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Point-blank range is any distance over which the trajectory of a given projectile fired from a given weapon remains sufficiently flat that one can strike a target by firing at it directly. Point-blank range will vary by a weapon's external ballistics characteristics and target chosen. A weapon with a flatter trajectory will permit a longer maximum point-blank range for a given target size, while a larger target will allow a longer point-blank range for a given weapon.
In popular usage, point-blank range has come to mean extremely close "can't miss" range with a firearm, within four feet of its muzzle at moment of discharge yet not close enough to be a contact shot.
The term point-blank range is of French origin, deriving from pointé à blanc, "pointed at the target", with the word blanc used to describe a small white aiming spot formerly at the center of shooting targets. Today, point-blank range denotes the distance a marksman can expect to fire a specific weapon and hit a desired target without adjusting its sights. If a weapon is sighted correctly and ammunition reliable, the same spot should be hit every time at point-blank range.
The term originated with the techniques used to aim muzzle-loading cannon. Their barrels tapered from muzzle to breech, so that when the top of the cannon was held horizontal its bore actually sat at an elevated angle. During firing, recoil caused the gun's muzzle to elevate slightly, resulting in an upward movement of the shot. This caused the projectile to rise above the natural line of sight shortly after leaving the muzzle, then drop below it after the apex of its slightly parabolic trajectory was reached.
By repeatedly firing a given projectile with the same charge, the point where the shot fell below the bottom of the bore could be measured. This distance was considered the point-blank range: any target within it required the gun to be depressed; any beyond it required elevation, up to the angle of greatest range at somewhat before 45 degrees.
Various cannon of the 19th century had point-blank ranges from 250 yards (230 m) (12 lb howitzer, 0.595 lb (0.270 kg) powder charge) to nearly 1,075 yards (983 m) (30 lb carronade, solid shot, 3.53 lb (1.60 kg) powder charge).
Maximum point blank range
Small arms are often sighted in so that their sight line and bullet path are within a certain acceptable margin out to the longest possible range, called the maximum point-blank range. Maximum point-blank range is principally a function of a cartridge's external ballistics and target size: high-velocity rounds have long point-blank ranges, while slow rounds have much shorter point-blank ranges. Target size determines how far above and below the line of sight a projectile's trajectory may deviate. Other considerations include sight height and acceptable drop before a shot is ineffective.
A large target, like the vitals area of a deer, allows a deviation of a few inches (as much as 10 cm) while still ensuring a quickly disabling hit. Vermin such as prairie dogs require a much smaller deviation, less than an inch (about 2 cm). The height of the sights has two effects on point blank range. If the sights are lower than the allowable deviation, then point blank range starts at the muzzle, and any difference between the sight height and the allowable deviation is lost distance that could have been in point blank range. Higher sights, up to the maximum allowable deviation, push the maximum point blank range further from the gun. Sights that are higher than the maximum allowable deviation push the start of the point blank range farther out from the muzzle; this is common with varmint rifles, where close shots are only sometimes made, as it places the point blank range out to the expected range of the usual targets.
Known also as "battle zero", maximum point-blank range is crucial in the military. Soldiers are instructed to fire at any target within this range by simply placing their weapon's sights on the center of mass of the enemy target. Any errors in range estimation are tactically irrelevant, as a well-aimed shot will hit the torso of the enemy soldier.
The current trend for elevated sights and higher-velocity cartridges in assault rifles is in part due to a desire to extend the maximum point-blank range, which makes the rifle easier to use. Raising the sight line 48.5 to 63.5 mm (1.9 to 2.5 in) over the bore axis, introduces an inherent parallax problem. At closer ranges (typically inside 15 to 20 m (16 to 22 yd)), the shooter must aim high in order to place shots where desired.
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- Tables for Cannon & Artillery Projectiles used in the American Civil War (includes point blank ranges).