Wolfe Publishing Group

    Reading the Wind

    The Buffington sight shows built-in cant, rifle sight is stamped with the letter R while the carbine sight is stamped with a C. From Trapdoor Springfield by Waite and Ernst.
    The Buffington sight shows built-in cant, rifle sight is stamped with the letter R while the carbine sight is stamped with a C. From Trapdoor Springfield by Waite and Ernst.
    Reading the wind and learning to read the wind is a never-ending process. On a good day, I am a decent wind reader. What has helped me the most is having the opportunity to shoot with three very gifted wind readers and paying extremely close attention to what they had to say, as well as their methods of “dancing” with the wind. What is interesting was that each of the three individuals has a different method for how they read the wind and what they focus on. I started shooting Black Powder Cartridge Target Rifle matches with Lige Harris, of New Mexico, who has won multiple Creedmoor Nationals. I have continued to shoot with Jack Odor of Colorado. He has won many Schuetzen matches and holds multiple national records. I also have been extremely lucky to shoot with Hugh Wilson, of Trinidad, Colorado. The Whittington Center in Raton, New Mexico is his home range and I feel like he is on a first-name basis with all the wind flags at the Center. He certainly has a real advantage over any other shooter when on that range. Within this article, I will share these gentlemen’s wind reading styles, which I think you will find as useful as I do. I will also attempt to explain some of the different methods or philosophies of wind reading as well as tips and tricks I have collected.

    The really good shooters are good at reading the wind or have a spotter that is good at reading the wind, or both. There was a very interesting article about Karl Kenyon, “Master Triggerman” of Ely, Nevada. If you have not been to Ely, it is not in the middle of nowhere, it is approximately 10 miles from there. Karl Kenyon shot in three and four-position small-bore matches around the country, including Camp Perry. Not only was he a very good shooter, NRA Distinguished Award winner, but also a highly regarded gunsmith specializing in triggers and small-bore rifles, in that order. Karl knew rifles and rifle shooting. One quote from his article, The Best Thing on Earth is a Good .22, attributed to Karl was, “And then there’s the wind! No shooter knows where his bullet will go when he’s shooting outside under changing wind conditions. But lots of shooters are better than others doping wind. They are the ones that win matches.” 1


    In both the Black Powder Target Rifle and Black Powder Cartridge Silhouette competition, we are allowed a spotter/coach. This is different from most other shooting sports. Since we are shooting as a team, there are some things the shooter can do to help his spotter and vice versa.

    First, as a basic starting point, it is critical to have a mechanical zero. Specifically, if you are shooting at turkeys in zero wind conditions and you put your rear sight on zero, you should impact the target in the middle for windage. If you are unable to do this, it might be necessary to check the alignment of your rear sight and adjust your front sight. Before moving the front sight, I put my rifle in a vise with padded jaws and level the bubble in the front sight. When the bubble is in the middle of the front sight, your rear sight should be vertical. Check with a machinist’s square, or better yet, lean the sight slightly to the left (this is for a right-hand twist barrel). The reason for the lean is to compensate for the spin-drift. This is real; the Springfield Buffington sight, Model of 1884 had an approximately two-degree offset. 2 On my rifles, I use a machinist level and target an offset of ¼ bubble to the left. I find this works well. It is a fairly easy process to file the rear sight base, or my preference, insert a paper shim. Using a level that reads directly in degrees, my sight indicates 1½ degrees of lean to the left.

    “Wind Rose” or in this case, a “Windage Wheel” can be useful for making better windage adjustments. This is what your chart may look like if you are recording windage requirements with a three o’clock to six o’clock wind. From Understanding Ballistics by Robert A. Rinker.
    “Wind Rose” or in this case, a “Windage Wheel” can be useful for making better windage adjustments. This is what your chart may look like if you are recording windage requirements with a three o’clock to six o’clock wind. From Understanding Ballistics by Robert A. Rinker.
    The slight lean to the left will allow you to be centered on turkeys and well centered on pigs and rams during a zero condition. I pick the turkey distance for the center due to the limited width of the target.

    Second, you need to communicate with your spotter and help them read the wind. This requires lifting your head, looking at your flags during your string of fire and being involved, as it is much more difficult for the spotter to carry the full load of reading the wind. An added benefit is working through difficult conditions with your spotter. Comparing your estimates of the appropriate adjustment together helps result in a better outcome. This works very well if you have discussed with your spotter which flags or mirage are giving the best results.

    Third, stay calm and be willing to patiently wait out conditions. Although it is a natural desire, it is not always necessary to shoot as soon as the rifle is loaded. Nor is it necessary to adjust the rear sight after every shot. Although the knurled knob on the rear sight is tempting to twist one way or another with each shot, sometimes “less is more.” Even in Silhouette, which has tight time constraints, I have observed experienced shooters complete their five record shots in less than three minutes. Since we are allowed seven minutes, we have time. Better to pick and choose our shots than to shoot them into the berm.


    There are many flag charts available that can be used to estimate wind velocity and some associated empirical formulas that can be used for making sight adjustments based on the distance to the target and the angle of the wind and velocity. I do not do any mental calculations, but I do look at flag charts and think that a “wind rose” chart can be very useful. A wind rose is normally for one distance, and can be created by a shooter for their particular load. If you retain the wind rose from match to match, you will end up with a very good graphical tool for determining the bullet drift for a given wind velocity and angle. Long-term, this will allow a shooter to develop the ability to look at the flags and arrive at a reasonable windage sight adjustment. My only caveat is to keep your windage notes brief, using a stick figure wind flag with the direction and appropriate adjustment.

    The wind rose is plotted with the noon (12:00) position pointed at the targets.


    The most common rudimentary method of reading the wind is chasing the spotter disc. This is often called “chasing the spotter”. No, it doesn’t involve running after your shooting partner. Although it does not involve reading the wind, it involves making an adjustment based solely on the bullet’s impact. The term, “chasing the spotter” comes from target rifle matches. On the target frame, there is a scoring disc on the outside edge of the target frame, which indicates the numerical value for the most recent shot. In addition, there is a spotter disc that is placed in the bullet hole. As an example of chasing the spotter, if the spotter disc is low and left of the center of the target you move the sight up and right before the next shot.

    Under very rough conditions with high-velocity winds that are nearly impossible to read, the method is certainly useful. At the other end of the spectrum, where there is little or no wind, it is an effective method to bump the sights in the appropriate direction. To be fair, I suppose every time we bring our bullet impact to the target center with a slight adjustment, we are chasing the spotter disc.

    However, it is easy to get into trouble using this method, especially during a fishtail wind condition. The Whittington Center range in Raton, New Mexico, is notorious for fishtailing tailwinds. (A fishtailing condition is where the wind is moving from one side of zero to the other. If you think of the motion of a fish’s tail during swimming this will help illustrate the concept.) Adjusting the sights based on the impact of the bullet can have a negative effect during the following scenario. Assuming the wind is blowing from right to left (and increasing) and the impact is right of center and we adjust left (chasing the spotter disc) in conjunction with a wind increase, we have not only adjusted left; the wind is stronger to the left which can easily result in a wide left miss.

    Advancing from chasing the spotter disc to the basic reading of the wind is being able to notice the changes in the wind conditions and predict the effect on the bullet before firing the shot. Just because the wind increases or decreases does not mean that a windage adjustment is necessary. Many times, a wind change will result in moving your group impact to the middle of the target without moving the sight.


    “Waiting for a condition” involves recognizing a specific wind direction and speed. The second part of this process is patiently waiting for the condition to return before firing your record shot. This method is easier to use during the generous time allotted for firing periods during BPTR matches as opposed to the much shorter firing periods in BPCR Silhouette. Spotters and shooters using this method will often be heard to remark, “There is our condition.” This indicates the wind gods are being kind and it is time to shoot.

    This method takes good skills of observation and a calm demeanor. When using this method, I am continually concerned about having enough time to complete my record shots. This is a good wind reading method but should not be your only method, just as you should not limit yourself to chasing the spotter. If your condition does not come back completely, one can certainly give the rear sight a confident ½ minute or 1-minute adjustment and shoot. After successfully making the small adjustments a few times, one becomes more confident in his skills of observation, which will allow for making larger adjustments as necessary with supreme confidence. In conjunction with making these small adjustments, a shooter will make a mental note of additional wind conditions. This leads us to read multiple conditions.


    Reading and keeping track of multiple conditions is well worth developing. This method is very useful in target rifle matches, or long-range gong matches, where subtle wind changes can have a large change on the bullet impact. First, you should decide if you are going to remember the various conditions or if you are going to keep a few notes. I prefer the latter method. I do not plot each shot as I feel it takes too much time. My preference is to jot down a few notes with a sketch of a wind flag and the required windage. Upon firing on a given condition multiple times, I correct and refine the needed correction, hopefully during sighter shots. For long-range shooting, a wind rose can be useful. I like the blank ones and I fill in my information as I go. For most shooting, I track a maximum of four different conditions, preferably only three. Any more than this and it becomes too difficult to keep track and many times it becomes a guessing game.


    Lige Harris supplied me with the blank wind roses and taught me how to use them. He also taught me to read the mirage and what to do with the information. I think the most important lesson was the “two-flag” wind reading method.

    Two wind flags can supply you with all the information you need to make decisions, almost. A velocity flag and a direction flag. During a match, people will often become frustrated and state that the flags are going everywhere. That is because they look at too many flags as 90 percent of the time you will only need two flags.

    Simplistic presentation of the two-flag method. It can be seen that the direction flag is nearly in alignment with the flagpole, which is the key for this method.
    Simplistic presentation of the two-flag method. It can be seen that the direction flag is nearly in alignment with the flagpole, which is the key for this method.
    One flag, which is flying near 90 degrees to the shooter, is used to read wind velocity. Since the flag is pointing out from the pole it is easy to see the velocity of the wind on the flag. Sometimes it will be necessary to use a different velocity flag if the wind comes from the left instead of the right. It is easy to have a second designated flag to use for velocity for this new condition. In practice, it is less convoluted than it sounds.

    A second flag, which is pointing away from the shooter, is used for direction. If this flag is aligned with the flagpole there is a “no adjustment required” condition (I assume we sighted in on this condition for the example). If the flag drifts left of the pole, then we need right windage. Conversely, if the flag goes right of the pole, we need left windage. These adjustments compensate for the direction change of the wind. As long as our velocity flag is constant, we only need to bump the sight for the direction change. Normally you will find your direction flag either well off to the left with a wind from the right or conversely well to the right with a wind from the left. We pick these flags off to the side because they will be more closely aligned with the flagpole. After all, it allows us to see the change.

    This method becomes second nature after it is used a few times. If you were going to put something new into your wind shooting methods, I highly recommend the two-flag method.

    Know your windage for each condition, and consider plotting the flags and required windage values. I am not suggesting plotting each shot only recording the amount of windage you need for an identified condition. Adjust the value as necessary based on the outcome of the shot. If three-minutes of windage was on the rifle for the shot and an additional 1½ -minutes was required I would record 4½ minutes for that condition.

    Lige always said, “Don’t shoot in the boil” (a condition where the mirage is going straight up indicating zero wind). You can get caught in both directions since the boil can leave in an instant and the mirage can run either left or right. I like to try and shoot during the boil because I like zero-wind conditions. However, it is not a good habit to have and it can catch you when there is a quick change.

    Jack Odor picks the predominant condition and tries to shoot during that condition or very near that condition. If you are near the same condition and you only need a small windage adjustment, that is a low-risk adjustment. This method works well, especially in Target Rifle matches where you have a bit more time.

    Jack is also a proponent of shooting at a very good pace. He is not one to contemplate the flags when there is a good condition. He wants to clean, load, and shoot as long as the condition holds or it is near the same condition. If the condition is lost for a few minutes he will wait. An advantage of shooting quickly is that he normally has lots of time to work with.

    Change of the impact of the wind based upon a change in direction.
    Change of the impact of the wind based upon a change in direction.
    Jack always seems to shoot with a ground-spotting scope. He shares what he sees with the spotter or shooter, depending if he is shooting or spotting, and discusses any adjustment as necessary. He focuses on what is working, whether it is a mirage, a particular flag, or staying with one condition. Jack jokingly tells me the best advice for shooting in the wind is, “Wait until the wind stops”.

    Hugh Wilson is very resourceful and uses everything at his disposal to read the wind, flags, mirage, and black powder smoke. The smoke, of course, occurs right on the firing line giving a very good indication of what the bullet will immediately be in as it heads down range.

    Hugh is very careful to note the angle between the path of the bullet to the target and the angle of the wind. This is a subtle observation but very useful. We tend to think our line of fire is 90 degrees to the firing line. We tend to relate the angle of the flags to the firing line. On the silhouette range at Raton, the line of fire is not square to the firing line and can be as much as 10 to 20 degrees off.

    This difference can be significant. In addition to reading the wind in relation to the bullet path, it is also important to know which of the 12 quadrants the wind is coming from. The direction relative to the bullet path has an impact on the value applied to the wind force. As an example, if the wind is coming from nine o’clock the wind is considered full value, or 100 percent. If a wind of the same velocity shifts around one o’clock the force of the wind only deflects the bullet by 50 percent. (See the following wind chart 3.)

    Hugh focuses very intently on one or two wind flags while watching the smoke. If you are anxious to get the first record shot off Hugh will normally respond by saying, “Let’s watch some smoke”. He appears to watch the mirage, but I get the impression this is to double-check his observations or to detect a change. Since Hugh shoots so much at the Whittington Center in Raton, New Mexico he has learned to trust some flags more than others. I also have seen him crane his neck well to the right and look at the United States flag to see if anything is coming from the East; this comes from range experience.


    When watching the wind flags, shy away from trying to keep track of all of them. Focus on the flags that are upwind from your firing position. Attempt to see the angle of the wind in relation to the flight path of your bullet to the target. The angle can be subtle but makes a very big difference if it happens to shift from one o’clock to two o’clock, likewise the four to five, seven to eight, and 10 to 11 o’clock positions. The shift in this region is from a 50 percent value wind to an 86 percent value wind. A very large change can lead to a bad shot, (Again, reference the wind chart from Rinker.)


    Mirage can, most of the time, be a shooter’s best friend. Probably the biggest reason is that it automatically corrects the angle of the wind to the angle of your bullet path. What I mean by this is you do not have to try and read the mirage angle relative to your bullet flight path. By reading the mirage between you and the target, you read the wind velocity from the mirage directly. Now for the bad news… mirage does not always give 100 percent correct information. Don’t know why, just sometimes the mirage does not match up with what the bullet does in flight; all the more reason to have more than one method to read the wind. It is best to read everything available, flags, smoke, dust, leaves, tumbleweeds, or raindrops. Compare the various indicators and then decide on which give the most reliable information. Remember, if it was easy, everyone could be a good wind reader.


    Based on what I learned from Hugh Wilson, reading smoke is an under-appreciated and under-developed skill. Wind on the firing line has the largest impact on bullet deflection than any other place on the range. This is true for the simple reason that the wind at the firing line has the longest time to work on deflecting the bullet. If you think about a large gust of wind down by the target, it has little or no chance to move the bullet, and besides that, it is “old news.”  Smoke gives you information on the wind and where it has the most impact on your bullet. As a bonus, if you are firing in a match and suddenly choking on smoke, the wind has just changed to a headwind. That has happened to all of us and it is not what one would call a pleasant experience. It certainly gets your attention.

    I find it simple to get an idea of the relative velocity of the smoke as it drifts from the firing line; equally as easy as checking the angle of departure from the firing line. During a string of fire, it is possible to have smoke hang on the line, which makes for difficult target and sight alignment, especially with iron sights.


    Dust from bullet impacts on berms can be useful. For instance, if you happen to be shooting turkeys and can see the dust raised by a bullet impacting the pig berm it presents a midway point to the target to obtain a wind velocity check. If they happen to be your bullets, you have the wrong elevation.

    Dust devils indicate unsettled conditions. At best, attempting to shoot through one or near one is an even-odds situation. I have shot through dust devils during practice and most times the bullet arrived nowhere near the target.


    If you are lucky enough to have a “hard holder” who is shooting on the adjacent firing point, there might be some free information available. If you are unsure of the adjustment for the next condition, it is allowable to either look at the target adjacent to yours or watch the berm in a silhouette match for dust. It might confirm your adjustment or require a bit more windage. If there has been a big change, you will sometimes see shots from multiple shooters impact wide of the target.


    In Target Rifle matches the distances are long and the required windage adjustments can be subtle yet necessary. To help refine the adjustment, it can be beneficial to look at the wind flag that you are using for velocity and see if the very tip of the flag is pointing at a tree or number board. This attention to detail can sometimes give you the edge. On your next shot, you can adapt your windage adjustment based on the outcome and where the tip of the flag might currently be. This is far more precise than telling yourself, “Well, the flag is hanging at about eight o’clock.” Instead, note that the very tip of the flag appears to be touching that white rock on the berm.

    Super high winds are difficult for everyone and are a special case when it comes to strategy. If the wind is ultrahigh and making greater than three-minute changes per shot, it is best to chase the spotter disc and try to shoot in a similar condition. What I mean by this is, if your last shot is well left of center, quickly clean, load, and if the wind seems similar, make an adjustment that will move you to center based on your last shot and shoot again. I don’t always make a full adjustment because we need to remember that our group size is fairly large. As discussed by M/SGT James R. Owens in his book, Sight Alignment, Trigger Control and “The Big Lie”, when we move our sights, we are moving the group and not a single point in the center of the group. M/SGT Owens advocates only moving the sights one-half the distance to the center, assuming no condition changes.

    Listen to your spotter and eavesdrop a little bit. A story was shared with me about a silhouette match where a gentleman’s wife was spotting for him and she was doing an outstanding job of wind calling. We will assume her name is Carol. The adjacent shooter told his spotter to not talk so loudly, as he was trying to hear Carol’s wind calls. This was comical at the time, but it makes my point. It is a good idea to keep your ears open. Some spotters will even go so far as to say, “Well, that two minutes was not enough.” Use this free information. A word of caution, not all spotters are of equal ability. That is part of the fun; you get to decide whom to listen to or not!


    The toughest wind direction to shoot in is a headwind. Since the wind is coming from the far end of the range, there are usually no flags to warn you of a wind velocity or direction change. Yes, you can partially see what the wind is doing on the range, but we always want to see what is coming. When shooting in a right-to-left condition, we look right to see if the angle or velocity is changing. We do not have that luxury in a headwind.

    Conversely, a tailwind enters the range at the firing line and gives us some warning. Also, with both types of conditions, since the angle of the wind to the bullet path is shallow, we can use the mirage to our advantage to see the shift from the left side of zero or to the right side of zero. Generally, the windage adjustments are small and subtle. One of the important factors in adjusting for a head-tail condition is to be on the correct side of zero, probably more important than getting the magnitude exactly right. This is why it is critical to have a mechanical zero on your rifle whether shooting scope or iron sights.


    I think there are at least two really good ways to become a good wind reader. First, sit behind a good wind reader with a spotting scope and see what they see and what they tell their shooter. The second is to shoot a 22 LR at 300 yards. I have been told a .22 has nearly the same bullet drift in a 10-mph wind at 300 yards as a .308 does at 600 yards. A spotter is not even needed if you shoot on a steel target in front of a dry berm with a scoped .22. Karl Kenyon was right about this many years ago when he said, “The best thing on earth is a good .22.”


    1. Lefler, Wes “The Best Thing on Earth is a Good .22” Precision Shooting, November 2004, 8-12

    2. Owens, James R. Sight Alignment Trigger Control and The Big Lie. JAFEICA Publishing. 1996

    3. Rinker, Robert A. Understanding Ballistics. Mulberry House, 1998

    4. Waite, M.D. Trapdoor Springfield. Beinfeld Publishing, 1980

    Wolfe Publishing Group