May 03, 2020
By John D. Oller
So, you’ve purchased your first firearm and you’re itching to shoot it. Great! Guns are tools that serve many purposes, and plinking is arguably their most fun application. However, what exactly does one shoot at? This is an important question for those who have little to no experience with firearms. Discharging your firearm can have some negative consequences if you’re not shooting at appropriate targets. To have fun, and more importantly, stay safe, here is what you need to know about targets.
The most important step in shooting targets is to consider what is behind your target. Be sure that whatever is behind your target will safely stop bullets and prevent ricochets. Trees, telephone poles, rocks and similar hard materials are not good backstops, as they can cause ricochets. The most suitable backstops are hillsides or similar earthen works. If you don’t have access to a proper backstop, any professional firearm range will have a safe place to shoot.
DIY (Do it Yourself)
Those who start out shooting as kids quickly learn how to scavenge targets, and there’s no reason you can’t, too. Pop cans, plastic bottles, paper plates and old cardboard all make great targets. Best of all is they’re free. If you’re looking for junk to shoot, stick to items like these that won’t cause ricochets. These targets are purely for plinking and having fun. They generally are not suitable for serious training or accuracy testing.
Glass bottles and glass of any nature are not a good idea to shoot. It looks cool in cowboy movies when they show off their quick draw on some old beer bottles, but it only leaves you a pile of sharp glass. Good luck picking all that up. Wherever you shoot, you’ll need to police your area, so stick to targets that are easy to pick up.
Paper and Cardboard
The biggest advantage of professionally made paper targets is they don’t lie when it comes to determining true accuracy. You can learn a lot from paper targets, too. If you’re shooting a pistol and your groups are near the lower left corner, then there’s a good chance you are jerking your trigger (assuming you are right-handed.) If you’re able to read what the paper is telling you, you can quickly make adjustments in your shooting.
There are countless options for paper and cardboard targets, and they come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from a piece of printer-sized paper with a simple crosshair target to more elaborate targets with paint imbued inside of them for visible reactions. Paper and cardboard targets are generally the most affordable targets you can find. It’s always a good idea to have several stacks of these handy with your range kit.
Many companies offer various plastic targets intended for multiple uses. These include reactionary targets that bounce around when you shoot them, ideal for developing your reaction times and learning how to quickly switch targets. Plastic targets are often made into spinning targets. They spin quickly when hit and are a lot of fun. In general, most people use rimfires on plastic targets, but there are many options rated for use all the way up to .50 BMG (in theory.) Plastic targets are also inexpensive and ideal for learning on and teaching new shooters.
Steel is everyone’s favorite target. They make a satisfying gong sound when hit and come in many shapes and sizes. However, you can’t just go grab a piece of metal and start shooting. Only shoot steel designed for target shooting, which is generally referred to as AR500 steel. AR500 steel is available from many different companies and it is designed to withstand sustained shooting.
Most steel targets range in thickness from 3/16 to 5/8 inch. The thicker the steel, the larger the caliber you can shoot it with. AR500 steel is incredibly hard, causing bullets to fragment (referred to as “spalling.”) That’s supposed to happen, but it also means it is extremely important to place steel targets at appropriate distances and mount them correctly.
Not only is it important to place steel at appropriate distances for safety, but if you use a powerful bullet on steel that is too close, you will ruin you targets quickly. For pistol shooting, steel targets need to be at least 10 yards away. With rifle shooting, you need to consider how fast your bullet is going. In general, 50 yards is the absolute minimum. Most manufactures offer charts to show you the minimum distance with their targets with various bullet types, so follow them closely. Bruce Pendleton, owner of Revolution Targets, demonstrates how their Heavy Duty Hostage Target works. The target can rotate left or right depending on which side it is shot, and it is a good example of how advanced steel targets can be.
When mounting a steel target in the ground, it needs to be placed at an angle that will deflect spalling into the dirt. This ensures your bullets don’t ricochet wildly. It also prevents your steel target from taking bullets directly. By deflecting the bullet, your steel will last longer. Suspending your steel target from chains or heavy-duty rubber is also great, and it is generally the easiest way to mount a steel target. Whatever you do, be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully. Never shoot steel targets with steel bullets or steel cores.
Lastly, if want to see your bullet splatter, it’s a good idea to keep a can of white spray paint with your steel targets. Bullet splatter is easy to spot on white paint, and you can quickly repaint the target once you’ve shot all the paint off.
Clay targets (often also called clay pigeons) are usually used for skeet and trap shooting with shotguns. They are flung from throwers at various speeds to be shot out of the air. Throwers range from simple handheld single-clay throwers to elaborate mechanical throwers that hold hundreds of clays.
Don’t limit yourself to skeet and trap, though. Clays are inexpensive, and they are great to shoot with rifles and pistols on the ground, too. That are numerous options for clay target stands that hold one or multiple clays. They break easily and are biodegradable, so it’s fine to leave them where they break.
No matter what you choose, you will quickly learn how fun plinking can be with the right targets, so get out there and learn how to shoot. Remember to always wear hearing and eye protection, and don’t be afraid to ask others for help. The most important thing while shooting is to stay safe. The right targets will help with just that.
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