When is a Handgun Accurate?

In the movie, “No Country for Old Men”, two characters are discussing a psychopathic hit man.

One asks the other, “Just how dangerous is he?”

The response is, “Compared to what?  The bubonic plague?”

A common topic of discussion on firearm forum boards reminds me of the preceding fictional one:

“How accurate is my XYZ handgun,” someone asks? 

“What do I need to do to my pistol to make it more accurate,” another queries?

Yet another seeks the answer to, “Which is the most accurate handgun?”

My first thought is, “Compared to what?”

Let’s take a closer look at “accuracy”, what contributes to it and how it can differ between shooters using the same handgun.  I’ll also list some handguns that I’ve personally found to be satisfactorily accurate (in their class) over the long-term.

With respect to firearms, accuracy means how close together the firearm can place bullets on a target at a given distance.  In other words, how small a group can it produce and can it do so time-after-time?  Is its precision repeatable?  If groups are sufficiently small and the firearm seems able to do it until “the cows come home”, it would be an accurate firearm. If the group size is deemed “too large” or the gun produces inconsistently-sized ones, maybe not.

I believe that it was the late Jeff Cooper who further dissected “accuracy” into two components:

Intrinsic or Mechanical Accuracy: This is accuracy that is built into the firearm through closely-held tolerances, precise barrel fit, quality materials and so forth.

Practical Accuracy: We might consider this how “easy” it is to shoot the gun.  In other words, is the firearm comfortable (to us)? Is its trigger-pull acceptable, mediocre or poor? In semiautos, does the pistol exhibit hammer bite that will induce flinching on our part? What about sights?  Are they easy to see for a proper sight picture?

It’s been my observation that mechanical accuracy can be more easily quantified.  A given handgun’s ability to repeatedly shoot tight groups can be demonstrated via mechanical fixtures or rests, and measurements can be checked and precision tolerances held in the manufacturing process.

But practical accuracy is a little more slippery. In my opinion, this is because so much of it is subjective; it can (and does) vary from one person to another.  Some find the Glock pistol’s grip angle “too rakish” or “bad”.  Yet others describe it as “a natural pointer” or recommend it as having a “comfortable grip”. Fans speak of the 1911 as “the best-pointing handgun” or state that it seems to have been “built for their hand”, but some say that it is “uncomfortable” and “handles like a club”.

Who is telling the truth? 

In my opinion, both sides are.

A simple way to look at it is that a handgun and load combination will possess a certain level of repeatable grouping ability depending upon how precisely both were made. Its capability is what it is.

Human beings are all variations on the same theme. While we are alike in many ways, we are also uniquely different individuals. We have different vision capabilities and it is not constant but changes with age, different hand sizes and some are stronger than others.  I could go on but you get the idea: No two of us are the same. Because of this I believe that just because something is “right” for me doesn’t necessarily mean it is for another.


The SIG P210 is one of the most mechanically accurate handguns I have ever shot.  It has always been expensive but the examples I’ve either owned or shot have been exceptionally accurate as well as reliable. There are other extremely well-made handguns also capable of stellar accuracy, but which is best?  I have no doubt that some would opine that one or the other of the P210 models would be, but for me, it would not be true. I find this pistol difficult to shoot well after but a few shots.  The reason is that its hammer bites me mercilessly. Parts are so incredibly expensive for that I have not bobbed the hammer spur on this one. (These days an extra single-stack magazine costs around $150.00!)


This Hi Power has been fitted with a Barsto match-grade barrel. Note that the hammer spur has been bobbed to prevent hammer bite and it works for me.  A trigger-job has also been done. S&W revolver sights were added years ago so that I could set the sights and they’d hold true shot-after-shot.  Is it as mechanically accurate as the SIG P210?  The honest answer is that I don’t know, but I’d bet that the SIG would still edge it out in that category though I actually shoot this Hi Power better than I do the P210! Would that hold true for everyone?  No, probably not…and therein “lies the rub” in practical accuracy discussions. Combine that with some folks discussing mechanical accuracy while others are responding with respect to practical accuracy, and it perhaps becomes clearer why confusion/discord may arise.


The 1911 pattern pistol displayed above started out as a National Match target gun. It has had a trigger-job and the original slide replaced with another.  The gun has been fitted with a wide grip safety and the spur hammer is long gone; in its place is an Ed Brown ring hammer and this one’s barrel has been fitted to this slide/frame combination.  Is this pistol more accurate than the P210 or another similar customized 1911-type pistol?  I don’t know. I do know that it is capable of grouping better than I can and that I find it considerably more comfortable to shoot.  This example might be to show that where changes may (or may not) have helped inherent accuracy potential, it emphatically did help the gun’s practical accuracy…at least for me. 


The Makarov 9x18mm is a popular and relatively inexpensive quality handgun; its devotees are legion.  Semiautos with fixed barrels (like the Makarov) are often capable of very fine accuracy, assuming quality ammunition, but tiny, hard-to-see sights and a spongy trigger-pull can work to diminish shooting results we actually see.  That said, the gun possess plenty of precision for its original intended purpose and I’ve managed some surprisingly small groups with them, but with this pistol’s tiny fixed sights, short sight radius, and slide-to-frame fit will probably preclude its ever been seen in formal bullseye competition.  Does that mean that it is “inaccurate”?  “Compared to what?” For most of us, it will continue to serve very well, dropping most shots inside the diameter of a fifty-cent piece (depending upon ammo) at 15 or 20 yards.

Revolver Book - S&W M64snubwhite 003.JPG

Lest someone think that I am picking on the Makarov, let me include this trusted S&W Model 64 snub as another handgun not likely to be seen in the winner’s circle at bullseye matches…except maybe for ones specifically for them.  With this one’s DAO-capability and short sight radius, practical accuracy will not match its mechanical capability, a distinct disadvantage with respect to accurate shooting.  I have personally seen snubs fired from machine rests and their mechanical accuracy is not lacking. It can match that of target revolvers with many loads.  While its design might diminish its pure accuracy potential, do they degrade accuracy beyond what is required for this gun’s intended use: close-in self-defense?  I think not.


“Back in the day”, the S&W Model 14 was frequently seen in formal competition. With its long sight radius, fixed barrel, smooth DA and light single-action trigger-pulls it had both extreme mechanical and practical accuracy.  Its sights didn’t move and with loads these revolvers “liked”, accuracy results could be astounding.  I am not the best shot in the world but am proud of this 25-yard group using 158-gr. SWC’s at about 860 ft/sec.

But how much accuracy is enough?  My preference is for all that I can get with but one caveat: Reliability must not be sacrificed.  Despite what has been written, I have shot, seen and owned extremely accurate handguns that were reliable as well.  Such guns do exist.  They are also more expensive to manufacture than handguns held to less-exacting tolerances.  I believe that for most of us (myself included) handguns producing “good service accuracy” will meet or exceed 99% of our handgun accuracy requirements, be these real or imagined. Some don’t shoot well enough for there to be any noticeable, real world improvement using an accurate pistol from an inaccurate one and virtually none of us can shoot as well when terrified and staring violent death in the face as when calm and just enjoying time at the range.

“Service accuracy” is frequently used for handguns capable of dropping their shots into about 3” at 25 yards.  I find this definition reasonable.  A pistol capable of 3” groups at 25 yards means that at that distance, no shot should be over 1 ½” from POA, assuming that our hold, sight picture, trigger-control and follow through are perfect…which usually is not the case, at least for me!

“Match accuracy” would be something in the 2”-or-less range at 25 yards or under 3”-groups at twice that distance. Few can shoot well enough to even know at the greater distance; hence machine rests are sometimes used.


SIG-Sauer handguns are known for their high-level of mechanical accuracy; they are almost always capable of shooting teeny-tiny groups but this DAK (Double-action-Kellerman) is aimed more at self-defense shooting than light-single-action pulls for target work. The P220 .45 ACP shown possesses extreme mechanical accuracy but many will find its long (but smooth and light) double-action-only trigger-pull less than optimal for target work.  Others (frequently “old time revolvers shooters”) may praise the same gun’s ability to group well!

For eleven years I served as a police firearm instructor, and have been a Texas Concealed Handgun instructor since ’94.  During that time I have not only owned and shot many handguns of my own choosing, but have seen and shot others that I personally didn’t care about.  In other words, I had the long-term opportunities to shoot many varied handguns year after year.  Based on this and what other shooters I personally know to be skilled have said, I believe that out-of-the-box, SIG-Sauer P-series (P220, P226, P229, etc) are generally the most-mechanically accurate service style handguns. Their “service accuracy” is extremely fine, and with certain loads borders on being match accurate. Some of the tightest 50-yard groups I have ever seen shot off-hand were done with a traditional DA/SA SIG-Sauer P220.  I didn’t shoot them, but those fist-sized groups convinced me to add at least one P220 to my handgun stable.  Ditto, the 9mm P226.

Non-tuned 1911’s, Hi Powers and CZ-75’s usually group in the 3” and less range at 25 yards for me, again depending upon ammunition.  In my opinion, they fit the bill as having satisfactory service accuracy. Any of these are capable of putting a hole in the vitals of small or medium game at that distance and certainly capable of keeping all shots inside an area the size of a human heart at that distance which is significantly longer than the usual non-police self-defense scenario.

About now, some are thinking, “But what about Glocks?”

For quite a few years, I thought that they just didn’t quite have the same level of service accuracy as did my favored Hi Powers and other service-grade handguns. Certainly they could not hope to compete with a tuned and accurized 1911 or precision P210. No way!

About a year ago, I decided that while I was rekindling past DA-revolver skills, I’d work on improving with the Glock 17 and I did so.  Cutting to the chase, I found that the Glock’s built-in accuracy was not the problem so much as I was! When I cleared my head of long-held prejudices that the pistol was just not going to group, that self-fulfilling prophesy evaporated.  Based on my seriously shooting the service size Glock 17 over the last year, I believe that it is mechanically capable of satisfactory service accuracy like the Hi Power and others. At the same time, I think that its relatively light weight and long, spongy trigger-pull inhibit its pure ability to group for many of us, including me. I do not believe that it will group as tightly as many 1911’s or the SIG-Sauer P-series.  Glocks group plenty well for what I have in mind; fun shooting at the range, self-defense (concealed carry and at home) or just a reliable lightweight handgun to carry when knocking about in the woods.  In my observation, they are more than adequately accurate for a service handgun; I will continue to use mine.


Though not with the same load, both of the groups above were shot by me using both hands and while in a seated position.  My wrists were braced with sandbags.  Neither pistol had been accurized.  Both were using their factory barrels.  I admit having to work harder with the Glock than the Hi Power but I consider both groups equivalent.  Someone more familiar with the Glock might have found the Hi Power more difficult to group well with. Practical accuracy just is not a universal absolute.

If one wants a match-grade autoloader, I cannot say which is best.  I flat do not know. I am not a machine rest! Smith &Wesson’s Custom Shop target-level 9mm’s seem to group as well as the SIG P210 and so do several 9mm STI 1911-style pistols I’ve shot in that caliber.  My suggestion here would be to go with the one that you personally find easiest to shoot well.  What I am saying is that from a quality-conscious manufacturer, any match grade pistol will be mechanically-accurate beyond our ability; the gun’s “shootability”, i.e.; practical accuracy will almost certainly be the deciding factor to which we individually shoot best.

Speaking only for myself (though admittedly echoing the experiences of others), I find the 1911-pattern pistol the best candidate for an accurate-shooting autoloader.  With a beavertail grip safety, most group very nicely out of the box in my experience. Higher-end guns can be had that will seemingly drop one bullet on top of the other and there are more than a few 1911 specialists who can accurized them to astonishing levels of performance.  1911’s that I have observed to be consistently accurate are STI’s Trojan, Legacy and Duty One.  An early Dan Wesson Patriot has surprised me over the years with its consistently small groups.  It has also proven extremely accurate.  Though I own none, other S&W’s 1911’s have grouped very well based on seeing perhaps five of them being shot.  I have personally only shot a couple of them; both grouped very well.


On the left is the 50’ test target that came with the DW Patriot. On the right is one of my best groups fired with my wrists braced on sandbags.  The load used has proven accurate (scary accurate in some) in all of the 1911’s I’ve shot in through.  What do you think might be the cause for the group opening up a bit or is the culprit even the pistol?

Extremely accurate revolvers I’ve had good luck with over the years are from S&W, though I have seen extremely fine grouping done with Colt’s Python. My favorite remains the old Smith & Wesson Model 14.  These are normally found with a 6” barrel and come with adjustable sights.  If you want an accurate target revolver, these .38 Specials are hard to beat. I have also seen and shot some surprisingly accurate double-action revolvers from Ruger.  It remains my experience that most revolvers leave the factory with greater accuracy potential than we can wring out of them.  The occasional “lemon” will sometimes escape but for the most part, quality wheelguns come with a high level of precision.  If not satisfactory, revolver specialists can enhance it until it is!

It remains my opinion (based on repeated experiences with my own shooting and others) that when we question a particular handgun’s accuracy, we may need to look beyond the mechanical device. We may need to look in the mirror to discover the greatest contributor to inaccurate shooting.

…and that includes me!


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