J. M.

Williams

2010-09-04

p. 1

How a Bipod Can Throw Off Gunsights

By John Michael Williams Sunnyvale Rod and Gun Club

2010-09-04

Copyright (c) 2010 John Michael Williams. All rights reserved.

J. M. Williams

2010-09-04

p. 2

Abstract
This paper explains informally why a rifle usually will not be sighted-in correctly both for offhand (or sandbag-rested) shooting and for shooting on a muzzle-mounted bipod. It offers three suggestions to overcome the inherent sighting inaccuracy.

The Problem
I was talking with an acquaintance of mine during a bullseye pistol match, about trouble with his bipod: He could not understand why, when he sighted-in his rifle correctly on a sandbag mount, the sights always were off when he shot it from a bipod attached near the muzzle. This problem has been reported in several internet postings (search for "bipod", "accuracy", etc.). Although many advertisements and some postings say that a bipod can improve accuracy, two especially relevant postings reporting loss of accuracy with incorrect mounting are at http://yarchive.net/gun/rifle/bipod_accuracy.html (by Bart Bobbitt) and http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index? qid=20100527181014AA28nju (by "Richard").

The Explanation
My explanation, expanded here in detail, was as follows: First, most of the length of a rifle barrel exists for two reasons, to accelerate the bullet, and to impart stabilizing spin to it. It is only the last centimeter or two of the muzzle end which determines the precise direction of the shot. Second, the barrel, especially the muzzle end, vibrates while the bullet is being accelerated. Let's look at this second point in detail. When a round is fired, the propellant charge is ignited and produces a huge quantity of gas at high pressure. This causes the chamber and nearby breech end of the barrel to be stretched and inflated; the actual amplitude of this inflation is very small, but it does occur. At the same time, the bullet is accelerated away from the breech. After a relatively short distance in the barrel, the bullet rapidly allows the pressure behind it to drop, and the barrel deflates toward its original diameter, Thus, when a round is fired, the sudden inflation initiates a sound wave which travels from the breech end of the barrel toward the muzzle. In addition to the wave caused by gas expansion, a second kind of sound wave is initiated in most rifles, depending on asymmetry in the geometry of the way the barrel is attached to the stock and other parts. In most rifles, the center of mass of the gun lies below the barrel, because the stock and receiver are lower than the barrel (assuming here that the gun is being aimed with the barrel about horizontal). Thus, as the bullet is given momentum while it is being accelerated in the barrel, recoil momentum is

J. M. Williams

2010-09-04

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transferred to the gun in a way which transfers a small amount of angular momentum and rotates the chamber and breech. The barrel thus is bent slightly in an upward arc, creating a second sound wave transverse to the direction of the bullet. Even AR-15 models with "floating" barrels will experience this kind of wave unless the breech end of the barrel is attached exactly at the center of mass of the rest of the rifle. Finally, other, smaller, sound waves are initiated by recoil of the barrel in the direction opposite to the direction of the bullet and by friction and reaction-force of the contact of the moving bullet with the barrel's lands and grooves. The exact spectrum and other quantitative characteristics of the sound wave on the barrel of a particular rifle are very complex and too difficult to handle here; however, every rifle will produce such a wave every time it is fired. Now, according the the Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, the speed of sound in the steel typically used in a rifle barrel will be between 5 and 6 kilometers per second (km/s). The average speed of a bullet leaving the barrel of a high-powered rifle will be no more than 1.5 km/s (4900 ft/s). Therefore, the sound wave will reach the muzzle long before the bullet and is likely to be reflected on the barrel several times, creating a mixture of standing-wave patterns, before the bullet can leave the barrel. So, any rifle barrel will be vibrating as the bullet reaches the muzzle. Because every rifle has relatively fixed physical characteristics, the vibration's effect on every shot will be about the same; so, when sighting-in a rifle, the accuracy is not greatly affected by the vibration -- the sights will be aligned to cancel the effect. But, there is another factor, a loose end. Imagine tying a long rope to a post and then shaking the other end up and down, to produce a visible wave on the rope. The rope will convey the wave, and the wave will be reflected by the post. One can see this wave, which is analogous to the sound wave on a gun barrel. Now, what happens if the far end of the rope is not attached to anything? The solution is given in elementary physics textbooks, and I would like to avoid the calculations here: The far end of the rope will vibrate with twice the amplitude of the wave as produced by the hand or as travelling down the middle of the rope! This is one reason why cracking a whip works so well. You can see this effect simply by dangling a string with a small weight (say, a knot) on its end; shake the string sideways (transversely), and the end will flip with an amplitude much greater than the amplitude of the shake. To explain this physically, briefly and intuitively, small regions of the rope in the middle of it are both receiving and passing on momentum as the rope vibrates; but, at the end of the rope, the endpoint gets the momentum which is being sent to it as well as the momentum which it normally would pass on to farther points; thus, it vibrates with twice the amplitude of a point in the middle of the rope. The reader can look up the physics by searching for explanations of "reflections at a boundary" in works such as CD Physics (4th ed.) by Halliday, Resnick, and Walker. Anyway, the same holds for the rifle barrel: The muzzle vibrates with twice the amplitude of regions closer to the breech.

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So, what does this have to do with bipods? Well, when the barrel of a rifle vibrates, it exerts a force on the receiver, the bedding, the gunsights, and anything else attached to it. This force entails a reaction force which tends to move the barrel in the opposite direction. To the extent that the reaction force moves, or resists moving, the barrel, the path of the bullet leaving the muzzle will be changed. Mounting a bipod near the muzzle exposes the bipod to twice the amplitude of the vibration which it would experience anywhere else on the barrel. Furthermore, a bipod near the muzzle very efficiently changes the direction of the last couple of centimeters of the barrel, which are all that determine the exact placement of the shot. A bipod near the muzzle bounces the muzzle more than it would anywhere else. Finally, it is important to realize that the effect of a bipod on previously-set sights also will vary depending on the nature of the surface on which it is braced. A firm surface will increase the reaction force throwing off the shot; a soft surface such as leaves or loose sand will have less of an effect. Thus, unless a bipod always is rested on a surface with known, predictable properties, the sights of a rifle equipped with a muzzle-mounted bipod never can be set perfectly for all shooting conditions.

The Solution
If a shooter wants his or her gunsights to be set the same whether shooting from a bipod or otherwise, three possible solutions come to mind. 1. Move the bipod away from the muzzle, preferably at least back to the middle of the barrel. This will reduce the reaction force because it will halve the vibration amplitude applied to the bipod. It also will make the rifle experience about the same support with the bipod as with a sandbag rest. 2. Shock-mount the bipod. This will absorb energy otherwise delivered by barrel vibrations to the bipod. Absorbed energy can not contribute to the reaction force of the bipod upon the barrel. 3. Make the bipod of hard rubber or plastic, not metal. The speed of sound in rubber or plastic is far below the speed in metal. If the bullet can leave the muzzle before the bipod can convey vibrations to its feet and then back to the barrel, the bipod will throw off the shot by a greatly reduced amount. These solutions are not mutually exclusive and in fact are additive in improving bipod shooting accuracy. In any case, the rifle should be sighted in and always fired with the bipod attached, because the bipod will affect the location of the center of mass of the gun and will have some effect on barrel vibrations no matter where it is mounted. ---------Thanks to Richard LaTondre for suggesting this paper and for reading an earlier version of it.

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