This commentary was prompted by a recent thread that started about rifle precision but then drifted into opinions about why being overly concerned about precision is unnecessary.*
Admiral Sir John Fisher, First Sea Lord of Britain, is attributed with the quotation, “Gunnery, gunnery, gunnery! Hit the target—all else is twaddle!”
And he wasn’t alone then or now in stressing that in certain endeavors gunfire is mostly about hitting the target. Soldiers in combat, including snipers; law enforcement officers shooting as snipers or for other defensive reasons; competitors; hunters; anyone involved in a self-defense incident; and not to mention at least one notorious assassin ultimately judge their success by whether they hit their intended targets—and pretty much regardless of how they managed to do that.
But precision counts as well for a few reasons.
One obvious reason is simply because that’s what some shooters enjoy striving for. There are several factors involved in achieving highly precise shooting results that range from the chemical and mechanical to the biological. Mastering all those factors is something that some people find challenging and satisfying. But that’s just precision for precision’s sake; i.e., for the fun of it in itself.
Determining and measuring precision is, however, also the basis for achieving other results, and shooting groups is essential for those purposes.
One of the things that the ballistician Bryan Litz points out about reliably hitting targets at long range is the need for an absolute accurate zero. That means knowing exactly where our shots will hit in relation to our point of aim. The more precise our groups, the more confidence we can have that our gun and ammunition are zeroed where we believe they are. This, of course, matters only if our long range shooting involves engaging targets by use of ballistic solvers. If we can fire plenty of sighters before shooting for record or otherwise can “walk” our shots onto the target by seeing and correcting for our misses, then an exact zero doesn’t matter too much. Despite their “one shot, one kill” goal, many long distance hits by military snipers have involved correcting for misses or shooting what were in effect sighters.
But if none of that’s possible and we don’t already know what sighting changes are necessary based on what we’ve recorded as required the previous times we shot at a well-ranged target, and must rather rely on what something like a Kestrel tells us, then precision into our calculations will help make sure we get accuracy out.
Shooting groups to determine our level of precision is also necessary to tell us what our gun, ammunition, and our skill are capable of in the best possible case. If our 100 yard groups always measure less than a minute of angle, then it’s possible that the gun, ammunition, and we will be able to reliably hit a 6 inch vital zone at 500 yards. There’s no guarantee of that for a variety of reasons, but at least it’s a reasonable possibility. On the other hand, if our groups under the best conditions consistently average about 2 MOA, then we can be pretty certain that hitting the same 6 inch zone at 500 yards would involve a healthy dose of luck no matter what else affected our shooting.
Shooting groups is ultimately what we must do to determine certain things about our guns, ammunition, and ourselves. If we don’t really care about those things, then of course it’s not necessary, but if we care then it’s just as necessary to ensure that we do that correctly.
None of that is to suggest that shooting for accuracy isn’t important as well, and ultimately it may be the most important thing. For best and most consistent accuracy, though, precision is very often necessary as a basis.
* In recent times many shooters have decreed that the term accuracy refers only to hitting a specific target. That’s not how it’s always been, though, and within living memory the term probably more commonly referred to how closely a rifle or ammunition could put bullets together without necessarily hitting a specific target. That’s clearly what Townsend Whelen was referring to years ago when he famously said, “Only accurate rifles are interesting.” But now a distinction is made between hitting (or clustering around) a specific target versus small bullet impact groups without regard to where the group is in relation to the point of aim; the latter is now called precision. I try to use the terms as they’re currently approved of.
Hiawatha Designs an Experiment
Hiawatha, mighty hunter,
He could shoot ten arrows upward,
Shoot them with such strength and swiftness
That the last had left the bow-string
Ere the first to earth descended.
This was commonly regarded
As a feat of skill and cunning.
Several sarcastic spirits
Pointed out to him, however,
That it might be much more useful
If he sometimes hit the target.
"Why not shoot a little straighter
And employ a smaller sample?"
Hiawatha, who at college
Majored in applied statistics,
Consequently felt entitled
To instruct his fellow man
In any subject whatsoever,
Waxed exceedingly indignant,
Talked about the law of errors,
Talked about truncated normals,
Talked of loss of information,
Talked about his lack of bias,
Pointed out that (in the long run)
Even though they missed the target,
Had an average point of impact
Very near the spot he aimed at,
With the possible exception
of a set of measure zero.
"This," they said, "was rather doubtful;
Anyway it didn't matter.
What resulted in the long run:
Either he must hit the target
Much more often than at present,
Or himself would have to pay for
All the arrows he had wasted."
Hiawatha, in a temper,
Quoted parts of R. A. Fisher,
Quoted Yates and quoted Finney,
Quoted reams of Oscar Kempthorne,
Quoted Anderson and Bancroft
(practically in extenso)
Trying to impress upon them
That what actually mattered
Was to estimate the error.
Several of them admitted:
"Such a thing might have its uses;
Still," they said, "he would do better
If he shot a little straighter."
Hiawatha, to convince them,
Organized a shooting contest.
Laid out in the proper manner
Of designs experimental
Recommended in the textbooks,
Mainly used for tasting tea
(but sometimes used in other cases)
Used factorial arrangements
And the theory of Galois,
Got a nicely balanced layout
And successfully confounded
Second order interactions.
All the other tribal marksmen,
Ignorant benighted creatures
Of experimental setups,
Used their time of preparation
Putting in a lot of practice
Merely shooting at the target.
Thus it happened in the contest
That their scores were most impressive
With one solitary exception.
This, I hate to have to say it,
Was the score of Hiawatha,
Who as usual shot his arrows,
Shot them with great strength and swiftness,
Managing to be unbiased,
Not however with a salvo
Managing to hit the target.
"There!" they said to Hiawatha,
"That is what we all expected."
Hiawatha, nothing daunted,
Called for pen and called for paper.
But analysis of variance
Finally produced the figures
Showing beyond all peradventure,
Everybody else was biased.
And the variance components
Did not differ from each other's,
Or from Hiawatha's.
(This last point it might be mentioned,
Would have been much more convincing
If he hadn't been compelled to
Estimate his own components
>From experimental plots on
Which the values all were missing.)
Still they couldn't understand it,
So they couldn't raise objections.
(Which is what so often happens
with analysis of variance.)
All the same his fellow tribesmen,
Ignorant benighted heathens,
Took away his bow and arrows,
Said that though my Hiawatha
Was a brilliant statistician,
He was useless as a bowman.
As for variance components
Several of the more outspoken
Make primeval observations
Hurtful of the finer feelings
Even of the statistician.
In a corner of the forest
Sits alone my Hiawatha
On the normal law of errors.
Wondering in idle moments
If perhaps increased precision
Might perhaps be sometimes better
Even at the cost of bias,
If one could thereby now and then
Register upon a target.
Kendall, Maurice (1959). Hiawatha Designs an Experiment. The American Statistician 13: 23-24.
Sometimes the point, i.e., the target, can be missed in more ways than one.
Or perhaps I am the one who missed a point.
Care to elaborate?
This has been my primary motivator, in my perceived use-case; especially with the 10.5" 5.56. Thanks for the write-up.
I don't ask much, compared to others here.
As long as I can kill twelve 2 liter bottles at 125 yards in 14 shots in under two and a half minutes.
I will use either or both to achieve the desired results
Safety, Situational Awareness and proficiency.
Neck Ties, Hats and ammo brass, Never ,ever touch'em w/o asking first
|quarter MOA visionary|
I might have guessed the reverse.
In my mind accuracy depicts consistency and precision depicts placement exactly where you desire.
A specific example might make my point somewhat clearer.
A few years ago a law enforcement sniper shot the gun that a suicidal man was holding in a public place. The sniper was in a supported prone position and the distance to the man was relatively short.
The action was later criticized by many in the LE sniping community, but not for reasons that had to do with the marksmanship. The sniper himself claimed that he could put the bullet within “a thirty-second of an inch” of where he wanted it to go. Now, that’s not a claim I would make about myself under the best circumstances shooting my most
The answer is obvious: He had practiced and tested shooting his weapon and ammunition from that position and the results of that practice and testing had given him the confidence to make that remarkable claim. It’s extremely unlikely that he would have been so irresponsible as to make the claim and agree to the mission based on the fact that he could regularly hit a 12" target at 250 yards by spotting and correcting two or three misses.
But did that practice and testing necessarily involve only shooting “groups” consisting of X number of shots at a single target? Admittedly, not necessarily.
Below is a 3/4" dot drill target I fired a couple of days ago at 50 yards with one of my 22 Long Rifle rifles from the standing position using a tripod and shooting sticks for support. The drill was intended as practice and a test of my ability to deliver accurate fire, but although I was pretty satisfied with the results, all shots were far from perfectly centered on the targets. For our purposes, though, let’s assume that each shot had been as close to the absolute center of the dots as the last shot (lower right).
Such an exercise with (almost) perfectly centered hits on each dot wouldn’t have involved shooting traditional groups, but it still would have been a close equivalent in that it would have served as a demonstration of precision (in addition to the accuracy). And to reiterate my point, it’s only through testing how precise one’s shooting can be using a particular gun and ammunition that someone like that sniper could legitimately make his claim to 1/32" accuracy even at short distances.
This is the thrust of marksmanship programs like Project Appleseed - to know your rifle and your limitations, and be able to make clean shots based on that knowledge. That dot drill is great work.
Please help me get loaner rifles for Appleseed shoots! More details at: https://fundrazr.com/42EY9b?ref=ab_8BFKzc
Precision without accuracy might demonstrate the technical abilities of a rifle and ammunition, but it's not worth very much if you can't put the two together.
The whole point of shooting is hitting the target. Having a true 1/4 MOA rifle might be an impressive technical achievement, but if you can't put rounds on target it is not worth much beyond a technical exercise. IMHO.
I have been thinking about this conversation lately. Is this perhaps a good, in-a-nutshell way to interpret the concept?...
Accuracy is my system being able to put ten rounds inside an inch; precision is my system being able to put ten rounds inside an inch right there.
|Hop head |
a High Master once told me when we were scoring targets ( I was a lowly Expert then, ) that in the game we were shooting, Service Rifle\High Power, that one did not have to chase the smallest group, just get good enough,
he logic, shared by many, was to look at the X ring, and have ammo that was accurate enough for that , but don't worry about getting it tighter ,
X ring groups were good enough, once that was done (combo of a good rifle and good ammo) work on getting those groups when in position, to that same size, in in the proper place,
he said ignore the black, in a sense, since in offhand for example, you can shoot a 10 or 20 round string , and keep all in the black, but never hit the X or 10 ring,
if your ammo and rifle are good enough, work on getting it where is should shoot, (as in work on your skills and positions)
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