Make More Money by Selling the Safety of Steel

While knowing the inside scoop about steel targets can help you sell more of them, the real importance of a steel education is safety.

Make More Money by Selling the Safety of Steel

While knowing the inside scoop about steel targets can help you sell more of them, the real importance of a steel education is safety.

You’ve probably heard that old yarn about “bullets bouncing right back at you.” Maybe you believe it, or perhaps you’re not convinced of its accuracy. Skeptical or not, it’s true. I’ve witnessed handgun ammo fragments bouncing back from 25 yards with enough velocity to penetrate skin and embed in muscle. I’ve seen rifle projectiles bounce back from more than 100 yards and zip over the firing line with enough velocity to make that scary “whizzing” sound. While “common sense” seems to indicate a projectile could never bounce straight back at the shooter, but rather ricochet off in some random direction, it can happen under the right circumstances. Worse yet, it’s not even rare.

Fortunately, these instances are almost always the result of using steel targets improperly. We’ll get into the details in just a second, but for now consider “steel knowledge” a valuable safety tip to pass on to your customers. Of course, a related benefit is that you might want to explore selling proper and safe steel targets or steel-friendly ammunition.

Steel is Super

Step one is to appreciate and share the benefits of shooting steel targets. For starters, it’s fun. The resounding “gong” of a solid hit on steel is satisfying and offers instant gratification of a shot well placed. On the other hand, if you miss, there’s no doubt about it. A related benefit is that there’s no need to go down range to inspect results. In most cases you can see a hit, even at long-range rifle distances. A little fresh paint on the target between shooting sessions helps highlight the bullet splash impact areas. I keep a can of white spray paint in my shooting box for this use. Another can of bright orange or green works well for creating an aim point against the white background of larger targets.

Let’s consider some relevant factors for safe and responsible steel target shooting.

Material Used for Targets

Most target manufacturers use either AR500 or AR550 steel for target construction. Why? Matt Teske, president of Competition Target Systems, sums up the reason. “We recommend only shooting steel that is hard enough to destroy the bullet on impact. That is why we only use certified AR500 steel for our targets.” And there you have it. If the target is made to destroy the projectile, there’s nothing substantial that can ricochet in unpredictable directions with enough energy to cause harm or property damage.

Let’s put that in perspective. While AR500 and AR550 are industry ratings, all steel so marked may not have equal hardness. MGM Targets requires their steel suppliers to certify a Brinnel Hardness level of at least 495. As a comparison, the steel in your car is somewhere in the 135 range. Rigorous material, heating and quenching processes result in target steel that carries about the same hardness level as a quality steel knife blade and armor plating. Hardness is exactly why one should never, ever use scrap steel for shooting — it’s just not hard enough. If a bullet can cause visible damage to a steel target, then that target does not have sufficient hardness for safe use.

Steel targets are available in a wide variety of configurations. While most targets designed for fire and brimstone shooting have similar hardness, they do vary in thickness. The reason is a simple matter of logistical tradeoffs. If you’re only be going to be shooting airguns or rimfire ammunition, there’s no need to use a ½-inch thick steel target that’s heavy enough to have its own gravitational field. However, if you’re shooting a 300 Win Mag, you’ll need thicker steel that will allow that target to take thousands of high-powered hits without damage.

While specific manufacturer recommendations vary, some rules of thumb are to use 3/16- or ¼-inch-thick targets for rimfire ammunition. Targets with a thickness of 3/8 inch are generally good for most pistol caliber use, although for “fast” calibers like 10mm and .357 Sig you may want to go thicker. Rifle-appropriate targets are often 3/8-inches thick as well, but you must shoot them from farther away than when using pistols. Hold that thought until we talk about safe distances.

Distance for Targets

Each manufacturer will specify safe distances for their targets using different ammunition, so always check their recommendations first. You’ll also find that recommendations vary based on the mounting system.

Generally, you shouldn’t shoot steel targets with a “non-magnum” pistol from closer than 15 yards. As for rifles, standard calibers like 5.56 or .308 should be fired from at least 100 yards away. For higher velocity rifles with heavier projectiles extend that distance to 200 yards.

When using rifles on steel targets, it’s a good idea to perform a close inspection of the target after firing the first couple rounds from the safe recommended distance. Look for any signs of indentation or pitting. If you see those signs, increase the distance and repeat the process. Remember, it’s the pitting and cratering that makes a steel target dangerous.

Setting Up Targets

Many pistol targets are available with a fixed mounting system. Targets might be hung on a 2x4 or steel fence post driven into the ground. Of course, anything mounted like this will move at least a little when hit and that’s a good feature.

Some manufacturers also offer spring mounts that allow the target to absorb some of the impact and return to their original position. This helps dissipate bullet energy, prevent damage to the steel and extend the life of the target. You’ll also notice many pistol target mounting systems angle the face 10 or 20 degrees towards the ground. That’s to direct fragments and flattened lead bullet cores to the ground at the base of the target.

Rifle targets should always be able to swing freely. Even thick armor plating can be damaged when mounted to an immovable object. That’s why most rifle systems use some type of hanging mount that allows the target to move when hit. It’s also a great visual feedback cue for hits at longer ranges. While you may not see the bullet splash, you will see the target swinging.

Ammunition to Use

The choice of ammunition is a factor too. For standard full metal jacket ammo, higher velocity performance requires thicker steel and more distance for safety reasons. Never use penetrator or steel core ammo like XM-193. That will damage your targets, negate the warranty and increase the safety risk.

Some ammunition choices can enhance the steel shooting experience. Frangible ammunition with projectiles made from compressed metal powders are great for steel. They still make a resounding noise when they strike the target, but are designed to fragment into dust when hitting a hard surface. The lack of fragments means that you can reduce the safe shooting distances. Some ammo manufacturers demonstrate their ammunition against steel targets from contact distance. That’s not recommended — always go by the manufacturer’s recommendation.

While true frangible ammunition is specialized, there are a couple of readily available ammo brands perfect for steel target use. Federal designed its American Eagle Syntech line in part for competitive steel target use. The lead core projectiles aren’t covered with a traditional copper jacket. Instead, the company uses a polymer coating that looks like bright red lipstick to separate the lead interior from the barrel. The result is a bullet that doesn’t leave copper fouling in your barrel. More importantly for this discussion, the soft polymer disintegrates when hitting a target and allows the softer interior lead core to flatten against a steel target. The overall level of fragmentation and splash is dramatically reduced.

Inceptor Ammunition has developed a new approach to ammunition manufacturing. Using polymer and copper “dust” (for lack of a better word) the company makes a liquid material that they can injection mold into bullets. The result is a projectile made from plastic and copper that will fragment when hitting very hard surfaces like target steel. It’s a different approach than frangible but serves a similar purpose. You might think of these projectiles as somewhere between true frangible technology and traditional jacketed.

Damage from Ammunition

The primary cause of dangerous bounce-back situations is target damage. If you ever see pitting, holes, or cratering of any kind, stop shooting that steel. It’s the misshaped steel that will cause bullet bounce back situations. This is exactly what happens when people bring scrap steel to the range for target use. The odds are that doesn’t carry anywhere near the hardness of AR500 or AR550. As a result, if bullets don’t pass completely through it, they’ll cause crater impacts.

If you see pitting or crater damage to a steel target of any kind, stop shooting! Assuming that it’s a properly constructed shooting target, you can just turn it over to present the undamaged side for continued use.

Steel target shooting is immensely fun but continues to be one of the least understood safety risks. With just a little knowledge and care, however, it’s perfectly safe. Educating your customers about the basic dos and don’ts is not only a great public service, but an opportunity to sell them the right targets and ammo for enjoyable and safe steel target shooting.


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