edges and nice clean holes.
We can cut about any shape and size needed with very close tolerances and dimensions. It cuts very fast, keeping the material cooler than other methods of cutting. You do not want to keep the heat on a specific area of AR500. If the heat is kept on too long, it will eventually weaken the material in the immediate area. Some heat is completely fine, and you will see no difference, but excessive heat is something to avoid."