“Mechanical” and “practical” accuracy are two ways of defining handgun accuracy, and each are tested in much different fashions.

  • Your gun is accurate if it’s accurate in the role it performs and consistent with more than one load.
  • Good intrinsic accuracy is the result of good barrel fitting and proper slide-to-barrel fit.
  • Practical accuracy refers to good accuracy in the hands of a proficient shooter.
  • Intrinsic accuracy is easy to test; practical accuracy is more difficult to quantify.

A few years ago, I was at a public shooting range and a young shooter was directed to me by a range master who knew I was a certified instructor. The young man was shooting a third-rate revolver at 15 yards. His .357 Magnum featured a 4-inch barrel, fully adjustable sights and a five-shot cylinder. Its best feature was hand-fitted wood grips.

He’d splattered 15 shots all over the target — some high, some low — with the group an estimated 15 inches. He asked if he needed to adjust his sights! I groaned. After recommending he begin with .38 Special loads from a rest, I think I set the young man on the right track. I have seen others engage soda cans at 25 yards and never seem to miss, yet they do not shoot paper targets.

Testing a handgun for accuracy

When testing your handgun for accuracy, you need a standard against which you can draw valid comparison. What is good handgun accuracy and what is satisfactory for the average shooter? Consider accuracy by class of firearms. For example, 6-inch barrel magnum revolvers are one class, 9mm service pistols another and 1911 .45s a third.

Handgun accuracy isn’t necessarily the measure of a single group, but rather how closely the gun places each shot together on the target over multiple groups. How small will the grouping be time after time when the shooter is capable of shooting the handgun for accuracy?

The term used a century ago was mean dispersion, a term that has much validity. If your handgun is accurate enough for the chores to be done in the role it performs, and is consistent in its accuracy with more than one load, then it’s an accurate handgun.

Types Of Handgun Accuracy

If the handgun has a high level of dispersion, then it isn’t accurate. There are two levels of handgun accuracy. First, accuracy that is a result of the design and manufacture of the firearm and its intrinsic tolerances. This is intrinsic accuracy. Good barrel fitting and proper slide-to-barrel fit, as well as tight machining and proper steel result in good intrinsic accuracy.

Practical accuracy is how easily the handgun produces good accuracy in the hands of a proficient shooter. Practical accuracy is affected by the sights, trigger and even such things as a sharp edge (or lack thereof) on the grip tang.

Mechanical accuracy is easily tested. Simply bolt the handgun into a machine rest. It doesn’t matter if the pistol has sights or not. I do not use a machine rest, but I admit that it’s the best means of testing a handgun’s performance in a mechanical sense. Then you need only attempt to learn to shoot up to the handgun’s mechanical limitations.

Handgun accuracy

Practical handgun accuracy is more difficult to quantify. Nothing fits my hand like the 1911. When I grip the 1911, something says “friend.” When something has saved your life more than once, you may feel that way, too. In common with the Single Action Army, military service has ensured a long afterlife with ol’ slab sides.

While I enjoy the 1911 immensely, the marvelously modern Beretta Neos is among the best-shaped and ergonomically practical handles I have ever felt. It’s as close to perfect as possible for my personal needs. Yet, I avoided the piece for several years due to its wild look. That is to my detriment.

The Smith and Wesson Victory .22 is another beautifully shaped handgun. Others like the feel of the Glock, CZ or the SIG. To be fair, I recognize the SIG series as among the most accurate handguns in the world. I find the CZ 75 pistol suits me better overall, though, and I take the gun on its own merits.

In practical terms, I’m able to use one as well as the other in offhand fire. I never point shoot, but some handguns do have a better natural point of aim, an aid in getting the handgun lined up with the eyes quickly. Heft and balance are important attributes to consider when shooting offhand. The terms natural point and comfortable grip mean a lot in accuracy testing.

No individual shooter is correct in his recommendations on hand fit as this comfort level varies from one shooter to the next. But intrinsic accuracy is a constant. A handgun is only so accurate. A good shooter may shoot right up to the capability of a pistol, but he cannot make it do more than it was able to do from the factory. If the trigger is heavy and the sights poor, you will not be able to shoot up to the handgun’s capability whatever that may be.

The shooter is much the same. We all have different capabilities and hand sizes, as well as differences in vision. Personally, I simply cannot grasp my hands around the Glock 21 and use it well. Yet, I can shoot it well enough to know that it’s a soft-kicking .45 and quite accurate. Much the same goes for the Glock Model 20 10mm, which I feel is the most accurate production Glock.

You have to decide how much accuracy is adequate for your tasks. For competitors, the bar is raised higher and higher. However, most shooters can be satisfied with a certain level of accuracy. The hunter has an 8-inch kill zone in a deer, but we all like to strike closer to the center of the vitals. Just the same, the range at which he may consistently hold an 8-inch group might be his maximum.

There are some that state that a tight and accurate handgun isn’t the most reliable. This isn’t true at all. The SIG P-Series has been firmly established as one of the most accurate handguns among service-grade pistols, but they’re also proven to be the most reliable in rugged institutional testing.

A properly set up match-grade 1911 is much the same. This combination of handgun accuracy and reliability isn’t inexpensive. Witness the price of the incredibly beautiful and accurate SIG P210. It’s a wonderful handgun and a joy to shoot, even out to 100 yards. If you want accuracy, however, a Browning Hi Power with a Bar-Sto Precision barrel will run right at the heels of the SIG and perhaps equal its accuracy in a much less expensive package.

Handgun Accuracy

When the pucker factor is high and your life is on the line, service-grade accuracy is more than enough. This is generally stated to be 4 inches for five shots at 25 yards. I have tested most of the service-grade handguns. While the practical accuracy of the Glock 19 9mm, as an example, isn’t on a par with the tighter and more ergonomic pistols at longer range when firing offhand or from a solid benchrest, the Glock is more than accurate. But, you have to fire the pistol properly to test and evaluate this accuracy.

Frankly, too many shooters simply do not shoot well enough to notice any practical accuracy among such handguns. A Glock, SIG, or Beretta is all the same and the simpler the better. And yet I have to admit this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

While it’s great to have personal preferences, if I were issued the SIG P226, Beretta 92, CZ 75 or Glock 17, I would not wax poetic over the considerable differences in handling, sights and trigger action but would instead master the piece to the best of my ability. The bottom line is that there is little that can be done, tactically, with one that cannot be done with any of the others. Sure, perhaps I would prefer the Rex Zero 9mm over them all, but then I could easily pass a qualification course with any of these handguns.

If you are after the bottom line in handgun accuracy, you need to learn to shoot first. Only then do the differences between models become glaringly apparent. With the service-grade 4-inch group, all shots should be within 2 inches of the point of aim given a perfect trigger press and sight alignment. I have higher standards than that, but I do not wish to give house room to a handgun that groups into more than 3 inches at 25 yards. But then, I am able to test and evaluate the handguns and tell the difference.

Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from The Accurate Handgun.


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1 COMMENT

  1. I agree any arm, handgun, rifle or shotgun, needs be evaluated according to the use. I also agree one must be able to deliver that accuracy as a shooter for the arm to be useful.

    The ability deliver accuracy depends on many factors, including the design of the arm and method of interfacing arm and shooter. If the arm is ‘uncomfortable’ in any serious manner, one will not shoot it well. That includes grip size, weight, recoil and little pokey things here and there.

    Good article with solid thinking.