Desert Shooting

To Ensure Future Access, Keep It Clean


When I was a kid, you could drive out Cave Creek Road to Jomax Road and be in the boonies. We'd go out there as a family, often with another family or a few aunts and uncles. While the ladies made breakfast, we'd set up a bunch of cans or cardboard boxes and we'd all take turns shooting at them. It was one of my favorite things to do as a kid.

Afterwards, we'd pick up all the cans and targets and toss the paper and cardboard in the fire, but take the cans home to dispose of. One thing I learned as a kid: if you take it out there, you bring it back. Most people were like that back then.

Not Like The Good Old Days

If do you much driving around in the desert you know it isn't like that anymore. People use the desert for a dump, and shoot up anything - including signs and cacti. It's a shame because those people are ruining it for all of the rest of us. Many landowners have locked their gates, and it's getting harder and harder to find a place to shoot.

Arizona Boating & Watersports

As shooters, we need to police ourselves. I don't mean accost litterers - that could be dangerous. But if you stop to shoot somewhere and there is a lot of trash around from others, pick it up. Margie and I carry a bunch of big trash bags around with us in the Can Am and we pick up trash almost every time we go out.

Dangerous: Shooting Signs

Also, I've never actually witnessed any nitwits shooting signs, but if I ever do, you can bet I'll get license plates and call the authorities. The thing about shooting signs is that not only does it make people angry and cost taxpayer money - it's also very dangerous. Your bullet goes right through that sign. Who knows where it will end up? Someone's house? Someone's chest? Bullets can travel well over a mile and it's crucial to have a backstop whenever you fire your weapon outside.

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Practicing In The Desert

There are a lot of reasons why you might want to shoot out in the desert instead of at the range. For one thing, at the range you are very limited as to how you can shoot. You can't really move as you shoot, you can't shoot prone, you can't practice shooting from cover, and basically all you can do is stand in one spot (or sit, at some) and shoot at a stationary target.

If you carry for self-defense, you need to practice different ways of shooting, and that means you need to go out where you can set up some targets and move around, crouch, lie on your belly to practice hunting shots, etc.

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Where It's Allowed

First of all, you have to find a place where you're even allowed to shoot, period. There are still many places in the desert where this is possible, but get yourself a good map app that shows you land ownership so you don't end up on private property. Of course, you absolutely must obey "no shooting" and "no trespassing" signs.

In the Tonto National Forest you are only allowed to use targets that you take away with you after you are done. This makes sense anywhere. The Agua Fria National Monument is a huge area that has basically been closed to shooters except when you are hunting. When you do find a great spot, please clean up after yourself - no sense tempting the powers that be to close it.

Arizona Sportsment for Wildlife Conservation

For Safety's Sake

You must have a hill or a big berm for a backdrop so no bullets go flying out into the beyond. Don't pick a really rocky one because of ricochets. It also helps if there aren't a lot of bushes and cactus between you and your targets. Follow the same safety rules that you follow any time you are using a firearm, with the addition of this one: one shooter at a time if you are shooting while moving.

Just in case you forgot, here are the Four Commandments of Gun Safety:

1. Treat all firearms as if they are loaded.

2. Keep the muzzle away from all non-targets.

3. Keep your finger off the trigger until you are on target and ready to shoot.

4. Be sure of the target AND what is beyond it.

Use Your Own Target Stands

It makes sense that if you are going to be shooting out in the desert even occasionally, you should have your own target stands. You can make your own very inexpensively with PVC piping or standard lumber. All you need is a frame that will stand up and a way to clip the targets onto it.

We have tried the kind that are supposed to stick into the ground to stand, but those are really difficult to use. The desert is just too hard a rocky. A nice frame with a wide base is a much better option.

Option: Steel Targets

Another option is steel targets. Steel targets are great because you get instant feedback - you can hear if you have hit the target. They range in price from around $30 for a rimfire target to over $500 for a reactive target for larger calibers. Reactive targets are fun - the targets are made so they swing from one side of a center pole to the other, or they swing around a horizonal axis. You can have contests with these - pick a side and try to keep your side clear.

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When we took a defensive pistol course, the instructor set up a number of steel targets and had us shoot as we walked toward them, along the line of them, and then as we backed away from them. We were trying to shoot quickly but accurately, and he wanted us to find it necessary to reload part way through.

This is a very good exercise to improve your shooting under pressure while moving, and with steel targets you can instantly hear if you have hit your mark or not. Action Targets has a huge variety of steel targets at many price points. You can check them out at

Safety With Steel

To be safe while shooting steel targets, always wear hearing protection and wrap-around shatter resistant eye protection. Check the targets often for damage and stability, and always put them on a soft surface with no big rocks or other ricochet hazards around. You need to stand at least 10 yards away when firing handguns, rimfire weapons, or shotguns.

If you are using the big boys for centerfire rifles or shotgun slugs, stay 100 yards away. Make sure you use the targets for the caliber they are made for - never use centerfire rifles on rimfire or handgun targets. You should never shoot steel at steel targets, so no BB's, steel shot or airgun pellets. No armor piercing or any other penetrator ammo.

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Don't shoot if the steel target is cratered, pitted, or damaged, and always make sure you have a 20-degree angle of engagement (the target is tilted slightly forward so that the round hits the ground instead of coming back at the shooter). Basically, just use some common sense.

Words To The Wise

This Action Targets Dueling Tree features targets that swing from one side of the center to the other when hit. These are a ton of fun, but they can be pricey, depending on the caliber for which they are rated.

I highly recommend steel targets just because they are so much fun. They are also very easy to set up and take down, which means keeping your shooting spot clean is a breeze. Police your brass - it's valuable. If we all do our part to keep the desert looking good, we'll have places to shoot for a long time forward.


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