Fragmentation Patterns Off Of Steel Targets - (Pic heavy)

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    Geek in Paradise!
    Site Supporter
    Rating - 100%
    50   0   0
    Mar 26, 2008
    Brown County
    As I started writing this review, I debated about what the title should be. You've already seen what I finally chose. Two others I considered were:

    -- Why Hardened Steel Targets Are Safer

    -- Don't Shoot Crap Steel Targets :)

    Shooting steel targets is fun! You get the immediate feedback of the 'ding' and seeing the swinging steel target. Steel targets can be shot thousands of times with little wear if the right steel and ammo are used.

    Another advantage of steel targets is that they teach a shooter to achieve a certain level of accuracy; but not too much. If a shooter determines that hits within an 8" circle at the desired distance is the right level of accuracy, then practicing with an 8" steel targets allows the shooter to get faster and faster as long as the hits are being made. A ding anywhere on the steel is a hit. With paper targets there is always the temptation to push for smaller and smaller groups at the expense of speed.

    For the rifle shooter, the distinctive ring of a hit on steel signals a good shot and doesn't require a spotting scope to see the hit.

    Anyone who uses steel targets knows that fragments and ricochet are safety issues to be aware of. In my reading about shooting steel, I've seen literature that states that fragments come off of hardened steel surfaces at 20 degrees. That got me curious; so with some help from fellow INGO members, I went about to see if that was true.

    What Is Fragmentation?
    When a bullet hits a steel target with enough velocity, it break up into hundreds, even thousands of fragments. Those fragments spray off the surface and hit surrounding surfaces. Where they go depends on many factors such as angle of the bullet as it strikes the target, bullet shape and construction, velocity of the bullet, hardness of the target surface, etc.

    A ricochet is when a large portion of the bullet bounces back intact, not in little pieces.

    Here is a video of rifle rounds hitting a hardened steel target. The target has a downward cant so much of the splatter is directed toward the ground. Watch the ground 'jump' as the fragments strike it.


    After that run of hits, the soil under the target is pulverized by the splatter.


    How Not To Do It
    I've been using steel targets for about 7 years. During that time I learned some guidelines about how to safely use steel targets...sometimes by first doing it the wrong way.

    Two examples:

    When we moved to our current home, I found a piece of steel treadplate that had been shot at and deeply cratered. In my ignorance I figured if it was good enough for the previous owners, it was good enough for me. I even built a large stand to hold it. Luckily, at 200 yards, it probably wasn't too dangerous. However, before the stand was built, it had been propped up at the range and shot at with pistols. (Duh!) :n00b:


    At the pistol range I had mounted three steel flanges on solid posts. It wasn't until a new INGO friend visited and educated me that I realized the error of using the standard steel flanges and having them mounted with no movement or swing.


    Review Outline
    Although this review is about fragmentation off of steel, it really is about shooter safety. The reason a person wants to know the fragmentation pattern is to make sure that the fragments don't come his way!

    Before I describe how I tested for splatter, I'll show you one approach that didn't work.

    After describing the test rig that did work, you'll find a large section of pictures of the splatter pattern for various calibers of ammunition. I may even throw in a spreadsheet or a chart if I'm feeling particularly geeky. :D

    I take a brief look at ballistic gellatin and hits at an angle before getting to a really fun section...shooting at a steel flange. What a surprise that was! If you don't read any other part of this review, read that section. It's important for anyone who uses steel targets.

    I end with a few comments and a list of safety guidelines when working with steel targets.

    I want to thank INGO members chuddly and jontz for their help. They spent an afternoon helping me work out the kinks in my test rig. Their ideas helped create the second test set-up that gave us some good data. Chuddly also brought some ballistic gellatin to try out! :yesway:

    The hardened steel targets I used for this test came from Bobcat_Steel. They are an INGO advertiser and long-time supporter of INGO.

    And thank you to INGO advertiser Profire_Arms for their donation of several varieties of pistol and rifle bullets to be tested. I reloaded them and put them to use.

    Initial Test Set-up (and failure)
    I wanted to capture the spray of fragments from the impact with the steel target. I thought a thin cardboard sheet wrapped in a tube should work. (The sheets originally are about 3' square and come free from Sam's Club. They separate the layers in a pallet of paper towels and other paper products. They make great targets if you need fairly large sizes.)

    I built a tube about 12" in diameter and about 28" long from fencing to hold the rolled cardboard sheet. I reasoned that if this tube was resting on a flat piece of steel we'd be good to go. I employed the full-sized IPSC target I had hanging in a wood stand. Here's the test rig by the barn.


    The stand was moved to the dam and a test shoot was made at 50 yards off a bench.

    The test shot was a 168 grain FMJ round made by Hornady.


    The splatter pattern hugged the surface of the IPSC target so closely that it scoured some paint off areas away from the impact point.


    The edge was torn up as expected, but we couldn't tell how wide the actual zone was.


    Chuddly, jontz, and I quickly realized that at the moment of impact, the steel moved away from the cardboard/cage combo. This wouldn't let us measure the actual width of the spray pattern. We tried to wire the cage in-place, but the impact still moved the target too much. A new design was needed.

    New Test Rig
    We determined we needed a set-up where the steel target and the cardboard tube were independent of one another so that the impact on the steel would be separate. We also decided that the wire holder didn't need to be so long so we cut off 40% of it.

    I used a stand I already had and with the aid of a few nails, chain, and bungee cords we were in business. The steel target was held on a target tripod. We switched to an 8" square Bobcat Steel that fit nicely into the cardboard tube. By marking the position of the target before each shot we could see how far out the splatter pattern came.


    Chuddly with the improved test stand design.

    The first test shot was a nice center hit (thank you Savage 110!) yielding a clear cut line of fragments through the cardboard. There was a small amount of tiny fragments sitting in the tube. There were no fragments forward of a few inches.


    The outside of the tube showed the effects of the bullet impact. The target stand was driven back out of the tube holder.


    This is what a cardboard looks like after one shot. There is a clear zone of dense splatter as well as some powder residue.

    After seeing the tight splatter pattern, we realized we could turn the cardboard end-for-end and use each one for two tests.


    Now that we had a test stand that worked properly, we started testing the rifle calibers first.

    A Note About Safety During the Tests
    A big part of the motivation for all this testing is the hope that other INGO shooters will use this information to evaluate their steel target arrangements and make any needed changes to create a safer shooting environment for themselves, their family, and their guests.

    During this test, I made the conscious decision to shoot some targets at distances closer than I would recommend for everyday use. I wanted to push the limits of the test beyond the daily use level so that any unusual results would appear and be easily seen. The three shooters always had safety glasses, hats, and long-sleeved clothes on when firing.

    An interesting note. At no time during the testing did any of us experience any fragments or ricochets striking us or the equipment around us. To our knowledge, nothing came anywhere near us.

    Test Results
    The standard test steps were to:

    -- Shoot a round.
    -- Assess the splatter. Take pictures.
    -- Move the target stand back in place if it moved.
    -- Put a clean cardboard in the tube and label it.
    -- Make any notes we wanted to remember.
    -- Get the next firearm and cartridge ready.
    -- Repeat.

    After the testing was done, pictures of all the cardboard tube pieces were taken with a raking light skimming the surface to highlight the fragment holes.

    I decided to include all the pictures because they tell an interesting story about the different calibers. You will see vast differences in the amount of damage done to the cardboard and in some cases, very different patterns.

    I also took some measurements to see at what angle the fragments rebounded off the steel target. (They went into a spreadsheet!) :) I had to dust off some simple trigonometry to calculate the angle and then learn how Excel handles trig functions.

    I did divide the test results into groups for Rifles, Handguns, and Shotguns to make it easier to digest.

    Throughout the testing I labeled the runs with a numbering system to keep things straight. "R1" is the first rifle round tested, "R2" is the second rifle round etc. "P" is for pistol rounds and you guessed it, "S" is for shotguns.

    90 Degree Rifle Hits on Hardened Steel

    Here is an example of the test arrangement. Jontz is shooting a Reminton 700 in .223. All rifle tests were shot at 50 yards.


    Rifle Data Spreadsheet!

    Here is the basic data that was collected during three testing sessions. The information is arranged by ascending caliber, not the order they were shot in.

    Rifle Data Bar Chart

    The overall average of 19.7 degrees certainly agrees with the literature. However, this shows that there is variation in that angle. The fragments exit not just at 20 degrees but in a cloud between 0-20 or so degrees.


    Individual Cardboard Sheets

    Here are the splatter patterns of the rifle rounds in order from least powerful round to most powerful round we tested; not the order in which we tested them.

    Draw you own conclusions remembering that in most cases, what you're seeing is the result of just one round.












    The pictures above show the outside of the cardboard sheets. On the more powerful cartridges, there were often powder burns along with the fragments.


    Selected Pictures/Videos from the Rifle Testing

    Shot R3_7.62x39_cardboard in the holder

    Here is a video of us shooting the most powerful rifle round we used during our testing. The steel reaction varied greatly between this an a .22LR!


    This is the result of the one shot from the video above.

    Ballistic Gelatin

    I've had zero experience with this fun stuff. Chuddly was kind enough to make some and bring it with him. He thought it would be interesting to place this in the 'splatter zone' and see what happened. It might help us get a sense of the energy in the fragments coming off the steel.

    As I understand it, the gelatin is made in a concentrated form such that it imitates flesh. Therefore, if a fragment penetrates the gel an inch, it would do something of that magnitude to you if your body was near the steel target.

    We set a tray of the gelatin about 2 feet below the steel target.

    This is an example of where the gelatin was. This sheet was from a .223 impact.

    After shooting a Federal Premium .308 round, we found fragments in the gel up to about 1" deep. A large number of fragments penetrated 1/2"

    90 Degree Pistol Hits on Hardened Steel
    We moved the test stand to a position 10 yards from the shooting bench. All pistol caliber rounds were shot at this distance.

    The process was very much the same (except the walk to the stand after each shot was much faster!).

    Here's Chuddly shooting a 9mm test.


    Pistol rounds have much less energy in them so the impacts aren't as dramatic.


    A 115 grain FMJ 9mm round produced this splatter pattern.


    Pistol Data Spreadsheet


    Pistol Data Bar Chart
    The average splatter pattern was in a similar envelope as the rifle rounds. The tested maximum average was 18.5 degrees.


    -- Individual cardboard sheets














    Even the .22LR produced a tight splatter pattern. (Shot P5_.22LR MiniMags)

    During the testing of pistol rounds, several larger fragments were found; sometimes sitting inside the cardboard tube and other times in the grass immediately in front of the test stand. These are likely the bottom of the bullet after most of the original bullet has fragmented. This piece strikes the steel and stops with very little energy.


    90 Degree Shotgun Hits on Hardened Steel

    Shotgun testing was done at 10 yards for the pellet load and 15 yards for the buckshoot and slug. (As a reminder, these distances are less than the recommended distance for everyday use.)

    Shotgun Data Results

    Shotgun Bar Chart

    #6 Pellets


    S1_Win#6 pellets_view of tube and target

    There wasn't a clear pattern with the #6 pellets.



    S2_Fed Flite Control_00Buck_view down tube and target

    S2_Fed Flite Control_00Buck_outside of cardboard in tube


    The Federal Flite Control rounds produce a very tight pattern.


    S&B 00 Buckshot is a more traditional buckshot with a much wider entry pattern. It still produced a controlled splatter pattern however.







    Multiple hits
    The thought process behind shooting a few multi-round targets was to see if the hardened steel targets produced the same splatter pattern time-after-time.

    R13_5 rounds of .223 Sierra 55g BTHP


    Shot P2_5 rounds_9mm


    The result? Both rifle and pistol calibers produced tight and repeatable splatter zones. One of the big problems with inferior steel targets is that they aren't predictable. It's difficult to be safe when you don't know where the fragments are going.

    45 Degree Hits
    Just out of curiosity I shot the steel target at about 45 degrees with a .308 round with the following results.



    The pattern stayed tight while making a nice wave shape.

    90 Degree Hits on a Mild Steel Flange
    This turned out to be the biggest learning point for me. I think you'll enjoy it!

    I still had one of the old steel flanges I had originally mounted to posts. For today's test, I bolted it to the target tripod.

    I decided to "distress" the surface to create a used target surface.

    First up, I shot it five times with .223 Sierra Blitzking poly-tip ammo. They made surprisingly large craters for .223.


    Next: Five rounds of .308 FMJ. Portions of the flange dropped off and there were several cracks fored in the flange.


    Example of crater left by a .308 round on steel flange

    Rear view of broken steel flange

    .308 pops area on backside of steel flange

    First Test
    Now it's time for the first test. A fresh edge of cardboard is positioned in the wire tube. Another cardboard piece is taped over the end facing the shooter.

    As in the past, I shot one round of .223 55 grain Sierra Blitzkings at the flange. I was astounded by the result!





    Notice the lack of a tight fragmentation pattern, or any pattern for that matter! A large portion of the splatter angled downward and into the ground about 6-7' in front of the test stand.

    Look how much material went through the front cardboard! That is unacceptable.

    Second Test

    I wanted to check the results so I loaded up the test stand and shot another .223 Sierra 55g round.




    This time the splatter was more general within the tube. Same as the first shot, many particles exited out the front of the tube in the shooter's direction. The pattern overall is highly unpredictable.

    Hits on the Front Cardboard are Rare with Good Steel
    I didn't put a thin cardboard sheet over the front of the tube for every test. I did place a sheet there 10 times while shooting at the hardened steel plate. I saw only 1 small fragment hit a front cardboard in those 10 tests. It was from a .308 round fired at 50 yards. Think about that, 1 tiny piece compared to the scores of fragments hitting the front cardboard each time the pock-marked steel flange was hit.

    Target Condition at the End of Testing

    You can see the shape the steel flange is in after 12 rounds shot at it.

    Here's a picture of the Bobcat Steel target at the end of testing. I painted the target because paint often helps show any surface defects.

    This wasn't a new target to start with, but it almost looks like it. There is one small dent just above the center of the plate. That came from the .30-06 fired at 50 yards. The .308 rounds didn't phase it at all. :yesway:

    With a modest amount of care, these targets will last a very long time.


    Conclusions/Learning Points

    Some literature said that with hard flat steel, the fragments should exit at 20 degrees. I'm guessing that it really means it exits in a group distributed from 0 to 20 degrees on average. We saw lots of fragments that were barely above the surface of the steel. It looks like our testing agreed with what others have seen.

    I was surprised by how tightly the fragments did exit when the target was the proper steel and in good shape. The predictible nature of the hardened steel targets make them enormously more safe than soft steel targets.

    The biggest learning point for me was to see quite graphically how random and unpredictible the splatter pattern was off of softer steel and irregular surfaces. The shots off the steel flange went everywhere with substantial portions heading backward toward the shooter.

    I encourage all shooters to evaluate the steel targets they are using and urge them to toss those old pieces of treadplate, railroad fixtures, and other targets made of soft steel or any made of harder steel that have a damaged surface.

    Talk to Kimball at Bobcat Steel or any reputable steel target supplier and they can help you choose the right targets for your shooting needs.

    Safety Recommendations

    (Credit to ActionTarget, Provo, Utah)

    1. Always obey the Four Firearms Safety Rules.

    2. Always wear hearing protection and shatter resistant eye protection (wrap around style is better).

    3. Always stand at least 10 yards from the target when using handgun calibers.

    4. Always stand at least 100 yards from the target when using shotgun slugs.

    5. Always stand at least 100 yards from the target when using rifle calibers like .223 and .308.

    6. Never use rifle calibers on handgun rated targets.

    7. Avoid ammunition that exceeds 3,300 feet per second at the muzzle. High velocity rounds will damage even hardened steel.

    8. Never use ammunition that travels below 750 feet per second.

    9. Never shoot BB’s, steel shot, or air gun pellets at steel targets.

    10. Never shoot on steel that is cratered, pitted, or damaged in any way.

    11. If shooting multiple targets, the angle of engagement should not exceed 20 degrees.

    12. Use only non-toxic paint on steel targets.

    13. Long pants and long sleeved shirts will minimize the effects of splatter.-
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