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Hendon Publishing

Shooting .223 Against Steel

Paper targets are generally used to teach marksmanship skills, measure shooting proficiency, and to keep score during annual rifle qualification. Shooting at stationary paper targets can become quite boring and uneventful after awhile. Once the basic rifle training objectives have been met, steel targets can be utilized to further build on center mass speed, accuracy, and longer range shooting techniques.

Prior to purchasing rifle grade steel targets, an agency must consider the type of steel used in the construction of the impact plate, the bullet caliber it is designed for, the mechanical design of the unit, the environment it will be used in, and safety procedures to avoid injury.

Different grades of steel and hardness are used in the construction of impact plates to handle the various bullet calibers fired from handguns, shotguns, and rifles. When researching steel targets for .223 Rem rifle training, the Brinell hardness rating of throughhardened steel must be between 535 and 540 to handle the impact of high velocity rifle bullets.

The steel becomes brittle when the Brinell rating is higher than 540 and too soft if lower than 535. If the steel is brittle or soft, it will result in serious damage to the target when shot by high velocity rifle bullets. This damage can result in cracking, cratering, denting, gouging, pock marking, or penetration of the steel target. The proper rifle grade steel will produce consistent bullet splatter without damaging the impact plate.

Steel is damaged by heat, and high velocity rifle bullets create extreme levels of heat regardless of their caliber. Even frangible ammunition can create high levels of heat because the bullets are lighter, thus having faster muzzle velocities than standard lead core jacketed bullets.

However, handgun and shotgun ammunition will create less heat because they generally travel 1/3 to 1/2 the speed of rifle bullets. Excessive concentrated heat will alter the steel's hardness properties and result in damage to the target. This is why the Brinell hardness rating of the steel target must be appropriate for rifle use.

The hazard of bullet fragment splash or bounce back can occur due to the mechanical structure of a steel target. If a steel target is positioned stationary at 90-degrees, the bullet's energy goes directly to weaken that point on the steel when struck. Bullet fragment splash or bounce back is more likely to occur with a non-reactive target positioned at 90-degrees.

A non-reactive steel plate positioned at an angle less than 90- degrees will dissipate a portion of the bullet's energy upon impact by deflecting it instead of absorbing it. This will reduce any damage to the target and make it last longer. The bullet fragments will also be safely directed downwards into the ground, instead of back at the shooter. If the steel target is designed to be a reactive target that moves when struck, it will also dissipate a portion of the bullet's energy.

Where the bullet strikes on the steel plate, mounting hardware or stand can also cause bullet fragments to splash or bounce back at the shooter. Steel targets must have a smooth and flat surface for consistent and predictable bullet splatter patterns. It is critical the shooting surface of a steel target is not obstructed by metal brackets, clamps, or bolts that could create unpredictable and unsafe bullet splatter patterns if struck.

Porta Target has developed an impressive, high quality and functional portable, non-reactive, rifle grade steel target that is suitable for law enforcement rifle training. The Porta Target Hi-Power Silhouette (Model #HPS-540) can be shot with and handle the heat generated by the .223 Rem, 7.62 x 39mm, .308 Win, .30-06 Spfld, .300 Win Mag center fire riflecartridges and shotgun slugs. The bullets must have lead cores with non-bonded copper jackets, so they will properly break up and fragment upon impact.

Armor piercing, steel core, exotic, specialty, unconventional, hand loaded, and ammunition with polycarbonate ballistic tips are never to be used on this type of steel target. If used, it will create an unsafe shooting environment, severely damage the targets, and endanger personnel. Experimenting with unknown or questionable ammunition types can yield unpredictable results, severely damage the target, and could seriously injure or kill personnel.

Only conventional rifle ammunition having a velocity less than 3000 fps must be used with the Hi-Power Silhouette. When using the AR-15 with different barrel lengths (10.25-inch, 11.5-inch, 14.5-inch, 16-inch, and 20-inch), each will produce different muzzle velocities. This is also true with the different ammunition manufacturers, the type of gunpowder used in the cartridge, and selected bullet weight.

Lightweight .223 bullets under 55 grains and frangible ammunition can create damaging velocities far in excess of 3000 fps, even from a 16-inch or shorter barrel. Be careful of after market and foreign military .223 ammunition batches that can reach or exceed velocities of 3400 fps. This will not only damage the steel target, but also the chamber, throat, and bore of the rifle firing it.

They recommended to always chronograph 10 rounds of a department's .223 ammunition lot to determine the average velocity to prevent damage to the steel target. An inexpensive chronograph will cost about $150 and is worth the investment to prevent damaging or destroying the target. Most 55-grain and heavier .223 Rem (5.56 mm NATO) conventional ammunition fired through shorter AR-15 barrels will produce velocities between 2700 and 2900 fps, thus being safe to use on rifle grade steel targets.

If higher velocity ammunition is to be used, the velocity of the projectile must be reduced by engaging the steel target at a longer distance. If the bullet is allowed to travel 50 to 100 meters prior to impact, this may allow the projectile to lose enough velocity to be below 3000 fps to prevent damage to the steel target.

To create a safe shooting environment when training with steel targets, manufacturers recommend shooters to use what is called a "standoff" distance from the target. This is the minimum safe distance away from the steel target being shot to avoid fragment splash or bounce back when using conventional rifle ammunition. For most steel target manufacturers this distance is 50 to 100 yards. With the Porta Target brand, a standoff of only 25 yards is the minimum safe distance needed when shooting rifles at their Hi- Power Silhouette. This is possible due to the proper Brinell hardness rating and design of the angled steel impact plate.

The angled impact plate is designed to produce a consistent splatter pattern, which creates a reliable safety zone to stand within. The splatter pattern from Porta Targets Hi-Power Silhouettes angled plate is directed in a fan-shaped configuration into the ground below, slightly angled to the rear and sideways to about 45 degrees to both sides of the plate.

It is recommended to place the target on a surface that contains loose dirt or sand to absorb bullet fragments and eliminate ricochet from entering the safety zone. Multiple targets can also be positioned within the other target’s safety zone if desired during training without the danger of secondary splatter.

Steel targets should only be used on an outdoor range and never placed on cement, asphalt, hard packed clay, rocks, gravel, or other hard surfaces. If a target is placed on a hard, rough, or questionable surface, the risk of secondary splatter in any unpredictable direction can occur. The ground’s surface will also be quickly eroded and become damaged by repeatedly being struck by deflected fragments that are not being safely absorbed.

If the target has to be placed on a rough or hard surface, a soft absorbent material such as old carpeting or plywood can be used to prevent spashback and surface damage. This absorbent material must cover the entire splatter zone under the target, be tested prior to shooting, checked regularly during training, and replaced before it becomes over filled with bullet fragments.

Temporary or permanent ballistic barriers such as heavy cardboard, rubber, plywood, or wooden railroad ties can also be used to stop secondary splatter from coming back at the shooter. These barriers are placed on the ground in front of the target to create a ballistic barrier "wall" that will absorb any bullet fragments deflected toward the shooter when being used on rough or hard surfaces. This type of ballistic barrier must also cover the entire splatter zone, be tested prior to shooting, checked regularly during training, and replaced before it becomes over filled with or eroded by bullet fragments.

All steel impact plates deform when shot repeatedly by rifle bullets. Porta Target plates are reversible and easy to lift out of the holder so they can be flipped around to expose the opposite side. Periodically turning the impact plates will help prevent them from deforming and help them maintain a flat surface. This will keep the splatter pattern safe and predictable, and will extend the performance life of the steel impact plate.

The Porta Target rifle impact plates are painted blue at the factory to designate them as rifle only targets to avoid confusion with their black painted handgun impact plates. The impact plate is in the shape of a small human silhouette with the dimensions of 12"x 18" which realistically represents the center mass area of a human target. When struck by a bullet, the impact on the Hi-Power Silhouette plate emits a loud clang with a visual splatter cloud, giving the shooter immediate feed back of a center mass hit.

To maintain a safe training environment, the impact plates must be inspected before each use, and periodically during heavy use for pockmarks or other damage. Plates should be immediately replaced if they are deeply pockmarked, cracked, or deformed in any other way that would create an unsafe and unpredictable splatter pattern. The impact plates must only be repaired by Porta Target or replaced if severely damaged.

The angle iron used in the upright target stand and mounting bracket of the High-Power Silhouette is not made of hardened steel, and is vulnerable to becoming pockmarked or penetrated when struck by rifle bullets. Damaged upright stands or mounting brackets should not be used until repaired. They can easily be repaired by a local welding shop by grinding off the sharp edges, welding up the holes or pockmarks, grinding them flush with the original surface, and spray painting the repaired area.

Whenever firearms are being shot at steel targets, firearm trainers must make sure that all personnel on the range are wearing quality eye protection with built in side shields. A hat with a soft rim thatcovers the top of the shooting glasses should also be worn to block any possible bullet fragment splash back from entering the top of the glasses.

Long pants, sleeves, and gloves are recommended to protect the arms, legs, and hands from any splash back. All personnel on the range must always be facing forward while steel targets are being engaged to prevent any deflected fragments from entering through the sides or top of the shooting glasses. Body armor must also be worn to add realism to the training and for increased protection against possible accidents.

Trainers must also secure the firearms range or steel targets when not in use to prevent the unsupervised or untrained shooter from using the targets improperly and creating unsafe conditions. If this is not done, targets can be damaged or destroyed by shooters using unsafe calibers, ammunition types, distances, and angles and violating other safety precautions that could result in injury or death when shooting steel targets.

No tools are required for assembly, reversing the impact plate or disassembly of the Porta Target Hi-Power Silhouette target system. This system easily breaks down into four sections for easy storage, handling, and transport (the base, stand, plate holder, and impact plate). The overall dimensions of the complete system are 18" x 48" x 56", weighs 60 pounds, and costs approximately $250.

In addition to the Hi-Power Silhouette, Porta Target manufactures several types of portable non-reactive rifle grade steel targets. They also provide a wide variety of portable reactive rifle grade steel targets to fulfill various operational and tactical training needs. Their reactive steel plate designs include: droppers, floppers, pepper poppers, gong stands, plate racks, speed targets, knock-down plates, and pneumatic reset pop-up target models. The prices range from $80 up to $1,500 depending on the chosen model.

Rifle training can greatly be enhanced through the incorporation of rifle grade steel targets. As with all firearms training, special safety precautions must strictly be enforced and practiced to maintain a safe training environment. This is extremely important when shooting steel targets with any type of bullet caliber. Rifle bullets present their own type of potential training hazard when fired at steel targets. This hazard can effectively be reduced and controlled only if the proper rifle grade steel target is selected, inspected, and properly used during training.

David Sparks is an officer for the Village of Wilmette, IL. He is a certified handgun and Colt AR-15/M-16 rifle instructor and armorer. He has extensively used rifle grade steel targets for law enforcement training with the AR-15 carbine. He can be contacted at

Published in Tactical Response, Nov/Dec 2005

Rating : 9.8

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