Clay: Why Pistol Accuracy Testing is Overrated

Editor’s note: In the video above, Clay discusses why he doesn’t perform accuracy testing for pistols.  In his mind, the pistol platform is too limited for him to empirically assess its accuracy.  Actually, it’s the other way around, Clay’s abilities as a shooter are too limited to empirically evaluate the pistol’s accuracy.   

As he explains it, Clay can’t compete with the lab-grade accuracy testing required to fully examine the pistol’s performance.  Even with the aid of a ransom rest, Clay doesn’t feel confident enough that he shoots the pistol to its full potential. 

But from his perspective, requiring accuracy from a pistol is like requiring precision cuts from an ax.  It’s not what the platform was designed to do.  As long as he can hit six-inch groups at 25 meters consistently, that’s good enough. 

After all, almost any shot you’re going to make with your carry gun is going to be inside of that distance and considering that the average human torso (from shoulder to shoulder) is 1’ 6” you should be able to make that shot, especially if you’re firing multiple rounds.   

Now, certainly, not everyone is going to agree with Clay’s assessment on pistol accuracy.  There are gun writers who have their own way of measuring accuracy and they stand by their process and results.  But as a reader, it’s good to know where your favorite writers stand on the subject.

About the author: Clay Martin is a former Marine and Green Beret, retiring out of 3rd Special Forces Group. He is a multi-decade and -service sniper, as well as 3-Gun competitor and Master ranked shooter in USPSA Production. In addition to writing about guns, he is the author of “Last Son of The War God,” a novel about shooting people that deserve it. You can also follow him on twitter, @offthe_res or his website,

{ 21 comments… add one }
  • Michael lewis July 23, 2018, 11:48 am

    Rapier, couldn’t agree more. Working in a retail gun store I saw people nearly every day who bought a new gun for self protection, along with one box of ammo, then put it in a drawer never firing it again.
    I’ll add one thing to your requirement concerning lots of practice, that being correct trained practice. Shooting lots of rounds incorrectly will make you proficient at shooting incorrectly,

  • Ace December 10, 2016, 5:56 pm

    I agree. IF you use a pistol in a self offense situation, six inch groups will do the trick. We trained with 4″ post it notes on the standard cardboard man target. My hope is to never have to find out.

  • BRASS December 10, 2016, 12:52 pm

    I agree with Clay completely. I can hold tighter groups than most with a 1911 at any range I can see but I suck at revolvers. Why? I don’t know, I can count the number of times I’ve shot a revolver on both hands, outside of Ruger Single Six. I’ve had decades of professional experience with the 1911 so I should be able to shoot it.
    If I can make a CNS T shot at close range, that is what I judge accuracy by. Other than that, minute of heart at across the room distances is what I’m looking for. Metal plates and bullseye targets don’t shoot back and humans generally don’t stand still for me.
    As a career Marine I can find no holes in his logic. There was a time I could shoot tighter groups at 500 yards prone with an open sighted rack grade M-14 than most could with a scoped one and that was an essential required skill for me. But there was always someone better and surely some mechanical contrivance could produce tighter groups.
    I knew a Marine CWO-4 that could hold a twelve inch group at 500 yards standing offhand with an M-14. He was 6’5″, with long arms, tremendous core/upper body strength and that translated into his great mechanical ability to shoot offhand. I’ve never met anyone else who could duplicate his off hand accuracy with a service weapon, but the fact that he could make those shots doesn’t mean that level of accuracy represents that particular weapons potential for anyone else.

  • Thomas Breithaupt December 9, 2016, 3:34 pm

    The “gunfight” is an unbelievably complex system loaded with variables and failure modes. Using a “perfect” gun in controlled/reduced variables at a gun-range only sets a best-case outcome, miles from any likely-outcome. Knowing real human factors and self-defense experiences I can only imagine the mental/physical stresses a defensive gunfight position puts us in.

    As a private pilot under very stressful IMC (instrument weather conditions) you quickly experience self-preservation “tunnel-vision” that rapidly damages basic thinking and responses. The rapid self-questioning that occurs biases most reasoning while flying and I can only imaging worse before the first shot. If a follow-up shot is needed, just the explosive volume (no ear protection) of almost any pistol is a completely disabling event, especially in a small room and a large/powerful round can split ear-drums causing complete disability. The stacking of all the failures is amazing that any human can overcome to a successful outcome.

  • Tim December 9, 2016, 1:33 pm

    There are 2 types of accuracy.
    They are not ‘combat accuracy’ or ‘target accuracy’.

    There is mechanical accuracy, which the gun and ammo combination is capable of with environmental and shooter variable removed.
    Then there is practical accuracy, which introduces the shooter as a variable.

    Until a person understands those concepts, other concepts are pointless.

    The reason for wanting reliable handguns that have great mechanical accuracy is that if you know the gun is capable of shooting 2″ at 25yds, but you are shooting 6″ groups, you know that you need to work on YOUR mechanics, and not the gun’s.
    But if your handgun is only capable of 6″, then you will have difficulty maintaining that under stressful conditions, if you choose to carry that type of handgun.

    While it’s true that the majority of shooters will have to practice a lot to get close to that, having a handgun that CAN do it mechanically reduces the variables.

  • Bisley December 9, 2016, 1:26 pm

    Not all defensive encounters are high-speed and close-range, or without obstructions and people that need to be missed — you can never be too accurate. Having a gun/ammunition combination capable of first-rate accuracy from a rest, and the ability to do it regularly, gives confidence in hitting where you want to and may be necessary in some instances (if you knew you were going to be involved in a gunfight, you’d be carrying a rifle).

  • don comfort December 9, 2016, 11:35 am

    I have carried some type of various handgun every day of my life sense 1968. I carried one in combat in Viet Nam, carried as an LEO for almost 30 years and used one in competition for about 35 years. I am an NRA Pistol Instructor and each Concealed carry in my state.
    The concept I always stress is there are 2 types of shooting,Target and Combat. What works great for one type is not necessarily good for the other. In target shooting accurate is everything.You want a hand gun that has tight tolerances, a lighter trigger pull,grips and sights tailored to you. Your goal is to hit the same spot time after time.
    In a combat situation you want a gun that is Absolutely Reliable.It needs to be easily acquired and fast on the draw. Your
    Primary objective is to put a bullet in him before he puts one in you. You do not have the luxury of slow careful aim.
    Because the function, purpose and ultimate goals are different, you have to keep that in mind when selecting a firearm.
    All but the very cheap “Saturday Night Specials” are far more accurate for combat shooting than the shooters themselves.
    The point being, it is great to have a hand gun that shoots very accurate,but for self defense ,carry all day, every day purposes, accurate is not at the top of your priority list

  • KCshooter December 9, 2016, 11:33 am

    The analagy between a handgun and an axe is spot on.

  • Zeno Streletz December 9, 2016, 9:37 am

    You are a new kid on the block. If you shot bullseye all your life and you
    looked at the NRA 25 Yd. standard slow fire target you would see that a 5 or 6
    inch group will not cut it as a target pistol. Our gun club has a 50 gallon drum full of cement
    and the Ransom rest is attached to it. Almost every .22 rimfire of target grade will shoot
    groups that will fit inside the NRA 10 ring. Centerfire guns are tougher to get good
    groups with. We have gotten many centerfire target pistols to shoot within the NRA
    10 ring at 25 yards. We have seen a lot of good pistols that couldn’t do it as well. Ammo
    and guns have to like each other for you to get the kind of accuracy needed for competition.


  • Alan December 9, 2016, 9:14 am

    Uh oh Clay, now you’ve done it.
    Every self proclaimed Pistolero “expert” (and especially the ones making money off others) is going to excoriate you.
    The self defence ‘Guru’s’ will now try to have you for lunch, because to be even moderately capable of carrying a firearm, you should shoot thousands of rounds a week.
    Let the games begin!!!!

  • Pancho Estaban December 9, 2016, 9:02 am

    Of all the pistols that I have purchased, there has only been one that actually shot the 10-spot out of the box. For the others, that is one reason they sell sight movers if you don’t have a sight easily adjustable with a screw driver. This is especially critical if you have to shoot 25 yard qualifications.
    If you anticipate only shooting 5-7 yards, then you may not have to worry about it.

  • Joe December 9, 2016, 9:02 am

    The ammunition I use can make a big difference in accuracy. It kinda makes it a good idea to see which performs best in my gun. If brand “A” won’t group in a foot circle….and I’m off another 6″..then I’ve potentially missed completely. Hitting somewhere inside that 18″ torso is pretty good, but hitting in the center, if possible, is even better…and preferable.

  • John M. Buol Jr. December 9, 2016, 9:00 am

    >> As long as he can hit six-inch groups at 25 meters consistently, that’s good enough.

    True, especially because this assesses the shooter’s ability to exploit that accuracy.

    The number of gun owners that can do this standing unsupported with a handgun is very low, regardless of the pistol’s mechanical accuracy and how it’s measured. As the man says, outside of competitive circles this number is nearly zero.

    For most forms of shooting and almost all people, mechanical accuracy of the firearm is rarely the limiting factor.

    • Steve December 9, 2016, 5:28 pm

      So true. Go to the range and see how few can shoot 6 inches at 25 yards. Darn few, but I will be their pistol can.

  • Mike Harmon December 9, 2016, 8:59 am

    Being a long time handgun hunter and pistol shooter, I can say I absolutely agree with Clay in regards to defensive handguns. That being said anyone needs to shoot the most accurate, comfortable pistol they can handle.
    The real point to defensive shooting is to practice point and shoot. I methodically use my sights and/or optics while handgunning for game. But not when I am on the charging end. It’s point and shoot brother! Sights are all option at that point.
    Doesn’t have to be a human you are defending against, the principal is the same, no time for sights….POINT and SHOOT!

  • Kind of.... December 9, 2016, 8:42 am

    While I agree that handgun accuracy is not everyone’s forte, it should still be important. I agree that a 6″ group at 25m is good for -most- handguns. I’d like to see someone do that with an tiny little NAA, and most people probably can’t do that with their carry gun. And I also agree that handgun accuracy does not need to be pinpoint, but I’m not sure the “fight your way back to the rifle” scenario works very well for everyone.

    Shooting bullseye pistol taught me a lot. First, it taught me that I need a LOT more practice. Second, it taught me to focus on the front sight and to get a near-perfect trigger pull. Yeah, that’s not defensive shooting by any means, but it teaches the fundamentals to an extreme. It also makes muscle memory, and will improve my defensive shooting skills. It’s also cheaper than defensive shooting competition, and I can do it at an indoor range all winter long. I’m not saying that bullseye practice should replace defensive pistol practice, but I am saying that it can improve your defensive shooting. Of course, -knowing- your limitations on accuracy should improve your chances in a lot of situations, such as a hostage scenario or when there are bystanders behind your target.

    I just have to chuckle when I see some of the “experts” testing a pistol and talking about how accurate it is. They post pictures of targets with 2″ groups to show us how accurate it is. Then I look further and find the target was at 7 yards…. If you can’t hold a 2″ group at 7 yards, maybe you should carry a rifle instead.

    Shooting a pistol is difficult, and if you think you’re good, go shoot bullseye with someone that is good. You might find out like I did, that you need more practice!!!

    Either way, accuracy IS important. You may not get to be a top level shooter, but shouldn’t you strive to be the best you can with a tool that could save your life or your families?

    Before you comment negatively on my reply, go outside and set up a target the size of a hostage taker’s head at 50 feet. Think you can put all of them in a 3″ circle – if you or someone you love’s life depended on it? Under stress? Maybe someone shooting back? (No, I’m not SURE that I can, but I’m sure I can practice!)

    • don comfort December 9, 2016, 11:42 am

      Your comments are true for Bullseye shooting but keep in mind,in combat shooting,i.e. defending yourself, you will NOT have the luxury of time. The acquisition, draw, and firing of the weapon all takes time you may not have. Time needs to be spent acquiring and honing those skills. In combat shooting, those skills will serve you much better than pin point accuracy !

  • Rapier December 9, 2016, 6:48 am

    Most such comments are from people that can not shoot worth a damn. I suggest that you practice a lot more. My practice regime is 15,000 rounds every quarter. It takes real effort and practice time to win matches and to shoot well.

    • Chuck Smith December 9, 2016, 2:55 pm

      I’m glad that you have the time and money to practice that much. Personally, I’m retired and don’t have nearly enough money to afford that much practice or range time.

  • Steve G December 8, 2016, 9:11 pm

    Clay, what’s a typewriter?

  • Will Drider December 5, 2016, 2:08 am

    Its a big wide handgun shooting world out there and defensive handgun accuracy (even if ignored, is a small part).

    I do agree on the accuracy limitations of the writers vary greatly. Hell, thrre are no caliber, barrel length to distances used. Many are laughably and printed by the same media source. Anytime a auther includes a excuse of crutch to cushion accuracy results is a bsd sign for covering his/yer ass or a crappy product. Got wind, rain or fog: don’t shootand try to blow smoke.

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