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Best Steel Targets & Stands: Summer Time Range Building



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THE WEATHER'S TURNED NICE, AND IT'S TIME TO GO SHOOTING IN THE GREAT OUTDOORS!

If you're fortunate enough to live in an area where you can drive out to some open land (public forests, hills, deserts, or whatever your local geography affords), then you've got the best range you could hope for. Distance, privacy, no noisy neighbors in the next shooting lane, and well-backstopped wide open fields of fire.

The only thing nature *doesn't* usually provide is good static targets. Shooting at rocks is dangerous. Shooting at trees makes Mother Nature sad. Setting up some trash or cardboard boxes with paper taped to them is admittedly suboptimal, as well as kind of ghetto. And that's where some quick-to-set-up – but stable – swinging steel absolutely augments your shooting session.

Metal gongs, usually made of AR500 steel armor, give a satisfying “clank” of feedback and swing as they are shot, letting you visually and audibly know you've got a hit, even from hundreds of yards away.

DIY'ers have long taken everything from wood 2x4s, plumbing pipe, and such to make hangers for gongs, getting them off of the ground so they can swing freely. Nothing wrong with putting together your own setup, but many homemade solutions end up being clumsier, heavier, less stable, or even unsafe compared to a well-engineered system.

In general, the recipe is simple:

  • Legs and a crossbar to make the stand (rebar, electrical conduit tubing, or other material found commonly and cheaply at a Home Depot or Lowe's);
  • Steel gongs made of AR500 or better grade “bulletproof” steel; and
  • Some sort of hanger to dangle the steel down from the crossbar, allowing it to resonate and swing (straps, chains, hooks, fire hose, etc).

Here, we're taking a look at three commercial but very affordable approaches to making this recipe. Each one has its own unique benefits to making target setup and use easy and enjoyable.

BEST STEEL RIFLE SHOOTING TARGETS & STANDS

The Last Stand

Born in Boise, ID where open foothills aplenty allow for long range shooting, The Last Stand kicks our list off by reflecting on that area's geography. It's the only one that elegantly allows for on-the-fly leveling for placement on uneven or hilly ground. It's the lightest weight, the most portable, and the smallest footprint system, so tossing it on an ATV rack or hiking it out to scoped-rifle distances isn't a bigger pain than it needs to be.

Last Stand does sell various AR500 gongs in rifle-rated 3/8″ thickness, but their special sauce is the bracket system itself. Inventor and proprietor Greg Gempler came up with a rubbery thermoplastic (TPU) fixture that solidly holds six sections of rebar (four legs and a doubled-section crossbar). Rebar is around $7.50 for a 10-foot section at Home Depot, so these brackets plus $22 will get your steel 4′ off the ground when that's cut in half and slid into these brackets.

That's plenty tall enough to rise above high grass and weeds. Completing the system, Last Stand crossbar hangers are thick self-healing plastic arms that bullets will pass through but are meaty enough to handle many rounds. Of course, you're *supposed* to be shooting the steel, not the hangers, so… practice more, and they'll last even longer!

The rebar passes through the hangers so they'll swing, but there's no way they can jump off of the bar when the targets are hit. Once they're on, they're on until you disassemble the entire crossbar or unbolt the gong. There's not much need to disassemble any of it, though. After the rebar sections are slid into the stand, the whole thing folds shut for transport with the target still hung.

Pull the whole stand out of your vehicle in one bungee-wrapped bundle, walk it to its spot, “click” the rebar legs open to solidly lock them into the familiar “swingset” form, and you're ready to shoot. One person can easily carry it and quickly set it up.

As Greg notes, “When you are hiking out 1000 yards to do some distance shooting, the last thing you want to have to do is continually hike back to the target to pick it back up after knocking it over or shooting it apart.” So this stand has no welds, nothing brittle to break.

To be fair, skinny rebar *does* do a little more jiggly dancing when hit as compared to more solid EMT tubing and heavier frames. Nevertheless, even on angled hillsides, our Last Stand never fell over or “walked” much when hit rapidly with 7.62mm. Your tradeoff benefit is that it's smaller and lighter to carry downrange, and boasts a 24-second, tool-free setup time.

The relatively skinny rebar can also be hammered or otherwise sunk into loose dirt to help stabilize the entire stand. For use on uneven ground, the Last Stand has a unique feature that allows its rods to be moved up and down inside the brackets allowing it to be leveled out. This is the stand you'd want to perch up on a hill or other sloped terrain.

A note: You should assume absolutely everything downrange is, at some point, going to get shot. By using cheap and easily replaceable rebar and self-healing thermoplastic joints, this system means you're not going to be crying over your stand getting ricocheted into or otherwise nicked up. 

Whether you choose to buy an entire package ready to go, or just separate pieces to build your preferred setup, it's available online at laststands.com

Caldwell

If you're new to shooting steel, there are some dangerous and potentially expensive pitfalls to avoid, and some education is needed before pulling triggers.

The Caldwell Portable Range Kit with 8″ AR500 Target is hands-down the most newbie-friendly, professionally packaged setup, with important information like the calibers their targets are rated for, velocity and muzzle energy limits, and clear, easy safety and setup instructions literally printed on the back of their high-visibility-yellow powder-coated plates.

This kit includes everything you need to pull it out of the box and go shooting – an 8″ AR500 gong, a collapsible steel stand, nuts and bolts, and Caldwell's XL Strap Hangers to hold up your target. 

It's surprisingly supported with a lifetime guarantee on the target stand and the gongs, which frankly isn't something you see often. A lifetime warranty on something designed to be shot at is not a particularly common thing, so… kudos here!

Unlike most systems, Caldwell's hanging targets feature their own proprietary frame that – instead of the classic swingset form factor – looks like a little soccer goal. With just a couple pins to hold it together, it's easy to set up, and requires no trips to Home Depot or sawing pipes.

With its proprietary legs, it's not as portable as simpler systems, but the upside is the unique “sled” style frame doesn't slide backwards, especially because it even comes with stakes to pound into the ground to keep things from shifting under impact. Our own Caldwell stand stays planted at our Texas hunting lease 100 yards downrange from a deer stand.

Through rain or shine, night and day, it's always near our hog feeder to confirm zeros without having to march through a field of rattlesnakes and mesquite thorns.

Two square holes are cut in each target, allowing for carriage bolts to attach to Caldwell's durable extra-long rubber hanger straps. Squared carriage bolts mean that no tools are needed to fasten gongs to hanger straps. So if you forgot your wrench, you're not out of luck: just hand-tighten the rear nut to the bolt, and you're ready to shoot.

Caldwell's XL Target Straps are made of nylon-enforced conveyor-belt rubber. They're super long at almost 20″, and have multiple holes to raise or lower the gong to give multiple height adjustments, which is a nice touch.

This allows you to either set targets at different heights to mix things up, or hang different-sized targets at similar heights. They can be used with any of Caldwell's targets as well as most other brands of gongs. They're burly, well-made, and provide a long service life.

The stand pictured comes with an 8″ semicircular gong. Caldwell has many size targets all the way from 5″ circles up to full-sized (30″) IPSC torsos.

We also used their 10″ coffin-shaped gong, which offers a vaguely humanoid shape without getting too morbid about it. Side note: The 10″ coffin's dimensions are 13″ x 8″ x .04″. None of which are 10″, so that honestly just confused us, but didn't stop it from being a fun and useful-sized target.

All Caldwell's targets are really clean, with first-rate presentation. Both had smooth edges and “C” logo that doubles as a bullseye. They didn't pit or crack under repeated 100-yard 5.56mm impacts using Hornady FMJ practice ammo from a 16″ Hodge carbine.

While – duh – they're going to get shot and very quickly will not look as pretty as they do on Day 1, you can tell these are made to be retail-store friendly and come safe to handle without sharp burrs. And when they do lose their new-car-smell, just hit 'em with some spray paint to bring back that easy-to-see yellow finish at any time. This Caldwell setup is super user-friendly, not requiring any sawing, pipe-cutting, or Home Depot runs.

This and their squared-away packaging would make these a good-looking birthday gift for your favorite shooter, hint hint. Anything else will sort of look like you sent them a box of random plumbing supplies.

Caldwell's target lineup is available at most Academy, BassPro, Cabela's, and similar big box sporting goods places, avoiding the potentially high costs of shipping steel, and of course, all the details are at www.caldwellshooting.com/

Shooting Targets 7

When browsing ShootingTargets7.com's website's wide variety of target types and copious instructional videos, it's immediately clear that these guys SHOOT, and have put a ton of time into designing and continually improving their targets. Specific care has been put into increasing safety for the shooter as well as the durability of their systems. Nowhere is this illustrated better than in their patent-pending Ultra Mega target system.

Ultra Mega armor swings freely from a single bulletproof metal hanger arm which makes for a louder impact. These arms hold the gongs at a 10• downward angle, so bullet splash and ricochets are safely directed into the ground below the target instead of straight back at the shooter. That also increases target life, as the impact force is deflected a bit.

The solid steel arm doesn't allow the target to twist or flop around when shot – just a straight back push which then returns to its place of rest quicker and smoother than straps or chains. The gongs attach in a unique way with a single custom-made acorn-shaped hardened bolt. That means even a direct hit on the bolt head won't send it flying through the back of the target.

It's probably the most durable bolt you can use to hang steel, and any mounting parts susceptible to damage are hidden behind the armor of the target.

It's a modular system that can be used for a simple single-gong setup, or can be configured into a double-armed “lollipop” spinner where competing shooters try to hit one target repeatedly in order to flip the bottom target over the top one. The hanger even has the ability to attach a flag above it for an even more visible cue, waving an indication of a hit at super long distances. It's definitely flexible with future expansion possibilities and options to keep the fun pinging.

In addition to the Ultra Mega arm system, ST7 also sells durable rubber straps and elegantly simple hardbar hangers for traditional gongs.

Moving the focus from the unique hanger arms and attachment method of the Ultra Lock system to the support frame itself, ST7 offers a number of frame types. Keeping with the theme of “easily portable and inexpensive”, we tried out their most flexible system. Their “Multi Tube Metal Target Stand Brackets” are thin in profile to reduce chance of getting hit, cost less than lunch, and are super versatile. 

Pretty much no matter *what* Lowe's has in stock on the way to the range, you're gonna be covered: The USA-sourced, rust-resistant zinc-plated AR500 brackets are sized to accept legs of 3/4″ EMT conduit, or plumbing “black pipe”, or a host of other various-sized tubes and dowels. The top crossbar can be 1/2″ rebar, 3/4″ EMT, 1″ EMT, 3/4″ black pipe, or whatever else fits in the selection of cleanly laser-cut holes.

EMT tubing, especially the larger diameter stuff, doesn't bow much so even heavy or multiple targets hang well on this setup without sliding to the middle bend. We put a few steel targets on a 6′ EMT top section as well as hung some paper bullseyes to it with clips, and everything stayed in place and nothing bent. If you want to make a “Know Your Limits” type target with progressively smaller and harder-to-hit gongs, ST7 provides a good setup.

The brackets are super small and bullet resistant. Even if hit, sharp spall won't stick in them like it does to wood or soft target stands. The unit shown in our photos was configured with 3/4″ EMT, and it was very stable. This particular bracket type doesn't allow for in-the-field leveling adjustments, but its rigidity made for very smooth swinging gongs, giving a high level of visual shot confirmation along with pleasing pings.

EMT tubing is just a few dollars more than rebar at your big box home improvement stores, so again, for $25-30 dollars and some pipe-cutting, you've completed the system.

These brackets, in conjunction with their Ultra Lock target system, made for smooth, stable swinging targets that – as advertised – angles a bit to spit bullet fragments safely straight downwards. 

It's a Veteran-owned company that's proud about its USA manufacturing and has fantastic customer support, as evidenced by their quick answering of even our dumbest questions via email and their YouTube channel comments. An impressive selection of different target types and lots of helpful informational videos can be found on shootingtargets7.com

SAFETY WARNINGS

We should mention a few safety pointers common to all steel target use: First, don't shoot steel up close. Ricochetes are real, and that little whizzzz noise of bullets coming back overhead isn't just in the movies. Even little .22lr can bounce back and cause serious harm.

Good eyepro is not optional. Caldwell's manual suggests “never shoot at this product from closer than 100 yards”, whereas ST7 acknowledges it's all about bullet speed at the target, and their website illustrates some situations where pistols may be shot close as 10 yards. But in the end, wear those glasses and watch your target's angle as well as distances.

Second, pack some good work gloves. Bullet jacket fragments can be like little razors, and picking up dinged steel or plastic supports that can get embedded with spall at the end of the day is a fast way to get the world's nastiest papercut.

Third, when it comes to hangers for your gongs, almost all the target manufacturers didn't have much good to say about using chain.

Mark, SS7's proprietor, points out that hanging method is not preferred in most cases: “I'm not a big fan of chains in general for hanging targets for a variety of reasons, the biggest one being for pistols shooters up close. There are a lot of curved surfaces that can do funny things with lead… I've seen links break off and come back to the line.”

Farther out, with rifles, the danger aspect diminishes, but higher calibers can still damage chains more easily than their aircraft-tire rubber straps.

Lastly, don't use “green tip” or steel core armor-piercing ammunition, as it will… pierce your armor. After you've Swiss-cheesed your first expensive gong, the lesson of using proper velocity and bullet type will be clearly illustrated for you.

SUMMARY

Paper targets are a necessary thing for precision zeroing and competitive scoring. But the addition of steel to the mix can't be beat for the fun feedback and action it brings to your range day. Swinging target speed-shooting games allow competition possibilities beyond just bullseye scoring.

There's no need to cease fire and run downrange to tape targets: the fun continues ringing out as long as you like. Making competition even more challenging, progressively smaller gongs sized as small as 1″ exist, but keep in mind that just like a church bell, the smaller it is, the quieter it is. The larger and thinner the target is, the louder it will ring and the easier it is to see waggling after a hit.

Steel also makes for a great super-quick “Am I more-or-less sighted in?” hunting rifle check as you go afield.

Our aforementioned Texas hog hunting camp has a 4″ ShootingTargets7 plate that lives at 100 yards: Rifle on bench, DING, yep – minute-of-pig confirmed, let's go shoot swine! And if you're using thermal optics, steel almost always gives a good signature contrasting to nature around it.

If needed, a handwarmer tapes securely to the back, warming the target. Unlike using cardboard, the handwarmer won't get shot apart or fall off as it's protected by the steel.

So as always, get outside and go shooting. If you don't have good steel in your inventory, for God's sakes stop propping up garbage and old Amazon shipping boxes with Sharpie'd bullseyes scribbled on them and check out the above websites!

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