Intrinsic vs. the Practical Accuracy of Handguns

By David Tong

Intrinsic accuracy refers to the mechanical accuracy potential of a firearm. Practical accuracy refers to how accurately a person can shoot a given firearm. These are different things, although any satisfactory handgun must have a reasonable measure of both. Practical accuracy, the subject of this article, has to do with a gun's ergonomics, handling, balance, grip shape, weight, trigger pull, sights and so forth; the things that make it comparatively easy or difficult to shoot a handgun well.

The witty Clint Smith stated in an article about one of his 1911 pistols that, "I don't carry my defense handgun in one of those Ransom Rest metal thingies." In The Intrinsic Accuracy of Handgun Actions, Guns and Shooting Online Owner and Managing Editor Chuck Hawks discussed the intrinsic, or mechanical, potential accuracy of the various handgun action types. Included, in order of intrinsic accuracy, were: bolt, falling block and break-open single shots; blowback target and hunting .22 rimfire autoloaders; gas operated autoloaders; revolvers; short recoil (tilt barrel) autoloaders.

The Browning short recoil, tilting-barrel action finishes last in potential intrinsic accuracy, because, as Chuck put it:

"The chamber is machined into the breech end of the barrel, as with other autoloading actions. Unfortunately, when fired, the barrel moves in relation to the slide (where the sights are located) and both move in relation to the grip frame. Basically, in a tilt-barrel action, everything moves in relation to everything else, the worst possible situation for intrinsic accuracy."

I do not believe Chuck thinks the short recoil auto pistol is insufficiently accurate for personal defense use, because he often carries one. He concluded the article by writing:

"The better tilt-barrel pistols today (Glock, SIG, Browning, Beretta, Ruger, Kahr, Colt, etc.) are usually sufficiently accurate for short range personal protection, which is typically their intended purpose. If you are interested in precision marksmanship beyond, say, about 30 yards, some other type of action is probably a better choice."

The questions are, for the defensive-minded among us anyway, "How much accuracy is required?" and "What does it take to obtain it?" What should a handgun do to obtain hits at reasonable self defense range? What are the elements of practical, in your hand and on your feet, accuracy?

A handgun should fit the user's hand. It has been a trend to increase magazine capacity, making semi-automatic handguns bigger, bulkier and heavier. It means the grip is larger. Some folks can cope with that better than others, so the larger one's hands, the easier it gets with a double stack magazine in a full size grip.

However, combine a large grip with a heavy and long stroke trigger and you decrease hit probability when in a hurry, as it is entirely possible to cant or twist the handgun in your hand to allow the finger to properly reach the trigger. This takes the recoil out of line with the forearm bones and degrades both "pointability" and control.

This is most apparent in double-action-only (DAO) revolvers and autoloaders, where a trigger pull from 7-15 pounds is the norm. It may mean the difference between hits and misses, especially since that poundage must act against the relatively light weight of the arm and it can pull the front sight out of alignment.

In the other direction, some handguns have been shrunk so small and light as to make them very easy to carry, but difficult to actually use. Nowadays, the trend has been to move to cheaper-to-produce and lighter polymer materials for handgun receivers and grip areas. While great for carry, this increases recoil.

My recent experience with the Ruger LCR .38 Special +P chambered snub revolver is a case in point. Loads that I have always found to be a trifling, such as the standard pressure 158 grain lead round-nosed police load at about 755 fps, were uncomfortable to shoot in the ultra-light LCR. The more powerful +P offerings that increase the stopping power of the .35 bore were a handful to control.

In addition, the diminutive size of some of the current generation of concealed carry guns reduces the grip size to the point that there is no space on the short grip for the little finger of the shooting hand. At least for me, this tends to make the gun feel clumsy when hastily operated. One should attend an IDPA match for snubbies and compact autos to see how well this works.

On to sights. Most of the older Colt and S&W snub revolvers had pretty small sights, lacking any color contrast, as did the earlier generations of compact autos, such as the Walther PPK. When one is already dealing with very light weight, heavy triggers and short sight radius, you are stacking the deck against practical accuracy.

Fortunately, most modern revolvers and medium size autos, such as the SIG P232 and Glock 19, come with taller and wider sighting equipment. Often, glowing tritium night sights are an option, particularly for autoloaders.

In my opinion, sights for the defensive, tilt-barrel, autoloading pistol should be fixed. This is because of the shear force on the elevation cross pin caused by the high recoil velocity of the slide. I have personally had both Colt Elliason Gold Cup and Bo-Mar pins shear off in well under 1,000 rounds of .45 ACP ammo.

Sights need to be securely mounted on recoil operated autoloading pistols. In decades of experience shooting quality auto pistols, I have found their fixed sights generally well regulated, at least for me, at about 25 yards. (The point of impact of any handgun with fixed sights is highly dependent on the shooter's grip and the tension applied. Of course, using different loads and bullet weights also changes the point of impact. -Editor.) SIG Sauer pistols in particular, along with Heckler & Koch products, usually shoot right on for me, using full weight bullets in the calibers for which they are chambered.

Revolvers, without a moving slide, can easily be fitted with adjustable sights and the better grades usually are. Such revolvers are often chambered for larger and more powerful cartridges than autoloaders and, unlike autoloaders, revolvers function completely reliably with loads ranging from extremely low pressure to full power magnums. However, no one can dispute that an adjustable rear sight is more fragile than a fixed one of equal quality, if somehow the pistol is dropped on a hard surface, directly on the rear sight, from a considerable height.

Now for triggers. A single action (SA) trigger pull is clearly superior to a double action (DA) trigger in terms of practical accuracy. The lighter and shorter the movement of the trigger, the better.

For an autoloader, where you have to balance the need of reliability and safety against that recoiling mass, I have found that a crisp SA pull weight of between 3.75 and 4.5 pounds is ideal. I have long favored 1911 pistols, because they are easily tunable to that range without great expense or parts replacement.

With a double action auto or revolver, you have the choice of trigger cocking (DA mode) or manually cocking the hammer of the gun to lighten the trigger pull (SA mode). In the case of a revolver, the latter should provide a clean and light trigger pull in the region of 2.5 to 3.0 pounds, allowing excellent practical accuracy. (Most do and those that don't are usually tunable to that range without great expense or parts replacement.) The SA trigger pull of a double action semi-auto pistol should be similar to that of a single action semi-auto. The SIG-Sauer P220 and P226 are excellent in this regard, right from the box.

However, when you are stroking the DA trigger through its long and heavy motion, you are trading gilt-edged accuracy for a slightly quicker shot. It is incumbent to practice this if you intend to actually shoot your handgun in the DA mode.

I suppose one could carry a single-action revolver for protection and if one lived in the country, where riots and gangs are an anomaly, this might be okay. In areas where bears, cougars or other large predators may be present, necessitating the extra power and penetration of a magnum revolver, a Peacemaker style single action, such as a Ruger Blackhawk, can be a good choice for personal defense.

However, for those living in densely populated urban areas subject to gang violence or mass rioting, single action revolvers are infernally slow to reload and they require fine motor skills when doing so. They typically hold only six shots.

Ironically, the basic Colt Single Action Army (Peacemaker) design is thirty-eight years older than my preferred handgun's design and the 1911 handgun is roundly criticized for being obsolescent. Its magazine usually holds seven or eight rounds.

Ergonomics also come into play when wearing the handgun. Most people carry an autoloader these days, because they are relatively flat. This makes them more comfortable to pack inside the waistband, if your physique allows. It offers less of a bulge if worn outside the waist (important so as not to "print" under a cover garment).

Larger grips can improve the controllability of sub-compact revolvers (snubbies), but this makes them harder to conceal. (The grip is the hardest part of any handgun to conceal.) Larger replacement grips are usually not available for sub-compact autoloaders.

The auto loses some of its luster when you have a hand filling grip and especially if the butt section must contain a double stack magazine, necessary for a big magazine capacity. Such autoloaders print as badly as a revolver wearing adequate grips.

I am willing to agree with Chuck Hawks that the typical service auto is less mechanically accurate than the other designs he discussed in his article The Intrinsic Accuracy of Handgun Actions. However, from ranges between contact distance to 30 yards, I do not believe that a fixed sight, tilt-barrel action auto is an unforgivable handicap. At indoor home defense ranges, within 15 feet or so, nearly anything will do.

Indeed, recoil operated autoloading pistols are purchased more often than any other handgun type. However, it is important to shoot these pistols and drift the sights or change their heights, as necessary, to obtain point-of-aim and point-of-impact congruency.

Whether revolver or autoloader, a primary self-defense handgun should not be so small as to be clumsy when drawn. This means a butt section that is easy to grab and secure in the hand under recoil.

The gun's ergonomics should be conducive to fast manipulation and a proper trigger press. The sights should be easy to see and regulated to shoot to the desired point of impact with the selected load at the chosen range. A handgun should be reasonably comfortable shooting full power ammunition, to allow sufficient practice sessions.

Most good quality, medium size or larger semi-auto pistols will group between 2.5 and 4.0 inches, out of the box, at 25 yards from a bench rest. More importantly for this discussion, they will do it repeatedly and quickly with minimal disturbance of aim or recoil control problems.

Some assemblers of 1911 pistols, such as Les Baer and Wilson Combat, offer premium versions of their pistols guaranteed to shoot into 1.5 inches at 50 yards. Of course, this requires the use of that pesky Ransom Rest, about which I quoted Clint Smith at the beginning of this little missive.

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Copyright 2014, 2016 by David Tong and/or All rights reserved.