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A Short Course in External Ballistics

(Well, ok. Maybe not so short.)

There is a lot of misleading information and myth flying around ("bull-istics") on the
subject of the external ballistics. The tables below will hopefully shed some light on how
that bullet really travels once you've pulled the trigger. All tables are rounded to the
nearest 10 feet per second and drops are rounded to two places, unless I am trying to
show small increments. Greater precision is meaningless in the "real" world. Even for the
best of marksman a 1/2 minute of angle difference is effectively meaningless at realistic
ranges. The majority of information is presented on rifle cartridges but the principles hold
true for shotgun and pistol as well.

Remember Fr. Frog's Rules of External Ballistics:

1) There ain't no magic bullets!

2) Divide the range at which someone claims to have shot their deer by 4 to get the real
3) Always get as close as possible.
4) Don't believe manufacturer's claims.
5) In the battle between velocity and accuracy, accuracy always wins.
6) Most gun writers are pathological liars.

Please note that this a moderately long page and runs about 14 screens worth at 800 x 600
screen resolution, so you might want to print it out. (Landscape orientation works best.)
MS FrontPage says 20 seconds to load at 56.6k.

The Bullet's Path

Many people believe that bullets fly in a straight line. This is untrue. They actually travel
in a parabolic trajectory or one that becomes more and more curved as range increases
and velocity drops off. The bullet actually starts to drop when it leaves the firearm's
muzzle. However, the centerline of the bore is angled slightly upward in relation to the
line of the sights (which are above the bore) so that the projectile crosses the line of sight
on its way up (usually around 25 yards or so) and again on its way down at what is called
the zero range.

Terms relating to external ballistics include:

Back Curve - This is that portion of the bullets trajectory that drops below the critical
zone beyond the point blank range. Past this point the trajectory begins to drop off very
rapidly with range and the point of impact becomes very difficult to estimate.

Ballistic Coefficient - This is a number that relates to the effect of air drag on the bullet's
flight and which can be used to later predict a bullet's trajectory under different
circumstances through what are called "drag models." Technically a drag models applies
only to a particular bullet, so using them to predict another bullet's performance is an
approximation--but the results can be very close if the proper drag model is used. The
most commonly used drag model is the G1 model (sometimes referred to--not really
correctly--as C1) which is based on a flat-based blunt pointed bullet. The "standard" bullet
used for this model has a ballistic coefficient of 1.0. A bullet that retains its velocity only
half as well as the model has a ballistic coefficient of .5. The G 1 model provides results
close enough to the actual performance of most commercial bullets at moderate ranges
(under about 500 yards) that it is commonly used for all commercial ballistics
A word to the wise. Many manufacturer give rather generous BCs for their bullets
because: a) they want to look good--high BCs sell bullets; b) they were derived by visual
shape comparison rather than actual firing data; or c) they were derived from short
range firings rather than long range firings (which are more difficult to do). You should
confirm your calculations by actual firing if you require exact data. Several manufactures
have recently "readjusted" some of their BCs to more closely conform to actual firing
data. For a more in-depth discussion of ballistic coefficients see the section below.

Bore Centerline - This is the visual line of the center of the bore. Since sights are
mounted above the bore's centerline and since the bullet begins to drop when it leaves the
muzzle the bore must be angled upwards in relation to the line of sight so that the bullet
will strike where the sights point.

Bullet Trajectory - This is the bullet's path as it travels down range. It is parabolic in
shape and because the line of the bore is below the line of sight at the muzzle and angled
upward, the bullet's path crosses the line of sight at two locations.

Critical Zone - This is the area of the bullet's path where it neither rises nor falls greater
than the dimension specified. Most shooters set this as ± 3" to 4" from the line of sight,
although other dimensions are sometimes used. The measurement is usually based on
one-half of the vital zone of the usual target. Typical vital zones diameters are often given
as: 3" to 4" for small game, and 6" to 8" for big game and (Gasp!) anti-personnel use.

Initial Point - The range at which the bullet's trajectory first crosses the line of sight.
This is normally occurs at a range of about 25 yards.

Line of Sight - This is the visual line of the aligned sight path. Since sights are mounted
above the bore's centerline and since the bullet begins to drop when it leaves the muzzle
the bore must be angled upwards in relation to the line of sight so that the bullet will
strike where the sights point.

Maximum Ordinate - This is the maximum height of the projectile's path above the line
of sight for a given point of impact and occurs somewhat past the halfway point to the
zero range and it is determined by your zeroing range.

Maximum Point Blank Range - This is the farthest distance at which the bullet's path
stays within the critical zone. In other words the maximum range at which you don't have
to adjust your point of aim to hit the target's vital zone. Unless there is some over riding
reason to the contrary shots should not generally be attempted much past this distance. In
the words of the Guru, "It is unethical to attempt to take game beyond 300 meters." If you
do, you should write yourself a letter explaining why it was necessary to do so. An
approximate rule of thumb says that the maximum point blank range is approximately
your zero range plus 40 yards.

Mid-range Trajectory - This is the height of the bullets path above the line of sight at
half way to the zero range. It does not occur at the same range as the maximum ordinate
height which can be greater.

Minute of Angle (MOA) - A "minute" of angle is 1/60 of a degree which for all practical
purposes equates to 1 inch per 100 yards of range. Thus 1 MOA at 100 yards is 1 inch
and at 300 yards it is 3 inches. The term is commonly used to express the accuracy
potential of a firearm.

Zero Range - This is the farthest distance at which the line of sight and the bullet's path
The bore's angle in relation to the line of sight is exaggerated in this drawing for clarity.

A Brief Discourse on Ballistic Coefficients

This is probably the best article I have read on ballistic coefficients. It was written by Jim
Ristow of Recreational Software, Inc. and is reprinted here with his permission. It was
designed to encourage a discussion about ballistic coefficients and to explain why good
BCs are crucial to getting accurate results from ballistic software. The illustrations and
tables were not part of the original article.

A Little History
In 1881 Krupp of Germany first accurately quantified the air drag influence on bullet
travel by test firing large flat-based blunt-nosed bullets. Within a few years Mayevski had
devised a mathematical model to forecast the trajectory of a bullet and then Ingalls
published his famous tables using Mayevski's formulas and the Krupp data. In those days
most bullet shapes were similar and airplanes or missiles did not exist. Ingalls defined the
Ballistic Coefficient (B.C.) of a bullet as it's ability to overcome air resistance in flight
indexed to Krupp's standard reference projectile. The work of Ingalls & Mayevski has
been refined many times but it is still the foundation of small arms exterior ballistics
including a reliance on BCs.

The shape of the projectile used in the Krupp

firings. It is 3 calibers long and has an ogival head
with a 2 caliber radius.

Modern bullet designs. Much different than the Krupp bullet. Would you
expect them to have the same drag characteristics?
By the middle of the 20th century rifle bullets had become more aerodynamic and there
were better ways to measure air drag. After WWII the U.S. Army's Ballistic Research Lab
(BRL) conducted experiments at their facility in Aberdeen, MD to remeasure the drag
caused by air resistance on different bullet shapes. They discovered air drag on bullets
increases substantially more just above the speed of sound than previously understood
and that different shapes had different velocity erosion due to air drag. In 1965
Winchester-Western published several bullet drag functions based on this early BRL
research. The so-called "G" functions for various shapes included an improved Ingalls
model, designated "G1". Even though the BRL had demonstrated modern bullets would
not parallel the flight of the "G1" standard projectile, the "G1" drag model was adopted by
the shooting industry and is still used to generate most trajectory data and B.C.'s.
Amazingly, the "G1" standard projectile is close to the shape of the old blunt-nosed, flat-
based Krupp artillery round of 1881!

The firearms industry has developed myriad ways to compensate for this problem. Most
bullet manufacturers properly measure velocity erosion then publish B.C.'s using an
"average" of the calculated G1 based B.C.'s for "normal" velocities. In other words, the
only spot on the G1 curve where the model is correct is at the so-called "normal" or
average velocity. These B.C.'s are off slightly at other velocities unless the bullet has the
same shape, and therefore the same drag as the standard G1 projectile.

Some ballistic programs adjust the B.C. for velocities above the speed of sound, others
use several B.C.'s at different velocities in an effort to correct the model. While these
approaches mitigate some of the problem, B.C.'s based on G 1 still cannot be correct
unless the bullet is of the same shape as the standard projectile. Also, the change to air
drag as a function of velocity does not happen abruptly. Drag change is continuous with
only small variation immediately above or below any point along the trajectory. Programs
that translate the Ingalls tables directly to computer or use multiple B.C.'s can produce
velocity discontinuities when drag values change abruptly at pre-determined velocity
zones. The resulting rapid changes to ballistic coefficient do not duplicate "real world"

The Solution
Shooting software is finally appearing based on methods used in aerospace with drag
models for different bullet shapes. Results are superior to traditional "G1 fits everything"
thinking, but now shooters must learn B.C.'s are different for each model.

This is a scary proposition for most bullet companies who know many shooters pick
bullets based only on their B.C.'s. For example, A boat tailed bullet with a G 1 based B.C.
of .690 may actually have a G 7 based B.C. of only .344, since the G 7 drag model
accurately describes its performance. But, everyone "knows" that .690 is "better" than .
344. However, using the wrong drag model will yield trajectory data that indicates
incorrect drop. Fortunately the differences only become important at very long range
(>500 yards) but there is a difference. As an example the GI M80 Ball bullet (149 gr
FMJ boat tail) has a verified G7 BC of .195. The commercial equivalents of this bullet
are listed as having a G1 BC of between .393 and .395. You can see the differences in the
plotted trajectories using both the G1 and G7 values and a program that handles both

G1 = .393 G7 = .195

Range Vel. Path Vel. Path

0 2750 -1.5 2750 -1.5

100 2522 4.8 2520 4.9

200 2306 5.70 2302 5.7

300 2100 0.00 2094 0.00

400 1905 -13.6 1898 -13.7

500 1722 -36.8 1710 -37.0

600 1553 -71.8 1530 -72.3

700 1401 -121.3 1360 -122.6

800 1269 -188.4 1200 -191.7

900 1161 -277.2 1074 -285.1

1000 1078 -391.8 1014 -408.4

Modern ballistics uses the coefficient of drag (C.D.) and velocity (actually the bullet's
Mach number rather than the traditional Ingalls/Mayevski/Sciacci s, t, a & i functions.
This avoids velocity discontinuities and when combined with a proper drag model is far
more accurate to distances beyond 1000 yards. A by-product of modern ballistics research
is that the C.D. can be estimated fairly accurately from projectile dimensions and used to
define custom drag models for unusual bullet shapes. (See caveat below.)

The drawing below shows how the various drag models vary.

Note the difference between the G1 and the G5, G6, and G7!

The Coefficient of Drag for a bullet is simply an aerodynamic factor that relates velocity
erosion due to air drag, air density, cross-sectional area, velocity, and mass. A simpler
way to view C.D.'s are as the "generic indicator" of drag for any bullet of a particular
shape. Sectional Density is then used to relate these "generic" drag coefficients to bullet
size. The "Sectional Density" of a bullet is simply it's weight in pounds divided by it's
diameter squared.

Sectional Density = (Wt. in Grains) / (7,000 * Dia.* Dia).

You can see from the formula that a 1 inch diameter, 1 pound bullet (7,000 gr.) would
produce a sectional density of 1. Indeed the standard projectile for all drag models can be
viewed as weighing 1 pound and having a 1 inch diameter.

Another term occasionally found in load manuals is a bullet's "Form Factor". The form
factor is simply the C.D. of a bullet divided by the C.D. of a pre-defined drag model's
standard projectile.

Form Factor = (C.D. of any bullet) / (C.D. of the Defined 'G' Model Std. Bullet)

So What Is A Ballistic Coefficient?

Ballistic Coefficients are just the ratio of velocity retardation due to air drag (or C.D.) for
a particular bullet to that of its larger 'G' Model standard bullet. To relate the size of the
bullet to that of the standard projectile we simply divide the bullet's sectional density by
it's form factor.

Ballistic Coefficient = (Bullet Sectional Density) / (Bullet Form Factor)

From these short formulae it is evident that a bullet with the same shape as the 'G'
standard bullet, weighing 1 lb. and 1 inch in diameter will have a B.C. of 1.000. If the
bullet is the same shape, but is smaller, it will have an identical C.D., but a form factor of
1.000 and a B.C. equal to it's sectional density.

The following are the most common current drag models used in ballistics:

G1.1 - Standard model, flat based pointed bullet - 3.28 calibers in length, with a 1.32 caliber
length nose, with a 2 caliber (blunt) nose ogive

G2 - Special model for a long conical point banded artillery projectile - 5.19 calibers long with a .5
caliber 6° boat tail. Not generally applicable to small arms.

G5.1 - For Moderate (low base) boat tails - 4.29 calibers long with a .49 caliber 7° 30' boat tail
with 2.1 caliber nose with a 6.19 caliber tangent nose ogive

G6.1 - For flat based "spire point" type bullets - 4.81 calibers long with a 2.53 caliber nose and a
6.99 caliber secant nose ogive

G7.2 - For "VLD" type or pointed boat tails - 4.23 calibers long with with a .6 caliber long 7° 30'
Tail Taper and a 2.18 caliber long nose with a 10 caliber tangent nose ogive. Most modern US
military boat tailed bullets match this model.

G8.1 - Flat base with similar nose design to G7 - 3.64 calibers long with a 2.18 caliber long nose
and a 10 caliber secant nose ogive. The US M2 152 gr .30 cal bullet matches this drag model.
Close to the G6 model.

GS - For round ball - Based on 9/16" spherical projectiles as measured by the BRL. Larger and
smaller sphere characteristics are effectively identical.

RA4 - For 22 Long Rifle, identical to G1 below 1400 f/s

GL - Traditional model used for blunt nosed exposed lead bullets, identical to G1 below 1400 f/s

GI - Converted from the original Ingalls tables. Essentially G1

GC - 3 caliber long flat nosed cylinder. Identical to G1 below 1200 f/s

To see what shapes these drag models are based upon, click here.
For Best Accuracy, Calculate Your Own Coefficients!

Accurate B.C.'s are crucial to getting good data from your exterior ballistics software. A
good ballistic program should be able to use two velocities and the distance between
them to calculate an exact ballistic coefficient for any of the common drag models.
While you should really simultaneously measure the velocities at the 2 points you can do
very good work by measuring a minimum of 5 shots at the near and far ranges and
average each group.

This method of calculating a B.C. is preferred for personal use and can be used to
duplicate published velocity tables for a bullet when the coefficient is unknown or to
more accurately model trajectories achieved from your own firearm. A lot has changed in
shooting software. If your software is more than two years old, chances are it does not
employ the latest modeling techniques or calculate B.C.'s and even some of the newest
software is not perfect as you can see from the next section.

To order RSI's Shooting lab software you go to . Please tell

him Fr. Frog sent you.

Some Caveats

We mentioned that CD can be estimated fairly well from certain bullet dimensions.
However, because of the effects of bullet wobble (precession due to rotation), nose tip
radius or flatness, nose curvature and boat tail, boundary layer interaction from
cannelures and land engraving, etc. (all of which affect the wave drag, base drag and
friction drag of the bullet differently) it is really impossible to predict with total accuracy
the actual CD vs. Mach number. Also, while a ballistic coefficient can be computed from
velocity measurements at two points, differences in bullet wobble diminishes the validity
of chronograph testing for BC change over separate series of different muzzle velocities--
it needs to be done by separate measurements at different ranges for each shot. Why?
Read on.

An elongated bullet, as opposed to a round ball, is inherently unstable aerodynamically.

When made stable gyroscopically by spinning, its center-of-gravity will follow the flight
path. However, the nose of the bullet stays above the flight path ever so little just because
the bullet has a finite length and generates some lift. This causes the bullet to fly at a very
small angle of attack with respect to the flight path. The angle of attack produces a small
upward cross flow over the nose that results in a small lift force. The lift force normally
would cause the nose to rise and the bullet to tumble as the nose rose even more. That is
where the spin comes in and causes the rising nose to precess about the bullet axis. When
the spin is close to being right for the bullet's length, the precessing is minimized and the
bullet "goes to sleep" If it is too slow the bullet will not be as stable as it should. (That is
why Jeff Cooper says it's wrong to shoot groups at 100 yards for accuracy testing and
suggests 300 yards. If your twist isn't right for the bullet used your group size will be
larger at long ranges than would be expected by extrapolation of 100 yard data due to
bullet wobble.)
Of course, any other disturbing force such as a side wind gust could cause a difference in
bullet nose precession but the effect would be quite small for a properly spin stabilized
bullet. Most of the lift force is on the nose of the bullet and is proportional to the square
of the bullet velocity as well as the nose shape and length. The new long-nosed bullets for
long range match shooting can generate quite a bit more lift occurring farther ahead of
the center- of-gravity and can produce a nasty pitch-up moment. That is why they require
a faster than normal twist to stabilize them. Pistol bullets, being relatively short and with
little taper to the nose, require a slower spin for stability.

Let's look at the rotational speed of a bullet. The formula for computing the rotational
speed of a bullet is

R = (12/T) * V


T = Twist
V = Velocity in f/s
R = Rotations per second

Now consider a bullet chronographed at about 3000 f/s muzzle velocity fired from a rifle
with say a 10" twist. It is rotating at around 3600 revolutions per second (216,000 rpm).
Let the flight velocity decay to 2000 f/s. Now what is the bullet rotational speed? It
doesn't fall off much because the only things slowing it down are inertia and skin friction
drag which is pretty low, so the rotational velocity is only slightly slower than 3600 rps.
Then chronograph an identical bullet from the same rifle, this time with a muzzle velocity
of 2000 f/s. Its rotational velocity will be 2400 rps. Its stability will be different from the
bullet fired at 3000 f/s and allowed to slow down to 2000 f/s. They will not have the same
drag at 2000 f/s although the bullets are identical. Therefore, two identical bullets fired
from the same rifle at different velocities, will not have the same drag coefficient or
ballistic coefficient just because of the way the measurements were taken. There are times
when test data does not mean what you think it does. Again, radar range testing is the
only way to fly for trustworthy bullet drag data. [I am indebted to Lew Kenner for this
lucid description of bullet stability.]

Another factor is that it is not necessarily true that the drag coefficient of a particular
bullet is proportional to that of another bullet of the same design across the Mach number
range, but this is what a ballistic coefficient assumes.
Something else to worry about is the effect of the bullet tip shape/condition on the
ballistic coefficient. Because modern bullet have soft points they are subject to damage
and manufacturing tolerances that can alter the BC from bullet to bullet and across
otherwise similar bullets, although this affect is small unless there is a great deal of

For truly accurate results, individual bullet characteristics need to be measured on radar
ranges as is done by the military--much too expensive a procedure for the commercial
bullet industry who doesn't really care about great accuracy in BC calculations--and the
drag model from those measurements applied only to the particular bullet tested. (If you
have a spare $100,000 + and would like to buy me such a setup, let me know.)

The good news is that for normal rifle ranges the drag coefficients and ballistic
coefficients can work satisfactorily for most purposes--so let's proceed.