Ballistics 101 – Improve Your Skills as a Rifleman or Hunter

Ballistics is the science and study of projectiles and their motion, focusing primarily on the launching, flight, behavior, and effects of bullets, rockets, and other projectiles. It is divided into three main areas: internal, external, and terminal ballistics. Internal ballistics examines the forces and interactions within a firearm as the projectile is propelled down the barrel. External ballistics investigates the projectile’s flight path, accounting for factors such as velocity, air resistance, gravity, and windage that influence its trajectory. Terminal ballistics deals with the projectile’s behavior upon impact with its target, analyzing penetration, energy transfer, and deformation. Knowledge of ballistics is essential for accurate shooting, firearm and ammunition design, and understanding the performance characteristics of projectiles.

A strong foundation in ballistics will significantly improve your skills as a rifleman or hunter. Ballistics knowledge can help you understand the factors affecting the trajectory, accuracy, and performance of your firearm and ammunition.

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3 Key Ballistic Concepts to be Familiar with:

Internal Ballistics:

Internal ballistics is the study of the processes and interactions occurring within a firearm from the moment the primer is ignited to the point the projectile exits the barrel. It examines factors such as the burning rate of gunpowder, pressure and temperature changes within the chamber, and the forces exerted on the bullet and firearm during firing. Key aspects of internal ballistics include the generation of propellant gases, the acceleration of the bullet down the barrel, and the effect of rifling on bullet stability. Understanding internal ballistics is essential for optimizing firearm and ammunition design, ensuring reliable and accurate performance.

External Ballistics:

External ballistics is the study of a projectile’s flight path from the moment it leaves the firearm’s muzzle until it reaches its target. This branch of ballistics focuses on the factors affecting the projectile’s trajectory, such as air resistance, gravity, wind, and the projectile’s aerodynamic properties. By examining the influence of these variables, external ballistics aims to predict and understand the projectile’s behavior in flight, allowing for adjustments to be made for more accurate shooting. Knowledge of external ballistics is crucial for marksmen, hunters, and firearm enthusiasts alike, as it enables them to account for environmental conditions and other variables that may impact their shot accuracy.

Terminal Ballistics:

Terminal ballistics is the study of a projectile’s behavior and effects upon impact with its target. This field of ballistics focuses on analyzing the penetration, deformation, fragmentation, and energy transfer of projectiles when they strike various materials, such as tissue, armor, or barriers. Terminal ballistics is particularly relevant for understanding the effectiveness of different bullet designs, calibers, and velocities in achieving desired outcomes, such as incapacitation or target destruction. In the context of hunting and self-defense, knowledge of terminal ballistics helps ensure responsible and ethical shot placement and the selection of appropriate ammunition to minimize suffering or collateral damage.

Key Terms in Ballistics:

To better understand ballistics, you also need to know some key terms and their definitions.  Keep in mind that this is not a comprehensive list of terms, but it does cover the vast majority of terms you will need to understand.

  • Muzzle Velocity: The speed at which a projectile (bullet) exits the barrel of a firearm, typically measured in feet per second (fps) or meters per second (m/s).
  • Bullet Drop: The vertical distance a bullet falls due to gravity during its flight from the moment it leaves the muzzle to the point of impact. This drop must be compensated for when aiming at targets at longer distances.
  • Windage: The horizontal adjustment of a firearm’s sights or scope to account for the effect of wind on a bullet’s trajectory, ensuring accurate shots in windy conditions.
  • Ballistic Coefficient (BC): A numerical representation of a bullet’s aerodynamic efficiency, taking into account its shape, weight, and diameter. A higher BC indicates a bullet that retains velocity better and is less affected by air resistance.
  • Trajectory: The flight path of a projectile, such as a bullet, from the moment it leaves the barrel until it reaches its target. The trajectory is influenced by factors such as gravity, air resistance, and wind.
  • Zeroing: The process of adjusting a firearm’s sights or scope so that the point of aim corresponds with the point of impact at a specified distance. This ensures the shooter’s aim is accurate at that particular range.
  • Minute of Angle (MOA): A unit of angular measurement used to describe the accuracy of a firearm or the adjustments made to its sights or scope. One MOA is equal to 1.047 inches at 100 yards, and it is often rounded down to 1 inch for simplicity.
  • Milliradian (MRAD or mil): Another unit of angular measurement used for scope adjustments and determining bullet drop or wind drift. One MRAD is equal to 3.6 inches at 100 yards or 10 centimeters at 100 meters.
  • Bullet Weight: The mass of a bullet, typically measured in grains (gr) or grams (g). Heavier bullets tend to have more kinetic energy and can better maintain their velocity, but they may also experience more bullet drop over long distances.
  • Sectional Density (SD): The ratio of a bullet’s weight to its cross-sectional area (diameter squared). Higher sectional densities generally indicate better penetration potential, as they allow the bullet to better overcome resistance from the target material.

Example of How to Use the 3 Main Concepts of Ballistics:

A rifleman who understands and applies the three major ballistic concepts—internal, external, and terminal ballistics—will be better equipped to make accurate and effective shots in various shooting scenarios. Here’s an example:

Suppose a rifleman is preparing for a hunting trip and needs to choose the appropriate ammunition for their firearm to ensure a clean and ethical kill.

  1. Internal Ballistics: The rifleman selects a cartridge with an optimal powder load, ensuring consistent and efficient burning of the propellant. This choice will produce the desired muzzle velocity and pressure levels within the firearm, providing a stable and accurate shot.
  2. External Ballistics: The rifleman takes into account the anticipated shooting distances and environmental conditions, such as wind and temperature. They choose a bullet with a high ballistic coefficient for better aerodynamic performance and less susceptibility to wind drift. They also calculate bullet drop and make the necessary adjustments to their scope or sights. Understanding the bullet’s trajectory will help the rifleman compensate for these factors and improve shot accuracy.
  3. Terminal Ballistics: The rifleman selects a bullet type that provides adequate penetration and energy transfer upon impact with the target animal, such as an expanding or controlled penetration bullet. This choice will ensure that the projectile delivers sufficient energy to the target for a quick and humane kill while minimizing the risk of over-penetration and collateral damage.

By integrating the principles of internal, external, and terminal ballistics, the rifleman can optimize their equipment and shooting technique to achieve accurate and responsible shots in the field. This comprehensive understanding will not only enhance their overall skills as a rifleman but also contribute to a more successful and ethical hunting experience.

Other Ballistic Factors:

Ammunition selection:

Different types of ammunition can have varying performance characteristics. Understanding how bullet weight, type, and powder load affect performance can help you choose the best ammunition for your specific application.


While knowledge of ballistics is essential, nothing can replace regular practice at the range. Shooting under varying conditions and distances will help you become more proficient and confident in your abilities.

By studying and understanding these fundamental aspects of ballistics, you can greatly enhance your skills as a rifleman or hunter. Remember, practice and experience are crucial in applying these concepts effectively in real-world situations.  We will continue to break down ballistics in more detail as we move through Ballstics 202 and 303.  Check back for updates on this topic, as we feel it is incredibly important for all shooters to understand and use.

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