Reactive Targets

A Consumer's Guide to Reactive Targets For Long-Range Rifles

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Reactive Targets for Fun and Competition

Why shoot reactive targets? Well, man does not live by paper alone. While it’s satisfying to drill little groups in paper, for sheer fun, nothing beats ringing a gong at 1000 yards, or sending a silhouette flying off a rail at 600. Paper targets also don’t work well when the wind is howling or rain is falling. Steel functions no matter what the weather. Reactive targets also provide “instant gratification”–immediate confirmation of a hit. That definitely enhances the shooting experience, especially with new shooters. Reactive targets are ideal for military and tactical training, where it is impractical to send men downrange to replace or score targets. In this article we review some of the best reactive targets for long-range rifle shooting.

Lady Slaps Steel — Watch Jason’s GF shoot steel targets with a 6.5-284 and .223 at 300 yards, 400m, and 1000 yards.
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6.5 @ 300 mild steel

6.5 @ 400 armor

6.5 @ 1000 mild steel

223 @ 300 mild steel

223 @ 400 armor

Important Facts about Steel Targets

Steel Hardness
All metal targets for long-range use with high-velocity rifles should utilize special steel rated at 500 Brinell hardness. Some companies advertise “Armored Steel” which may (or may not) be suitable. True “Armor Plate” is 500 Brinell steel that has been ballistically tested and certified. The better target-makers will give you specific hardness tests for their plate material. Note, the process of cutting and welding 500 Brinell steel can reduce the surface hardness signficantly. In particular, the heat from welding softens the steel.

Laser vs. Plasma (or Torch) Cutting
Generally speaking, laser-cut steel target plates are stronger and longer-lasting than plates cut by gas torch or plasma. The reason is quite simple as David Kasinski of Metal Spinning Targets explains: “Heat softens steel. With laser-cutting, the heat penetrates just 1/16″ into the surrounding steel. With a torch or plasma cutter, the heat can penetrate up to 1/2″ into the steel from the edge of the cut. Welding 500 Brinell steel softens it for the same reasons.”

Bolts vs. Welds
Bolt-on target plates are normally better than plates with welded attachments for three reasons. First, the heat from the weld penetrates the steel, reducing the surface hardness. Second, the weld is generally more brittle and is usually the first part to fail. Lastly, with a bolted attachment it is much easier to detach and reverse the target plate, extending its useful life. Likewise, bolted fixtures allow you to easily swap plate designs or replace a worn-out target.

Spring Reset vs. Gravity Reset
Poppers with springs tend to return to vertical faster than pendulum targets. However, spring rates, ideally, need to be set for the calibers you are shooting. Something set up for a .223 won’t necessarily work optimally with a .308. Moreover, springs tend to wear out, and if they are welded in place, the welds are a weak point. Gravity-actuated swingers usually require less maintenance, but for best performance, you want to select a target calibrated for the impact force of the particular round you’re shooting.

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Long-Range Rifle Reactive Targets in Review

The Gong–The Sweet Sound of Success
A medium-sized swinging gong is one of the most useful and versatile long-range reactive target. Surface area is large enough to allow a hit even if your zero is slightly off. The audible clang alerts iron sights shooter to a hit even if they don’t have a spotting scope. A gong in the 18″-20″ range is big enough that most good shooters can hit it reliably at 1000 yards when conditions are good. For middle distances, 400-750 yards, we like the $145 gong rig from DS Welding in California. A 10″-diameter Armored Plate hangs from a sawhorse-type all-steel frame. Value-priced, this unit swings easily and rings reliably, and the four-legged design works well on bumpy or uneven ground. The axle slides out of the side A-frames so the whole assembly stows flat for transport. If you need extra ground clearance for the gong, you can use ordinary pipe sections to extend the legs. DS Welding,, produces a wide variety of reactive targets, including steel targets used at the Steel Challenge and Cowboy Action National Championship.

Many local steel fabricators can sell you a round steel plate you can hang from a chain. But keep in mind that a proper gong is more sophisticated. First it should be hardened steel. Second, it needs to be the right diameter and thickness. If it’s too heavy it won’t swing when hit. If it’s too thick or the steel isn’t surface-hardened the gong won’t “sound off” with a clang when hit. Jason Baney, our 1000-yard Editor, has done a lot of long-range shooting at steel targets. He reports that “the bigger and thinner the gong, the louder it rings”. Also the best-ringing and most-durable gongs are attached with a bolted “clasp” on a transverse axle rather than a chain. (You can snap a chain with just a few hits.) In addition to the D&S Product, sells a cost-effective gong, rated for high-velocity rifle ammo. Choose from 10″ ($78), 12″ ($99), or 15″ ($115) diameters. Prices include a swinger frame made of 3/4″ HR bar. For $25 more you can order a heavy-duty base (as shown in picture).

Pros For D&S Gong: Decent Value at $145. Very stable on any ground surface. Bolted connecting pivot with no welded weak points on target plate. Easy to set-up and take-down and folds flat for transport.
Cons Limited ground clearance. Heavier than simple two-legged hanger.

MGM Precision Rifle Target
Mike Gibson Manufacturing (MGM) produces some of the best steel targets you can buy. MGM’s Precision Rifle Target is one of our favorite reactive targets because it is just about ideal for 600-yard practice, yet it has a smaller, secondary hit zone that can be used for super-precise work at 100 yards. Built of Brinell 500 steel, it is tough. The torso-sized plate is big enough to use for zeroing at 500 and 600 yards if you are within a couple MOA to start. A shot through the 5″ diameter center hole flips open a door that is easily seen with a scope. This offers just the right amount of challenge for a varmint-silhouette competitor or a long-range prarie dog hunter. At $370 the unit is pretty expensive, and it is heavy enough that you’ll probably want to truck it into position.

MGM also notes: “The head shot overall area is 3.5″ wide x 1.75″ tall, with the “eye” area 1″ x 3.5″, and the “nose” area 1.25″ wide and .75″ tall. Chest is a 5″ diameter circle. Changes not shown include: 1) The head is wider to allow us to use a 1″ diameter hinge pin, instead of the 1/2″ shown, 2) The body will be 28″ tall instead of 30″ 3) We have moved the hinge location for the chest shot closer to the chest hole, making the shot required to close the door about 1.5″ wide x 6″ tall.” Target doors are available in two different thicknesses. Specify Standard Duty for .223, or Heavy Duty for .308 and larger calibers. Note: if you are using this at 200 yards and beyond, tell MGM to move the door hinge back outboard so it is easier to reset.

Pros Versatile–good for initial zero and precision shots. 5″ central hole is a good size for 600-yard practice
Cons Heavy and expensive. Swinging doors are expensive ($137) to replace and too hard to close (unless you ask for the hinge relocated.) Fairly bulky to transport.

Lolli-Poppers–Marksmanship in Motion
This MGM product is popular with shooters who don’t want to lug a heavy target frame into the field. Also, you get VERY positive feedback as the target swings back and forth dramatically went hit. Lolli-Poppers are easy to store and transport–everything folds completely flat. The price is $354 with base and two 8″, 6″, or 4″ plates. However, just one well-placed shot can break a fiberglass wand, which costs $35.00 to replace. This is NOT a target for a novice or for finding your zero. Lolli-Poppers are best employed once your rifle has a “dead nuts” zero for elevation. To minimize the risk of snapping a support wand, always wait for the Lolli-Popper to stabilize before shooting. The units come with “Shaft Protectors” but they only shield the top part of the wand.

Designer Mike Gibson explains how the Lolli-Popper works: “The purpose of this target is to eliminate the need to send a runner 2-300 meters down range after every shooter to reset the steel. After every shot, the flexible shaft allows the target to move (assuming that the marksman hit the target). In a close range application of repeated hits on the target, it could move as much as 36″ total, and if it is hit on the edge of the target, it will begin to move side to side. Usual movement will be 6-10″, depending on range, caliber of bullet, etc. During our testing, we shot one of these 1,000 rounds with a .223, 20 rounds with the 30/30, 60 rounds of .223 SS109, and various other rounds at 30 yards. While you do see some dimpling on the front of the target, the back of the target remained completely smooth. Nothing had enough of an impact to bulge any part of the back of the target.”

Pros Plenty of movement with hit. Base is very stable. Lightweight for a steel target. Folds flat for storage.
Cons Support wands can be severed with one shot. Gusty winds can swing the plates. Pricey at $354.00.

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The LaRue–”Gold Standard” for Tactical Comps
The Larue Auto-Resetting Target is synonymous with tactical competition. In fact the capability to knock down a LaRue is often the determining factor for some shooters in selecting a caliber for their tactical rifle. LaRues, widely regarded as the most advanced self-resetting targets, are used in most major Sniper Competitions and by the military. The Larues are tough, reliable and require very little maintenance. Target plates are 3/8″ steel rated at 500 Brinell hardness. Battery powered, LaRues can cycle the target 1800 times between charges. An auto-timer resets the timer in 9 seconds, then shuts off, saving power and leaving the unit field ready. At a hefty 72 pounds, the LaRue is totally self-contained, no wires needed. These are weather-proof units, well-suited for a semi-permanent installation. A heavier 1″ thick version is available for use with 50-caliber rifles. Writing in Guns & Ammo magazine, writer Charles Cutshaw gave this testimony to the rugged durability of LaRue targets: “Silhouette plates are rated to accommodate 7.62mm NATO, but the author has shot them with .300 Winchester Magnum at ranges as close as 200 meters without ill effect….The targets are completely waterproof and can be left out without damage. Users have reported leaving LaRue targets exposed to the weather over a year’s time without affecting their operation. Other users have reported that LaRue targets have continued to function after being completely submerged for several days. Austin Precision stands behind the quality of its targets and will repair or replace any target that is found to be defective.”

Pros Totally automatic and self-contained. Rock solid in position. Very weatherproof.
Cons Very expensive at $1395. Heavy. Low height can be obstructed by terrain features. Requires battery recharging (charger is $70 extra).

Ballistic Tech ComboTarget Stand–Paper and Polymer
When practicing for our 500- and 600-yard varmint matches we like to use reactive targets at match distances. Steel poppers are great, but it’s still nice to have a target stand to hold paper for sighting-in and shooting groups. We’ve found a versatile new product from Ballistic Technologies that fits the bill. This combines a stable, ground-standing frame, with a raised paper-target holder. Instead of conventional heavy metal swingers, this combo rig uses bright orange “ballistic polymer” targets that withstand thousands of rifle shots.

With a hit, the spinner rotates around the horizontal axle. The polymer closes up around the bullet holes so it can be used over and over again. This $95 “Combo 5″ target rack holds paper targets up to 24″ x 24″, and a “barbell” spinner with 6″ diameter circles. There are many other Ballistic Tech targets, including a polymer prairie dog spinner and a handy horizontal rack for conventional clay pigeons.

Pros Spinners work well. Very versatile–switch from shooting groups on paper to spinners. Breaks down flat for storage. Relatively light-weight.
Cons Somewhat complex assembly. Bullet holes not visible on polymer. Holder for paper targets not sturdy in high winds. Hits on spinner axle can break it.

FlashTarget–Hit-Activated Remote Strobe-Light System
Flash Target, a company based in Durango, Colorado, offers a unique target accessory that brings reactive targets into the 21st century. A small motion sensor is placed on the back of your steel target plate, which can be either a fixed plate or a swinger. When the plate is hit, a signal is sent to a remote stroboscopic lamp that emits a very bright flash signaling a hit. Both wired and wireless versions are available.

We’ve shot in three-gun matches with these gizmos and we can tell you they really work. From a scorer’s standpoint, a hit is unmistakeable when the flash goes off–even in bright sunlight. In normal light conditions, the strobe is visible out to 1000 yards. At dusk or dawn, you can probably stretch that to 1500 yards.

Before we say more, you definitely need to Click HERE to watch a short video that shows the strobe firing from a distance of 300 yards (filmed with zoom lens). The basic wire-linked unit costs $149.95. The optional wireless rig, consisting of transmitter, receiver, and necessary cords and batteries, adds $275.00 to the price. This is an excellent product for rapid fire practice–reset time is just one to two seconds between shots/flashes in “fast mode”. NOTE: For long-range solo rifle practice, you may miss the flash as your muzzle jumps on recoil. If you can normally see bullet impact after firing a shot, however, this should work just fine. The unit carries a one-year warranty. We are curious about the long-term durability of the motion sensor. In general, electronics and high G-loads don’t ordinarily co-exist very well. Still it’s a cool product, unique in the marketplace.

Pros Works great. Very positive (for a spotter) even at long range. Quick reset time is ideal for rapid-fire matches. Unit is small, easy to store.
Cons The wireless add-on is pretty pricey. A shooter with a heavy-recoiling rifle may miss the flash due to recoil. This works best as a signal to the spotter.

Self-Resetting Poppers

Aside from swingers and gongs, spring-loaded poppers are probably the most popular self-resetting target units found at busy gun ranges. They are available from many different vendors in a host of different plate configurations, including animal shapes. When choosing a spring loaded popper, select one with bolt-on plates so you can reverse the target or exhange with another design. Make sure the manufacturer offers a selection of springs so you can use the target for shotgun and pistol as well as rifle. Look for a convertible design that can be fitted to either a ground mount or a raised, sawhorse-style platform. Shown (far right) is a $96 MGM Auto-Popper with optional ($60) pipe base. The other photo shows is an MGM Auto-Popper on a $60 low-profile “Sniper Base”, prior to painting. Different plate designs can be fitted to either unit.

Pros Durable, versatile, cost-effective. Bolted units can switch target plates easily.
Cons Added cost for raised mounts. Narrow hit area limits utility at long range.

Auto-Reset (Gravity) Poppers
Using gravity to re-set targets is nothing new. The simple spinners and swingers used by rimfire shooters employ gravity to center targets after a hit. But these are toys compared to Metal Spinning Targets’ beefy Auto-Reset Popper, an “Industrial Strength” gravity popper. The High Velocity rifle version, at 28″ high and 55 pounds is a serious piece of hardware, comparable to a LaRue in target size and mass. Yet it doesn’t require batteries, and it costs $195 per unit vs. $1395 for a Larue. Tests by the U.S. Army at Fort Campbell, Kentucky were very positive. Soldiers who tested the unit declared: “User friendly, simple and effective training tool. Unlike the LaRue Mechanized Silhouettes, [it] requires no battery recharging, all you have to do is repaint the surface when excessive spotting. Movement and setup is a one-man job, unlike some systems that require a two-man lift, and movement is a major tasking,” and “The best made, best [in] use, lowest maintenance popper target available.” As with all other Metal Spinning Target products, this unit features laser-cut, weld-free plates, and is available in 500 Brinell hardness. This quality target performs many of the duties of a LaRue, at a fraction of the cost.

Pros Strong, tough, heavy-duty construction, but not too heavy for one person to carry comfortably. Simple, fool-proof reset mechanism. Easy-to-change target plates.
Cons Doesn’t fold completely flat so it is bulky to transport. A good deal more expensive than a simple gong or Spring-Loaded Poppers.

Classic ‘Knock-Over’ Animal
Silhouettes for Competition

No discussion of reactive targets would be complete without a word or two about those standard animal-shaped silhouettes used in pistol and rifle competition around the world. The four basic shapes are: Ram, Turkey, Pig, and Chicken. Steel silhouettes come in many sizes, suited to various calibers, disciplines and shooting distances. Close-range rimfire silhouette targets look like children’s toys. A full-size ram is the size of a small suitcase, and requires a pretty hard-hitting projectile in the 140+ grain range to topple. Favored calibers include .260 Rem, 7-08, and .308. A 6BR can drop a Ram, but not with the consistency of the bigger bores.

One new development in the “fun shoot” game is the use of half-sized silhouettes positioned at 500 or 600 yards. Even when using BR-style front rests and 25-36 power scopes, it can be very challenging to hit half-size silhouettes at these distances when the wind is shifty. A half-size chicken has a “hit zone” about the size of a softball. You need an honest 1/3-MOA rifle to nail half-scale chickens at 600 yards with any consistency.

Pros A set is relatively inexpensive. Many sources. Sizes certified for competition.
Cons Targets must be manually reset after each hit. Outer edges can soften during manufacturing when torch-cut.

Four-in-One Metal Reset Target
We love this target for 400-700 yard practice because it is fun and challenging. When you hit each of the round plates, they lock back out of the way. When you’ve hit the three circles, THEN shoot the square plate, and all four targets reset. The reset mechanism is covered by a protective shield for greater durability. The $295 Four-in-One Reset Target from Metal Spinning Targets stands 30″ high and weighs 58 pounds. Using a sawhorse-style frame, it sits stably on four steel legs, yet breaks down competely flat for transport. The 3/8″ thick plates are 5″ in diameter–just about the perfect size if you want to practice for 500- and 600-yard varmint and fun shoots. On request, you can get 4″ diameter paddles and a diamond-shaped reset plate. Yes, the unit is pretty pricey, but it is solidly built and fun to shoot.

Pros Ideal plate diameters. Very Durable. Unique operation and everyone wants to try it.
Cons Pretty expensive. We’d like to see one 24″ plate on top for zeroing.

Polymer Suspended TobeyKnockers
A while back Ballistic Tech came out with the “Target Cube”, a nearly indestructible polymer block. Deployed on the ground, if you hit the cube it would skip and bounce. Well, that was popular, but it was easily obscured by vegetation and mounds between shooter and target. Shooters wanted a similar cube that could be suspended above the ground. Enter the TobeyKnocker– a simple, compact target that can withstand hundreds of rifle hits. You can suspend the TobyKnocker from a cable or a horizontal frame. The $95 TobeyKnocker is small enough that you can keep one in your vehicle all the time. Just bring a couple wooden stakes and a bit of rope and you can set up a reactive target nearly anywhere. The bright orange “Knockers” are small enough to challenge you at 500 yards and beyond.

Pros Handy, inexpensive, light-weight. The ideal “field-portable” reactive swinger.
Cons Not self-contained–requires a hanger bar or cable. The carabiner clasp at the top looks vulnerable.

Why Steel Targets Live or Die—by Mike Gibson

Mike Gibson is the owner of Mike Gibson Manufacturing (MGM), one of America’s leading suppliers of hardened steel training targets. ALL standard MGM targets are offered with 500 Brinell hardness steel, suitable for rifles up to 300 WM (at distances past 150 yards or so). Quality steel targets are not inexpensive. Therefore you want to buy a product that will stand the test of time and survive hard use. Mike explains the features that are important for durability and long target life.

MIKE: I don’t have the time or space to address every conceivable factor impacting the life (and death) of steel targets. Nor will I deal with the highly technical side of bullets impacting steel, such as how deep did each bullet penetrate a specific type of steel. I don’t care how deep one bullet penetrated a piece of steel. I want to know what thousands of rounds will do to it! Hopefully the following information will simplify this target business, and eliminate some of the “mystery metal” characteristics that tend to surround targets today.

Steel Hardness and Target Durability
Hardness is of course the single most critical element affecting target life. The hardness of steel is most typically measured on one of two scales. Brinell or Rockwell. Rockwell is used primarily in machine shops. Brinell would most commonly be used in a welding or heavy equipment repair shop. There are conversion tables available, but we have not included them here.

Someplace back in time, maybe 50 years ago, U.S. Steel developed a product affectionately known as T-1, designated by the ASTM (American Society for Testing Materials) as A-514. Some time after that, shooters decided it was a great steel to use for targets. It did a great job then, but there are better products out there now. The catch is, virtually all of them are heat-hardened steels, so there are some complications related to repairing them.

The easiest and best way to repair damage to steel targets is to purchase steel that isn’t easily damaged. Pretty basic, but frequently overlooked while trying to save a relatively inconsequential amount of money. That’s why we use the 500 Brinell hardness material on everything we sell.

Mild Steel (like I-beams, angle iron, channel, pipe is 112-163 Brinell. T-1 (ASTM A514) which has been the target steel of choice for years, has a Brinell hardness of 235-293. All our standard targets are 500 Brinell (460-540). This converts to roughly a 52 on the Rockwell scale. ARMOR PLATE is 500 Brinell, and has been ballistically tested and certified.

You will notice that each material has a range of hardness that is acceptable to the manufacturer and the ASTM (American Society for Testing Materials). I suspect that, with the exception of the Armor Plate, this is because each material is designed for a particular application or purpose. The hardness will affect that application, but hardness is not the primary design criteria. It is easy to see that the harder material is, the better it will stand up in a target application, as long it is not brittle. Some steel (like tungsten carbide) is harder, but you can break it with a hammer. Target steel has to have the right amount of hardness, coupled with the necessary chemical properties to make it tough, and able to stand up to the impact and vibration a target is subjected to.

Ability to Move Extends Target Life
Two other major factors to consider in target design are weight and movement. Physics: An object at rest tends to stay at rest. If your target is too heavy for the bullet to move, or is designed to not move, the target face has to absorb 100% of the bullet energy, and is consequently going to sustain more damage than a target that can fall down, or is spring loaded. The same is true for a stationary target. We have seen penetration much deeper on a 3/4″ 500 Brinell immobile target, than on a 3/8″ target of the same hardness, that could move. There are some applications where you have to go thicker, simply because the bullet carries enough energy to penetrate the target plate.

All content Copyright © 2013, |, All Rights Reserved. Product photos also copyright the manufacturers, used by permission.

TOPICS: Poppers, Targets, Steel, Brinells, Lolli-Popper, Lollipop, Gong, Swinger, Spinners, Bullseye, metal, metallic, silhouette, Silhouettes, Ram, Pig, Turkey, Chicken, IHMSA, Sniper, Pendulum, Torso, Steel Plate, Brinell 500, Laser cut, MGM Targets, Mike Gibson, Spring-loaded, Plasma, highpower, high-power, Video, Camera, TargetCam, Target Camera, Remote, Display, LCD, Target Shooting, Ballistic Technologies, Cube, Polymer, TobeyKnockers, Resettable, LaRue, LaRues, Tactical, Rockwell, Battery, Receiver, Monitor, ASTM, T-1.

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