Tactical Skills for an Adventurous Life

Stop Paying for Precision You Don’t Need

There is a story about the late Colonel John Boyd admonishing a crowd of young Air Force officers about the future of their careers.

Colonel John Boyd
Colonel John Boyd, USAF Archive Photo

And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.”

He raised his hand and pointed.

“If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.”

Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed another direction.

“Or you can go that way and you can do something- something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference.

To be somebody or to do something. In life, there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision.

To be or to do? Which way will you go?

The message is a warning about careerism. It’s a phenomenon I view similar to Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy: an observation on how those who work hard to perform the mission and carry out the vision of an organization will usually advance slower than those that work to support the organization itself. In other words, those who work to look good will do better on average than those who work to actually be good.

But this is not a post about the perceived organizational woes of the Air Force. This is a blog about marksmanship. How does Boyd’s advice apply to shooting?

In search of the Bigger, Better, Deal

Shooting enthusiasts, especially new ones, often try to shortcut the mastery process. They want to reach the next level with a minimum of effort.

This usually manifests itself as spending exorbitant amounts of money on rifles and gear in constant pursuit of producing ever tighter shot groupings. Day after day, we see newer shooters on the boards asking advice about their first rifle for hunting, target shooting, or even self-defense.

The Mk13 Mod 7 Sniper Rifle – U.S. Marine Corps photo by Kristen Murphy

When you ask them for their requirements, they usually want something capable of ½ MOA or better. The other internet people agree with such a “sound” requirement and point the person in the direction of the top gunsmiths and custom rifle builders in the country. These folks are true craftsmen, charge thousands of dollars per rifle, and already have year-long backlogs of work.

If it’s an AR-15 focused board, the names of top match barrel makers start getting thrown out as the only way to go. The new guy thinks they have to spend $500 or $600 on a barrel, or they just aren’t going to cut it in front of people who really know what they’re doing. Of course, years later, this same new guy will suggest the same path to other new shooters because that’s what he did.

I need to ask, at what point are we just spending money in order to say we have something?

Are we just trying to “be” an accurate shooter because we spent the money?

Where is the part about “doing?”

Let’s Get Real for a Moment

Allow me to draw your attention to a handful of articles that impacted me a lot over my journey. I hope you find these as valuable on your path as I did. This is going to slaughter some “common knowledge” and interrupt the way of the internet, but they need to get said.

How Much Does Group Size Really Matter?

Let’s talk about that new shooter asking a message board where to get that ½ MOA barrel for his first rifle. 

First, is he even capable of shooting that accurately himself? If it’s a ½ MOA rifle, but he’s a 6 MOA shooter, then he’s still looking at 6 MOA groups. Better equipment isn’t going to make up for lack of fundamentals.

What about ammo selection?

I’m especially guilty of this one. My first rifle, a Springfield Loaded M1A, had a stainless national match barrel. Do you know what I fed it? A steady diet of surplus South African M80 ball. Shooting 5 MOA ammo through a 1 MOA-capable rifle is still 5 MOA.

In the end, group sizes just aren’t all that valuable. The Precision Rifle Blog put up a series of articles in 2015 called, “How Much Does it Matter?” Each post in the series focused on how much a particular subject affected hit probability at long range. The one I want to direct you to was all about group size

Using Brian Litz’s software, the team modeled hits for a 10″ plate at 700 yards and a 20″ plate at 1000 yards. The simulation assumed perfect marksmanship fundamentals regarding trigger control, rifle cant, follow through, and stability.

The only variables were the rifle’s precision, 1 MOA to .1 MOA, and variance in wind call of 2.5 mph. By the way, being able to call the wind within 2.5 MPH is an expert-level feat.

The analysis showed that the probability of hit for a 10″ plate at 700 yards goes from 70% with a 1 MOA rifle to 78% with a .5 MOA, and to 80% with a .1 MOA rifle. 

For a 20” later at 1000 yards, the hit probability went from 70.4% to 74.2% and then 75.4%. 

In other words, there’s effectively a 3.8% improvement in hit probability by going from 1 MOA to .5 MOA, and only a 1.2% improvement by going from .5 MOA to .1 MOA.

Think about that for a second.

The Cost of Precision

How much more money does it cost in equipment to go from a 1 MOA to a .5 MOA capable rifle?

Many very reasonably priced factory bolt guns are already capable of shooting about 1 MOA out the door. A lot of people will gladly spend a thousand dollars to get that extra .5 MOA. 

A thousand dollars for an extra 3.8% probability.

Furthermore, those statistical results were assuming perfect marksmanship fundamentals, world-class wind calls, and nearly perfect consistency of ammunition velocity.

How many people looking to purchase or upgrade their rifles to be capable of that kind of precision can legitimately claim they already mastered these other elements? Board-hobbits (bobbits?) who post amazing, but fake, shot groups don’t count. Their groups might look fantastic, but you’ll never find their names on the leaderboard of an actual match.

At what point is a shooter better off buying more quality ammunition to practice with than buying a new barrel/upper/trigger?

At what point are we just wasting money on the perceived capability that we cannot actually take advantage of?

When are we “being” rather than “doing?”

Real Guns and Race Guns

When I polled readers about their participation in competitions, there were a lot of great answers. One of the concerns that came up was the cost of equipment to be competitive in these events.

John Buol Jr, from The Firearms User Network, chimed in with some valuable input. He linked to one of his own articles from 2016. In it, he highlights the performance difference between using off-the-rack issued rifles, as I did during an EIC match, and fully tricked out match rifles.

The difference was 10-15% percent.

Note, that ~10% difference in score applies only to *radical* equipment differences, such as a rack-grade M16A2 with ball ammo shot while wearing a plain uniform compared to match rifle and ammo with shooting coat, or department issue handgun vs. Open/Unlimited racegun. Most equipment differences will have a lesser effect.

This is high-power shooting focused rather than the long-range precision highlighted in the first article. But yet, here we are again. High performance has dramatically more to do with the skill of the shooter than the equipment they use.

U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 1st Class Brian Brannon

All of the fancy gear is there to help the master-level shooter gain just a little bit of edge over the other master-level shooters. If a newbie shows up and loses, it’s not because the experts had dramatically better equipment. This is why I try to sway new shooters away from specialized equipment or rifle configurations

Just How Accurate is a Standard Barrel?

If you believed the internet, the standard AR-15 is a 3-4 MOA rifle. For years, that was the standard belief among forum goers. Maybe that was the case in 1967, but things are different now.

In 2014, Loose Rounds posted an article testing the accuracy of a standard colt 6940 barrel.

In proper bench-rest fashion, Shawn removed as much of himself as he could from the equation and relied on sandbags. Using sets of carefully hand-loaded ammunition, he produced exceptional groupings.

Shawn’s groping of 20 hand-loads through a Colt 6940

Another well-known accuracy tester, Molon, performed a series of tests on basic Colt barrels. An M4A1 barrel averaged .9″ over 30 shots with quality ammunition. An A2 barrel averaged 1.085″ over 30 shots.

The simple truth is this: a quality-made standard chrome barrel is capable of producing ~1 MOA groups with good ammunition. 

Perhaps now you see why I advocate starting with standard barrels for most users. 

Wrapping Up

John Boyd’s advice relates to shooting as much as it does military careers. There is a point in your shooting journey where you have to decide if you are going to “be someone” or “do something.”

You could continually buy top-end equipment for the sake of saying that you’ve got it, but actually participating in a match is always around the corner. You just need to spend a little more to get there.

Or, you are going to “do something” and practice enough to use the equipment you already have to its fullest capability.

In a perfect world, we could do both. But unless you are independently wealthy or have a list of sponsors buying your equipment, then you are going to have to make a choice for now.

A standard rifle is capable of quite a bit more than we give it credit for. But there’s no money to be made in convincing you that you don’t need to spend $3,000 on a match rifle before you can actually show up. 

So, the lesson here is that you just need to get out there and put time behind the trigger. Use what you already own. When the day comes that you really need that extra 10% to take the top spot in the match, you will have spent so much money on practice ammo that the cost of the gear will seem paltry in comparison.

A marksman that practices the fundamentals endlessly will always far outperform the one who shoots a couple boxes of ammunition per year and posts pictures about it on the internet.

A true marksman will perform well regardless of the equipment they have. The other guy will always be hunting for that bigger better deal that gives him the edge he needs to finally win.

P.S. One More Thing

I’ll probably take some hate for this, but I just want to be clear. 

Don’t take my rant here as justification to buy crap equipment. I strongly advocate for buying quality gear as needed. Colt rifles are known for their accurate barrels, and I’ve squeezed 1 to 1.5 MOA groups out of my BCM rifles as well. This is why I advocate for spending a bit more up front on a quality rifle rather than looking for rock bottom pricing. 

You will get a very capable rifle across the board without having to spend the thousands required to get something fancy. In this quality grouping, you have far less wiggle room to think that a bad performance at the range was the fault of the rifle and not you.

In the grand scheme of rifles, a quality rifle doesn’t cost much more than a cheap rifle. Both are far less than a fully tricked out match rifle.

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Sunshine Shooter
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I remember reading that series on Precision Rifle Blog and being utterly amazed at just how *little* mechanical accuracy matters beyond 1MOA. Good post!

Colorado Pete
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Colorado Pete

Good article. I made the same point in my rifle marksmanship book.

You wrote:
“Many very reasonably priced factory bolt guns are already capable of shooting about 1 MOA out the door. A lot of people will gladly spend a thousand dollars to get that extra .5 MOA.”

That extra thousand in ammo, coupled with lots of dry fire, will get that 6-MOA shooter with a 1-MOA rifle down to a 2-MOA prone, 3-MOA sitting, and 5-MOA standing shooter.

Boyd was an interesting fellow. The first guy to “quantify” a formula for air combat, and originator of the OODA loop idea. There’s a biography of him out there that’s worth a read called “John Boyd, Fighter Pilot”.

Most rifle shooters have no idea what their own MOA capabilities are in various positions because they never get away from the bench and test themselves (and some don’t even know what minute-of-angle means). The results can be a rude shock. Improvements to the results require lots of time and energy spent doing that four-letter word, WORK. Progress can be slow, which means looking at those ego-crushing results for longer than is comfortable. It’s more fun spending money on stuff that impresses your buddies, and staying on those sandbags atop the bench.

One of my friends got into highpower long ago. He got a match AR15A2, and after his first 3 80-shot regional matches (you need at least 240 shots for record to get an initial classification) he was awarded a MASTER ticket. Unheard of. How? He spent hours dry-firing EVERY DAY. After six months of dry and live fire practice, he had to re-barrel the rifle. He then bought one of those computerized laser target practice systems and spent hours a day working on his standing position. In 2005 he won the state offhand championship. Now that’s WORK ETHIC.

Somehow chasing accuracy for it’s own sake has topped getting the accuracy necessary for the purpose for which the rifle was purchased, not to mention the skill required to apply it under the particular circumstances of the purpose. An antelope at 350 from prone, a prairie dog at 500 from the bench, an elk at 100 from standing all require differing levels of shooter skill and mechanical accuracy, but people seem to no longer look at things this way.

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