I have been shooting “groups” with my precision rifles for a couple decades now, and pistols since becoming a gun writer. There are so many myths surrounding its importance it is almost ridiculous. Its just one of those things that should die, but just never will. It may be the most over used and least useful means of comparison foisted on the gun buyer to date. Popularized when six guys and their friends actually read gun magazines populated by the same 8 writers, it just won’t die. Its one of my bucket list items, living long enough to see “group size” eliminated as a means of accuracy potential outside precision weapons. My guess, I won’t live that long.
So Whats a Group?
As it pertains to firearms, it is the placement of multiple shots in succession, on the same target at a fixed distance for the purpose of measuring the width and breadth at the groups widest point. Most are measured center to center others edge to edge. Amongst those praying to this altar each method is either gospel or blasphemy. Its ranks up there with push feed vs control feed when it comes to time wasted that will never be recovered. As a practical matter, where the group lands is less critical than its dispersion. It is touted as an indication of the firearm or shooters ability to place shots consistently over a given round count and distance. The widely accepted standard is 3 shots to determine the accuracy of the firearm, 5 shots the shooter and gun, and 10 shots for many military trials testing dispersion from barrel heating. Primarily fiction based on years of marketing and mythology it remains entrenched in the gun industry, the people who report on it, and some trainers.
Are Groups Useful in any Way?
Just so I don’t burn in gun writer / trainer hell, there is some real value to shooting groups and properly analyzing them – especially with rifles. They are excellent diagnostic tools for both the rifle and shooter. Given a proven rifle shooter larger dispersion over time can be an indicator of wear (chamber, throat or barrel). Sudden changes can indicate loose gear or other equipment problems. Changes in placement (where the group lands given the same hold) can point out scope failures. The mantra “consistency is accuracy” is true, and shooting groups is a great way to build these skills. Properly analyzed they assist in diagnosing issues with position, connection to the rifle, breathing, pretty much anything that contributes to consistency. The ability to shoot tiny little groups is an indication on that day, with that ammo, and that gun. you did everything the same. The trick is knowing when it is you, and not the gun, and there in lies most of the problems
For pistol shooters groups make it easier to diagnose issues with grip, trigger manipulation etc. As a training tool they are great indicators of failures to breath properly, press the trigger properly, and grip the pistol consistently. Its is much more difficult to be consistent with a pistol so groups are fantastic tools for diagnosing your errors, or gauging your ability and improvement. Sadly, more often than not it is used to gauge the accuracy of the pistol, all but pure folly. Can it happen with a good pistol, yes, but rarely. Most pistols shoot well right out of the box, most shooters do not. Using groups to determine a “pistols” accuracy is all but a complete waste of time for all but the most practiced shooters, and detrimental when using a self defense or carry pistol. Professional and practiced shooters are accurate with anything, when they “group” a new pistol it just may be a test of the pistol, but even they admit it depends on the day. At best for most people it is an indicator of how well YOU shoot THAT pistol with THAT ammo on THAT day and nothing more.
And then there are tactical and self defense shotguns, maybe the most ridiculous platform for shooting groups. Even experienced writers and shooters somehow don’t know the difference between a “pattern” and a “group”. Buck shot is “patterned” and has more to do with the ammunition design than shotgun. Self defense shotguns are all about the ammunition. Attaching some meaning to one round smooth tube over another is just plane ignorance. Unless it is loose or not round its just a tube, the shot either bounces around then exits, and disperses (spreads)’ or stays in the “wad” and exits then disperses. How it does that depends on the ammo and to a certain degree a choke. Several of my shotguns, almost regardless of barrel length will pattern high quality tactical buck shot into a 4″ circle at 20 yards making a single hole at 15 yards. That is not a group, but a pattern. Grouping buckshot in a tactical shotgun is a waste of time, energy, and money. Slugs are a bit different, you can group them, but it is all about the ammo and shooter. Again, its a tube, and tactical shotguns are not rifled, but smooth. Grooves in some slugs get them spinning and accuracy is improved, but the ability to shoot them in a group is all about the shooter. Recoil is often intense, the grip is different, and sighting is key. Gauging the ability of a tactical shotgun to “group” is nothing more than an indication of the shooters ability, not the gun. Shoot one all the time and you get pretty good, don’t and probably not so much.
So whats the problem?
Unfortunately people use groups to determine the accuracy of the gun, not the shooter. I constantly see questions like “whats the best distance to test the accuracy of this gun” as if it knows the difference. Its a machine, a small hand held rocket launcher completely dependent on the person holding it. Sure it moves, but it does the same way each time, the difference is you. The ONLY way to use groups to determine the accuracy of a firearm is to remove the human. Especially true for pistols, if you have the $500.00 or so for a Ransom Rest, and $50.00 – 150.00 per set of panels for each pistol more power to you. Then you CAN test the accuracy of the pistol. It does not mean you will shoot it worth a crap, but you will know the pistol is accurate and look where you should have in the first place, you. Given the ability to rest a rifle removing as much human intervention as possible it is easier, but not fool proof. If someone is pressing the trigger, they effect accuracy one way or the other.
Readers anxiously await the latest article where their favorite author shoots the latest greatest pistol. Wow, it shoots a 2 inch group, must be golden. Sorry, just because that author was able to do that does not mean you will. Its about the shooter, and that assumes the data is not fabricated. I know, its shocking, gun writers lie….hard to believe isn’t it. We are no different than any other group of humans, some are honest, others not so much. But even if true, unless they used a rest it is all about their ability to shoot that gun on that day. Having shot groups for at least two or three days a week for almost ten years now trust me / it is more about the target, rest, shooter, and ammo than the gun. Some days my groups are great, others the size of the grand canyon. A great example is Wilson Combat pistols. Each comes with a target with a group shot by a human using a sand bag as a rest. Been there, watched them do it, these guys do it all day long, every day, and man they are good. One thing is for sure, I can’t do it, and my guess is most people not putting tens of thousands of rounds down range can’t either.
So why do Gun Magazines use them?
With almost a decade now writing close to a dozen articles a month this has come up ad-nauseum. There are three primary reasons group size is required for most gun tests. First, readers demand it, for some reason this is a mythology that has taken hold and simply will not let go. Some trainers tell students it is important and gun salesmen use it to sell guns. Many readers skip to the stats, believe thats all that matters, then look at the pictures. Manufacturers advertise in the magazines, and readers want groups, velocities, and similar information to make decisions. Most magazines require advertising to survive, not all, but most. If you want to sell your magazine you print it, pure economics. Secondly, editors need some way to insure the guns tested were well, tested. Requiring a target as proof of a group provides some assurance it was actually tested. Its the dirty little silent secret. Some have round count requirements and proscribed methods to keep comparisons moderately real. Lastly, it provides a minimum standard of testing and comparison for those testers limited to a 25 yard public range where they are not allowed to do anything but sit on a bench and shoot. Not everyone is blessed like me with a private range that can be accessed 24/7/365.
So, given the enjoyment gathered by testing and writing about firearms, and the desire to get paid for doing it, my articles will continuer to include group testing without regard to how useless it really is. Maybe, just maybe, some will read the body of the article where all my testing actually occurs. One can only hope……..