SHTF Firearms basics: Ballistics for beginners

I was hunting whitetailed deer a few years ago in Northern West Virginia. We’d seen lots of sign, and we knew the area well, where the deer were going. Most of WV is close, fast shooting through hardwood forests, so I selected a Remington 141 in .35 Remington to bring with me, a fast-cycling pump with great pointing characteristics. As an added bonus, I had a really hard time missing with its Lyman receiver sight. So, I hunted up and down some hills (they say after hunting WV for a while, one leg grows longer than the other because of all the hills), and made my way to a power line right-of-way, where my father was to meet me a bit later in the day. I was a bit early, so I decided to wait there at the right of way, a long swath cut through the trees for a high-tension power line. through you could see for probably a thousand yards, from the hill I was on , over a deep valley, to the crest of the next hill, I had to hope that a deer passed closer, within the 125 yard limit I’d set for myself with the pokey ballistics of the .35 I’d brought.

 

Soon enough, I saw, waaaaaay over on the facing hillside, a nice little buck come into the right of way opening and hunker down, in the open. I watched him through my binoculars, and wished my father would come soon, for he lugged around an old Remington .300 H&H mag with a 12 power scope, for this very reason. As soon as I thought that, I heard a twig break behind me, and lo and behold, my father stood there. I motioned him down to me, and showed him the deer on the hill.

 

“Geez son, I don’t think I want to try that shot, but you’re more than welcome to.” I took his rifle, and got into a sturdy sitting position, dialed the Leupold up to 12 power, and calmed myself, watching the deer through the scope. “I give it 500 yards, Dad, what do you think?

 

“All of that, I make it 600. That handloaded 180-grain bullet drops about 50 inches at that range.”

 

I mulled back and forth, not really wanting to take the shot on a deer laying down, since I couldn’t guarantee a clear shot at his vitals, and I didn’t want to wound the deer. Just then, the buck stood up, and turned broadside to me, making up my mind for me. “Holy crap, it’s suicidal!” Dad breathed to me while watching through my binos.  I looked at the foliage near the deer…it was still. No wind. Same near me. I knew a deer body is about 18-20″ deep, so I held the crosshairs about three feet over the deer, held my breath, and squeezed.

 

When I recovered from the recoil, I couldn’t see the deer in the scope. “Ahh, shit. Which way did the deer go?”

 

“It didn’t, son. It dropped where it stood!”

 

Sure enough, I looked closer, and I could make out the white underbelly of the buck on the hillside, so far away. When I (finally!) got to the deer, I saw that the 180-grain Speer bullet had gone right through the neck of the deer, killing it instantly. It never knew what had hit it. And let me just say…I’m glad I had a witness, because nobody would EVER believe I shot a deer at 600 yards.

 

I tell you this story, because without my father having done some research, and known his rifle, and known the ballistics, the only thing I could have done to shoot that deer would be guesstimating. Ballistics are key to know, if you want to try any type of distance shooting, and really, any type of shooting. Knowing how and why bullets act the way they do after you pull the trigger will give you a leg up on the competition, whatever it may be.

 

What are Ballistics?

Ballistics is, simply put, the study of a moving object, whether it be a bullet fired from a gun, a rock thrown through the air, a rocket going to the moon, or the Earth revolving around the sun. Obviously, for our purposes, we’ll be looking into bullets from a gun, specifically “external ballistics”, which is the bullet path from the time the bullet exits the muzzle to the time it impacts a target.

 

From the second the bullet leaves the muzzle of the gun, gravity starts taking effect on the bullet, pulling towards the earth in a parabolic curve called the “trajectory”.

30-06 ballistics

 

Above is a graph showing the trajectory of a 180-grain bullet fired from a .30-06 rifle. You can see that, from left to right, as the bullet goes further away from the gun, it drops more. This is because the bullet is losing velocity, and succumbing more to the forces of gravity. This is a geometric function, and why it is a parabolic shape.  If this graph continued, you would see eventually a vertical line as the bullet loses all forward momentum, from air drag, and only moves downward from gravity.

 

Many things will effect how this parabolic trajectory looks. A longer, sleeker, more aerodynamic bullet will have less drag on it as it courses through the air, so the curve will be flatter for that type of bullet. A stumpy, broad bullet, like one found in a handgun, will have a shorter, more pronounced trajectory curve.

220swift44mag

 

In the graph above, I used two extremes to show the difference in trajectory curves: A .220 Swift, firing a 40-grain varmint bullet at 4250 feet per second, versus a .44 Magnum rifle, firing a 240-grain bullet at 1760 feet per second. You can see how the much more aerodynamic and faster moving bullet has a much flatter trajectory, making it easier to hit with over much longer distances, since the bullet will not deviate as far from the aiming point.

 

Bullet weight also plays a major part in ballistics, one of which may be counter-intuitive. Yes, a heavier-weight bullet is effected by gravity more, but it also retains its velocity better at longer distances, thanks to a better ballistic coefficient. Ballistic coefficient is basically the ability for a bullet to travel through the air. A heavier bullet will be longer given the same bore diameter than a lighter bullet, and this in turn makes it more aerodynamic. Therefore, a heavier bullet with a similar profile will shoot flatter and resist wind better than a lighter bullet of the same diameter.

30-062

In the graph above, (I know it’s hard to see) but the upper, flatter trajectory is a 165-grain bullet fired at 2900 feet per second, and the lower one is a 130-grain bullet (both .30-06 caliber) fired at a faster 3100 feet per second. If the heavier bullet was fired at the same velocity as the lighter one, the differences would be even more drastic.

 

Wind drift is also a consideration, mostly with lighter bullets. It also is a parabolic curve, but not as pronounced. If, in my story above about the deer, there had been wind, I probably would not have taken the shot, for at those distances, wind drift (even a light breeze) would have pushed the bullet out of the envelope I was comfortable with.

 

So, to sum up this portion of (a very basic) ballistics study: knowing how the bullet acts after it leaves your muzzle will make you more adept at shooting, especially at long distances. So, be sure to look up the ballistic data on your firearm(s), know the bullet drop for your load, and you will be that much more effective.

 

If you’re using factory-loaded ammunition, most manufacturer’s websites have ballistic data for their ammunition, just a couple mouse-clicks away. Print the data off, and keep it with your firearm (some people even laminate it and tape it to the stock if they shoot at long distances often). The graphs I used above came from Gundata.org, which is a HUGELY helpful site if you wish to delve more into the mechanics of bullets and ballistics. Most common factory loads are listed by caliber.

 

If you handload your ammo, get with a buddy who has a chronograph, measure the average speed of your loads, and when you find the ballistic coefficient of your bullet (listed on manufacturer’s websites also), you can plug it in to the calculator above and get set up.

 

Above all, PRACTICE!!! This will help you know your limitations, how the gun works, how you and your load perform at long distances. The animal you shoot at 800 yards  and wound because you didn’t know your limitations does not deserve to suffer. Know your gun, know your load, know YOU. This could make all the difference in the world someday, when you are feeding your family and/or protecting yourself.

 

There is SO MUCH more to ballistics, but this should get you started…

Stay safe!

-TRW

  • j.r. guerra in s. tx. June 12, 2013, 1:32 pm

    That is one heckuva shot you made, even with a flat shooting magnum. Nicely done – knowing your rifle’s trajectory is vital when making shots like that.

    Personally, I am not confident in making a shot like that myself. 300 yards is my personal limit, especially under field conditions.

    Also take care to sight in and zero the rifle’s scope to the rifle’s natural shooter – the small differences we each hold our firearms can make a difference in bullet’s impact, especially way out there.

    Reply
  • Jason June 12, 2013, 2:25 pm

    Loved the article because of the math though, the shot was very impressive.

    Reply
  • Ray June 12, 2013, 3:51 pm

    Well… My copy of “Rules for the management of the rifle Cal.30 M-1903″ dated 1914( 1917 revised) Lists 0 to 600 yards as “short” range- 600 to 1200 yards as “medium” range and 1200 to 3260 yards as “long” range. ALL US ARMY person’s were expected to hit 5 for 5 in the “9″ ,”10″ or “X” ring to qualify as riflemen in WW1. The Marine Corp had much higher standards , they expected the “average” rifleman to deliver killing fire at 800 yards . NOT volley fire-aimed shots!! Many MANY Marines could hit a man in the chest with a 30:or ball round 3 hits for 5 shots, at 1200 yards. They did this without optics other than 6X- EE- Binoculars. (the bino’s DO have a range finder in them). Both of my WW-1 M-1903 rifles are easily as good as my “f” class rifle or my M-40 a1– If you want to play “long shot” here’s the hillbilly version. start with five Gal. buckets filled with water and a bright bio-degradable coloring agent.(marker) Place them at 100 yard inter. at 400 – 500-600-700-800 yards. Rules to score; The guy to “kill” each target with the fewest rounds wins, BUT HERE’S THE RUB. You have to use OPEN SIGHTS . No scope My favorite rifle for this is an M-1903 built in December of 1919. The fun way to learn ballistics !!

    Reply
    • Jason June 12, 2013, 4:01 pm

      Ray, “Rules for the management of the rifle Cal.30 M-1903″ …. that’s when men were men. Hahahahahahah!!

      Reply
      • Ray June 13, 2013, 10:55 am

        One of the things I meant to wright “The ARMY expected all person’s to qualify at 600 yards hitting 5 shots in the “9″ “10″ or “X” ring.

        Reply
  • Road Warrior June 12, 2013, 4:59 pm

    Gawd, and the 1903 had those awful ladder sights, with a not exactly optimal sight picture. Those WERE men! With damn good eyes!!

    I have a 1926-mfg Winchester Model 54 in .30-06 with a Lyman 48 receiver sight…I can hit with it at 200 yards okay…but 800? Ye gads!

    Reply
    • Ray June 12, 2013, 9:37 pm

      The fixed “V” notch on top of the ladder sights is the battle sight. Battle sight zero on ARMY rifles made before 1927 was 549 yards. The Marine Corp rifle had a BSZ of 300 yards after 1921.(not all USMC rifles got converted) Both of my 1919 “03′s” have really good sights, tight and well maintained(the key to success with “03″ sights). Yeh good eyes DO help (I have 20/15 vision ) Just remember that those “awful” sights allowed the United States Marines to engage Germans at 800 yards during WW-1. AND KICK THERE ASSES . Killing hundreds of Germans before they even knew that they were being engaged. AND I like the sights on my “03′s” better than the “peep” on my M-1 for target work (I think the Garand has a better “battle sight”)

      Reply
    • T.R. June 12, 2013, 11:33 pm

      Have an Army 1895 carbine , cavalry model , with the ladder sights , never use the ladder but the gun is a joy to shoot . I was able to track it down by serial number and it was issued for WW1 , the stock was broken and field repaired , most likely hand to hand .

      Reply
      • Ray June 13, 2013, 11:11 am

        T.R It is far more likely that your carbine was dropped from a horse as there were no KNOWN 30.40 Krags used in combat in the WW-1 trenches. They WERE taken to Europe by the NG and Militia units that “went over” in 1917 but the only known use of them was by rear echelon guards and patrols . ALL of the US units that saw combat, and were originally equipped with Krag rifles, were Re-issued British .303 SMLE and Rifle no. 1*** and British bayonets prior to deployment in late 1917

        Reply
        • The Road Warrior June 13, 2013, 12:07 pm

          The only 1895 Winchesters I can think of that would have served in WWI were the Russian-bought and wielded 7.62x54R muskets. The’95 Saddle Ring Carbine also came in. 303 British, .30-06, and I believe. 30-03 in addition to. 30 US Army/ .30+40 Krag.

          Reply
  • Ray June 13, 2013, 2:58 pm

    The Springfield Model of 1895 saddle ring carbine was a 30.40 Krag carbine Dated 1895 on the receiver. They are VERY rare , and VERY collectable . Tip ‘O the hat to T.R.

    Reply
    • The Road Warrior June 13, 2013, 9:40 pm

      Ray,thanks for the correction, and a tip’o the hat for you as well for the education. I researched them, and they look like nifty little rigs. I’ve always lived the smoothness of the Krag-Jorgensen design. Now I want to try one of those carbines!!

      Reply
      • Ray June 15, 2013, 7:51 am

        I have a friend who owns a MINT 1895 SRC. We loaded some correct ammo for it (220gr RNFMJ @ 1960-2000 FPS) The damn thing shoots SUB MOA!! 1/4in groups at 200 yards! It clover leafs all day! He just bought an 1873 Colt Re-built in 1893 .(to go with the cavalry carbine) Some guys have all the luck.

        Reply