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How Much Does Wind Reading Ability Matter?

As long-range shooters, we tend to obsess over every little detail. After all, we’re trying to hit relatively small targets that are so far you may not even be able to see with the naked eye. While you might can get away with minor mistakes and still ring steel at short and medium ranges, as you extend the range those small mistakes or tiny inconsistencies are magnified. So, most things are important … but to differing degrees. This series of posts is taking a data-driven approach by using Applied Ballistic’s Weapon Employment Zone (WEZ) analysis tool to gain insight into how different field variables in real-world shooting affect the probability of hitting long-range targets.

I’ve played around with the WEZ tool a lot, and it was very enlightening! It challenged a lot of my long-held assumptions about how important different aspects were. As Bryan Litz said in his Accuracy & Precision for Long-Range Shooting book, “Looking at each variable separately teaches us how to assess the uncertainties of any shot and determine how critical each variable is to hitting the target.”

The last few posts have looked at what impact different aspects of shooting, like group size, SD, cartridge choice, increased muzzle velocity, and accurate ranging, have on the probability of getting a hit at long-range. In this post, we’ll analyze one last element:

How Much Does Wind Reading Ability Matter?

In the real world, the only way to know exactly what the wind is doing … is when it isn’t blowing. It seems like those days are few and far between. Knowing what the wind is doing is an essential part of getting rounds on target at long-range. Bryan Litz explains, “The amount of wind uncertainty will depend on the shooter’s ability to read or measure the wind, as well as the difficulty of the wind condition.” If you are on a flat range instrumented with wind flags and firing in one direction, that can be considered pretty easy conditions. If you’re shooting across a canyon with strong, shifting winds from different directions … that’s a difficult situation. Bryan provides a helpful guide to wind reading ability:

Bryan-Litz-Wind-Calling-Classification

Bryan didn’t just come up with that off the cuff. And understand he is saying they’d have the ability to call the wind within those thresholds 95% of the time. Based on a normal distribution, they’d call the wind within ½ of those values 68% of the time. So for these simulations, the “Average” shooter would be able to call easy conditions within +/- 2 mph 95% of the time, and within +/- 1 mph 68% of the time.

So let’s look at what happens to our probability of hitting our long-range targets, from the worst case in that matrix to elite wind reading ability.

Getting On Target At 1000 Yards

Wow!!! That is some improvement … we went from less than 50% chance of hitting the target all the way up to 100%!

“It’s very clear that reducing wind uncertainty plays a primary role in succesful long-range shooting, possibly more than anything else. Unlike range, muzzle velocity, and atmospherics, which can be measured and accounted for in a deterministic way, wind is very different. Wind is air in motion, and air is a highly dynamic fluid. The wind is not the same in speed and direction inch-to-inch as the bullet flies 100’s of yards downrange. The bullet’s point of impact on the target is the cumulative effect of the entire wind field along its trajectory. As such, wind can be considered the biggest non-deterministic variable in long range shooting.” – Bryan Litz

Here is a look at the shot simulation for a few of those scenarios on a 10” target at 700 yards:

Impact of Improved Wind Call at 700 Yards

You can see our huge horizontal spread on the first target, with over half of our shots landing to the left or right of the target because of wind calls that were slightly off from what was actually going on at the moment. Then, by improving from +/- 5 mph to +/- 3 mph, we improved our odds 24%! But, you can see we are still missing because of horizontal dispersion. Finally, on the far right … we have elite wind calling ability. Keep in mind we still aren’t nailing the wind perfectly, but we are calling it within 1 mph 95% of the time … and that results in a 99.7% hit probability in this scenario.

We can now clearly see what Bryan Litz was talking about when he said “There are few things that will improve hit percentage more than reducing wind uncertainty.”

One point to keep in mind, is that all of this analysis assumes you have centered groups. That means they represent the best case scenario for hit percentage, since your odds only decrease if groups come off center. If you’re scope isn’t zeroed, or your rifle is canted slightly to one side, or your scope’s clicks aren’t calibrated correctly, or you pull the shot slightly … then your hit probability can decrease dramatically. But these simulations assume we have all that stuff squared away.

Tips For Improving Wind Calling Ability

While some long range games are on square ranges surrounded with wind flags, the tactical crowd and hunters don’t typically have that luxury. Successful long-range shooters develop specialized skills to read a wide range of natural wind indicators like trees, vegetation, and mirage to judge the wind speed and direction.

So the obvious question is this: How do I get better at wind calling the wind? Unfortunately, there isn’t a list of steps or formula to follow. I’ve told people that one of the things that I love about long-range shooting is the elegant blend of both science and art. This is the art portion. Careful calculations and obsessive attention to detail can take you a long way in this sport, but they can’t help you here.

One time I was out throwing clay pigeons with a friend. He pulled out a new pistol grip home defense shotgun, and he talked me into trying to hit a clay with it. I shot it from the hip and vaporized a clay on the first try … and the second. He tried to get me to explain how I did it, but I honestly can’t. It was all feel and mostly subconscious. I always had shotguns growing up, and at this point, I’ve shot a lot of shells. Wind reading ability seems similar. You get a sense of it over time, but it takes a lot of ammo. There don’t seem to be any shortcuts.

Here are Bryan’s tips for improving your wind calling ability: “Given the vastness and in-exact nature of wind reading, it shouldn’t be surprising that truly the best way to learn the skill is experience, and especially experience with a more skilled wind reader who can communicate their skills and knowledge to their students.”

Kestrel Applied Ballistics Wind MeterA wind meter can help hone your ability to call the wind, but it isn’t like a ballistic calculator that spits out the answer. It simply provides the instantaneous wind at your position. That is just one portion of the long journey the bullet will make to meet the target. It’s up to the shooter to make a judgment call on what the net effect of the full wind field will be.

I’ve heard people say you get good at positional shooting in your living room. You don’t have to be firing live rounds at the range to practice improvised shooting positions. If you practice them dry-firing at home, they will become natural, and you can repeat those on-demand. I’d suggest a similar approach with wind meters. I’ve carried mine around with me in my truck. As I go about my day, I occasionally guess what the wind speed based on what I feel and indicators I see … and then check how I did with the wind meter. I’m still not great … but it seems to help.

I’m also putting up a couple wind flags at my range. I realize some people probably tuned out just then. Stay with me! I’m primarily a hunter and a practical/tactical shooter. I realize I won’t have wind flags in those situations. My idea is to put wind flags on the range for training, to help me relate the known wind speed with natural indicators. I want to get better at recognizing what different wind speeds look like on different vegetation and in the mirage. I shoot in a canyon, where many different winds are present. Instrumenting the range would help me better understand how the different winds play into the full wind field for different scenarios. At least that is my theory!

I ordered a couple flags last week that looked interesting, and I just got them in. They’re actually made for some kind of sport women play that I believe they call golf … so they might be a little too delicate to last very long at the range! It might be a waste of money, but I feel like this WEZ analysis has shown that wind is the biggest area for improvement for 99% of the shooters out there, me included. I’m committed to improving my wind calling ability.

Wind Speed Golf Flags

Another tip veteran shooter Jim See suggested was to shoot in some F-class matches. I know, I probably just lost more readers … stay with me! Jim is a world-class tactical shooter, finishing in the top 20 in each of the last 3 years in the Precision Rifle Series, which only a very small number of elite shooters can claim that. But Jim comes from an F-class background. He said the immediate feedback you get shooting F-class can really help you understand what the wind is doing. For those who may not know, in many F-class competitions you might be shooting at 600 or 1000 yards, and often there are target pits where people will pull down the targets and mark where your bullet impacted between each shot. So you know exactly where you each shot hits on those distant targets, and can learn what corrections you need to make.

Target Pits at 1000 Yard Range

Virtually any time you spend getting better at calling the wind is well spent. Here is one last word of wisdom on the topic from Bryan Litz: “Learning to accurately assess wind speed and direction can improve hit percentage dramatically. Therefore training and practice is perhaps the most worthwhile investment in hit percentage for windy environments.”

Any tips for how to get better at shooting in the wind? Have you taken any good training courses? Any helpful tips you could share with the rest of us? Please add a comment below!

Other Posts In This Series

This post was one of a series of posts that takes a data-driven look at what impact different elements have on getting hits at long-range. Here are some others posts in this series:

If you want to dig more into this subject or explore some of these elements for your specific rifle, ammo, and ballistics, I’d encourage you to buy the Applied Ballistics Analytics Package to run these kinds of analysis yourself. You could also pick up Bryan’s Accuracy and Precision for Long-Range Shooting book, which has a ton of great info on these topics and other aspects of shooting.

Enjoy this type of data-driven information? That’s what this website is all about. Sign-up to receive new posts via email.

About Cal

Cal Zant is the shooter/author behind PrecisionRifleBlog.com. Cal is a life-long learner, and loves to help others get into this sport he's so passionate about. His engineering background, unique data-driven approach, and ability to present technical and complex information in a unbiased and straight-forward fashion has quickly caught the attention of the industry. For more info on Cal, check out PrecisionRifleBlog.com/About.

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23 comments

  1. Raymond T. Jones

    It matters a lot! It is perishable and needs to be practiced often.

  2. I’m in the Panhandle of Texas, Hodnett’s and Tubb’s arena…..wind calling is key here. Very grateful for every bit of information I can get. Really grateful for your knowledge. Stay Safe !

    • Same here. I’m down in Lubbock, which is probably not too far from you. When we say the wind isn’t blowing, that just means it’s less than 15 mph … I honestly can’t remember ever shooting long range here in 0 mph wind. It’s like big foot … I hear people talk about it, but I’ve never seen it myself!

      Glad you’ve found this info helpful. I’m just trying to get some perspective on what I should focus on to get the biggest improvement, and thought I’d do some posts as I was on the journey. The reception to this series has been a little surprising. I didn’t know as many people would find this niche, analytical stuff interesting. Glad you found value in it!

      Thanks,
      Cal

      • City of Panhandle in Panhandle…. About 30 miles east of Amarillo. Agree on the Bigfoot / Unicorn comment. Wind is a gimme. Wind not blowing I think something is wrong these days….:o)

        Stay Safe Sir !!

  3. C. Perry & Cal I’m in Amarillo and would love to get some training on wind reading as well as other long range tips. Know any good resources outside Cal’s articles? Which by the way are just nothing short of phenomenal. Thanks so much Cal!!

    • I hope to take one of the Accuracy 1st training courses that Todd Hodnett offers in Canadian, TX. Todd primarily trains military elite, but last year they started offering a course for civilians. I’d love to take it with Todd himself, but I bet he’s hired other instructors for the civilian classes (which I totally understand and respect). I bet it’s still a world class training experience. I’m thinking about the Long Range 2 and Advanced classes.

      I bought the Art of the Precision Rifle DVD Set by Magpul a couple years ago, and have watched it a few times. It is a 5 disc DVD set that is essentially one of Todd’s long-range classes. One of the DVD’s is focused on making wind adjustments. It’s hard to really capture the full experience on video, because part of it is feeling the wind on your face or noticing small amounts of movement and changes in the way grass or the mirage is moving. But he does talk about the Accuracy 1st Speed Formula that he uses to determine the amount he holds for different winds. The formula is a pretty cool shortcut, although I just use my dope card most of the time. I can see the benefit to having it memorized and being more familiar with it though.

      When I started getting into this, I took a 1000 yard class from Aaron Royal and that was really helpful. Aaron is a veteran shooter, who has better wind calling ability than anyone I’ve seen shoot. Definitely better than me! He is also a patient teacher, not overly dogmatic, and can communicate well. Aaron offers private classes here in Lubbock, and I’d recommend those. In fact, my brother-in-law is taking one with him this month based on my recommendation. Those can be tailored to your experience level, so it isn’t canned material lectured to a big class … essentially you won’t be wasting time going over stuff you’re already familiar with. He can also start at the very basics if you’d like. He can still spot flaws in my fundamentals, and helps me make corrections. One of the quotes from Bryan Litz I really liked was this: “Given the vastness and in-exact nature of wind reading, it shouldn’t be surprising that truly the best way to learn the skill is experience, and especially experience with a more skilled wind reader who can communicate their skills and knowledge to their students.” Yeah … that is a big deal. I’m fortunate to get to shoot with guys like Aaron occasionally, and I learn something every time. He does those out at the private range that I help run here in Lubbock. It’s a pretty cool setup. We have targets out to 2000 yards, and your shooting from the rim of a canyon out into a valley. It’s a pretty ideal setup.

      Anyway … may be more than you wanted to know, but I thought I’d pass on anything I could.

      Thanks,
      Cal

      • Cal & W. Simpson …… I’m all in on a Todd Hodnett Class. Give me a few weeks heads up.

        …. Snagged a Nightforce ATACR today (C446) 5-25X with the Mill-R reticle , 2100$ out the door with a set of 34mm ultra lite magmount rings for it adding 288$ to the cost. Tried to call Nightforce to see if they still have the “free” throw lever deal. Seems they are on a four day work week…closed today.

        Not an F1 first focal plane, second focal plane.

        Seeking opinions, comments upside and downside on this optic if ya’ll have the time.

        Thanks, Stay Safe

  4. >> They’re actually made for some kind of sport women play that I believe they call golf …

    No, that activity was designed for people that wanted to be on a perfectly good rifle range but can’t properly handle firearms. 🙂

  5. Ha some sort of game women play…I think they call golf. Love it! Hey thanks so much for this series. It is helping set my focus straight in the low hanging fruit to the path of long range accuracy instead of obsessing over details that aren’t as important as others.

  6. Wind can change significantly along the range. However, the wind closer to the muzzle is much more critical than the wind closer to the target. Maybe you can simulate this with your program?

    • You can actually run a simulation for that in the Ballistics AE iPhone app, by setting up a 10 mph crosswind that is blowing left to right the first 500 yards of a shot, then a different wind that is the same speed but in the opposite direction for the next 500 yards. You’ll see the winds don’t cancel each other out. The bullet would land on the right side of the target, meaning the wind from the 1st 500 yards had a bigger impact than the next 500 yards. But that is all in theory. I almost put the Yogi Berra quote in this article on that:

      “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice there is.” – Yogi Berra

      In practice … the real answer is it depends. Bryan dives into that argument in his Applied Ballistics for Long-Range Shooting book, which if you are reading this and don’t have that book … I promise you’re exactly the kind of guy that would be blown away by all the useful info in it. I won’t include his entire content on that, because you really should buy it.

      Here are a few key excerpts from that topic: “Does the wind that’s close to the shooter (near wind) have more influence over the total wind deflection, or is the wind at the target (far wind) more important? … The textbook answer says that the near wind is more important than far wind … For a given wind speed, the total deflection is more dependent on how the bullet is affected early in its flight. … But there are some problems with the textbook argument (no surprise!).” Then he goes on to point out several convincing flaws to either side of the argument. I won’t go into those, because that is not the point I’m trying to make (and you should all buy the book … it’s the best book I’ve ever read on the subject of long-range shooting, and I’ve read a thick stack of them). All this stuff I’m referencing is on page 66-67 in the 2nd Edition of the book.

      Here is the big takeaway for me from Bryan’s section on that topic:

      “The near wind/far wind debate is a perfect illustration of why wind is such a unique consideration for long range shooters. We get into the habit of measuring and correcting for all the variables, so we try to apply the same technique for wind. We think there must be some general, governing rules of thumb that can be applied to systematically dope the wind in every situation, but it’s not so. In fact, the blanket application of any one policy, be it the near wind or far wind, can be worse than no policy at all. The right approach is to examine the range, and observe the unique features of the landscape and make a decision based on the information that’s most important for that place.” – Bryan Litz, Applied Ballistics for Long-Range Shooting 2nd Edition (p 67)

      This is what I was trying to explain in the article, when I said: “Unfortunately, there isn’t a list of steps or formula to follow. I’ve told people that one of the things that I love about long-range shooting is the elegant blend of both science and art. This is the art portion. Careful calculations and obsessive attention to detail can take you a long way in this sport, but they can’t help you here.” That is hard for analytical engineers like me to come to terms with, and it sounds like you may be in that camp too. But it’s reality, regardless of whether we believe it or not. Wind is different than every other factor we have to correct for. It’s a dynamic fluid, and that behaves much differently than gravity or other rotational forces on a projectile … so we have to approach it with a different mindset. We can’t use the same tools we use for the other factors that we need to account for, or we’ll end up with overly-generalized half-truths that may not always align with what happens in the field.

      Sorry for the long-response. I almost included all this stuff in the post, but didn’t want people’s eyes to glaze over … because it is a very gray area, and kind of off in the weeds a little bit. Really I wanted the article to help people get perspective on how important understanding the wind is. Trying to explain all the nuances about the wind could fill many books, and was outside of the scope I was trying to cover. But, I wanted to at least pass on what I have found to be wisdom on the topic you brought up.

      I do appreciate your feedback. I’m just trying to figure this stuff out like everyone else. There are probably only a handful of people in the world who should be considered “wind experts”, and they’re all in very high demand. The rest of us are still trying to figure it out. That is why Bryan said in another book “Those with a special knack for wind reading count themselves rare among their ranks, and often make successful coaches and/or instructors.” Rare indeed. It’s a skill I hope to improve on, but don’t expect to ever conquer.

      Thanks,
      Cal

  7. First of all thank you for your excellent work.

    IMHO nothing beats sailing as a platform for honing your wind awareness. The smaller the boat, the better.
    I know – not tacticool, but time well spent. 🙂

    Toby

  8. Toby-the-wind-in-his-face sailor is on the same mental track your wonderful article put me.
    I spent over 29,000 hours being the bullet. As a pilot your streamlined airliner gives you constant feedback via the flight controls as you maintain centerline coming down final approach responding to the ebb and gusts and laminar flow velocity levels and thermals and mechanical turbulence then ground effect.
    The dynamic hydraulics of this river-of-air is so variable it amazes me our non-guided “gone ballistic” spitzers group as well as they do.
    I can not imagine software being written to simulate different scenarios for video games…but boy would that be a wonderful training aid.
    Toby the lighter the aircraft and slower the approach speed the better just as with the smaller boat.
    Great point Toby.

  9. Men.( some of you aren’t so gentle ..thank God ) I like Cal’s idea of the Direct Hit golf wind speed flags. I will just use my Kestrel at the firing point but am considering putting three flags at 300 / 600 / 800 yards respectively on my backyard 1,000Y range.
    My 6.5×284-140 trajectory leads me to revise my original flag pole standard’s heights downward. Now I am looking at only 8’@ 300Y / 10’@600Y / 8’@800Y…originally I was going to make them twice that. Cal, guys… what do you think optimum ?

    • Great question! My wind flag situation is niche. I’m shooting off the rim of a canyon into a valley. I plan on putting one on top of a windmill (really high), and then the other on a target stand 800 yards downrange. I bought the 8 foot solid core Fiberglass Flagsticks from that same company. On the target stand that should put my flags at 10-12 foot, and that is probably what I’d target if I was shooting across flat ground.

      A friend actually emailed me a spreadsheet this week that he created to calculate the clearance he’d need for bullet trajectory in a very special urban defense situation. He called it “Range Obstacle Clearance” … which seems fitting for this as well. It essentially specifies how high the bullet is above the line of sight at points along the trajectory. Unfortunately, I’m not at liberty to share the file … but now that I’ve seen it, this seems pretty simple.

      I don’t worry much about how high my bullet is flying above the line of sight … but I might should be thinking about that. This is important because of Wind Gradient, which you guys may be familiar with. Litz talks about it in the Applied Ballistics book. So this is especially important when deciding how high your wind flags should be … or when deciding what wind gradient will apply to your bullet flight (regardless of whether you have flags or not).

      So great point, CR. If I was instrumenting for one particular distance, I’d probably try to match the trajectory of the bullet as perfectly as I could. But, if you were planning to use them at multiple distances … I’d personally probably stick to 10-12 foot flags. That roughly seems to be the average distance above the line of sight my bullets are through most of their flight.

      I’d love to hear anyone else’s take on this. Is there a better approach here?

      Thanks,
      Cal

  10. Cal,
    Don’t disparage golf too much. The mental aspects and wind reading aspects run parallel in my opinion. One is good practice for the other and vise versa. Had this discussion with a Gunnery Sgt once who had never played golf. He was amazed at how close golf and shooting really are. Great website by the way!

    Take care!
    Phil Hoham
    Berger Bullet Tech

    • Hey, I was just joking, Phil. I try to insert a couple jokes in the posts, to keep it light. I actually used to play golf. Honestly, the only reason I don’t play now is because I have one giant hobby (this) that takes up all my spare time. My wife would kill me if I picked up another hobby! 😉

      Thanks,
      Cal

      • Was just giving you a hard time Cal ! lol !! I still do both! If the wife finds out what I’ve spent in both my life will be measures in milli-seconds!!! Wives can be humorless individuals !!!

  11. Yeah, I agree with Raymond it matters a lot. Being hunting for a quite long, you realize that with bad weather ( read windy) and below average technology ( read wind meter) that`s a serious issue and can ruin the long waited hunt. Wind reading and shooting in wind IS a skill to master and practice, especially when you are regular hunter. Sometimes all you get is a one shot…

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