Calibers and range: Part 1

by B.B. Pelletier

There seems to be a lot of confusion about calibers and how far they can shoot. I was reading an article on another website that stated that a .22 caliber pellet does not shoot as far as .177. What a load of hogwash! Today, I want to share with you the truth about range.

Most of what I will present has been learned through experiments with bullets, not pellets. However, there is a crossover in black powder testing, and I will make the bridge to pellets there.

Testing began after the American Civil War
Armies around the world were interested in the new breechloading arms. Practically every army was conducting tests, but for once, the U.S. Army was almost at the rear of every other military force on the planet. We had just emerged from an expensive five-year war and our Army sought a way to utilize the one million muzzleloading muskets they had on hand, rather than embarking on a wholesale upgrade to a new breechloader. From their efforts, the famous 1873 Trapdoor Springfield rifle emerged. Although it was obsolete on the day it was adopted, one thing was done very well in its development. The Army studied ammunition for a long time and concluded that a .45 caliber bullet was ballistically superior to the .58 caliber Minie bullet they started out with.

Other armies had also learned this lesson, and .40 to .45 caliber soon became the range of choice throughout the world. Thirteen years later (1886), the French astounded the world with the first smallbore cartridge (8mm) that used smokeless powder! Before we go there, allow me to tell you the results of a U.S. Army test done a few years ago with black powder cartridges.

Lesson No. 1: Modern radar tracks bullets in flight!
Forensic scientists who were about to have a meeting at the Yuma Proving Grounds claimed that Billy Dixon’s famous 1,538-yard shot that took an Indian off a horse at the Battle of Adobe Walls couldn’t have happened. Dixon’s rifle, a Sharps 50/90, shot the 675-grain bullet at only 1,216 f.p.s., and several of the scientists felt the bullet couldn’t go that far. At Yuma Proving Gounds, they enlisted the Army’s latest counter-battery radar to track the bullet’s flight when shot from a rifle donated by Shiloh Sharps. With the bore inclined 35 degrees to the horizon, they tracked the bullet out to 3,600 yards, where it finally impacted the ground, still moving at more than 350 f.p.s. When they loaded the cartridge with a 450-grain bullet and 100 grains of powder, it started out at 1,406 f.p.s., but landed only 2,585 yards away. This experiment was reported in Mike Venturino’s article Sharps Rifles, just how far will they shoot? in Shotgun News, in the April 2000 issue.

The lesson? A slower-moving bullet that weighs more travels much farther than a lighter, faster bullet. But, it’s not that simple. Something else is also at work. Both bullets went supersonic, but the heavy one quickly dropped to subsonic again. Supersonic flight severely limits a bullet’s range UNLESS the bullet is streamlined to take full advantage of the speed!

Lesson No. 2: Why the Army’s 30/03 became the 30/06
When the U.S. Army finally realized their .45 caliber single-shots were outclassed by every other rifle in the world, they had a panicky and brief flirtation with the Krag rifle (1892-1903). Thankfully, the Krag’s poor showing in the Spanish/American War, pitted against the modern 1893 Mauser, completely shook the U.S. Army out of its lethargy. They began to develop a modern rifle. It was fielded in 1903, but the ammunition was still unproven. It was a .30 caliber round (the world range was now 6.5mm to 8mm) that used a 220-grain round-nosed bullet that left the muzzle at 2,300 f.p.s. To get the performance the Army wanted, however, the bullet weight was reduced to 150 grains, and the shape was streamlined at the nose. This new bullet was standardized as the 1906 .30 caliber cartridge, and the 30/06 was born.

HOWEVER, in World War I, the U.S. Army discovered that the bullets from machine guns of other armies traveled almost twice as far as their 1906 bullets. In fact, they discovered that the 1906 bullet went only 3,400 yards…38 percent less than the specifications called for. A study was undertaken to discover why. What that study discovered was that other armies were using boat-tailed bullets in their machine guns, so a detailed study of bullet shapes was made by Col. Townsend Wehlen. In 1923, he determined that a boat-tail bullet with a 9 percent rear slope would perform best. In 1923, this 174-grain boat-tailed bullet was standardized for all .30 caliber rifles and machine guns. It traveled 5,900 yards, but a reduction in velocity to keep pressures safe reduced that to 5,500 yards! It was later replaced with a lighter bullet that had less recoil, the 150-grain M2, but the lesson of bullet streamlining had been learned.

In the next section, I’ll tell you how all of this relates to pellets.

11 thoughts on “Calibers and range: Part 1”

  1. Lama,

    Most bullets have a square end. Boattails are tapered in at their base. It’s not as sharp a taper as the point of the bullet, but it’s noticeable. Just like a fast boat, and for the same reason, a bullet with a tapered tail has less drag than one with a squared-off end.


  2. Hey B.B., I was wondering whether different types of pellets make that much of a difference in accuracy and distance. Like cyndrical pellets vs. domed vs. pointed. The .20 JSB’s are sold out and I was wondering about which ones would be the next best (if there is that big of a difference).


  3. Pistol vs rifle,

    If the pistol could be held as steadily as the rifle, then yes.

    That is a quick answer to a trick question, because we all know of rifles that can group in a half-inch at 200 yards, and I don’t believe a pistol has ever done as well, however the length of the barrel is not the limiting factor. The stability a longer barrel give to a gun is very influential, but the barrel length, by itself, does not determine accuracy.


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