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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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