[Hands-On] 4 Best Shooting Chronographs For the Money

Precision science equipment isn’t the hottest of topics, but if you want the very best out of your ammo and out of your firearms — you’ll need some fancy science.

But with chronographs ranging from $50 to $600 it can be a real gamble on what is worth the time and money just to measure the speed of bullets.

Labradar
Labradar coming in the Gucci tier at $600

From the ultra-cheap to the ultra-expensive and the weird tips and tricks I’ve learned in-between, I’ll help demystify some of the dullest and most important pieces of shooting equipment you can have in your inventory. 

Let’s get to it! 

Table of Contents

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What Exactly Is a Chronograph?

Basically, it’s a science thing that lets you measure the speed of projectiles. These can be bullets, arrows, bb pellets, shotgun pellets, and more depending on the kind of chrono you pick up.

There are a number of ways this can be done. The most common and “basic” way is with light.

Light gif
The magic of… LIGHT!

The chrono looks at the light above or below two sensors set apart by about a foot and waits for the light to be disturbed. Light on the first sensor is disturbed, and then X milliseconds later the light of the second sensor is disturbed.

Math happens, and a speed is given.

Others work on a similar method, but a different form. Instead of light small electromagnetic sensors are set along a line.

A projectile disturbs the electromagnetic fields and math happens and a speed given.

Finally, the fanciest type is through doppler radar.

The same thing that weather stations use, doppler radar is a radar that shoots a microwave signal and uses the signal bouncing back to measure the distance and velocity of whatever it is being aimed at.

Think of it like sonar but… different… don’t ask me how.

One Ping Only Hunt For Red October

And Why Do I Need One?

For the average shooter, a chronograph is probably useless. I mean really, it’s a fairly niche case that you need hard data on the exact speed of your bullets.

But if you reload, want to shoot precision long range, or shoot competitively — a chronograph can be critical.

For reloaders, you want to be able to do things like find velocity nodes, check to see how much speed you’re getting from different loading methods or to check for safety.

Pew Pew Tactical Reloading Supplies
Bought before the ‘rona days.

Precision long range is very velocity dependent. Having accurate data on your ammo is a must-have for proper DOPE. All of the ballistic calculators in the world won’t help if your velocity is off to start with.

Not sure if you have enough energy on target to take your next hunt? Checking the actual speed of your cartridge through your rifle and a little math will solve that problem.

The list goes on. But basically, it’s an advanced user kind of thing. But don’t let that scare you — they’re actually easier to get into than you might think.

Best Shooting Chronograph

From cheapest to most expensive, here are the chronographs I’ve tested hands-on!

1. Caldwell Ballistic Precision Chronograph

This was my first chronograph and honestly, it’s what the vast majority of people will get the most value out of.

The Caldwell chronograph is a simple light sensor design that does what you need it to do and nothing else. It’s lightweight, easy to set up, and really has nothing you can screw up.

Just turn it on, wait a few seconds, and shoot. The number is clear to read or you run an Aux line to your phone to record the data.

Caldwell Chrono (2)
Caldwell Chrono with extra light things and tripod

It has some downsides though. This is the cheapest type of chrono for a reason. Mostly, it’s not super accurate over the long term.

Each range session it will be accurate to itself. If one bullet reads 1000 fps and the next one reads 1200 fps, it’s very likely that there was a 200 fps difference between the two.

But if you took the first reading on Monday and the second reading on Friday, the gap between them might be a little more… iffy. Although really, not by much.

Because it relies on light, the Caldwell is susceptible to weather conditions, cloud cover, etc.

For me in the desert of California where it is as cloudless and bright as the dark side of the sun 99 times out of 100 that I go out — I never really had much of a problem.

Testing the same lot of ammo over and over, I got the same readings within my expected extreme spread.

But if you live somewhere that has “weather” or “clouds” then you might get some funny readings now and then.

Get to know your chrono and this won’t be a real problem. And if nothing else, the readings will get you very close.

Another concern is that you need to shoot through the chrono for it to work. The field is fairly large so it’s not really that hard, but accidents happen.

Caldwell Chrono light cable things
Caldwell Chrono light cable things

Fun fact — even after shooting mine in the back of the head mob execution style, it kept on trucking. I don’t recommend shooting yours, but I was super impressed that it didn’t kick the bucket.

You can get the Caldwell on its own, but I would strongly recommend the Premium Kit that comes with the extra battery cables, tripod, soft case, and some other goodies.

145
at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

At around $145 street price — this is a perfect entry-level chrono.

2. Caldwell G2

This is the bigger and meaner older brother of the first Caldwell and comes with some nice upgrades out of the box.

First off — Bluetooth! No more aux cable or having to write down your data like a caveman or voice-to-text talking to yourself out in the desert like a crazy man.

Second huge change is the rechargeable lithium-ion battery instead of those stupid 9volts.

Other than that, it’s just bigger, stronger, and better in every way to the little bro. And since it comes standard with a soft case and tripod, the extra $50 over the Premium Kit seems well worth it.

190
at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

If you want to treat yourself without breaking into a piggy bank, get the G2. You’re worth it.

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3. Magnetospeed

As the name might lead you to think, the Magnetospeed uses those cool electromagnetic fields to track the bullets speed.

This has a couple of major gains to it since first of all, you’re not having to shoot through points A and B to get it to work.

MagnetoSpeed V3
MagnetoSpeed V3 on a Bergara B-14r in a MPA BA Chassis

Strap on the bayonet and get shooting!

Great for rapid shooting or shooting groups while you track data or for getting instant feedback WHILE you are shooting something important, the Magnetospeed gives you a lot of flexibility in your chronographing.

But… it does have some tradeoffs.

Because it is a large bayonet that straps onto your barrel — this can shift your point of impact while it is attached. It can also mess with your rifle harmonics and open or close your groups oddly.

MagnetoSpeed V3
MagnetoSpeed V3

These can be worked around depending on the firearm you’re using, many high end precision rifle chassis have rod attachments you can get to mount the Magnetospeed to them to keep them off your barrel.

Also, if your barrel is thick enough to start with — you might not notice any problems.

Sporter

The entry-level or casual tier Magnetrospeed, the Sporter model is perfect for hunters, casual reloaders, or people just starting out.

It comes with a small storage case, a simple display, one-button navigation, and is really designed for sporter barrel rifles or long barreled revolvers.

180
at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Note, this cannot track airguns, rimfire, or fit barrels thicker than 1 inch in diameter.

V3

You guessed it, this is the good one. The Magnetospeed V3.

Able to work with airguns, rimfire, pistols, and rifles — plus can fit barrels or suppressors up to 2-inches in diameter, the V3 is simply bigger and better in every way.

Critically, it also comes with a more advanced display unit with more options and better tracking.

MagnetoSpeed V3 display unit
MagnetoSpeed V3 display unit

If you’re into precision long range shooting, this is the model for you.

Both units attach to a barrel basically the same way — a strap and spacers. They are easy to use and straightforward.

Just make sure to use the included off-set rod to make sure that the bayonet is far enough away from your bore.

380
at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

4. Labradar

Oh man… where to start.

Labradar uses doppler radar to do it’s magic, and it really is magic. It’s also very expensive coming in at around $550-600 street price. And that is just for the base unit.

Doppler radar working
Doppler radar working

From arrows to rimfire to big bore rifles, it can work with just about anything… kind of.

While the Labradar is considered to be the cream of the crop in chronographs, I really didn’t have a good experience with it.

To use the radar you need to aim it very precisely at your target. They give you the most useless of V notches to do this with.

Labradar on tripod and ballhead mount (3)
“Where are you aiming?” I don’t know man… that direction?

If you Google around you can find a dozen or more DIY or 3D printed “aiming” devices to help you aim the Labradar.

The second major issue I had was actually triggering the unit. While it claims that it can work with rimfire and airguns, I found it nearly impossible to work with my NRL22 rifles without buying some of the extras that Labradar offers.

The best settings I was able to use got it to track 8 out of 20 rounds of rimfire.

If you want a more sure way of triggering it, you’ll need an external mic. And the only one that works is the one Labradar sells. How convenient.

disapointed

That said… if you can get it set up and working, it is a magical tool.

The accuracy of the information is dead-on in all weather conditions. The unit is robust and can take a beating.

Storing the information on an SD card and pulling it off later is super easy and can pack a ton of information.

Best of all, it tells you the velocity not only at the muzzle but also at any range you set downrange. Up to 5 different points downrange, it will track and calculate the velocity.

Labradar screen (1)
In all lighting conditions, I found the Labradar screen easy to read.

For centerfire cartridges, I never had the Labradar fail to track. But getting it to work with rimfire was a beast.

I would only recommend the Labradar to users who really want the very best information and are willing to spend the time and effort in setting up and learning the system.

Plus, be prepared to DIY or buy some extras to help you make the most of the Labradar. It really eats me that a $600 tool needs *extras* to get the most out of it.

For the supermajority of users, I think the Labradar is a bit much.

Editor Recommendations

For the average user or even the average reloader, the Caldwell G2 is amazing for the money. $200ish at the store and you get a solid chrono, tripod, accessories, and can connect it via Bluetooth to your phone or tablet.

190
at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

It even comes with a small carry bag to keep it all nicely together. If you want to test guns, types of ammo, or do some hunting or long range hand loading — this will meet your needs.

If you’re willing to kick your budget up, the Magnetospeed V3 is my pick. This gives you the flexibility to work on basically anything while giving the precision and ease of use for very exact hand loads.

If you want to bring your long range game to a match and see how you can stack up, this is worth the investment.

380
at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

You might need to think about your barrel thickness and keep an eye out for POI shift, but these are fairly minor issues. For the price and performance, you get every dime you paid for.

Buy once, cry once — the Labradar. If you absolutely need the best or don’t want to ever consider POI shift or want to be able to test multiple guns quickly from the same set up, the Labradar can do all of that and more.

While it really irks me that the Labradar isn’t perfect and feels like you’re not quite getting your money’s worth, it is undisputedly the most Gucci option.

Parting Shots

So after all of that — do you need a chrono? It all just depends on you. If you do need one, you cannot do without it. Even the cheapest option is better than having nothing.

Even if you don’t gotta have one, they are handy pieces of equipment to keep around for when you do need it.

Stick around in the shooting sports long enough and eventually you’ll find that you wished you had a chronograph.

Any other chronos you want us to test? What is your go-to science kit that you can’t do without? Let us know in the comments! If you’re looking to get into long range shooting, take a look at the Best 1000 Yard Guns and the Best Long Range Rifle Scopes!

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10 Leave a Reply

  • Adam

    While I have a Labradar and finally got it to work as they developed things, their customer service is the worst I have ever seen. I am on my third one in two years. I have paid for two of them and Amazon gets the credit for refunding my cost on the third one. Although I have now paid for two units and only have one goes to show how crappy they are. I had sent one back for warranty coverage and they indicated it was out of warranty. They then refused to return my original unit unless I paid shipping. I have contacted them at least a dozen times and asked how they would like payment to ship my old one back as they indicated that it simply needed a firmware update. They still will not ship it back. So I now have one that seems to work but in total it took over a year to get it and my final cost was over $1500.00 due to accessories. Had I not already had all of the stuff to go with it, I would have gone with a different company. They even ignored the BBB trying to contact them to help resolve the issue.

    1 second ago
  • MikeL

    I also use a LabRadar, as is with no external trigger. I have to admit, when I first got it, it was a bit finicky. It behooves the new user/owner to read the product manual, get it out and play with it, then read the manual again. I have had an occasional issue with trigger levels but not as often as this review would lead you to believe. If you pay attention to the distance between the weapon and the LabRadar so it's close to what you set in the set-up menu, AND you place the unit so it is on the same plane as the end of the barrel, I've gotten pretty reliable operation. A tripod help too especially when shooting a pistol. Another thing is if you gather enough data (shots recorded) you can manipulate the data set, post range session and toss out the garbage shots. Having used it for the past 4 years, I've come to love this chrono after having owned several other models not featured here. To be honest, I've never tried a MagnetoSpeed. While I have looked at them, I never liked the fact that you have to attach something directly to the barrel. If you're like me and shoot a lot of rounds, particularly during load development, I would think you could start melting things to the barrel... but not on my rifles! Plus how does a magnetic sensor work for a pistol? With the LabRadar, you get a string of data per shot, 5 user pre-set distances out to 99 yards. So you get much more information than just the muzzle velocity. Loading for multiple rifle and pistol calibers, the LabRadar allows me to get into the nitty gritty of fine tuning my reloads. It helps me quickly identify a good component combination. I can load up a few boxes varying the amount of powder charge in each. If you're trying to match or improve on factory loads, you'll need to start the session with 10-12 rounds of factory ammo to obtain a baseline data set. I then shoot my reloads from each of the boxes I've loaded up. I will also shoot out of different guns (of the same caliber) so I can compare my reload performance with different guns, makes, barrel lengths, etc. Doing it this way, you do have to pay attention and take meticulous notes so you get the data back home, you can make sense of it all. Price aside, the LabRadar isn't for everyone. But if you love to tinker, have a fair knowledge of Excel to manipulate and chart your data, it's an invaluable tool for (re)load development. (PS I use Calc by LibreOffice... it's open source and comes at the best price... FREE)

    3 days ago
  • Seb

    I use the labradar with the JK Precision magnet trigger. As soon as the gun recoils, it starts the unit. This means that the direction and position of the radar is not important (as important). It is amazing and never misses a shot. Mine is placed towards the front of the rifle and when the sensitivity is changed to 4 - never records the movement from the bolt. It makes a great product almost flawless. Got more accurate readings than my magnetospeed sporter too even though they are supposed to be similar in their reading. One big advantage is that it doesnt change POI due to different barrel harmonics with or without the bayonet.

    4 days ago
  • GregV

    Oh, I forgot to mention. To use the LabRadar to its full potential, you need a good solid tripod or bench mount. You can't have the thing flopping around. I use a photographic tripod, and it works great.

    4 days ago
    • Seb

      Check out the magnetic trigger from JK Precision. It triggers based on recoil. Makes the labradar flawless. I set my sensitivity to 4 as per their suggestion and no false recordings from the bolt. Now it isnt sensitive to placement and as sensitive to direction. Place it anywhere you like (I like behind the muzzle by the bolt) and point it in the general direction of the target - and it records all the time.

      4 days ago
  • GregV

    I took the plunge and got the LabRadar about 2 years ago to replace my Oehler P35. Setting up the sensors downrange was kind of a pain, and it wasn't super reliable on cloudy days. Once I got the LabRadar set up properly (Save yourself a lot of frustration and read the manual thoroughly before you start.) it ran like a champ. I can measure velocity and measure for group size at the same time. You can't do that with a MagnetoSpeed because attaching anything to the barrel will change the harmonics. I handload for about 12 different cartridges, so the LabRadar is a real time-saver for me. I agree that it's not for everyone, but for the shooter who wants to tune up the best load for his individual rifle, or do some serious long-range shooting, nothing else can touch it.

    4 days ago
  • Jeff Cramer

    I would have liked an opinion on the Competition Electronics ProChrono DLX. $126 at Midway and top reviews.

    4 days ago
  • Ian

    I work at a gun range with access to all three of these chronographs. With an IR light unit added on (whether Caldwell's, or any other- including diy lights I've seen) the Caldwell has been the most reliable and doesn't suffer from lighting condition problems. The magnetospeed does not work with all ammunition. It is heavily dependent on the bullet metallurgy and mass because it uses magnetic induction to detect the bullet. The LabRadar requires a LOT of configuration prep work, precise placement in relation to your muzzle, and does not like facing any kind of steel target or trap at all. It also has finicky performance at close range (<20yds) It also has a very high tendency to be affected by other shooters when using microphone triggering instead of doppler mode, causing it error out almost every shot, even with the external microphone.

    4 days ago
    • GregV

      One thing I have found is that you have to select the sensitivity of the LabRadar carefully to prevent it from being triggered by other shooters on the firing points nearby. You have to experiment a little to get it working right, but once you have the right settings, it's fine.

      4 days ago
    • MickeyM

      Most of the triggering problems are solved with $50 Piet Recoil Trigger. Just experiment with several temporary attach methods for best results. I use a plastic sight attached to top of the LabRadar but placement relative to muzzle blast is tricky. Not mentioned in the article is the bluetooth phone app that makes all the difference with remote control and data collection. The total investment was high but gets far more use than buying another gun for the safe.

      4 days ago
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