Book Review: Understanding Firearm Ballistics

Grab your formula sheet and your TI-84 Plus; it’s time to learn! This week’s blog post reviews what I can best describe as a preparatory text from a parallel reality in which major universities offer “firearms” as a bachelor’s degree program. Although not as comprehensive as dedicated textbooks on the subject, Understanding Firearm Ballistics: Basic to Advanced Ballistics Simplified, Illustrated, & Explained serves as a decent introduction to ballistic science for the otherwise uneducated shooter.

The inner workings of even the simplest firearm involve a complex interplay between chemistry, metallurgy, mechanical engineering, and about three different types of physics; it’s practically rocket science. As shooters, though, we usually pay no mind to the scientific principles underlying what we do, as we only need to understand what is happening and not why it happens or how to model that behavior mathematically. That’s for the manufacturers to worry about. First published in 1995 and currently in its sixth edition, Understanding Firearm Ballistics by Robert A. Rinker aims to expand on the knowledge one picks up piecemeal from living and working with guns, at a level anyone with a high school education should be able to understand. To best explain what the book does, I’ll provide an example.

Anyone who knows the basics of what happens inside a gun understands on an intuitive level that there’s some kind of relationship between barrel length and muzzle velocity. The longer the barrel, the more completely the powder charge can burn, thereby generating more gas to push the bullet faster. Shorter barrels allow less burn time for the propellant, resulting in a slower-moving projective. Understanding Firearm Ballistics introduces the ideal gas law, which, as you may remember from high school chemistry class, can be used to model the behavior of a gas based on its pressure, volume, and temperature. Yes, that’s a gross oversimplification, but my point is that this book introduces the reader to some of the physical phenomena involved in the functioning of firearms and ammunition, and the mathematical formulae used to model those phenomena.

As mentioned above, Understanding Firearm Ballistics is written with the relative layperson in mind. Because it must provide a 30,000-foot overview of various scientific concepts in the span of a few hundred pages, it can’t delve into the kind of detail needed for someone with an interest in actually designing firearms and ammunition. Rinker does gloss over much of the deeper complexity underlying each phenomenon he introduces, which may frustrate readers who already have a grasp of the basic chemistry, physics, and engineering concepts at work in firearms and ballistics. Furthermore, despite the fact that the book was on its sixth edition and 27th printing as of 2010, it still includes some spelling errors (“Frankfort” instead of “Frankford,” for example) and some of its explanations could definitely be re-worded for better clarity and scientific accuracy. I’m sure there’s more to criticize on the latter front, but because I don’t have sufficiently advanced education in the hard sciences, I’m not in a position to judge. What I can judge, however, is the quality of the formatting and illustrations. The book is densely packed without so much as an empty line between subsections, and the old-school hand-drawn diagrams should be updated and, in some instances, enlarged for clarity.

All in all, despite its flaws, I judge Understanding Firearm Ballistics to be a reasonably good resource for a recreational shooter or military/law enforcement professional who lacks a strong scientific background but is interested in developing a greater understanding of the science of firearms. Again, it is no substitute for a dedicated textbook specializing in any of the areas it covers, but for a relative layperson, it’s more than good enough to offer a taste of each. I would recommend Understanding Firearm Ballistics by Robert A. Rinker for relative laypeople interested in firearm science, but not for anyone with a collegiate education in the hard sciences, particularly physics, chemistry, or engineering. At the time of writing (early 2024), the book is available in softcover format from popular online bookstores.


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