A Look At Steel Targets

By the 6.5 Guys (Steve Lawrence, Ed Mobley)

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.
I hope you enjoy the series of articles to be written by the 6.5 Guys. You can visit their website HERE.
-Len Backus-​

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."

A Look At Steel Targets

Cutting Methods
There are three primary methods used to cut steel targets with manufacturers often advocating one method over another. Long story short, it is not worth your time obsessing about the cutting method employed by commercial target manufacturers. Below we provide an overview and the key considerations as you select targets for your needs:

The most common cutting method, is Hi Def Plasma or underwater plasma. Depending on the level of the machine, it can be combined with Tru-Hole technology. This process is fairly fast and creates a surprisingly nice product. It is also the cheapest way to cut AR500 steel targets because of the availability of small plasma tables.

However, not all plasma tables are created equal. According to Jake Vibbert of JC Steel, the smaller 4'x8' or 5'x10' plasma tables tend to cut a little slower and they are not quite as accurate when it comes to cutting shapes or making holes. Plasma tables can range from as little as a couple thousand dollars to millions of dollars depending on design, size, and capabilities.

Another popular method to cut AR500 targets is with a laser - it cuts fast, and is very accurate. Some of the laser tables out on the market right now have some incredible capabilities. Laser tables are considered to be some of the most expensive.

Finally, AR500 steel targets can be cut with a water-jet table. Water jet tables usually run a little slower, but can produce a good product. They can also be used to engrave designs on targets such as scoring rings. Water-Jet tables are not as expensive as the high tech laser tables, but usually more than the home variety plasma tables.

The main difference between these three methods comes down to heat. Keep in mind that high heat compromises the hardness of the steel. Water-Jet tables do not create heat when the product is cut. Laser tables can cut very quickly minimizing generated heat. High dollar Plasma tables with the correct capabilities can also cut fairly fast keeping the heat down somewhat. Smaller and less costly home plasma tables cut slower and the heat stays on the edge of the target longer.

This gets us to our next topic - our Heat Affected Zone or HAZ. The HAZ is the volume of material at or near the cut which properties have been altered due to the metal heating up. The HAZ on a target that has been cut via a water-jet table is zero. The HAZ with a laser is roughly 1/16". The HAZ with a quality Hi-Def Plasma table is roughly 1/8".

A home built plasma table or hand cutting plasma tool/torch can have a number of effects on the plate due to varying HAZ - it would depend how long that particular person kept the heat source on the target’s edge. For that reason, you may wish to ask a few more questions before purchasing targets manufactured on home built cutting tables.

The HAZ is considered a negative in the target industry because the HAZ has different metal properties than the rest of the plate - the HAZ basically softens the steel in the small area. As shooters we like to focus on the details, however the HAZ may not matter that much if at all.

For example, when a 7mm bullet going 2800 FPS hits the very edge of a target that has been HD plasma cut, the edge hit will likely take off a small 1/16" chip out of the side of the target. But, when the exact same thing happens to a laser or water-jet target, the result is identical - the same 1/16" divot has been chipped off of the edge.

The reality of the situation is that we are shooting a high speed projectile at a stationary target, and if it hits the very edge it is likely to chip irrespective of the cutting method because there is no material around the edge to support it giving it strength.

Target Durability and Other Considerations
AR500 is a very durable product, but like everything, it has its limitations. If you would like to have your AR500 Steel Targets for a lifetime, follow these basic guidelines for 3/8" Premium AR500:

  • Pistol rounds at 15 yards and further
  • .223 type rifles at 100 yards and further
  • .308 type rifles at 100 yards and further
  • 300 WM type rifles at 200 yards and further

If these guidelines are followed, you should be able to use these targets with no damage to the steel. Speed is what hurts steel (or as some like to say – Speed Kills!). It is common to see a .223 round dimple AR500 at 100 yards because of the speed of the bullet upon impact. If possible, try to keep the bullet velocity at 2600 FPS or less when it impacts the steel.

Consult the ballistics tables for your rifle, cartridge, and target distance to determine the expected velocity of your projectile hitting the target. Target life will also depend on the bullet composition. Armor piercing, steel core or steel jacketed ammo will destroy an AR500 Steel target in no time and can also create sparks which can start fires. If your bullet attracts a magnet, you should not be shooting them at steel.

However, we can’t always adhere to the above guidelines so AR500 targets need to be viewed as a consumable (although it may take a really long time to run through a target). Our practice targets are hit thousands of times at close ranges with fast muzzle velocities and that bullet is basically a hammer compacting a very dense piece of steel even further. The more the steel is compacted, the more brittle the target is going to get and eventually the impact of the bullet will crack the AR500. Does that mean it is bad AR500? Absolutely not - it only means the life of the target (a consumable item) is now up.

Steel targets are not the only consumable with a finite life span. The various hardware and mechanisms used to hang steel targets will wear out over time depending on construction and frequency of use. Keep in mind that as you select steel targets, the sundry target hanging hardware will likely need to be replaced so keep some extras on hand for periodic maintenance as required.

One of the biggest questions for a new steel target shooter has to do with the thickness of the steel. AR500 targets are most commonly available in the following three thicknesses: 1/2", 3/8", and 1/4".

  • 1/2" is the most robust, strongest, and most durable. 1/2" is usually reserved for large caliber rifles, such as 338s, 375s, 300 mags, 7 mags etc. The 1/2" AR500 handles the energy much better than the thinner AR500 varieties.
  • 3/8" is the most popular. Anything in the range of 308, .260, .30-06, all standard pistol rounds are a perfect combination for 3/8" AR500.
  • 1/4" is popular for extreme long distance shooting (they are very audible), and some rimfire shooting like 22LR.
Here are some general guidelines for extended target life:

Common Target Designs and Applicability
Steel targets come in just about every shape imaginable. Here are the most popular:

  • IPSC
  • Humanoid shapes (head, head and torso, upper body with arms, hostage/hostage taker)
  • Geometric shapes (circle, square, rectangle, diamond, etc.)
  • Animal shapes (birds, squirrels, wood chucks, coyotes, hogs, bears, etc.)
As you can see targets come in wide variety of shapes and size. Similarly, there are an array of methods used to hang targets.

  • T-Post with Bracket
  • Target Hook
  • Conveyer Belt or Fire Hose
  • 2x4 Mount
  • Target Stands (rebar or pipe)
Target manufacturers have also devised mechanisms so targets will react differently when being impacted by a bullet. Some of the most popular include:

  • Poppers
  • Flappers
  • Spring back targets
  • Pistol plate racks
  • Dueling trees
  • Spinners

AR500 Reactive Springer Target (Woodchuck)

AR500 Reactive IPSC Flapper Target (66% IPSC)

AR500 Reactive Springer on 2x4 Post (8" Diamond)

A Look At Steel Targets

How Targets are Typically Used
Practice setup (basically what 6.5 Guys use): 3 circular pieces of steel ranging from 1.5 to 3 MOA (based on distance) is all you need to practice the fundamentals as outlined in our training article (Practice Made Perfect). Combine these targets with some type of hanging system and you are set.

JC Steel targets has designed a product bundle of targets and hangers that makes for a great starter kit and Len Backus's LRH Store handles it.

Just look for the 6.5 Guys Package. All you need is a T-post (commonly used for fences) to get started which you can find at any home improvement or ranch supply store. While you can technically hammer T-posts you’ll quickly get tired of that technique – spend the money on a proper T-post driver.

Home range setup: If you can legally shoot on your property, there are some quick and inexpensive options. If pistol or rimfire is your game, there are inexpensive target hanging systems available that go over a 2x4. 2x4 hangers are nice because you can construct a portable shooting stand or a whole plate rack for a minimal cost. You can combine these hangers with just about any target of your choice and you are good to go.

Long range setup: If you have access to large stretches of public or private land, you can easily set out targets past 1,000 yards. IPSC targets are popular, but so are simple geometric shapes.

Whatever your choice of target, the most flexible arrangement utilizes T-post hangars. Throw the targets and some T-posts in the back of your vehicle and you can be shooting in short order. Teardown is also easy. If you want to add an additional dimension to your shooting, consider a spinning target of a dueling tree. Spring back targets are very popular because they make some very satisfying noise.

Safety Considerations
In layman's terms, when a rifle bullet impacts an AR500 Steel target at high speed it generates heat and disintegrates into many small fragments. For those reasons, always wear eye protection and never shoot steel targets with a center fire rifle closer than 100 yards or with a pistol closer than 15 yards.

Only shoot at trusted AR500 Steel. When shooting steel, especially at close range, it is important to have the flat and smooth surface that AR500 gives you. Mild steel or lesser quality steel is dangerous to shoot particularly at closer ranges:

  • The surface of mild steel craters easily and this can direct bullet fragments back toward the shooter.
  • Bullets can penetrate mild steel and be deflected in an unsafe direction.
Wear gloves when handling targets. Besides avoiding cuts and scrapes, they will keep the lead off your hands.

Steel targets seem to be popping up everywhere and for good reason: They are fun, economical and can help you be a better shooter. Just set them up with a fresh coat of paint and you can spend an entire day shooting without having to leave your shooting spot.
An internet search will show a number of steel target vendors and we trust that the information presented in this article will allow you to make an educated purchase.

Besides choosing a vendor based on technical merits, we would encourage you to select one that actively supports the sport, the community and demonstrates a willingness to help their customers come up with the best assortment of targets to meet their needs. These tend to be family run businesses so there is a possibility to establish a long rewarding relationship.

We extend our thanks to JC Steel Targets for providing technical information and guidance in the writing of this article.

Remember – Life is an adventure…stay on target!

[/FLOATRIGHT]6.5 Guys chronicles the journey of two middle aged men (Ed Mobley, Steve Lawrence) in the Pacific Northwest as we strive for excellence in our chosen sport of precision long range shooting. While working our day jobs and providing for our families, we want to see how far we can take our pursuit with a bit of concerted effort. So far the results have been very promising. While shooting well is icing on the cake, it’s the journey and the people we meet along the way that are the best part of the adventure. We believe that we are providing something unique as we take our audience along for the ride. You will observe first hand as we figure out what works and doesn’t work for us. Hopefully you can apply our experiences to something that you are trying to achieve in life, be it shooting or something else. That’s why we came up with the tag line “Life is an adventure…stay on target.” In other words, set a goal, remain focused, and enjoy yourself along the way. 6.5 Guys