by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

This report covers:

  • Nothing is completely safe
  • Don’t need a backstop
  • Packed earth works best
  • Wood works
  • Synthetics can work
  • Shoot it
  • How big should a backstop be?

If I say “backstop” to some shooters, they think I’m talking about a pellet or bullet trap. But I’m not. I’m referring to the insurance you put behind the pellet or bullet trap to stop things when they miss the trap. Some people might take issue with that statement. They might think that nothing could ever miss a bullet trap. I have a name for those folks — beginners. Shoot long enough, and you’re going to miss the trap — I guarantee it. In a quarter-million rounds, I’ve probably missed my trap 100 times. Both numbers are estimates, so don’t quote me.

Nothing is completely safe

Whenever the subject of what makes a safe bullet trap and backstop comes up, I always think of the indoor rifle range built by Standard Products in 1944 to test the M1 Carbines they were making. They were planning on making several hundreds carbines each day and every one of them had to be test-fired. Standard Products was a company that made trim items for the automobile industry, so their plant was located inside the city but had no place sufficient to test rifles on their grounds. They had to shoot them indoors.

The company built a bullet trap that had 10 feet of wet sand, backed by a concrete wall that was 10 inches thick. I’m sure they felt that was overkill for stopping a carbine bullet. Soon after the range was opened, a night watchman saw bullets exiting the wall of the building and ricocheting off a fence outside next to the street. He went inside and stopped a group of enthusiastic Standard Products employees shooting carbines after hours. When they investigated, they discovered it had only taken a relatively small number of shots to eat through the sand and then through the concrete wall behind it. Shots that hit in the same place repeatedly can eat through many materials, regardless of their thickness.

Remember, I’m talking about backstops today and not about bullet traps. But 10 feet of wet sand and a 10-inch thick concrete wall proved insufficient to do either job. Which leads me to ask: What does work?

Don’t need a backstop

There are ranges where backstops are not needed. Some have huge distances behind the target stands. I’ve shot in Las Vegas, where there’s nothing behind the targets as far as the eye can see. And other ranges use large bodies of water behind the target stands. So distance works, but not everyone has a desert in their backyard.

At the Grafenwoehr Training Center in Germany, there’s a large hill/small mountain that U.S. tanks used as a backstop for the Armor Piercing Discarding Sabot (APDS) rounds. Those were long-rod penetrators (inert missiles) that looked like small rockets and were made of depleted uranium. Their range was so great that, if they missed the mountain, they could carry over into the former Czechoslovokia. Before each round of APDS was fired, a Range Control official had to measure the inclination of the tanks’ 105mm M68 cannon to ensure the round would strike the earth on the western side of the border.

Packed earth works best

Most rifle ranges use berms or mounds of packed earth — like that German mountain, but often manmade. Packed earth stops bullets as well as anything. As mounds increase in height, they also become thinner. It’s the nature of gravity. So, if you do use them, be sure to do your shooting near the base of the berm.

Wood works

You can use wood to stop pellets — providing it is tough enough and thick enough. I had an indoor range where I used a double thickness of 3/4-inch plywood as a backstop. That was 1-1/2 inches of wood, and I slanted the wood to make the path the pellet had to penetrate even longer — closer to 2 full inches. That was sufficient for pellets up to around 20 foot-pounds; because, if they hit the backstop, it would only be one time in each place. Remember — this is for when you miss the pellet trap altogether, not for stopping a succession of pellets all landing in close proximity.

Synthetics can work

These days, I use a 1/2-inch thick polypropylene slab that was intended as a cutting board. It doesn’t dull knife edges, so cooks like it, but it also stops pellets very effectively. There are so many different synthetics available that it wouldn’t be possible to list them all, so why don’t I just give you a way of finding out what works? That way you can use whatever material you are able to acquire.

Shoot it

A simple test is to just shoot your intended backstop with a gun of known power and see what happens. Of course, you have to do this where it’s safe, so don’t shoot it while it is on your range. I take my materials to an outdoor rifle range for testing. And I always wear safety glasses when I’m doing this. Some materials may prove harder than you expect and might ricochet back at you.

How big should a backstop be?

This is like asking how much insurance you need. Before the accident, you want to get away with the least you can; but after things go sour, you wish you’d gotten the full package. When it comes to backstops — get the full package up front. I promise you a day will dawn when you’ll be glad you did!