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Gongs: Ringing the Steel

I have never hammered a steel plate with a hammer, but I have hammered steel targets for more than 20 years. The sound is loud and rewarding. Steel targets are an aid in gaining proficiency with firearms, particularly handguns. We use paper targets for sighting in, ensuring our sights are properly zeroed. We also use paper targets when stressing decision making. But on my own time and my own dime, I would rather shoot steel than anything.

metal gong targets with one swinging after a solid hit

This target just took a hard smack from a 9mm +P.

Paper targets are time consuming. You have to change the paper once the bullseye is obliterated. Even if you use target pasters, there is a walk to the target stand. I don’t mind a good walk but I walk and run at night when it is cool—and keep shooting for sport separate from running!

When you are doing a 300-yard shoot with the .308, well, it is a 600-yard round trip to set the targets up. Once you have zeroed the particular firearm, the rest of your shooting is simply practice and practice makes perfect. A quality steel target just may be the answer to many of your shooting needs. Maintenance is low and the targets will withstand thousands of rounds of ammunition hitting them foursquare in the center.

There is any number of steel targets. Fixed, reaction, and moving targets are available. Fixed targets are fine for longer range, but reaction or resetting targets are best. Remember, your firearm is sighted in so you are practicing marksmanship. Firing at known and unknown ranges is a better test of marksmanship than firing at paper at a set distance.

Among the simplest targets are the manual reset designs. The target is struck and toppled over. There are also plate rack designs with several eight-inch diameter plates that may be shot and tipped over. They are reset all at once, typically by yanking a lever or rope.

Rimfire caliber steel target

Steel targets come in centerfire and .22 rimfire sizes.

These are very popular for competition use. They do require a reset, but you usually have plenty of help at a pistol or 3-gun match. Remember, they are preset for a certain power level. A setscrew is often used for setting the rack for 9mm, .40, .45 or even the .44 Magnum. If you are firing a lighter round than the target is set for, you will hear only a ping and the target will stand steadfast.

Heavy cartridges have a heavy Bong! sound when struck, while high velocity numbers often have a Ping! The somatic of steel is interesting. A high velocity 9mm has a higher timbre than the dull thud of a 750 fps .44 Special. The tone differences are quite distinct and an added joy in shooting steel.

The most practical resetting steel targets for the author’s style come from Champion and Birchwood Casey. Once hit, they swing back into place. A range setup may include heavy steel that is hung on chains. The bullet strikes the target and is deflected into the ground, a fine set up.

A moveable target may be a steel plate that stands upright on solid ground. This target is struck by the bullet, then drops and springs back. A good hand may keep the target leaning until the ammunition in the handgun is exhausted.

Hanging steel shooting plates

These plates will withstand thousands of handgun bullets.

There are both .22 rimfire and big bore centerfire targets available. This is a relatively simple target that offers both a challenge and great family fun. As a bonus, they are portable and inexpensive.

Among the better designs is a common type found at gun clubs. These targets usually require the services of a welder. The plates are suspended from a chain. This offers a very simple reset and great utility, along with long life. If you hit the target there is an instant feedback.

Allow the target a second or two to reset and have at it again. These targets offer practically unlimited reset and also give clues as to how your marksmanship is progressing. When you have learned how to read the hits on a steel target, you are on you way to a real learning experience.

Here are the rules in shooting steel targets and reading your hits.

Target is hit.

Motion Your Hit
Springs to the left You have hit left of center
Spins to the right You have hit right of center
Tips crazily from the bottom You have hit low
The bottom rises You have hit high
Goes straight to the rear You have hit dead center

These instant feedbacks tell the shooter they need to bear down and get a solid hit. While great fun, steel reactive targets are an aid in personal defense training without equal. With the handguns that are difficult to use well, more time is needed to take aim and fire. But a miss is more than embarrassing.

SIG Elite 9mm +P ammunition and Rock Island 9mm pistol

The SIG Elite 9mm +P and Rock Island 9mm proved to be a great combination!

Going too fast isn’t much of a reward, and while firing at paper may show something on the paper, when addressing an eight-inch gong, there is no indication where the miss went. You have missed by a fraction of an inch or a mile.

I recently worked out two of my favorite recreational 9mms on the steel plates. I used the Springfield XD long slide and Rock Island Armory 9mm 1911. The new SIG Elite 124-grain +P load was used. This load is accurate and smacks the plates with authority. This was great fun and a good test of good guns and ammunition.


It is generally recommended that steel targets be placed at least 100 yards with high-powered rifles. However, we have seen steel targets used successfully and safely during matches at much closer range. The key is to use frangible ammunition/be very cognizant of target angles and the directions of potential ricochets. Just the same, safety rules must never be bent or ignored.

bob Campbell shooting steel targets

Marksmanship is stressed when shooting steel targets—feedback is immediate.

You must always use proper hearing protection and eye protection is particularly important when using steel targets. A minimum of 10 yards should be the safety mark when using steel targets with handguns. I have placed wooden barricades very close to steel targets to confirm and test safety, and your range should do the same.

The hanging steel targets, as an example, direct the bullet into the ground and the bullets are found at the bottom of the target. But I have set these wooden panels at five or six feet and found jacket material imbedded in the wood. So, there is some danger, if you get too close.

I think steel targets are not only a great training aid, they are a good means of introducing young shooters to the fun that is present in many types of shooting. Steel targets keep shooters interested and provide a good combination of recreation and skill building. Steel targets and steel reaction targets are a great option for the all-around shooter.

Center of Mass

There is a lot of ink spent on convincing people to aim for the center of mass. The ideal aiming point is the arterial region. We need to get effect as quickly as possible. While precise shooting is good, I will take a good hit on the steel gong every time and hope for the same if shooting for real.

Do you shoot steel for competition or training? What tips do you have for shooting steel? Share your answers in the comment section.


Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooter’s Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.

View all articles by Bob Campbell

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