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A Fan of Steel Targets

Steel targets can take your shooting to the next level, plus it's a ton of fun.

A Fan of Steel Targets

(Brad Fitzpatrick photo)

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Paper or cardboard targets are convenient and affordable. You can easily transport these types of targets to and from the range. Since they are perforated with each bullet impact, paper targets are useful for measuring shot groups. For the same reason, they don’t have a long life expectancy.

When you aim at a particular spot like the bullseye on a paper target, it forces you to concentrate, which can improve accuracy. But when it comes to developing a balance of speed and accuracy with a handgun, nothing beats steel targets. The “clang” of a bullet smacking a steel plate leaves no doubt that your aim was true. Silence when shooting steel is equally telling.

This instant audible feedback, combined with visual confirmation, reinforces good shooting habits. With paper targets, it can be difficult to tell if you hit until you approach the target, which could take several minutes.

If you notice fewer holes in the target than shots that you fired, there’s no way to tell which shot missed. This prevents you from adjusting on the fly the way you can when shooting a steel target. When it comes to diagnosing and correcting shooting errors, now is always better than later.

Most steel targets designed for centerfire guns are made of AR500 steel, which is known for its strength and rigidity. Steel targets can be purchased in a variety of thicknesses depending on whether they are intended for rimfire, handgun or rifle. Eighth-inch steel will work well for rimfire, but quarter-inch is better suited for centerfire handguns.

Make sure the target you’re using is rated for the caliber you’re shooting. This will prevent bullets from passing through the target or pocking the surface, which could shorten the life of the steel or, worse yet, cause unpredictable bullet fragmentation upon impact.

Wraparound shooting glasses
Wraparound shooting glasses are critically important when you’re shooting steel, as bullet fragments can and will fly in all directions—including yours. (J. Scott Rupp photo)

Even with a new steel target, bullet fragments are sometimes returned to sender. Frangible ammunition can mitigate this risk, but maintaining a distance of at least 10 yards and wearing wraparound shooting glasses should keep you safe even with full-metal-jacket or hollowpoint bullets.

Steel targets come in a variety of shapes and sizes. At one end of the spectrum, you have a single plate placed on a 2x4 in a metal stand. More elaborate targets include plate racks, pepper poppers, dueling trees, Texas stars and the like. Some steel target configurations are heavy-duty, meant to be permanently mounted at a dedicated range facility, whereas others are portable enough for you to transport single-handedly.

A single steel plate can be sufficient to improve your handgun skills. If you’re new to shooting steel, start slowly, with a single plate that’s big enough for you to hit easily. Give it a fresh coat of paint so you can clearly see your hits. Try to maintain a tight group with each string of fire. Start with two, then three, four and so on. Then pick up the pace.

Expect your grouping to widen, but if all your shots are on target, keep pushing yourself to shoot faster. When you miss, throttle back just enough to keep your rounds on the plate. To further challenge yourself, either switch to a smaller plate, or increase your distance.


Once you’ve got the hang of shooting at a single steel target, spice things up a bit with something like a plate rack. Typically, these consist of six six-inch round plates but the size and even the shape may vary. Traditionally, the plates are designed to fall when struck with a bullet.

Hanging steel plate
A hanging steel plate will provide plenty of feedback to improve your skills, especially when coupled with a shot timer.

Of course, the plates need to be propped back up to shoot again. When it’s safe to do so, you could reset the plates manually, but most plate racks have a horizontal crossbar connected to a chain. Pulling the chain resets the plates, keeping you from having to walk forward of the firing line. But some modern designs are even more convenient.

Revolution Targets ( builds plate racks that are hinged at the top. When a bullet impacts a plate, it swings backward but eventually comes to rest in its original position. Hits are easily discernible, but since the plates don’t fall, you’ll never have to reset the target. This self-resetting design means you’ll spend less time fiddling with the plate rack and more time shooting.

A plate rack reinforces several shooting fundamentals. Since there are multiple targets, you must transition from one to the next. If you’re too hasty, you’ll miss. Follow-through is important.

You can’t assume the plate you just shot was hit. But if you look too quickly for your hit, you’ll probably get a miss. That’s because when you try to see the plate fall, there is a tendency to look over the gun, which often results in the muzzle dipping slightly as you press the trigger.

Stay on the sights! Lead with your eyes. In other words, after seeing the plate you shot react to the hit, find the next plate with your eyes, then drive your muzzle to the target you’re focused on. This ensures shooting efficiency. The greater the distance between one target and the next, the more important this concept becomes.

Sometimes, especially with a plate rack, your ears can play tricks on you. You may hear your bullet impact steel but it’s often the base of the rack because you’re trying to glimpse the plate fall instead of staying on your sights and picking up a second sight picture, which would confirm the plate was hit.

Plate rack
Plate racks like this portable six-inch model from Revolution Targets are easy to set up and can improve your speed and accuracy. (J. Scott Rupp photo)

This error is so common that you’ll see a disproportionate number of bullet impacts at the bases of most plate racks, just below the plates. Follow through and get your hits.

Plate racks should be engaged from left to right as well as right to left. Another option is to alternately shoot the outer plates and work your way inward until they’re all down. This forces you to swing your gun a farther distance and will improve your target-to-target transitions. It’s easy to overswing the plate, which costs precious time as you drive the gun back to the target. For maximum benefit, mix things up and shoot the plates in several different sequences.

Once you get the hang of the plate rack, adding a shot timer is a fun and challenging twist. You may find that the “beep” of the timer motivates you to shoot faster than you can hit. That’s okay. The timer will help you determine how fast you can shoot and still hit the plates. The timer is a great way to measure your progress. Like steel targets, the shot timer doesn’t lie.

A dueling tree, which typically consists of six four-inch plates positioned vertically, is another great option. The plates are designed to swing 180 degrees when struck. If you’re the only shooter, you can practice shooting the plates from one side of the post to the other. But, as the name implies, the dueling tree is intended for two shooters. To win the duel, you must shoot all the targets to your opponent’s side.

Depending on the relative skill levels of the shooters, the duel can end quickly or continue through multiple reloads. In either case, shooters will feel pressure as they see the plates stacking up on their side. Add a reload to the mix, and things can get even more tense. Performing under a bit of pressure is bound to make you a better shooter.

Another popular steel target is called a pepper popper. These come in various sizes. Many represent a human silhouette in a rudimentary way, with the upper torso being the widest portion of the target. They are generally attached to a grounded base or staked. Pepper poppers can be static or reactive.

Pepper poppers are often adjustable and can be calibrated to fall when struck by a bullet of particular weight. Since pepper poppers aren’t immune from the laws of physics, the higher the hit, the more likely it is to knock down the popper. However, the top portion of a popper is usually narrower than the middle, making it harder to hit.

Texas star of steel plates
The Texas star requires proper aiming, trigger control and followthrough, three marksmanship fundamentals.

Multiple hits can drive a pepper popper down faster than a single hit, which is why top competitive shooters often let the bullets fly at the last popper. Interestingly, shooting a target to the ground has applicability in self-defense as well.

Regardless of caliber, you can’t assume a single round from your handgun will knock down the steel, any more than you should expect a gunfight to be over with the first hit. In competition, shoot until the target is down; in a self-defense situation, shoot until the attacker is out of the fight.

You can use a pepper popper as a standalone target or incorporated as part of a target array. A variation called a “cross popper” consists of two identical targets side by side. They are designed to fall back diagonally when shot so that one lands atop the other. These are often the last of several targets to be engaged during one-on-one competition.

Whichever shooter’s popper is on the bottom was clearly the faster. As with the shot timer, shooting steel against an opponent can spike your adrenaline and push you to the limit of your ability.

One of the most challenging steel targets is the Texas star, which consists of five plates suspended from the spokes of a steel wheel. When shot, the plate falls, disrupting the balance and causing the wheel to spin. The remaining plates are now moving targets that can be surprisingly tough to hit. I’ve seen proficient shooters blaze through entire magazines without knocking down all five plates.

As with most competitive endeavors, there is a degree of gamesmanship involved with shooting a Texas star. By starting with the top plate and alternating as you work your way down, you can minimize the swing of the plates, which makes them much easier to hit.

If you hit one of the bottom plates first, you’re in for a real challenge. You’ll need to decide whether to hold your sights still and wait for the plate to swing into view or track the plate with your gun. Neither option is easy.

With a shot timer, you can strive to beat your fastest run—or better yet your shooting buddy’s fastest run. The Texas star is so much fun to shoot that you may forget you’re reinforcing proper shooting habits, which is the point.

Steel targets are less portable and more expensive to purchase than paper or cardboard targets, but they will last for years. Most of us will need to buy steel targets only once. Steel targets don’t have to cost a fortune. There are budget friendly, portable options that will meet most people’s needs.

The benefits of shooting steel are numerous. Instant audible feedback and, in many cases, accompanying visual feedback leave no doubt whether you hit the target. Steel forces the shooter to follow through, ensuring the target you just shot at is hit before moving to the next. This has direct applicability to self-defense, where you can’t assume the last round you fired had the desired effect on the attacker.

Your steel target setup need not be elaborate. To get started, even a single steel plate will do. Ringing steel will keep your range sessions fresh and your training meaningful.

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