October 19th, 2021

How Altitude Affects Bullet Ballistics (Drag and Drop)

altitude ballistics zeiss LRP S5 318-50 FFP scope
Photo shows the new ZEISS LRP S5 318-50 first focal plane (FFP) scope.

“A bullet launched at a higher altitude is able to fly slightly farther (in the thinner air) for every increment of downward movement. Effectively, the bullet behaves as if it has a higher ballistic coefficient.”

It’s hunting season, and a good friend is heading to the high country of Colorado next week to pursue elk. He recently zeroed his rifle in California, at a range just a few hundred feet Above Mean Sea Level (AMSL). He wondered if the higher altitude in Colorado could alter his ballistics. The answer is a definite yes. However the good news is that free ballistics calculators can help you plot reliable drop charts for various shooting locations, high or low.

Suunto AltimeterThe question has been posed: “What effect does altitude have on the flight of a bullet?” The simplistic answer is that, at higher altitudes, the air is thinner (lower density), so there is less drag on the bullet. This means that the amount of bullet drop is less at any given flight distance from the muzzle. Since the force of gravity is essentially constant on the earth’s surface (for practical purposes), the bullet’s downward acceleration doesn’t change, but a bullet launched at a higher altitude is able to fly slightly farther (in the thinner air) for every increment of downward movement. Effectively, at higher altitudes, the bullet behaves as if it has a higher ballistic coefficient.

Forum member Milanuk explains that the key factor is not altitude, but rather air pressure. Milanuk writes:

“In basic terms, as your altitude increases, the density of the air the bullet must travel through decreases, thereby reducing the drag on the bullet. Generally, the higher the altitude, the less the bullet will drop. For example, I shoot at a couple ranges here in the Pacific Northwest. Both are at 1000′ AMSL (Above Mean Sea Level) or less. I’ll need about 29-30 MOA to get from 100 yards to 1000 yards with a Berger 155gr VLD at 2960 fps. By contrast, in Raton, NM, located at 6600′ AMSL, I’ll only need about 24-25 MOA to do the same. That’s a significant difference.

Note that it is the barometric pressure that really matters, not simply the nominal altitude. The barometric pressure will indicate the reduced pressure from a higher altitude, but it will also show you the pressure changes as a front moves in, etc. which can play havoc w/ your calculated come-ups. Most altimeters are simply barometers that read in feet instead of inches of mercury.”

As Milanuk states, it is NOT altitude per se, but the LOCAL barometric pressure (sometimes called “station pressure”) that is key. The two atmospheric conditions that most effect bullet flight are air temperature, and barometric pressure. Normally, humidity has a negligible effect. It’s important to remember that the barometric pressure reported on the radio (or internet) may be stated as a sea level equivalency. So in Denver (at 6,000 feet AMSL), if the local pressure is 24″, the radio will report the barometric pressure to be 30″. If you do high altitude shooting at long range, bring along a Kestrel, or remember to mentally correct the radio station’s pressure, by 1″ per 1,000 feet.

Trajectory of Bullet fired at Sea Level

Trajectory of Bullet fired at 20,000 feet

You can do your own experimental calculations using JBM Online Ballistics (free to use). Here is an extreme example, with two printouts (generated with Point Blank software), one showing bullet trajectory at sea level (0′ altitude) and one at 20,000 feet. For demonstration sake, we assigned a low 0.2 BC to the bullet, with a velocity of 3000 fps.

To learn more about all aspects of Exterior Ballistics, Hornady has a useful discussion of External Ballistics including the effects of altitude and temperature. To dig deeper, Sierra Bullets has a comprehensive Exterior Ballistics Resource Page with multiple sections from the Sierra Manual (4th and 5th Editions), including:

Section 3.0: Exterior Ballistic Effects on Bullet Flight
Section 3.1: Effects of Altitude and Atmospheric Conditions
Section 3.2: Effects of Wind
Section 3.3: Effects of Shooting Uphill or Downhill

Example from Section 3.0: “When a bullet flies through the air, two types of forces act on the bullet to determine its path (trajectory) through the air. The first is gravitational force; the other is aerodynamics. Several kinds of aerodynamic forces act on a bullet: drag, lift, side forces, Magnus force, spin damping force, pitch damping force, and Magnus cross force. The most important of these aerodynamic forces is drag. All the others are very small in comparison when the bullet is spin-stabilized.”

Similar Posts:

Tags: , , , , , , ,