What is a chronograph? Ballistic chronographs (unlike marine or watch type chronographs or timekeepers) are intended to measure the velocity of projectiles like bullets, arrows, crossbow bolts, paintballs, slingshot balls, or any similar object that moves so quickly it can’t be accurately timed using traditional stopwatches or other methods.
In this article, we will review the three main types of shooting chronographs, their pros and cons, and help you decide the best one for you. First, let’s go over some reasons why you need to consider using a chronograph.
Why you should use a shooting chronograph
So, why would you need to know the speed of a projectile? Well, there are multiple potential reasons, but in the case of bullets and arrows, knowing the speed of your projectile is vitally important for accurate, consistent shooting and properly zeroing your weapon. Determining the ballistic path of your projectile using math or a ballistic calculator depends on knowing the actual speed of the bullet, bolt, ball, or arrow, regardless of what the manufacturer claims it should be.
Image courtesy of Outdoor Hub
Additionally, for quality cartridge reloading, tracking the speed of your bullets with a particular load is essential for determining which combination of cartridge case, bullet, powder, primer, and OAL (overall length) produces the most consistent results. If one shot measures 1,200 feet per second, but the next measures 956 feet per second, that’s not good for accuracy and indicates something is wrong with your process or components. However, those two shots might feel identical to the shooter, and unless you are using a chronograph, you might never know about the issue. Furthermore, suppose a certain load is published to produce 2,300 feet per second from a 16-inch barrel, and your chronograph shows that your supposedly identical load is pushing the bullet at 2,800 feet per second. In that case, that can indicate that something is dangerously wrong with your components or process, and if you don’t remedy the situation, a potentially deadly, explosive event can be on the horizon.
Another reason you might want to use a chronograph is because hollow-point and soft-point bullets’ expansion is velocity-dependent. They are designed to expand or mushroom effectively within a certain velocity window: Not too slow (which can lead to poor terminal ballistic performance and overpenetration) and not too fast (which can lead to bullets breaking up too quickly and under penetration). You should ideally test all defensive and hunting loads in a realistic test medium, but not many people do this. Chronographing your loads can help give you the knowledge you need concerning how fast your bullets are actually moving at a certain distance, and that can help determine whether your cartridges will more likely perform as intended.
Video: How to Get Muzzle Velocity Without a Chronograph
Lastly, competition shooters are frequently required to use ammunition of a certain minimum “Power Factor” (PF) to ensure parity between competitors in a particular division, and many ranges also have a maximum allowable velocity for shooting their steel targets to prevent unnecessary wear, including PRS-type rifle competitions. Larger matches will have chronographs set up to verify each competitor’s loads before allowing them to compete. If you have hand loaded or purchased your ammo for the match but haven’t chronographed it yourself beforehand, you might be surprised to find that your loads are either too slow for legal competition or too fast to be allowed on that particular range. Similarly, paintball competitors or Airsoft participants may be limited by the rules of their organization to a maximum projectile velocity. You might get disqualified or even injure someone without a chronograph to check your gun’s speed. Not good.
What makes a good ballistic chronograph?
Primarily, a good shooting or ballistic chronograph needs to be accurate. After all, the entire point of trying to determine the actual speed your bullets are moving is to be able to accurately track changes in velocity so you can check average velocity, extreme spread, standard deviation, and other factors that contribute to accuracy and effective bullet performance.
Video: How to Calculate Bullet Tragectory
However, if getting accurate data means you have to lug around a 60-lb box of equipment, plug it in, run cables, and deal with many technical bugs, it’s simply not worth the trouble for most people. So there must be a good balance between accuracy and ease of use.
Furthermore, the best, lightest, most accurate, most reliable, and most convenient chronograph is not practical if it costs $5,000. Few people would find it worth the price. Additionally, suppose your selected chronograph only works reliably on a calm, bright sunny day, but the weather around you is frequently rainy or cloudy. In that case, that’s not a good choice for your needs.
So, when selecting a chronograph, cost, accuracy, convenience, and reliability in the conditions you’re most likely to encounter must be weighed. All of these elements are relative terms based on a particular shooter’s preferences, intended use, and budget. What’s ideal for one person might be expensive overkill for another, and a basic chronograph that’s ideal for one casual user’s occasional chronograph session might be considered a worthless piece of garbage for a serious competitor who wants the best data possible at any cost.
The three main types of shooting chronographs
Our list of the best chronographs in several categories starts below. Still, it can be helpful to first quickly go over the three main types of chronographs available for consumer use today and their primary pros and cons. They are: 1) optical, 2) magnetic, and 3) radar chronographs.
How do optical chronographs work, and what are their advantages?
Optical or light-based chronographs have long been the standard type of ballistic chronograph available for consumer use. These chronographs rely on the shadow of the bullet/projectile flying over two or more light-sensitive screens. Then the chronograph’s calculator determines how long the bullet traveled the distance between the first and last screen. Since that distance is known, it can accurately calculate the projectile's velocity (usually read in feet per second or fps in the USA).
The advantages of this type of chronograph are that they are relatively inexpensive, ranging in price from around $70 to about $200 (though the cheapest ones are suitable for airsoft or arrows but may not be reliable for bullets), and are generally accurate enough for handgun/shotgun use and most rifle data collection.
Disadvantages of the optical type of chronograph are that they are (obviously) dependent upon sunlight (or a lightbox or overhead LED light strips, which are an extra cost and hassle) to function properly. Depending on several factors, including clouds, temperature, distance from the muzzle, and even air pressure or the angle you shoot over the screens, they can be a bit fiddly and inaccurate. Usually, this type of chronograph comes with overhead sunshades, but these also can be annoying, particularly in windy conditions. Also, this type of chronograph must be placed several feet in front of the muzzle of your firearm to prevent gunpowder, smoke, or other high-speed debris from giving you false readings. So if you are looking for the true velocity at the muzzle, you’ll have to do some math to back-calculate the indicated bullet speed at X feet in front of the muzzle.
There is a higher incidence of false readings or errors when using an optical chronograph compared to magnetic or radar chronographs in our experience. Additionally, the required placement in front of the shooting line means there’s always the potential for you to shoot your chronograph rather than shoot over it. It happens surprisingly often. And if you’re on a formal range, you can’t be walking out in front of the other shooters to place or adjust your chronograph until the entire shooting line is declared cold. This can be a hassle in some situations.
How do magnetic shooting chronographs work, and what are their pros and cons?
Magnetic chronograph functions on the same basic time between two sensors principle as the optical chronograph, but rather than using light-based sensors; it uses electromagnetic sensors (often mounted on a bayonet-type housing) to track the speed of the bullet as it passes over the chronograph. This has several advantages, namely, the housing can be strapped directly to a rifle’s barrel with the sensors directly under the muzzle, so you know your firearm’s true muzzle velocity. It prevents you from shooting your chronograph since when installed correctly, the sensors are safely below the bullet's flight from your firearm’s muzzle, and it’s not affected by clouds, darkness, muzzle blast, debris, wind, or lack of sufficient light. Generally, magnetic chronographs have a smaller error window than optical types, which can sometimes vary up to 4% depending on conditions and build quality.
Image courtesy of MagnetoSpeed
Disadvantages of magnetic chronographs are a higher price (around $300 and up) and the need to mount the sensor housing either to the barrel of your firearm (which may not work in many cases due to different barrel diameters) or on a separate or parallel bar/mount connected to the rifle or the bipod, to place the sensors correctly without aligning any part of the system with the path of the bullet. This system isn’t super convenient for handguns. It can be done, but it’s a hassle, and most people don’t do it.
Also, if you want to chronograph several firearms during one session, mounting, unmounting, and remounting the system to each barrel can be very tiresome compared to the optical setup where you just sit or stand behind it and shoot through the screens. Additionally, non-metallic projectiles such as airsoft or paintballs won’t trip magnetic sensors, and the less-expensive models may not read airgun pellets either. Lastly, if you’re the type of shooter that likes to shoot for accuracy/load development at the same time you chronograph your loads, the sensor strapped to your barrel (if that’s how you have it set up) can impact the group location of your rifle, due to barrel harmonics.
How do radar-based chronographs work, and what are their advantages and disadvantages?
Doppler radar-based chronographs are making huge inroads into the shooting community despite their relatively high cost. These systems are usually set up beside the shooter, ideally on a shooting bench, and the radar system detects projectiles that are fired downrange, providing much more data than is available from either the optical or magnetic two-sensor type of chronograph.
Better radar-based chronographs can provide not just true muzzle, maximum, minimum, average, extreme spread, and standard deviation. Still, they also calculate and detect the rate at which your bullets decelerate over dozens of yards and can provide accurate velocities at multiple distances. This information can be useful when determining precise velocities at longer distances, ballistic drop data, and more.
The disadvantages of the doppler radar chronographs are that they are quite expensive (over $600 without a mount/stand or carrying case, though paintball-only setups can be found for around $150). Additionally, due to the nature of rear-exposure radar, accurate readings on shotgun loads are restricted to slug rounds only. Additionally, certain projectiles in certain conditions may not always be picked up by the radar, though following the instructions exactly usually produces satisfactory results in our experience.
Best Shooters Chronographs, including best value for money
Now that you’ve learned a bit more about the three main options for types of chronographs let’s see if we can provide some information on our favorite shooting chronographs that can meet the needs of most users.
Best chronograph for standard rifle load development: MagnetoSpeed Sporter
MagnetoSpeed Sporter Chronograph
MagnetoSpeed is the industry’s most well-known magnetic chronograph, and they offer a couple of different models with different sensitivities, either for standard rifle or airgun use. The MagnetoSpeed Sporter ($249) is a good choice for rifle shooters who are looking to identify or load the most accurate ammunition possible, who use rifles with standard diameter barrels between ½” and 1” in diameter, and who use centerfire rifles without large/long muzzle brakes or suppressors.
MagnetoSpeed Sporter Instructions Manual
For use with suppressors, larger-diameter barrels, large muzzle brakes, or for rimfire/airgun/shotgun use, you’ll want to step up to the upgraded MagnetoSpeed V3 ($449), which is designed to be used on barrels and suppressors from ½” up to 2-inch in diameter. In addition to the larger diameter tolerance, the V3 has one inch greater clearance in the blast zone to account for longer muzzle brakes, flash hiders, etc., up to 3-inches in most cases.
MagnetoSpeed V3 Ballistic Chronograph in Hard Case
The MagnetoSpeed V3 features an improved design with an updated, three-button menu system and more rugged display housing, easy battery access, improved shooting modes including airgun compatibility, downloadable firmware updates, advanced data logging and troubleshooting capabilities, a rapid-fire mode that includes rate-of-fire, redesigned bayonet and strapping system, and additional brackets including a Picatinny-mount option.
MagnetoSpeed V3 Instructions Manual
If you shoot many different types of rifles, shoot airguns, or want to chronograph your shots using suppressors or long/large muzzle devices, the V3 is worth the extra dough. However, the Sporter option can save you some money if you primarily shoot standard hunting or target centerfire rifles with standard-diameter barrels.
Best value for money chronograph: Caldwell Ballistic Precision
Caldwell Ballistic Precision Chronograph
The Caldwell Ballistic Precision Chronograph is a solid choice for a good, basic, durable, versatile optical chronograph that’s relatively inexpensive ($129 from Caldwell but around $100 on Amazon). It runs on a 9V battery, has a good-sized display with big black numbers that are easy to read from yards away, and can be connected via an output jack to a ballistic calculator or phone (though this can be problematic; see below). Suppose you just want a basic, lightweight, inexpensive chronograph for general use and use handguns, airguns, bows, paintballs, shotguns, and/or rifles. In that case, this is a good way to go in our experience (if you don’t prioritize Bluetooth or phone connectivity). We like the fully enclosed polymer housing (some chronos are open metal trays with exposed wires and stuff) and the simple threaded adapter capable of mounting the Caldwell to standard camera tripods. It will stand up to a bit of rain and moderate impacts, in our experience, but don’t go crazy and throw it down the stairs (or shoot it).
Caldwell Chronograph Mounted to Tripod
Note that if you want to connect the Caldwell chronograph to your phone, you’ll need to use a cable, and a Lightning to 3.5mm adapter (sold separately) is needed for use with iPhone 7 and newer phones. Furthermore, both Apple and Google support for the Caldwell shooting app is spotty, so if an app or Bluetooth capability is necessary, you’ll want to pay a bit more for something like the Competition Electronics ProChrono DLX ($165).
Competition Electronics ProChrono DLX Instructions Manual
PACT M7 Infrared Skyscreen System With Mounting Bracket
Most versatile chronograph and best overall: LabRadar
Whether you’re shooting bullets, arrows, bolts, slingshot ammo, paintballs, BBs, pellets, wax bullets, marshmallows… whatever! Day or night, windy or calm, overcast or sunny, the LabRadar ($625 plus any necessary stands and accessories) doesn’t care. LabRadar says Doppler radar is the most precise method available for measuring projectile velocities, as its accuracy is not dependent on light conditions or the bullet's path being exactly parallel to optical sensors, which can result in errors or false readings. In our experience, LabRadar is reliable when set up properly and gives the info you can’t get any other way.
LabRadar Instructions Manual
As noted above, shotgun shell chronograph is limited to slugs only with this system, as the wad, shot cup, or shot cloud can produce reading errors using radar. Still, otherwise, the LabRadar is very accurate, convenient, and pretty easy to use as far as the controls go. There’s a learning curve for starting a new shot string, saving a shot, and preparing for the next shot, but once you have that down, you’re good to go. Yes, you could buy three or four less-expensive optical chronographs for the price of one LabRadar. But you’ll never shoot your LabRadar (since you set it up on the bench next to you–or on legs over your prone position). It’s immune to the bugs, glitches, and weather that can wreak havoc with an optical chronograph, and you don’t have to Jerry-rig a bayonet onto your rifle or handgun as you do with the MagnetoSpeed. If you want reliable readings with those, you’ll need to add a few bucks for LabRadar’s archery and/or airgun trigger adapter.
The full-tilt LabRadar comes with Bluetooth capability, and you can run it remotely using the LabRadar app. The company has offered standard and lite models over the years (Lite=no Bluetooth connectivity), but as far as we can tell, the current offerings are all Bluetooth-enabled.
If you’re a data freak or want the most accurate velocities at multiple distances in poor lighting conditions, LabRadar is a must.
Keep your guns and accessories safe with Liberty
Whatever chronograph you choose, we hope you get the information and performance you desire to make accurate ammo and accurate shots. When your shooting day is over, be sure to keep your valuable guns and electronics secure from theft and unauthorized access in a quality, USA made gun safe from Liberty. Have a look through our complete online catalog, or visit a Liberty Safe showroom near you.