Last Updated on October 19, 2020
A lot of times, we get what we pay for. Sometimes, though, the best things in life are free … or very, very inexpensive. In the case of target practice, inexpensive and free targets offer not only a cost reduction, but actually provide better training.
For most of these, we’ll need repetitions of a couple of supplies, starting with a backer and attachments, so…
First Stop: Liquor Store
They have boxes free for the asking. Other sources can be the cigarette cartons many gas stations get, or used boxes from moving companies. Flattened Amazon boxes and pasteboard boxes we’ve emptied of cereal, pasta, etc. will also regularly work.
Total cost: Zilch
Second Stop: Bargain-basement Budget Store
We’re after some packing tape and-or some string, twine or yarn. For some purposes, the cheapo Dollar Tree stapler and staples will work instead. Sometimes the duct-like tape works.
It does not need to be good, for-real duct or Gorilla tape, but a lot of gift wrap-type tape isn’t quite enough.
Total cost now: $2+tax to $4+tax
If there’s some available and it doesn’t overtax the budget, binder clips and paperclips are super-duper handy for the range.
Small Trash & Recyclables
Small shoe boxes and shipping boxes, oatmeal and grits tubs, odd-shaped dish detergent and spray-cleaner bottles, and cracker and cereal boxes are handy all on their own. And, free – yay!
Those freebies have increased value for small game hunters and shooters who are aiming small to replicate long-distance shooting.
They’re even more useful if we can hang them as-is in their original shape from a frame/line by string or cord, or prop them up loosely on straightened metal coat hangers or tree branches so the wind can make them more challenging. Loosely attached, they’ll also bounce and swing a bit from hits, further replicating real-life challenges.
For hunters, value increases further since we can get a better idea of how different angles will affect the penetration and path of our shot through our target.
Add to total: Nada
(But don’t forget to bring something to attach them to like stapling or taping them to string, or those sticks from the yard.)
Sticks with multiple branches spaced out can accomplish a lot of what I’ll talk about with other holders, and do it absolutely free.
All we need to add are yarn/twine/thread or binder clips or clothespins (or clips made by breaking cheapo free clothing hangers), and whatever we’re shooting at, and drape it like people do for cutesy decorations.
(I have no idea why that’s cute in that iteration. But it was inspirational.)
If we fiddle a little, we can hang them from overhead lines using other clips, or with screw in hooks. Otherwise, we can stab them into the ground or fill an empty cereal box, coffee tub, or cut-down milk jug with dirt, mulch, rocks, charcoal, or crushed soda cans to prop them up.
As with other targets on the list, the size of items – from playing cards and partially inflated balloons to paper cups and tin-can tops – is greatly useful to small game hunters and for replicating long-distance shots.
The movement of targets from wind and impacts adds challenges, and having the targets swing back and forth behind each other is also great for shoot-no shoot training.
Add to total: Zippo
I love these things. They have so many uses. A couple lengths of cheapo pool noodle can make a great add for our range kit, whether we’re heading to the backyard or off somewhere.
They’re lightweight, very adaptive in how they can be set up, hold numerous types and sizes of targets, and can be pegged and weighted to reduce movement or left to roll, twist, and blow for added challenge.
On the supply front:
– the pool noodle – $1-$2
– plastic forks – $1-$2
– some playing cards – $1-$2
(Go to the Dollar Tree for a multi-deck pack, use the gone-soft home decks, or ask a nearby casino if there is one – they punch decks and will let you have them as mementos. It doesn’t have to be poker cards; the kiddie multi-packs of Old Maid and Go Fish, flashcards, etc will work, too.)
Add to total: $3-$6+tax
We can also use small paper/plastic cups instead of cards, or even small and large paper plates. Used canning jar lids and emptied cartons and cereal boxes also work.
*Pool noodles work at most public ranges with overhead lines or target frames, although we need to be aware at ranges where there are rules about hitting the floor/ground and the side walls/berms instead of the rear berm.
Combining Those Oddballs
Pool noodles can hang vertically by punching a hole at the top and tying some cord, or we can slide them over anything relatively straight – sticks, straightened wire clothes hangers, garden stakes.
We can use them at full length or cut into shorter sections, which we can set up in ladders tie them at the ends so they mostly only blow back and forth a bit. Or, arrange tie them at the center so they spin at different rates and add some yaw to the bobbling and bouncing in wind and from hits.
The good ol’ backyard stick can also be used, stuck into the ground with short lengths of pool noodle springing out for a spread of targets.
We’re going to strategically slit some holes in our pool noodle for the forks and clothespins.
Playing cards can be set up pretty tight, so a 1/4” slit every 3-4” works. I tend to poke slits all the way through so I can balance a pair of targets going down or alternate which holes I’m using without any hassles.
Slice pairs to wiggle in clothespins.
I find it easiest to pull the clothespins in and out to affix whatever we’re shooting at. Just skip slots going down the pool noodle when using larger cups, paper plates, or pantry refuse instead of cards.
Do be aware that the pool noodle is going to be inclined to roll “down” with weight, so if we go for a horizontal ladder strung on something, we need to make sure whatever we’re shooting is tight enough to not fall out of the forks.
On top of being super adaptable in both target and how they get set up, there are weight and size advantages and the pure ease in creating targets with pool noodles compared to some types of folding or portable frames, which can be big for some people.
Head to a bargain-basement budget store and grab a bunch of balloons. We’re after a bag of multiple colors and the type we blow up with our lungs (not helium). They don’t have to be particularly sturdy. The ones that come with multiple shapes and sizes are a bonus.
Balloons have some singular advantages.
One, hanging, they offer movement. Especially in bunches of different colors, the movement can help us refine tight shoot-no shoot reactions or hone aim for times we need to make a window.
Draw 1-2 spare or pre-shot balloons from a bunch on the bench with you that match your hanging balloons. Those are either the good guys – don’t shoot – or the bad guys. We can also number balloons and roll dice to generate from-the-bench good-bad targets, or draw good guy and bad guy faces.
Balloons are also a fast and fairly easy way to generate “shoot-n-see” instant reactive targets. Since we can get anywhere from 12-50 for $1, it’s a little prep work, but pretty low cost compared to the real deal.
We can blow them up, pre-tie strings to the tails so they hang singly or as overlapping bunches, clip them directly with clothespins, or tape them or staple the tails to our backers. We can do some of the work sitting watching TV the night before or up to 1-2 days before our range date. (Any longer, and they’ll deflate.)
Add to total: $1-$2 (+tax)
Free & Cheapo Targets
I love free, cheap and easy stuff – especially when it works just as well as or better than something static and boring. It’s a little bit of work sometimes, but it’s usually a little bit of work.
When we’re ready to up our game on the square range with some selective-target and speed drills, prepping for hunting, or out to convert somebody with how fun shooting can be – or “just” entertaining our family – balloons, trash from our pantries and yards, and pool noodles have a lot to offer.
There are plenty of others, to include ways to jazz up the common paper plates we target for increased skill development, or replacing those plates with trash from our pantries.
Most of these methods, particularly, are also multi-platform friendly. From low-power BB trainers to pellet guns, rimfire and centerfire pistol or rifle, or archery platforms and even darts, they offer nice feedback as well as skills development.
For some of us, the instant feedback alone is big – and lower cost than high-vis reactive targets.
The understanding of angles from 3D targets and the shoot-don’t shoot drills that can be designed would make them valuable over static paper all on their own, even if they were a more expensive option.
Being less expensive, and in some cases free or nearly free, using things we can largely source around our yards and homes for better training than static cardboard and paper, with easy and minimal assembly or planning and time to set them up… really and truly, when it comes to both shooting and prepping, it just does not get much better than cheapo targets.
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