Ricochet

Ricochet

Webster defines ricochet as a glancing rebound of a projectile off a flat surface. It is quite common physical effect observed by most of regular shooters. It can be deadly if not accounted for (thus a popular firearm safety rule – Never shoot at a flat, hard surface). It also can save your life if you know how to use it to your advantage.

Although the ricochet happens mostly off hard surfaces like concrete or steel, it is not uncommon to see a projectile bouncing off a car’s windshield or even water. The softer the surface, the more obtuse should be the angle of the bullet hitting it to ricochet.

Contrary to the intuition, the angle the projectile leaves the surface usually does not match the angle it hits it. The leaving angle is difficult to predict. It depends on the variety of factors, such as the hardness of the material and the projectile, the angle of impact, and the damage to the projectile. It is not unheard of for a bullet to bounce off a metal plate straight back at the shooter (video).

For a typical self-defense or a target-shooting situation though, many of those parameters are similar and statistically the ricochet angle falls in the range of 10-20 degrees for a wide range of the impact angle. It can be easily observed when shooting steel plates – after 30-50 rounds there will be a line formed by bullet pieces approximately 10-20 degrees in front of the plate.

The danger of ricochet

Ricochet off a backstop

You all know the rule #1 of gun safety – Always keep the gun pointed to a safe direction (and if you do not, you should!) Every time you handle a firearm, either while cleaning at home, or during a practice session at the range, you need to identify where the safe direction at this place is. When you do it, you should take ricochet in account.

Thus, pointing a gun down at the concrete floor inside the range can be as unsafe as plainly muzzling people’s feet. Using a fireplace wall in your house might not be a good idea if you have a door or a window nearby. A bookcase full of books or a large plant pot might be a safer choice.

Ricochet off a cover

In case of a self-defense, one of the first actions you need to do is to find a safe cover. It is the smartest thing you can do, if you execute it correctly. Unfortunately, Hollywood and video game industry have created completely wrong image of how it should be done.

Screenshot from Max Payne 3

Screenshot from Max Payne 3

In a typical movie or a video game people hide behind building corners, cars, or other obstacles and they try to be as close as possible to it, just peeking out of it with one eye. That’s where the danger lies. Any shot made by the attacker hitting the wall in front of them (which is much easier to do comparing to hitting a partially hidden silhouette behind a cover) will ricochet into their face.

The solution is simple – stand as far from the cover as you can without compromising your visibility and protection. It will give a greater chance for a ricocheted bullet to fly by without hitting you.

Standing close and far from the corner

Standing close and far from the corner

It works both ways. If your attacker positioned himself close to the cover, and the surface or the ground in front of him is hard, you can use it to your advantage. A shot just in front of him has a good chance of ricocheting to his face or feet.

Ricochet off the ground

If you have been shot at in the middle of an empty parking lot, sometimes the only thing you can do is to fall down on the ground. If the surface of the parking lot is hard enough you can get killed by a ricochet as easily as by a direct shot. In this situation, even a low-height curbstone can be a good protection. While it won’t be able to cover you completely and protect from a direct shot, it will save you from the shrapnel ricocheting off the ground from the shots hitting in front of you.

Conclusion

Ricochet is not uncommon and can be deadly if not accounted for. Always consider it when choosing a safe backstop any time you handle a firearm. In a self-defense situation, try standing as far from a cover as possible without compromising it – it will help you to avoid ricochets. It can also be used to your advantage if your attacker does not follow the same practice.

Image by njaj.

David Kizhnerman is a certified NRA instructor and author of the simplyaboutguns.com blog, dedicated to popularizing firearm education, improving shooting skills, and other firearm related topics.

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  • Ted N

    Side note, standing back a bit from your cover gives you enough space to have your weapon up in position before you lean around.

  • Icchan

    This famous video should a) be much more famous and b) provide one hell of a reminder to check your backstop, because ricochets can come from every angle. Even for a headshot – notice just how lucky that guy is.

    • rhb

      In high school, the shooter next to me got a welt on his left arm when his shot ricocheted off the backstop. We were shooting standard target rifles( e.g. 520T) in .22lr on a mil spec range in prone position.

      We shut down for the day and cleaned the backstop area.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ReverendClint Clint Notestine

    When the NYPD went ape on that shooter in front of the Empire State Building it was ricochets that hit the bystanders

  • noob

    Thanks for this article. It’s thought provoking and makes this interview with an Operation Gothic Serpent combatant a lot easier to understand.

    http://inquirer.philly.com/blackhawk/video_delstart.asp

    more articles like this, please.

    • Mr. Fahrenheit

      Ditto.

    • Kai

      Yea I guess I know understand the scene in Black Hawk Down, when one guy tells another guy to stay away from the walls.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bryan-Spiegel/100000495796324 Bryan Spiegel

    This same concept appeared in a shooting mag a few years ago when talking about police officers standing back from hoods of cars. Who would have thought that a vehicle hood would skip a round that easily?

  • david calhoun

    Another no-no is never shoot into a steel corner formed by two or three plates of steel at right angles to each other. These are everywhere in steel buildings where two girders and a column come together. The ricochet will come straight back at you!

    • Avery

      You reminded me of those Atlantic Wall bunkers casemates, the ones with the stepped embrasures at 90 degrees so they would deflect shrapnel and small arms fire.

  • Paranormal

    I’ve been hit by many ricochets and spatter over the years, mostly as an RO in IPSC matches.

    The most frightening though was as a youngster when shooting .30 06 tracer into water. Although no one was hit it was a huge wake up call.

    We’d been shooting into this dam for years. We’d got a hold of a large amount of surplus tracer that we thought would be great to see if it worked underwater. We were shooting at least at 50 to 60 degrees down a steep bank into the water. Only a few rounds were penetrating the surface and was neat watching them glow down into the water, some were plopping out onto the bank and burning out, but the majority were coming straight back up into the air past our heads. this must have been happening with all the other rounds we’d fired over the years but we could now see the tracer doing it.

    We never shoot down into water now.

  • ken

    The graphics are misleading for many scenarios. Several years back we did a bunch of testing of “ricochet theory” at our law enforcement academy. The graphics show the bullet deflecting at the same angle as it entered. We have found that in real-life, this seldom occurs. Various factors come into play as to how a bullet will react on an angle shot. Angle of attack. Surface material, i.e., concrete, brick, metal, wood, etc. Bullet construction, i.e., fmj, hollow point, soft point, etc. Projectile velocity and deformation. We found that, more often that not, if the bullet does “ricochet” off the surface, it does so at a much lesser angle than on entry. On entry angles 30 degrees or less, when there was a ricochet, the bullet basically ran parallel to the surface it struck as it continued its path.

    • http://www.facebook.com/davidkiz David Kizhnerman

      You are absolutely right. That’s pretty much sums up the third paragraph of the article.

      • Ken

        Yeah, I did pretty much re-state that, didn’t I? Master of the obvious. I guess I got fixated on the pretty pictures and glossed over the words before them. My apologies.

        • -V-

          Nothing wrong with adding emphasis to an important point, Ken.

  • Matt K

    Max Payne was really abad example, anyone who has played pretty much any video game ever, knows they have very few strings to reality and operate in there own logic and physics. They are a extrapolation at best to things in reality.

    • Avery

      I thought the video game reference was pretty apt. I know there’s been an explosion in “cover-based shooters” like Gears of War, Max Payne, Mass Effect, Call Of Duty, etc. that have included that mechanic because of some appeal to realism, when, according to Kizhnerman here, it’s really further from being realistic and more dangerous.

  • Aaron

    Getting off your barricade (cover) is a key concept in any type of combat shooting. The problem with ricochet is another benefit to add the the following.

    First, it will open up your peripheral vision and allow you to find targets quicker.

    Second, it helps avoid the “bunker” mentality that is fatal. That is because the shooter who “bunkers” in tight to the barricade tends to balls up behind cover, without being able to see what is shooting at them. That usually results in increased fear, breathing, heart rate, etc. (think Condition Black), and less return fire from you.

    And finally, being at least arm’s length off your cover allows you use that cover to its fullest advantage, whether you’re “cutting the pie”, transitioning to support hand, conducting self-care, performing reloads, or allowing you to see an “out” to remain mobile. A moving target is almost always harder to hit than one that is stationary.