Handgun Accuracy Pet Peeves, Gripes, and Outright Lies

A surprisingly small sight picture error can cause big misses down range.

A man has got to know his limitations. What drives me crazy about many gun reviews is how the shooter doesn’t realize his or her own. Consider this common observation about a gun’s “accuracy.”

“I decided to test the accuracy of this pistol by using a two-hand stance and shooting groups at a target 25 yards down range.”

Guess what? That’s doesn’t tell me Jack Diddley Squat about the gun. What it does tell me, and not very scientifically at that, is how good the shooter’s eyes are, how well they can hold, the quality of their trigger press, or maybe that they like to brag about their shooting skill. It doesn’t tell me anything because any combination of those factors in varying proportions could be contributing to the end “accuracy” result, whatever that may be. The one certainty is that it tells me absolutely nothing about the gun itself and it’s mechanical ability to shoot small groups.

The Sig Sauer P229 Legion will certainly shoot!

The Sig Sauer P229 Legion will certainly shoot!

Here’s the thing. There are three conditions that must be satisfied, perfectly, in order to get a reading on whether a handgun is accurate.

  1. The hold must be rock solid. Once aimed, the gun must remain stable.
  2. The sights must be perfectly aligned with an exceptionally precise point on the target – down to a fraction of an inch.
  3. The trigger must be pressed without any movement of the gun until the bullet is out of the barrel and on its merry way.

If you’re standing, using a “two-hand hold” it’s virtually impossible for all three of those things to happen, at least to the level of precision of a quality gun.

Accuracy illustrated

To illustrate the point, let’s just look at sight picture. I’ve got a Sig Sauer P229 Legion 9mm sitting on my desk as I write this. The front and rear sight are 5.7 inches apart as measured from the back of the rear sight to the rear surface of the front sight. Since three things need to be perfectly aligned – the rear sight, front sight, and target, we’re dealing with a proportional relationship between them and we can do some simple math extrapolating the effect of alignment errors 25 yards down range. Assuming we keep the rear sight anchored, if the front sight moves relative to it, just a bit, there will be a large variance in where the bullet strikes the target.

Handguns have a short sight radius. For example, this Sig P229 has a sight radius of 5.7 inches. If they're not lined up perfectly, results will vary by inches down range.

Handguns have a short sight radius. For example, this Sig P229 has a sight radius of 5.7 inches. If they’re not lined up perfectly, results will vary by inches down range.

How large? If your front sight is out of alignment by the width of a dime (about .053 inches), you’ll miss by 8.4 inches at 25 yards. OK, so that’s a big misalignment. How about the thickness of a sewing needle? One of those is only about 1/32 of an inch thick. That will cause of a miss of about 4.9 inches 25 yards down range. Even if your sight alignment if off by the thickness of a piece of paper, about .001 inches, that translates to a ¼-inch miss down range. When trying to measure the accuracy of a pistol, where good ones will fire five-shot groups of just one or two inches, clearly inches or even fractions of inches can completely throw off the results.

Now keep in mind that we’re just talking about minute differences in front and rear sight alignment. We’re not even accounting for “point of aim” variances. Considering that you can’t perfectly focus your eye on the rear sight, front sight, and target 25 yards down range, you’re going to be trying to aim at an imaginary point a fraction of an inch in size while it’s completely blurry. If you’re focusing on the target, one or both of your sights will be blurry because the human eye can’t focus on all three objects at the same instant. Get the picture? Or lack thereof?

So, what’s the bottom line?

Can you shoot great groups freehand? Sure. But if you shoot to the true extent of a gun’s mechanical accuracy that way, it’s almost certainly an accident.

Results obtained from shooting over iron sights, with or without a rest, are far more reflective of the shooter’s eyesight than any mechanical accuracy of the gun.

What these tests can tell you, in a purely subjective manner, is how easy a gun is to shoot accurately.

If you want to really understand what a gun can do, it’s critical to remove the human error factors such as hold, trigger press, and especially eyesight. When I review a handgun, I’ll often add a scope using a rail adapter just to completely remove that potential for sighting error. That one change alone can shrink groups up to fifty percent.

Tom McHale is a committed learning junkie always seeking a new subject victim. As a lifelong student of whatever grabs his attention on any particular day, he thrives on beating rabbit trails into submission. In between his time as a high-tech marketing executive, restaurant owner, and hamster cosmetology practitioner, he’s published seven books and nearly 1,500 articles about guns, shooting, and the American way.

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  • OldJarhead03

    I laugh at most pistol and rifle accuracy claims and comments. Most of the people who complain about the 4 MOA accuracy of an AK or the poor accuracy of a Glock can’t shoot well enough to know the difference. Especially at pistol distances, it doesn’t matter much anyway.

  • http://aliasbarackobama.blogspot.com/ Dr. Ron Polland

    Thanks for the article, Tom. You’ve hit upon the same, major pet peeve as mine and I cannot tell you how many guns I’ve bought (and later sold) based on tester’s flawed recommendations. For starters, I’m left-handed and reviewers act like everyone in the world shoots right handed.

    Next, unless a gun is mounted in a heavy gun sled or vise and placed at the same elevation as the bullseye in the target, everything else will be extraneous variance to how the gun performs. I have lasers mounted on all my handguns – primarily to compensate for my poor eyesight. When I initially sighted in the green laser to my Taurus PT111 G2 pistol, I mounted it on a gun vise and inserted a bore laser in the chamber. I took it to the gun range and taped the target to the middle of the back stop so that the bullseye hung directly across from the muzzle when positioned one foot away (which is as close as I could bring the target back to the shooter’s rest).

    I adjusted the position of the gun until the bore laser dot was dead center in the bullseye. I also adjusted my Viridian green laser until its green dot was overlapping the red dot of the bore laser. This was just to get the gun and laser in the same ballpark.

    I then removed the bore laser and inserted its 12-round magazine filled with only six rounds* into the mag well and carefully racked the slide while holding down the vice to prevent any movement. I moved the target back to 15 yards and had to raise up the gun barrel until my gun’s green laser dot was positioned in the middle of the bullseye. When all was set, I took my first shot and used my cellphone camera to zoom in on the target to see where the bullet hit (aka, the Point Of Impact or POI).

    It was now time to adjust the green laser sight so that its dot was centered on the bullet hole in the target. This would be my green laser’s Point Of Aim or POA since its green dot should indicate where the next shot will land. I adjusted the position of the pistol until the laser dot was in the center of the bullseye and took my second shot. It landed about 1/2″ off of dead center directly to the right side. I realized that I was not looking at the laser dot from directly behind my pistol. For my next shot, I looked straight down the barrel between the rear sight and placed the front sight in a six o’clock position over the rear sight and positioned it in alignment with the laser dot on the target and took my third shot.

    I hit the bull dead center. I fired off the remaining three shots and they all passed through the same, somewhat enlarged and ragged hole where bullseye used to be.

    *For the record, I was using the new Ruger ARX 9mm +P rounds that contain an 80 grain bullet propelled at 1,445 fps with 385 ft. lbs. of muzzle energy. The recoil from these are much lighter than a 115 gr. +P JHP with comparable muzzle energy. I chose them for SD usage because of the massive wound channels and 11.5″ of penetration they produced in ballistics gel. They are also very clean and highly accurate.

    This is how I’d like to see other guns tested by minimizing the variance attributable to human error and by using the most accurate and devastating, self-defense round for the particular firearm under review. I always train with the same ammo I use for SD – except when there is a training round matched to the self-defense round. Ammo like the Ruger or Inceptor ARX and the Train & Defend lines made by Federal and Winchester have an exact FMJ or TSJ equivalent in weight and output to the matching self-defense rounds at a substantial reduction in price per round. Typically in a boxed set of training and self-defense rounds, there will be more training rounds than SD ones (which makes sense and helps save money).

  • CDR C

    Another laughable comment often in the reviews – the ‘worst group’ is thrown out as human error, but the ‘best group’ is lauded. Hey – news flash – both the best and worst are influenced equally by random error – shoot enough groups, and at some point you’ll get one ragged hole, even with an inaccurate (actually, imprecise is the better desriptor) arm.

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