The Wide, Wild World
Of Reactive Targets

Sometimes I Go Too Far …

When the onlookers need psychological counselling services after seeing one of your reactive targets in action, you know it’s a good one. I like the good ones.

What I’m talking about is my over-the-top love for reactive targets. You know, those things that go — with apologies to Don Martin of the old Mad Magazine fame — Pfft, Crunch, Paff, Twang, Fwap, Glorp, Pop, Snarf, Twing or BANG! whenever struck with a projectile. I’d bet most of our readers, all of whom test positive to one degree or another for the enthusiasms of a 12-year-old boy regardless of their official age or gender, likewise have a fondness for things that respond to bullets.

Floating Yo

In my case, it all started around age 10. At the moment I was enthralled with the idea of making boats out of a half-sheet of newsprint — remember newspapers? — by careful folding into a series of triangles. These were popular with kids since the turn of the century and could often be seen on Norman Rockwell-style prints depicting children playing stickball, building a fort or carjacking someone at knifepoint.
Sorry for that last one, it was a joke. Modern kids wouldn’t wear a newspaper hat for such hijinks — they’d be wearing the head-skin of their last victim. But I digress.

Depending on when you stopped folding, the result was either a nifty Robin Hood-style hat, albeit with the daily horoscope and grain futures plastered on the side, or a little boat complete with a sail in the middle. You could even wear the boat sideways as a hat provided your melon was small enough and you wanted to look like a Viking or some type of 16th-century sailor.

While pondering my next daily atrocity during summer vacation, I came up with a brilliant idea — I could set the little boats floating in the creek behind my grandparents’ fishing cabin then stand on the bank and send them to Davy Jones’ locker with a well-placed BB.

It worked, except for the sinking part. My paper armada headed down the current but try as I might after releasing a fusillade of golden steel BBs, the paper wouldn’t sink, at least not until it became so waterlogged it disintegrated on its own. As pollution hadn’t yet been discovered in the heartland, I didn’t retrieve all the trash and have often wondered if the small-town waterworks downstream became clogged by a giant wad of papier-mâché. If so, I’m sorry your taps ran dry.

Tin Can Alley

In my mid-teens, after my buddies and I had secured driver’s licenses and .22 rifles, we would head to the local flooded gravel pit with a sack of tin cans and bottles for a day of shooting.

We set up an impromptu firing range and sent hundreds of pounds of junk into the watery depths. Since we also fished in the pond, I assume our daily nutritional requirements of iron, tin, glass and catsup residue were met by consuming our catch.

As I grew older but not wiser, I began to experiment with other kinds of reactive targets beside balloons and water jugs. I’ve messed around with many common reactive targets such as cans of shaving cream, overripe watermelons and once, a small propane cylinder. This was deemed a highly enjoyable session, though we were disinvited to ever use the shooting facility again. You’d think a range would keep more fire extinguishers on hand.


My search for the ultimate reactive target really got out of control once I made the SWAT Team. I was a sniper and to keep our training more interesting, we applied our devious minds to an ever-increasing series of unique and responsive targets. The best were made from human heads, at least faux versions thereof.

The local beauty school had given us several large bags of used dummy heads. These were foam-filled, latex-skinned crania which sported long, flowing locks the students could use to practice applying makeup and cutting hair before tackling real people. By the time the heads arrived in our training room, they all sported serious Basic Training-style buzzed hair and all sorts of lurid over-the-top makeup stains. It sorta reminded you what would have happened if the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, had accepted a busload of drag queens.

Odd, unsettling looks aside, the heads were perfect for sniper training and late-night cop practical jokes. More than one sleepy officer was startled to see a garish head looking at them in the rearview mirror or come tumbling out of their locker.

However, their highest use was on the firing range. We arranged the foam noodles in all sort of makeshift scenarios to set up the most difficult shots possible. It also added a bit of realism and stress to the scenario when you considered the alarming kitschy look of the heads. I will say our snipers would have been some of the most highly prepared in the country if we were ever called to a hostage situation at a Mummers parade.

The only practical problem was the latex skin and foam didn’t really react to gun fire. In fact, our rifle rounds only made amazingly insignificant entrance and exit wounds that were almost impossible to see from a distance. The only way we knew there were hits was when the head toppled over. If the scenario called for the bad-guy head to be fixed in a certain position, we had no idea if a hit was made or not. We needed a better solution.

The idea came to me one long, lonely midwinter night on patrol. Setting to work the next afternoon, I grabbed several of the heads and retired to my home workshop. First, I cut open the tops of the cranium, fashioning a skull cap of sorts. I then scooped out the remarkable tough white foam innards. Meanwhile, I had already boiled some elbow macaroni and allowed it to cool. Filching some of my wife’s baking supplies along with plastic bags and a hot glue gun, I happily finished up my project.

Proof at 2,455 fps

I called one of my co-conspirators in the sniper unit and told him to meet me at the range for a proof-of-concept test on a new target. He agreed and within a half hour, we were on the range with my rifle set up on a shooting mat and the head standing on a stake at the target line. Several other curious onlookers joined us and one made a video of the test.

On command, I fired a single .308 168-grain boat-tail hollowpoint from my Remington M700P. It connected right between the eyes and we watched as my new patent-pending reactive target indicated a solid hit. The results were instantaneous.

The assembled group let out a disgusted groan in unison followed by various exhortations, many of which used crude anatomical references or outright cursing. My partner simply stood stunned, eyes wide and gulping air like a landed fish. He then turned to the video camera and said quietly, “I need counseling.”

It’s a good reactive-target test whenever you hear something like that.

I had packed the hollowed-out skull cavity with a plastic bag filled with boiled macaroni and water, thickened with food starch and tinted with red food coloring. Upon impact, the results were spectacular — the skullcap disintegrated in a shower of wet red foam, the resultant “pink mist” hung in the air for several moments and bits of red and whitish pasta were strewn across the firing line in a most gruesome fashion.

Final verdict

After viewing the video, for some reason our command staff decided my invention was a bit overly realistic and wholly too politically incorrect to be used for official training. In fact, my post-test meeting with the chief included several threats of bodily harm and a one-sided discussion of my overall physiological fitness for duty. It didn’t help matters when I impulsively stuffed two pencils up my nose at his desk. This might have played a part in why I never gained additional rank.

But it was undoubtedly my greatest reactive target of all time. Just imagine if I’d had access to a modern 2-part explosive target filler in those days — we’d have needed a bus to get everyone down to the psychologist!

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