'The true Soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because He loves what is behind him.' -G. K. Chesterton

02 October 2013

Handgun Accuracy And Weight

I'm finally back. After a few weeks of running around chasing my own tail, things have settled down again. The old place is a little dusty with cobwebs everywhere. And where the heck did that ratty old couch come from? Dang kids. Anyway. I'm going to begin again and, as usual, with a long post :)

I've been doing a little shooting with my USPSA coach and bought a new gun. I also had the chance to talk to a lot of very fine shooters at the Nationals. I have come to a conclusion. To some it will be a "Well Duh!" moment. Others will find it heretical or moronic. A few may find it of some value. We shall see. Ready? Ok, here it is.

Handgun weight has a direct influence on accuracy.

Now that's assuming one has the basic requisite skills to run one with at least a modicum of competence. Not at world beating levels mind you, just a basic skill set. For those men and women who are world champions and special ops members I don't think the gun really matters all that much but for those of us on the lower end of the shooting scale I think the weight of the pistol can have tremendous influence. Even more than good versus bad triggers, grip angle and even grip.

Let's look at these four pistols from my own armory.

From top to bottom:
Glock G35, .40 S&W, 5 in. barrel - 25 ounces
Springfield Armory XDm 5.25, 9mm, 5.25 in. barrel - 29 ounces
Sig Sauer P226 DuoTone, .40 S&W, 4.4 in. barrel - 34 ounces
Sig Sauer Scorpion 1911, .45 ACP, 5 in. barrel - 41.6 ounces
All weights are with an empty magazine and taken from the manufacturers specifications.

I shoot or have shot all these regularly, especially the P226 which I carried on duty for more than 15 years. I've shot the P226, the G35 and the 1911 in competition. The P226 is aluminum framed, the Glock and XDm composite and the 1911 is all steel. As you can see there's a pretty wide difference in weights, in the case of the Glock and 1911 more than 16 1/2 ounces. If you don't think a few ounces make a difference try holding each out at the end of your extended arm for a few minutes. But there's more to it than simply how much effort is required to bring each into play.

To simplify things a bullet performs it's dance through the burning of a chemical propellant which pushes the projectile down the barrel. Simple but that reaction occurs dang quickly and it results in recoil and gun/barrel harmonics. Weight tends to help dampen that reaction. At least to a degree. That means, all things being equal, a heavier gun will absorb more recoil and dampen vibrations to a greater degree making recoil management easier and target reacquisition faster.

Let's talk about triggers for a moment. The shooters in USPSA I listen to and try to emulate all talk about the shooter versus the gun. A great shooter can run any gun. They emphasize grip and trigger control but they really hit on grip. A good grip, one in which the off hand takes up an inordinate and majority amount of the control (which is anathema to many of us) tends to isolate the trigger finger, allowing for smooth operation and produces the least effect on the front sight. The guns above have three basic types of triggers; Striker Fired for the Glock and XDm. SA/DA for the P226 and 1911 style for the 1911. The Striker fired pistols both have trigger safeties and kinda mushy triggers. The P226 has a 12.2 pound DA trigger pull with a 4.4 pound SA with a little creep (not much actually). The 1911 is 5 pounds but breaks like a glass rod. All different but none of them is what I'd call bad.

Ok. What if you're like me, competent but hardly in the stratified air of those who are at the very top of the shooting game? What if our grip is so so but works for us? We're decent weekend shooters and can handle and manipulate most any firearm safely. We're trained and competent for self defense encounters but we're not Jerry Miculek. For us trigger pull and break may be a significant factor. Grip angle may be of enormous importance. Grip is solid but not the contortionate positioning required for absolute efficiency. What if there's a way to compensate, at least a little, for trigger and grip issues?

Here's what got me to thinking. A lot of those same shooters prefer large steel guns. At least those not being sponsored by one of the composite handgun manufacturers like Glock or Springfield. Why? Well, I did a little test to try and find out. I went down into my basement lair with all four of those guns and did the blank wall drill. I picked a section of bare, white wall and did some dry firing. In that test one simply takes a good grip, aims at a bare wall, no target at all not even a small spot, and dry fires while watching the front sight intently. What I found was interesting.

With both of the composite framed guns I tended to pull down and left. I could see the front sight move as I squeezed the trigger. Every time but especially bad when I was trying to go fast. I could control it to a degree by consciously trying to not let the sight waver and I can see how a lot of practice might tend to alleviate that but for someone who has been shooting actively for more than three decades it was disconcerting. I think this is why dry fire training is so necessary. I also found that the more finger I had on the trigger, at times right up to the first joint and even frame dragging, the better front sight control I had. Contra intuitive to pretty much everything I'd thought up to this point.

With the P226 front sight movement was there but nowhere near the degree it was with the other two. It was also much easier to address and overcome. It also responded negatively to increased finger cover of the trigger and frame dragging was definitely out. I was back out to the end of the finger, right at the center point of the pad. Exactly as I'd been taught and shot for so many years.

But the 1911 was an eye opener. The front sight barely wavered. Same grip, same front sight concentration, same trigger movement. It didn't seem to matter how much finger I had on the trigger, as long as I had a straight pull to the rear the sights stayed dead on.

Let me address one more issue here, grip angle. Here's the Glock and the 1911;

The difference in grip angle is obvious. But the XDm and P226 share very similar angles with the 1911. So, is grip angle an issue, maybe a significant one? I don't know but I tend to doubt it. Grip angle does seem to matter when I'm in initial target acquisition. With the Glock I tend to hunt for the front sight. With the P226 and 1911 the front sight falls bang on every time. But it doesn't seem to be a factor in trigger manipulation, at least for me. Performance is why I think that. Let me cut to the chase here and present my closing argument for weightier guns.

When I started competitive shooting it was with the P226. It was a platform I was familiar with and I had the gear to start shooting immediately. I knew I could shoot it competently and it would give me a base to work off of and decide what came next. I did in fact shoot it with at least a modicum of success. Work and practice got me better. Then I switched to the Glock and I fought it. I tended to shoot.....low and left. So much so that I was consistently able to simply adjust my point of aim and run very well. Enter the 1911.

I've talked before about my reluctance to even have a 1911 pattern handgun in my collection before. The most fundamental being my inability to retain the gross motor skill of clicking off the safety before trying to fire the thing. With my retirement I thought it would be fun to try one again and bought the Scorpion (Mostly because it's gorgeous but please let that be our little secret). I ran it at a steel match last night and the results were informative. The results I obtained from my little basement dry fire test bore out on the live fire range under competition stress. I shot it much better than I did either the P226 or the Glock. Much better. Up Front Sight Press Bang and down the steel went. I even out shot my coach on at least one stage and that's absolutely astonishing.

It would be easy to chalk it up to the 1911's trigger but bear in mind that the P226 SA trigger is about half a pound lighter than the Scorpion's. It doesn't break quite as crisply but it's at least in the same neighborhood. The P226 actually has a very nice SA trigger, especially for a 'combat' gun. What about grip angle? The P226 and 1911 are alike enough for me to conclude that's not it, the Glock notwithstanding. No, there was another force at work and I believe it is weight. As I've moved up in handgun weight classes, as it were, I've noticed that each successively heavier gun is more forgiving of my form weaknesses, especially in grip and trigger control. Don't misunderstand me here, I am not saying that a heavy gun will cure all that ails you. Far from it. Practice and fundamental skills acquisition should be at the top of all our lists of things to do as responsible gun owners and self defense shooters. But. I will never be a top level USPSA shooter, I simply do not have the drive. I'll also never be a member of a SEAL team or Delta. I can't afford thousands of dollars per year in instruction, many hundreds of hours of range time and tens of thousands of rounds in practice. I need all the advantages I can get just to be a decent competition shooter and a dangerous opponent for anyone who views me and my family with evil intent.

There is one more point to gun weight. It's relative. For me a 34 ounce gun is very light, for Lu it's almost too heavy. For her the 29 ounce XDm is about what the 1911 is for me. Maybe even a little heavier. I think there's probably also some influence in how that weight is distributed. The plastic fantastics are nose heavy. The 1911 just feels like you're holding a solid chunk of steel. The 226 is somewhere in between but still a bit porky out at the far end.

For me all this has invoked a bit of a sea change. I am viewing my current collection and future purchases with new eyes. I think the Glock will be retired and I'm eyeballing the 2011 (1911 double stacks basically) offerings carefully. A new STI in .40 (or heck maybe .45) is probably in my future. A carry Commander? Absolutely and sooner than later probably. I also like the way the steel guns swing and point. My transitions between targets have actually gone down as the weight of the forearm has gone up. Counter intuitive or not it's true. I can't quite explain it except to say that ol' JMB may have been on to something those many years ago. Who knew?

Bottom line. Everyone is different. Mechanically we're as alike as dogs and fish. What works for one will most definitely not work for another. But don't automatically assume that just because a handgun is lighter and compositier it's better. I am convinced that there are significant advantages to heavier, all steel non shoulder fired firearms. So much so that I am re-evaluating all my old and dearly held beliefs about handgun choices. And it doesn't have to be the 1911 platform. There are an awful lot of all steel handgun manufacturers out there offering a myriad of choices for everything from compacts to race guns. I'm also not saying ditch your favorite heater, just to keep an open mind.

And if you get the chance, shoot everything you can lay your hands on. You never know when epiphany may come calling. Heck, I've got a box of .45, a 1911 and access to a beautiful range. Stop by sometime and we'll go shooting.



Evyl Robot Michael said...

There are so many details that are involved in 'proper' shooting that most of us more casual shooters forget the sooper sekrit way to do it and settle into bad habits. Breath control? Finger placement? Follow through? Who knows? It's my opinion that a heavier frame gun will be far more forgiving of anything we're not doing right. It's for this reason that one of the first guns I'll put in the hands of a brand new shooter is a full size, steel .22lr. Not only are the report and recoil significantly reduced, but even someone that knows absolutely nothing about grip, stance, trigger control, etc. can manage to put shots on target just because the momentum of the gun will fight against any odd way they may be twisting the gun due to technique when they fire. This is not at all to say, "you're holding it wrong" or any such thing. It simply is in line with what you've said. I think the 'pros' could take a featherweight Magnum snub and rock socks with it in competition, but those of us who can't afford thousands of rounds a month for practice ammo may as well go with every advantage at our disposal. And a bigger, heavier gun tends to be at the top of the list.

Six said...

Absolutely agree Michael. For those like us we need whatever edges we can find. I'm a convert and a true believer. Heavy guns rock.

Monkeywrangler said...

Hrmmm...weight helps damp recoil, but so does a lower bore axis, and your 1911 has the lowest axis of the 4. I think based on my limited personal experience, and training, and observation of those who ARE really good, that grip (not grip angle) trumps it all.

Let me ask you this, Six, when shooting the 45acp, does your accuracy fall off as you burn through a mag? Does it fall off with any of the pistols, from a full mag to an empty one? If it does, then you would benefit by selling the 1911 and buying a doublestack 45acp ParaOrdinance or some other doublestack steel 45. That would give you the greatest loaded weight.

I watched my instructor shooting the X out of a small NRA target at 5yds WITH HIS EYES SHUT, just to demonstrate that grip was more important than having sights on a pistol.

The instructor is Wayne Dobbs of hardwiredtacticalshooting.com , a former Richardson PD officer.

Six said...

I agree with you on both grip and bore MW. I'll have to do another side by side between the Glock and 1911 to see how the bores line up.

Yes in the Glock but no in the 1911. I'm pretty sure a double stack 1911 (2011) is in my future. Problem is I want to shoot Single Stack in USPSA so it'll have to wait a bit until I think I've improved enough to start running Limited or Limited 10.

I hate those guys :) I'll give his website a look.

Thanks for the input MW!!