Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Measure for Measure

How fast is that bullet REALLY going, from your 28" barreled thumpenblitzenboomer wildcat special?

How much velocity are you losing from your 4" 357 down to your 2" pocket gun?

What about from your 5" Government model, to your 3" officers model?

How consistent are those handloads really? And are you SURE you aren't exceeding pressure limits?

Are you REALLY making major power factor with those bunnyfarts?

To answer any (or all) of these questions, you need a way to directly measure the speed of the bullets flying downrange from your barrel. Everything else is just guessing.

You need a chronograph.

Actually, I think that's an imperative statement for any shooter interested in accuracy, any handloader, any competitive shooter... Really anyone but the most casual shooter.

If you're doing anything other than plinking, and practicing your defensive shooting; you really should have at least a basic chronograph available to you.

Of curse that brings uo the question, which one should I buy and how much should I pay?

Ahhhh the dreaded "buyers guide" post. And just in time for Christmas too.

The Players

Basically, there are six choices out there (from four companies) in the market right now (there are a few others but they are designed for ammo companies, and they start around $5,000):
  1. Shooting Chrony of some kind (there are 4 basic models, with 2 variants for each model, and several options)

    • F1 chrony - $80 or $100 for the master version with remote display (which you want), but don't bother because...

    • Alpha chrony - $100 or $120 for master. It has a multi shot memory, which you want. The F1 doesn't. Again though I wouldn't bother because...

    • Beta chrony - $100or $135 for master. It has a multi string, multi shot memory, that stays persistent even after being turned off. Basically, just buy this one or the Gamma because...

    • Gamma chrony - $175 to $200 depending on sales. Includes 15 times the memory of the Beta, a timer function, and the printer (which sells separately for $90).

  2. Competition Electronics Pro Chrono Digital : $100-$110 plus $50 for the USB interface and software, and $90 if you want a remote control, and you do if you want to do anything but basic velocity recording. They sell a stripped version for $20 less, but don't bother.

  3. CED Millennium 2 : $200, no printer, but it has built in USB and you can get an accessory printer. The original Millennium 1 is still available, but you want the M2. It's the same price, has more memory and a faster processor, it has USB instead of serial, and it does more statistical functions and ballistic calculations. Even on a major discount for the M1, I'd go for the M2.

  4. Pact Model 1 XP: $130, includes nothing but the skyscreens and the chrono. Good basic chronograph, and the cheapest one with separate skyscreens. The only option is the $90 IR skyscreens.

  5. Pact Mk IV XP competition timer and chronograph: $200 for the chrono and timer, plus $70 or $90 for the separate skyscreens (get the IR ones. They're better). No printer or PC interface, but it's a full featured competition timer; and it includes some of the ballistic computer features of the Pro XP (but not all of them).

  6. Pact Professional XP: $229. The most expensive of the listed chronographs (well... not including the timer plus skyscreens), but includes PC interface (serial. Requires a $30 adapter for USB, plus free download software), printer, and a full ballistic calculator and computer.
Really, what you go for largely depends on what you want out of a chronograph, and what you want to spend.

The first big question: All in one, or separate skyscreens?

The biggest difference structurally, is whether the chrono uses separate skyscreens, or if you shoot over the body of the chronograph itself.

Obviously, the disadvantage of shooting over the chrono, is that sometimes you might not shoot over it, but into it. With a replaceable screen model, if you kill your skyscreens, it's a $70-$90 replacement, not a total loss (though Chrony has a great deal that I'll talk about later).

Also, with remote skyscreens, you don't have to worry as much about placement, and you don't need a separate remote; the display (and printer if you have one) are right there on the bench with you.

All the PACT models, and the CED models all have remote displays and separate skyscreens. The Shooting Chrony models (non master), and the CEI ProChrono Digital both package the skyscreens and the display and controls (and "brains") together.

The Master Chrony models are a little bit different. They pack the display inside the skyscreens for travel; and give you the option of mounting the display and controls either on the screens, or remotely. I don't know why you'd bother with mounting the display on the screens however, since in addition to being less convenient, that incurs the risk of shooting the display and controls... but more options are better.

Oh and both the Pact Pro XP and the CED M2 have infrared skyscreen options, so that you can get better results (or any results at all) indoors, or in dim lighting, without separate accessory lighting (which require either AC power or a separate battery pack).

The CEI and Chrony models offer light kits to fit over their existing skyscreens, but they require separate AC power or battery packs.

The advantage of the all in one designs (and the master Chrony), is that they are generally MUCH less expensive (usually by at least $50, sometimes by more than $100); and they are more compact and easy to transport. This is especially true of the Chrony designs, which fold up and carry in a box small enough to fit into a large range bag.

The second big question: Do you want a PC interface?

All of the major chrono brands offer at least one; though some models include it free, and some are optional accessories.

The CEI Pro Chrono USB (a $50 accessory for interface and software combined, on top of the pro chronos $110 price) is the only one that gives you a modern, clean, graphical interface, with real time outputs etc... You can hook it up to your PC and get an EXCELLENT remote display, or to a USB/serial reciept printer for printed chronograph results.

For the CED M2, and Pact Pro XP, you get a USB or serial interface included respectively (you'll need a serial to USB adapter for the Pro XP).

For the PACT, you can download free software from PACT, or buy more full featured software. For the CED you'll need to buy software.

With the Chrony, the PC interface is also an option ($60 for USB without software, $110 with it). It's available for all newer Chrony models but the F1 (which needs to be upgraded to an Alpha to get the port the interface plugs into).

The other two PACT models don't have any PC interface option.

The third big question: Do you want a printer?

You may think you'll never want one, but they can be remarkably useful things. Not having to go through the memory of the machine for a particular shot string is great. Printing velocity and load data out to label a cartridge box with is invaluable.

Even better, is being able to print a custom ballistic table for the rifle and load you're shooting, for the conditions of the day; as the Pact Pro XP can do.

The PACT pro XP has a printer built in to the body of the chrono. That means you've always got it, and you don't have to worry about separate batteries.

The Gamma Chrony includes one with it, or you can buy it as a $90 accessory for all the other Chrony models (you should just buy the gamma if you want the printer. it'll save you $$30-50).

The CED M2, and Competition Electronics Pro Chrono can both print either through a PC, or with an accessory serial/usb printer (the kind used for cash registers and point of sale terminals etc...) , that you can pick up for about $90.

The last big question: Just a chronograph, or lots of extra features?

From a functionality standpoint, the Chronys, the Pro Chrono Digital, and the Pact XP, are just basic chronographs. They record a velocity, they display a velocity, that's pretty much it.

The CED M2 and the Pact Pro XP, both include ballistic calculators/computers. They can calculate standard deviations, extreme spreads etc... And the Pro XP can even calculate ballistic drop tables.

The PACT Mark IV is a really good competition timer (the standard timer for many competitions in fact), that throws in the chronograph capability as an extra, along with some basic ballistic calculations.

Of course, do you really care about that extra stuff? If you're a precision shooter or reloader, maybe; but then again, you already have computer software and ballistic calculators to do that for you anyway...

Warranty, customer service, and other relevant factors

Oh and it's worth noting, all of the models mentioned above have a lifetime warranty, except the CEI Pro Chrono Digital and CED Millennium 2 (both are two years).

All of the companies have a reputation for good customer service; though CED is Hong Kong based, so they may be more difficult to communicate with if local reps can't handle it.

PACT and Chrony make their products in the USA, and their support is local. They're shooters, and they're big sponsors of the industry and our sport as a whole.

CEI is a US company, their products are US made, and support is local; but they are not as big a participant in the industry and the sport.

If you care, CED are made offshore, and the company are not as visible in the shooting world.

A special mention for Chrony

Chrony has the best warranty and replacement policy in the business, and in general the best customer service.

If you break a Chrony in any way that doesn't involve clear abuse of the product (like running it over with a truck, or shooting through it), they replace it no questions asked.

Actually, there are a lot of people who have shot up their chronys, sent them back expecting a charge; and had a repaired, or even brand new Chrony show up on their doorstep for free.

If you do shoot it and it's repairable with basic replacement parts, they'll usually just charge you $40 to fix it (another reason to buy the master chrony models, since everything but the sensors is in the remote unit, which would be hard to shoot since it's next to you on the bench).

If you shoot it, crush it, destroy it, abuse it... it doesn't matter, so long as it's still recognizably a chronograph of some kind; they replace it for a reasonable fee ($70 to $100 depending on the model... maybe less than the cost of new skyscreens for the external skyscreen models).

If your chrony is obsolete, or you want to upgrade it to any other chrony model, they will do so for between $35 and $130 dollars (depending on which model you started with and which you end up with, and whether you want a printer).

Also, they offer a trade-in program for anyone elses chronograph, offering the same trade-in credit as they would for one of their own (again, it will generally cost $70 to $100 depending on model, or $160 for the gamma with a printer).

Ok, so which one should I buy?

Really it comes down to what you need to do, what your preferences are, and the bells and whistles you want.

On the lower end of things, I wouldn't bother with the F1, or Alpha chrony models; since the Beta is only $20-$40 more, and gives you several times the functionality.

If you don't want a remote display, don't want remote skyscreens, and don't care about connecting to a PC, the Beta Chrony and the CEI ProChrono Digital cost almost exactly the same. Frankly, I think the Chrony is a much better value for money; since it's upgradeable, has a better warranty, and the accessories are far cheaper.

If you want a remote display, the Chrony models are only $20-$35 more to move to a master chrony model (I HIGHLY recommend doing so).

The ProChrono doesn't have a remote display option, or a printer option; only a remote control box, and they charge $90 for it. On the other hand, with the $50 remote USB interface, you can hook it up to a laptop (or a netbook), and get the best remote display, controls, and data of any chronograph on the market; and you can print from your laptop, or from a USB/serial point of sale receipt printer (about $90 street).

The Beta Master Chrony basically sells for the same price as the Pact XP1, and you get basically the same functionality. Both have memory, remote display and controls, and remote skyscreens. The only real advantage to the PACT, is that you can buy IR skyscreens for it for $90 more (not an option you should discount).

The PACT doesn't give you a computer interface, or printer option. The Beta master does, though they charge $90 for the printer, $60 for the USB interface or $110 for the USB interface plus software... at which point, it is by far the most expensive option of any of the chronographs here (if you want the printer, just buy the Gamma. It's cheaper).

So if you don't want IR skyscreens, a printer, or a really great computer interface, I say buy the Beta Master Chrony.

Actually, given the warranty, the customer service, and the options... Unless you absolutely need the IR (and Chrony sells a lighting kit that will work indoors), I'd STILL say go with the Chrony.

The USB on the CEI is great, but I don't think it can overcome the other weaknesses of the product in comparison... Unless you're putting the thing in as a fixed installation on a range with a display screen, in which case it's a great choice.

If you want a printer, you can buy the Chrony Gamma Master, or the Pact Pro XP. There's anywhere from a $0 price difference to maybe $30 depending on what sales are going on at what time. Both have lifetime warranties, remote displays, and great customer service.

The PACT has the extra functionality of a ballistic computer, and it has a PC interface built in with free software; plus the IR skyscreen option for $90, or replacement skyscreens for $70.

The Chrony is a little cheaper, much more compact and easier to transport, has that spectacular replacement policy (so you can replace broken skyscreens fairly cheaply), and gives you the option of slightly better ballistic software. However, Chrony doesn't offer IR skyscreens, you can't buy spares (only replacements after you've broken the original), the computer interface and software are WAY more expensive ($110 together) eliminating the price advantage completely; and the separate printer increases the hassle and bulk of the whole rig.

The CED Millennium 2 is an excellent chronograph. It has a built in USB interface. It has replaceable skyscreens, and an IR skyscreen option. It has a lot of ballistic calculator functions (though not as many as the PACT). It's also $30 cheaper than the PACT and about the same price as the Gamma Chrony.

Unfortunately, for that $30 cheaper, you don't get as much ballistic functionality as the PACT, and you don't get a printer.

That's a lot of stuff to consider, by in my opinion it boils down to this:

If you don't want remote display, get the Beta Shooting Chrony.

If all you care about is the computer interface, get the CEI Pro Chrono Digital. Really, it's great for a fixed range. If I build a range like that, I might just buy a cheap laptop and LCD screen and this chrono and permanently install them. It's also great if you run competitions, since you can put the chrono results up on a bigger screen so everyone can see them.

If you don't want a printer, IR skyscreens, or a computer interface, get the Beta Master Chrony.

Honestly, I think if you want a printer, or you want a chrono with a ballistic calculator, you should just buy the PACT Pro XP. The Gamma Master is a great chronograph, but the PACT is better, and it has the IR option and the PC interface built in, for just $30 more.

I wouldn't bother with buying the PACT Mark IV XP as a chronograph; though if you're going to buy one anyway as a timer, why not buy a set of IR skyscreens for $90, and have the extra functionality in your pocket when you want it.

A lot of people buy the CED Millennium 2 and love it; and I think it's a great chronograph. I just dont see why you would buy it vs. the PACT when you get the extra ballistic calculator functionality, the printer, and a lifetime warranty vs. two years, for $30 more.

The one advantage it does have, is that you can buy the computer unit for $110, and the IR skyscreens separately for $90, and end up with IR screens cheaper than any other solution.

If you absolutely need IR screens, the CED M2 will cost you $200, the Model 1 XP will cost $220 (and not have a PC interface, or a ballistic calculator), and the Pro XP will cost you $320.

Oh one other option. If you have, or can find an old used chronograph of any kind, but especially an old used Chrony, cheap (I got my old F1 for free); you can do either an upgrade (if it's a Chrony), or a tradein (if it's not), to a gamma master chrony for $100 or $110 without a printer, or $130 or $160 with a printer.

There is no better deal on a good chronograph anywhere.

Bottom Line:

Realistically, I'd say there's three choices; unless you have a specific need met better by one of the others.
  1. $100 for the Beta Shooting Chrony, for the best value most compact choice, with no extras

  2. $135 for the Beta Master Chrony, for the best value with remote display and options

  3. $230 for the PACT Pro XP, for the best value with a printer, extras, and options
So... what does the AnarchAngel use?

I've shot with Chronys for years, I had an F1; and frankly I really like the product, and the company. However, I needed more functionality, and wanted a printer.

I could have taken my old F1 and upgraded to a Gamma Master chrony with a printer for $130, under their tradein program; but I decided I wanted the option of IR skyscreens, and a computer interface.

The computer interface and software would have cost me an extra $110, bringing the total to $240, plus $60 for the indoor lighting kit (which isn't IR and requires an AC power source) for a total of $300.

Or I could buy a PACT Pro XP for $230, and the IR skyscreens for $90.

So that's what I did.

Actually, I haven't bought the IR screens yet, because they're sold out everywhere at the moment; but I have the Pro XP and have used it, and I'm VERY happy with my choice.

The old F1 won't go to waste however. I gave it to a friend of mine who doesn't care about the bells and whistles of the Pro XP, and HE'S going to do the upgrade program to a Gamma Master with printer, for $130.