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I've found several definitions, and they seem the same.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ricochet:

  • a glancing rebound (as of a projectile off a flat surface)
  • to bounce or skip with or as if with a glancing rebound

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bounce:

  • to cause to rebound or be reflected
  • to rebound or reflect after striking a surface (such as the ground)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ricochet:

  • a rebound, bounce or skip off a surface, particularly in the case of a projectile.
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    For all the close voters closing for 'not doing research', it's pretty clear that a lot of research was done already. Can you clarify what research would be good to have done? – Mitch May 7 at 19:36
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    IMO, a ricochet is much faster and the projectile usually smaller than a bounce. – Azor Ahai May 7 at 21:34
  • In addition to what @AzorAhai said, I'd say ricochet is much more likely to be something one wouldn't expect to bounce, e.g. a bullet. – Kevin May 8 at 17:11
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    In French, ricochet (etymology unclear, dated 1611) is used in the context of skipping a stone on the surface of water. So I buy an explanation based on the angle of the reflection. – PatrickT May 9 at 6:46
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The word 'glancing' is the key difference between the definitions of 'bounce' and ricochet. 'Glancing' in that sense means that the "angle of incidence" is very shallow, typically less than 30 degrees to the surface off which the projectile ricochets. If you want a fuller discussion of the physics of bullet and shotgun pellet ricochets look at the Abstract section of this report in the library of the US National Criminal Justice Reverence Service.

To summarise the abstract a ricochet occurs when a projectile strikes a surface (either solid or liquid) at such a shallow angle that the projectile transfers only a small part of its energy to the surface and so continues on at a speed close to its speed before the contact. In the case of gunshot projectiles this means that it is still dangerous.

A hard projectile striking a rigid surface at a steep angle will transfer most of its energy into the surface. If the surface is solid the projectile will either penetrate it (eg a bullet will bury itself in a block of wood) or the projectile will deform and stop (eg a bullet will flatten itself against a piece of armour plate and fall from it).

In the case of resilient objects like rubber balls striking solid surfaces at steep angles most of the energy is absorbed by deformation of the object. Because the object is resilient it returns to its original shape almost immediately, pushes against the surface and flies off it. This is a "bounce".

A similar thing applies when a solid object like a child's body strikes a resilient surface like a trampoline bed at a steep angle. In this case the energy is transferred into the surface causing the surface to deform. The surface returns to its original shape quickly pushing the object off in a similar direction to its incident angle. In this case the child "bounces" off the trampoline.

This is the difference between a "ricochet" and a "bounce".

There are a few occasions where such an impact is usually called a "bounce" but seems to be closer to a "ricochet". Two of these are the bounce of a table tennis ball on the table at service or return and the action of a flat stone skimming over a body of water. The table tennis ball does actually deform and return to its normal shape so it can, truly, be said to bounce: the stone does not deform and so, it can be argued, ricochets rather than bounces. However in normal speech the word "ricochet" tends to be restricted to high speed impacts so most of us say that the stone bounces.

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    To be fair, I would say that a stone skips over the water, rather than bounces, because you are right, it isn't really a bounce. – No Name May 6 at 22:49
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    I agree with Mitch who writes in another answer that "hitting at a shallow angle is usually the case but is not necessary. If you shoot straight at a wall, the bullet can ricochet straight back." – bmb May 6 at 23:02
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    To the topic of speed, I find in the usage of "ricochet" I have heard, one of the aspects that seems to be important is that a ricochet happens too fast for you to react to. I can't say its part of a definition, but it seems to be reliable -- you have to prepare for a ricochet, but you can respond to a bounce. – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica May 7 at 1:27
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    -1 – I don't believe physics is the primary distinction in common usage, but the perception/implication of high-velocity and danger. 'Ricochet' is a more violent word, and is used of things like bullets, fragmented grinder discs, etc. that present a danger, or for effect ("The child ricocheted off the wall and through the patio door") – Dan W May 7 at 14:17
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    Fun fact: in French, a stone skipping over water is actually called a ricochet. – Nico May 8 at 12:36
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In common use, "ricochet" would be used to describe a, perhaps unintentional, rebound of a projectile from a glancing blow.

The bullet ricocheted off the brick wall.

A "bounce" is a softer probably intentional rebound.

The child bounced the ball off the wall.

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    No, that's part of it. IME the intensity of the rebound matters as well (bounce is softer than ricochet) – mike65535 May 6 at 19:59
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    A "ricochet" happens at a higher velocity than a mere "bounce". – Monty Harder May 6 at 22:34
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    Of all the well reasoned and insightful answers here, I think this one is the most astute. Primarily for mentioning the "perhaps unintentional" aspect. To me, this cuts to heart of the difference - ricochets and bounces both involve a projectile changing course after an impact, but ricochets are unintentional and largely unpredictable in terms of where the projectile will go next, whereas a bounce is usually more controlled (maybe not entirely controlled, but you can make an educated guess about where it will go.) At lot of this has to do with the relative speeds, as @MontyHarder mentioned. – Steve-O May 7 at 13:39
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    I'm not sure about the intentional aspects of this answer. I think an intentional ricochet would be possible as a trick shot, and a ball still bounces if you drop it accidentally. – Arronical May 7 at 13:50
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    @mike65535 a ricochet is a specific type of bounce. So a bounce is not softer because a all ricochets are also bounces. – rghome May 8 at 7:59
12

Dictionary entries attempt to include as much as possible that is the case of a word, but also attempt to leave out as much as possible that is not the case. But even then it is difficult to distinguish based on explicit definitions that have been compressed to be as short as possible. They leave out a lot of the real world nuance and collocations with other words.

  • It is primarily bullets shot from guns that ricochet. Other things may, like a thrown rock or one that is dropped and then shatters. The pieces can be said to ricochet. 'Glancing', hitting at a shallow angle is usually the case but is not necessary. If you look at all the different dictionary entries, you'll see that only M-W mentions 'glancing', though that is also often implied. If you shoot straight at a wall, the bullet can ricochet straight back.

  • It is primarily things that can fall back down again that are said to bounce. Canonically a ball bounces. Soft or rubbery objects that rebound are said to bounce, and things that rebound from soft things are said to bounce. That is, a rock that drops and rebounds from a trampoline has bounced. If a rock hits the hard floor and rebounds a bit, sure, it bounced but it feels weird, you really are expecting something soft or rubbery to bounce, not something hard.

A ray of light can be said to both bounce off and ricochet off a mirror, but the latter is more metaphorical, thinking of light as a projectile.

Also, 'bouncing' is a lot more common for people to experience and is more generic, whereas ricochet is a less frequent word given that projectiles are not as common.

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    Quite a defined opinion. Got any sources? – user45266 May 7 at 0:50
  • @user45266 fair point. Without reference these are surely descriptions of introspection. But dictionary definitions are surely introspection of a lexicographer, filtered by (hopefully) multiple review by other lexicographers. The OP can read the definitions as well as us (and has given links). What is left then for comparison? Things that are left out of dictionaries. But to your point I'll edit. – Mitch May 7 at 1:06
  • "If you shoot straight at a wall, the bullet can ricochet straight back." Is that a claim about English (people might still call it a ricochet, even if it comes straight back), or about physics (it's possible for a bullet to come straight back)? If the latter, I'd like to see a cite. – Acccumulation May 7 at 14:53
  • @Acccumulation This should all be about the usage of the word, not about physics. To wit: Guy accidentally shoots himself in the face after bullet ricochets off an armadillo. I recognize this as perfectly idiomatic English. – Mitch May 7 at 15:02
  • This is a better answer for this question in the context of English usage than the accepted one, because it reflects (no pun intended) how the words are used in popular culture and common speech. – barbecue May 7 at 17:17
5

In my experience as a native English speaker, ricochet was first described of bullets and projectiles that deflect upon impact and do not stop but instead travel in a different unintended direction. There is a strong sense of speed and lack of control and danger.

The bullet ricocheted off of the target and whizzed by my head.

A ball is not typically said to ricochet unless it is travelling uncontrollably at a high rate of speed and able to cause danger as a projectile. Exceptions exist in poetic language of course, as others have mentioned.

The ball ricocheted off of the side of the building as it fell.

Bounce on the other hand is more soft and neutral in relation to danger, and slower, and therefore, more controlled. Depending on the subject, bounce may imply that the object remains intact, like when bouncing a ball. Physically, a bounce typically comes back at you (again, think of a ball), whereas a ricochet can go in any direction.

My brother fell off the roof and bounced off the porch on the way down.

That implied that his path of travel reversed at the point when his butt met the porch. (By the way, he was fine).

Bullets may be said to bounce, but this sense emphasizes the lack of damage or danger.

The bullets just bounced off of the tank's armor.

and

I bounced the bullet off of the trampoline and caught it again.

Bounce can almost always be used in place of ricochet since it is more general.

Bounce can be used in the context of danger, but it is not implied by the word itself but rather the context:

The wrench bounced off of the concrete and hit me in the cranial area.

  • ...and even in the last case, replacing "bounce" with "ricochet" immediately makes it sound more dangerous. – Ben Barden May 9 at 14:19
3

A ricochet is a type of bounce.

All ricochets are bounces, but not all bounces are ricochets.

Ricochet is normally used for fast moving projectiles (usually bullets) where they bounce off a hard surface and change direction, but retain enough velocity to be dangerous.

It might be used for non-projectiles; for example, a football could "ricochet" off a defender and go into the goal. However, in this case, it could be argued that we would be utilising the metaphor of the ball as a bullet and a better word might be "deflect".

1

Typically timescale and what the object is. When used to describe the path of a projectile, 'ricochet' is common, to mean exactly bounce. Often with the connotation that it continues to have sufficient speed to be effective. Perhaps those that deal in such things just didn't like the idea of using as playful a word as bounce. Some use ricochet intentionally to conjure this image of speed and the potential for harm. 'The golf ball bounced of the wall behind me' does not convey a threat, it could have been gently thrown. 'It ricocheted of the wall behind me'...

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