Dynamic Use of Steel Targets

Steven Johnson & John T. Meyer, Jr.

First published in Polizei Trainer Magazine

Firearms training with paper, cardboard, and balloons

If we look at where we truly began, it was simply punching holes in paper targets. The reality is that we are still in that same position when it comes to “qualification”, fortunately, firearms instructors understand the reality of competency versus qualification.  Paper targets certainly have their place in training.  The positive aspect of paper targets is that they are easy to store, lightweight, there is no maintenance and have the potential for a variety of scoring plans.  The negative side is that there is no immediate feedback, they are one dimensional and it is difficult to see the bullet holes unless you are very close.  The next level of paper targets allowed for color, humanistic pictures, decision making targets with cut out props.

We can enhance the paper targets with 3D props.  Care should be taken to make sure that the props will not create an unsafe situation due to deflection.

Next, we elevate the use of paper targets by using cut-outs.  Place the target on a piece of cardboard, wood etc. and cut out the silhouette.  This now allows the target to be placed on another background or set at an angle for a more realistic target.  You have now eliminated a large white rectangular background that makes the target standout in a shoot house or even when conducting more dynamic range training requiring the use of cover, movement, etc.

Placing the target on large round cardboard tubes is another example of how to enhance the training scenario.  The cardboard tubes now offer true 3D images that are in fact more of the size and shape of a human torso.  The student may also be required to move in order to correctly identify a threat versus a no-shoot target.

The next innovation in paper or cardboard was the cardboard movers that use balloons.  This now allows for immediate feedback, multiple hit zones and the fact that the target is moving to allow much more realistic training.

An officer demonstrates the assembly of a “running man” target.

An officer demonstrates the use of a “running man” target.

What else can we do to boost the level of training on the firing range?  What about helium-filled balloons?  These balloons can be bunched with a variety of colors where a single color becomes the shooting target.  We have even placed them in a large cardboard box attached to ice cubes.  The ice cubes create weight and the targets cannot escape the box until the ice melts.  Now you have created a sit and wait situation, ideal for sniper training.  Please don’t try this in sub-freezing weather, the wait could be a little long.

Clay pigeons offer another type of target with immediate feedback.  Used in the traditional method with a shotgun requires finding the target, leading the target as you shoot, but why not use them for handguns.  Hang them on a string, they will sway in the wind, they will turn so that the target is now only an inch wide versus four or five inches.

True 3D targets are now available from a number of sources.  These targets are made of plastic or foam and come in a variety of torso options such as male and female with a variety of props such as guns, knives, pipes, badges, cell phones, etc. that allow the targets to become shoot or no-shoot targets.

Robotic targets are also a new rage.  These targets provide more options such as controlled movement in any directions.  Many of the paper and 3D targets can be mounted on the robotic platform to create even more realistic training.

Another interesting option is shoot-back targets.  These targets are normally equipped with a weapon that fires either paintballs or foam balls should the shooter not deactivate the target within a certain time by missing the steel plate.  Another version allows for the instructor to control the shoot-back feature should the student not utilize cover.


Steel Targets

Now comes steel targets that allow for immediate feedback, can be moved to shoot at various distances versus a specific target line, but they do require a minimal amount of maintenance.  The maintenance is easily overshadowed by the versatility and feedback.

So where should we be going in the next phase of firearms training?  How about reactive targets that give immediate feedback, both positive and negative.

Let’s look at the basic reactive targets and progress to the current more dynamic targets.   Before we begin talking about steel targets the first rule of steel is to obtain it from a reputable manufacturer of steel targets.  Having a friend weld up a few pieces of steel could create liability from splatter patterns etc.  Remember that there are various harnesses of steel that allow for certain calibers and velocities of the bullets used.  So-called “pistol grade steel targets” can become full of holes and therefore dangerous by shooting high power rifles at these targets.


Pepper Poppers

First were the steel “pepper poppers.”  Pepper poppers can be found in a variety of sizes.  They offer immediate feedback in the noise made by the hit and the fact that they fall.  One negative is that they must be manually reset.


Plate Racks

Next, are plate racks that normally have six steel plates. The advantages of a plate rack are that you still have the noise and the falling plates, but you can now have multiple shooters, use multiple colors on the plates so that you can actually call out a color that the shooter must find and engage.  You are still tasked with a manual reset, but this can normally be done with a rope to reset all targets at once.

Basic Torso and Hostage Targets

Next, are the basic torso and the hostage target.   These plates offer immediate feedback in both sound and often visible hits in the strike zone.  The hostage plate fulfills a very specific training need in shooting a hostage taker or simply a smaller target behind cover.  Action Target has now produced a “Multiple Target Torso”, a “Tactical Torso”, and a “Pelvic Zone” target.  Each of these targets offers from three to five hit zones.


The Dueling Tree

Finally, we have the “Dueling Tree.”  The six plates can be painted in a variety of colors or you can simply do the “man on man drill.”

Team One Network conducts a drill that encompasses all of these various targets.  This drill, the “Dueling Tree/Steel Target Drill” has a total of 45 target zones painted with six different colors.  The reverse sides of the dueling tree plates are painted six different colors. The student engages the plate then moves to a position of cover and must engage the same color on all the other steel targets.


Automated target systems for live fire and marking cartridges

So what is the next level?  Targets that can be controlled for hits, turns, lifts, fall, etc. by wireless handheld devices such as iPads, cell phones or laptops.  “Auto targets” are live fire targets that are intelligently connected that allow the shooter to interact with the target in a variety of ways.  They can be programmed for multiple hits and multiple hit zones, to turn or rotate or lift or fall.  The programming can create decision making confrontations such as body armor drills, multiple targets, and multiple hit zone requirements.  The targets are extremely portable, work on a CO2 cartridge, totally wireless, battery operated, and all information to include hits is shown on a handheld device such as a phone or iPad.

What about “marking cartridges?”  The same “Auto Target” produced by Action Target can be fitted with pressure sensitive targets so the same decision-making skills can be utilized as well as hit zones, etc.

The “FitLight Tactical Trainer” is another training device used with marking cartridges.  This device has 4 to 8 LED lights that are activated or deactivated by hits from marking cartridges.  This is one additional means of conducting force on target training to improve cognitive processing, as you measure speed, accuracy and receive an immediate visual response.  These devices can be mounted on any surface to include walls, doors, floors, etc.


The end of an era…

The era of only shooting paper should be over.  We train to survive, we train to overcome, we train to win.  We can never train to win without involving movement, decision making, and pushing the limits of your cognitive skills.  Technology continues to improve and provide more and more opportunities to raise the bar of our training.

The bottom line is that all instructors need to make their training as realistic as possible.  In this article, we have given you some ideas on how to improve your live fire training by incorporating a variety of target options that provide a pathway to improve the skills of your students.  By presenting these unique target options, we are providing different experiences to officers participating in live fire training.  Our ultimate objective, of course, is to save the lives of our officers and innocent civilians.  For use, that is the first and only purpose of realistic, useful training. All ways move forward and always train to win!