Tag Archives: snipers

Q&A: Bullet Drop

Where do snipers tend to aim when they are going for a kill? Are they more inclined to aim for the head or do they take the easier shot and try for the heart?

Usually, above the target, and ahead of them if they’re moving.

We’ve talked about bullet drop before, but the basic concept is that the bullet is a physical object, and affected by gravity. The scope will be zeroed to a specific distance. For example, it might be zeroed for 50m, 200m, whatever. If you’re aiming at ranges closer than that, the scope will be slightly too low, if it’s beyond that range, the scope will be calibrated too high. In either case, a sniper can adjust, and this is the entire purpose of the striations in a rifle scope. These will represent the drop over a fixed distance. Combine that with a rangefinder (if the range is not known), and an experienced sniper will, likely, be aiming over their target’s head at long ranges.

How much the bullet will drop depends on the cartridge and rifle being used. This is part of why snipers are very possessive of their rifles.

This creates a situation where, at long ranges, even if you know the exact range, it is safer to go for a body shot if the option is there.

The second part of where they aim is “leading” the target. Again, a bullet is a physical object, and while it’s moving very fast, it’s still going to take time to travel to the target. If the target is moving the sniper needs to account for that and aim where the target’s path will intersect with the bullet, rather than aiming for where the target is currently.

Additionally, wind and other factors can affect the bullet’s flight path, particularly at longer ranges, meaning that the sniper needs to account for those as well.

So, where do they aim? Not at the target. They’re aiming somewhere in the general vicinity of the target, based on the physics involved.

As for where they want the bullet to connect? Headshots are flashy, but center of mass shots are far more reliable. At that point, it’s a personal choice by the shooter, which they’re going for.

-Starke

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Q&A: Laser Sights

You said real snipers wouldn’t use a laser pointer with a rifle. Because it’s useless on great distance and you don’t want to announce yourself to your target. So what are laser pointers on guns good for? Because obviously they exist, but what for? Thanks for your blog, it’s very interesting and helpful!

Lasers are intended for short range target acquisition. That is to say, knowing exactly where you’re pointing the gun. They can be a useful aid for inexperienced shooters, though anything that speeds up your ability to put a bullet into someone is an advantage in a firefight. This is the same basic idea that makes reflex sights useful. It gives you a clean aim-point, and if that shaves a fraction of a second of your reaction time, it may save your life.

Of the two, reflex sights do the job slightly better, with less visual noise and without announcing that you’re about to shoot someone. Okay, the, “slightly better,” part is personal preference. If you really want, you can take the belt and suspenders approach and slap both of them on your gun, but you’re only going to be using one of them at any given moment.

Part of the reason I’ve said lasers are for amateurs is because, in most cases, if you’re sighting your weapon properly, you usually won’t see the laser. The front post will obstruct it for your dominant eye. (Your off eye will see it, but it’s just going to confirm what you already know.) If you’re sighting down the gun incorrectly, or not looking through the sights at all, then the laser will help your aim.

For an inexperienced shooter, in a crisis, a laser will help them put the round where they want it. For someone who knows what they’re doing, a laser is a much more situational tool, and not something they’ll need most of the time.

The major benefit for an experienced shooting is snapshots. This is where you rapidly bring the weapon up and fire without taking the time to aim properly. In this case, the shooter will probably be sighting incorrectly for speed, and the laser can give them a clear idea of what they’ll hit without actually needing the sights to verifying. To be fair, this is another thing you can use a reflex sight for. You can also snapshoot without either.

Finally, lasers can make switching between targets faster. Again, it lets you know where you’re aiming slightly faster than iron sights. Strictly speaking, lasers are also more forgiving as a sighting element than most optics. Even if you’re holding the gun incorrectly, the laser will tell you where you’ve pointed it.

The takeaway is that, lasers can be useful for shooting people in the same room, especially if you don’t really know your way around a gun. Not so much when you’re trying to put a round in someone half a block away.

-Starke

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Hi, do you know how a sniper works?

The best phrase I’ve seen to sum it up comes from a Cracked article on weapon myths; they called it “weaponized math.” Though, “weaponized physics” would be slightly more accurate.

It’s about knowing the variables, and being able to predict where the bullet will land, rather than lining up the cross hairs with someone’s head in a scope.

Bullets are physical objects. Things like gravity and wind affect them. At short ranges this isn’t really an issue, but at long ranges physics start to apply in ways you’re used to seeing, but don’t usually associate with firearms.

With gravity, bullets drop at the same rate as any other object. There’s a fun little demonstration where a bullet fired in parallel to the ground will hit the ground (from drop) at the same time as one simultaneously dropped from your hand (at the same height as the gun). The round that’s being fired has a much higher velocity, but gravity affects them both equally.

This isn’t much of an issue if you’re firing at something 50 feet away, but it’s a huge problem if your bullet’s going to spend the next 5 seconds in the air.

For very long range sniping, this is why identifying things like wind direction and speed, distance to target, and even elevation are so important to long range sniping. Getting and relaying that information to the sniper is the spotter’s job, and part of why they’re a team. One is tweaking their aim for the conditions, but in order to avoid losing their work, or needing to keep it all in their head, they have someone else feeding the information to them while they work.

The second part of this is getting close enough to get the shot. This varies based on where the sniper’s target is. In urban environments, this is more about getting a line of sight, with a lot of the extreme long range considerations becoming secondary. After all, if you can take the shot from a nearby building and get out before any perimeter is set up, you can potentially be less than a block away. At these ranges, your sniper might even opt for weapons that don’t quite match the normal definition of a sniper rifle, like a scoped battle rifle on semi-auto.

In wilderness environments, this usually means camouflage, called ghillie suits. These are the suits that look like the unholy lovechild of a Tom Clancy fetishist and Swamp Thing. When properly matched to their environment and used these are incredibly hard to see in the field. It’s the real world example of the “there are five ninjas in this picture” meme. One of the biggest rookie mistakes with these is, apparently, “tree tumors,” where the sniper will try to disguise themselves against the base of a tree resulting in a weird lump that draws attention to the suit.

Rifles designed to break down so they can fit in a custom attache case do exist. I don’t know much about them beyond that, and have no first hand time with any. Based on my experience with the Kel-Tec Sub-2000, I’d expect these to be exceedingly unforgiving of mishandling of any kind. But, if your character only needs a single shot and is going to toss the gun after anyway, then that’s not as much of a problem. I also suspect you’re paying for the format with some of the accuracy of a preassembled platform, but, again, at the ranges your character would be using them, that shouldn’t be a serious issue.

Anti-Material Rifles are the exact opposite end of the spectrum. These are very heavy scoped rifles that fire rounds in the 12mm to 13mm range. This includes the Barrett .50. Video games and some films like to present these as a kind of ultimate high power rifle. And, they do have an effective range of over a mile. (1.8km if you’re curious.) But, these are actually intended for use against vehicles. This is a rifle designed to kill trucks, not people. Shooting a person with one is just extreme overkill. Shooting a ten foot tall mutated Jackson’s Chameleon in the post-apocalyptic Mojave… that’s probably legitimate.

-Starke

Do you guys know anything about guns? I always wondered about the usefulness of silencers. I get that they don’t make the sound any quieter, just make it sound less like a gunshot, but how useful would that actually be?

Technically, suppressors do make gunshots quieter, as a relative statement. Okay, a bunch of things.

The term “silencer” is a misnomer, and one that entertainment media perpetuates. Some firearms can be fitted with suppressors, which will muffle sound it makes when fired. Or, more specifically, it will reduce the sound of the gunpowder igniting, that escapes through the barrel. That’s not the only way a gun makes noise, but it is the main source.

Most suppressors work by providing venting points which allow the gas to “escape” before the end of the barrel, effectively absorbing the sound someplace in that awkward looking barrel extension.

Improvised silencers work on basically the same principle, but with far less finesse, by firing through a medium that will absorb the sound of the gunshot without impairing the ballistics too much.

Suppressing a handgun by slapping a modification on the end of the barrel won’t do anything for the gases that escape when the slide cycles. Meaning, there’s still going to be a lot of noise, but not nearly as much as if you were firing the weapon unsuppressed. (Silenced revolvers do exist, but the entire weapon is built around the suppressor.)

This is also why revolvers can’t usually be suppressed, there’s a large enough gap between the cylinder and the barrel for gas to release, and if you slap a suppressor on it, the gas (and noise) will escape via that route instead of out the barrel.

There are also handguns, like the Makarov PB that can be fired while the slide is locked closed. This feature is specifically to further reduce the noise the gun makes while suppressed. That said, firing from a locked slide means the weapon has to be manually cycled after every shot. And, it’s still not going to be silent, just quieter.

(Also, for aspiring crime novelists out there, please stop using Warsaw pact weapons, those things do not use the same ammunition as NATO weapons. Just because it’s a 9mm pistol doesn’t mean it’s the same 9x19mm Parabellum you can buy in any gun store.)

Beyond this, there’s an additional issue with suppressing a firearm. The speed of sound is ~1116 feet/second, the average muzzle velocity of a handgun is close to that, and high powered rifles are well above it. What this means is, the bullet will create a miniature sonic boom as it passes through the air. This is what causes the distinctive crack of a rifle round at long ranges. You can’t actually hear the powder burning, but you can hear the round breaking the sound barrier.

This requires subsonic ammunition. These rounds sacrifice range and power to keep physics from betraying you. The result is a slower round that doesn’t hit as hard, and doesn’t have the range. When you’re talking about a suppressed handgun, range isn’t a huge issue, but with a rifle, it means that the bullet will be far more affected by drop.

Also, because of the ballistics, subsonic pistol ammo should be closer in power to normal ammo, while subsonic rifle ammo takes much a greater hit to get it’s speed out of the hypersonic range. I say “should” because this is an aspect of ballistics I’m not well versed in.

An interesting note: if you’re asking about snipers, they’re wouldn’t really need a suppressor, at ranges over a couple hundred feet, the gunshot itself won’t be audible, so all they really need is the subsonic rounds.

-Starke