Steel Targets: How Close Can I Safely Shoot Them?

May 30, 2014
Editor's Note: Occasionally, we run across archived features that we think bear repeating. After being showered with residue during last week's Colt Speed Challenge at the Bianchi Cup, we thought it appropriate to re-share Mike Gibson of MGM Targets insight on the question: How closely can I safely shoot steel targets? It's safe to say that I'm an addicted "bang-ding" shooter. That means I like shooting handguns and rifles on steel targets. The instant feedback tells me if I'm applying the correct techniques for sighting, pulling the trigger and holding my weapon. As I tell younger shooters when I'm working with them "If there's no ding, you missed the thing." That also means I've had the occasion to pick pieces of bullets out of my clothing, hat and shooting gloves (if I'm using a rifle with a fore grip, I like the gloves to protect the back of my left hand). I've also had the occasional run-in with fragments on bare skin, but nothing that has ever broken the skin. It's more a product of dumb luck than preparation-sooner or later anyone shooting a lot of steel will have an encounter with a bullet jacket- unless you're shooting some of the new ultra-frangible rounds. Last week, I had the occasion to get the answer to the question "How close can I shoot steel" from Mike Gibson, President of MGM Targets. Gibson says it's the most frequently asked question he gets. His answer is one that each of us might want to consider. It's not a short answer, but when it comes to firearms safety, there seldom is a short answer beyond "all guns are loaded -all the time." "I don't know anyone who has shot steel for any length of time, that hasn't bled," says Gibson, "I've only had one piece of jacket surgically removed, and I personally have not been witness to any injury that made the shooter stop shooting so they could go to the hospital."
Always be certain of the target you're shooting. This target might look fine at 50 yards, but it's capable of sending debris right back at you due to the damage it has sustained. Don't shoot dinged-up steel.
"Worst case, I know of a rifle shooter, shooting at a mild steel "gong" target at 200 yards. The gong had been cratered and damaged with every big bore rifle caliber known to man. A significant jacket fragment came back the full 200 yards, and stuck in the wall behind him with such force that he couldn't get it out, without a pair of pliers. Fortunately, nobody was standing right in front of the wall." He's also seen what happens when you're wearing good safety equipment. "I have seen Oakley glasses with a piece of jacket stuck in them so far it couldn't be removed." So, how do we minimize the chances of getting struck? That's the answer I found most interesting. "The USPSA (United States Practical Shooting Association) states that competitors will not be allowed to shoot steel at a distance of less than 7 meters (22.96') (Rules, Jan 2004 edition, Para 2.1.3)," says Gibson, "This doesn't make it the law, but is only an official position by a reputable organization, whose members shoot a great deal of steel, on a very regular basis." "Steel in NEW condition is 100% safe to shoot from relatively close range. This NEW steel condition can be described as steel that isn't marked. More specifically, when you run your hand across it, it is as flat as a table top. You don't feel or see any bumps, ridges, dimples, craters, cracks, or any other surface irregularities. It might be 15 years old, but depending on what was shot and from what distance, it could still be in NEW condition. If a person is shooting only 9mm and .45 ACP rounds at steel, it is a good bet that the steel will still be in excellent condition after years of use."
Residue from a good day at the steel range: empty moon clips and the assorted bullet fragments collected at the foot of the targets. That's one reason why minimum distances should always be clearly marked- and observed.
"Target design makes a difference in how safe steel is to shoot! If your range has relatively new steel on it, your shooters will occasionally have bullet fragments rain down on them. These will be low speed, small fragments that splattered up, (possibly from an adjacent range), and literally fell out of the sky. I have never seen them fall with any impact, but it could happen. When a shooter is getting frags back at him, from targets he is shooting at (and he is shooting at good steel), it is a pretty safe bet that the frags are deflecting from a secondary surface. More specifically, if the target has a base on it that is perpendicular to the target surface, bullet fragments (fragmented from the initial impact) deflect down, and then they deflect a second time, in a basically horizontal direction. Low bolts, such as on the MGM Pepper Poppers usually do not play a part in this because bullets that impact in the primary target area (the circle) deflect off the face, and hit the ground, rather than the head of the bolts. Low shots will fragment, and the fragments will hit the head of the bolts. You can confirm that because the top side of the bolts won't have any paint on them. You will also notice a line in the dirt, caused by the fragments that are deflected down. Nearly the same number of fragments are deflected up - hence the rain mentioned earlier." "FRANGIBLE bullets bring a whole new dynamic to shooting steel. Out of a pistol, we've shot steel with frangible bullets at less than 5 yards. Because the bullets turn to dust on impact, there is no danger to the shooter. Rounds of .223 (5.56) frangible bullets are another story. These rounds, even at 15 yards, will mark the targets noticeably. While it shouldn't be an issue for the frangible bullets (that turn to dust), if someone should later shoot conventional pistol bullets (relatively close range) at those marked targets, they should expect to be hit with fragments." "While a person could continue the discussion ad infinitum, the bottom line is, everyone needs to make the safe distance call based on: 1) the condition of the steel, 2) the type and caliber of bullets being shot, 3) the yardage from the shooting line to the targets, 4) the potential liability issue related to a lawsuit from a disgruntled (and possibly bloody) shooter. At the risk of being redundant ALWAYS make sure that the shooters and the spectators are wearing glasses if anybody is shooting steel!" --Jim Shepherd This feature originally appeared in our September 29, 2010 edition.