Spalling and Richochet: How to Shoot Steel Safely

Steel targets have quickly risen the ranks to become one of the most dominant target types. Steel targets have made their way into the world of plinking, training, and competition. Shooting a steel target has numerous benefits but a few downsides as well. Most of the downsides revolve around safety issues. Shooting steel can be done safely, but it can only be done safely if you know what you’re doing. So, let’s talk about spalling and ricochets and how to shoot steel safely.

Benefits of Shooting Steel

Why do we shoot steel in the first place? I think most of us agree we are captured by the “ding.” That loud ding is oh-so satisfactory. It delivers audible and immediate feedback that is tough to beat. This makes it easy to know when you’ve hit the target, which is great for longer-range shooting.

Dueling tree gif
Dueling trees can be a ton of fun.

Steel targets can also be reactive. Targets like dueling trees and plate racks are a ton of fun to shoot and react when shot. Steel targets can also last nearly forever. They can absorb hundreds — sometimes even thousands — of rounds and still be used. Steel targets have really helped revolutionize tactical shotgun training.

Further, steel targets provide a number of awesome benefits to shooters. I love steel targets, and most of my shooting is done with steel targets. Shooting steel targets safely is how you get the most out of your training.

How to Steel Safely

I’ve broken down how to shoot steel safely into several different steps that make it easy to understand both how to shoot safely and why we take these steps specifically. Hopefully, this makes it easy to understand and provides you with a simple step-by-step guide to safely shooting steel.

steel targets
What’s a long-range target with handguns? How far is “far?” (Photo: AR500 Steel Targets)

Pick the Right Steel

There are two factors to consider when choosing steel targets. First, the steel type, and second, its overall thickness. Target steel types come in various grades that are designated with AR XXX. The XXX stands for a specific number. AR stands for abrasion resistance, and the number relates to its position on the Brinell hardness number. Most of you have probably seen the AR 500 moniker floating around quite a bit.

AR 500 and AR 550 are the optimum steel types for targets. Steel types like AR 350, 400, and 450 tend to be too soft and will deform and crater after bullet impacts. Harder steels like AR 600 through 700 are harder but more brittle. They are more likely to crack and break under pressure. So, AR 500 through 550 is the just right steel for targets.

Steel target
Steel targets are a ton of fun and the instant feedback is outstanding.

Our second factor is thickness. Thicker steel is tougher, and thinner steel is lighter. Steel targets can range from a 1/4-inch to three-quarters of an inch or so. The heavier 1/2-inch steel is designed for centerfire rifles and shotgun slugs, from 5.56 to heavy-duty calibers like .308 and 6.5 Creedmoor and beyond. If you get into those mighty powerful calibers, then you get into that 3/4-inch steel for stuff like .338 Lapua Magnum all the way up to .50 BMG.

If your steel is too thin, it will crater, or the round will penetrate. This creates a safety issue since the steel will no longer destroy the round. This can create ricochets or even turn the target into fragmentation. Lighter rounds can shoot heavier targets safely, although they may not move the targets and make them react as designed.

Angle the Steel

There are a few different steel target types. Gong targets — steel targets hanging from chains — have a little movement to them. When struck, they rock backward and create an angle that throws spall downwards. Dueling trees, plate racks, and poppers do the same thing. The little give they have allows the rounds to disseminate spall in a safe direction away from the shooter.

Angled down target
Notice the angle allows for a safe splash downward.

Stationary targets mounted on posts need to be angled slightly downward. This directs spall downward and eliminates those pesky ricochets as long as other safety concerns are addressed.

The angle depends on the purpose. In most situations, a 15-degree angle is well suited for most shooting. This will direct the ammo downward and reduce spall significantly. If you supersize that angle and bring it to 45 degrees, you can shoot at closer ranges with more powerful weapons.

Proper Target Placement

When setting up your steel targets, you want to look at the ground. The softer the ground, the better. You want to avoid setting up steel targets in rocky terrain, cement, and any other hard materials. Hard materials won’t absorb spall and will redirect it instead.

Additionally, you don’t want to place targets too close together. They should be spaced far enough to bet out of the general splatter zone. If not, you might splatter ricochets from other steel targets. It can be sent in some really crazy directions, like a bottle rocket without its stabilizing stick.

Check Your Ammo

Not all ammo is equal. The softer the ammo, the safer it is for your target. Soft lead FMJs and frangible ammo do a great job of ensuring targets last forever. Steel core ammo, green tips, and similar ammo can be hell on your targets. These rounds might not pierce the target, but they can and will dent and crater your target.

M855 Green Tip cartridges on an ammo belt
This ammo belt mixes green-tipped M855 rounds with orange-tipped tracer rounds (

This creates a huge problem down the road. A target breaking sucks, but it also creates the potential safety issues. It can cause ricochets and spalls to be unpredictable and dangerous.

Also, if you use ammo that’s too powerful for your target, it may cause the target to chip and bend, dent, and crater. A 5.56 round on an ¼ inch steel target is a creative way to quickly create issues with your steel target.

Inspect Your Targets

Things wear out. Sure, steel targets last a very long time, but they are stopping bullets; sometimes thousands of them. Even if you use the targets safely with the right bullets and calibers, the target will eventually wear out. It’s just what tends to happen when you shoot things several thousand times.

Every so often, it’s wise to inspect your steel target. We are looking for dents, cracks, and craters. You want to check any mounting hardware and see if it needs to be replaced. A gong chain breaking in the middle of your practice sucks, but it can also be dangerous if hit. It now has an entirely different splatter zone swinging from a single chain.

Your steel targets should only be used as intended by the manufacturers.

Shoot At The Proper Range

Steel requires a minimum stand-off distance to be out of the potential spall and ricochet zone. For rimfire rifles and handguns, you can be as close as 10 yards with 1/4-inch steel targets. Centerfire handguns and shotguns with buckshot and birdshot can be used 15 yards and beyond with 3/8-inch steel targets. When you get into slugs and rifles, you need to step back out to 100 yards or so. The same goes for those big-bore rifles.

Staying Safe

Steel can be an invaluable training aid and just downright fun. Who doesn’t have a good time clearing a plate rack or dueling tree? Before we have fun or sharpen our skills, it’s wise to take a moment and follow the appropriate safety precautions. Trust me, catching spall to the face is never fun. Make sure your targets are appropriate for your gun and ammo, make sure they are set up properly, and check those targets every so often.

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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