Hobbyists, survivalists and preppers all have their own weapon of choice they need to practice with and become reasonably skilled at using. Whether your weapon is one that stabs, slashes, punctures, fires bullets, flings arrows or other projectiles, you will need a target.
Sides of beef or pig carcasses are an option, but these are difficult to set up, apart from being costly and messy. Shooting cardboard, paper or metal targets are the default options, but don’t provide much thrill or tell you much about your weapon’s effectiveness. Shooting or hacking away at gallon milk jugs, or large plastic soft drink bottles doesn’t quite hit the spot either.
Thankfully, there is a better alternative, and that’s making your own ballistic gel. In this guide, we’ll show you how you can make your bullet sponge so you can better gauge your own skills while knowing your weapon’s limitations.
Why you should use ballistic gel
When practicing with or testing your weapon’s effectiveness, using ballistic gel offers several advantages:
- It’s less costly and messy than animal carcasses
- Cleanup is easier, it’s non-toxic and safe to handle (as long as it’s not still boiling hot during prep)
- It can be reused and recycled
- The gel simulates the consistency and behavior of muscle tissue when impacted
- It gives a 3-dimensional “picture” of what your weapon can do
- If used for melee weapons, the gel won’t dull the blade
- Similarly, when used to test spears and arrows, the points won’t become dulled
- It eliminates the risk of arrow shafts breaking on impact since it’s a “soft target”
- It provides you with information you wouldn’t normally get with other types of targets like severity of tissue damage, wound channeling, cavity size and depth of penetration
- The impact results make it possible to compare ammunition (i.e. it helps you decide between choosing a gun that fires the 5.56 or 7.62 round)
- It shows you how your ammunition of choice expands, splinters or fragments if it’s supposed to do so, and the gel makes it easier to retrieve the bullet
- If you mold the gel into realistic shapes (like human torsos or big game) you can add more realism to your training or target sessions
Ballistic gel offers many more benefits than using conventional targets, and here are the steps in making your own.
– Unflavored gelatin powder, like Knox gelatin (specialized ballistic gelatin costs too much)
– Warm water
– Mixing container
– Mixing tool (a large wooden spoon will do; for bigger batches use an electric mixer)
– Mold of your choice
– Non-stick cooking spray
– Cinnamon oil (optional)
Determine the amount of gel you want to produce; to help you compute, the ratio you must follow is 1:13, 1 gallon of water for every 13 ounces of the gelatin. This yields gel with the right consistency to mimic soft tissue, and will be transparent enough to examine, while not melting easily in warm weather.
To illustrate, this guide will use 9 gallons of water and 117 ounces of gelatin.
Prepare your mixing container. For the prescribed volume in this guide, we recommend a plastic tub measuring 12 inches high x 12 wide x 20 long. Use a container that has no patterns or shapes on the sides and bottom to make it easier to remove the gel once it sets.
Determine the maximum water level for the container. To do this, draw a notch with a permanent marker, measuring 6 inches from the bottom. This will be the limit to which you will fill the container with water.
Coat the inside of the container with non-stick cooking spray. This will prevent the gel from sticking to the insides and coming apart when you work to “release” the finished gel from the mold. Gently wipe off any excess non-stick spray to avoid clouding the final product.
Get a buddy to help you combine the warm water and the gel; to lessen cloudiness and avoid clumps, begin pouring the water while slowly adding the gel powder. Don’t allow the water to go past the 6-inch mark. The water should be about 105 degrees Fahrenheit (warm but not hot) for a less cloudy gel.
Gently mix the gelatin and water, stirring constantly until all the powder granules have dissolved. For a batch this size, this could take approximately 20 minutes. If possible, have a buddy take over when you get tired.
For a clearer gel, add cinnamon oil to the mix. The ratio is 1 drop of oil for every gallon of water, so use 9 drops. Add the oil after about 10 minutes of stirring.
Prepare the mixture for refrigeration. Once the gelatin granules have all completely dissolved, gently scoop out any resulting foam on top. Ensure that there is no foam on the top and no undissolved granules.
Cool, don’t freeze, the gelatin. Frozen gel will be too hard and cloudy for your purposes. Cool the gel for a minimum of 8 hours in your fridge (be sure to have ample room for this).
After the gel has cooled, remove the container from the refrigerator. Carefully extract the gel from the container by turning it over on a flat, even surface such as a piece of cardboard to make transport easier. Gently “coax” the gel out of the mold with your hands, working to avoid any cracks or breaks on the final product.
For easier set-up and transport, cut the block in half with a large kitchen knife. Cut the block lengthwise, so you have two blocks measuring 6 x 6 x 20 inches (height x width x length). Transfer each block onto a sheet of cardboard cut to fit, and encase each block in plastic wrap to prevent evaporation. Store the blocks in a cooler with ice until you are ready to use them.
Once you are ready to use them, remove the plastic wrap carefully, then set up each block horizontally on a stable, flat surface, such as plywood mounted on two sawhorses. Position the blocks such that you will be shooting into the 6 x 6 square face, allowing the 20-inch length of the block to absorb and “contain” the projectiles. If you are using more powerful projectiles, place a cement block behind the gel to keep it from getting knocked over by the impact.
- Before you shoot at the ballistic gel, do so from a safe distance. Allow at least 10 feet from your shooting position; this should keep you out of harm’s way in case of any unexpected ricochet.
- Ensure that the backstop material is appropriate for the projectiles you are using.
- If you plan to take photos or videos of your practice session, do it with a remote setup and advise any bystanders to stay behind you and well out of harm’s way.
- Follow all the safety precautions prescribed by your weapon’s instruction manual, and wear the necessary eye and ear protection gear.
- Regardless of how adept and disciplined you are with handling a weapon, remember that you can still make mistakes.
Finally, bear in mind that your homemade ballistics gel can be recycled as long as you can gather the remaining pieces. Extract the bullet fragments from the gel by cutting into it with a kitchen knife. Clean out any remaining dirt or grass by running the gel pieces under cold water.
Once that’s done, you can place the gel in a pot and melt it on the stove using high heat. You can then use a painter’s filter and a 5-gallon bucket to further filter out any more impurities. Pour the gel into molds and place in the refrigerator like you did the first time, then reuse the gel at the shooting range. Not only do you have a cost-effective and reusable bullet sponge, you also have a better way of gauging your weapon and ammo’s performance, as well as your own skills.