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Silhou-what? Silhouette Shooting For Newbies

Silhouette shooting is a fairly old shooting sport that anyone interested in competition should know about. Here's your guide to getting started.

If you’ve never heard of silhouette shooting competitions before, or don’t know anything about them besides the name, you’re not alone.  

But just like most other forms of competitive shooting, it’s worth checking out for all sorts of reasons, whether you’re just looking for a different kind of fun plinking or practicing your skills for more practical purposes like hunting.

Today, we’re going to go over how silhouette shooting competitions work, what you need, and why this sport is so frickin’ fun.  Let’s get started.

airgun silhouette
Airgun silhouette targets

What the heck is Silhouette Shooting?

Silhouette shooting is a sport sanctioned by the National Rifle Association in the United States and the International Handgun Metallic Silhouette Association (IHMSA) worldwide (as well as a few other, smaller groups).  At its most basic, competitors shoot at animal-shaped steel targets, generally from a standing position.  

We’ll describe the NRA rules here, but they’re very similar to the IHMSA rules.



The number of targets and the distances they are set at differ based on the exact type of silhouette shooting that you do, but they will either be 10 or 15 targets at each of four distances.  From closest to furthest, they will always be chickens, pigs, turkeys, and rams.  

Sometimes, the Spanish names for the targets are used, in recognition of the Mexican roots of silhouette shooting, in which case they’ll be called Gallinas, Javelinas, Guajalotes, and Borregos.

Distances can be as close as 10 yards for air pistols shooting chicken targets to as far as 500 meters for ram targets for certain types of centerfire rifles.  Targets can also be scaled so that they appear further away, if all of the distances for a match aren’t available.

The exact size of each target also changes depending on the type of gun shooters are competing with.  While the rams can be as large as nearly three feet across and two and a half feet high, they shrink to approximately three inches across and two inches high for air guns.  

The targets being closer for those disciplines doesn’t make them much easier, especially when you realize that the target dimensions are for the whole animal – heads, legs, beaks, ears, and all.  You can probably already imagine how many times a ram target is missed by accidentally shooting through the hole under the horns.

Shooters are given a limited amount of time to fire one shot, and one shot only, at each target.  While the time limits can seem generous at about thirty seconds per shot, the unusual shapes and long distances make for quite a challenge.  And that’s not counting the pressure of not being able to make up a miss with another shot.

Scoring is based on the number of targets knocked over, and you can compete as an individual or in a team.

Silhouette isn’t the fastest-paced shooting sport, but there’s certainly some stress and drama involved along with a certain fun that comes with making steel targets ring and fall over or go flying.

The Stuff of Silhouette

Pretty much any gun will do for silhouette.  That’s right, you can shoot almost any single-projectile gun you have access to, whether pistol or rifle.  What we might call “divisions” in other sports like USPSA are called “disciplines” in silhouette, and there are many of them:

  • Hunter’s Pistol, which include pistols that weigh up to five pounds with barrels up to 12 inches long using a range of pistol calibers, and with separate sub-disciplines for using metallic or iron sights and for using optical sights like scopes.  Smallbore Hunter’s Pistol is the same, but is limited to .22 caliber rimfire cartridges.
  • Long Range Pistol includes what those in other divisions might call “open” type guns with minimal restrictions in Unlimited Pistol and Unlimited Standing Pistol, and “production” type guns in Conventional Pistol and Conventional Revolver.
  • Smallbore Pistol is just like Long Range Pistol, except that it is for .22 caliber rimfire cartridges.
Ruger 22 Charger
A Ruger 22 Charger, as you might see in one of the Smallbore Pistol disciplines.
  • Air Pistols are also welcome, and divide out those with optical sights into a separate discipline.  There are also Air Rifle disciplines for all different levels of air rifles from basic factory guns to factory target-shooting rifles to highly customized competition air rifles.
Crosman Silhouette PCP Air Pistol
This Crosman Silhouette PCP air pistol was specially designed for competitions like silhouette shooting.
  • High Power Silhouette Rifle, which includes rifles weighing up to about 10 pounds, in most calibers 6mm or larger, with scopes permitted.  More limited versions of this discipline are known as High Power Hunting Silhouette Rifle and High Power Semi Automatic Military Rifle.  Both of these have more specific rules about the types of features that are permitted on the gun.
  • Smallbore Silhouette Rifle and Smallbore Hunting Silhouette Rifle are just like their High Power cousins, except that the guns must shoot .22 rimfire cartridges.
Anschutz 1712 Silhouette Sporter
Anschütz, makers of high grade target rifles, makes the 1712 Silhouette Sporter, a .22lr rifle for this type of competition, but the Ruger 10/22 you have in your safe would work too.


  • Cowboy Lever Action Silhouette Rifle. Yup, your lever action SASS or hunting gun is also welcome in silhouette, in disciplines that are intended to not require special competition equipment.  There are subdisciplines based on whether your lever action rifle shoots a rifle caliber, pistol caliber, or .22 rimfire caliber.
  • Finally, Black Powder Cartridge Rifles are also recognized, in both scoped and unscoped disciplines.

    Sharps Model 1875
    The Sharps ’75 is specifically allowed in the Black Powder discipline, but many black powder rifles that are replicas of those originally made prior to 1896 can be used in silhouette.

Besides the gun, there isn’t much equipment you need for silhouette.  Supportive garments like specialized shooting jackets and gloves aren’t allowed.  Instead, you just need to show up with eye and ear protection as you would for any kind of shooting, and an empty chamber indicator of some type.

Chamber Flag
An empty chamber indicator, or chamber flag, doesn’t need to be fancy.

A spotting scope or binoculars to see the targets is also useful.  You can bring along a friend or coach to help you spot your shots and otherwise provide advice while you’re shooting.

Oh, and if you’re thinking about shooting black powder?  Period costumes are allowed.

The official pistol rulebook and rifle rulebook go into all sorts of detail about exactly what is and isn’t allowed but for your purposes as a new shooter?  Ask lots of questions and expect that you can probably get started with what you already have.


I don’t know about you, but the prospect of getting to plink at steel and make animals fly sounds like a lot of fun to me.  It’s like a more organized version of shooting cans off a fence, and with the bonus of not needing a whole lot of fancy guns and equipment to get into it.

And while it doesn’t matter where you shoot the targets in silhouette, as long as the steel is knocked over, getting to practice shot placement before heading out into the field to hunt isn’t a bad thing.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy, centralized listing of ranges where silhouette matches are held.  

You can look for some of the matches on the NRA website, by checking the Tournament Calendar near your location and looking for results that say “Silhouette” or “Silh.”  You’ll find two different kinds of matches there: “approved,” meaning it runs under general NRA sanction, and “registered, meaning it is a more formal event that has to meet specific requirements under the NRA rules.

Either way, the search tool will help you find not just matches, but contacts that you can ask for information about other local events.

[Caption: Just some of the silhouette matches located across the United States – and north of the border!]

IHMSA also maintains a match schedule online, and you can poke around at the SteelChickens.com forum for information about matches (and technique and gear).  And of course, don’t discount just asking around at your local ranges and gun stores.

Are you ready to go find a silhouette match and try it out?  Let us know…and report back on how you liked it!

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2 Leave a Reply

  • Commenter Avatar
    Jim Neal

    One game not mentioned is the .22 version of blackpowder.
    Using exposed hammer guns, falling blocks, Sharps, etc.

    July 18, 2017 5:08 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Eric Hung

      Thanks Jim!!

      July 19, 2017 3:29 pm
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