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The Proper Target For Hunters

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By John M. Buol Jr.

A target records the shooter’s efforts at marksmanship. It catches an arrow or leaves a bullet hole showing you the results. There are many targets on the market for the hunter-shooter to use and we’ll take a look at them here.

Bullseye and Sight-in Targets

The most basic target is some sort of circle, square, or similar geometric shape, such as traditional bullseye and sight-in targets. The idea is to provide an aiming point that is clearly visible with a center that is easy to find. As G. David Tubb puts it, conventional marksmanship matches are shooting contests, not seeing contests.

Bullseye targets are ideal for zeroing, position shooting, and precision competition because the black circular mark and scoring rings are always right-side up. Other shapes can work as well. The aiming mark can also be chosen as sized comparatively to the vitals of your game animals, however, this does nothing to teach target angle and shot placement on game.

Advantages: These are great for shooting groups, checking your sight settings and working on your basic marksmanship. Paper targets are usually inexpensive.

Disadvantages: The disadvantage of this target is it doesn’t provide an appropriate, real world shape or test the hunter-shooter’s ability to find an aiming point on a silhouette. It also doesn’t react to a successful shot.

Steel Targets

Steel targets that ring and move with a solid hit are great for working on gun handling drills. There are many configurations but they provide the same basic benefits.

ed as hit or miss, when selected in a size appropriate to the vitals of big game they emphasize the marksmanship needed to secure solid hits afield. Self-resetting units are very convenient and eliminate wasted time going down range to score and repair. Unfortunately, plain steel doesn’t simulate target angle or appropriate shot placement.

Advantages: Steel provide reaction when hit. This is beneficial, rewarding, and fun by providing reaction on a successful shot. There is evidence that a shooter will learn about ten percent faster by using a target that provides PIR (Positive Instant Recognition). With a proper design, you don’t have to go down range to check and tape because you either hit or you didn’t, and the target resets itself. When constructed of good materials, steel targets have a long service life.

Disadvantages: Steel isn’t very good for shooting groups, as you don’t have clean holes, but rather, chipped paint. It also doesn’t help determine where your hits are going beyond hit or miss, unless you repaint every few shots. Steel targets can be costly, especially when made of quality steel suitable for centerfire rifles. However, there are manufacturers offering good quality, self-resetting, rifle-grade steel targets in sizes appropriate to big game vitals for under $100, including shipping and handling. One company I’ve worked with and can recommend is Metal Spinning Targets, Inc. in LeRoy, NY run by David Kasinski.

Even though you can buy animal-shaped targets, such as Silhouette targets, these don’t reward proper shot placement, as the steel rings and/or falls even if you miss the vital zone. There is also a danger of ricochet. To help prevent this, use a steel target that swings back and up when hit. This increases the life of the target (the target doesn’t absorb all the impact of the bullet) and will naturally angle bullet material and fragments downward, minimizing the hazard to nil, especially when properly used no closer than 25-50 yards or further.

Big Game Targets

With the exception of basic marksmanship and handling drills, hunter-shooters need a target that looks like big game. It only makes sense that you should practice shooting at a target on the range that looks like your target in the field. To be effective, the target must allow accurate simulation of target angle, and a variety of configurations, including distinguishing between buck and doe for identification exercises. The following discusses the different types of targets on the market.

Printed Paper Big Game Targets

Advantages: This is better than a bulls-eye target simply because it has a picture of a deer, instead of an arbitrary shape (circle, square, etc.) These targets can help teach shot placement by outlining where the vitals should be. Paper targets are one of the least expensive types of big game target.

Disadvantages: Paper is flimsy and must be stapled to a backer. The use of archery is totally dependent on the backer, as paper can’t catch arrows. By their nature, paper targets are disposable. Of course, they are destroyed if they get wet and you can’t depend on them to last for more than one event or session. Even if you could, the printed scoring/vital zone area would be shot out and useless.

Paper big game animal targets, such as the classic NRA Official Lifesize Game Targets, are a start toward field shooting. Unfortunately, their true silhouette is a rectangle, not an animal shape, and they only simulate shot placement from one, fixed target angle.

Because of the permanently printed vital zone, you can’t simulate target angle. The only shot you can practice is broadside. You can’t even shoot them on both sides (facing right or left) because they’re printed on one side. They can’t react to a successful shot like steel targets can.

Paper targets don’t provide a true silhouette. The silhouette is the target paper, which is square or rectangular in shape. That means you can’t use them effectively for spotting exercises, like a roving range or field exercise. Unless the target is used with some kind of organized shooting system, one that rewards ethical behavior and simulates buck fever, this is just another target.

Printed Corrugated Board (Cardboard) Targets

Advantages: Cardboard big game targets are die-cut out of corrugated board. This is a durable, lightweight, and affordable material, one reason why every shipping company (UPS, USPS, FedEx, etc.) requires its use in packaging containers. The material is two heavy sheets of Kraft paper sandwiching a fluted sheet and glued together. Corrugated targets can stand up by themselves, secured with lath (furring strips) and staples.

These targets are surprisingly durable and will stand up to a lot of shots, at least several hundred, before becoming unusable. You can paste over holes with packaging tape or pasters and the target will hold up for a long time. Good cardboard targets are cut into silhouettes, meaning that you have the actual physical shape of an animal, not a square.

Cardboard big game animal targets can be properly cut to provide a true silhouette shape and can be placed or hung upright without an additional backer, which is needed for any sort of roving range or spotting exercise. Unfortunately, when printed with fixed scoring zones, they suffer the same disadvantages as paper with very limited target angle simulation and the scoring rings are blocked out with repair tape or pasters before the target is fully worn out.

While a bit more expensive than some paper targets, corrugated targets are fairly inexpensive, and their advantages over paper more than make up for the extra cost. A reasonable price is around two dollars per target, including accessories (such as setting up buck and doe targets.)

Disadvantages: Given enough time, rain will kill cardboard targets. They hold up better than paper in the rain, for a while, but eventually they turn to muck. Cardboard targets can be treated to make them more water resistant and a reputable manufacturer will provide details for making your target more water resistant.

Cardboard silhouettes can be painted, marked, and positioned to provide a realistic game silhouette and to make each target slightly different, just like real animals.

The permanently printed surface is a bigger problem. Like paper, you can’t simulate target angle and your only shot is standing broadside. Normally, the printing is on one side only so you can’t even turn the target around and are forced to shoot at a silhouette facing to the right (or left) all the time.

With enough shots, the printed score rings/vital zone will be rendered unreadable. The target is likely still in decent shape, but you can’t use it because the printed scoring rings are obliterated. Like paper, the target can’t react to a successful shot, can’t catch arrows by itself, and needs to be part of a shooting system simulating buck fever and rewarding good hunting habits to be fully effective.

The ideal application of cardboard silhouette big game targets uses a separate, flexible scoring overlay. The die-cut cardboard target is unmarked but includes four witness marks cut into the outer corners of the vital zone area and away from where most shots hit. These marks are indexed with the overlay to score after shooting. The target can be painted and marked as desired as repair tape/pasters and paint never covers the scoring rings. Best of all, the overlay is marked with multiple target angles, allowing complete simulation of the six major target angles of broadside, quartering towards, and quartering away shots from the left and right.

Foam 3-D Targets

Advantages: 3-D targets are the most realistic looking big game target available and are the kind most often used in 3-D archery matches. They are painted and shaped to look like a real deer. In fact, many can double as decoys as well. These targets are very durable and impervious to rain. Many clubs leave their targets set outside all year long. You usually don’t need a target stand as you can just plug them into the ground.

Disadvantages: These targets are great for archers but worthless for gun hunters. Only bow hunters can use them. These targets are rather costly. The “cheap” 3-D targets start at around $100. Good Whitetail targets run around $150 and anything exotic can cost $350 or more. While they are very durable, they won’t last forever. The vital zone must be replaced periodically and this alone can cost around $15-20.

Foam 3D targets are ideal for archers but useless for gun hunters. Despite being a complete, life-size three dimensional shape, the use of embossed outer score rings limits the target to one, fixed target angle.

3-D targets are not flexible. If you want a silhouette that faces differently or if you want to simulate a different type of shot, say, a shot at a bedded deer, you have to buy a whole new target. And these targets use an embossed score rings/vital zone that suffers from the same problems as the printed targets: You can’t simulate target angle and, with use, the score rings become less legible and must be replaced. If you don’t utilize an effective shooting system, this is just another (expensive) bulls-eye. And of course, the target can’t be made to react to a successful shot.

No single target is perfect for every application. It is best to have a selection of appropriate targets as needed. Taking a little time to think about your purpose and goals and then picking the right target is important to effective shooting.

John Buol

I joined SARG (Small Arms Readiness Group, formerly Small Arms Training Team) in 1999 and would spend the next decade, and most of that on active duty, as a full-time small arms instructor. During this time I picked up NRA Conventional Pistol (2700 bullseye) and High Power, but my primary discipline was the combat matches hosted by NATO. I managed a few overall wins at All Army (2005, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014) along with a host of trophies for individual and team matches there and at AFSAM (Armed Forces Skill at Arms Meeting.) After completing active duty, I was hired as the Editor of American Gunsmith ( and founded the Firearm User Network ( to promote organized shooting events.

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