By Roger Phillips
If you’re a shooter, you know putting holes in paper can get boring. No matter how tight a group you can shoot, it can be just as satisfying to make an aluminum can dance with a .22 rifle.
With the exploding popularity of AR-15 rifles, lots of folks have taken their plinking to a new level at longer distances and with different targets.
Sadly, some of those targets are old computer monitors, televisions, glass bottles and other garbage that creates a terrible mess and leaves an awful impression of all shooters.
It’s infuriating and unacceptable to responsible shooters.
There are safe, responsible and fun ways to go shooting — either at a shooting range or in a safe, open space — with targets that are challenging and exciting to shoot.
Rather than harp on the bad guys — and seriously, you should be ashamed of yourselves — I’d rather talk about how to get out and have some fun with guns and try some of the cool targets available.
These are a blast to shoot. The best of them ping and swing or spin. You get a feedback when you hit one, and they are very durable.
They roughly break down into three categories: .22 targets, handgun targets and rifle targets, but there’s overlap between them.
Before you buy, learn what each steel target is made of, or for what type of gun it is designed.
The stoutest, most durable targets are made of AR500 or AR550 steel.
Shootsteel.com, a steel target maker, lists the following guidelines:
• 1⁄4-inch AR500 is designed to handle centerfire handguns up to .45ACP, including .38 special, 9mm, .40 S&W and similar calibers.
• 3⁄8-inch AR500 is designed to handle magnum handguns and rifles up to .308 and is also good for ARs and AKs (.223/5.56 and 7.62x39) and similar cartridges.
• 1⁄2-inch AR500 is designed for high-power and magnum rifles, including .300 and .338 magnum rifles.
Steel targets tend to be the heaviest and most expensive. Expect to pay about $100 and up for one.
Spendy? Yes, but consider how much you’ve spent on guns, ammo and accessories.
Stay within the manufacturer’s recommendations and these targets will last decades, if not a lifetime.
Consider what calibers you will be shooting the most and buy those types of targets.
For example, a heavy steel target suitable for a high-power rifle may ricochet a .22 long rifle bullet back toward the shooter. It may also have minimal reaction to other small caliber bullets or handgun rounds, which kind of defeats the purpose of a reactive target.
Many steel targets are designed for popular handgun calibers, such as 9mm, .40 or .45, but may not sustain hits from magnum handguns, and a high-power rifle will punch a hole clean through them.
Also consider the size of the target (many companies recommend you shoot them no closer than 100 yards with high-power rifles). If it’s a small target, it may be too challenging to hit. Again, kind of defeats the purpose of buying a reactive target if you can’t hit it.
You also want to factor in where you will be shooting. If you’re shooting in the desert, you want a target that stands taller than the grass.
Note on steel targets: Policies vary at gun ranges on bringing your own steel targets. Check before you go, or join a gun club.
Also, know what ammo you are shooting. Some inexpensive, imported ammo has steel core, which can damage steel targets and also spark and start fires.
A hanging target like Caldwell Magnum Gong is one option. It hangs from a frame to keep it well off the ground.
These get a great reaction when hit because the gong bounces, but if you hit the chain with a high-power rifle, it will sever it. Bring spares.
You also have to assemble and disassemble the stand before and after you shoot.
“Rolling” or “walking” steel targets are another option.
These have four steel target faces and are shaped similar to a jack. When you shoot the top target, it’s designed to tip over and reveal another target face.
When they work right, you get a great combination of a reasonably sized target that’s durable and gives a good, visible reaction when hit.
The downside is they have to be used on flat ground, and they can also get stuck in the terrain or turn sideways so you have to reset them to make them work properly.
Self-setting targets are as the name implies. Knock them over, they pop back up.
These leave no doubt whether you hit the target, which makes them good for long-range shooting, and you don’t have to worry about them getting stuck in the terrain.
Because they’re a mechanical device with moving parts that have to withstand repeated hits from bullets, they tend to be more expensive than other targets.
These harken back to the old shooting galleries. They are wickedly addictive when you hit them and they start spinning. It seems silly, but that reaction is really fun to watch and you will want to keep shooting it.
These are typically designed for .22 and handgun targets. It’s hard to design a spinning target that can take repeated hits from high-powered rifles.
These are a cheaper alternative to steel targets, and they are surprisingly durable. I’ve put hundreds of rounds through mine with a .22 long rifle; handguns, including 9 mm, .40 and .45; and high-power rifles from .223 to .30-06.
They can really stand up to a lot bullets, which is surprising considering they look like they would turn into Swiss cheese after a full day of ammo burning.
They don’t make the cool clang or ping sound like a steel target, but they do react depending on what you shoot them with.
I’ve bounced them across the ground with a .22 long rifle, and at other times they barely reacted to a .223 bullet at 100 yards.
A rule of thumb: The smaller and faster the bullet, the less reaction you get. But there are a lot of variables, including the shape of the target, the distance, thickness or weight and where you hit it.
Round ones tend to react very well to nearly any bullet, while box-shaped ones might bounce and spin when hit with one type of bullet or remain motionless when hit by another.
There are lots of different shapes and sizes, and they’re reasonably priced, so you can buy several and see which works.
As a general rule, I’ve found they work best at gun ranges or other places where you have a relatively flat, dirt surface without vegetation.
You don’t have to reset them, but the downside is when you’re shooting them they tend to roll into a low spot and get stuck there.
It’s not a big deal when you’re shooting a handgun or .22 long rifle within 50 yards, but it can be a hassle when you’re shooting them from 200 or 300 yards.
Self-healing targets that hang from a frame tend to be less expensive than their steel counterparts.
But the lightweight frames are less durable, the targets don’t ping or clang, and depending on design and what you’re shooting them with, they might not react much, either.
Again, lighter, faster bullets will often puncture the targets without moving them much. That’s very relevant for AR-15 shooters. The light steel frames also won’t take a direct hit from a high-power round, so take that into consideration.
Replace a less expensive target a few times and you’re going to spend as much or more than what a durable steel target costs.
One thing about plinking is you don’t want to overcomplicate it, but a portable bench rest can be a good asset for sighting in or taking your shooting to farther distances.
Sand bags are an inexpensive way to steady a rifle or handgun and will improve your accuracy. You can use them on the ground or on a portable bench.
Another good thing to take along is a shooting mat. An inexpensive one is a closed-cell foam backpacking pad. It costs about 20 bucks or less, is lightweight and doesn’t take up much space. It makes shooting prone more comfortable and cleaner.
A bipod, cross sticks or a monopod also helps steady a rifle and extend your range.
Don’t forget them. Electronic ear muffs and plugs have become very popular because you can hear people talking and what’s going on around you and still protect your hearing.
Cabela’s sells electronic ear muffs for shooting starting at about $60. If you want behind-the-ear models, or even electronic plugs, check outsoundgearhearing.com . Prices start around $169.
Clean up after yourself
That includes all targets and brass. You might not be able to find every .22 shell, but make an honest effort to pick up after yourself. One thing I’ve found that’s helpful is to shoot from stations. If everybody stands in a few places to shoot, the brass collects in a small area and is pretty easy to pick up after you’re done shooting.