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Ryan Cleckner

Precision Shooting: Get Ready To Run Your Bolt-Action Rifle

‘Running the gun’ is not exclusive to carbines and handguns. The same principle of staying topped-off and ready should apply to bolt-action precision rifles as well.

What does it mean to “run” a bolt-action rifle?

  • Running the gun means manipulating the firearm with authority and ensuring it’s ready to go.
  • It's a concept well embraced by pistol and tactical rifle shooters, but is sometimes lost on those wielding bolt-actions.
  • Reloading immediately after a shot and preparing to take another is a simple method to build the proper mindset.
  • Learning to look through your scope while reloading, running the bolt with authority and calling your shots also make for a more prepared marksman.
  • The challenge is treating your bolt gun like you would a pistol or carbine.

I just spoke with a Deputy Chief of Police for a major metropolitan police department who’s responsible for overseeing the “special” divisions, which includes SWAT. We were talking about firearms training, and I brought up some typical issues that I’ve noticed over the years while training military and police snipers.

Just as with carbines and handguns, always ensure your bolt-action rifle has a fresh round chambered after each shot. Teaching yourself to cycle the bolt without losing your sight picture is ideal.
Just as with carbines and handguns, always ensure your bolt-action rifle has a fresh round chambered after each shot. Teaching yourself to cycle the bolt without losing your sight picture is ideal.

He asked me an easy question that one would expect I would be asked all the time of my courses: “What’s the biggest error I see with new students?” Interestingly, to me anyway, I cannot remember ever being asked that question before.

It sure seemed like a question for which I’d have a canned answer ready. But I didn’t. So, I did the next best thing — I just rambled about common issues I correct on the first day of a training course. Somewhere between adjusting ocular focus, setting the rifle up for the shooter and proper trigger control, I stumbled upon the answer that I knew I had to share with you: “Failure to run the gun.”

Making The Mental Shift

To me, “running the gun” means manipulating the firearm with authority, and ensuring that it’s ready to go and topped off with ammunition.

Here’s what practically every new student does: They shoot a series of shots at a target and then sit there with the bolt to the rear as they stare at their target and either make excuses for their poor performance or high-five their buddy for their good group.

I do have a canned response for this situation: “Shooter, if you were running a pistol drill and just fired the last round of ammunition in your pistol at the end of the drill, would you stand there with your slide locked to the rear and discuss your performance, or would you immediately reload the pistol and get the gun ready to shoot again?”

Of course, they’d get the gun ready to fire again every time.

Too many precision shooters analyze — or, sometimes, admire — their shot after pulling the trigger. Exhibit proper follow-through, and then work that bolt quickly and efficiently to ready yourself and your rifle for the next shot.
Too many precision shooters analyze — or, sometimes, admire — their shot after pulling the trigger. Exhibit proper follow-through, and then work that bolt quickly and efficiently to ready yourself and your rifle for the next shot.

So, why don’t they do it when they’re lying behind a bolt-action rifle? For some reason, a bolt-action rifle causes new shooters to forget to run their gun as they would any other firearm.

When my students shoot a group on paper, even if it’s just to confirm their established zero, I always have them reload their rifle and prepare to take another shot. Only then are they permitted to unload. It might seem like wasted energy, but trust me — it instills important habits for tactical shooters and hunters alike.

Bad guys have friends. Don’t sit there on an empty rifle … load it! Deer are sometimes missed. Don’t stare through the scope of an empty rifle … get it up and running again!

Mastering The Mechanics

There’s a right way to do this, and it involves looking through your scope at your target while you load your rifle. After all, the easiest way to find a target again is to not lose it in the first place. Also, if the bad guy or the deer moves, wouldn’t it be nice to know where?

 If you can’t load your rifle without looking, you need to learn how. You should store your ammo in a consistent location that you can access while you’re behind your rifle. This is one of the many reasons I prefer shooting off of a pack — my ammo is right there in front of me, ready for flight.


When it comes to following up with another shot while you’re reloading, an internal magazine — instead of a detachable magazine — can be faster. This might be counter-intuitive, but detachable magazines are only faster for as long as you have full magazines. If you must reload a magazine with fresh rounds, then both hands need to come off the gun and you need to load one at a time. If you need to shoot, the magazine must be re-inserted into the rifle and the bolt closed before you can send another round down range.

On the other hand, if you’re loading an internal magazine, you can press each round into the magazine one at a time, and if you need to shoot, you can simply push the bolt forward and shoot. You can leverage this technique with magazines by throwing a loose round into the action on top of an empty magazine and closing the bolt before removing the empty magazine and refilling it. This way, you’ve got a round in the chamber ready to go.

“Running the gun” also applies to operating the bolt between shots. Sitting on an empty rifle is pretty bad, but so is sitting on an empty chamber. Not only does it take longer to take a second shot if needed, but it’s really easy to forget to cycle the bolt again for the next shot. Trust me, I’m guilty of being lazy on the bolt before and pulling on the trigger for the next shot only to realize that I forgot to get a fresh round in the chamber. It’s embarrassing on the range. It can be deadly in a tactical situation, and it can lead to a missed deer while in a hunting situation.

Too many precision shooters analyze — or, sometimes, admire — their shot after pulling the trigger. Exhibit proper follow-through, and then work that bolt quickly and efficiently to ready yourself and your rifle for the next shot.

When you shoot, you should apply a small amount of follow-through to the trigger, “call your shot,” and then run the bolt! Especially when I’m shooting at 500 yards or farther, I can run the bolt and be back on the target taking the next shot right as I hear the impact from the previous shot.

And, when you run the bolt, run it with authority! Most malfunctions I see with bolt-action rifles are due to being too gentle — either not pulling the bolt all the way to the rear to catch the next round or failing to eject the previous case by pulling the bolt back too slowly. 

Here’s your challenge — treat your bolt gun like you would your pistol or carbine. Keep it topped off, and run it with authority. You’ll have fewer malfunctions, and you’ll be a more effective shooter.

Which Focal Plane Is Right For You?

Choosing the right riflescope can be challenging. One of the first decisions you must make is deciding between a first or second focal plane scope.

What are the fine points of focal plane selection?

If you’ve been shopping for a new scope, you’ve likely been bombarded with terms and features that you never knew existed — or at the very least, you’re not sure which options are right for you. Don’t fret: While gun-mounted optics have gotten very good the past few years to keep pace with the precision rifle trend, the terminology has certainly gotten a bit out of hand.

focal plane -first

One of the more common options available that causes some confusion for shooters is determining which focal plane scope you should get — either first focal plane (FFP) or second focal plane (SFP).

What Is The Focal Plane?

If the scope you’re looking at has an adjustable magnification, then the scope’s reticle appears either in the first or second focal plane. This will make a difference in how the reticle appears with different image sizes as the magnification changes. It’ll also affect the overall construction and cost of the rifle scope.

Second Focal Plane

Let’s start with the second focal plane classification first — after all, it’s the most common option, and it has been around the longest. Yes, second was first.

A second focal plane scope’s magnification adjustment changes only the size of the target’s image inside your scope. Put another way, the reticle stays the same size throughout the magnification range.

If the scope’s features don’t list which type of scope you’re looking at, then it’s very likely a second focal plane scope, as these are the most common. This is how most scopes adjust — especially consumer-grade hunting scopes.

This is a very popular option these days for two main reasons:

First, the scope is easier, and therefore cheaper, to make. With the reticle’s image staying the same size, there are fewer moving pieces inside of the scope. This not only makes it easier because there are fewer parts to worry about, it’s also easier to make the riflescope more consistent and robust.

Second, the reticle can be finer/thinner at high magnification. A finer/thinner reticle is preferred (as long as it’s thick enough to be seen, obviously) because it doesn’t obscure the target and it can allow for a more precise aiming point.

A fine/thin reticle at a high magnification setting might be too small to see if it also adjusted smaller with the target’s image. This kind of scope's reticles are simple: What you see is what you get — regardless of the magnification setting — because it stays the same size/thickness throughout the magnification range.

Riflescopes-1 - focal plane

All that said, this feature is also a drawback with certain reticle designs.

If you’re using a simple crosshair or duplex-style reticle, a second focal plane riflescope is preferred. However, if you have a reticle with markings that correspond to certain measurements or adjustments at certain distances (holdover or windage hashes), you might want the reticle to adjust in size along with the target so that the markings are accurate at any magnification setting you use.

You can still use this type of scope with a reticle with markings; however, you must be very careful to ensure that you are only using the markings on the “correct” magnification setting to maintain their calibration.

On most second focal plane scopes with graduated reticles, the markings only equate to certain measurements at the scope’s highest power. After all, that’s the power setting that you’ll likely be using when trying to measure a target or when using “holds” for a long shot.

However, you must read your scope’s manual. Some second focal plane scope’s markings are set to a specific power that isn’t the highest available and is instead marked with a dot (or other marking) on the scope’s adjustment ring.

Also, some manufacturers do the math for you and will let you know what the markings on the reticle equate to at lower settings. Here’s a hint: The smaller the image is in relation to the static reticle, the larger amount each marking will cover.

First Focal Plane

First focal plane scopes are becoming more popular all the time, especially with advanced reticles that have multiple markings for measurement and adjustment.

A first focal plane scope adjusts both the reticle and the target image together with changes in magnification.

It’s a safe bet to assume that this style of scope will be more expensive than its second focal plane counterpart. This is because greater tolerances and care are needed to make the first focal plane riflescope function properly.

There is simply no need to have this kind of scope unless your reticle has markings that should correspond to a certain size at a certain distance. And, even if you do have a marked reticle, a first focal plane scope isn’t necessary, although it sure can be handy.

Leupold-Scout-Scope-FireDot-1 - focal plane

Regardless of the magnification setting, a 1-mil mark (for example) will always be 1 mil on the target. This is a nice feature because I’m a fan of shooting at lower magnification (try it sometime and watch your groups get better). Lower magnification can not only help with better shooting, it can also allow you to see more of what’s going on downrange and make shots at moving targets easier. I’ve also seen shooters forget what magnification setting they’re on and miss an otherwise easy shot because they held too far for elevation or windage.

In addition to cost, another potential issue with first focal plane scopes is the thickness of the reticle lines. If they are thin enough to not obscure the target at high magnification, then they can be too thin to clearly see at low magnification. Typically, first focal plane scopes have reticles that are slightly thicker than most shooters would prefer at high power, and conversely, the reticle can be nearly impossible to see at lower power.

Which Is Right For You?

If you’re looking to save money and/or don’t want a reticle with measurement/reference marks (e.g. mil-dot reticles), then you should go with the more common second focal plane riflescope.

However, if you’d like to use marks on a reticle to measure the size of a target when estimating distance or “holding” for elevation and windage, then you might want to consider a first focal plane scope.

If budget is an issue, please consider getting the highest-quality second focal plane scope you can afford, and spend your time mastering shooting your rifle. You’ll be better off doing that than getting a “lesser” scope just to get a first focal plane and skipping spending money on training and practice ammunition.

This is not to say that a first focal plane scope is necessary with reticles with measurement marks. Even if you have a mil-dot reticle, for example, a second focal plane scope might still be right for many people.

If you adjust the magnification down on a second focal plane scope, you simply must remember that the marks will no longer equal the predetermined measurements and instead will be much larger relative to the target.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

How-To: Improve Accuracy With Minor Scope Adjustments


Improved accuracy can be as simple as a few scope adjustments to sharpen your view and relieve eye strain.

Some things to know about focus and your rifle's scope:

  • Many riflescopes are improperly fitted to the shooter.
  • A simple adjustment almost always results in improved accuracy.
  • Ocular focus ensures the reticle is properly focused for your eye.
  • Properly adjusted, your eye won’t strain trying to focus on the reticle.
  • Parallax is where objects at different distances appear to change position when your head moves.
  • Many scopes have parallax adjustment knobs to place reticle and target on the same focal plane.

Most of my students have had one thing wrong with the setup of their rifles when they start a course (this includes military and police snipers, as well as recreational shooters). The improper setup has a direct impact on their ability to shoot as good as they should and, once we change it, there’s almost always an instant improvement.

This means that there’s a good chance you have this problem, too — and it just might be holding you back.

The common issue is not having the riflescope adjusted for the particular shooter. This doesn’t just apply to having the scope mounted in the correct position or the stock’s cheek piece (comb) adjusted to the proper height. The most common error I see is not properly adjusting the scope’s ocular focus to the shooter’s eye.

What Is Ocular Focus?

The ocular focus ensures that the reticle in the scope is properly focused for your eye. It’s typically adjusted by turning the adjustment ring closest to your eye; however, sometimes the entire ocular housing must be turned.

If your eye becomes fatigued, or if you have trouble keeping the reticle in focus while you’re shooting, this is likely a problem on your riflescope.

The best way to adjust the ocular focus is to have a friend help, but it can be accomplished on your own.

1. First, have your friend place a white sheet of paper halfway down the barrel (or, if you don’t have any friends, position your rifle near a light-colored wall a few feet in front of the muzzle).

2. Next, get on the rifle with your eyes closed and only open your shooting eye once you’re in a comfortable position. If you need to adjust your head’s position in order to see clearly through the scope, that’s a good clue that you need to adjust your scope’s mounting position or adjust your cheek rest.

3. Once you can see clearly through the scope, quickly glance (one or two seconds) at the reticle and then close your eye. Then, make a bold adjustment to your ocular focus and re-open your eye for another quick glance. Make a determination on whether the reticle’s image/focus is better or worse than last time. There’s no need to over-think this process or make an overall determination immediately. Better or worse is all we care about right now.

A quick glance is important — if you stare too long, then your eye will play a trick on you and work to focus the reticle’s image.

Keep making bold adjustments to your ocular focus in each direction until you have figured out where the best/crisp image of the reticle is.

4. Now that it’s adjusted properly, you’ll be able to shoot better because you’ll be able to clearly focus on the reticle and not strain. However, the ocular focus is only half of the “focus” battle.

Parallax/Target Focus

Your scope is now focused to your eye, but it’s not focused on the target. There is no perfect focus for the target because it changes with different target distances.

Many (most) hunting scopes don’t have an adjustment for target focus — you’ll still be better off for having adjusted your ocular focus properly. However, most higher-end hunting scopes and tactical-style scopes have a parallax/target focus knob that you should use whenever you shoot at a new distance.

What Is Parallax?

Parallax is the name of the phenomenon that makes objects at different distances appear to change position when you move your head. For an example, place a finger from each hand in front of your face at different distances and line them up with your eye. Now, move your head from side to side and notice how your fingers are no longer lined up. That is the effect of parallax.

In your scope, the target’s image is focused at one location within your scope. If that location is different than where your reticle is located, then you’ll notice parallax when you move your eye side-to-side. The goal is to get the target’s image and the reticle on the same focal plane so that they move together (as if one finger was directly behind the other).

The parallax knob (or target focus knob depending on what your scope’s manufacturer calls it) moves the location of the target’s image in your scope. You can use the distance markings on the parallax knob to get close, but the only way to check it for sure is to adjust the knob until the target’s image is clear.


Some scopes have an adjustable objective. This is not the same as adjustable parallax or target focus. Instead, it means that the objective housing (the lens facing the target) turns to adjust for target focus. It does the same thing as a side-focus knob, but I much prefer the knob on the side because it’s easier to adjust. Don’t specifically hunt for an adjustable objective scope — instead, look for one with an adjustable parallax or target focus (regardless of how that particular scope adjusts for it).

Once you’ve done this, you’ll have no parallax issues (which can make you miss with imperfect head position) and your reticle and target will be clear (without that sensation of having to focus on one or the other).

I’m going to make a bold claim: Properly adjusting these focus settings for your eye and the particular target you’re shooting will make you a better shooter.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

Ballistics Basics: Holding Or Dialing For Drop And Windage?

“Holding” for elevation and windage is the fastest method to compensate for gravity and wind, but it has some downsides. “Dialing” your turrets takes more time, but offers some precision advantages. The author recommends adjusting for elevation and holding for windage, mainly because the wind is often changing. - Holding or dialing
“Holding” for elevation and windage is the fastest method to compensate for gravity and wind, but it has some downsides. “Dialing” your turrets takes more time, but offers some precision advantages. The author recommends adjusting for elevation and holding for windage, mainly because the wind is often changing.

There are two methods of correcting for elevation and windage when shooting at extended distances — holding or dialing. The choice is yours.

Some things to know about elevation and windage corrections and holding or dialing:

  • You can compensate for elevation and windage two ways — holding or dialing.
  • Holding for drop involves Kentucky windage — holding high to compensate.
  • Its biggest plus is speed; there are new reticles that improve this method's accuracy.
  • Dialing involves adjusting scope turrets to address bullet drop and wind.
  • To start, it's best to dial for elevation and hold for wind.
  • As you advance, you can hold for both.

If you’ve been following this column, you already know that the only two variables that affect the path of your bullet on the way to the target are gravity and wind. Yes, there are other variables that also have an impact. However, they only change how much of an effect gravity and wind have.

Gravity causes your bullet to begin falling the moment it leaves the barrel, and wind can blow it off of its original path. So what? What do we do with that information?

We compensate for it!

To counter the effects of gravity, we aim higher. To offset the wind, we shoot “into the wind” so that the wind blows our bullet back into exactly where we want to hit.

You can compensate for elevation and windage — it figures that the horizontal correction for wind is called “windage” — two ways:

  1. You can “hold” the reticle
  2. You can “dial” the reticle

Thus begins the debate between holding or dialing.

The ‘Holding’ Technique

“Holding” the reticle, which is sometimes called “Kentucky windage,” involves aiming higher than your target to allow the bullet to drop into the target and aiming to the left or right to compensate for the wind. There are pros and cons to this method.

The biggest benefit to holding is speed. It’s much faster to aim at a new location than it is to adjust the turrets on your riflescope.

If you have a standard duplex reticle or simple crosshairs, the biggest downside to holding for both elevation and windage is that your target is now in the clear portion of your scope. This is a problem because I believe that one of the keys to successful long-range shooting involves focusing on the reticle instead of the target. Another problem with a standard reticle involves knowing exactly how much you’re holding in either direction.

Long-range shooting can be done with a standard duplex reticle, but the author recommends utilizing the advantages of a “Christmas tree” reticle to calculate holds for both elevation and windage, such as this configuration from Schmidt and Bender. - holding or dialing
Long-range shooting can be done with a standard duplex reticle, but the author recommends utilizing the advantages of a “Christmas tree” reticle to calculate holds for both elevation and windage, such as this configuration from Schmidt and Bender.

Even while using a reticle with measurement marks (a mil-dot reticle, for example), this is near impossible. Yes, you have precise marks for measuring your hold; however, you’ll need to keep shifting your eye from the target to the horizontal and vertical portions of your reticle to ensure that you’re holding the correct amount. This is OK for a quick shot, but it’s a recipe for disaster if you’re expecting accurate hits.

There are newer reticles that can help eliminate this problem. These reticles don’t feature simple crosshairs. Instead, they have a series of gradually longer horizontal lines below the main reticle that allow a shooter to focus on the correct line for their elevation hold and also for their windage hold. The pattern of these lines has caused these types of reticles to be called “Christmas tree” reticles.

Another problem with holding is that many scopes with mil-dot reticles used to have adjustable turrets with MOA adjustments. This meant that you might have known your MOA adjustment for a certain target distance, but you now needed to convert from MOA to Mils to make that quick holdover shot.

Thankfully, riflescope manufacturers have figured out that shooters want measurement marks on their reticles in the same measurement system as their turrets. My personal favorite scopes, the Vortex Razor line, come in either MOA turrets with a MOA Christmas tree-style reticle, or in a matching Mil variety.

I learned on MOA and that’s what my brain naturally thinks in first. If you’re just starting out, go with Mils — you’ll thank me later.

With these newer Christmas tree reticles, you don’t just have the benefit of holding for both windage and elevation in precise measurements while still focusing on the reticle, you also no longer need to rely on the precision of the scope’s turret adjustments.

Previously, a large cost of the scope was due to how precisely (and consistently) it could adjust. With these new reticles, you could zero your rifle and then realistically never need to touch the turrets again!

The ‘Dialing’ Technique

The second method for compensating for wind and gravity in the holding or dialing debate is adjusting your turrets to move the reticle within the scope. I call this “dialing.”

With a standard or a mil-dot reticle, I strongly recommend dialing only your elevation into the scope via the turrets. In other words, if you choose to dial for elevation adjustments you should still hold for windage adjustments.

This is for three reasons:

  1. Your elevation adjustment should stay consistent while shooting at a certain target
  2. The wind often changes faster than you can stop, readjust and then get ready to shoot again
  3. You can quickly move from side to side along the horizontal reticle for windage and still focus on the reticle while shooting. This is because once you dial for elevation, the horizontal line of the reticle will be lined up with the target.

If I have the time, I still find myself dialing for elevation even with the newer Christmas tree-style reticles. Maybe it’s an old habit that hasn’t died, or maybe I like not having to worry about losing track of which elevation line I’m supposed to be using.

Where Should You Start?

So, here we go again. Is holding or dialing the proper course of action? Well, especially if you have a standard reticle with only one vertical and one horizontal line, you should learn by dialing your elevation and holding for your windage. It’s most efficient.

Drift - holding or dialing

Don’t dial for wind! You likely won’t have an accurate wind-hold as the wind changes, and you’re setting yourself up to forget your currently dialed wind adjustment and miss the next shot completely.

This will help keep things simple and consistent as you shoot.

After you’ve mastered that, then you can graduate to holding for both windage and elevation. However, you really should have one of the newer Christmas tree-style reticles if you’re going to hold for both.

And here’s something I always teach my students — if you dial, turn your turrets back to the zero setting between targets (if you have time) and when you get off the rifle. Too often I see a new adjustment stacked on top of a forgotten prior adjustment.

That's about the gist of the holding or dialing debate. Ultimately, you'll have to make the choice.

This article is an excerpt from the December 2017 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

Bullet Trajectory: The Effects Of Humidity

Although it’s the least influential of the three environmental variables, humidity does have an influence on bullet trajectory.

  • Contrary to common thought, higher humidity results in thinner air, this affects bullet trajectory
  • Therefore, a bullet travels easier through humid air.
  • However, humidity is the least influential environmental factor.
  • Without a ballistic calculator, the way to track the net effect of all environmentals is density altitude.
  • It's a figure that shows the cumulative effect of all three environmental variables.
  • This includes pressure, temperature and humidity.

In the last two columns we explored the first two elements of the three external/environmental variables: air density and temperature. In this column, we’re going to discuss the third element, humidity, and introduce a way to account for all three elements at once as it relates to bullet trajectory.

Long-range-accuracy-tips-2 - humidity

Does Humidity Even Matter?

If you’ve followed along so far, this one might be a curveball.
As air density increases, the bullet experiences more resistance as it flies through the air and therefore slows down more than it would in less dense air.

Higher density = slower bullet = lower impact on a target.

Sounds simple enough, right?

Well, contrary to common thought, higher humidity results in thinner air. Yes, you read that right. Despite how it feels to walk out into high humidity (the air feels “thicker”), the air is actually less dense. Therefore, it has the opposite ballistic effect that you might expect — a bullet travels easier through humid air.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking — water is denser than air. That’s true with water in its liquid state. As a gas, it displaces the air molecules and actually results in less matter for the bullet to pass through.

The good news is that humidity is the least influential of the environmental effects and can be ignored in most cases.

Putting It All Together: Density Altitude

How are you supposed to track the net effect of changes in air pressure, temperature and humidity? Well, without a ballistic calculator, it can be maddening. An increase in one variable makes the air thinner while an increase in another makes the air thicker.

Buying-ar-second - humidity

There are two ways to keep track of the net effect of environmentals:

  1. Always use a ballistic calculator and have it do the work for you
  2. Focus only on the “density altitude”

Density altitude is a normalized figure that represents the cumulative effect of all three environmental variables. It’s a figure that’s calculated off of a set of “standard” conditions (pressure, temperature and humidity) at sea level and then representing all three as the altitude you’d have to be at in order to experience your current conditions. Essentially, if the net effect of the variables results in thinner air, then your density altitude value will be higher because with these “standard” variables assumed, you’d have to be at a higher altitude to experience the thinner air.

By using density altitude, you can understand bullet trajectory and record your elevation data required to hit certain targets at your current density altitude. Then, when you change locations — or the environmental variables change — you can look to see what the new density altitude is.

Of course, you’ll likely need to start with a ballistic calculator to gather/confirm your elevation data. However, you can record your new data for that new density altitude. Then, whenever you experience that same/similar density altitude again (whether it’s due to your actual altitude change or the net effect of changing environmental variables), you can reference the data you recorded for that density altitude and start shooting.

Yes, you still need to worry about the environment. However, by using density altitude, you can reduce all of the variables to one single value to track.

What Does It All Mean?

Our march through these ballistic topics in the past few columns can be summarized simply like this:

The amount your bullet drops on the way to the target – bullet trajectory – isn’t really about how far away the target is; it’s about how long it takes the bullet to get to the target. If one bullet leaves the gun faster than another similar/same bullet, or it starts at the same speed but travels through the air more efficiently, then it won’t drop as much.

Also, a bullet’s time of flight at a certain distance isn’t a constant. Environmental variables can allow a bullet to better retain its speed or slow down more, thereby resulting in a different time of flight. The same can be said when considering how much of an effect wind will have.

Bal-Hum-feat - humidity

Therefore, the only things that change a bullet’s path are gravity and wind. And, anything that changes the time it takes for a bullet to reach a particular target will change how much of an effect that gravity and wind can have.

Your job is to learn what your bullet does in certain conditions, record its performance, and track how it changes as certain variables change. Then, you can use your information to predict how your bullet will behave in similar conditions in the future.

Remember, know what your bullet does at certain density altitudes and you’ll be able to predict what it will do wherever and whenever you find yourself shooting next.

Editor's Note: This article original appeared in the November 2017 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

8 Steps To Better Long-Range Accuracy

Shooting at long range can be complicated, but more often than not mastery of shooting fundamentals, effective practice and establishing good habits still have the biggest impact on long-range accuracy.

Check out these 8 tips for improving long-range accuracy:

I’m going to share 8 things that you can do today — right now — to become a better shooter, especially when it comes to long-range accuracy.

None of these tips involve buying a new fancy piece of gear or upgrading the equipment you already have. This is because I believe that a good shooter with a decent rifle, scope and ammunition can outperform a poor shooter with the best rifle, scope and ammunition.

Hopefully you’ll see a bit of a connection, or trend, from each of these points to the next.

Long-range accuracy -tips-21. Stop Sweating The Small Stuff

I get it: Part of the fun of learning to master long-range shooting involves getting into the nuances of ballistics. However, that’s not going to make you a better shooter, or necessarily improve your long-range accuracy.

Unfortunately, you’re way more likely to miss a target because you estimated the range incorrectly or you applied improper trigger control.

Focus on the basics and execute them well. Only after you can consistently shoot at least a 5-inch group at 500 yards (1 MOA) should you start to worry about the spin of the Earth affecting your bullet at farther distances.

2. Focus On What You Can Control: Consistency

Pay attention to what you’re doing, and focus on how you can do it better. This is as much a lesson on how to live a full life as it is to how to shoot better at any distance.

Everything you do, or don’t do, to the rifle that results in the bullet hitting or missing the target has to do with what you did up until the rifle shoots. Mastering what you do so that is consistent every time is the key to accurate shooting.

Focus on your technique before looking to upgrade your gear. After all, if you don’t improve yourself and instead only improve your equipment, are you really needed in the shooting equation?

Long-range accuracy -tips-13. Stop Magnifying Your Errors

Turn the magnification on your scope down immediately! Seriously.

Yes, sometimes you need high magnification to be able to see a target that’s small enough and far enough away. However, too much magnification can actually hurt your long-range accuracy.

First, it can cause you to focus on the nice, big and pretty target image instead of the reticle where you should be focusing (remember, focus on what you can control).

Second, it can magnify your errors and cause you to worry too much about the wobble/shake in your rifle. This is likely to cause you to hurry up and jerk the trigger when the reticle is closest to the center of your target. If your scope was low enough magnification that you can only tell that the reticle is generally in the center of the target, then you can apply proper trigger control without trying for perfection.

Yes, I just told you to let go of perfection in order to shoot better.

4. Make Your Next Shot Count

Here’s another life lesson. Stop worrying about what just happened and instead focus on what you need to do to make the next shot count.

Don’t worry about a bullet hole that is slightly to the left and instead worry about making the next bullet go where you want it to go.

Once you’ve shot a bullet, there’s nothing you can do to bring it back. You can either dwell on your error or you can re-focus yourself on what you can actually control — your next shot.

Long-range accuracy -tips-55. Get Off The Bench

If you’re shooting to be a better hunter or tactical shooter (not on a bench), then get off the bench at the range!

I’ve never seen a bench in the wild. Instead, I see rocks, trees and obstacles that require “alternative” positions to get the shot I’m looking for. Even military and police snipers typically see curbs, wheels and trash cans when they dive into the prone.

If you’re not going to be using your rifle in the prone or off of a bench, why are you practicing that way?

Sure, it’s handy to have a stable position to get baseline information on your rifle (zero, elevation adjustments for distance, etc.). However, that will not make you a better shooter.

Want to get better? Move into a position that removes much of your stable support, such as kneeling. What you’ll find is that the bench was helping to hide your errors and imperfections in your technique.

Master shooting without good support, and watch how much better your long-range accuracy gets when you do have support to work with.

6. Shoot Less Ammo

That’s right. Get better at shooting by doing it less often.

I’m a firm believer that a shooter who’s looking to improve their skills — that should be all of us — should shoot their rifle “dry”, or empty, much more than they should shoot it “live” with ammunition.

Much like the stable bench hides your errors, so does ammo. Don’t believe me? Have you ever caught yourself flinching when you were shooting a firearm? Yes, of course you have … and it’s embarrassing.

Well, when did you notice the flinch? I’d be willing to bet that you noticed it when the firearm didn’t fire when you expected it to. Did you only flinch that time? Of course not! You were probably flinching before that, but the recoil of the firearm was helping to hide your bad habits.

You can’t fix something if you aren’t aware of it. And, it’s easiest to be aware of improper trigger control when the rifle is empty. Therefore, doesn’t it make sense to shoot the rifle empty to get better?

Another reason this works is because your job is mostly over once the firing pin goes forward (for that shot). When you practice with an empty rifle, you are able to diagnose your technique up until and through the firing pin going forward. If you can dry-fire the rifle without the sights/reticle moving, then you’re going to shoot great with live ammo.

Long-range accuracy -tips-47. Shoot More Ammo

As your technique improves and you’re ready to get better with things such as wind reading, recoil management, engaging multiple targets, etc., you should go shoot — a lot.

Shooting more involves practicing alone, with a friend or in a class. I’d rather see you spend $1,000 on ammunition and practice instead of a piece of gear without practice.

After all, you don’t get better at tennis by purchasing a fancier racquet. You get better by practicing. Get on the range, and practice and learn. In turn, you should see some improvement in your long-range accuracy.

8. Become A Creature of Habit

Consistency is the key to accuracy. And it's absolutely critical in terms of long-range accuracy.

If you ignored the first 7 points, don’t ignore this one. Your technique can be horrible and you can jerk the rifle 45 degrees off of the target every time you yank the trigger. As long as you do it exactly the same every single time, you will be an amazing shooter. We’ll just have to mount your scope at an angle.

The tips and techniques to better shooting don’t necessarily make the bullet fly any straighter or make the bullet go where you want. Instead, proper fundamentals are the best way, for most people, to reliably shoot the rifle the same each time.
Whatever works for you, figure it out and do it every time.

Ready to shoot better? Focus on yourself, ignore the minutia, practice, and get into a routine that works for you.

This article is an excerpt from the December 2017 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

Ballistics Basics: The Effects Of Air Temperature On Bullet Flight

In the long-distance shooting ring, air temperature plays a much bigger role in ballistics than simply how comfortable you are while shooting.

How does air temperature affect bullet trajectory in ballistics?

  • Ambient air temperature has an inverse effect on air density.
  • This can create a balancing effect in elevation change.
  • The change in air temperature can affect bullet drop measured in inches at some ranges.
  • Air temperature also effects powders, making them burn hotter and faster.

As a refresher from the last few columns on ballistics, the reason your bullet falls more by the time it reaches a 900-yard target than it does for a 100-yard target is because it was exposed to gravity longer. Therefore, the longer it takes to reach the target, the more gravity and wind will move the bullet off of its original path.

temp-fourth - air temperature

A Bullet’s Speed

There are three variables that determine a bullet’s speed on its way to the target:

  1. The initial speed of the bullet
  2. The efficiency of the bullet
  3. External/environmental variables
    – Air Pressure
    – Temperature
    – Humidity

In discussing a bullet’s speed, we’ve already covered the initial speed of the bullet, the aerodynamic efficiency of the bullet and the first of the external/environmental variables — air pressure. Now it’s time to explore temperature’s effect.

Air Density

Each of the three listed variables can change the density of the air. Simply, a bullet doesn’t travel as well through dense, thick air. In the last column, we learned that air pressure is directly related to air density — when one goes up, so does the other.

More air pressure = denser air = slower bullet = lower impact on target

Now it’s time to move on to temperature’s role. Temperature affects a bullet’s speed in two ways: The ambient air temperature plays a role in the air’s pressure, and the temperature of your cartridge — more accurately, the temperature of the powder in your cartridge — will cause varying velocities.

Ambient Air Temperature

Ambient air temperature has an inverse effect on air’s density. As the air’s temperature increases, its density decreases.

Temp-first - air temperature

This can create a balancing effect of changing altitudes. Typically, when you go higher in altitude, the air pressure decreases (all else being equal). However, the higher you go, the temperature also typically drops. Therefore, increased elevation will likely cause less air pressure (resulting in a faster bullet through less dense air), but it will also cause lower temperatures (resulting in a slower bullet through more dense air).

The point at which these two variables “cancel” each other out is different for each bullet and velocity combination. As we’ll cover in the next column on humidity, there is a universal figure that we can use that takes all three of these environmental variables into account.

Air temperature can actually be the most important environmental variable because it’s so often overlooked. When you’re aware of environmental effects and you zero your rifle at one altitude before going on a once-in-a-lifetime sheep hunt at a different altitude, you aren’t likely to forget to account for the air pressure difference. However, when you’ve been busy and haven’t been able to make it to the shooting range in a while, it’s fairly common to forget to account for the difference in temperature from a few months earlier when you last zeroed/gathered data on your rifle and ammunition.

How much of a difference can this make? Great question. If you’re shooting 175-grain Federal Gold Medal Match bullets out of a .308 Win. rifle at about 2,600 fps on a 55-degree winter day, you can expect about 223 inches of drop from your 100-yard zero at 800 yards. If you didn’t get back to the range until it was 95 degrees in the summer and you expected to make an adjustment on your scope to account for the 223 inches your bullet previously dropped at 800 yards, then you’d miss where you were aiming by about 10 inches.

Cartridge Temperature

The other influence on bullet velocity due to temperature has to do with the temperature of the powder in your cartridge of ammunition. This variable is unique because it doesn’t just change with the outside air temperature and weather: It can change even though the environment is exactly the same. If you’re shooting multiple rounds and heat up the chamber of your rifle, and then you let the next round sit in your chamber for a while, you can increase the temperature of your powder.

Hotter temperature creates a hotter and faster-burning powder. This usually results in higher muzzle velocities.


How much of an effect hotter powder has is dependent upon the type of powder you’re using and the bullet/cartridge combination you’re shooting.

Certain powders are more affected by temperature changes. These are called “temperature-sensitive” powders. Now, despite what some manufacturers might claim, all powders are affected by temperature. However, some are not as sensitive as others.

It’s not required that you use a temperature-insensitive powder. Of course, it can help (especially if you don’t want to/don’t know how to account for temperature change). All that’s required is that you track how your rifle and ammunition perform at different temperatures.

You should either invest in a chronograph or make friends with someone who owns one. Then, when you’re shooting in a different temperature, take the time to shoot a couple of rounds through the chronograph to record how sensitive your ammunition is to temperature changes. You should also shoot at distance and note any changes to impact due to the temperature (both due to the different initial bullet velocity and also the different air pressure).

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

Ballistics Basics: Addressing Air Pressure On Bullet Flight

At extended ranges, air pressure alters bullet flight — and impact — more than you might think.

How does air pressure influence a bullet's trajectory?

  • Denser air slows a bullet, thus exposes to more of gravities effects.
  • More air pressure, due to elevation or weather patterns, results in denser air.
  • For shooting purposes, barometric pressure is of little use.
  • Instead, station pressure provides the data required.
  • Ballistic calculators are often required to figure out effects of air pressures on a bullet.

In past articles, I’ve dissected how gravity and wind are the two main variables that affect your bullet’s path. Yes, other environmental variables matter, too; however, they only change how much of an effect gravity and wind will have.


The reason your bullet falls more by the time it reaches a 900-yard target than it does for a 100-yard target is because it was exposed to gravity longer. Therefore, the longer it takes a bullet to reach the target, the more gravity and wind will move the bullet off of its original flight path.

A Bullet’s Speed

There are three variables that determine a bullet’s speed on its way to the target:

  1. The initial speed of the bullet
  2. The efficiency of the bullet
  3. The external and environmental variables

In discussing a bullet’s speed, we’ve already covered the initial speed of the bullet and the aerodynamic efficiency of the bullet. Now it’s time to explore environmental variables.

The environmental variables that affect a bullet’s path are:

  1. Air pressure
  2. Temperature
  3. Humidity

There are also things called “spin drift” and the Coriolis (and Eötvös) Effect that can change your bullet’s path. However, we’ll save those for future discussions.

Air Density

Each of the three listed variables can change the density of the air. Simply, a bullet doesn’t travel as well through denser/thicker air.

Therefore, a bullet will slow down faster in dense, thick air than it will in less-dense, thinner air. Why does this matter? A bullet that slows down more will take longer to reach a target — and be moved off of its original path more by gravity and wind.

RifleShootingMyths-4 - air pressure
If you are recoil-sensitive, it is always a temptation to let someone else sight-in your rifle, but it is much better if you do it yourself.

Remember this:

Denser air = slower bullet = lower impact on a target

Going forward, we’re going to explore each of the three variables that affect air’s density individually because each are extremely important to understand. In this column, we’re going to explore air pressure.

Can You Handle The Pressure?

More air pressure results in denser air. The air’s pressure will change based on certain weather patterns and also the altitude. As a general rule, air pressure is lower the higher you are above sea level, and vice versa.

This is because air actually has some mass and is pulled down by gravity. At higher altitudes, there are fewer air molecules being pulled down on your head than there are at lower altitudes. Compare this to water pressure. The deeper you go into water, the higher the pressure. The same phenomenon causes this — there’s more water above you that gravity is pulling down on.

However, it’s not always true that a higher altitude will have less air pressure. Weather patterns can also have an effect. Typically, when a storm is coming, the air pressure drops.

Therefore, you could be hiking a mountain with an altimeter in your hand, which measures the air pressure and tells you your altitude. As you hiked up the mountain and watched the altimeter, you’d see your elevation measurement go higher as you hiked into less dense, lower-pressure air. If you stop to take a break and you notice that the altimeter keeps going up, that’s a sure sign that a storm is coming — the air pressure is decreasing even though you’re not changing altitude.

Air pressure is typically measured in the amount of mercury that’s pushed up a measurement column (in either inches or millimeters). For example, an air pressure of 29.95 inHg (inch of mercury) means that the actual pressure of the air on the mercury in a gauge is enough to push the column of mercury 29.95 inches up the measurement column.

Barometric vs. Station Pressure

Air pressure is usually measured and described as “barometric pressure.” Barometric pressure, which you probably hear about on your local weather report, is useful in day-to-day life because it has been corrected to remove altitude as a variable and instead only focuses on the weather patterns. This is helpful for weather reports because the barometric pressure reading allows for the air pressure to be compared between Denver and New Orleans. This is not helpful, however, for shooting long range.

air pressure -first

When shooting long range, we want to know the actual pressure of the air through which our bullet is flying. An artificial number that has been “normalized” to help compare different cities is not helpful for shooting.

Instead of barometric pressure, I encourage you to pay attention to “station pressure,” which is the actual measurement of the air’s pressure on mercury at that specific location (weather station) where you’re at.

To convert from barometric to station pressure, subtract about 1 inch of mercury for every thousand feet of elevation. By using station pressure, you might see that the air pressure at position “A” is 29 inHg, while the air pressure at position “B” (3,000 feet higher) is 27 inHg. This shows that the air will be thinner at position “B” and you can expect your bullet to get to the target faster and not fall as much due to gravity if air pressure is the only variable that changed. If the weather patterns were similar between these two locations, the barometric pressure would be the same.

Air Pressure’s Effect On Your Bullet’s Path

There’s no standard change to every bullet’s speed and path due to air pressure changes. This is because bullets of different initial velocities, aerodynamic shape and weight will all behave differently. Despite the different behavior among individual bullets, the net effect is still the same — less air pressure results in a faster bullet.

To figure out how air pressure changes your particular bullet’s path, you are going to have to use ballistic software. There are many applications available for your smartphone that can compute this for you, and some manufacturers of bullets and scopes also provide free software. For example, I’m a big fan of the free software on the Vortex Optics website.

Long-Range-Challenge-1 air pressure
Cold dry air creates more resistance to a bullet in flight than warm humid conditions. Such environmental considerations must be taken into account when making an accurate long-range shot.

By recording the effect of gravity on your bullet at different distances at a certain air pressure, you can then adjust the air pressure in the various software solutions to see the change it will have on your bullet’s path. Also, there are tools that you can take with you into the field that will measure the air’s pressure at your location and also compute the corrections for your bullet.

The Bad News

Unfortunately, it’s not quite this simple. You can’t just look at air pressure and assume that shooting at higher altitudes will result in a faster bullet that doesn’t drop as much. Other variables are also going to affect the air’s density. The one we’ll cover in the next column, temperature, often has the opposite effect of air pressure.

Colder temperatures result in denser air and slower bullets. And where do we often find colder temperatures? That’s right — higher altitudes.

This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

Ballistics Basics: Bullet Efficiency And Ballistic Coefficients

How aerodynamic a bullet is certainly has an appreciable effect on that bullet’s speed on its way to the target.

  • The more efficient a bullet is, the better it will maintain its speed.
  • And this means it will also be less affected by external variables.
  • A bullet's ballistic coefficient is calculated by a model based off its density and shape.
  • A bullet's BC will differ depending on whether the G1 or G7 drag model is used.

We have discussed how gravity and wind are the two main variables that affect your bullet’s path. The longer they have to act on your projectile, the more of an effect they’ll have. For example, your bullet doesn’t fall more at farther distances because of the distance (the bullet doesn’t know how far it is traveling), but rather because it takes longer to reach a farther target, and therefore it has more time to fall due to gravity.


There are three variables that determine a bullet’s speed on its way to the target:

  1. The initial speed of the bullet
  2. The efficiency of the bullet
  3. External/environmental variables

We explored the first variable, the initial speed of the bullet, in the last column. Simply, the faster one starts out, the more remaining velocity it will have at the target. Although a faster bullet isn’t necessarily more accurate, it’s affected less by gravity and wind.

Time To Slow Down

All bullets start to slow down the moment they leave the barrel. This is because of drag caused by wind resistance. How much a bullet slows down depends on the density (thickness) of the air and the efficiency of the bullet.

External/environmental variables, such as air pressure, temperature, altitude and humidity can change the density of the air. These variables, which we’ll discuss in the next column, can change each time and location you shoot. Therefore, these variables are mostly a concern when you’re trying to determine the change in your bullet’s speed from the last time(s) you went shooting.

Efficiency Matters

A more efficient bullet will maintain its speed better, and it’s not affected as much by the environmental variables.

Think about it this way: An arrow is more aerodynamically efficient than a tennis ball. Both can be launched at the same speed, but an arrow will fly farther because it doesn’t slow down as much due to wind resistance and therefore maintains its speed better. They are both going to fall at the same rate due to gravity, but the arrow will travel farther in the amount of time it takes both objects to fall.


If we change the density of what the two objects are traveling through, the less-efficient tennis ball will be affected by the change more. As an extreme example, let’s use water because it is easy to picture how much denser it is than air. Both objects will slow down much faster in water, but the arrow won’t slow down as much from its original speed in the air as will the tennis ball. Conversely, if we launched the two objects in a vacuum (no air resistance), then both would continue to fly at the same speed.

These hypothetical examples show us two things: 1) A more aerodynamically efficient bullet won’t slow down as much on its way to the target, and 2) efficiency doesn’t matter as much when the air density is low (thin air).

Bullet Efficiency

A bullet’s efficiency is measured by its ballistic coefficient (BC). The higher the BC, the less drag on the bullet.

The BC of a bullet is a ratio calculated by a mathematical model based off of its density and its particular shape. The best styles for long-range shooting will have high density and aerodynamically efficient shapes. Bullets for hunting, however, might benefit from not having an aerodynamic shape. For example, a lead round-nosed bullet can sure pack a punch! It doesn’t pass through the air, or the animal, easily.

A bullet’s density is a ratio of a bullet’s mass and its cross-sectional area. Simply, large and light bullets are less dense than small and heavy ones. For example, a ping-pong ball is less dense than a marble.

For BC calculations, the shape of a bullet is compared to pre-determined “drag models.” The two most common drag models are G1 and G7. The G1 drag model is based off of a stereotypical spitzer bullet (pointed nose) with a flat base. The G7 drag model, which is gaining popularity, is based off of a more aerodynamically shaped options with a boat-tail base (it tapers back).

A particular bullet will have a different BC depending on whether the G1 or G7 drag model is used. This is because the value for the shape of the bullet is determined by how close its shape is to the drag model. A decent BC for a bullet based on the G1 drag model is in the 0.5-0.6 range, whereas the same bullet’s BC based on the G7 drag model will be in the 0.2-0.3 range.


This difference in the two BCs for the same bullet is because an efficient bullet’s performance will be much better than the G1 model and only slightly better than the G7 model. If a bowling ball was used for the drag model, the BC would be very high because the bullet would be much more efficient as it flew through the air.

Be careful here. Manufacturers might be tempted to advertise high BCs for their bullets, and the comparison to the drag model is more complicated than I made it out to be and actually changes with speed.

Does the actual BC matter? Absolutely not. Instead, the BC is best used as a comparative number between different bullets. Don’t chase a particular BC. Instead, when you’re making the decision on which one to use for the best long-range performance, choose the one that shoots well in your rifle first. If more than one bullet shoots equally well, then choose the one with the higher BC.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

Ballistics Basics: Initial Bullet Speed

Although gravity and wind are the main influences on a bullet’s path, there are certainly some other factors to consider as well. One of these is the initial bullet speed.

How does initial bullet speed play into external ballistics?

  • Bullet speed does not lessen or increase gravity's effects.
  • It merely gives more or less time for the force to act on the projectile.
  • Three things determine speed: a bullet's initial speed, its efficiency and environmental variables.
  • A longer barrel permits a faster bullet, but this doesn't equate to more accuracy.
  • Temperature also can affect velocity.

Hopefully, we dispelled the myth that a fast bullet somehow resists gravity. Instead, a fast bullet merely gets to the target faster and therefore has less time to fall. Also, the longer it takes for a bullet to reach a target, the more exponentially it falls.  

Shooter lining up a long-distance shot with scoped rifle.

In an example we used, a bullet from my .308 Winchester only falls 4 inches between the 100- and 200-yard berms, but it falls almost 100 inches between the 900- and 1,000-yard berms. The bullet falls more when it’s farther away because it is traveling slower (it takes longer to cover the 100 yards between berms), and it is also falling faster.

When we discuss wind in a future article, you’ll see that the amount of time a bullet is exposed to wind (how long it takes to get to the target) also has a direct effect on how much a bullet is blown off of its original path.

Gravity And Wind

At a basic level, the two main things that will affect your bullet’s path are gravity and wind. All of the other variables you hear about — air pressure, temperature, altitude and humidity — don’t affect the bullet’s path. Instead, those variables only change how much gravity and wind can affect the bullet.

Of course, there are other things that will affect your bullet’s path. For example, the spin of the earth and the spin of your bullet can both change a bullet’s path. However, let’s save those for a future discussion once you understand the basics first.

There are three variables that determine a bullet’s speed on its way to the target:

  • The initial bullet speed
  • The efficiency of the bullet
  • External/environmental variables

In this piece, we’ll explore initial velocity. The other variables will be discussed in future columns.

USMC Sniper and spotter practicing

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that faster is always better. There are many shooters who chase the newest fad cartridge to get whatever velocity increase they can. Yes, a faster bullet has less time to fall and be affected by the wind, but just because it is faster doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better overall.

Sometimes a slower bullet can be more accurate, lighter recoil from a smaller cartridge can be easier to manage, or a heavier, slower bullet might perform better when hunting (e.g. .17 HMR vs. .30-06 Springfield while elk hunting).

Initial Bullet Speed

A bullet is never faster than when it first leaves your barrel. Just as it starts to immediately fall due to gravity, it also starts to slow down due to air resistance.

Initial bullet speed demonstrated by bullet leaving rifle muzzle

The cartridge largely dictates a bullet’s initial velocity range. The same bullet can be shot faster with more pressure up to the safe limit for a particular cartridge. Once you reach the pressure limit, you’ll need to upgrade to a cartridge that can handle more pressure.

Another way to increase initial bullet speed is to shoot a lighter bullet. Within the same cartridge, a lighter bullet can be shot faster. However, that lighter bullet will slow down faster due to air resistance, and it will be affected by wind more than a heavier bullet going the same speed.

Barrel Length

Generally, a longer barrel allows for faster bullet speed. As I mentioned above, however, this isn’t necessarily better.

For example, a shorter rifle barrel can make for a lighter rifle that is easier to carry in the field while hunting, and it can make a rifle more maneuverable in a tactical situation.
Do you know what else a shorter barrel can do? It can make a rifle more accurate. Yes, you read that right. A longer barrel does not provide more accuracy; it only provides more velocity.

Rifle shooter lining up long-range shot.

Consistency is the key to accuracy. A longer barrel of a certain diameter can flex and “whip” more than a shorter barrel of the same diameter. The shorter barrel is relatively “stiffer.” Imagine two sticks of the same diameter but different lengths — the longer one is easier to flex and break.


A bullet’s initial velocity isn’t constant. Even with the same cartridge shooting the same bullet with the same powder charge, higher temperatures will result in faster velocities.

Higher temperatures can be experienced either because of the temperature of your environment (it’s a hot day) and/or the temperature of your chamber (it’s a cold day but you’ve been shooting a lot).

Long-range shooter making shot in cold weather.

Powder manufacturers continue to make gunpowder that is more temperature stable (less affected by temperature). Although great advances are being made, no powder is completely immune to temperature changes. You should shoot in different temperatures and record what happens to your bullet.

This article originally appeared in the July 17 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

How To: The Effect Of Gravity On A Bullet’s Path

Gravity has an inordinate effect on a bullet's flight path. But because it's consistent, gravity can be easily overcome to make an accurate shot.

  • The biggest accuracy variable to account for is gravity.
  • Gravity begins to pull the bullet down the moment it leaves the barrel.
  • Determine bullet drop at each distance to predict bullet travel (if speed stays constant).

Accurately hitting a target, especially at long range, requires the mastery of two skills: 

1) Determining the direction a bullet needs to be shot so that it hits the target
2) Shooting the bullet in the precise direction needed. It’s that simple.

The first skill involves knowing the path the bullet will take on its way to the target. This is mastered with knowledge, some math and correctly identifying certain variables like distance, wind and temperature — it's all about the conditions/environment.

The second skill involves firing the rifle when it's aimed exactly where it needs to be. This is mastered with lots of practice and proper employment of the fundamentals of shooting — it's all about you.

Gravity is the No. 1 variable that must be accounted for in making an accurate shot.

Obviously, there are many variables and fundamentals to learn about and master. But we'll start here.

A Bullet’s Path
Bullets don’t travel in a straight line to the target. If they did, then long-range shooting would be easy, and it wouldn’t even be a thing that people discussed, practiced or learned about — shooting at a target 1 yard away and 1,000 yards away would be exactly the same. On second thought, maybe it’s a good thing that bullets don’t travel in a straight line. After all, mastering long-range shooting is very rewarding.

When a bullet leaves a rifle, there are many variables that change its path. The biggest effect on a bullet’s path is also the easiest to account for: gravity.  

The moment a bullet leaves the barrel, gravity starts to pull the bullet down off of its original path. Yes, you read that correctly. Bullets fall the moment they leave the barrel. If that seems odd to you, then you probably already know that the bullet travels in an arc on its way to the target. Wait a minute … how can the bullet fall immediately and also travel in an arc, which means it gets further from the ground at first before it falls back to the target? Simple — your barrel is angled upward even though your scope is looking straight at the target. Therefore, the original path of your bullet is a straight line at an upward angle.  

Gravity can be controlled for once number of factor are figured out.

The bullet, because of gravity, immediately starts to fall from its original path. Because objects fall faster the longer they fall (up to a certain point), the bullet falls faster and more off of its original path the longer it travels. This is what makes the arc path to the target — the bullet falling farther and faster off of its original path.

Can Your Bullet  “Out-Run” Gravity?
At 100 yards, gravity absolutely has an effect on the bullet. But, it doesn’t affect it much because most rifle bullets get to a 100-yard target very quickly, and therefore they don’t have much time to fall.  

The distance a bullet falls due to gravity is partly based on how fast the bullet is traveling — but not for the reason you might think. A fast-moving bullet does not somehow resist the effect of gravity because it has momentum as it flies forward. In fact, if you dropped a bullet from your hand from the same height and at the exact same time as you fired a bullet from a perfectly level rifle barrel, which bullet will hit the ground first? They will both hit the ground at the exact same time. The fact that one bullet was traveling horizontally at 3,000 fps has no effect on that bullet falling due to gravity.

The speed of the bullet, however, does have an effect on how much the bullet falls before it hits a certain target because of the time it takes to get to the target.  

Objects fall due to gravity at an acceleration rate of 9.8 m/s^2. This means that a bullet will be falling at a speed of 9.8 m/s at the end of its first second of falling. It will then increase its speed an additional 9.8 m/s for every additional second it falls. Therefore, a bullet not only falls farther the longer it travels to the target, it falls farther/faster each additional second!  

This means that a bullet that can get to a target in half the time will fall less than half the distance of a bullet that takes twice as long to get to a target. (Remember, it’ll fall more in the second half of its flight).

Biggest Effect
Gravity affects a bullet’s path more than any other variable (except for that tree branch that you didn’t see, of course). Every 100 yards the bullet travels, it falls more and more. This isn’t just because of the fact that the bullet is falling faster the longer it flies: it's also because the bullet is slowing down due to air resistance (yes, these are related).

For example, the bullet travels from 100 yards to 200 yards much faster than it travels from 900 yards to 1,000 yards. Even if the bullet were still falling at the same speed between these two points (it’s not — it’s falling faster), then it would have more time to fall at the farther distances.

Once gravity is accounted for, other variables can the be controlled to make an accurate shot.

This is why my .308 Winchester bullet only falls 4 inches from 100 yards to 200 yards, and it falls a little over 100 inches from 900 yards to 1,000 yards. Trust me, except for hitting something in flight or shooting in a tornado, nothing else is going to move your bullet’s path over 100 inches within 100 yards of travel.

Easiest To Account For
I have some good news: Once you figure out how much your particular bullet will drop for each distance, you can record the information and use it again! Gravity will affect your bullet the same no matter where you are as long as your bullet is traveling at the same speed.

Editor's Note: This article original appeared in the June 2017 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.