Reading the Wind
Updated: Sep 10, 2021
There are many ways a person can up their odds of hitting the ten ring or making the shot on a “once in a lifetime” trophy. Tuning, technique, good barrels, and good bullets are all major players in that game. However, the "king of the mountain" is understanding how wind affects a bullet then adjusting accordingly.
In short range Benchrest wind flags are essential to reading the wind. Competitors usually employ four flags at 100 yards and six at 200 yards. These wind indicators enable the shooter to decipher the angle of the wind by reading the colored panel as well as gauge the velocity of the wind by observing the movement in the tails. This information allows the competitor to hold his aim, or adjust their scope, so the bullet lands in the ten ring. In the competitive arena, being able to read the wind is imperative if you want to place anywhere close to the top.
Picture of wind flags used at 100 yards at a NBRSA registered tournament
The level of accuracy required in hunting is not as demanding as in Benchrest. Hunters do not have to hit a ⅛” dot at 200 yards. The accuracy level will be specific for each animal pursued. For this writing I will use a coyote, so the goal will be to place the bullet in a four inch circle. The repercussion of missing that four inch circle is what compounds the pressure of hunting.
In Benchrest; when I miss, no bueno. I do not win and I may finish towards the bottom of the list. However, in the end it is a hobby and a piece of paper. In the grand scheme of things, it is not a big deal. In hunting; if I miss that four inch circle, the animal could experience an agonizing death. That IS a big deal.
When we choose to hunt, it is our responsibility to be able to hit that "four inch" circle.
In order to do that, we have to gauge not only the distance but also the wind angle and intensity. Based on our previous experience, we can then make an educated decision on whether we should pull the trigger or not and where to hold.
Grasping what the wind can do is much like remodeling your kitchen. We can watch all the home improvement shows we want, but until we start hammering nails we truly do not know what is going on. Sure, those shows help; they give us a theoretical idea of what is supposed to happen and what the end result should look like. Yet, for anyone who has remodeled a kitchen, reality soon sets in and we realize it is not quite as easy as those shows make it look. There is no substitute for hands-on experience. The same is true with shooting in the wind.
Learning how to shoot in the wind will require some screen and trigger time. Screen time involves getting a theoretical idea of what a straight crosswind is going to do to the bullet at different distances. (watching the home improvement show) Trigger time is when we go through the learning curve of using wind indicators to determine our actual hold on the target. (hammering the nails)
Screen Time (Theory)
Use an on-line exterior ballistics program to get a rough idea what the wind will do to your bullet. I like to enter my data into https://bisonballistics.com/calculators/ballistics. This website provides a plethora of information. You can then use what is important to you.
Here are computerized examples of drop and wind drift for two of the bullets I shoot.
As you can see from the charts, both the wind and the distance play a role on where the bullet impacts. The stronger the wind, the greater the deflection. Bottom line; being able to read the wind is just as (sometimes more) important as knowing your distance to the target.
Trigger Time (Reality)
Our rifles are tuned. Our scope was zeroed on a mild day. Based on the ballistics program, we have a rough idea of wind deflection. Now, it is time to practice in the wind. Be ready to be humbled! However, that is exactly the point. When we are in the field; it is crucial that, based on wind conditions, we learn where to hold or decide not to shoot.
Shooting in the wind is more difficult than what the computer generations imply. For starters, many people have little comprehension of how much the wind will move the bullet. Hopefully, the computerized chart will give you a glimpse into the degree of movement.
Second; is the misconception that the wind will only move the bullet in the x-dimension (left and right). That simply is not true. The wind can and will influence the bullet in all directions.
The popular Z chart is shown below. This particular Z chart was copied from (tmtpages.com) The Z chart shows where the bullet will impact relative to the direction of the wind. Many top notch competitors use the Z chart.
Commonly used Z Chart (tmtpages.com)
I have experienced some disagreements with shots 2,1,7, and 8 on the Z chart. Therefore, I currently use this wind chart.
I created this chart by combining and adapting the information from the Z chart and from Benchrest icon Tony Boyer’s book “The Book of Rifle Accuracy” As in the Z chart, this chart is based on a right hand twist barrel. Notice that a straight crosswind (3 & 9 o’clock) will give the largest degree of bullet movement.
Furthermore, the wind is seldom (dare I say never?) consistent from the rifle to the target as what the computer simulations imply. At the rifle, the wind may be blowing ten mph from the two o'clock position but a couple hundred yards away, at the target, it might be gusting twenty mph from the eleven o’clock angle. This constant changing of velocity and angle is the difference between theory and reality. A great way to observe this is to watch the movement of the wind in a tall grass field. You will notice let-ups, gusts (pushes), updrafts, reversals, and swirls all in the same field.
Another factor that makes hunting in the wind arduous is we rarely get sighter shots. In Benchrest, we have a sighter target that we can go to when needed. Not true in hunting. Routinely, we get one shot to make it count.
In order to turn those factors into our advantage, hunters should practice with wind indicators. Wind indicators will provide a way to remember what the wind was doing when the trigger was pulled. They help appraise the wind so we can learn where to hold. These indicators give us a qualitative and/or quantitative way of repeating our shots. Without being mindful of these indicators we are…..well….pissing in the wind.
There are many types of wind indicators that you can use to fit your style. I like wind flags with surveyors tape for the tails. Some use a Kestrel wind meter. Many great shooters use what Mother Nature gives them. Below is a modified Beaufort Scale. This was condensed from https://www.spc.noaa.gov/faq/tornado/beaufort.html
Speed (mph) Signs on land
0-1 Smoke rises vertically
1-3 Directions of wind shown by smoke drift but not by heavier items
4-7 Wind felt on face, leaves rustle
8-12 Leaves and small twigs in constant motion; wind extends small flag
13-18 Raises dust and loose paper; small branches are moved
19-24 Small trees begin to sway
25-31 Large branches in motion; umbrellas used with difficulty
32-38 Whole trees in motion; hard to walk against the wind
39-46 Breaks twigs off trees; generally impedes walking
In order to jump from the theoretical world into reality, we have to practice in the wind. Great practice days are when the wind is blowing ten to twenty mph. Those days will closely simulate our hunting and competition conditions. I like to practice at 200 yards. The following practice sessions are progressions and can all be done on the same day.
Practice 1: Sighter - Follow up
While monitoring your chosen wind indicators, fire at the bullseye and observe where your bullet hits. For your second shot, promptly hold your sights opposite your first shot to hit the bullseye. This is not as easy as it sounds. The reality of the constantly changing wind will raise its’ ugly head. Hang in there. Stay the course. Your brain will quickly learn to notice these switches.
Practice 2: Calling your Shots
Using your information learned from session number one, try and predict where your shot will land based on the current wind condition. Aim at the bullseye and squeeze the trigger. In this training exercise, you are not trying to hit the bullseye. You are mentally trying to predict where your bullet will hit. You are simply using the bullseye as an aiming point. The closer you are to calling your shot, the more proficient you are at reading the wind.
Practice 3: Simulate Real Hunting Situations
Once you feel confident in calling your shots, try hitting the bullseye without taking a sighter shot. You will need to gauge your hold by observing the wind conditions. At first, this is going to be difficult; holding in “free space” takes some practice. However, with proper focus, you will be astonished at how fast you start trusting your judgement to hold into the wind.
There is another condition that needs to be mentioned. Mirage is an illusion causing the visual movement of the target. Mirage is caused by the refraction (bending) of light through layers of air with different temperatures. Benchrest shooter Ronnie Berg simplifies it nicely; "Mirage is wind that you can see." In my opinion and experience, mirage trumps wind indicators. However, that discussion is for another time.
Hunters already pay attention to the wind for scent purposes. Apply that same information when deciding where to hold or if the shot is not right. The more decision making you do before the animal is in the cross-hairs the better. When time is of the essence, our brains do not always work correctly.
Here is an example of what I do on a typical coyote set; Before I start the caller, I will range a few distant objects. I also use nature's wind indicators and get a rough idea of wind angle and velocity. Using the wind and drop chart taped to my stock, I get an estimate of where I should hold if the coyote holds up outside of 150 yds. 150 yards is my "magical" number. Once inside of that distance, I simply aim where I want the bullet to hit regardless of wind or distance. The wind will still move the bullet, but not enough to push it out of the four inch circle. (OK...if the wind is really howling, (and I am still hunting) then I move that "magical" number to 100)
This whole process easily takes under a minute to complete. Since I hunt the same sets multiple times a year, many times I already know the distances. I quickly look at my chart to confirm the hold based on current wind conditions.
The goal is always to get the animal within the "magical" number. That way, you take the distance and wind out of the equation. However, you need to be prepared in case that does not happen. For example; during a recent set there was a tree line 220 yards away and the wind was blowing (what I figured to be) eight-twelve mph from the 10 o'clock position. Before I started the call, I knew if a dog hung up on that tree line I would have to hold roughly one inch high and five inches to the left.
When we are mindful of the wind while practicing, we can quickly train our brain to recognize the changing conditions. That knowledge will transfer to hunting situations. We will notice things like the grasses softly swaying, the limbs on a tree moving, or the sound of the wind on the ground blind. These wind indicators are everywhere. We just have to develop the skill of reading them.
Once we are able to read the wind, we will be able to hold (click) accordingly to place our shot where it needs to be. More importantly; due to conditions and/or distance, we may ethically realize we can not make that particular shot. The animals we hunt deserve that respect. Until next time, enjoy the experience.