Experience is the best teacher, but sometimes a bad experience can maim or kill you. For instance, if you are struck by a ricocheted bullet or large bullet fragment in the face or throat it can cause serious harm. If a bullet pierces an arm or leg and cuts an artery you going to be in trouble.
Fortunately, such back splash or ricochet incidents are indeed rare. The reason for this rarity is because the vast majority of military, police, and sport shooters understand the hazards of live fire. Therefore, they follow Universal Safety Rule #4 “Know your target, what is around it, and what is beyond it.”
For three decades, I have been actively involved in the use of and training with firearms. It is shocking how often I see someone engaging in a behavior that is unnecessarily risky or hazardous.
Case in point, somehow I was made aware of video floating around the gun blog world featuring a guy shooting at a car tire with a shotgun. I watched the video expecting a “shock” or “blooper” video wherein the birdshot peppered the shooter.. Fortunately, the tire he was shooting at was loose, aka freestanding and not secured to a vehicle or immobilized. The #8 birdshot struck the tire, knocked it over and some embedded in the tread.
Over twenty years ago I was informed of a ricochet incident that happened on a range. A shooter was struck by a 9mm FMJ bullet in his upper arm. The projectile passed completely through and fortunately did not sever the brachial artery. Medical care was given and training was halted to investigate and determine what happened. The victim had been engaged in a shooting exercise with a number of other students and the bullet came from the downrange direction.
The subsequent investigation determined that pistol rounds were indeed being redirected or ricocheted in any and all directions by the impact berm. You see, the berm had been constructed by stacking hundreds and hundreds of discarded car tires and then filling/covering them with dirt. This berm building technique was extremely popular and seemed a great idea thirty years ago.
During another training situation, I was a student in a law enforcement instructors school. The people who built this police range had decided to nail cut up car tires to the wooden framework that made the target bunker area down range. When the class attempted to conduct shotgun training using birdshot loads, several students were struck by lead pellets bouncing back from the impact area. No one sustained any real injury, but the training program had to be altered.
Twenty or so years back, bowling pin shoots were all the rage on a national and local level. A shooting club of which I was a member was excited to announce that they were building a bowling pin bunker and table so we could have weekend matches.
For those uninitiated, a bowling pin match consists of a table/bench and five standard bowling pins. Generally, the pins were acquired by making friends with the owner of a local bowling alley. Often they would donate them when the old pins were traded for new.
One afternoon I was practicing pin shooting with a .357 Magnum revolver loaded with much less expensive .38 Special ammunition. Bang, Bang, Bang, Thump, something struck me dead center in my chest. It did not break skin but it felt like someone threw a small rock at me. There, at my feet, was a bullet. The ammo I was firing was jacketed and the bullet was barely deformed. I was in my mid-twenties and quite surprised at what had happened.
Speaking with an older friend with much more competition experience, he chuckle at me. “Bowling pins are notorious ricochet hazards.” he said. “Especially with solid lead or full metal jacket bullets. That’s one of the reason many pin matches require hollow-point ammo.” Bowling pins are much tougher that people give them credit for and handgun ammunition is not as powerful as people imagine. A relatively slow-moving pistol bullet, particularly an FMJ, will hit a pin and bounce backwards, sideways, wherever, in an unpredictable fashion. Yes, the projectile will expend the vast majority of its energy in the target, but a ricochet to face or throat is going to ruin your day.
There are rifle grade steel targets, pistol grade steel targets, and cheap crap that your buddy made in his garage. AR500 steel targets will take thousands of impacts from high powered rifles, but they are relatively expensive. That seems particularly true when your buddy says he will build you “the same thing” for half the price.
The home-made targets will almost immediately start to warp and then they will start to get deep pits. This is when things get dangerous. Bullet fragments and entire projectiles will start to ricochet off the damaged steel in all directions. This is not that big a deal if the target is 100 yards down range, but if it is only 15 yards down range the “bullet splash” can get you.
People who use cheap or damaged steel targets soon get to play a little game we call “pluck the jacket pieces out of your skin”. The biggest bullet splash injury I have ever witnessed was about a 3/4 inch cut across a guys forearm, not life-threatening, but not fun either. In that case the injured party was struck by splash from someone else’s shot.
If you are going to shoot steel targets they need to be rated for the guns you will be using. Shotgun pellets can be safely shot into pistol grade steel and slugs need to be shot at rifle grade. Avoid the bargain, homemade steel targets or at least put them waaaay down range. Also, follow the manufacturers guidelines for mounting and minimum safe distance.
Just in case no one told you yet, I will touch on a few other hazards. Rifle and pistol bullets will indeed “skip” off of flat water surfaces and keep going. Yes, the angle of the shot makes a big difference. Pistol bullets and 00 buckshot will skip off of hard surfaces; concrete, asphalt, brick walls etc. and keep right on going. Rifle bullets will generally shatter and fragment on concrete and the like.
A dirt berm that has been shot into for twenty years will build up a wall of hazardous ricochet material. Dirt and sand berms need to be “mined” out periodically and repaired with fresh earth.
Range props and barricade material that is “down range” needs to be built of material that is more likely to absorb a bullet than to bounce it off. Plastic barrels should replace steel drums. Old steel mailboxes are a serious ricochet hazard and should be removed.
Build your barricades and cover material out of plywood and 2×4 material. Sure, you might have to replace them more often but the cost of negligence lawsuit could have paid for a thousand new barricades.
Finally, follow the 4 Universal Safety Rules, not just one or two. An Ocala, Florida police officer was killed by an ND ricochet on a police range because someone else did not follow the all 4 rules.
Professor Paul Markel
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Great article, good advice
Excellent reminder article. For some of us who have been shooting for more than 50 years it’s a miracle we lived given what we didn’t know and got away with! 🙂
I appreciate this article greatly because I DID NOT KNOW about the hazards regarding Bowling Pins. I never ever had a problem with them and now I know it is because I am just damned lucky.
Also I never shot at tires, now I never will.
Very informative. You really don’t think about these things while you at the range throwing lead. Thank you for giving us something new to be aware of.
Good timing on the article. With the temps getting cooler, more will be out enjoying the activity.
Great article! I have thought about this topic quite a bit but was unaware that tires would cause bullets to ricochet. Thanks Professor Paul
I too participated in bowling pin tournaments in the 80’s. The range required us to use lead semi or full wadcutters. I guess we were lucky. Never heard of anyone getting hit by a ricochet .
Would one built with railroad cross ties work.
We had to cancel the bowling pin matches back in the 1990s. I would say the ricochets were the equivalent of getting hit with modern sling shot. Not lethal, but still dangerous.
This is an article that should be reprinted every few years in gun magazines.
Yes shooting many objects you can get ricochets….that’s why proper distance along with eye protection is required. A ricochet won’t hurt you. If shooting with kids then paper is probably the safest bet. But as an adult catching a ricochet or two is common especially in steel matches. I wouldn’t loose my mind over it
Would putting a sheet of rubber or something on the face of a steel target reduce the chance of ricochet?
Obviously it would need to be replaced and not mean you can shoot from 5′ away, but would it deflect or slow down ricochet enough to make it safer?