Photographing bullet trace

Len Backus

Staff member
May 2, 2001
Bud Meadows and I watched bullet traces through a spotting scope when he came over to my place to shoot long range last month. This visit and demonstration motivated me to try taking a picture of the phenomenon.

Here is a picture of the attempt by me last week at the rifle, Dave Boardman at the spotting scope and Mike MacGregor at the camera.

It was windy and cloudy and we were not successful. We got a couple of slight shadows on the target but nothing worth showing you. We will try again on a calm day with the sun behind us.

For those who have not seen it before, you can actually follow the bullet flight right out to the target. When Bud shot last month I could call his shots for windage at 500 yards without seeing the bullet hole on the target. Up/down is harder as the bullet drops rapidly during the last bit of flight.

[ 10-20-2001: Message edited by: Len Backus ]
Hello Len

The vapor trail, or "Wash" as we call it, can be seen much further then the ranges you are filming.
When we are hunting at extended range, you can watch the trail all the way into an animal sometimes. Most of the time you will lose the trail about the last 200 to 300 yards. This is because of the rapid downward arc of the bullet in your line of sight.

I have watched on 2 or 3 occasions the trail going into an animal and the actual hit of the bullet on the skin of that animal. The energy of the shock wave hitting skin layed the fur down in a circle about the size of a grapfruit and the color was real white (skin) and you could see the small hole of the bullet that entered the middle of that circle. Almost as fast as it appeared it went away and the animal fell and you saw the blood fly on the far side, in the snow.

I have watched this on elk and Deer.
Normally on elk, when the trail goes into the side of the animal the shock wave just causes the whole side to quiver or shake rapidly and then they fall. Sometimes or should I say most times they are simply knocked down right now.

The trail is something that all longrange shooters should learn to look for. They must have good optics to see this. We use the two spotters in a bracket to achieve this or use military ship binculars.

We also use this tecnique to get new shooters on target at the Williamsport 1000 yard matches.
You can watch the trail (Wash) go toward the target and can tell the shooter how to adjust his scope to be on paper.

This is also one of our secrets of judging the wind at extreme long range when we can't see a hit on the first shot.
I have told many LR shooters/hunters to learn to watch the trail of the bullet and they will be more successful.

You should see the "Wash" of the 300 gr bullet coming out of the barrel at 3200 and 3300 FPS from my 338/416 Rigby IMP. Normally a person has to set up directly behind the shooter to see the trail. I have had people 15 to 20 yards to the side pick it up.

A muzzle brake will help the SHOOTER watch his own hits and the trail also.

Take care

[ 10-21-2001: Message edited by: Darryl Cassel ]

[ 10-21-2001: Message edited by: Darryl Cassel ]
Interesting that there are several terms used to describe the viewing of bullets in flight. Trace, wash and up here we call it swirl. Not sure if there is also a term for seeing the glint of reflected light off the base of the bullet?

One of the most interesting examples of trace that I have experienced occurs when we shoot .22 LR target ammo at 100 yards, with the sun behing the shooter. We can see the swirl of the bullet trajectory and for a split second the shadow of the bullet on the target paper and they appear to converge into a black hole as the bullet strikes the paper. The shadow appears as a black blur that moves upward, the swirl drops down into the bullet hole. I have seen this many times through the riflescope as I shoot - also have seen it while shooting indoors.

We played around shooting at clay birds out on the 300 yard backstop one day and the swirl of the .22 LR rounds was very easy to watch.

I have also seen extremely slow moving bullets shot indoors in very good light where we could see the swirl, or bullet more correctly, without optics. These were big slow bullets, they were subsonic.

I agree with Darryl, you want to be directly behind the shooter, looking down the bullet path and the better the optics the better the chance of seeing swirl. My favorite scope for that is the Nikon 78mm ED Fieldscope - it is pretty much in a class by itself for sharpness and brightness. I suspect that the position of the sun, relative to the bullet path is also very important, perhaps also how low it is in the sky. We frequently see great swirl during the last couple of hours of shooting light. Cloudy days are usually a bust.

Also busy backgrounds make it harder to see swirl - brush or whatever. Most really long shots involve the trajectory coming down from about the horizon, easier to see against the sky.

Good luck with your photo project.
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