Beyond Paper: Shooting Reactive Targets

If you’ve ever shot at a commercial range, you’ve probably shot the inevitable (and boring) paper and cardboard targets.

While punching holes can be satisfying, it can also be pretty boring because there’s no instant feedback on whether or not you’re making hits.

Enter: Reactive targets.

Reactive targets are a great tool, and are used to make target shooting or plinking more interesting, and they can be an option no matter where you shoot. 

too much tannerite
Okay, some can’t be used everywhere.

They provide instant feedback, and add a little excitement…and challenge…to your day at the range/

Let’s go over some of my favorites.

Paper Plus

The first step up from regular targets is as simple as the “splatter” target.  They look like plain paper, but turn bright colors where your bullet impacts them, making it easier to see your hits from a distance.

This lets you shoot from further away and still see what you’re doing without wasting time going down to your target or bringing it back in, plus you can make some fun art at the range.

Popular brands include the Birchwood Casey Shoot-N-C ($12.99) and the ever-popular Caldwell Orange Peel.

shoot n c target
These make calling hits a breeze.

They come as both full targets, as well as stickers that you can add to targets that you already have so you can add an exciting surprise for a well-placed bullseye.

You can also make your own splatter targets with a few different methods, making them a bit more affordable, but none of these options are particularly expensive.  The biggest advantage of splatter targets is that they are permitted everywhere that regular targets are, so you can use them just about anywhere.

Rubber Reactive Targets

Other reactive targets can be a bit more difficult to use at all ranges because of ricochets or mess.  All hope is not lost, however, with rubber and plastic targets.  They can be found in all sorts of shapes from simple circles and squares to animal silhouettes and playing card suits.

Ground Bouncer Target
Ground Bouncer Target

Many are flat, but balls, cubes, bottles, bowling pins, humanoid dummies, and other shapes are available too.  Because the bullets pass through these types of targets and into the backstop, they are safe to shoot at very close distances and indoors.

The fun part about rubber and plastic targets is that when they are shot, they will fall over or swing around.  That means you will instantly know if you hit or not.

Hanging or swinging targets can also be shot again while moving, adding to the challenge.  While you would need to pick up the ones that fall over, they’re otherwise ready to just shoot again because the material used to make these targets “heals” around the holes to make them less visible.

The targets last for thousands of rounds, making them a good investment for range fun.

They’re also much lighter and easier to move around than what they are often used to simulate: steel targets.  Read on for what those involve, and keep in mind that many steel targets are duplicated in rubber for a less heavy, more affordable option.

Ting! Shooting Steal Reactive Targets

Reactive targets don’t just turn colors or fall over, though.  Steel targets make a lovely TING! noise when shot.

Since many of them also fall over when hit, they can provide both immediate visual and audio feedback for your shooting.  

And they’re not only enjoyable to shoot – they can be an excellent training tool because they present both a very easy target (the entire piece of steel) and a very difficult one (nothing but the piece of steel).

Steel can also be used when you want hits to be heard from hundreds of yards away, making it a great long-distance target.

cowbell target
Or for when you need more cowbell (targets).

There are many varieties of steel targets.  The simplest are static steel plates in various shapes and ones that fall over just like many rubber targets.  

Plates are often used in competition, especially in Steel Challenge and tactical rifle sports like 3-gun and the Precision Rifle Series.

Knockover targets that fall down are also popular, both in their own dedicated matches and in sports like USPSA and IDPA, where “popper” targets like this Hill and Mack Popper ($600.00) are often found, or NRA Action Pistol, where the plate rack is a major component of most matches.

These steel targets are also a lot of fun just to shoot on your own or with friends.  For instance, you can play the marksman’s variation on H-O-R-S-E with increasingly difficult shots, with instant feedback and scoring from the sound of the target being hit.

With very far away targets, a more visual indicator is a helpful backup to listening for the ting!, and flapper-type targets or those that flash a bright flag after being hit are easy to spot from a distance.

There are also knockover-type targets that will automatically stand themselves back up, allowing you to see that they’ve been shot from far away.

You can also race against each other to see who can knock down the plates on a plate rack fastest. Of course, if that’s the game you want to play, a dueling tree might be more fun.

Dueling trees have a vertical series of steel plates on hinges.  When each plate is hit, it swings around to the other side.  The first person to shoot all of the plates to the other person’s side wins.

I’m sure you can already imagine how much ammunition you can blow through in an afternoon!

Steel targets don’t just move when shot though…sometimes they move on their own as well.  While there are paper targets that move on tracks or swing back and forth, it can be difficult to see whether or not your bullets have found their marks on them.

With moving steel targets, the plate flying off makes it obvious you’ve been successful.  The trick, of course, is to actually hit the plate, which can be challenging when it’s spinning around in circles like the popular Texas Star or even worse, in multiple directions at once like the Death Star target, which you can play with online.

 

The important thing to remember with steel targets is that you can’t just pick up a piece of metal somewhere and shoot at it.

Properly manufactured steel targets use special, hardened grades of steel that will not pit or deform when shot at.  That’s important to maintain a smooth surface on the target so that bullets do not ricochet, or bounce off, the steel at unpredictable angles.

The plate of the target face should be angled downwards with a mount that allows some movement and doesn’t add any bumps, again to protect against ricochets that can bounce back to the shooter or others and cause significant injury.

Even with these safeguards, it’s necessary to stay back a minimum distance from any steel targets and to always wear wraparound eye protection to protect the eyes.

The minor risks are worth the rewards though, because there’s nothing more rewarding than hearing the song of steel targets being shot.

Self-Healing Targets

How about plastic self-healing targets that also have the ability to be set to fall down after a direct hit?

Check out FAB Defense’s RTS Targets ($150).

It’s not super “self-healing”…but the front side of the target seems to close up a little…and the back does a good job of only showing a white circle and not much of a hole.

Also can be set to fall down after a direct hit.

RTS Targets by FAB Defense
RTS Targets by FAB Defense

BOOM! Explosive Reactive Targets

What if you’re looking for a little more excitement than steel can offer, though?  That’s what Tannerite is for.

You might not be familiar with the name, but you’re probably familiar with explosions made by these binary reactive targets.

Tannerite is composed of pellets and a powder that are each completely inert until you mix them together at the range.  Once combined and shot with a sufficiently powerful bullet, the target explodes.

That usually requires a rifle caliber, but there are also rimfire-sensitive types of binary explosives that can be activated by .22LR.  For more interesting explosions, the Tannerite can be put inside stuffed animals, food, or other objects that can blow up when the Tannerite is hit.

Watermelons are classic, and red cabbages make a lovely purple mist.  People have also safely shot Tannerite in hay bales and pumpkins, or with colored powders mixed in.

reactive target gender reveal
Brings a tear to my eye.

Because of the blast radius that can result, especially with larger amounts of Tannerite, it’s important to stay a safe distance away from the target – the manufacturer recommends 100 to 200 yards.

If you’re going to stuff it inside or put it on top of or under something else, be mindful of what will happen when the debris goes flying.  While that old television set, spray paint can, or propane tank going boom might sound fun, picking glass and metal out of your skin isn’t (and that’s if you’re lucky).

It also might not be allowed in your state or at your range, whether you shoot it alone or in something else, so make sure you always check first and follow the rules.  Among other things, the debris can be impossible to safely clean up and the explosive nature of the target can cause fires and other damage.

For more information, check out our in-depth guide to Tannerite.

Crashing and Smashing

You can also get slightly less explosive effects from other reactive targets. They may not have the drama of Tannerite, but they can be a bit safer and more likely to be allowed at your range.

For instance, all of that food that you might otherwise want to stuff Tannerite into?  A lot of it is satisfying to shoot all on its own too.  Pumpkins are especially fun in the fall, when you can “carve” jack-o’-lanterns with your firearm of choice. Added bonus: it’s all biodegradable!


Also from the kitchen, cans and bottles have long been popular plinking targets. Filling them up with water adds even more interactivity. Just make sure you avoid glass, and be careful of sharp edges when picking up after yourself.

Another safe household item to shoot are simple balloons.  Blow them up and attach them to a target backer or post using the knot end, and there’s no mistaking when you’ve hit it.

Balloons are a fun and reasonably sized target that works well for new shooters.  They’re also the target of choice in the unique sport of SASS Mounted Shooting, where competitors ride horses and shoot blanks at balloons arranged around a special course.

And finally, one of the original reactive targets: clay pigeons.  How many of you have had the experience of making an orange cloud of dust with your shotgun?

Yes?

Now tell everyone who hasn’t had that fun yet.  

Clays are classically found flying through the air in shotgun sports like trap, skeet, or sporting clays, but you can also use them in other ways and with other guns.  You can put them on a berm, target backer, or special clay pigeon stand so that they can be shot like a regular stationary target not only with shotguns, but also with rifles and pistols.

They might not explode into dust if you shoot them with single projectile ammunition, but they’ll still make a hole for certain and if you’re lucky, they’ll shatter.

Shooter Ready?

No matter what you’re shooting on the range, you’re probably having fun .  You can add so much more to your day with reactive targets whether you’re a new shooter or someone who’s put more than a few rounds through your guns.

Hopefully, I’ve given you a few ideas to add excitement to your next range trip.

As always, check the rules first and make sure you use these targets safely.  And if I’ve missed your favorite reactive target, tell me about it below!

2 Leave a Reply

  • TexasBorn

    What brands of ammo are recommended for shooting steel targets? How close can you be shooting a steel target with a handgun?

    1 year ago
    • Eric Hung

      Hey, USPSA suggests no less than 7 meters (~23 feet). I would suggest frangible rounds or at least non-penetrator rounds.

      1 year ago
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