Safety and Training

Range Dangers: The Ricochet

Practicing at the Range

When we discuss range dangers, the primary consideration is always a bullet over the berm or one that flies unfettered without the target or backstop stopping it. However, ricochet is also a grave danger. I have personally witnessed the effects of ricochet; I realize that ricochet can be dangerous. While scientifically predictable, ricochet is sometimes surprising.

Practicing at the Range
Testing the richochet results

Since I spent a good bit of my adult life wearing a badge, many of the incidents I observed were in the field as we might say. As just a few examples, in one incident I fired a 230-grain .45 ACP at a vehicle side glass only to see it leave a long mark on the curve of the glass and deflect away.

On another occasion, a 210-grain .41 Magnum fired into a car door at a very slight downward angle. The bullet hit the heavy seat backing of a 1960s Chrysler vehicle and bounced through the roof almost exactly perpendicular to the ground. In the only occasion in which hostile gunfire actually wounded me, a shot bounced from the ground and struck my leg.

I am no stranger to ricochet—you may say I have made the intimate acquaintance!

Few shooters understand ricochet and ricochet potential well, which may lead to problems for shooters, ranges and neighbors. Bullets do not bounce like rubber balls; they deflect at an angle. You own every bullet and must take responsibility for this.

You must  construct the ranges to avoid or eliminate ricochet. Some of the factors to understand are…

  • Bullet type
  • Velocity
  • Surface
  • Angle of incidence
  • Velocity and Energy
Winchester 1911 Training Round
Winchester’s 1911 training round features a nice flat nose. It is accurate and useful for range work.

Bullet type

A fair question may be which bullets have the greatest potential for deflection?

Round nose bullets are among the most offensive. Spherical projectiles, such as buckshot, are similar. If the bullet goes into a berm, bullet shape doesn’t matter. If they strike a hard surface, including the ground, the bullet shape matters a lot, which is why we must do our best to avoid and eliminate ground shots.


Velocity is an important component of the equation. High velocity bullets penetrate more and with proper bullet design are more likely to fragment. The single bullet type to avoid for best safety is the RNL (round nose lead) bullet at low velocity.

The Surface

The surface impacted  is also worthy of consideration. Water is likely to produce ricochet, much like a skipping stone across the surface. Depending on the angle of incidence, almost any surface produces a ricochet with a RNL or spherical bullet. Many of us have fired at an old fence post or hardened wood. This surface is among the few that often produces a bounce back to the shooter.

Steel Targets with Give
Steel targets when set up with a little give when they are hit, are among the safest reaction targets.

A low velocity RNL load such as the .32 Smith and Wesson with a 98-grain bullet at 650 feet per second is particularly offensive. Up the velocity to the .32 Magnum and the bullet penetrates and doesn’t bounce back. Add a SWC (semi wad cutter) or JHP (jacketed hollow point) bullet and you are in much better shape for safety.

Angle of Incidence

The angle of incidence is the angle at which the bullet meets the surface. A low angle of incidence produces a likely ricochet and the angle of departure may be low or the bullet may rise into the air.

Steel targets with a chain allowing the target to give a little when the bullet meets the target, deflecting the bullet into the ground, are among the safest of all targets. Just the same, do not get too close, as bullet fragments are dangerous to 20 feet or more.

Among the greatest dangers is when the angle of incidence and the angle of departure match. It is rare to see 180-degree refraction, although it happens.

When a projectile is stabilized by the rifling spin is subjected to certain conditions spin is cancelled. Sometimes the bullet reverses, with the base moving forward. This is known as progression or tumbling. A bullet may even ricochet in a lateral direction depending upon bullet spin.

Velocity and Energy

There is always a loss of velocity and energy when a projectile ricochets. The bullet is always less stable after deflection. It may even depend upon how the bullet moves through the air as to the range of a ricochet. After a great deal of research into the situation it is more beneficial to be concerned with a bullet that flies over the berm or which leaves the range than a ricochet.

Checking the Impact
At the moment of impact, the target on the far left is moving. The bullet travels a little with the target and falls to the ground. This works great in practice.

Most ricochets play out and are no longer dangerous within a few hundred yards. The missed rifle round that goes over the berm, however, retains its original energy and range. The problem to address is missed shots. Short-range ricochet inside the confines of the range is more dangerous to you and others on the range than long-range ricochet, per my research and experience.

Ricochets may happen with any firearm and are most likely with long velocity lead bullets; they are least likely with high velocity frangible bullets.

Plan accordingly and let safety always be your guide.

What are your best suggestions for staying safe at the range. Share them in the comment section.


About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (9)

  1. My buddy went to the hospital yesterday after being struck by a ricochet. He was shooting a 7mm Mauser at distance when he switched it up and aimed at the closer steel target 30 yards away, which we had been blasting with just our pistols. The bullet ricocheted straight back and lodged in his abdomen and had to be removed in the ER. It was pretty scary.

  2. Cowboy action shooters fire at steel plates up close. It is a requirement that all bullets used be lead. I seems like the slower the bullet and the harder the alloy the more likely a bounce back will occur. I fellow stand next to me waiting for his turn to shoot was hit in the stomach with a rounded nose bullet bounced of a steel target. The fellow bent over with pain but the bullet did not penetrate and he caught it in his hand. Many of the bullets fragment and they clearly spray in to the dirt under the target. Try to assure that my bullets are fragmenting.

    Shotguns and cowboy action shooting: Some targets get distortions in the surface from being shot at a lot and when shot with a shotgun the shot can bounce unpredictably. Knock down targets the face of these targets usually angled away from the ground so they will fall to the rear. They can get bent to the rear making the front surface sort of arched. When hit with many pellets from a shotgun it is almost certain that a few will come back behind the firing line. It is extremely important to wear your eye protection anytime around steel plate shooting

  3. I’ve seen two ricochets on ranges.
    The first was when shooters were using Daisy rifled pellet rifles (cal.177). The shooting was being done indoors at paper targets with a metal trap (45 degrees) the range was 30 feet. I was not shooting but running the range and i felt something strike me 1″ high between the eyes. I had a perfect round circle which started to bleed and was thankful it was me and not a student.s. Dang , I was glad we were using the flat target pellets.
    The second time I was running a .22 cal. 50′ range with sand traps and an adult shooter said that he’d been struck in the leg by something. He found a .22 bullet with rifling grooves. The skin wasn’t broken but it did bruise.

  4. We often use “Iron Maiden” or hanging AR500 steel targets for tactical rifle and pistol training. We have found that canting the top of the targets forward several degrees helps to deflect the bullet strikes downward into the sand and reduces blown back lead spalding. That said, we had a 7.62×39 FMJ round fired from 25 yards into a cardboard target in front of an earthen berm hit a hidden rock and fly back about 100 yards close to the head of one of our instructors. It brought back memories of combat for him. You just can’t be too careful.

  5. Sometime Ricocheting Shots or Skip Shot, can be a useful tool. During WW2, most German Tanks were destroyed or disabled by ricocheting fire. The “Weakest” part of the tank is the Entry/Exti Hatches. On a tank there usually four, the Drivers Hatch, Loaders Hatch, Commanders Hatch and the Emergency Escape Hatch on the Underside of the tank. Many “Allied” fighter pilots fired at a point just forward of the tank, and “ricocheted” their rounds to skip of the ground and pierce the escape hatch, destroying the tank. Bazooka Teams, sometimes “skipped” the rounds of the ground to hit a difficult to get at target. Ricocheting/Skipping cannon balls was a common practice, since the invention of the cannon. It think “Sniper” units are being trained to make Ricocheting their rounds to get at a difficult target…

  6. Good info. A couple of additional points:

    Range safety is crucial, of course, but ricochet awareness applies in defensive shooting, too. An incoming round may strike a nearby object just enough to compromise cover or wound you with fragments thrown out from a barrier. Not much you can do about that other than not “hugging the barrier” and positioning yourself a reasonable distance behind it.

    Also on a range or on the street, if you shoot revolvers be aware of debris thrown sideways and even backwards from the gap between the cylinder chamber and the forcing cone. Even if your fingers are safely clear, you can still get “powder sting” to the eye. Thus it’s a good idea to double-up on eye protection at the range if you’re shooting wheelguns, even if you’re already wearing prescription glasses. Particles have a way of finding their way around eyeglass frames, so standard shooting glasses worn over them can literally save you some pain, if not something worse.

  7. I have been hit by ricochet. It really surprised me. A group of us mixed police officers and military that go shooting together on the weekends were at an indoor range. We had just finished up and were policing our brass when I felt a thudding pain in my ankle. I went down grabbing my ankle and told the guys I think I’d been hit in the leg. One of my buddies had me slowly release the pressure because he did not see any blood. At the same time he began to inspect the area of pain and noted a distinct impression into my jeans and underneath that, the same impression in the leather of my boot.

    I had definitely been hit by something fast and hard. But there was no penetration or bleeding at this point, only the possibility of a broken bone. As the guys were helping me up, just under my foot one of them found a large piece of bullet fragment that matched the impression in my boot. They surveyed the remaining 5 shooters which had been firing .40s and .45s, so it had to be a fragment from one or the other.

    I did not break a bone after all, but was quite bruised for a while. I did keep the bullet fragment as a reminder. A couple of my buddies initially said they thought I was joking until they saw the fragment on the ground under my foot. I think we all had this false impression this could never happen at a professional indoor range, but obviously it can happen anytime and anywhere.

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