Trimble Recon with Nightforce Exbal ballistic calculator

Ballistic Calculator: A Beginner’s Guide


If you’re new to the world of long range shooting or hunting, you’ve no doubt wondered which ballistic calculator you should use.

It’s no surprise, considering how many options there are along with an equal number of opinions concerning which ones are the best.

Some of the most frequent questions I see in emails or on forums have to do with the ballistic calculator.  In this article I’ll outline what ballistic calculators are, how they work, and why you need one. I’ll also share my recommendations for some of the ones I’ve used.

Also known as a ballistic app, solver, or engine, the ballistic calculator is used to convert environmental data and target information into a trajectory correction we can use to hit a long range target.

That’s it. The ballistic calculator’s sole purpose is to take the information we feed it, and calculate a correction for gravity, air resistance, and wind deflection. Depending on the solver, there can be a few more variables it will account for, but all of them correct for those three influences on the bullet’s travel.

Kestrel 5700 Elite ballistic calculator with Pile of 260 Brass

Field testing the Kestrel 5700 Elite w/ LiNK

How do they work?

To make a ballistic calculator work accurately, you start by building what is commonly called a profile. The profile is the constant of the equation; it stays the same and consists of inputs such as scope height, muzzle velocity (MV), and the bullet’s ballistic coefficient (BC).

The variable parts of the equation are the environmental conditions and target distance. Environmental conditions include air pressure, air temperature, and humidity. Air pressure is typically referred to as station pressure, or when combined with air temperature, density altitude.

Wind direction, wind speed, Coriolis, and spin drift are also classified as environmental conditions.

When you prepare to take the shot, the environmental inputs and range to target are entered into the ballistic calculator.

The solver then uses an algorithm to compute a trajectory correction based on the gun profile stored in the solver. In a perfect world, all of the inputs would be accurate and the ballistic calculator would give us the exact correction needed to pinwheel the target. Unfortunately, it rarely works that way. It’s usually very close, but the solver typically needs to be trued to work properly.

Also known as trajectory validation, truing is the process of calibrating the ballistic calculator, ammunition, and scope to work accurately together. Click HERE for more information on trajectory validation.

Long Range Trajectory Validation Kestrel Elite

Careful trajectory validation should be done with any ballistic calculator.

Do I really need one? Isn’t a ballistic reticle or turret just as good?

Yes. You need one. There’s no compelling reason not to use a ballistic calculator if you’re interested in long range shooting. It will be one of the least expensive investments you’ll make. Want to know how much drop and wind deflection a particular cartridge has at 1000 yards? Or the trajectory difference when you travel from sea level to 6,000 feet to hunt elk? A ballistic solver can answer those questions and more.

A ballistic reticle or turret is only calibrated for a certain set of environmental conditions and ammunition specs. Because of this, they will only be as precise as a ballistic calculator in those conditions. They can be fairly accurate for a lot of the shooting we do, even beyond the conditions they’re calibrated for, but fairly accurate isn’t really what we’re after. Furthermore, I can accomplish the same thing with MOA or MIL-based stadia on a standard reticle with the help of a ballistic calculator.

BulletFlight (M) Screenshot

Screenshot of an iPhone 6 with BulletFlight (M)

Which ballistic calculator should I get?

Before we answer that question, let’s look at the different types of solvers available:

  • PC-based ballistic calculator. This type of solver is available for desktops or laptops, either as a program to be installed or viewed on the internet. Trajectory data can be printed out and taken into the field.
  • Mobile ballistic calculator or App. Most commonly used on smartphones or tablets, the ballistic App is downloaded to a mobile device and can be used directly in the field.
  • Analog ballistic solver. The only one of these that I know of is the Accuracy 1st Whiz Wheel. It works by spinning a wheel inside of a sleeve to calculate trajectory corrections. The wheel is printed with the ballistic data of your rifle and ammunition.
  • Ballistic calculator combined with another ballistic tool. This type of solver is built into another device used for long range shooting, such as a laser rangefinder (LRF) or Kestrel weather meter.
PC-Based Ballistic Calculator

Screenshot of Nightforce Ballistic Program and Applied Ballistics Analytics. Note 1000 yard correction.

These are the ones I’ve used and can recommend.
  • Nightforce Ballistic Program (Exbal). This is an older ballistic program that’s no longer supported by Nightforce. If you have it, or have access to it, it will do all that’s needed for long range hunting. Mine is version 8.1, circa 2007. I have it loaded on a PC and a Trimble Recon. The Recon is by far the toughest mobile platform I’ve ever used.
  • Kestrel 5700 Elite. This is the one I’m currently using the most. It includes the powerful Applied Ballistics solver, as well as Kestrel’s full environmental reading capabilities. It will allow you to take any shot you’re capable of to 4000 yards. For my full review, click HERE.
  • Applied Ballistics Analytics. This ballistic calculator is PC-based. I use it mostly for generating drop charts and comparing trajectories. It also includes Wind Profile Analysis and Weapon Employment Zone information, both of which are useful for learning downrange performance.
  • KAC’s BulletFlight (M). I’ve had this program loaded on an iPhone 4, iPhone 6, iPad, and iPod Touch. I recommend BulletFlight (M) for those wanting to use an IOS mobile device. It’s ease of use and uncluttered targeting screen makes it my favorite solver for a mobile device.
  • Accuracy 1st Whiz Wheel. I carry this little gem as a backup to my electronic solvers. It’s a ballistic calculator that uses a generic sleeve and custom wheels to generate corrections. It requires no batteries, uses the Applied Ballistics programming, and is capable of accurate corrections for most long range hunting scenarios. For my full review, click HERE.
Jake Millard using an Accuracy 1st Whiz Wheel ballistic calculator.

Jake Millard using an Accuracy 1st Whiz Wheel ballistic calculator.

No matter which ballistic calculator you choose, learn to use it proficiently.

This is the key to making a solver work accurately. Use it enough to become familiar with it and trust it. I see a lot of debate on internet forums about which solvers are the best, or which one is the most accurate. The truth is they all give you the same outputs if the inputs are the same. They all differ in presentation to some degree, and some offer more advanced capabilities, but math is math. For sake of comparison, I checked the trajectory correction for a 1000 yard shot with all five of the previously recommended solvers. All five were within .25 MOA of each other. What’s not to like about that?

With careful trajectory validation and general familiarization with the device it’s used on, I wouldn’t hesitate to use any of the mentioned ballistic calculators for long range hunting. Neither should you.

 

 

 

 

 

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Sam

As an Idaho native, avid hunter, and long range shooter, Sam has written numerous articles and gear reviews for various online publications. Specializing in long range hunting in the mountains of northern Idaho, Sam founded Panhandle Precision as a way to continue sharing his passions.

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