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 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.
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:
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.”
A 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.
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.
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.”
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:
- How Much Does Group Size Matter?
- How Much Does SD Matter?
- How Much Does Cartridge Matter?
- How Much Does Muzzle Velocity Matter?
- How Much Does Accurate Ranging Matter?
- How Much Does Wind Reading Matter?
- Overall Summary
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.