Accuracy: Gun, Cartridge, and Shooter
By Bob Beers
The accuracy of a rifle always seemed straightforward to me. But, recently I discovered that the accuracy of a rifle is more complex than I thought. What really blew me away (no pun intended--well, maybe) was that the combination of the rifle and the cartridge was even more complicated.
First of all, what is "accuracy"? Hunting accuracy is not just "hitting the center of a target"; it is hitting the target hit, after hit, after hit, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. The fundamental elements of accuracy are consistency, consistency, and consistency. Consistency of the rifle, consistency of the cartridge, and consistency of the shooter.
Most people agree that the care and precision with which a rifle is manufactured and assembled significantly affects its inherent accuracy. With modern computer controlled machines, manufacturers can easily produce inexpensive gun parts (barrels, etc.) with remarkable consistency (if they are then assembled carefully). This promises good inherent accuracy.
However, since every gun manufacturer uses different designs, materials, and machines to manufacture their product lines, similar rifles from different manufacturers will perform differently. Also, precision manufacturing notwithstanding, there will always be minor production variances from rifle to rifle. So, even consecutive guns from the same manufacturing line will perform differently. For practical hunting applications the differences will likely be of little or no consequence. None the less, they exist.
What does the cartridge have to do with all of this? When a rifle is fired, the cartridge sends powerful shock waves through the gun, and particularly the barrel, causing it to vibrate violently. These vibrations affect the accuracy of the rifle. Because of the minor differences between rifles, each one vibrates differently. Hence, the inherent accuracy of every rifle is different.
Variations from cartridge to cartridge compound the problem. Similar cartridges, using bullets of different weight or design, will usually exhibit different dynamic characteristics. Also, as with rifles, there are differences in similar cartridges from manufacturer to manufacturer. Furthermore, manufacturers use cases, primers, propellants, and bullets from a variety of suppliers. And, every manufacturer tries to better the others by "tweaking" certain dynamic characteristics of a particular cartridge. Not to be outdone, to make their own "good, better, best" products, the other manufacturers may tweak the cartridge somewhat differently.
This multitude of variations causes a multitude of different shock waves. The vibrations that these shock waves generate as they "bounce around" in a rifle are different and unique for every cartridge and rifle combination.
The cartridge to cartridge variations described in the previous paragraph cause yet other issues. Small differences in the primers, amounts of propellant, types of propellant, weight and shape of the bullet, and so on (you get the idea), affects the bullet speed and flight characteristics. The point of impact will be slightly different for each cartridge, which affects overall accuracy.
Rifles and Cartridges combined
For scientific reasons that we don't need to explore, suffice it to say that rifles and cartridges have their own individual characteristics and personalities, sort of like people. And, sort of like people, some marriages are better than others. With proper care and a little luck, the characteristics of a rifle won't change much over the years. And, fortunately, manufacturers attempt to produce their products with sufficient consistency to keep their customers happy.
So, if a rifle shooting a specific cartridge from a particular company is a good marriage and the accuracy is acceptable, stick with it! The combination will probably be accurate for quite some time.
Similarly, if the marriage isn't working, change it! The combination may never be accurate and the solution may be to simply change cartridges.
It's not the purpose of this article to provide a tutorial on proper shooting techniques. There are books, books, and more books that address the subject much better than I ever could. However, I would like to share some of my personal observations and frustrations.
As we have discussed, the fundamental element of accuracy is consistency. For the shooter, that means consistent interaction with the gun: consistent hand positions and pressures, consistent shoulder position and pressure, consistent head position, a consistent shooting technique.
For months and months after I started shooting, the following cycle repeated, repeated, and repeated. I became so frustrated that I almost quit shooting.
After much shooting practice, my accuracy dramatically improved. But, within a few days, my accuracy was as bad as it has ever been. As I implemented changes and practiced more, my accuracy returned, but then slowly faded away. More changes . . . more practice . . . my accuracy again returned, but, as before, slowly faded away.
This cycle continued for months. Just as I was about to give up, I decided to really (I mean, really) pay attention to how I interacted with the gun. What was I doing when my accuracy was good? And, what was I doing when my accuracy was bad?
My accuracy was acceptable with any number of shooting techniques. The point of impact was consistent as long as my shooting technique was consistent. Unfortunately, as I practiced and became more confident with my shooting technique, my focus and concentration relaxed, my shooting technique drifted, and my accuracy faded into oblivion.
For months I blamed my frustrations on everything imaginable, except my lack of focus and concentration. I discovered that when my focus and concentration relax, even for a single shot, my accuracy is terrible.
One of the most important interactions with a gun is the trigger press (or trigger "pull"). Many of us actually execute (unfortunately) what would be called a trigger "jerk." And, that's a problem, a BIG problem! The trigger press must be smooth and consistent. Even slight differences in the trigger press can noticeably move the impact point. Sometimes, the trigger assembly of the gun is a significant contributor to the problem. A smooth-acting trigger assembly and a consistent trigger press by the shooter are essential for good accuracy.
If you take only one thought away from this article, let it be this: A consistent gun, consistent cartridges, and a consistent shooter are all absolutely necessary for shooting accurately!
Copyright 2006 by Bob Beers. All rights reserved.