Shooting paper targets is a good way to practice your precision shooting..but for high-speed, run-and-gun dynamic shooting…nothing quite compares to a good steel target.
Personally, I love shooting steel more than anything else (well, maybe not as much as Tannerite, but that’s kind of expensive) and I have invested in quite a few steel targets for my home range.
All of my steel targets are made out of AR500 steel, which allows them to take a beating and keep on keeping on. There really is nothing quite like them, and they provide a really nice shooting experience.
Provided you treat them right, they can last for hundreds of thousands of rounds and are great for self-defense training, competition training, and just plain fun.
Let’s talk about how these amazing targets work, what kind of targets you can get, and how to choose the best one for your purpose.
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What the Heck is AR500 Steel?
In short, it’s really hard.
AR500 is the same steel that’s used in body armor like the stuff Eric tested a while back. The 500 part of the name denotes a certified Brinell hardness of 500.
Brinell testing is done by impact testing with a ball bearing to see if the steel chips or cracks, or Brinells which is a fancy way of saying “dents”.
In this case, we want the steel to dent because if it cracks, chips, flakes, or deforms in an inconsistent way, it can send ricochets and even whole bullets careening all over the place, including back towards the shooter instead of away.
In the industry, we call this a “no Bueno scenario”. For those of you that don’t speak French, that means bad.
As a rule, it’s best not to get shot, especially not with your own gun.
AR500 steel and other, similarly through-hardened steels prevent this by being strong enough to resist severe deformation under impact, and AR500 targets are surfaced in such a way as to make sure no pieces of copper or lead get sent back towards the firing line.
AR500 is also relatively easy to machine, so you get a wide variety of target options. This is also important because you don’t get a lot of heat introduced to the metal during the manufacturing process, which can ruin the temper (and thus the hardness) of the steel.
Using Steel Targets
Actually setting up and using steel targets seems fairly simple, but there are some things you need to do to protect yourself and your targets.
First, use properly hardened AR500 steel, from a reputable manufacturer. Unless it says AR500 or AR550 which is the harder version often used in rifle targets, stay away. Soft or mild steels will chip and deform, or just have a nice little hole put in them.
This is also why shooting at scrap metal like barrels, propane tanks, and old cars can be very dangerous, so do so at your own risk.
A proper AR500 or AR550 steel target, when hung at the proper angle and the correct distance for your caliber, and used with the correct bullet type, is perfectly safe.
Stay away from steel-core rounds like M855 5.56, and avoid solid copper rounds. These rounds can seriously deform, or even penetrate steel targets. Stick to lead, copper-jacketed rounds, or even better, frangible munitions.
Frangible ammo is made of a pressed metal powder that explodes on impact with a hard target. They’re still very lethal, and sometimes recommended for home defense if over-penetration is a concern, but you can safely fire from point-blank range at a steel target and be just fine.
With all other bullet types, you should be at least ten yards away to be totally safe, and longer for rifle rounds. Your target should come with information regarding safe use with various calibers.
Speaking of, it’s important that you have a thick enough steel for the caliber you’re using, and the range you’re shooting at. You’ll want to calculate the energy of your round (velocity x bullet mass) and compare that to the manufacturers recommended minimum thickness and distance for your specific target.
Here are some general industry rules for AR500
- 0-700ft-lbs = ¼” AR500
- 700-2100ft-lbs = ⅜” AR500
- 2100-4000ft-lbs = ½” AR500
- 4000-10000ft-lbs = ⅝” AR500
Most of the time, AR550 is recommended for dynamic rifle targets, or any bullet that carries more than 2100ft-lbs of energy as a ½” or ⅝’ piece of AR500 is going to be extremely heavy and unwieldy.
If you’re looking for something to bang magnum rifle rounds off of, AR550, which can be thinner and therefore lighter than AR500, is probably a better idea, but if you’re just hanging the target and leaving it up, AR500 is fine.
And as far as hanging your targets, make sure you’re following the manufacturer’s recommended instructions for the appropriate angle and distance. I can’t stress enough how much you do not want to screw this up and have bullets flying back at you from the firing line.
To aid in this, many manufacturers have special target stands that will ensure your target hangs safely and securely.
Finally, to care for your steel target in the long term, you’ll need to repaint it after every use so the exposed metal doesn’t rust. A simply rattle can of spray paint in your favorite color will do just fine, which is why I keep a can of white Rustoleum in my range bag.
Types of Steel Targets
There are two main categories of steel targets, static and dynamic.
Static targets are things like silhouettes, gongs, things like that. They’re still more dynamic than paper because they give you nice audible feedback on a hit, but other than that they just chill there. Waiting to get shot. They’re awesome like that.
What’s even better though, at least in my opinion, are the dynamic targets. These are the things like falling Steel Challenge-style silhouettes that you can knock over, dueling trees where you can practice your speed shooting against yourself, or a buddy, and my least favorite target ever, this damn thing:
What we have here is basically a vertical seesaw or teeter-totter.
The goal is to shoot one end (I start with the bottom and I’m sure someone in the comments can tell me why that’s wrong) and then as the target swings back, shoot the other end swinging it back, and continue alternating until the target flips all the way around, like we all tried to do on the swingset as kids.
It’s a terribly frustrating, but incredibly rewarding target to shoot. And of course, the masochistic range officers out there just love putting them in 3Gun stages to make you burn a full minute and three pistol mags before giving up.
If you’re interested in learning how to get good at the spinner, take a look at this InRangeTV video! (some explicit language…it is a very frustrating target)
My personal favorites are the plate racks designed for pistol shooting. They give you all the fun of burning through a series of ceramic plates, without all the mess and expense. Just flip the targets back up, and either run them again or let someone else try and beat your time.
You can get six, eight, ten, and twelve-inch plates so you can accommodate any difficulty level or distance, and some models (the more expensive ones) will even automatically reset from a distance so you can shoot all day and never leave the firing line.
If you’re a little more practically minded, or just want to get better IDPA scores, you can pick up a whole slew of IDPA targets. This is essentially kill-zone targets that are perfect for defensive training, and are a pretty standard sight at most ranges.
The steel construction gives you less precision than when checking your hits on paper (I recommend repainting frequently to keep track of where your shots are landing if you’re getting one of these) but one steel target in this shape is going to be cheaper than three or four range trips worth of official IDPA paper targets, and will last half a million rounds if you take care of it.
You can use these targets with another of my personal favorites, the hostage swinger. This target presents a small target that swings back and forth to the left and right of the “head” of a no-shoot target. You can even get ones that attach to the back of an IDPA steel.
These swingers (no not those kind) work similarly to the spinner I mentioned earlier, but these simulate a dangerous hostage situation where you have to decide when to take the shot to get the bad guy represented by the swinging target, without hitting the hostage represented by the swinger.
Finally, you can get just about any kind of falling silhouettes, from pigs, goats, chickens and other farm animals, to game animal shapes like deer, turkeys, and bears, to zombies, unicorns, and vampires.
You can even get these types of targets custom cut so you can have pretty much anything you want, provided you have the money.
Best AR500 Steel Shooting Targets
There are sooooo many of these manufacturers out there, and it might seem like one would be as good as another.
I want you to imagine I’m speaking to you with the voice of a middle-aged NY businessman recently elected President when I say that you are, WRONG.
Cheap steel targets can be churned out by anyone with a sufficient laser cutter and some time to kill. Great steel targets, properly heat-treated and capable of lasting for hundreds of thousands if not millions of rounds, are harder to come by.
These are of course not the only steel target manufacturers worth buying from, and if I had space I’d list 5-10 more, but for some to get you started on your search, and to use as a comparison in price and quality, these are the five I recommend.
AR500 Armor is the folks that made the body armor Eric tested a while back, but they also make some bomb-ass (and bomb-proof) targets as well…all out of that awesome AR500 steel.
They offer a variety of targets, such as ISPC cutouts, A-zones, gongs, and more. They also have everything from stands, to medical equipment so they’re truly a one-stop shop for all your range needs.
Of course, they also have plate carriers and the armored plates to go in them, making them a good place for military, law enforcement, and (overly) prepared citizens to shop if they’re worried about getting shot at.
Speaking of AR500 armor and carriers – they are currently rolling out a new line of armor carriers, check them out!
Shoot Steel calls themselves the industry leaders in steel targets, and it’s hard to refute that claim. They make some of the best targets around and offer some of the most varied options of any manufacturer on this list.
They’ve got various thicknesses, various packages, various shapes, stands, hangers, stencils for customizing your target, paint for refinishing your target, cardboard inserts for your targets…you name it, if it has to do with AR500 steel targets, you can get it from them.
They even have targets rated for .50 BMG, which frankly is amazing.
What’s your take on Shoot Steel targets?
One of many veteran-owned companies in this niche, Shooting Targets 7 is one of the best for defensively-minded shooters. They produce a variety of shoot and no-shoot targets, bullseye targets you can back with paper or cardboard for more precise feedback, IDPA-style silhouettes, and simple swinging gongs and knock over targets.
They also have a variety of simple and lightweight stands that can be quickly and easily set up almost anywhere, making them a good choice if you want to build a dynamic home range that’s easy to change around, or if you frequently travel to remote locations to shoot and want to be able to bring your own targets with you.
Xsteel is one of the best value for the money target makers in the business. Founded by a group of shooters who looked at the high prices and poor machining of many steel targets that were available and said: “Well, we can do better than that”.
And for many years, they’ve done just that. Xsteel is a family-owned affair and both Bud and Will Sanson are hunters and target shooters with a desire to provide their peers with affordable steel targets that are still very well machined and durable.
Action Target is one of the bigger manufacturers of targets, bullet stops, and other higher-end range necessities. If you’ve ever been to a nice indoor range, chances are you’ve used at least some of their products, whether it was a target retriever or their vent systems.
For the home user, they make a huge variety of high-quality portable targets, from lightweight rimfire targets to plate racks and dueling trees.
They also make my personal favorite steel target, or at least my most used, which is an IDPA steel silhouette with a reactive A-zone that gives you the precision of a paper target, with the convenience and satisfaction of steel targets.
Steel targets are a fantastic way to up your training game and have more fun at the range. While they do represent a pretty sizeable up-front investment, they can last for decades and hundreds of thousands of rounds.
Armed with this knowledge, you should have no problem picking steel targets of your very own. Personally, I think steel targets are one of the best training tools out there, and they make for a hugely fun shooting experience for everyone.
If you’re interested in more awesome targets from reactive paper to explosive Tannorite, take a look at the Beyond Paper Shooting: Shooting Reactive Targets article!
What do you think of these steel targets? Which one do you want? Got any questions? Let me hear from you in the comments! For more guns & gear…check out Editor’s Picks.