The Quest For Ballistics Software By Gustavo F. Ruiz
“…The world's first electronic digital computer was developed by Army Ordnance to compute World War II ballistic firing tables…”
Yes, we are talking in relation to ENIAC the first modern computer in history, and please note what it was built for. The outlook of technology is so overwhelming that we hardly ever reflect on the past of computing and what sparked its advance in the first place.
The ENIAC computer was developed over 50 years ago at the University of Pennsylvania as part of the WWII wartime effort. ENIAC, which stood for “Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator”, was 150 feet wide and contained over 17,000 vacuum tubes. It was massive by today’s standards, and paved the way for computers to become today’s strategic tools that dramatically shortened the amount of time it took to get tasks done.
The World War II challenge, which ENIAC addressed, was in ballistics. Artillery designs during the war were changing constantly and considerably, as were the patterns of warfare. Whenever changes occurred, corresponding revisions were required in ballistics firing tables and their ballistics trajectories.
When the North African campaign arose in 1943, the Army was confronted with an entirely different terrain than it was accustomed to and needed a revised set of firing tables.
For most of the war, these ballistics tables’ calculations were programmed by hand. It took approximately 20 hours of desktop calculations at that time to produce a single trajectory and 15 minutes when a mechanical differential analyzer was employed. The Army contracted with the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering for the development of a computing device that would eliminate the backlog of firing table computations by speeding the calculation process. This contract commenced in 1943 with a grant of $61,000. By the end of the war, the total U.S. Army investment in ENIAC research was nearly $500,000
As it turned out, the ENIAC was too late to impact the war effort, but it wound up contributing something far greater to history by becoming the foundation for the modern computer industry. After the war, ENIAC continued to compute ballistics tables and work on atomic energy problems at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds. The ENIAC was finally decommissioned in October of 1955, but its legacy continues today. And that legacy is fundamentally the subject of this essay.
Do we need it?
Fortunately enough, today’s technology has placed that know-how within our means and situated the ability to compute ballistics an easy task, and what was once a “black art” reserved only to the military establishment is now at our service. As with many other things that nowadays we take for granted, it is good to know and remember where they came from and at what expense.
Nevertheless the question still remains valid… do we need it to be a part of our regular equipment? At least for me, there is not as easy or short an answer as it may seem, especially in the long-range community where its use is almost mandatory.
I’m sure that we can agree that for the average shooter/hunter, the use of some sort of ballistics tables is almost non-existent plus immaterial, and for a good reason. It’s fair to admit that at moderate ranges we found no use as verified during the last 100 years by millions, who do not care because success was not elusive for them. Being pragmatic is not a bad habit after all.
And it’s also true that even with the advent of more powerful cartridges (more speed basically) the average effective range at which game is commonly taken remained the same. So, a basic first conclusion is that those advancements in optics, rifles (accuracy) cartridges, etc has yet to reach the masses and it’s doubtful at least that the average distance could change.
For now, it’s the realm of military snipers and long range hunters and shooters, a large and growing community, yes, but only a tiny fraction of the total shooters base.
The complexity of ballistics then arises at full exposure, and when long-range is involved its understanding and use is more than necessary, and as such we need to make at least a simple definition. In this context “long range” is any target located at least ahead of the 350 yards mark.
At that mark and beyond, every error is going to be magnified, wind and gravity playing a crucial role, and in a game where the “one shot” is of paramount importance, chances are that we need to make some calculations before pressing the trigger. Otherwise, luck will not be kind to us.
Ask a shooter to engage a target, not to just send lead down range, at 1,000 yards, and the true meaning of “exterior ballistics” will appear by itself and without any effort. Not to mention when this situation could jeopardize your life or others in the line.
Of course, a shooter can improvise, make a lot of shots and call them, but IMHO that’s not the idea at all, so a new definition to limit the scope of this discussion is needed.
What is sought after is fairly summed up in three words: predictable, repeatable and precise…at long-range! And connecting with the first or second shot is how this game is played or should be in my view. This central idea, in a rational world must be our goal as responsible hunters and we must know that our skills alone will not make the trick. And to achieve that definition and to put those premises in practice what we need is the help of ballistics software, no more no less.
Bear in mind that this kind of software is a key piece of our gear and mandatory as well I would add, of course, if we care to become a successful long range shooter or hunter.
Certainly, you can go and get a set of field data for your favorite load and shoot on a known distance range, at intervals in order to produce enough “data points”. While it’s not a bad approach it’s not very practical and for many reasons. Certainly the other way around is very advisable!
External ballistics tells us that environmental conditions as well as range have a definite and major impact on our load behavior, and as can be easily concluded it’s impossible to shoot one load at all possible conditions. Therefore what we need is the aptitude to practically and accurately predict their effects and while having at hand the downrange ballistics parameters. I’m sorry to say, but there is no other way around if we want flexibility, a luxury not easy to find in the real world.
A shooter who takes the time and effort to know his load’s ballistics is very capable of making first-round hits at 500, 800, and 1,000 yards, at least.
Nonetheless this software revolution, in both availability and features, will not replace by itself the requirement to have a good, solid knowledge of exterior ballistics. I’ve seen many times people playing with a computer program without ever understanding the significance. I mean the “real one” of the various parameters needed. Something similar happens with land navigation and GPS.
We must first understand the phenomena we as shooters are dealing with, to fully comprehend the value and impact each parameter has in our trajectory, thus in our ability to make a hit.
Ballistics as a branch of physics has come a long way since the early days of Galileo Galilei, Tartaglia, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Robins, F. Bashforth, Leonhard Euler, General Mayevski, Colonel James M. Ingalls and Colonel F. Siacci, among others, and as an outcome we now have the benefit of the research and development undertaken by ballisticians during the last century and before, their experiments, the field data they collected and of utmost magnitude, their mathematical legacy.
I could not stress enough, to the shooter interested in moderate to long-range target hitting, that is a mandatory rule to learn about exterior ballistics, their parameters and how to understand, collect and interpret them. Without this essential and basic knowledge, the use of ballistics software could be deceiving and unforgiving. Knowing the trade is vital. A faraway target only adds to the problem while thinning exponentially the probability of success. On the other hand, a major point to judge and a key concern too, when choosing a ballistics software package, is of course the accuracy of its predictions, and that depends as can be anticipated, on the ballistics engine it relies on.
In short, knowing about ballistics is not only necessary to understand what we are doing, but is also a key instrument regarding our purchase decision.
What to look for?
As time passed by, more and more of us were becoming what in the IT industry are referred as “power users”, that is a group of people with above standard skills when using a computer. In practical terms, this means that we have come to appreciate what good, reliable software is and what is not.
Nowadays we have the luck that our choices are numerous and capable to accommodate every user's preferences, since the market is growing following the universal trend that governs software. Everywhere, anytime.
Therefore, here goes a short checklist of what I think we should look for in any software package we might be considering for use.
First of all, ballistics software is…software. No more, no less, and as such it’s trapped in the same cage as the other million applications. We can have them for free or as commercial packages, with many or less features, with good, worse or nonexistent customer support. In other words, how an application rates as a software product is perhaps the first consideration to make.
Just to start, take a deep look at its very nature as a software product, assuming that the platform of choice is the Windows operating system:
Is it supported?
How good is this support? Is it free or charged?
Does the development team stays behind the product?
Does it conform to professional development practices? Or is it awful?
Does its user interface follow the Windows-GUI guidelines?
Is it easy and intuitive to use?
How reliable it is? Does it crash often?
What about reliability?
Does it come with a professional-grade installer?
And what about user’s documentation? Good, mediocre or worst?
Can you store and manage your own data?
Can you make reports and easily share them with others?
Can you export data to other popular formats?
Can you visualize the output in both tabular and graphical formats?
Does it integrate well with the Windows environment?
Its look & feel is recognizable and well thought out?
In terms of pure “ballistics functionality” the offered packages range from being very basic to the ability to make a complete, full parameters, tabular and graphical calculations and for a number of loads, all at the same time.
A basic package is not necessarily a bad choice, but as limited as they are, do not expect much from them in terms of flexibility.
Flexibility is a key asset, and since a well designed, feature-rich package should be viewed also a powerful decision making aid. Do not look at it as only as a calculator, it has many more uses. For example, to compare different loads, different zeros, different environment conditions, etc. If the program is powerful enough it will give to the serious shooter an invaluable tool to support the analysis of different field scenarios. And will help a lot to put a nice end to many futile, unsupported discussions. So look for a package that was designed to handle “what-if scenarios”
On the other hand, a feature-rich package will offer much more than ballistics calculations alone, since its design criteria is wide enough to perform many of the tasks that we as shooters might face. These include having access to reloading tables and components, BC calculations, personal log and a lot more useful utilities that while not at the main stage are not easy to find when we need. Examples would be to compute a barrel’s optimum twist or to perform an interior ballistics analysis.
These packages were designed to help in the most important tasks we have, from ballistics to reloading and to perform data management, thus closing the circle.
Others will integrate functions, centered on a common, central architecture for a modular style that facilitates the user’s interaction and ability to access both data and functions.
Now, the vital component of every ballistics software is how accurate are its predictions. Without a precise mathematical model, we have nothing and we all know that. It’s the core of what we are after.
Generally speaking, the success of any given software often hinges upon the quality and consistency of the underlying architecture, patterns, final application design, how easily it can be used and how exact are its predictions.
Since this article was not intended to serve as a primer on exterior ballistics, I won’t delve into the fascinating subject of ballistics models, but I’d like to say that with many packages it’s advisable to do not take for granted every number you see on a computer screen.
As any seasoned long range hunter knows, field verification of actual calculated values is the last possible test. With a good solid ballistics model used by the prediction engine plus good input data (which requires some effort and the correct approach) very accurate downrange ballistics figures are completely achievable.
Does size matter?
A hunter needs mobility so the gear needs to be handy, light, tough and dependable. It’s a simple fact of life.
A good, serious, skilled shooter/hunter cares a lot about his gun, scope, ammo and takes to training as much as he can. Failure is a nasty option.
A long range hunter also needs to have a means to compute trajectories at varying conditions, ranges and slopes. Otherwise he is far beyond whatever his skills could be. He is in the realm of pure providence. I’m positive that we can agree that’s not the general idea.
I know…not so many years ago, the pioneers of this long range community didn’t have the means to compute trajectories on the go, or even at home, but they were savvy enough to make a cult of practical marksmanship and practice under field conditions was a religion. Also, they knew their limits.
But today, we are pushing the envelope as much as we can by using the current technology and 1,000 yards shots are not that unusual, and as I said before a call for calculations is in order. Skills alone won’t do the trick.
As PDAs are becoming more affordable, some software developers are making ballistics solutions that run on them, others take another route and are more focused on developing software that creates practical field charts (data cards) almost automatically for any set of predefined conditions.
Personally, I think that both approaches have their merits and audiences. With just one point in common for both, the need to have in-field on the fly data or at least pre-computed data to account for the changes that a shot might present from our original sight-in condition.
A PDA adds the ultimate in calculation flexibility, no doubt about that, but on the other hand it is another item to carry, to get wet or lost and to care for. Plus it needs power to run.
Windows Mobile is also now powering a growing variety of device form-factors, many of which are blurring the traditional concepts of “phone” and “PDA”. So the technology and design specs decision any software team must face is not that easy. Development time in the software industry is very significant only adding to the cost and associated complexity of a new release of any product in an ever changing market, dominated by the word “dynamic”.
From the perspective of a software developer, there is little doubt that the MS Windows (in any of their flavors) is the widespread and dominating platform, however in the world of PDAs that is not so apparent. Certainly both the PALM OS and Windows Mobile still need to be polished enough to declare a clear winner. Field Charts are not that flexible but a set of at least 3 (more is not really needed) can cover most of the situations. Again, the key here is how well they are designed, since they can include anything we want. You name it, be it a chart for Wind, Slope, Mil-Dot, etc.
They are also very easy to generate. Any decent software package with adequate reporting and calculations capabilities will let you do that. More sophisticated packages go a step further by having these facilities built into their core features.
Given that they are paper-made, they cost nothing, do not need power, and if lost or ruined just print out another set. Most shooters are used to laminating their charts, making them impervious to cope with foul weather. A nice, practical and cheap solution!
Where are the restrictions?
It’s complex to talk about restrictions in the context of software, since apparently the sky is the limit.
We are witnessing an increasing power in functional aspects, mostly revolving around the use of the Internet and in general terms the result of the deep integration and convergence of technologies that once separated now are glued in almost every new device that hits the consumer’s market.
Nevertheless the very nature of hunting and shooting is not going at the same pace, does not need to, because we are somewhat conservative as a group and advancements reach us at a lower pace.
I’m sure that in a short time a fully integrated software-based scope will become a budget-possible product and exterior ballistics then will become a commodity, at least as we know it today. Just think about old-fashioned land navigation with maps, compass and now GPS. Or free high-resolution satellite images, that we now take for granted for an every day use.
Under this environment, of course physics will remain the same, gravity and air still playing its game with our bullets, but under a new perspective, with shooters relying more and more on technology to solve their long-range problems.
In my view, the main restriction is in the accuracy of our models used to predict exterior ballistics, and the creativity of those who design and develop software.
As a software developer I should add that coping with new technology standards is probably the most important barrier to overcome.
As said before, the set of problems a long range hunter must face will remain the same; we just have to come with new and better software technology to help realize the only one goal: one precise shot.
The use of software for the calculation of ballistics has came a long way, from a computer the size of two rooms to hand-held devices, in just 50 years. Not bad at all.
However a fact remains fixed and it’s the need for any long range shooter to know his trade.
Only with good knowledge of ballistics will a discerning shooter/hunter be able not only to understand what to look for in any given software, but be able to interpret the data in a correct way.
I cannot read the future, but it’s not that difficult to envision the path that this technology is about to follow.
Be prepared for ballistics software more integrated with devices. Be prepared for collaboration technologies through the web. This is happening right now and isolated software could be a thing of the past.
Try to look for innovation and service...two key aspects that any market will always reward.
Take a deep look at the underlying ballistics model, the core engine that will make for accuracy and confidence. Like the software itself, not all are created the same.
Software is, in essence, a way to make things better and faster. Just ask for that.
Copyright 2007 Gustavo F. Ruiz and LongRangeHunting.com
He is a long time fan of ballistics, reloading and especially hunting big-game. Has contributed many articles for both local and foreign magazines (Spain). Professionally he (just recently), spent eight years at Microsoft. Holds a BS in Computer Science, a BS in Operations Research and an MBA. On the other hand, he is a LtCdr (res) in the Argentine Navy, and is involved with the LR shooting training program of their Special Forces operators. Currently he is developing ballistics/reloading software through Patagonia Ballistics, a small software development group located in Argentina.