Bullet drop can mean several things. None is good for your shooting, and one is a ballistic challenge you’ll have to overcome.
More Than One Kind of Bullet Drop
Let’s get the easy problems out of the way first. Dropping cartridges on the ground can break polymer tips, deform exposed lead tips, and even bend long, thin, hollow-point noses. Deformed tips don’t have a huge impact on trajectory or accuracy out to 300 yards or so, but you don’t want to shoot them in a target competition. For casual shooting and medium-range hunting, deformed tips shouldn’t be a problem, but it never hurts to err on the safe side.
Dropping cartridges in the snow, mud, dirt can potentially transfer water, mud, or sand to your rifle’s chamber. Wipe dropped cases clean and dry before loading them in magazines or chambers. (Unless a buffalo is bearing down. Then just shove that dirty round in and worry about the rifle’s action later.) Make sure to clean mud and dirt out of the extraction groove and the small groove around the primer. A toothpick tip or small brush might be needed. Just be thorough. A simple bullet drop needn’t contribute to wearing out your rifle.
Ballistic Bullet Drop is the Big Challenge
Now for the serious bullet drop — ballistic drop, the famous, parabolic trajectory curve. This is one of the rifleman’s oldest and biggest challenges. (Yes, I know women are riflemen, too, but “riflewoman” just doesn’t have that romantic ring to it — and “rifleperson” sounds PC silly.) The instant a bullet leaves the muzzle, it begins to drop. And it doesn’t stop until it fetches up against something solid. Like the ground. The challenge, then, is to defy gravity.
Over the centuries we riflepersons (see?) have discovered several ways to minimize this. The first is aiming high. By tilting our barrel above our targets, we send bullets on arcs high enough so they fall into place far downrange.
The second trick is velocity. The faster we throw our projectiles, the less they drop far downrange.
The third trick for minimizing bullet drop is efficient shape. This discovery came slowly, really only popping up in mid-19th century with the creation of the Minie’ Ball, or elongated bullet. This name has no reference to small size. It’s named after its inventor, a Frenchman who borrowed ideas from others to create a grooved, elongated, slightly undersized bullet designed to speed up loading from the muzzle. Minie’ bullets had grease in three grooves to help seal gases. Once the rifle was fired, the lead would swell enough to secure a tight grip on the rifling. American James H. Burton improved the Minie’ by adding a deep hollow in the rear. This increased expansion of the base for a tighter fit with the rifling and better accuracy.
Only later, I guess, did people figure out that the conical bullets dropped less than round balls. Bit by bit, shooters began building projectiles ever longer. Bullet drop grew ever shorter. In 1898 the French Army (they were warriors then) introduced the Balle D bullet with a long, tapered, sleek nose profile that doesn’t look much different from many of today’s long range bullets. The Germans came on strong with Spitzers about five years later, then the Americans a couple of years after that — and we haven’t looked back. Extra-long, sleek, high B.C. bullets are all the range now because they minimize air drag. This maximizes retained energy and velocity, moderates wind deflection, and minimizes the dreaded bullet drop.
Options for Handling Ballistic Bullet Drop
Despite all this, bullet drop still plagues us. Until we leave earth’s gravitational field, it always will. So let’s summarize our options for managing it.
First, minimize bullet drop by shooting the highest B.C. bullet you can as fast as you can. High B.C. and M.V. are your friends in every caliber, every cartridge, every rifle. That step taken, you can decide how you’re going to compensate for the drop that remains.
As ballisticians like to say, “drop happens.” Always. Traditionally we addressed it by measuring actual bullet drop at long range, memorizing it, and holding over our targets appropriately. This is a surprisingly effective system for hunting medium to large game out to 400-, perhaps 500 yards with flat shooting cartridges and bullets. Any 6.5-284 Norma, 270 Win., 7mm Rem. Mag., and 300 Win. Mag., for instance, should keep high B.C. bullets inside a ten-inch circle out to 300, maybe 350 yards IF they are pushed to maximum velocity and are zeroed high enough at 100 yards (usually between 2.5 and 3 inches.) Beyond that, you just have to know the drop in inches or MOA and hold over the target accordingly. Here’s an example of how quick and easy this can be:
Let’s say your 270 Win. is dropping 4 inches at 300 yards, eight inches at 350 yards, 18 inches at 400 yards, and 34 inches at 500 yards. To hit a deer at 300 yards, you can aim for the vertical center of its chest, which is about 18 inches deep, top to bottom. Your bullet should land in the lower lungs or heart. At 350 yards you would need to hold high shoulder or just on the backline. Bullet drops eight inches, striking center chest. At 400 yards you’d hold about half a deer’s chest height over the deer’s back to drop the bullet into the middle chest. At 500 yards hold over one-and-a-half times the deer’s chest span. Bullet drop of 34 inches should put it near center chest again.
Holdover isn’t precise, but quick and effective. Virtually everyone shot this way until the invention of the laser rangefinder. Knowing exact distance to target makes it possible to dial scopes to the precise aiming spot. Alternatively you can use a multi-stadia “ballistic” style reticle and select a sub-reticle aiming points to match target distance. Either way, you’re still angling your barrel higher in order to compensate for bullet drop. Turret dialing and ballistic reticles just give you the advantage of a precise, spot-on aiming point.
Consistency Helps Defeat Bullet Drop While Keeping You on Target
Choose your poison, but stick with it. To our consternation, if not shame, many of us have discovered that switching among the three systems leads to confusion and error. Those used to dialing get lost with multiple reticles and choose the wrong one. In the heat of the moment those used to multi-reticles forget to dial. And those of us long trained on old fashioned holdover — well, we tend to turret dial or select a multi-reticle and then hold over anyway. Makes for some spectacularly high misses. I once missed an easy, 300-yard shot (as have several thousand other shooters, I suspect,) by choosing the right sub-reticle for that range — but with the scope on the wrong power. Scopes with second focal plane reticles must be set to the same power (usually maximum) for the reticles to be accurate at their rated distances. Changing power changes the target/reticle subtension relationship.
As if all this weren’t challenge enough, there is the confusion of mixing rifles or, more precisely, bullet trajectories. This, I can attest, is especially problematic with the hold-over technique. Get used to the hold-over of a 270 Win., 25-06 Rem., 7mm Rem. Mag., and similar trajectories and you could have big trouble adapting to the increased drop of a 6.5 Creedmoor or 308 Win. Those popular rounds exhibit a slightly steeper trajectory. Been there, done that.
Recently I was hunting with an extremely accurate rifle in 308 Winchester. Norma factory loads were grouping sub-MOA and dropping a measured seven inches below point-of-aim at 300 yards. I locked these numbers into my brain and even thought of them while aiming at a buck standing 307 yards away. But did I hold on or slightly over its back to compensate for seven inches of drop? Oh heck no. I went on autopilot and held high shoulder as I’ve done time and time again with my flatter shooting rifles. A low brisket/leg hit resulted. Fortunately, I was able to correct my mistake and put the buck down with the next shot.
Conclusion: Four Ways to Beat Bullet Drop
So what’s our “take-away” on this whole bullet drop issue? I can think of at least three. No, make that four:
- Shoot the fastest, flattest shooting cartridge/bullet you can find.
- Choose one sighting system, perfect it, and stick with it.
- Shoot the same rifle and bullet all the time. Don’t be like your friendly neighborhood gun writer and use a different rifle, scope, cartridge and bullet every time you go hunting. (And you thought the grass was greener on this side…)
- Sneak closer and closer so you don’t have to worry about drop! Honestly, friends, the ancient art of hunting still works. With a modicum of caution and the wind in your face, you can move slowly enough to close inside of 300 yards, probably 200 yards, and often 100 yards on virtually any game. Yes, of course there are exceptions, but that’s why they call it hunting instead of “going to the market to pick up some steaks.”
Veteran hunter Ron Spomer knows he’d be better off with one rifle shooting one load. But then he wouldn’t have all these mistakes to share as a warning to his readers.