I’ve realized there is an elephant in the steel target showroom. While there are significant benefits to shooting AR500 steel targets, there are drawbacks that must be discussed. The big three criteria for pretty much anything you may deal with in life will be (in no particular order) cost, safety, and effectiveness.
COST- Steel targets, especially commercially built AR500 targets, rated to handle everything from 22LR up through 50 BMG, are expensive. MOA’s line of gongs, the most simple of targets, average about $4.75/lb. A standard 8″ diameter 3/8″ AR500 target (5.35 lbs) with two holes is $25 from MOA is $4.67/lb. For that price, you can get a whole packet of shoot and see or sight in paper targets. Simply put, AR500 steel targets are about the most expensive option out there for steel targets, even before getting into the reactive targets.
Expensive, yes. However, if used per manufacturer direction, a typical AR500 steel target will last thousands to tens of thousands of rounds. With standard pistol calibers (9x19mm, .40S&W, .45ACP), a 3/8″ AR500 target will effectively never fail. With standard rifle calibers (5.56x45mm, 30-30 Win, 7.62×51) a 8″ diameter 3/8″ AR500 target will last several thousand rounds before replacement is required. Larger targets, due to increased surface area, will last even longer. You’ll need to do a major overhaul on your rifle before you’ll need to replace your target, if you follow manufacturer recommendations for use.
Shipping costs can be quite high on steel targets, due to weight. MOA uses US Postal Service Flat Rate shipping for as many target options as possible, and offers $5, $20, and free USPS flat rate shipping on many targets.
SAFETY- Safety is always a primary concern when using firearms. Shooting steel, even at manufacturer recommended distances, includes a degree of risk of projectile and target material rebounding and striking the shooter or bystanders. This risk exists with any sort of target that is not fully penetrated by the projectile, and backstops which do not fully engulf the projectile.
The deformation process which occurs when the projectile strikes the target surface transforms a good portion of the kinetic energy of the round into thermal energy. The higher the degree of deformation, the more energy converted to heat energy (as evidenced if you’ve ever picked up the deformed remains of a projectile immediately after striking a target). A portion of the kinetic energy is transferred to the target as kinetic energy (that’s what makes it swing) and a small portion as thermal energy. The goal is to leave as little energy in the projectile as possible, so that any pieces which do come back are slow and small. AR500 target, being much harder than copper and lead, typically tend to cause projectiles to flatten and fragment (pistol projectiles) or completely disintegrate (rifle projectiles). Mild steel, on the other hand, tends to deform with the projectile and often will not flatten or fragment projectiles as effectively as AR500. Rifle velocity projectiles will often crater mild steel, which adds to the hazard. Steel core projectiles raise the hazard significantly, as the steel core tends to not deform and can separate and rebound dramatically.
Target angle and ability to swing also should be taken into account. The safest steel targets will be made of hardened steel (AR400 for velocities less than 1200 fps, AR500 for velocities up to 2800 fps at the target) that can swing freely with strikes, and that angle slightly towards the shooter (5-20 degrees). The 5-20 degrees angle recommendation is based on industry standard recommendations, and should be measured not from the ground, but from the shooter position.
Steel targets are commonly used in competition at both pistol and rifle ranges with great effectiveness. Millions of round are safely fired every year from a wide variety of platforms, at varied distances, and of many calibers. Manufacturers have recommended minimum distances and competitions have additional requirements for steel target use. These limitations are in place for a reason. Pay attention to manufacturer recommendations, club rules, and competition guidelines, and be safe.
EFFECTIVENESS- Steel targets are excellent training aids. Few other targets provide the immediate feedback that steel targets do. A visual cue (swinging, falling or other movement), combined with the audible ring of the projectile striking steel is irrefutable, the shooter hit the mark. Setting zero on a steel target can require a large piece of steel, depending on how off the firearm sighting system is, which can be expensive. A freshly painted piece of steel is fantastic for zeroing a new rifle, or confirming zero. Where steel targets fall short is for measuring grouping, as tight groups obliterate individual strikes quickly. The minimum safe distance requirements limit the effectiveness of steel targets for training self defense and close quarter battle situations, where cardboard may be more appropriate.
For individual use, steel targets allows one to call their own hits when practicing without walking back and forth to the target after every drill. The ring of projectile on steel is effective at pistol range and rifle. When shooting long range, a spotting scope may not even be required to confirm hits on long range targets, due to the delay in the return ring at the speed of sound. Engaging multiple targets in a single string is made easy with steel targets, and many ingenious mounting methods for the targets exist.
Hybrid range environments, such as USPSA, IPSC, IDPA, and 3-Gun often include a mix of steel targets at appropriate distances and cardboard and clay targets at closer distances.
Steel targets are commonly used in competition settings because of the ease of scoring hits (audible or visual cue), easy of resetting targets (paper must be taped or replaced every time), and low cost over time. Once purchased, steel targets rarely need replacement, even after years of heavy use. Competitors often purchase steel targets to practice on outside of organized matchs. Standard shapes such as the NRA Steel Silhouette series (chicken, pig, turkey, and ram), have a long history of use and are available in a multitude of sizes and thicknesses.
CONCLUSION- Used properly, steel targets are a safe, cost effective, and highly effective way to train with firearms. Used improperly, you’re liable to hurt yourself (or someone else) and ruin some expensive steel in short order. Read the directions, use common sense, and have fun.