As an adult, I learned to appreciate the smell of cordite in the wind as something distinctly American.
I’ll probably never outgrow my love of the shooting sports. What I have outgrown, however, is shooting only at paper targets.
While paper targets serve important purposes, such as qualifying and diagnosing possible problems, variety truly is the spice of life.
I’ve gotten spoiled by having my own range and the freedom that comes with it. Vehicles, body armor, watermelons—you name it, I shoot it. My favorite is steel. There’s nothing more satisfying than hearing the ring of steel from a solid bullet hit. But while steel is oh so fun to shoot, it’s often prohibitively priced. Even if you’re one of those folks who’s got access to an open piece of land where you can shoot, you still need something to shoot at.
If the cost of targets and stands is an issue for you, read on—I have some goodies and money-saving tricks to share about making targets. I also have a few affordable options for you regarding steel and even humanoid type targets.
Many moons ago, I was working for a university police department. We had access to buildings galore for clearing exercises. In an effort to stretch training dollars, I talked the brass into buying us a pair of top-end Airsoft Glock copies, and my agency stepped into the world of dynamic weapons training.
Since no one wanted to be on the receiving end of these Airsoft guns, I devised a very simple set of foam targets by stapling life-sized photo targets onto thin foam insulation boards and then carving their borders out with a steak knife. Lean them against a desk or chair and you have an instant bad guy. They’re simple, effective and realistic enough to get your attention when you carelessly slice the pie and “get dead.”
I next took those targets and carved out the center mass area before stapling the paper targets to them. By doing so, I could then add a one-inch length of PVC pipe to the target’s back side, just above the center mass cavity, with large diameter nylon screws. Drive a safety pin into a ceiling tile with fishing line, and run that through the PVC pipe. Tie that line off to a balloon, and now you’ve got a reactive target. Hit center mass with the Airsoft, the balloon pops, the line passes freely through the PVC tube, and the bad guy drops to the ground—DRT.
These targets are easy to create, but what if you want something more hearty that can withstand the abuse of real gunfire?
At a home improvement store, buy a sheet of blue heavy-duty foam insulation. Carve a torso and head shape out of it, then adhere it to a four-foot length of thin scrap wood. Use your imagination and, with little effort or expense, you’ll have a target capable of taking a lot of hits without coming apart. Once you core out the center to such a degree that you can no longer see your hits, tape a sheet of paper over the target’s center mass area and start over.
Couple this target set-up with a good .22-caliber trainer pistol and rifle combo, and you’ll have hours of training for little cost.
But what if you want to get into steel targets? What will that set you back? Less than you might imagine.
While at the SHOT Show, I checked out several different steel-target manufacturers. Steel targets are finally able to absorb multiple hits from high-velocity rifle rounds, and I wanted to find a few options.
The first manufacturer I checked out was Action Target, which has several target offerings that really caught my eye. I narrowed the choices down to two cost-effective models. The first one is the PT Hostage target with swinger head. It’s made of 550 through-hardened Brinell steel and is capable of absorbing rifle fire. This is one of the most useful targets for tactical training that I’ve ever seen.
Take a short run across the range to the 25-yard line and engage the target’s swinger head as fast as you can accurately hit it with your pistol or rifle. It’s a challenge because the swinger paddle is only a few inches in diameter, and your motor skills have taken a dump from your elevated heart rate.
This target makes a great learning tool because of its reactive motion. By swinging back and forth, it forces you to learn how to track motion with your sights. By utilizing rifle-grade steel on all their targets, Action Target has made a one-size-fits-all target system that can absorb rifle and pistol fire alike. Action Target uses 500 Brinell steel as their standard but offers 550 as an upgrade. The slight price increase is truly worth it.
The second target from Action Target is the PT Rocker. It’s a self-resetting target that swings on a pendulum device. This is suitable for executing precision shots at long range. It delivers obvious movement that can be seen through a spotting scope. It features a 40% IPSC torso-sized silhouette plate that swings way back upon being struck by a bullet and allows you to see the results of your shot before it swings back down into place and resets.
One of the features I really like about Action Target products is that not only the target, but also the entire stand and support leg system are made of heavyduty steel. The support neck is angled so as to deflect rounds rather than defeat them outright.
These targets are well built and an excellent choice for a permanent range setting. But if you like to break down your targets and take them with you to another range, then the next manufacturer’s offerings are for you.
THE MOBILE MENACE
R&R Targets makes targets that are affordable and very mobile. Their ABC Zone Target with Stand features a standard-size IPSC target plate minus the D-Zone. It’s plasma cut from AR 500 3/8-inch steel. R&R Targets states it’s capable of absorbing rifle fire from 100 yards out and pistol fire from any range. The target plate is fully assembled, powder coated upon delivery, and only needs to be hung on its provided hanger system.
The workmanship on this target is exceptional. The edges are precisely cut and polished for a snag-free target plate that can be slid into a truck bed or even a car trunk for transport to the range.
This target offers a mobile, riflegrade “bad guy” to set wherever I like with minimal gut busting. Unlike the previous examples, which are meant for moving across a range, this target is meant for moving across town.
The target system is comprised of four pieces: a welded steel base, support collar with integrated hanger spike, and target plate with corresponding slot for the aforementioned spike. The support leg is an easily replaceable 2×4 that you provide.
When the target is fully assembled, the weight of the target plate automatically cants it downward at a slight angle that deflects bullets effectively. Regardless of what you may hear, it is imperative that all steel targets intended for rifle fire be canted downward at or close to 20 degrees to deflect bullet energy and prolong the lifespan of the steel. Not doing so risks cracking the steel from excessive forces being imparted at the moment of impact.
The R&R target is essentially free floating and moves upon being struck. I’ve shot this thing from 100 yards out and have been able to reacquire it in the scope and see it still swinging for several seconds after impact. The manufacturer advises not to shoot at it with rifle calibers inside of 100 yards for fear of bullet fragmentation injuries and damage to the target.
In recent months, I’ve started transitioning back to rifle calibers from .22 sub-caliber trainers due to the price of ammo dropping back down into a tolerable range. I’ve gotten all the way up to seven yards from this target and haven’t had any fragmentation coming back at me. However, my doing this (by my own choice) is in direct violation of the warning on the target and I do not hold the manufacturer responsible for my decisions, nor does S.W.A.T. Magazine condone this.
For those who are a bit squeamish (prudent?) about cranking off shots at steel targets so close with their rifle, you can try this drill:
Draw and fire quickly with your pistol from seven yards. Engage both steel targets on a parallel plane but separated by a ten-foot expanse side to side. Next, holster your pistol, run forward between the steel targets, and engage two foam targets previously set up at 15 yards with your duty rifle. Try that drill a couple of times and you’ll really get your heart going.
3D TARGET DUMMIES
The first time I saw these targets was at the SHOT Show, and I thought I was looking at a mannequin being used to demo some apparel … until I realized I was standing in front of the Law Enforcement Targets (LET) booth.
LET makes a massive assortment of polymer, foam, and paper targets. They also make stands, reactive polymer selfhealing systems, and everything in between. The targets that I got to demo were a pair of 3D Target Dummies that are capable of standing, kneeling or sitting with the help of a separately sold support system. The dummies hold foam weapons that are kept in place by a small patch of Velcro and offer a true humanoid shape to shoot at. This is a bigger deal than you might think.
When you’re doing dynamic training that involves movement drills, you need to understand what you’re going to see when you look at your target from one side or the other while in motion.
Side shots on a hostage taker—when the hostage is on a slight offset—can’t be reproduced with paper targets. If you look through your scope and see two heads in the sun, you can learn where the shadows lie, denoting how far the hostage is from the hostage taker.
The other fact that’s been impressed upon me in recent years is that you need to get accustomed to seeing a three-dimensional humanoid form in your sights if you’re ever going to be ready to pull the trigger on the real deal. You need to learn how to target the vital zones of your attacker while their firearm is pointing at you.
We’re all used to shooting at perfect silhouettes or flat picture targets that don’t really allow us to look for those telltale signs of a human presence. Slicing the pie while in a shoot house and actually seeing the bad guy’s shoes under a doorway or catching a glimpse of his elbows around a corner are invaluable training experiences.
The 3D Target Dummies are a useful training resource that are also very affordable: both the male and female targets sell for around $189 each.
With ammo prices finally dropping and the wide variety of affordable targets on the market, there’s no reason not to get to the range for some serious trigger time.