“No mere gadget, the chronograph is one of the most powerful tools imaginable in load development and problem diagnosis. A bullet’s velocity is one of the major contributors to its behavior, and if you don’t know what its velocity is, you may never understand that behavior. But knowing why the bullet behaves as it does, you can take intelligent corrective action that wasn’t available to you before.”
– Dan Hackett, Precision Shooting Magazine
A chronograph can be a powerful tool … but if you get more than a few “ERROR” readings in a row, you may be tempted to put a bullet right through it.
Most of these tips are intended for chronographs that use a natural or incandescent light source (Ex: Shooting Chrony, Competition Electronics ProChrono, CED Millennium 2, Oehler 35P, etc) and may not all be applicable to chronographs using infrared light sources or other types of projectile sensors.
- You’ll get the best readings with even lighting. Best case scenario is overcast skies, and worse is direct sunlight on the skyscreens.
- Remove diffusers in overcast or shaded conditions. The diffusers are only necessary in sunny conditions, and by removing them in other conditions you’ll allow more light into the chronograph.
- On sunny days place the chronograph in the shadow of a building or opaque wall. Ensure the sensors have a clear view of the sky, but the chronograph itself is in the shade. You could alternatively add sun shields to create a shadow (see Advanced Techniques section for more details). The goal is to eliminate direct sunlight on the chronograph, while still ensuring the sensors have a direct view of the sky. However, avoid placing the chronograph in the shade of a tree. The uneven, dappled sunlight that filters through the tree will cause more problems than it will solve.
- Avoid low light conditions, such sunrise and sunset. During those times the extreme low angle of the sun can cause additional issues due to reflections.
- Clean skyscreens. If you’ve used your chronograph more than a dozen times, there is likely a build-up of dust on the sensors. Use a Q-tip or canned air to clean the lenses, being especially careful not to scratch them.
- Ensure chronograph is level
The formula the chronograph uses to calculate the velocity always assumes the bullet path is perpendicular to the skyscreens (i.e. like Path 1 shown in green). That means the chronograph assumes the bullet travels exactly 12.0” from the time the bullet was seen passing over point A until the chronograph saw it pass over point B. If the bullet was shot at an angle, it would have to travel farther (in our example ½” farther) and would therefore take longer to travel between point A & B. So for Path 2 the chronograph would record a slower time, but since it thinks the bullet just traveled 12” … it would say the bullet was going slower than it really was. Here is a concrete example:
Times chronograph recorded for the bullet to travel between points A & B:
– Time 1 = 0.000333 seconds (Path 1, green line)
– Time 2 = 0.000347 seconds (Path 2, red line – longer because it had to travel slightly farther)
The unlevel bullet path in this example would result in a chronograph reading that was over 4% slower than it was actually travelling. Although I used an extreme example to illustrate the concept, even slight angles can have dramatic effects in the velocity readings the chronograph produces.
- Ensure sensors aren’t tilted. If using a Shooting Chrony, ensure it is completely unfolded. This would result in a similar margin of error as the example above, because the real distance the bullet traveled doesn’t match what the chronograph is assuming it did. But in this example, the reading would actually be around 4% faster than the bullet was really travelling.
- Position the chronograph 15-20’ from the muzzle to avoid interference from muzzle blast. To get true velocity at the muzzle (what most ballistics programs need), you can typically add .75 mph per foot. For example, if the chronograph was 20’ from the muzzle and displayed a reading of 3,200 fps you would just add on 20*.75, which is 15. So your true muzzle velocity would be 3,215 fps.
- Paint all surfaces flat black to avoid erroneous readings caused by reflections, including all chronograph and tripod surfaces that would be in direct line of sight with the bullet as it passed over the chronograph.
- Use a quality tripod for a stable platform.
- Avoid shooting over reflective surfaces like snow or some types of sand. May be able to reduce reflection by laying out a large, dark colored tarp under the chronograph setup.
- Replace batteries regularly to ensure stable power.
- Understand the flight of your bullet will be lower than your sight picture. Most scopes are mounted 1.5” higher than the centerline of the barrel. Always aim much higher than the middle of the shooting area.
- Avoid using near florescent lamps. Although we can’t detect it with our naked eye, they actually vary in intensity many times a second and chronographs will detect these changes rendering them virtually useless.
- To work indoors, chronographs need a lot of even lighting … which is hard to pull off with incandescent lamps. A white background with even amounts of light over the sensing area works best. Some chronographs offer optional accessories that help make them more reliable indoors.
Attach flat black sun sheilds made of foam board or cardboard to the guide rods to create a shadow. I bought 2 pieces of black foam board for $4 at a craft store for mine. This will help prevent direct sunlight from shining on the chronograph, but still ensure the sensors have a direct view of the sky. Warning: In windy conditions, these shields could transform your chronograph into a very expensive kite.
Knowing that chronographs prefer even lighting, you can also help by adding a translucent light diffusing cover just a few inchces above the included diffusers. This would only be necessary on sunny days. The plastic diffuser sheets commonly used flourescent lighting works well for this, and can be found in 2’x4′ sheets at local hardware stores. Note: You shouldn’t mount or even attach the diffuser sheet directly to the chronograph. Instead create a frame that holds the diffuser sheet, so you can simply set up the chronograph underneath it.
If you are using a CED Millennium Chronograph, you can purchase upgrade parts to replace the standard visible light sensors with infrared skyscreens. Infrared sensors eliminate the need for sunlight, and can even record velocities in total darkness … which is exactly what some people opt to do. If your chronograph has infrared sensors you can actually place it in what is referred to as a “coffin” with shoot-through windows, and virtually eliminate all problems caused by lighting and reflections. Coffin setups only work with infrared skyscreens, so this setup wouldn’t work for the Shooting Chrony or ProChrono. Here is a good example of a coffin I found in a forum post:
To increase the accuracy of the velocity readings (or at least your confidence in the measured velocity), shoot through 2 chronographs in a “close tandem arrangement” to ensure they register the same velocity. You should add 2-4 fps to the velocity reading of the chronograph that is further downrange to account for the slight velocity loss that occurs in just a few feet. You probably shouldn’t see more than 5 fps difference after the adjustment.
For more info on chronographs, I suggest reading the Oehler 35P Instruction Manual … it contains a ton of great info written first-hand from the leading expert in this field, Ken Oehler. Most of the info is applicable to any chronograph, not just the 35P … although the 35P is the best personal chronograph in the business.
All good information and tips. I’ll toss in a few more:
I set up a rifle on bags at the bench so that the sights stay on target after first inserting an empty chamber indicator (ECI) in the open action and a laser bore sighter in the muzzle. I then go out and adjust the height and tilt of the chronograph until the laser dot is showing up on my palm at the same correct place over each sensor. The ECI’s flag has the words “REMOVE LASER FIRST” printed on it in felt marker to remind me not to shoot out the bore sighter (which a web search shows can burst barrels).
The CED web site page for the Millenium 2 chronograph has a list of eleven error causing factors about 2/3 of the way down the page. Worth a read. It’s mention of temperature is important as most chronographs use the lowest consumer grade electronic components not rated to operate below 32°F. Batteries also increase in internal resistance as temperature goes down. This renders them less able to provide adequate current, so a weak battery may work fine at room temperature but not down near freezing.
Because most .22 Long Rifle cartridges don’t make enough gas to continue accelerating their bullets after the first 15 to 20 inches of barrel length and since the last of the acceleration just before that point and the slowing of the bullet after that point are gradual, most .22 LR match grade ammunition will shoot to within 50 fps of the velocity claimed by the manufacturer in most rifle barrel lengths. Taking a .22 rifle and some match ammunition to the range makes for a quick double check that your chronograph’s accuracy is not way off the beam. Otherwise, shooting through two chronographs of different makes in tandem is a good double-check to show that both are working properly under the particular conditions in question. I’ve seen up to 200 fps difference doing this in late afternoon light, proving at least one of the chronographs in question wasn’t up to snuff in that light.
Great info … Thanks for sharing!
Try one of these: http://www.magnetospeed.com/
Paul from AccurateShooter.com (aka 6mmBR.com) mentioned the Magneto Speed chronograph to me a few weeks ago. I haven’t used one personally, but they look interesting. The Magneto Speed works different than most chronographs, in that it watches for changes in the electromagnetic field instead of light like most chronographs. I like the idea of that, because issues related to light cause most of problems for other chronographs.
I’ve personally tried several chronographs over the years, but really only use an Oehler 35p at this point. I’ve just lost confidence in chronograph readings, but the Oehler 35p is unique because it is a “proof chronograph.” It essentially is two chronographs in one package. It takes two velocity readings on every shot, and automatically compares those numbers to ensure they agree. If they are significantly different, it will alert you that there was likely some kind of error. Knowing that the Oehler is essentially double-checking every shot, I have complete confidence that the velocity it displays is very, very accurate. It is also longer than most chronographs, and the further the distance between the two sensors the more accurate the chronograph is able to be (all other factors being equal). When you are trying to measure strings of shots with standard deviations (SDs) down in the single digits, it’s a joke to think you have that kind of precision with most other chronographs. But the Magneto Speed works differently than most, so I can’t say how it compares.
Another thing to keep in mind is the Oehler is $575, which is $200-300 more than the Magneto Speed chronographs. It is considered a “Professional Grade” chronograph, and the price tag reflects that. So they are targeting/serving a different buyer.
I’ve thought about doing a data-driven chronograph field test at some point to really empirically test how accurate different chronographs are. I essentially envisioned lining up several chronographs so each shot would pass over all of them and recording hundreds of measurements and then really analyze the results. You could account for the decrease in velocity as the chronographs got further from the muzzle. I think it would be enlightening. I already have my next field test lined up, but maybe I’ll do that at some point. I’ll be sure to include the Magneto Speed if/when I do. I would certainly be interested to see how it compares.
The Magnetospeed appears to use sensor technology like that of an electric guitar pickup: a coil of wire wrapped around a permanent magnet. When a conductor (the bullet) passes close by, since it is moving with respect to the magnetic field lines, those lines induce current flow in the conductor. That current has its own opposing magnetic field associated with it, and the interaction of the induced current magnetic field with the permanent magnet field distorts the latter, exposing the wire coil to moving field lines. Those induce current in the coil, which is detected as a signal by the chronograph electronics.
There are several things to keep in mind about this approach. One is that a steel-jacketed surplus bullet, which is not only a conductor, but is also magnetizable, will distort the permanent magnet fields a lot more than a jacketed bullet does. A lead bullet, which is a poorer conductor than copper, will distort the fields less than a copper solid because lower levels of current are induced in its greater resistance. Variation in velocity will also affect the size of the signal. Bullet diameter will also affect how much metal is in close proximity to the field. The Magnetospeed makers have developed different sensitivities and different trigger signal profiles to adjust adequately for these factors, but you do have to remember to select the right settings for your bullet to get good readings. You also need to record the settings you used to get future comparisons using the same bullet.
The Magnetospeed units mount on the front end of a rifle barrel. Just as a barrel tuner affects rifle point of impact and group size, having the unit hanging off a rifle muzzle can affect accuracy, cause stringing, etc. For this reason, you have to work up accuracy loads and test their velocity separately, whereas an optical chronograph lets you do both simultaneously.
As Harold Vaughn demonstrated in his book, Rifle Accuracy Facts, bullets can pick up in the neighborhood of 3% of their final velocity from muzzle blast hosing against the bullet base after it clears the muzzle. The military has found that post-muzzle effects (acceleration, extra yaw, etc.) are usually complete in the first dozen calibers of post-muzzle travel. That dozen calibers is inside the first Magnetospeed sensor spacing on some guns and calibers. This means the unit will measure some portion of that last 3% of final velocity, but possibly not all of it. It depends on how far the first sensor is from the muzzle. It also means you will change that portion if the unit is not positioned to keep the first sensors exactly the same number of inches from the muzzle each time you use it. It means that if I owned one, I would want to check how results compared to an optical chronograph set up so the start and stop screen midpoint was at 15 feet from the muzzle. The SAAMI standard velocity measuring system is optical and has its midpoint 15 feet from the muzzle. Since that is what commercial ammunition makers use, and I think it is best for comparisons for that reason. Note that the military often uses 78 feet from the muzzle and you need to allow for that for comparison purposes.
Wow. That is some GREAT information. Thanks for sharing!
CalZ I am breaking in some new rifles and know they will speed up as they break in. As a hunter I like the KISS utilizing calibrated turrets like G7/Huskemaw/Greybull. I do not understand why when verifying ballistic data they want to adjust the bullets stated BC instead of the MV…I guess this article should educate hunters not to trust they chronographed numbers with so much confidence. Sorry, I am a Texan and long winded [ vaccinated with a phonograph needle ]…Q: Which to you chose to adjust when doing the actual field verification shooting…BC or MV ?
I’m with you on keeping it simpler with ballistic turrets on a hunting rig. I do the same thing on my coyote rifle.
Ballistics can get extremely complicated, but I’ll try to cut to the chase. You should true the muzzle velocity when the bullet is in supersonic flight (i.e. velocity is above 1.2 mach, or 1,350 fps). Most people never shoot at something into the transonic or subsonic range of a rifle, so most can stop reading there. However, if you are shooting to a range where you’re velocity will drop below 1350 fps, you should switch to truing the BC during that part of the flight.
Bryan Litz is the expert among experts on this topic, and here is a short excerpt from him on this topic (published in SNIPER Magazine’s 2013 issue with the title of Practical Ballistics: Closing The Gap Between Science and Application by Bryan Litz):
Changing the MV and the BC are not equivalent. BC is correct for computational purposes because it reflects the bullet’s shape. When you change velocity alone, you don’t change the effect of shape on drag, so errors develop. For example, when you make a long range shot, if leave the BC the same, but compensate the velocity correctly to get right elevation on the target, wind deflection won’t be correctly predicted.
That said, for most modern bullet shapes used within a practical hunting range limit of, say, 300 yards or so, the error from compensating with false velocity instead of correcting the BC will be smaller than hold error from field positions is. You can run some test values on the JBM ballistics site or on your own ballistics software to see the differences involved.
Well said, Nick. Thanks for the input.
Cal, First I really enjoy your blog. I used it to decide best value for my recent rifle build components. I recently had a challenge on getting the right dope for a long range shoot. I used the range Caldwell Chrony at a local range (Elite Shooting Sports 100 yd indoor range!). It showed 3030 fps on a 190 gr SMK HPBT from a 300 WM. The actual performance of this round was more like 2800 fps. So I was scrambling during the shoot. I now have two Chronographs. I will res-hoot this load with them. But now I am thinking about the MAGNOSPEED V3. Have you done any accuracy testing on the various Chronographs/Magnographs?
Keep up the good work!
Hey, Jeff. Glad to know you’ve found the content useful. I actually have done some chronograph tests just within the past couple weeks. I plan to do a full write-up on that in the near future, but I can tell you the MagnetoSpeed v3 is WAAAAAAYYYYYY more reliable than the Caldwell Chrony. I’d throw the Caldwell away. Most consumer-grade chronographs aren’t worth a penny. They aren’t as accurate as everyone assumes they are, and you’d be far better off truing your velocity to actual hit data than believing anything those things tell you.
I personally only have confidence in 3 different chronographs (at least at the time this was written):
Bryan tested a ton of chronographs in his latest book, and it is a really cool study. I think you should buy it, so I won’t share all the results … but the Oehler 35p had an average error of 2.7 fps and the Magneto Speed had an average error of 1.8 fps. He didn’t test the LabRadar, because it was just released a few months ago … but I’ve tested it, and it is in that same class.
So, more results to come, but I bet that gives you something to go on.
I am not surprised that you had some data on chronographs/Magnographs.
I am real glad you like the Magnospeed as I had just ordered the V3.
Will get the Litz book.
Keep up the great work and thank you again for the helpful response…
I realize this is an older post/thread, but great article. I have a Competition Electronics ProChrono, and have been having difficulties with it. Great tips. Thanks.
Hey, Michael. I actually owned that same chronograph when I wrote this article. I’ve owned several since then, but all of the light-based models suffer from the same issues. If you ever get tired of dealing with those, I’d recommend a Magneto Speed or a Lab Radar. Both are amazing devices, neither work off light, and the problem of errors or missed readings will be a thing of the past. Both are also amazingly accurate. I have a post coming up when I show how those compare to an Oehler 35p, which has been the gold standard in the chronograph world … and I’ll just say they do really well.
Thanks for the reply. I’ll check out those other chronos.
Your example of being 120 fps of is correct, but rather unlikely. My calculations tells me that the chronograph is tilted 22 degrees compared to the line of sight. That’s like shooting up/down hill. Surely you would notice this.
Going to an angle of 10 degrees, your measurement will only be 2% or less of.
It all adds up of course, but if you can’t immediately tell that your device or line of sight is 20 or 10 degrees off, you shouldn’t be handling a firearm.
… Okay. I was just using an example. I’m not sure everyone realizes how important it is for it to be level, so even if they saw it … would they get up and correct it because they knew it would skew their results? You know that … but not everyone knows that. But I appreciate the feedback.
The example shows the problem of tilting the chronograph. What I miss, and what you do so well with the “How much does it matter” articles, is the quantification.
If you tilt the chronograph 5 degrees you get 0.4% off reading, which is below the inherent precision of the cheap chronographs. A quick google of 5 degrees will show you that 5 degrees is very visible.
I know it all adds up, and we want to eliminate all the sources of errors, but I don’t think I have ever seen a cheap unfoldable chronograph tilted so much that it would give you errors above the inherent precision.
Great article, I am just arguing that the tilted chronograph issue is no bigger than it can be addressed in one sentence:
“I know it all adds up, and we want to eliminate all the sources of errors, but I don’t think I have ever seen a cheap unfoldable chronograph tilted so much that it would give you errors above the inherent precision.”
This is not a proper scientific analysis. If a given tool of measurement has an inherent lack of precision, it does not follow that introducing an additional lack of precision is negligible (or somehow assumed/absorbed/overshadowed by the inherent lack of precision already present). Adding another level of imprecision magnifies the effect. For example, adding 5% margin of error to a 10% margin of error does not result in a 10% margin of error simply because the largest margin of error is 10%. Depending on the measurements actually being taken and whether or not there’s any extrapolations going on, you could have a 15% margin of error (simple addition), but it could be much worse.
When a shooter is serious and wants precision, that shooter wants to eliminate as many variables as possible, and to eliminate any uncertainty.
Well said. I’m just trying to point out all of the potential areas that could contribute to error.
You are arguing against a point I never made. I know margins of errors can be cumulative, or even multiplicative. And it isn’t about science either.
What I am pointing out, is just the magnitude of the errors that comes from tilting your device. Furthermore, I did say we wanted to eliminate all errors and I am simply quantifying what you can hope to gain from leveling you device. You’re probably better of getting a new set of batteries, than going from 0.1 degrees off to only 0.05.