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Types of Scales
(Bowditch, The American Practical Navigator, 2002)

The scale of a chart is the ratio of a given distance on the chart to the actual distance which it represents on the earth. It may be expressed in various ways. The most common are:

  1. A simple ratio or fraction, known as the representative fraction. For example, 1:80,000 or 1/80,000 means that one unit (such as a meter) on the chart represents 80,000 of the same unit on the surface of the earth. This scale is sometimes called the natural or fractional scale.
  2. A statement that a given distance on the earth equals a given measure on the chart, or vice versa. For example, “30 miles to the inch” means that 1 inch on the chart represents 30 miles of the earth’s surface. Similarly, “2 inches to a mile” indicates that 2 inches on the chart represent 1 mile on the earth. This is sometimes called the numerical scale.
  3. A line or bar called a graphic scale may be drawn at a convenient place on the chart and subdivided into nautical miles, meters, etc.

All charts vary somewhat in scale from point to point, and in some projections the scale is not the same in all directions about a single point. A single subdivided line or bar for use over an entire chart is shown only when the chart is of such scale and projection that the scale varies a negligible amount over the chart, usually one of about 1:75,000 or larger. Since 1 minute of latitude is very nearly equal to 1 nautical mile, the latitude scale serves as an approximate graphic scale.

On most nautical charts the east and west borders are subdivided to facilitate distance measurements. On a Mercator chart the scale varies with the latitude. This is noticeable on a chart covering a relatively large distance in a north-south direction. On such a chart the border scale near the latitude in question should be used for measuring distances.

Of the various methods of indicating scale, the graphical method is normally available in some form on the chart. In addition, the scale is customarily stated on charts on which the scale does not change appreciably over the chart. The ways of expressing the scale of a chart are readily interchangeable. For instance, in a nautical mile there are about 72,913.39 inches. If the natural scale of a chart is 1:80,000, one inch of the chart represents 80,000 inches of the earth, or a little more than a mile. To find the exact amount, divide the scale by the number of inches in a mile, or 80,000/72,913.39 = 1.097. Thus, a scale of 1:80,000 is the same as a scale of 1.097 (or approximately 1.1) miles to an inch.


This is a distance scale taken from a nautical chart.  The top scale shows miles broken up into tenths.  The bottom scale shows yards, broken up by hundreds.

Stated another way, there are: 72,913.39/80,000 = 0.911 (approximately 0.9) inch to a mile. Similarly, if the scale is 60 nautical miles to an inch, the representative fraction is 1:(60 x 72,913.39) = 1:4,374,803.

A chart covering a relatively large area is called a small-scale chart and one covering a relatively small area is called a large-scale chart. Since the terms are relative, there is no sharp division between the two. Thus, a chart of scale 1:100,000 is large scale when compared with a chart of 1:1,000,000 but small scale when compared with one of 1:25,000.

As scale decreases, the amount of detail which can be shown decreases also. Cartographers selectively decrease the detail in a process called generalization when producing small scale charts using large scale charts as sources. The amount of detail shown depends on several factors, among them the coverage of the area at larger scales and the intended use of the chart.


This is the left edge of a nautical chart.  It shows latitude by degrees and minutes.  The minutes are broken down into tenths of minutes on the scale.
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