Tracer ammo question


I took the following from

"It was a common practice on fighter planes to load every 5th found with a tracer round to aid in aiming. That was a mistake. The tracers had different ballistics so (at long range) if your tracers were hitting the target, 80% of your rounds were missing. Worse yet, the tracers instantly told your enemy he was under fire and from which direction. Worst of all was the practice of loading a string of tracers at the end of the belt to tell you that you were out of ammo. That was definitely not something you wanted to tell the enemy. Units that stopped using tracers saw their success rate nearly double and their loss rate go down."
My questions are:

  1. Is the above written true?
  2. In general, are tracers capable of defeating the target (even though they are not made for that purpose) or they are just “bright flying bulbs”?


I’d think it to be somewhat/ mostly true.
And as to how effective, I’m not standing in front of one. The amount of tracer material in a tracer bullet, is quite small compared to the total bullet weight. So enough to effect trajectory but still very lethal.


I’d have to give it a mostly untrue rating. Tracers do have a different trajectory than a ball round but not enough to make them a detriment to the effectiveness of ball. The tracer usually weighs the same as a ball (initially) and starts at the same muzzle velocity, but it obviously loses weight once it is fired. The higher ballistic coefficient helps to offset that somewhat but, more importantly, they are designed to cross the trajectory of a ball at some point downrange, usually at around 500 yards.

It’s true that they do reveal the shooters position, but dark or delayed tracers were developed to overcome that handicap.

As far as defeating the target, as Pete said, you don’t want to be standing in front of one. The tracer makes up only about 10% of the bullets weight. If they resulted in more hits with ball, they have to be considered effective.

I do not buy the statement that success rates were doubled without tracers. I’d like to see actual numbers that support that theory.




[quote=“sksvlad”]I took the following from

My questions are:

  1. Is the above written true?[/quote]
    Every 5th round a tracer? True.

Tracers have different trajectory than other bullet types? True.

If the tracers hit the target (at long range), the other 80% of your rounds miss? That could be either true or false; it depends upon the range.

Tracers tell the enemy he is being fired upon? True.

Success rate doubled after stopping use of tracers? I dunno.

Judging by gun camera footage (, it appears that some units indeed did not use tracers. I imagine that capable and experienced shooters could get by without tracer ammo; the .50 caliber incendiary rounds that US aircraft typically fired produce a bright flash upon impact, making hits obvious. But, without tracers I don’t know how the shooter could judge which way to correct his aim.

Tracers are quite capable of punching holes through aluminum-skinned aircraft…and the crewmembers, too.


This answer will be briefer than I wanted because I lost my longer effort when I tried to post it.

Yes, my understanding is that all of the points mentioned in the first post are true.

However, tracers were useful when fired by bombers or ships at attacking planes because they could distract the pilots and make them flinch away.


Having fired many many tracers through various machineguns in the past, linked at the standard 1:5 ratio, I can say that they are in fact effective at getting ball rounds on target. There may be a point where they become less effective and there may be some makes, models and calibers that are more or less effective. However, if they were as bad or useless as this article suggests, then they would no longer be in such widespread use as they are today…

As for effectiveness against a target, I know for a fact that a fellow Marine was killed by a 7.62x39mm tracer projectile in Somalia. A militiaman fired at him from above and behind, and the tracer was observed hitting him. The projectile went through his rucksack and into his chest, killing him. There is also a video on the internet of an Iraqi insurgent being hit in the head by a tracer and being killed instantly. When you watch the video slowly, you can see the tracer strike the ground, bounce up and go through his head. I do not know if it was a 5.56 or 7.62 tracer, but it was fired by US forces. If you search for “Iraqi with RPG” you might find it, but be warned that it is graphic.



Another short reply because I just lost my more detail reply.

This problem of losing replys is makeing the Forum pretty useless!!!

Lots of different combat situations and some tracers make sense and some they don’t.

Tracers are important for air-to-air, air-to-groung and anti-air unless you have other sensors to control fire. Most modern systems can control fire with sensors for first burst kills so tracers are not required (Apache Helio).

I seriously doubt the claim of double success! What is success, and how would you even capture the distinction of tracer vs no tracer in the complexity of a firefight-each one is different.

How well can a person see tracers approaching them at night and in daylight. My experience made me assume that the person in front of the tracer has a hard time seeing it, but that may be a bad assumption based on my narrow experience.



I suspect that some of the differences in opinion here are because some people are thinking of MG tracers in ground fighting, others of aircraft or anti-aircraft applications.

I no longer have the reference to the account I read, but this is how I summarised it in Flying Guns: Development of Aircraft Guns, Ammunition and Installations:

"There was a considerable debate (which continues to this day) about the desirability of tracer ammunition. It was generally felt to be useful in bomber defensive weapons as the sight of tracers curving towards them was observed to distract attacking fighter pilots. In fact, the USAAF even used a tracer round for bomber defence, the M21 “Headlight,” which was specially developed to be as visible as possible from the front for exactly this reason. On the other hand, Air Marshal Harris disapproved of RAF gunners using tracers as he felt that this encouraged them to “hose” the target instead of using their sights. In night bombing, some crews were cautious about firing as tracers merely gave away their position; so were their opponents. The Luftwaffe used Leuchtspur during the day (L’spur) but Glimmspur (dim trace) at night. Upward-firing guns in Nachtjäger (night-fighters) usually used no tracer at all, although some pilots liked to include some Glimmspur.

There was also a debate about the use of tracers in fighter aircraft. Some argued that tracers were useful in correcting their aim, or even in firing to one side of enemy aircraft to persuade them to change course (which sounds suspiciously like a theoretical concept; if enemy aircraft were in range, most fighter pilots would sensibly be shooting straight at them). The counter-argument is that the sight of tracers flashing past them gave enemy aircraft instant warning of attack and enabled them to take prompt evasive action. It has been reported that USAAF fighter units in Europe which did not use tracers scored considerably more successes, and suffered fewer losses, than those which did, which would seem to settle the argument. On the other hand, tracers could help the pilot in ground attack or in judging any sideways drift.

One general problem with tracers was the impossibility of matching the trajectory of other ammunition types, because of two conflicting factors. First, projectile weight was usually lighter than standard, and reduced as the tracer element was burnt up anyway; also the gas generated by the tracer burn reduced the pressure differential between the front and back of the projectile and therefore reduced drag. Tracers were generally specified to match the aiming point of other ammunition at some specified distance and remain within set tolerances at other distances. Another problem in explosive cannon ammunition was that the tracer used up some of the shell volume and thus reduced the space available for HE."


Good post Tony. I think it reinforces my initial opinion that “it all depends”. Today there is little use for tracers in most aircraft because of sensors that give first round accuracy (AC-130U, Apache, etc). Many think there is no role for guns in aircraft today. On the F-35 in development, the AF version will have a 25mm Gatling but the Navy and STOVL Marine version will not have a gun.

Historical use of tracers also depends on a lot of externals. The AC-47 gunships used lots of tracers-sometimes fired 100% tracer to impress people, and created a tongue of flame that painted about half way to the ground. It was a great way to break up an attack.

I have watched a few night firefights from the air (about 3000 ft up) and it was very hard to impossible to tell who was who in the confusion of tracers.
The AC-47 would regularly be warned by the friendlies on the ground that they were being targetted, but it was very seldom (my recollection is never) that they could see tracers coming their way. Maybe tracers are just very difficult to see when they are coming your way, or maybe they had burned out way before they could be distinguished from the other ground fire between the troops in contact.

Interesting subject with no single answer except-It Depends!


[quote=“Lew”]Another short reply because I just lost my more detail reply.

This problem of losing replys is makeing the Forum pretty useless!!![/quote]
Having had that problem on other forums, I make it a practice to select everything in my post, then click on “Edit” and “Copy” as a little insurance before clicking on “Submit” – that way if my post gets lost, all I need do is “Paste” it in the window, again.


Good advice. I do exactly the same if I have a lengthy post.