Tuesday, December 14, 2010

No Substitutes

“Aim small; miss small” – The Patriot

“I can shoot straight if I don’t have to shoot too far.” – Scarlett O’Hara

Those who write firearms articles for various publications are, for the most part, whores, and they have been throughout most of my life. I, on the other hand, retain the virtue of the homely spinster who can’t give it away, let alone sell it. If firearms manufacturers sent me every new model they built in hopes that I would say nice things about them, I would probably sell out on the first date. As it is, however, I remain true to the ugly truth. There is no substitute for accuracy.

Velocity is not a substitute for accuracy: Does it matter how fast you miss?

Caliber is not a substitute for accuracy: Does it matter how big the hole is in thin air?

Magazine capacity and firepower are not substitutes for accuracy: Does it matter how many times you can miss in rapid succession?

Cuteness, compactness, convenience, tradition, shininess, status, newness or any other attribute that a gunwriter may extol cannot replace accuracy.

I am perhaps a bit of a velocity freak, but that’s because velocity does have an effect on accuracy. Velocity flattens out the ballistic curve and makes it much easier to hit a target when the distance has to be guessed. If a deer is 200 yards away and a shooter armed with a .30-30 misjudges it, over- or under-estimating the range by 25%, he stands a much better chance of missing than does the shooter of a .270 who does exactly the same thing. The .270 shooter has a much wider range through which he does not have to compensate for a bullet’s drop than does the shooter of the .30-30, and that is due, primarily, to velocity.

Any factor that adds to a given firearm’s accuracy potential is a positive. Any factor that deters from accuracy is a negative. Take recoil – please. The elephant hunter W.D.M. Bell tried using the big elephant guns for hunting, but he was quite recoil-averse, unusually sensitive to the kick of the express rifles. Instead he killed elephants with the woefully inadequate 7x57mm Mauser. Woefully inadequate, that is, for most hunters. Bell killed hundreds of the gigantic creatures with it, for, despite the small, light bullet, the 7x57 has good sectional density and penetration, and Bell was able to make pinpoint accurate shots with the lighter-recoiling round.

Sights and sighting devices, such as lasers, can enhance shot placement. These should be used where they are applicable. It is fine to practice with standard open sights, or to limit oneself to basic sights as a challenge when hunting for sport or target shooting. Simpler sights are also less likely to be jarred or knocked out of adjustment and are sometimes preferred on arms that are subjected to rough conditions. However, most better-quality optical sights, if solidly and properly installed, are quite rugged and not easily put out of alignment. I have scopes or red dot optical sights for all my rifles, although I don’t always use them. Red dots and holographic sights are also a good choice for handguns. Laser sights can be very helpful on a handgun used strictly for self-defense, but they are not acceptable for sporting purposes.

I recall reading a story about police officers who tried to kill a large domestic hog that had gotten out on the highway and caused an accident or was a threat to do so. The officers were using their reasonably potent service weapons but were unable to put the animal down. On the other hand, large hogs and beef cows are routinely dropped humanely in their tracks by people using .22 rifles. The difference is bullet placement.

No state wildlife department -- that I know of -- permits the use of rimfire rifles to take deer – with the possible exception of Maine which, at one time, sanctioned the .22WMR -- and this is as it should be. The .22LR and even the .22WMR are not adequate to humanely kill deer-sized animals under every circumstance. Yet I know of many deer being taken by poachers and farmers (if you are killing game on your own property out of season or otherwise contrary to wildlife statutes, it is illegal, and any person caught doing so will be charged with “poaching” and probably convicted; however, I draw a moral and semantic rather than legal distinction). The .22 rimfires are often preferred by those taking deer illegally because of the quietness of the rounds. The reports are usually not noticed or dismissed as being shots fired by small-game hunters.

Poachers, while not to be emulated as to their extralegal activities, often shoot accurately. They are familiar with the anatomy of their quarry. Shots are carefully chosen, taken at known distances, and placed precisely. It works for the same reason W.D.M. Bell could kill the planet’s largest land animals with a 7mm: there is no substitute for accuracy.

One of the reasons the military ended up selecting the .223 in the M16 is that the recoil was acceptable to the many urbanite and suburbanite kids who were being drafted into the Services during the 1960’s. The .223 can be fired rapidly in a lightweight rifle without punishing the shooter. The mighty BAR was chambered for the .30-06 and was an extremely effective weapon, but the BAR weighed something like three times what a fully loaded M16 weighs. Recoil is detrimental to accuracy for the inexperienced shooter, but it can cause deterioration in accuracy for even the experienced shooter over time. The repeated pounding of a heavier recoiling weapon wears the operator down faster than a weapon with less recoil, all other things being equal.

It’s easy for those of us who are perhaps experienced but casual shooters to criticize the choice of the M16 and the 5.56mm. The round is at a disadvantage in terms of penetration at longer distances. A shooter may be able to accurately hit targets out to six hundred yards, but how many layers of cardboard will those little bullets go through at that distance?

Of course, in these days of asymmetrical warfare, where much of the contact is in urban environments or where bad guys have to be positively identified, long-range shooting is not necessarily an issue. Much of the time, rifles are used for suppressive fire while air support or other resources are called upon to actually take out the target.

For self-defense purposes, as I’ve said before, it is hard to imagine a situation in which a farmer or landowner, let alone a suburbanite or city-dweller would need to fire upon an attacker or attackers at any significant distance. The homeowner defending his or her property and loved ones is both legally and morally responsible for determining when and if deadly force is the only possible alternative. Even if we are able to act within the law, we do not want to lie awake at night wondering if we caused a death unnecessarily. On the other hand, to act too slowly or to not be prepared to act can result in the loss of our own life, the loss of life-sustaining property, death or injury to those we must protect. It would be prudent to take a class in the use of deadly force whether or not one is considering a concealed carry permit. If a class is not an option, read books by people like Massad Ayoob. There is no substitute for knowledge, either.

So, my point was -- somewhere back there, that accuracy is the first principle in hunting or self-defense. If you are considering the purchase of a firearm, make finding one that fits you both physically and psychologically a priority. Get a firearm that is affordable to shoot, for you personally. Get a firearm that is fun to shoot, for you personally. When you get it, shoot it.

The first firearm I ever bought for myself was a High Standard Double-Nine Convertible. It was a .22LR/.22WMR double-action revolver that looked like a western-style single-action. The barrel was five and a half inches long, and it had fixed sights. For many years it was the only firearm I had. I shot it a lot. After twenty years or so, I passed it on to my nephew who had always admired it, and I replaced it with a similarly styled Ruger Single-Six, .22LR/.22WMR, with a six and a half inch barrel and adjustable sights. The Ruger is a true single-action, meaning empties have to be knocked out individually and rounds loaded one at a time. I’ve put even more rounds through the Single-Six than I did through the High Standard, mostly because where I’ve lived the last fifteen years or so has given me more opportunity. I have made some impressive shots on game and pests with this handgun. Were those lucky shots? To some extent certainly, but, as Arnold Palmer said, the more I practice, the luckier I get. Practice and practical use build skill and confidence. It makes the weapon an extension of the shooter, much the way a car is an extension of the experienced driver’s mind and body. Now it’s true that no matter how much experience some folks have, they just never become smooth, confident drivers. Nevertheless, they are still better drivers than they were the first time they tried it. So, too, few of us will ever be world-class marksmen, but we will be better for our practice.

While skill with one particular weapon does not translate perfectly to skill with any weapon, it does help. In my case, my primary defensive handgun is not the Single-Six or my Super Blackhawk single-action wheelgun, but a much more modern semi-automatic. I am faster and more accurate with the autoloader than I would have as a complete novice, but I still had need of weapon-specific practice to be truly confident.

Practice should not be limited to punching holes in paper from a solid rest, though that kind of work is valuable, as it gives the shooter confidence in the inherent accuracy of the weapon. It also helps to develop an almost intangible sense of how a well-placed shot feels mentally. Once a shooter is reasonably experienced at shooting under ideal conditions, if at all possible, challenges should be added in the form of bad light, physical stress, and time constraints. Go out and shoot when the weather is bad – hot, cold, windy, rainy, snowy. Stick to common sense safety rules always, but shoot when light is poor, or practice shooting in the dark with a flashlight. Again, be careful. This can only be done where there is absolutely no chance of striking an unintended target. To add physical stress at the range, do a few pushups between shots.

The best practice for hunting is hunting, naturally. But hunting can also give us experience that is transferable to self-defense and tactical situations. This might be especially true for more active hunting such as for birds or small game. Hunting almost always takes place under less than ideal conditions. There are usually unexpected challenges. We learn to persevere and endure. We are taught to be alert and observant. We learn about stealth. We learn to shoot quickly and accurately. If hunting is out of the question, or opportunities are limited, consider, perhaps, paintball or airsoft competitions to improve tactical thinking and sharpen reaction times.

Knowledge, skill, attitude, and confidence – accept no substitutes.

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