Throwback Thursday: How to Build a Backyard Backstop By: John Bibby

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Backyard Bullet Backstop

You finally bought a piece of land that is big enough to shoot on. Great, now what? Here is the legalese piece: Check with the local ordinances. Make sure you are legal to shoot on your own land. Make sure there are no technicalities in the way.

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For example, in Florida, it is illegal to shoot within 300 yards of an occupied building (that you don’t own). It is also illegal to shoot over a non-private road. Not that these are necessarily bad things, just make sure you check the lateral issues.

Once the legal components are covered, there are a few other items to consider. One of those is neighbors. Do you live in a strong blue area? Are your neighbors likely to become angry with your new range and the noise of shooting? Are there ways to decrease that anger? Perhaps invite them over to shoot with you. Perhaps keep shooting activities within normal noise-making times. Maybe consider noise buffering when designing the range. Certainly, make sure all your bullets stay within your property.

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Another issue is law enforcement. Quite often, just because it is legal, doesn’t mean the local police are aware that it is. It never hurts to go to the local station and make friends and discuss potential issues with them. Another thing to do, once you KNOW you are fully legal and a neighbor calls law enforcement on you, is to invite the responding officers to shoot your guns. Provide the ammo. The police almost never get enough range time and most of them will appreciate it. We did this at a friend’s home range. Whenever we shot full-auto, a neighbor would call. The police had to drive over to check out the situation. After the first few calls, they drew lots to see who got to respond. It was the only fair way, as they all wanted to get to shoot the full-auto’s.

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Once all the legal and PR components are figured out, you actually have to decide on the purpose of the range and the safety aspects.

Purpose and Safety

Are you planning on only shooting pistols? If so, build a pistol-appropriate range. Then, decide on what kind of pistol work: square-range precision shooting, or action-bay stuff like 3-Gun and Fast Draw? Will you be shooting lots of high-powered rifle rounds? Will you be doing precision shooting or routine mag dumps? These things all matter as to how the range is set up, and what must be done to make it safe for you and the neighbors.

My backyard range has a modest backstop for pistol and rifle shooting. We are able to get out to 100 yards very safely for aimed slow-fire rifle. Rapid-fire pistol and rifle is safe up to about 50 yards. The reason for this is that even if we manage to miss the backstop, the angle of the land is slightly down towards the backstop. Directly behind the backstop is a dry pond, then a moderate incline that eventually exceeds the height of the backstop. Between the downward shooting angle, the dry pond, and the inclining 75 yards behind the backstop, no bullets should be able to leave the property. We limit the ranges to those listed above, just to be sure.

Backstop Construction

The backstop is 8’6” wide and 80” high. The center is just over five-feet wide and each side has wings that stick out at about 45 degrees. The purpose of the wings is to catch spall from direct shots, as well as to allow for angled shooting during 3-Gun practice.

The front of the main center section is a layer of vertical 2×4’s attached to pressure-treated 2×6’s at each end. The 2×4’s are covered with a layer of ½” steel belted rubber. Behind the 2×4 layer is an air gap the width of the 2×6 and a second layer of 2×4’s positioned vertically. The air gap is filled with a mixture of small river stones ¾” to 1.5” and pea gravel.

The wood provides a semi-healing frame for the gravel and stone. The belted rubber aids in that capacity. The gravel and stone section is the kinetic bullet trap. The weight of the column keeps the gravel in place, and the hardness tends to shatter most bullets. For pistol ammunition, this is sufficient. Rifle bullets have a tendency to still go through.

Behind this, is a second layer of 2×4’s in vertical alignment with a four-inch air gap. Behind that layer is another four-inch air gap and a layer of ¾” plywood. Behind that is another four-inch air gap and the last layer of ¾” plywood. For those wanting to be REALLY sure, filling the second air gap with gravel would certainly add a buffer and probably avoid the need for the last layer of plywood. I had scrap wood and had to buy gravel, so…

The bullets are typically aimed at a steel 2/3-size silhouette target or several round steel targets. If the bullet impacts the AR-500 steel, the backstop only needs to catch the spall. The real reason for the backstop is to catch the misses. I am a belt and suspenders kind of guy. Even with the sloping hill behind the backstop, I really don’t want bullets exiting the structure.

By alternating the orientation of the 2×4’s, it doesn’t allow for overlapping seams. With the 5.5” layer of gravel, the bullets expand, shatter, tumble or at least dump a lot of energy passing through that layer. The following air gaps and layers of wood are cheap insurance for catching the tumbling rifle rounds. I added the additional layers after testing with progressively more powerful rounds.

Person shooting a semi-automatic AR-15 assault weapon rifle at an outdoor gun range

This current setup suffers no penetrations from .308 Winchester FMJ, .303 British FMJ, or 7.62×54 steel core ammo. It would likely fail vs. .338 Lapua and certainly vs. .50 BMG, which means we don’t shoot anything even approaching those mega calibers at it. I do not typically shoot the “battle rifle” rounds at this backstop, as they would quickly wear out the steel targets and the wood, but it is good to know the limits of your equipment.

I have a separate set of cut tree sections backed by telephone pole segments for this type of shooting. I only shoot at this setup from prone or from under 25 yards. It is an expendable backstop used for testing precision rifles and their ammo, as well as other high-power rounds. A friend is a tree guy, which means I have easy access to hardwood logs.

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The initial 16-18” of this bullet sink is easily replaced when it gets shot up. I position a cardboard box about a foot in front of this backstop with paper targets attached and a cement weight in the bottom to keep the box stationary. With over 30” of wood, a slight downward shooting angle, and a hill behind it, no bullets leave our property. Most stay inside the logs. It is also much cheaper to fix with free log pieces than buying replacement 2×4’s and plywood.

For non-slug shotgun rounds, we have steel pedestal targets and just use the slope of the hill to catch any errant shot. This is mostly used for 3-Gun practice. The log backstop with a cardboard target is used for patterning turkey loads and similar items.

My particular setup was determined by having a lot of scrap 2×4’s and plywood on hand. My primary expenses were gravel, exterior-grade three-inch assembly screws, the AR-500 targets, and the time spent building and testing. The backstop has been in use for almost three years. I have had to replace a few boards and top off the gravel as a result of impact settling and shattering of many of the rocks, but other than a slight bit of upkeep, it remains fully functional and allows many of our friends to shoot safely, for all of my testing needs and for my girlfriend to keep in practice between her duty qualification tests.

steel silhouette target
Make sure you’re shooting a safe distance away from steel targets to avoid a ricochet.

Conclusion: Building a Backyard Backstop

I estimate 3,000 rounds of centerfire pistol, 2,500 rounds of 5.56, and innumerable rounds of .22 LR have been shot at the steel targets. At least 500 rounds of birdshot have also impacted the steel positioned on the backstop. Another 1,000 birdshot and buckshot rounds have impacted the pedestal targets. The expendable log backstop has had many log sections replaced after stopping over 1,500 rounds of .270 Winchester, .308 Winchester, and similar projectiles.

In 2019, we used this setup to introduce six or eight people to shooting. With COVID-19, 2020 has been much slower, but so far, we have two new shooters this year. Between the three shooting areas, no errant bullets have made their way off the property. That is the ultimate goal. It only takes one such round and the attached lawyer to end future shooting activities.

Have you built a private range on your property? How did it go? Let us know in the comments section below!

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in October of 2020. It has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and clarity.