Larry Gowdy - Copyright©2011
A target from an officer's training academy. The results are from low grade .38 special ammo, and while injured.
One of the sweetest pistols I ever shot was a scoped .44mag double action with .44 special loads. Accuracy was superb, recoil was smooth, and bullet energy was surprisingly good. Similarly, a Ruger® Mk III slab-side target .22 pistol with a Leupold® scope was so accurate to 100 yards that it was actually too easy to shoot. Hunting with a pistol at 50-100 yards or further could be a fun alternative to carrying a rifle.
Rigidity of the barrel is one of the most important components of pistol accuracy (as well as for rifle accuracy too). While a good Ruger P89 9mm can easily maintain 1.5" groups at 25 yards, and stay within a 6" group at 100 yards, the 9mm energy is not so great for much above the smallest of critters, and if the prey is small enough to be properly downed with a single round, then it is likely smaller than a 6" diameter. Ideally, a 40 caliber round should be used for hunting food, although a .22 is sufficient for pests.
It has been my experience that most pistol models can be overly fickle, giving us good accuracy one minute and then giving terrible accuracy the next. Sometimes it's the ammo that doesn't have equal powder, sometimes it's the barrel heating up and warping, and sometimes it's the pistol design itself being too sloppy to enable consistent grouping, but it appears that consistent accuracy will usually depend almost solely on the shooter.
The target to the right is from a state officer's training academy that I attended several years back, and it is a very good example of how several different factors combine to create a good group or cause a bad group. The photo shows the second round of a 36 shot qualification fired up to 25 yards while standing. The taped holes were from previous shooters who used the same cardboard target, and the center hole was a little tighter before some of the tape from my previous shots fell off. (I was told that for liability reasons the agency does not like the idea of its officers being known to shoot accurately, and so I will not give the agency's name here.)
I had been rear-ended in an auto accident a few months prior to attending the academy, and I went through the training with a herniated disk and pinched nerve in my neck. No one can imagine the intensity of pain unless the person has had a similar injury. I made it through the physical training fairly well; as long as I could keep my head leaning slightly forward the pain was not as severe, and since my cardio-vascular health was likely greater than everyone else's there at the time, I managed to get through the PT without anyone knowing that I was injured (due to my position not requiring full class participation, I could have elected to be excused from PT if I had wanted, but I was too accustomed to being active for me to sit idle while everyone else was having fun).
During firearm qualification, however, the need to bend my neck into the shooting position was excruciatingly painful. The range master told our class to use the Israeli/SAS style of pistol shooting, the style where the shooter keeps his feet spread wide and shoots straight forward with both arms at the same length. Me personally, I cannot imagine such a stance being useful, but hey, some people prefer it, so maybe it works for some people and not for others. At first I did attempt the awkward straight-forward stance, but in less than a second my neck pain made it very clear that I would not be able to shoot accurately, and so I chose a stance that I had learned years earlier through trial and error, what I later discovered is similar to the Weaver stance. The main idea is to gain a steady footing and to lock the arms and hands into a position that is capable of being quickly changed if necessary, but to remain solid when firing.
I had already passed the firearm qualification with a nice group from the first rounds, and so there was no need to be concerned with accuracy during the second round. By the last six shots I was in so much pain that I simply tossed the bullets downrange from 25 yards; as long as they landed in the black it was OK with me. I was a little surprised with the groups since the old badly worn double action pistol was provided by the range, and the .38 special ammunition was of a very inexpensive reload. As the taped holes on the target illustrate, most of the officers had difficulty with accuracy, and while some of the difficulty was in the gun and ammo, much of the problem was also in stance and experience. If I had the best scores, and I used the same pistol as previous officers who did not do as well, then the difference of accuracy was not the pistol's fault. I had not shot a double action in years, I prefer a semi like the Ruger P89 (which would have given me 1.5" groups easily), and I was as green with the pistol as anyone else. The deciding differences were my stance and experience.
The fours main elements of pistol accuracy are ammunition, barrel, action, and the shooter him/herself.
Ammo: When I buy a new rifle or pistol one of the first things that I do is to buy at least one box of each brand and style of ammunition. By trying different ammo I can find which specific bullet weight and powder charge works best for that one specific firearm. If I were into loading ammo I could load my own for each gun, but I'm lazy, and I don't have a good spot for loading anyway, so I choose to buy rather than load. In my experience I usually find one specific bullet/grain combination that will give me decent groups, and I then stock up with that one round. In the 90s I found a Chinese full metal jacket 9mm that worked very well in my Ruger P89, but the round was soon banned from importation and I had not yet stocked up enough: it was a lesson well learned.
Barrel: Rigidity of barrel is very important. Thin barrels like in the P89 heat quickly and cause a shift of point of impact. Semi-automatics must have a bit of clearance between the barrel and slide to allow the action to slide, and so a semi-automatic pistol can never have as great of a potential for accuracy as a double action or single action. Nevertheless, a well built semi can be more accurate than a poorly built DA or SAA. An old .45 Llama® 1911 style gave me 1.5" groups very easily at 25 yards with cheap Federal® FMJ ammo, which is not bad. (Other shooters shooting the same pistol with the same ammo rarely got groups below 3".) Over all, however, a good quality double action with a bull barrel would be my choice for hunting.
Action: Single action is my favorite, whether it is a SAA or a DA manually cocked. The above target was shot with double action only (we were not allowed to shoot with cocked hammers), and while the accuracy was not too horribly bad, the pistol would have had a much greater potential if we could have used it in single action. Single action allows for a lighter trigger pull, the lighter trigger pull allows for less movement of the pistol itself, and the less movement allows for greater accuracy.
Shooter: Practice, practice some more, and continue practicing. Thousands of rounds, and more thousands of rounds, over and over, but not quickly. For serious long range shooting with a rifle I might not shoot more than 20 rounds in an eight hour day. For serious shooting with a pistol I would rarely shoot more than a box of 50 in about four hours. It appears that the more common areas of attention needed for pistol accuracy are the stance and the person's depth of attention. I recommend that everyone tries several different stances to find the one that works best for him/her, and then further develop the stance to work best for the shooter. I like a stance similar to the Weaver, but you might find another stance works best for you.
Remington 700-PSS 200 yard target on a bench with Federal® Classic 150gr .308 and the scope set for 100 yards. Classic almost always had a flier in a group of five.
On attention, some shooters find an improvement when only pulling the trigger after exhaling: while the breathing is stopped there is less body movement, which allows for improved accuracy. When I am poking holes inside of holes at 200 yards with a rifle, I am not thinking of much of anything more than being aware of the target and a slight rearward pull of the trigger: only when I feel the rifle's recoil am I then aware that the rifle shot. It can be the anticipation of shooting that causes a loss of focus and an involuntary flinch prior to the hammer falling. For some shooters it can be somewhat similar to yoga or Zen, where the mind is emptied of analyzing thoughts, and the mind is allowed to focus on the intended goal. If a person's mind is on their job, or what's for dinner, their accuracy will not be as good as what it might have been if the person's attention were focused solely on the target. Yes, I do recommend that serious shooters practice a yoga/Zen style of meditation, not to achieve enlightenment, but to learn how to shift the mind into a quiet state of focus that allows for accuracy when shooting. For most people it is the subconscious that performs the mathematical analysis of judging bullet speed, bullet drop, wind drift, and all else, and it is important for the conscious mind to sometimes shut up so that the subconscious can do its job without interference.
Any one of the four elements can alter accuracy: ammunition, barrel, action and shooter. For accuracy, choose a quality firearm, pay the few extra dollars and buy a good one that has the potential for accuracy. Spend a few more dollars to buy quality ammo, and then spend a few more dollars for practice. Keeping your wallet closed will keep your groups open.
Funny firearm qualifying story: During qualification I was not giving much attention to other officers' pistol accuracy. The range master walked from one target to the next, pausing to count holes, and then marking each target with its score before walking to the next. When the range master got to my target he paused a few seconds, turned towards the backstop, and leaned over placing both hands on the target above his head as he stared down at the hole in the middle. At first I thought something was wrong, but I later discovered that he was a bit surprised/stunned/delighted or of some similar type of amused emotion. Apparently not many cadets had similar scores. In spite of my not doing too well with the centerfire qualification (bending my neck to shoot an AR-15 was not a happy thing, leaving me with so-so results), still the range master recommended me to my new C.O. as the shooter of choice. It was the best compliment I had ever had.
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