Safe backstops and bullet traps
by B.B. Pelletier
Many of us shoot our airguns inside the house, garage or barn and need to stop our projectiles from damaging what’s behind the target. Today, I want to talk about what works, what doesn’t and why. My sermon today is in the form of a repentant sinner, because I’ve made most of the mistakes I’m telling you to avoid.
The difference between a trap and a backstop
A bullet trap is designed to stop whatever is shot into it. Targets are hung in front of the trap, and it’s expected to stop all bullets/ammo/pellets/BBs that enter.
A backstop is often set behind the trap to stop the bullets that miss the trap. If there’s a trap, the backstop is only called upon occasionally; but sometimes there’s no trap — just the backstop, in which case the backstop, alone, has to stop everything.
Starting with BB guns
When I was a boy, the most popular trap for BB guns was a trash can or wastepaper basket filled with crushed newspapers. It worked, but not for very long, so let’s talk about that. Crushed newspapers are great padding for packages. The newspapers have enough resiliency to keep the contents of the package firmly in place — unless those contents are very heavy. And the same crushed newspapers will stop BBs from low-powered BB guns — like Red Ryders — for a short time.
But — and this is important — even a Red Ryder will eventually shoot through the crushed newspapers when one BB after another impacts in the same spot. And, if the BB gun is more powerful, it doesn’t take as long to tear through. Red Ryders shoot at around 300-350 f.p.s. But some powerful BB guns like the Remington AirMaster 77 top 700 f.p.s. They’ll rip through crushed newspapers in one-tenth the time it takes a Red Ryder to get through. When you’re making a BB trap, consider both the length of time you’ll be shooting at the trap as well as the potential velocity of the gun doing the shooting.
A better way to stop BBs is to provide a backstop that has some give — like a piece of wall-to-wall carpet. When the backstop moves, it robs the projectile of a lot of velocity, which prevents bounceback — the bane of the BB gun. And wall-to-wall carpet has a very tough base that seems impervious to steel BBs at Red Ryder velocities. I know of clubs that have made BB gun ranges with large sections of wall-to-wall carpet that not only stop the BBs but which hang to the floor and are folded into a trough at the bottom to funnel all the BBs into a container, simplifying cleanup. A backstop like that and a large powerful magnet makes cleanup an easy chore.
Of course, you can buy a commercial BB trap that will do all I’ve described. Crosman’s model 850/852 trap is perfect for low-velocity BB guns and works for low-velocity pellets, as well. The only problem is that Crosman has them made in China, and sometimes they’re out of stock for a very long time. The UTG pellet & BB trap is very similar and will do the same things. It costs a few dollars more, but the supply is more regular. Both of these traps have “ballistic curtains” that absorb the energy of BBs at low velocity. A thin steel backplate ultimately stops the projectile. Of course, you’ll want to put a larger backstop behind this trap for those few projectiles that miss the trap altogether.
For the more powerful BB guns — those with muzzle velocities over 400 f.p.s. — I don’t like carpet. Like crushed newspaper, it’s possible to shoot through it if you keep hitting in the same spot. For those guns, I prefer an actual trap filled with duct seal and use the carpet as a backstop behind the trap. The few BBs that hit the carpet won’t hit in the same place, and it should work fine. If the range is to be more permanent, however, put some plywood behind the carpet and keep an eye on the carpet and replace it as needed.
On to pellets
Pellets are made of lead, mostly, though there’s a movement to use other metals that are less toxic. Lead absorbs energy when it deforms against a hard target. Up to 600 f.p.s., lead continues to flatten out until a spent pellet has become a flat round disk with just a trace of the skirt still visible. At velocities above 600 f.p.s., lead starts to break apart upon impact. First, it breaks off in large chunks traveling at low velocity. As the impact velocity continues to rise, the lead fragments get smaller and travel faster. Above 700 f.p.s., they’re traveling fast enough to break lights up to 15 feet away from the trap.
This pellet was flattened at 600 f.p.s. or less, You can still see the pellet’s skirt, including the rifling that’s engraved into both it and the head that is flattened.
This pellet was moving faster than 600 f.p.s. when it hit and has started to break apart. It’s a smaller caliber than the first pellet, but the breakup happens in the same way regardless of size.
You don’t want to use a lightweight pellet trap for pellets that move at higher velocities! They’ll even punch through steel plates if they’re thin enough. For pellet guns, some thought must be given to what kind of trap you use.
I use three traps in my work. One is the BB trap already mentioned. Regular readers of this blog know that I shoot several hundred rounds each week. Often one test involves from 100 to 200 shots. So, my traps (I’m not talking about backstops yet) have to be up to the task.
Heavy Duty Bullet trap
For all my most powerful airguns, I use a Heavy Duty bullet trap designed to stop a .22 long rifle bullet. I bought mine about 20 years ago and I thought $45 was a lot to pay. Today, you’ll pay over $75 for the same thing, but it’s the last bullet trap (of that type) you’ll ever buy. My trap has seen hundreds of thousands of pellets and bullets over the years — and except for the paint, it’s still as good as new today.
This is the trap I use when I shoot 25 yards inside the house, and over the years I’ve missed this trap a couple dozen times, so I learned long ago to back it with something strong. I use a board of white synthetic material that Edith gave me years ago. It’s supposed to be a special board she bought over 15 years ago for kneading bread dough, but it warped just enough that it twirls and moves freely on the countertop during use, so now it’s mine. Since I started using this backer board with the steel trap, nothing has slipped past.
The final trap I use is the one that blog reader Jim Contos gave me. I wrote a special blog describing how to build one for yourself. Jim gave me this trap after I reported shooting through my homemade silent pellet trap that I’d used for many years. After cleaning the trap and replacing all the duct seal, I was testing a Beeman HW100 S FSB, which is a 26 foot-pound PCP rifle. Within just a few shots I shot clean through the duct seal and the steel plate behind it! I’ve used this trap for a very long time and with some powerful airguns. What was different this time was the lack of a wadded mass of lead pellets to help slow the pellets that were shot. So they sailed right through the trap!
This is what happens when a 26 foot-pound pellet rifle hits two-inches of duct seal in the same place repeatedly. There’s a thin steel plate between that plywood back and the duct seal, and the pellets zipped through it!
I don’t back this trap with anything. because I use it only for chronograph testing, where the muzzle is a foot from the trap. I haven’t come close to missing the trap in over 25,000 shots!
How large should the backer be?
Make the backer large enough to positively stop all rounds that are shot in the direction of the target. If you’re the only shooter, maybe the backer can be smaller; but if your range will ever host other shooters of varying abilities, make it bigger. When we lived in Maryland, I often let others shoot on my basement range. I used a 3/4-inch plywood backer that was 4 feet square. Even then it was just enough to stop all the wild shots. Not everyone waits to sight the gun before their finger moves to the trigger!
So, you always want to stop your projectile positively. Sometimes that’s done with just a target backer, like a piece of wall-to-wall carpet. Other times, you use a trap to stop the projectile and put the backer behind it in case you miss the trap.
Shooting safe is imperative, because there’s no room for error here. How you stop your projectiles makes all the difference between a safe home range and a serious accident or injury. This is one area where you always want to err on the safe side!