My recent blog (“Shooting Groups; the Big Lie”) focused on how little value “shooting groups” has in judging practical accuracy of most firearms. It’s mostly mythology designed for marketing and industry norms, and has become a standard for judging the “accuracy” of consumer firearms. Unfortunately, how well a firearm groups has little to do with its construction outside purpose-built, precision arm.

They say more about the shooter than the gun; they can be valuable, but seldom in determining how “accurate” a firearm will be. More importantly, it has little practical relevance outside very specific conditions. As a rule, they indicate nothing more than one person’s ability to shoot that firearm, that day, with that ammo, under those conditions. So if groups are not the final arbiter of firearms accuracy, what should we look for—and why?

Mired in the onslaught of media attention surrounding guns, it’s easy to forget that firearms are nothing but tools.They have no mind of their own, no will—they are machines, plain and simple. Left on their own they do nothing. Human interaction is required, and why that human uses them is critical. Some reasons require great thought, others almost none.

Currently, Americans are allowed to buy a firearm just because they want it, like it, perceive a need, think its cool, consider it art, or for pure enjoyment. If you want it and can legally own it, then buy it—no other justification required. Given a more specific use requiring purposeful application may require some thought. Application and the firearm’s purpose (target practice, fun at the range, competition, law enforcement, other professional use, and so on) become critical. Its use determines what you look for, and how to look for it.

Your gun is a tool, it’s only as capable as the person operating it—but different firearms have varying capabilities. A particular firearm may perform some tasks well, seldom all. If you expect that firearm to do something, know well what those expectations are.

Given an identified purpose my preference is to use three primary categories: practical accuracy, reliability, and durability.

Practical accuracy

Practical accuracy is the accuracy required based on the actual application the firearm was indented for. More importantly, it is your ability to produce that accuracy with that firearm. It must fit you, your hand, your lifestyle, your size, and your ability. Accuracy is primarily about your connection to the firearm and ability to use it. The proper mating of the two allows you to shoot that firearm to its full capability. The task determines exactly what that practical accuracy is.

Accuracy is primarily about your connection to the firearm and ability to use it.
Accuracy is primarily about your connection to the firearm and ability to use it.

Hunting requires the ability to place shots into the “vitals,” a target that changes given the size of your prey and how well they are “armored.” Repeatable accuracy (groups) is important, but less critical—you generally get one, maybe two shots. Target competitions may require precise accuracy, with variances in thousands of an inch critical. Practical competitions may require precision at extended range, with one, maybe two shots on larger targets. Some pistol competitions require precision, in others hitting a 36-inch target anywhere gets the job done.

Self-defense or law enforcement use requires accuracy, but seldom precision accuracy—especially if that accuracy comes at the expense of reliability. An insanely accurate firearm that won’t work will get you killed. So, practical accuracy is generally the ability to place shots inside an area roughly the size of a fist (four inches) under real-world conditions at practical distances under extreme stress and duress. Few quality pistols fail to meet this standard, but many shooters cannot. Accuracy is important, but not at the expense of reliability with ammunition designed for the task. Simply put, you want the most accurate pistol you can shoot well that always works with the ammunition you carry. How it groups is all but meaningless beyond confirming your ability to produce the former.

Reliability

The contrived idea that firearms incapable of withstanding the “rigors of combat” are inferior permeates the industry. Nothing could be further from reality. It assumes the only purpose a firearm serves is combat, and anyone using them must be prepared for war. Fortunately, life is neither a video game nor a social media construct. Not everyone is preparing for the next invasion.

Competition guns must complete the match using your chosen match ammunition. It may involve the use of 50 rounds or 1,000 rounds. Target matches treat firearms rather nicely, 3-gun and action matches can be very hard on them. Many competitions today are far less about shooting and more about survival (you and the guns). Rifles, pistols, and shotguns are built precisely for these functions, so look to these if that’s what you want. Either way, if your gun breaks, the only thing you lose is a match. How critical that loss is depends on how much you like to win.

Having a gun that does not work is no fun, but there is no need to spend thousands of dollars for “combat reliability” you will never use, unless you just want it
Having a gun that does not work is no fun, but there is no need to spend thousands of dollars for “combat reliability” you will never use, unless you just want it.

Most people shoot guns because it’s fun. Such guns need to work with less costly ammunition, and generally under less harsh conditions. Having a gun that does not work is no fun, but there is no need to spend thousands of dollars for “combat reliability” you will never use, unless you just want it (and can afford it). Not everyone has several grand to spend. Social media “experts,” magazines, and training “gurus” (mostly those selling guns) want you to believe you must have the “best.” The truth is you can have a ton of fun with a rifle, pistol, or shotgun that will never make it through combat, win the next competition, or satisfy the latest gun “expert.”

Firearms used for self defense or civilian professional applications must work under any condition they may realistically encounter. Doing so with a variety of ammunition (specifically the ammunition you decide to carry or are issued) is critical. Accuracy is important, but reliability cannot be sacrificed. When your life or someone else’s depends on that firearm, it must work—period! That means in your hands, with carry ammunition, in any condition you may encounter. Knowing that requires commitment beyond 50 rounds on the range and in the holster. It requires practice, but it results in confidence in the firearm and your ability to apply it. Accuracy for these guns needs to be judged during actual testing and training that mimics the real world at real distances, on practical targets.

Durability

The internet is fascinated with torture testing. Though it’s practically worthless for most, it is fun to watch and it sells guns. Most people, even those in combat, do not abuse their firearms. More importantly, it only demonstrates what that gun did, under those conditions, at that time, and has zero bearing on what it may do for you. Your firearm needs to be as durable (long-lasting under stress) as you need. Not everyone needs their rifle to survive a drop from a cliff or getting run over by a tank after being buried on the moon. Durability is important, especially for a duty or self-defense firearm, but not to those extremes—at least for most.

Durability is important, especially for a duty or self-defense firearm, but not to "torture test" extremes—at least for most possible uses of a gun.
Durability is important, especially for a duty or self-defense firearm, but not to “torture test” extremes—at least for most possible uses of a gun.

Most quality firearms, even those never torture-tested will outlive most people. Practical durability is mostly about care and maintenance. Cleaning and maintenance after every session contributes to longevity. If that is not possible, you may want to move up to a gun designed for durability under minimal maintenance conditions. For those who shoot a couple hundred rounds a year, this will be less critical; if you are doing that every week it’s a different story.  It all comes down to accurately determining the firearm’s purpose and your realistic needs and conditions. If your needs dictate something capable of surviving “torture” thae fine, if not there is no need to feel like it is a must. The “mission” drives the equipment and sometimes the mission is just to have fun, not save the world.

More thoughts

These are just my three most critical aspects of a firearms purchase. Things like look, feel, and some emotional connection can be very important. Price is always critical. All of them contribute to your ability to properly use your chosen firearm, and properly train yourself. You are not going to practice with a gun you don’t like. Even as a police trainer, I always encouraged officers to use the firearm they wanted, so long as it met those three primary aspects. Sometimes that is not possible, if it is possible it can be a huge factor. Having seen exponential progression with a simple change in pistol, shooting what fits you and what you like is huge.

Firearms are better built than ever before making choices much easier. Most are more accurate than the shooters who use them, especially pistols. Seldom is any deficiency the firearm’s fault. It is always easier to blame the tool, and unfortunately much of the media and training world encourages it—it sells guns and training.

Taking the time to look at these three factors guarantees nothing, but it provides a huge step in the right direction. Buying the firearm that fits your needs, is designed for the job you want it to complete, and is weighed against realistic expectations will allow you to improve and in the long run that is the only thing that ensures the best possible accuracy, reliability, and durability.

Images by Dave Bahde

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  • Tim McNamara

    Great article. At the end of the day, a well made firearm with quality ammunition is only limited by the ability [or inability] of the operator. Most gun owners are incapable of “precision” marksmanship even if their firearm is so, train as much as you can within practical distances and practice,practice,practice.
    If you are acquiring a firearm for protective purposes, be methodical in your selection process and establish your own criteria regarding your purchase. My personal criteria for a self defense firearm is one that is utterly reliable with a variety of ammunition in the most powerful caliber that I can shoot consistently well with.
    My choices are a S&W 686/586 for a handgun, a Winchester Defender 12 gauge for a shotgun
    and [hear it comes] a US M-1 carbine because, for defensive purposes, you had better not be engaging zombies past the perimeter of your lawn or Mr. Prosecutor will be very cross.
    My two cents…

  • 2A Supporter

    I personally consider ergonomics as mt primary criteria. If the fun geeks comfortable and natural in my hand I can then go on to other considerations.

    • Tionico

      Nice typos there.. but your drift still comes through. And the typos are, in their own right, funny as they give a fun twist to your comment. Nicely done…..

  • Noel P.

    Good article with excellent advice. One of the reasons that I still turn to my 1911s and BHPs is my fondness for them and my years of experience with them. I have many other pistols and some are more useful for certain purposes but in the long run your three items along with your afterthoughts are what every gun buyer needs to know.

    • Tim McNamara

      Yes, the High Power has such a comfortable grip and is very rugged. Browning can rest easy knowing that he designed two of the best fighting pistols in history.

      • Tionico

        My furst handgun purchase was a Springfield XD 9. It was OK, “recomended”. lots of people like them, lightweight (I did not understand about felt recoil at that point.. but I learned quickly), popular, reasonably priced… then someone put a BHP in my hands. Away went the XD. (they had increased in price enough I got all my money back, whew!) I still have that first High Power, but can’t remember which one it is, as I’ve since acquired at least half a dozen more. If I had to choose ONLY one handgun for everything it would be the BHP. Most of mine are early enough to be FNH built. If they still made them that way new, I’d get a few more……

  • Fred221

    WW2 Holland included ‘military grade firearms’ as issue single shot shotguns.

  • Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

    Nicely written piece with some good advice. Yes, there is a marketing ploy to get prospective gun buyers to look at firearms differently than reality would suggest.. The late (and probably the finest hunting editor ever) Jack O’Connor said it best that for hunting one needs to look at a rifle that is “deer accurate.” Not MOA of one-half-inch, one inch, or even two inches. Just ensure that the bullet will arrive at its intended target area that will humanely kill the animal. And me thinks (though, cannot prove) that Mr. O’Connor would not think much of hunters using their .40-caliber Thundersmokers at ranges where the Earth’s rotational speed needs to be factored.. Get to know your firearm… Explore which brand/type/bullet configuration and weight works best in that particular firearm and then stick with it… Yeah, that may mean buying several different boxes of ammo from different manufacturers but the end result will be worth it.. Besides, you can always give the stuff that didn’t work to your annoying and always mooching brother-in-law with a bit of dramatic flair by telling him it’s the best stuff ever and you just want to be a good relation..

    • Tionioco

      Friend of mine, late 60’s or so in age, has his own hunting rifle.. he took a rack grade 6.5 Swede Carl Gustav, made a custom Monte Carlo style stock for it, mounted a Nikon 4 x 32 fixed scope, and made a fine hide sling for it. Six and a half pounds all up. He has shot half a dozen trphy deer at 400 yards, one shot drop-in-his-tracks work. Who needs anything better? Oh, and that 135 lb cougar he dropped out of the tree at about 300 yards…..

  • What I like to do when evaluating a gun is pretty much following the 3 good old steps:

    1) Firearm is inspected, measured, weighed, cleaned if necessary, and in the case of the rifles, scoped up. Pretty much getting all the data and comparing it to other guns.

    2) Shooting off solid benches to minimize human error and the vice versa at practical conditions.
    3) picking over the guns in fine detail and covering all the cosmetic and mechanical features of the guns, from butt to muzzle.

    These combined can give me a very good idea on the accuracy of a rifle.

  • Fast Freddie

    Everyone has their reason for choosing the gun(s) they do, some are chosen for looks, some for practicality and some for performance. As a retired LEO and former comp shooter I factored in all of the above, and the subject of what rifle and/or shotgun to also have aside, I strongly believe that a good dependable handgun is on top of the list for those serious about personal protection. For me (and I’m lucky enough to have a CCW) the best gun for carry on those occasions when it seems prudent to do so is a S&W .38 Cal hammerless 2-inch (with +P loads); yes it’s only 5 shots but the trade off for both comfort and concealability is more than worth it. Just one man’s opinion, but this gun with an IWB holster works for me 99.9 percent of the time.