Review: LabRadar Doppler Radar Chronograph
November 21, 2016
Like many outdoor writers, I have a love/hate relationship with chronographs. On one hand, the data that chronographs provide is essential for creating safe and precise handloads, determining exterior ballistics, and measuring key metrics including standard deviation.
On the other hand, chronographs are cumbersome to move, time-consuming to set up, subject to light and weather conditions, and are often prone to failure at the worst possible moments.
LabRadar's My Personal Radar is a chronograph that uses Doppler radar technology for its input data which is a total departure from previous designs.
Given my frustration with other models on the market, I ponied-up and paid full retail price for one of the new units so that I could give it a try.
The LabRadar unit is about the size of a small laptop computer and fits into a nylon carrying case that will cost you another $40. By comparison, my Oehler 35P chronograph fills an entire hard-sided long gun case. Given the amount of gear that I take to and from the range, the small overall size of the LabRadar unit is a good thing.
Traditional chronographs work by firing the projectile over two or more sensors that are placed at a fixed distance apart. The sensors "see" the projectile pass over them and, based on the time it takes to travel between the sensors, calculate velocity.
These systems require two factors, both of which can frustrate the operator: appropriate lighting conditions and a projectile path that crosses each of the sensors on the way to the target, confining the shooter to a narrow path to the target.
At the risk of sounding like a whiner, setting up my chronograph to ensure that the bullet will pass perfectly through the skyscreens and hit the target downrange is a giant pain and my least-favorite part of evaluating a firearm. I haven't shot a skyscreen yet, but I worry about it every time I set them up.
Dim or uneven lighting conditions can confuse chronographs and lead to a very frustrating experience. On more than one occasion, I have found myself testing a rifle close to a deadline in failing daylight where the chronograph cannot get a reading. An additional hour-long roundtrip to the range before work the next morning is something I'd rather do for fun rather than out of necessity.
The exception to the skyscreen dilemma rule is the Magnetospeed Chronograph, which mounts directly to the barrel. It does not confine the shooter to a specific window from which to shoot through, however because it mounts to the barrel it can negatively affect accuracy.
If you wish to test accuracy and velocity at the same time, which saves time and ammunition during the evaluation of a firearm, you are out of luck. Sure, I could measure the velocity of a cartridge without shooting for score but if I'm testing something like a .338 Lapua, blasting a minimum of thirty rounds (ten of each load) downrange merely to measure velocity is a waste of money, recoil, and wear and tear on the rifle.
Because the LabRadar uses radar to track the bullet, lighting conditions are irrelevant — you could fire shots inside a cave or at midnight and you would get a velocity reading. As for being required to fire through a window, the LabRadar system works the other way around: you orient the radar toward the target where your bullet will be heading instead of having to fire over the skyscreens.
So, on paper, the LabRadar is the answer to my prayers since it avoids the biggest issues that I have experienced with other chronographs but how does it work in practice?
Let's start with the unit's operation. The LabRadar is a menu-based system that uses an LCD display and eight buttons for operation: power, arming, display, menu, trash, select, and up and down arrows. If you are even remotely familiar with any type of computers or electronics, the unit is simple and intuitive to operate. If you use a flip phone, you may have to read the directions.
The LabRadar operates in three velocity ranges (archery, handgun, and rifle) which the user selects through a menu. Once the system is powered on, the user selects a new series and arms the Doppler radar. When the shooting is over, the radar is disarmed and the results can be reviewed using the menu buttons. Unit of measure can be toggled between feet, yards, and meters. The sensitivity of the unit can be adjusted along with a host of other options.
The Labradar is equipped with a threaded female adapter for mounting to a tripod or other mount. Bench top and tripod mounts are available for sale by the company, though I chose to mount mine using my Manfrotto camera tripod. For shooters used to traditional chronographs, the biggest adjustment when using the LabRadar is where to position the unit. The LabRadar is designed to be position next to the firearm, even with the muzzle as the muzzle blast triggers the tracking operation.
After some experimentation, I found that placing the Labradar directly in front of my chair at my shooting bench was the best position. This location allows me to readily access the menus on the unit without it being in my way. Because I lean slightly to my right to shoot from my bench rest, the LabRadar's position does not block my view of the target. Once the LabRadar is in position, a sight mounted on the top of the unit is used to orient it to the target — I simply loosen the ball head on my tripod, aim the LabRadar, and re-tighten the ball head. When set up in this manner, I had no issues with the LabRadar reading my shots.
With the setup complete, the system is armed by pressing the "arm" button twice and the blue standby light turns orange. When a shot is fired, the muzzle velocity of that round immediately pops up on the display along with the bullet's velocity at various distances out to 100 yards. You can adjust these distances in the menu but, for example, you will see readings at 20, 40, 60, 80, and 100 yards downrange. When you are done with a series of shots, the unit is disarmed and the series can be reviewed.
The display will show the average velocity, highest and lowest velocities, extreme spread, standard deviation, and number of shots recorded. Individual shots in the series can be deleted if desired for any reason. If the bullet weight and caliber are entered into the system, the LabRadar will also provide power factor and kinetic energy figures for the load in question.
A standard SD card (not included) provides storage for your data and the shot data can be downloaded to a computer in .CSV format using either the SD card or the included USB cable. Once the data is downloaded, it can be opened in Microsoft Excel or Apple Numbers spreadsheet form and labeled, stored, or printed for future reference.
No chronograph is useful if it does not provide accurate readings. My first chronograph was worthless in this regard, providing readings approximately 10% below the actual velocities across the board. When it comes to accuracy, the Oehler 35P is considered the gold standard of non-industrial chronographs.
The Oehler has been my workhorse for the past three years and, though I'm not crazy about setting it up, its accuracy is never questionable. When comparing loads fired from the same box of ammunition, through the same firearms, in the same environmental conditions, muzzle velocity results between the Oehler and the LabRadar were identical.
The LabRadar is, in short, the best chronograph that I've ever used when it comes to accuracy, user-friendliness, and useful features. The negatives? Well, $559 isn't cheap but an Oehler 35P retails for $599 so the LabRadar is hardly the most expensive chronograph on the market. My only real complaint is battery life.
The LabRadar unit uses six AA batteries and essentially requires full battery power in order to arm the Doppler which means that you can go through batteries fairly quickly. The workaround to this issue is a rechargeable battery pack that plugs into the USB port on the unit. You can purchase the battery pack from the company or use other compatible USB chargers on the market.
Some users on online forums have reported the possibility of the LabRadar inadvertently picking up shots from other shooters on the firing line on crowded ranges. This is not a concern for me since I have my own range but both end users and the manufacturer claim that these events can be eliminated by manipulating the settings.
Finally, the LabRadar's velocity ceiling is 4000 feet per second. This is not an issue for me but, if you plan on shooting cartridges that really scream, it is something to consider.
Meaningful changes in consumer chronograph haven't taken place in decades, until now. The Doppler radar chronograph from LabRadar is leap forward in useable technology for shooters. In comparison to other models on the market, the LabRadar is faster to set up, will not affect point of impact or accuracy, does not confine the shooter's point of aim, and presents the data in a useful and archiveable format. The LabRadar has become my standby chronograph for load development and firearm evaluation.