Shooting Target Types: Pros and Cons

We often take a lot of time to consider our guns, optics, and ammo, but have we ever considered our targets? What are we shooting, and why are we shooting it? There are a wide variety of different target types on the market, but what do you know about them? Let’s break down the four main target types and discuss their pros and cons and how they can benefit you.

Classic Paper Targets

It doesn’t get much simpler than paper targets. In the world of targetry, paper targets are the most common targets on the market. They can be used with any platform for any purpose. You can train, compete, and just have fun with paper targets. They come in tons of different sizes and variations. You can have things like the classic B8 target up to something like the VTAC targets with its skeletal bad guy.

shooting the little scout
Paper targets allow you to observe for groups.

Paper targets are super cheap and easy to find. They can be ordered without paying crazy high shipping costs. These targets are well suited for any caliber of weapon. This includes rimfire, or heck, even pellet guns, all the way up to the .50 BMG. You can shoot paper targets at any range without any safety concerns.

Scoring shots and observing groups is not difficult. With most paper targets, the holes stand out like a sore thumb. Observing your shots makes it very clear what you are and are not capable of when it comes to slinging lead. Paper targets have no mercy for poor shots.

The Downsides To Paper

The downsides to paper targets include their lack of reusability. Some targets can be pasted up and shot a few times, but they don’t often go behind a single use in most cases. Paper targets can be destroyed by larger calibers and are especially weak to shotguns. Buckshot destroys everything all the time.

no fail pistol target with shot timer
Paper targets are cheap, easy to find, and can even be printed

Paper targets are not weatherproof, and rain, wind, and snow destroy them. Wind can be especially frustrating if it gets behind the targets and rips them. Speaking of paper targets, they do require some form of backer to attach the target. In most cases, paper targets are way too flexible to be used without a backer of some type.


Cardboard is a bit like paper plus strength. Usually, cardboard is used as a backer for paper targets. Cardboard tends to have all the same strengths as paper. These targets can be easily scored, and you can observe groups and track precision and accuracy from a shooter. You can shoot these targets at any range safely.

Mas with G26 and target
A right-hander, Mas shot this 300/300 qual target “southpaw” or “mirror image” with stock G26. These little guns are shootable! Photo credit: Gail Pepin

They tend to be more durable to larger calibers than paper, and they don’t require a backer, just a stand of some type or another. That’s as simple as a furring strip. Cardboard targets are also easier to patch and will also last longer. This makes them one of the more popular choices for competition. They are the perfect target for dynamic shooting environments with a multitude of shooters of varying skill levels.

Cardboard targets can be 2D or 3D targets. While the 3D variants are limited, they are the cheapest way to get into the 3D target world.

The Downsides

Cardboard targets are tougher than paper targets but not the toughest. They are still prone to destruction by weather. Rain will melt and sag a cardboard target like no other. They can also be used a few times, but they won’t last forever. Like paper targets, buckshot makes short work of these things. Buckshot rips them apart with absolute ease. You also need to store them carefully because if they bend too much, they are basically done for.

revolver qual target
Here, fellow author Anne Smith stands with her scored cardboard target.

They do tend to be more expensive than paper targets, and they are tougher to ship since they can’t be bent. This raises the price of shipping. Cardboard targets also don’t come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. They tend to be limited to torso-sized targets in most cases.


The popularity of steel targets has exploded in the last decade or so. The rise of steel has been driven by the ding. People love hearing the ding of steel targets when a projectile crashes into it. Steel targets deliver a fantastic reaction to being shot that’s always going to be entertaining. This reactive noise gives you instant audible feedback. When you’re shooting at moderate to long ranges, the noise of the ding is a delicious sound to hear.

Steel targets are famed for their reactive nature. This goes beyond the ding. Targets like steel poppers, plate racks, and dueling trees use steel targets and a mix of springs and rings to make them move and groove. These days, steel targets aren’t just isolated to hanging steel. Further, steel targets come in a ton of different sizes and shapes these days.

Man shooting steel target
Shooting steel is perfectly safe…as long as you know what you’re doing (Action Target)

Steel targets are almost infinitely reusable. They can soak up a ton of lead and keep functioning. Steel targets come in a variety of sizes and thickness levels rated for different calibers, including up to the mighty .50 BMG. Rifle-rated steel targets can absorb whatever buckshot you throw at them.

These targets are also weatherproof. You need hurricane-force winds to really affect steel targets. Wind, water, and the like aren’t much of a challenge to a steel target.

The Downsides

The biggest downside for most shooters is cost. Holy crap, are these things expensive. Steel targets are more of an investment, and to be fair, they are a good investment that lasts for nearly forever. The weight makes shipping a pain, and you’ll most certainly pay for that extra weight with your wallet in some cases.

Steel targets also require strong and durable stands. Some may require chains and clips, and others may need a few 2x4s to get working right. This creates a logistics problem with moving targets around and can create a difficulty spike in moving the targets.

steel gongs
This variety pack of steel gongs come in different sizes. (Photo: Shooting Targets USA)

Another problem we have is that steel targets are tough to observe groups and look for accurate shooting. Spray painting a target only goes so far for observing groups and group sizes.

When it comes to steel targets, you also need to take precautions when shooting them. If you are too close or the target is not properly set, you could be subject to ricochets. Spall is also normal if you are too close. It’s imperative you learn how to shoot steel targets safely.


Polymer targets are a bit like the safer version of steel targets. They are very reusable in most situations. These targets can be used for close-range training without any fear of ricochet or spalling. If you need a target that could be used for close-range self-defense training, then polymer is tough to beat.

These targets are typically lighter weight than steel and easier to mount in various ways. Something as simple as furring strips can work. A lot of polymer targets have built-in stands. Polymer targets can be reactive, and polymer dueling trees, plate racks, and more exist. They lack the ding of steel but can move and groove.

SimIS Human Type Targets (HTT) SHOT Show 2022
Polymer targets offer endless options.

There are also numerous polymer target types that are reactive and move. There are balls, triangles, and soda can-looking targets that react brilliantly when shot and can be fairly amusing.

Polymer targets also offer 3D designs that bring a new edge to your training. Most of us train with a target that’s facing us and squared up to us. A 3D Dummy target allows you to train at a multitude of angles for a more diverse training experience.

The Downsides

Polymer targets don’t offer you the same ding or durability as steel. Not all polymer targets are designed to function with rifles and shotguns. When purchasing, you have to be careful to observe their projectile rating and firearm type.

infinity target shot up
Infinity Targets make it easy to train, train, train.

Much like steel, the targets are tough to score and difficult to observe for groups. Most can be painted, but much like steel, these options are a stopgap. These targets also tend to be expensive and should be seen as investments due to how long they last.

Targets Out

Targets are like anything else when it comes to guns; you need to find the right target for your purpose. A good shooting target can go a long way, and you should most certainly choose a target that matches your goals. If you want to measure your groups, then paper or cardboard is the way to go. If you want reactive targets for quick shooting, then steel is a great way to go. If you want safety and reliability, then polymer has your back. With a proper target education, you can make yourself a better shooter and make every range experience more fruitful.

Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine Gunner and a lifelong firearms enthusiast. Now that his days of working a 240B like Charlie Parker on the sax are over he's a regular guy who likes to shoot, write, and find ways to combine the two. He holds an NRA certification as a Basic Pistol Instructor and is probably most likely the world's Okayest firearm instructor. He is a simplicisist when it comes to talking about himself in the 3rd person and a self-professed tactical hipster. Hit him up on Instagram, @travis.l.pike, with story ideas.

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