Free Targets and Cheap Stands: Train More Spend Less

Whether you are preparing for a competition or just plinking with your kids, you need targets or you are just converting money into noise. Some ranges provide everything, others just provide stands. Your training or fun can hinge on your targets.

Paper Targets

Let’s start with paper targets. There are alternatives, but if you want to know precisely where you hit, you have to go to paper. Buying paper targets is expensive. If you must shoot a specific target for qualification, shop around. I volunteer as an Range Safety Officer at a local range. We provide target stands and backers, but if you want a target, it is going to cost you a dollar. It is a good way to help pay for range improvements, but if you think ahead, you can spend that dollar on ammo or classes.

The good news? Paper is virtually free. I get a pound of junk mail every day. There are free alternative newspapers in front of every marijuana dispensary in town. I have rejected documents from my copier and printer. Most paper comes in standard sizes that are all great for shooting.

The target is a photocopy of a life-size face on the back of a scrap document on a regular sheet of paper. This image provides good landmarks for training and accuracy. Shooting the Nomad 9 with Grey Ghost slide, XS sights, and Trijicon RMR.

A standard sheet of 8.5×11 paper makes a great representation for the vital area on an attacking feral human. If you need to hit something smaller, many advertising inserts are half or one-quarter size (you can also cut or fold a sheet of paper). If you want to spend a little more, Google “printable targets for 8.5×11” and a whole world of clever targets opens to you for the price of toner. I print on the back of rejected documents and drafts so the paper is free.

This target from Langdon Tactical is cleverly designed for many different drills. You can quickly achieve the same sophistication with markers and tape.

Other paper options are markers, spray paint, and stencils. Cheaper than copier toner, you can make squares and circles of any size and color. I teach with a guy who took art classes to learn to draw perfect circles on targets. It is impressive to see this guy freehand a 6-inch circle in two seconds. A template can do the same trick. I just draw squares. A quick dot with a spray paint can is a great 2-inch circle in color.

Even if you have access to mountains of cardboard, do you want to carry all that to the range? Bring the cardboard you need and use tape or staples to cover holes. You need target feedback.

Tape is your friend. Masking tape is cheap. It can make a target shape or patch a hole. In the rain, staples are a better choice. Duct tape covers cardboard to make it waterproof. Every time you patch a hole, the target gets stronger. WARNING: Duct tape targets can get very heavy if you use them for long.

Best Range Tool Ever.

Have you ever seen a negative target? You take any cardboard target with a scoring zone and cut out the scoring zone, leaving nothing but a hole where you want to shoot. If your sport has a specific hit zone our you want a certain vital area, you can get a cardboard box out of the recycling bin and cut it out.

With negative targets, you can shoot hundreds of rounds with very little time spent on target maintenance and patching holes. In a class using IPSC targets, I get great results and save time (and money) shooting the negative targets. If you start with cardboard, IPSC targets have perforations making cutting out scoring zones easy.

This may seem strange, but it does a couple of good things. Most pistol shooters look at the target while shooting to admire their work. This is slow and builds bad habits. It encourages excessive marksmanship and tiny groups when fast acceptable groups are needed.

If you shoot an action pistol match, hang around after a match and help clean up (everyone should help clean up anyway). You can ask to keep lightly used targets. Most of the time there are no-shoot targets with no (or very few) holes.

You are still accountable for hits. A miss will show up on the remaining cardboard or the berm if you are way off. If you don’t know if you hit the hole or the berm or the sky, move closer and stick with big paper targets until you improve.

A negative target can also be used as a stencil. If you want to see your hits, use a full sheet of newsprint, in other words, the large folded piece of paper in a full-size paper. If you have smaller sheets, make a tile pattern to cover the space. Clean new cardboard works for this too. Place the negative target over the paper and spray the edges of the hole or the whole thing to get your hit zone.

If you are an artist or you know one, you can make stencils for faces, bulls eyes, guns, knives. For the artistically challenged, Mil-Spec Monkey sells them. For training and competition, you need threat and non-threat targets. In the past trainers have made copies, painted graffiti and homemade cardboard cutout stencils to paint the same boring old cutout hands-on targets. 

Mil-Spec Monkey has a clever Target ID threat package. These stencils are laser cut, solvent-proof 14 mil Mylar to produce quality high images when painted. Because the material is so tough and solvent-proof, the stencils can be used thousands of times and cleaned with paint remover. MIL-SPEC MONKEY Reference stencil-00011-badge1

You can just hold them on for quick targets or use a temporary adhesive backing to get pretty clean line results. Made with full size humanoid targets in mind, these stencils are very versatile with a design mix for many shoot and no-shoot targets. The bonus bad guy face not only looks menacing but offers useful T-zone references as well.

For marksmanship drills, you need some kind of bullseye for accuracy. As a firearms instructor, I am constantly making targets for pistol, shotgun, and rifle. Stencils are a convenient time saver and add a professional look. Whether you are shooting steel or paper targets, you need to identify a threat or you are just target shooting.

Target Stands

We have talked all about paper and cardboard. How do you hold your targets up? There a million ways to do it, let’s talk about what is cheap or free. Let’s start with where you shoot and how you set up. Are you packing in, driving in with a car, a truck or setting up a semi-permanent back yard range?

If you push yourself in training or teach new shooters, everything in front of the muzzle is going to get shot. Don’t let this ruin a range day, plan for it and drive on to your training objective.

My favorite target stand is distributed through my neighborhood a couple of times a year at no cost. Before each election, certain stretches of road are populated with dozens of campaign signs. The recent signs are made of weather-proof plastic and mounted on 1X3″X8′ furring strips. Designed to be driven into the ground, they are perfect target stands.

The day after the election, they are trash. I gather as many as I wish from public areas and use them until the next election. I can place two of them back to back and drive them both into the ground and staple them together. The plastic holds staples well and these backers will withstand hundreds of rounds. Even when there is a big hole in the middle, you can put paper over it and drive on.

Two yard signs back to back covered in newspaper. Targets are waste paper with a square of black tape in the center. Gun is a SIG 320 with Mirzon frame, Faxon barrel, Grey Ghost slides, XS sights, and ROMEO1 optic.

If you are packing gear in and have trees around, go to the dollar store and buy two clothes lines and a package of clothes pins. If these are unfamiliar terms, find a boomer and ask them to translate. This should cost you $3 plus tax.

Clothes line is the cheapest stuff I can find and it comes in fairly long lengths so as it gets shot, there is plenty of room for repairs. You can use 550 cord or rope, but you are going to shoot it, go cheap.

Multiple targets are easy with a clothesline.

You need two lines because the wind will move your targets. Learn to tie a couple of knots, any Boy Scout or Ranger can help you. You can tie a knot or tie a lot. Two half hitches will hold and tighten a line. A square knot will repair the line when you shoot it.

You will need cardboard for target backers. The clothespins will hold backers from the top and bottom. Use twice as many as you need. They get shot too. Multiple targets are easy, but you have all your targets on the same line. This is great for a class but limits individual training. Small targets can be used in place of distant targets.

There are a myriad of commercial target stands on the market. Some of them are reasonably priced and may be a better option than do it yourself plans to build them. There are many reasons to build your own that go beyond mere price. If you can’t drive the election signs into the ground at your range (mine has gravel making it nearly impossible) target stands will hold the wood on your free target backers so that you can shoot them.

This plan for a simple PVC target stand is available on Pinterest. I recommend shortening the upright sections to 4 inches to reduce the chances of shooting it.

PVC pipe based target stands are by far the easiest. The good news is that they are cheap, easy to build, and quickly break down into basic components. This is where most people start. In most big box stores like Lowes or Home Depot, they can cut the PVC to size for you, then it is just like Legos. They are light, which is good when you carry it but bad when the wind blows. You have a few options, make and fill sandbags or fill the legs of the stand with sand or water (depending on your environment).

The design you pick should have short vertical legs. There are some designs that have graceful long risers so that the wooden furring strips can be short. If you hit the wood, it holds up pretty well and takes a few hits. If you hit the PVC? It shatters and becomes useless. Plan for this. Make the verticals short, make the furring strips long and use sandbags to cover the PVC base if you can. Have extra PVC parts, you will need them.

When you put this together, DON’T use PVC cement. With no glue involved, broken pieces are easy to replace and you can take the stands apart for storage or transportation.

This simple base can be made with wood salvaged from yard signs and 8 wood screws. In ground too hard to drive the signs in, stands are essential. Even though they don’t look like it due to perspective, the legs are equal length. They don’t have to be even, it is an aesthetic choice.

If you have access to scrap wood, you can easily build wooden target stands. Wood takes more effort than PVC and holds up to multiple hits. It will eventually be shot. I prefer simple designs that are low and use 1X3″X8′ furring strips to hold targets. These strips are available in the wild on election signs or cheaply obtained at lumber yards if you want a higher target. Buy extras.

If you have a little funding and want the smallest lightest package for your target stands, I recommend Hatpoint targets. Anything you put down range is going to get shot. Wood, Metal and PVC target stands produce splinters and sharp edges when shot.

Hatpoint Target Stands are multi-width target stands. Made in America from lightweight, high impact and durable polymer, these target stands collapse into a small package. Photo by Heath Layman

The advanced polymer in Hatpoint target stands reseals after being shot. It will take hundreds of hits without breaking or cutting you. You can just throw them in the back of your car, they won’t tear the upholstery like metal or wood. Ask me how I know. You can carry ten of them in a footlocker and still have one guy carry it.

They work with any paper target. You can use metal binder clips to hold cardboard or paper targets to the sticks. The stand has holes on the bottom for securing spikes.

Hatpoint stands can be staked down or weighted for indoor ranges. Using a wide array of vertical supports, they self adjust to adapt to different wood or polymer uprights.

You can get your very own Hatpoint Target Stand HERE MSRP $44.99 Military and Law Enforcement customers should contact Hatpoint Target Stands for volume discounts.

Good targets are fun. You don’t have to spend a lot of time and money to get good ones. Targets stands, once built or bought can last for years, they are a good investment. Small light equipment is best for most applications.

There are many options, I have shared some simple things that work for me around the world. I have seen complex expensive systems that fail when you need them. The important thing is to prepare before you get to the range. Now go shoot and have some fun.

Featured image by Mark Miller. Scrap wood target stand with cardboard backer over a recovered sign. Trijicon RMR co-witnessed with XS suppressor height sights on Grey Ghost slide on Nomad 9 Frame.

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About the author: Mark Miller is a former Customs Agent and a Green Beret who served in Afghanistan and a number of other live fire locations. A student of firearms and shooting, he is an FFL and a SOT. The guiding philosophy of his life is that terrain and situation dictate tactics and the enemy always gets a vote on any plan.

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Hammock mechanic December 6, 2019, 10:09 pm

    My favorite outdoor plinking target is a tin can with a cut piece of hardwood limb hanging from coat hanger wire.

    • Mark Miller December 8, 2019, 2:03 pm

      That sounds interesting. You don’t have to spend a ton of money on things you are going to shoot.

  • Mike Oates December 3, 2019, 9:45 pm

    I just use a big cardboard box. Staple or tape targets to it. When it gets shot up, throw away and get another. If the wind is blowing, put some dirt or rocks in it. They can be found free everywhere.

    • Mark Miller December 8, 2019, 2:02 pm

      I love that. If you can put you targets at distance it works really well. For close in pistol work, you need a tall box.

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