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Steel targets can be a lot of fun to shoot. They give the instant gratification of hearing a ping, when you hit it. There is no paper to staple up and then throw away, or holes to tape over.  Because of their weight, they very seldom blow over in the wind.

They also have some disadvantages. They are heavy to transport and can be expensive to buy.  I can’t offer any insight regarding their portability, but I would like to offer some tips and recommendations based on my own experience making steel targets.

When purchasing steel targets from a manufacturer, I discovered that approximately 70% of your cost is the labor. The materials usually comprise only about 30% of the total price.   A lot of people will tell you that, you have to use “special” steel and that it must be welded a “special” way. That’s not always the case. If you can weld or if you have a friend or acquaintance that welds, you can make steel targets fairly cheaply.

The Plate

This is the actual target that you aim at. For pistol use only, mild steel (MS) is perfectly adequate.  Thickness can be as thin as 1/4 inch for small plates and light use, however 3/8" is preferred. For pistol calibers, plates thicker than ½"  is not necessary.

For a rifle target, you need hardened steel. There are several types of steel that can be used.  Something with a Brinell hardness of at least 400 is recommended.  Mild Steel rates about 150 on this scale.  AR 500 is what many manufacturers use, and is not difficult to find.  If you can’t find 500, AR 400 can be used, however it isn’t quite as hard and you will have a slight amount of cratering.  Hardened steel of this nature is cut with a Plasma cutter.  When you purchase the steel, make sure each individual plate is pre cut to your specifications. Most rifle plates are ½" thick.  3/8" can be used if it has a 500 hardness and if the design incorporates some movement to dampen the bullet’s impact (falling or swinging plates).

Welding hardened steel to brackets or stands may cause a slight decrease in hardness. To maximize your hardness, you can have the metal company drill holes in the corners of the plates.  This allows you to bolt your plates to the frames. Typically, this costs $10 to $12 per hole but will prolong the life of the target.

Not all welding or metal shops carry hardened steel, so you may have to call several places. Not everybody you talk to will be aware of the steel target industry.  Be prepared to weather some criticism and even a couple snide remarks.  One salesman I spoke to asked me what could I possibly want with armor plate (hardened steel)?. When I told him, he said “Boy, you can’t shoot at steel, the bullets will bounce right back and kill you. What you need to do is nail a piece of cardboard up to a big tree. You need to call the NRA, nobody makes targets out of steel, blah, blah, blah blah.”

Frames & Stands

This refers to the legs and feet that hold the plate in position. Any type of metal will do; flats, angle iron, pipe, solid rod (called “round”). This can often be found in short lengths and purchased as scrap. In any event, these types of metal are not expensive.

Three or four years ago, I bought 24 feet of 3/4" round, 2 feet of 1/4" flat, 3 feet of 3 X 3/16" angle, 3 feet of 1" pipe and 3 feet of 1 ½" pipe. All of that cost a little over $40.00. That plus a couple plates, $5 (MS) and $30 (AR 500) was enough to make two, 3 feet tall, free standing falling targets, similar in concept to Pepper Poppers, for $25 and $50 each, plus some spray paint and a small welding fee.


Any non reactive plate (one that isn’t designed to fall down, pivot or otherwise move) should be canted at a sharp, downward angle so that bullets are banked into the ground at the foot of the target. This decreases the effect known as splatter.  The angle of reactive targets is not so important because the movement of the plate greatly reduces the bullet’s impact velocity.

The specific minimum safe distance to engage your targets will depend on the design of the target.  Start as far away as possible and slowly work closer, watching carefully for ricochets.  As a general rule, steel targets should not be engaged closer than ten yards with a pistol, no closer than 35 yards with a rifle.  Eye protection should be worn at all times.


(below) This is one of the two free standing, falling targets I described. Here it is shown standing, ready to be shot.


(below) This shows the target in the down position. For ease of use, I place an old tire on the rear legs. This allows the target to fall, indicating a hit and makes it easier to reset.


(below) The plate on this "gong" type target is AR500. As you can see, it hangs from a scrap metal stand by 2 pieces of chain. When shot, it not only makes a "pinging" sound but swings back and forth. Shooting with an AR15 at 150 yards, hits are obvious.


Photos and text copyright 2006 by the author, all rights reserved.  Kim may be contacted at KFoster in the forums discussion area.

Uploaded: 1/12/2006