Bullet Trace and how to spot it

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Bullet trace is one of those terms that you will hear on forums and TV, but what is it really? We discuss what it is and how to spot it. Then how to use it to become a better shooter and spotter.

What is Bullet trace?

When a bullet travels through the air it creates a high-pressure area in front of it and a low-pressure area behind it. A bullet in flight causes the air around it to be deflected. The Bullet trace is the ripples created in the air as the bullet passes through it. We can see these ripples because the ambient light will reflect differently off the ripples than it will off the air around it.

Spotting Bullet Trace

Usually, the hardest thing for new shooters and spotters is to be able to spot the bullet trace for the first time. This is mainly due to two reasons, knowing where to look and knowing what to look for. The bullet trace is only visible for about a second or so after the bullet passes through the air. So, if you are looking in the wrong place it is easy to miss. A spotter can also lose the trace in the heat haze. Or not spot it at all, especially if you have never seen it before. The climatic conditions and the range to target can also influence how hard it is to find the trace.

Where to look for Bullet Trace

The first thing to know is where to look to find the bullet trace. To do this we have to realize that the bullet does not travel in a straight line to the target. As soon as a bullet leaves the barrel it will begin to lose speed, it will also begin to drop. This means the further we want to shoot the more the barrel will need to be elevated. This causes the bullet to travel in an Arc to the target.

Most spotters will tend to miss the bullet trace because they focus on the target. However, if we want to catch the trace we need to be focused above the target. Depending on the range to target the bullet is going to be coming in from well above it. A 168 Gr bullet fired from a .308 rifle will drop about 163” on its way to a 700 yd target. This means that we need to aim about 13.5 feet above the target to hit it. When looking for the trace the spotter needs to be focus approximately 13 to 14 feet above the target, depending on range.

The other thing to remember is that the bullet travels in an arc to the target. If the spotter is focused 13 feet above the target it is highly likely they will  miss the trace. Instead the spotter needs to be looking about ¾’s of the way to the target. That way you can pick up the trace and follow it all the way into the target.

Bullet trace to target
Target at 460 meters, blue line shows the bullets path to the target

What does bullet trace look like

Bullet trace will look like a shimmer moving through the air. Something similar to the ripples in water after throwing a rock into it. In the video at the top of this post you can see trace clearly as the bullet moves through the air. Trace is one of those things that once you have seen it you will be able to pick it up easily again.

Spotter positioning

Where the spotter is positioned will affect when the trace is seen in the spotting scope. Ideally, the spotter should be as close as possible in line with the shooter. When this is the case you will see the bullet rise up in the spotting scope and then drop to the target.

If the spotter is positioned to the left or right of the shooter then the bullet trace will come in on that respective side of the reticle. I find it easiest to spot trace when laying right next to the shooter. I have the target in the bottom quadrant of the scope and the target itself is slightly out of focus. This way I can follow the bullet trace all the way to the target easily.

Shooter and Spotter
Spotting right next to the shooter is the best way to see the bullet trace

When the spotter is not positioned behind the shooter they may only see the last part of the trace. This means that the optic will need to be focused well. And the spotter will need experience in what to look for.

Bullet trace and how to see it
Trace will appear in the left hand side of the scope when spotting from the right side of the shooter

Bullet Trace Optics

Using low-quality optics will make it harder to spot bullet trace. Using a good quality spotting scope like the Leupold Mark 4 or the Vortex Viper HD spotting will make life a lot easier. I use the Leupold Mark 4 spotting scope. The Leupold Mk 4 uses a first focal plane TMR reticle, (Tactical Milling Reticle). This allows me to calculate the range to the target.

Leupold Spotting Scope
Leupold Mk 4 Spotting scope
Vortex Spotting Scope
Vortex Viper Series of spotting scopes

Bullet Splash

Bullet splash is the what happens to the bullet when it hits either the target or the dirt.  When following the bullet trace into the target what you hope to see is the bullet vaporizing as it impacts on the target. This affect can sometimes cause the spotter to think that the hit was a miss . This is because the bullet spray will kick dirt up in front of the target.  Its import to be able to understand and recognize the difference between hit and miss.

When the bullet misses the target and impacts the dirt beside the target. A dust cloud is kicked up. You can tell from its location left or right of the target that it was a miss. The ones that can be much harder to tell are the shots that fall short. It can be easy to lose the trace at the last second before the bullet hits the target. This is usually when the spotter is going to use the splash to call the shot. It is important to be able to tell the difference between a dust cloud from bullet hit in front versus bullet fragments causing dust to rise.

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Bullet Vapor Trail

Bullet trace will sometimes be referred to as a vapor trail. A bullet vapor trail is different from a normal bullet trace. Just like a jet that breaks the sound barrier and induces a vapor cloud around it a bullet can have the same effect. For a bullet to have the same effect the climatic conditions need to be a perfect mix of temperature, humidity, and pressure. This is an exceedingly rare event and if you are shooting in a low humidity environment, (like me), then the odds are you are very unlikely to ever see this event.

Being the shooter and spotting your own bullet trace

Though this in concept is not impossible it is really hard to do. This is because once you have pulled to trigger and recovered from the recoil the bullet has most likely traveled most of the way to target, depending on range to target of course. This makes it extremely hard to pick up on the bullet trace.

Usually when being your own spotter and the shooter you will need to rely on bullet splash to indicate where you round hits.

Bullet trace and how to spot it
Being the Shooter and Spotter can be tough to see the shot

Once you get locked on to what the bullet trace looks like and where it comes from you find that often you will be able to see it even with a scope. Keep practicing and be safe when you shoot…

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