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In America, speed is most often thought of in terms of miles per hour (mph). But when answering the question of how fast does a bullet travel, it’s best to think of speed in feet per second (fps). (Some European ammunition manufacturers list bullet velocities in meters per second.) The speed at which most bullets are fired from sporting firearms ranges from as slow as around 500 fps to a little more than 4,000 fps. That’s fast, but that’s also a large difference, and it doesn’t really tell the full story because bullets actually have two speeds, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
How fast a bullet travels is calculated with a tool called a chronograph. A chronograph is a timing device that utilizes two light sensors. When a bullet passes over the sensors, the machine determines how long it took the bullet to go from one sensor to another. It then calculates how fast the bullet was traveling. A good chronograph can be had for less than $200, and this makes it possible for any shooter to see exactly how fast their bullets are traveling. To obtain the bullet’s speed down range, complex ballistic calculators that’ll even work with a smartphone use the bullet’s velocity, ballistic coefficient, and other factors to estimate that speed.
How Fast Does a Bullet Travel: Table of Contents
- Rimfire Ammunition
- Centerfire Pistol & Revolver Ammunition
- Centerfire Rifle Ammunition
- Speed Specifics
How Fast Does Rimfire Ammunition Travel?
Rimfire ammunition was generally considered to be low-velocity ammunition, but that changed with the introduction of hyper-velocity 22 Long Rifle, 22 Magnum, and 17 HMR ammunition. The now almost never used 22 Long rimfire cartridge had a muzzle velocity of about 1,000 to 1,200 fps, which is right at the speed of sound. But 22 Short ammo is generally slower than the speed of sound, which at sea level is – depending on atmospheric conditions—around 761 mph, or 1,116 fps. But what’s commonly referred to as a 22 CB Cap—which is a 22 rimfire cartridge powered by only the primer—will generally have a muzzle velocity of only about 500 fps.
Hyper Velocity 22 Long Rifle ammunition, the 22 Magnum, and 17 HMR pushed rimfire ammunition to supersonic speeds. The CCI Stinger load runs at about 1,600 fps, and the fastest 22 Magnum loads zip along at about 2,200 fps. The 17 HMR is, by rimfire standards, blistering fast with some loads exceeding 2,600 fps. That’s faster than Mach II and more than twice the speed of sound. Winchester’s rimfire 17 Super Magnum is even faster, some loads for this rimfire cartridge can exceed 3,000 fps.
How Fast is Centerfire Pistol & Revolver Ammunition?
Though there are some exceptions, most of the centerfire pistol and revolver ammunition has a muzzle velocity from about 700 fps to around twice that much. This is not really all that fast. Many rimfire loads are faster than centerfire loads commonly fired from handguns, and the Concord passenger airplane cruised at an amazing speed of about 2,000 fps. So, surprisingly, people have flown faster than a 9mm pistol will shoot.
How Fast is Centerfire Rifle Ammunition?
With centerfire rifle cartridges, speeds vary a great deal. At around 1,200 fps, some 45-70 Government loads are slower than some pistol cartridges and rimfire loads. The 30-30 Winchester will break Mach II with muzzle velocities as fast as 2,400 fps, and some 243 Winchester loads can exceed Mach III (3,260 fps). The fastest centerfire rifle ammunition is typically used for varmint hunting. Federal’s 43-grain bullet load for the 22-250 Remington is rated at 4,000 fps, which his nearly 3.7 Mach, and that’s damned fast no matter how you measure it.
How Fast Does a Bullet Travel: Speed Specifics
As mentioned, bullets have two speeds. The first, which is expressed in feet per second, is the linear speed—the speed at which the bullet moves down range. Bullet velocity begins to slow from the moment the bullet leaves the barrel because it must pass through air and because gravity is acting on it. A bullet’s velocity decreases as it goes down range until it slows to the point it’s overcome by gravity and hits the ground. The further a bullet travels, the slower it will be moving. For example, a 150-grain 308 Winchester bullet that starts out at 2,800 fps will only be traveling about 1,800 fps at 500 yards, and only about 1,100 fps at 1,000 yards.
But the other speed of a bullet is how fast it’s spinning. The rifling in a barrel spins a bullet to stabilize it as it travels down range, and the twist rate of the rifling determines how many times the bullet will rotate over a given distance. For example, a bullet fired through rifling with twist rate of 1 turn in 12 inches, will complete one full rotation for every 12 inches it travels. The bullet’s rotational speed is determined by the rifling twist rate and velocity. A bullet rotating one full turn for every 12 inches that exits a barrel at 3000 fps will have a rotational velocity of 180,000 revolutions per minute (rpm).
Bullets can be fired fast or slow, but for sporting arms and ammunition, none will reach the speeds of hypersonic flight, which starts at 3,806 mph or 5,582 fps. In 1967 William “Pete” Knight flew the North American X-15 rocket plane to a speed of 4,519 miles per hour. That equates to more than 6,000 fps, which is way faster than any bullet you’ll shoot out of any gun. So, yeah, bullets can be fast, but humans can go faster. Of course, humans don’t spin while they’re doing it.