How Accurate Is 'Accurate'

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Two of the most accurate .22 LR handgun models ever made. The High Standard Victor (left) and the S&W
Model 41 (right) made in 1959. From a Ransom Rest they will shoot into about 1" at 50 yards with match ammo.

In my experience handgun shooters don’t obsess about accuracy the way rifle shooters do. Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s when I was getting into centerfire rifle shooting and reloading, minute-of-angle accuracy was considered to be gilt-edged shooting. Currently it seems 1/2 moa is the minimum standard if you hope to boast of your rifle’s accuracy.

Handgunners — competitive shooters and handgun hunters excepted — just don’t seem to get all worked up about accuracy. A cynic might say one reason is not many handgunners can shoot well enough to tell the difference. Another reason is some currently popular shooting sports emphasize speed as much as accuracy — maybe a bit more.

There’s no universally accepted standard for measuring accuracy. What I consider my minimum basic standard for handguns is five consecutive 5-shot groups at 25 yards, from a Ransom rest or hand-held over a sandbag. This isn’t conclusive but does give a reasonable standard for comparison.

Most centerfire handguns currently purchased are intended for personal or home defense. The nature of self-defense is such the range is almost always very short, and no great standard of accuracy is required. This is not to suggest shooting in self-defense is easy, for it certainly isn’t.

For out-of-the-box accuracy and reliability it’s hard to beat a S&W. From left, a Model 57 .41
Magnum, K-Frame model 19 .357 Magnum and a J-Frame model 51 .22 Magnum — all will shoot
2" or less at 25 yards.

Surprising Accuracy

The most accurate handguns are usually those intended for NRA bullseye or ISU (International Shooting Union) matches. Most often chambered for standard velocity match .22LR ammunition, the best guns will consistently shoot 1/2" groups at 25 yards. The Smith & Wesson 41 is an excellent example of a world-class target pistol, one of the finest handguns ever made anywhere. I know of model 41 owners who don’t compete and may not even shoot much, but just enjoy owning examples of the best degree of human workmanship.

In terms of out-of-the-box accuracy revolvers generally provide the most accuracy at the least cost. My Colt Python is one of the most accurate handguns I own and consistently shoots into 1" at 25 yards. Okay, bad example. The Python was never cheap and at current prices many owners consider them too valuable to shoot.

But even plain old duty revolvers such as the Smith & Wesson Model 10 almost always shoot well, and some examples can be spectacular. I’ve seen police trade-ins, carried much and shot little, blue-worn and maybe even with a little surface rust — but settle them over a sandbag and they will shoot into 2" or less at 25 yards. Frankly this is amazing. Considering the cylinder has several chambers, each of which has to line up with the barrel, with the cylinder rotated and locked by a complex group of small components, it’s amazing they function at all, much less shoot well too.

Locked-breech semi-auto pistols are even more amazing. With revolvers and most blowback semi-autos at least the barrel is fixed. With most locked-breech semi-auto pistols the barrel is not fixed to the frame and moves around as the action cycles. Moreover the sights are attached not to the barrel but to a separate component, the slide.

Expectations

Current factory semi-auto handguns on average seem to shoot more accurately than those I owned or shot in the early ’70s. One reason is modern manufacturing methods making parts to consistent, close tolerances. Another is better sights and often better triggers. Sights on the Browning Hi Power or Colt Government Model circa 1970 were dreadful tiny little things not much better than no sights at all.

Old timers (like me) still complain because many handgun triggers don’t have the crisp, light pull we want on our rifles. But reality trumps theory. I’ve seen outstanding shooting with triggers such as the GLOCK Safe Action, Springfield XD and Smith & Wesson M&P triggers. Such pulls may not be short and crisp but they are generally smooth and consistent.

My personal accuracy expectations — average of five, 5-shot groups at 25 yards — are: Match .22’s. 1/2"; sport .22’s, 1"; centerfire revolvers, 2"; custom 1911’s, 2"; stock 1911’s, 2" – 3" and duty semi-auto pistols, 3" – 4". A couple of my custom 1911’s, a Heinie/Springfield and a Wilson/Colt will shoot 2" at 50 yards. Among duty pistols I’ve always found Beretta 92 and SIG P220 series pistols gave exceptional accuracy, in the 2" range.

For self-defense I suppose even 5" to 6" groups are good enough. Except I really hate the phrase “good enough.”

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