Ballistics software has been around for some time now—in fact, the NRA Firearms Fact Book from 1989 lists a number of BASIC computer programs that can be used for some simple external ballistics calculations.
In less than a decade, available packages have advanced to an impressive degree, and Gun Tests recently looked at some of the commercial packages to see which ones are worthwhile‚ and which ones might best be consigned to obsolescence. The packages investigated were: PC Bullet For Windows (Shooting Chrony, $80), Ballistics Explorer (Oehler Research, $70), Barnes Ballistics for Windows (Barnes Bullets, $50), and ARMSCalc (ARMS Software, $50).
The first hurdle in using any commercial software is, of course, getting it to run on your computer. But we found installing these programs from floppy disks was mostly smooth and effortless. Once installed, the next hitch is getting started, for you need to have the first installation disk in place, and the instruction manual (with unique identification code) available. From then on, it’s largely clear sailing. But we also noted differences in the programs that make us believe the PC Bullet For Windows and Ballistics Explorer packages are better than the others. Here’s why.
PC Bullet For Windows
After the initial installations, we then got into the nitty-gritty of the programs, starting with PC Bullet. This entails setting up different loads, or selecting factory cartridges—and both are quite extensive. In this program, bullets from four manufacturers are included, and over 100 commercially available cartridges (each with multiple entries). It will take you a while to get used to the navigation features, but that’s true for any software you’ve just obtained. After that initial hump, we found that getting around from one feature to the next was very smooth. Each specific load that’s investigated is called a “project,” and there are many parameters that the user can investigate.
Establishing and saving those calibers and/or loads that you need most often is a bit of housework to get started, but once saved you can go back to them as often as necessary to re-evaluate, look at different nuances (and save those new variations if you’d like), and print out that information you need.
We did notice one minor flaw in the software design. If the user wants to print out all or part of the project information—cartridge, chronograph velocities, and/or trajectory—he can do so. But if he selects none of them and then opts to print (admittedly an offbeat approach), then the program terminates, and cannot be run again until the computer is restarted.
Help resources, both online and the accompanying documentation, were good overall. Although the online options were not context-sensitive, the topic searching was adequate in most cases. Plus, the entire user’s manual, one of the best we’ve seen and comprising over 70 pages, can be accessed through the help menu. The printed manual is a lot for those of us who don’t like slogging through written material, but it does mean that you have the info when you need it. It also contains resource information of use to everybody: a full glossary of terms for those who are just getting started, and for those with PhD’s in the subject, an entire section on the numerical methods used in the program.
Graphics were good, and useful, throughout. Bullet and cartridge diagrams are complete, if not fancy, although some cartridge types were unavailable. Ballistics pictures are very complete: graphs, either line or bar (including three-dimensional) can be generated for all of the following: path, drift, velocity, energy, time of flight (TOF), drop, lead, IPSC power factor, optimal game weight, and more.
Horizontal and vertical grid lines may be added, and any of them can be printed. One feature that we liked, and didn’t see on any other package, was a Shooting Simulator. After entering all pertinent load data, prevailing wind conditions and shooting range, the user places his “crosshairs” on the bull’s-eye, and clicks. The program then shows the likely bullet hole on the target. We particularly liked this because we believe that it helps the user to gain some additional insight for the load’s expected behavior. On the other hand, we kept looking to input the wind direction and velocity under the Weather Conditions part of the project’s “Chronograph” section, when instead it must be done under “Trajectory.” Just another idiosyncrasy worth getting used to with PC Bullet for Windows.
This one was close on the heels on the previous software, and was even easier to install. One diskette contained everything needed, and the installation program went without a hitch. Once installed, no additional steps need be taken, even on the initial use of the program.
Our evaluators split on the navigational features of this package. Some felt that they were fairly intuitive and integrated with each other smoothly; others found them to be obscure and difficult. There was, however, agreement that the online help features were superior to those in PC Bullet. Context-sensitive assistance eliminated the need for time-consuming and cumbersome topic searches; we believe that even if the navigational “style” of this software isn’t tailor-made for you, this help ability helps mitigate that.
Some printed documentation accompanies the package as well, and it serves as a good introduction to what lies ahead. We felt, however, that the online help provided the meat of the instructional assistance.
Bullet and ammo selections are quite extensive; we counted over 1,000 for the first and more than 1,200 for the second. All of these were accompanied by diagrams with clear, lucid descriptions. Up to three loads or cartridges can be handled at once (each one is referred to as a “trace” in this package) and allows for most of the standard ballistics calculations and manipulations. We did, however, notice the absence of some hunting-related parameters like “required lead” and “optimal game weight.”
Saving and retrieving specific traces is easy as soon as you get the hang of it. Windows users are used to looking for this facility in the main menu headings of an application’s primary window, under “File.” There is no such heading here. Instead, one must bring up the specific trace in which he’d like to work, and click on the “File” button therein. Conversely, printing either tables of data or graphical representations was as smooth as could be.
We liked the graphics, especially the bullet and cartridge diagrams, and found the ballistics line graphs to be clear. Because the program can handle up to three traces at once, users can also graph two or three together, giving immediate visual comparison between loads. For those who like to monkey with the aesthetics of graphs, colors and ranges can be changed.
One item which gave us some pause was the introductory “splash panel” when entering the bullet and ammunition database. It contained cautionary statements that the information contained therein was derived from manufacturers’ information, and allowed for the possibility of errors that are “either present in the original publication(s) or introduced during the production of the software.” Although we found no specific reason to doubt any information we encountered, it nevertheless eroded our confidence.
Barnes Ballistics For Windows
The only drawback to this software’s installation is the number of diskettes: four of them. Beyond this minor inconvenience, it loaded onto our evaluators’ computers with nary a hitch. Unfortunately, like PC Bullet, you need to have the registration card with serial number on it handy when running the program for the first time. Although we have no objection to any measures designed to discourage unauthorized distribution of the software, we prefer to see all of these completed at the installation rather than get unpleasant surprises when first trying to use the software.
Evaluators again diverged on judging the ease of roaming about in this environment, with comments ranging from reserved to positive, although nobody disliked it too intensely. One drawback was the lack of easy transfer from one section to another. In other words, after looking up bullet or cartridge information in the provided databases, it was impossible to automatically transfer data into your current project (called “Trajectory” in this package). All information must be manually transferred, piece by piece. Besides being cumbersome, this also allows for more transcription errors on the operator’s part.
Another feature we felt was negative was the available database extent: It contained only Barnes products. Understandable, given the provider, but it nevertheless limits the applicability of the product unless users manually enter every bit of data on other products. But even then, there is limited space to enter descriptive specifics (like the manufacturer and other pertinent information) in the Trajectory.
Once established, individual Trajectories are easy to save, almost too easy. If you make some changes to one and wish to save it as a different Trajectory, be sure to save the Description, because the program won’t warn you that you’re about to overwrite an existing one. To bring up a saved Trajectory, the user must first specify the gun and then the load. This in turn means that new users must initially enter the necessary gun information into that section, as all Trajectories hinge on them.
Provided documentation is sketchy at best, consisting of one card with brief instructions on both sides. This is more than compensated for, however, by the online help. Although not context-sensitive, it does an admirable job of being complete but not overblown. Essential terms are in hypertext, leading the user to necessary definitions or further instructions with a simple click of the mouse. Printing out information is a bit strange. The user must first go to the Reports section, and print from there. Plus, it’s impossible to preview more than a little bit of the page before generating the hard copy, not what we’re used to in Windows environments anymore. Graphics were adequate but unimpressive. Only a few options, trajectory, energy, velocity, and wind deflection, were available, and could not be customized to the user’s preferences.
Those who pine for the good old days of DOS-only environments will want to take a good look at this one, but that’s the only feature that we felt recommended it. Installation was strange, we thought. In fact, the only expanded instructions that come with the software describe in minute detail the convolutions needed to install it. One evaluator (a professional software engineer) gave up entirely after failing to install his copy. It also asks for “one-time validation” more than once.
Those who were able to get it up and running found it difficult to get around. After accessing a particular feature, it’s necessary to back up through each previous menu to return to your desired place. In some areas, Compute Default Cartridge, for example, some bugs seemed to lurk. If the user hits F1 for Help, reads it and ESCapes out of it, he cannot go back to the Help menu without an error message. (Getting help is a chore: there is none to speak of in the way of printed documents, and online help is extremely brief.) Too, if the user selects the option “F2 to view speed ranges of game,” it brings up another error message which then terminates the program altogether.
The package sports a tremendous variety of features (including an appointment calendar, which we felt was out of place), but getting from one to another involved too much tracing and retracing of steps, and too much risk of program termination. Printing is also a problem. The software supports some 41 printers, including the all-but-obsolete IBM ProPrinter, and if you don’t happen to have one of them (we didn’t), then you’re probably out of luck. The only option we could use was to save the information to a text file, then import that to word processor, re-format it, and print. A pain, but better than nothing. And we couldn’t print out any of the graphs.
Gun Tests Recommends
You won’t go wrong with PC Bullet For Windows. This $80 expenditure will allow you to do the majority of your load evaluations and manipulations efficiently and painlessly and have some fun in the process. Advantages include excellent printed and online help, easy navigation, simplicity of load saving and retrieval, and good graphics.
Ballistic Explorer is another good buy for $70. It had a few extras, and missed a few others, compared to PC Bullet. Navigation was less intuitive, we felt, although that was compensated for by context-sensitive online help.
Barnes Ballistics is less expensive at $49.95, but also less useful. We didn’t like its availability only of Barnes products, and seemed to include fewer features than the others. It’s only worthwhile if you need to save a few dollars and don’t mind dealing exclusively with Barnes bullets, or providing all your own data on others.
We didn’t much like ARMSCalc. We thought it was very tough to get around in, keeps terminating, showed lots of errors, offered practically nonexistent help, and created difficulty with customizing your personal loads. We believe your $49.95 is better spent elsewhere.