Gun Notes: The Mechanics of Handgun Accuracy
by John Linebaugh
Over the years I have seen and read many articles that tried to discover the reasons behind handgun accuracy or why some guns shoot harder than others. These articles have gone from far left to extreme right in their theories, and are more often than not very general in their information and final assumption. In my years of handgun building, I have seen many different instances in many different guns that affected accuracy, both for the good and the bad. Just because you have an expensive handgun with a reputable maker's name stamped on the side of it, and some fine ammunition - whether factory made or handloaded - doesn't mean you have an accurate combination. Only serious work on a steady bench will tell you what your gun will do. Joyce Hornady said it right with this statement: "Accuracy doesn't just happen, you have to make it happen." I have seen dozens of stock "out of the box" and well-worn sixguns that will shoot from good to excellent just like they are. These are the guns that keep my faith up in the gun industry. They do a pretty good job of making reasonably good sixguns for the numbers they produce. But what makes one gun more accurate than another, even if they are of identical model? The most basic answer I can give you in a word is: "tolerances." Tolerance means the error plus or minus the few thousandths the finished part is over or under the specs drawn up by the gun maker.
On a given day let's say the "MACHINE" (we won't go into what kind of a machine as that is another world of it's own) develops a problem with holding the exact same tolerance that the engineers drew up and standardized on the blueprints. Or perhaps the machine operator is having a bad day and overlooks a chip on the machine's automatic indexing stop, or the tooling is dull or any one of a dozen other little bugs that work overtime to destroy final accuracy in a machine shop. And a gun shop is nothing more than a machine shop set up and fully tooled to make only guns.
Now back to this machine with the chip on the automatic stop and the sleepy operator. While drilling and milling the revolver frame, we come up with a frame that has the barrel hole a few thousandths under specs. Now, on the other side of the plant, we have another operator drilling lots of holes in a piece of steel that will hopefully become a cylinder. This operator and machine are working to reach the same specs that are on the blueprints. These are the same blueprints that control every part for that particular model of gun built by different machines and different operators in various parts of the plant. Now this cylinder the operator has just made by some twist of fate happens to be over specs a few thousandths, whether it be machining error, heat treatment distortion, or whatever, and by another twist of fate ends up in the frame that is under spec. Now we have an assembled sixgun that technically is out of alignment as to the cylinder throats to the bore. In this case, if the frame is .003 under spec and the cylinder is .003 over spec we have a bullet hitting .006 high in the barrel. In reality this gun could shoot very well, but that doesn't make it right.
Now comes the bolt notches, another critical location. And the bolt window in the bottom of the frame. Here is another operation that leaves the door wide open for error. With these tolerances and ideas in mind, I'll tell of a few machining errors I have seen in new unfired guns, and just how critical they are and to a point what you can do about them. First, you need to set an accuracy criteria or standard that you can be happy with. I have shot a lot of new Ruger sixguns and generally they will shoot about 1 1/4" to 1 1/2" at 25 yards with good handloads. I have seen a few, I'll throw a wild guess and say 20% of them I have tested, that will shoot under the 1" mark at 25 yards. Very few, less than 10% will group over 2" at 25 yards with a little load work. In reality, this is very good accuracy. But if you demand better accuracy and your out of the box gun won't deliver no matter what you feed it, here is what to look for. Out of the many things that affect individual handgun accuracy, these are the most important, listed, in my opinion, by virtue of their matter of importance:
Out of all the things affecting sixgun accuracy, I feel alignment is the most important. This means finding a gun that has the cylinder throats in direct line with the bore of the barrel. Let's go back to our tolerance story. Gun companies make hundreds of parts every day. Most blueprints I have seen and drawn up require a plus of minus .001 maximum runout for these important parts. This means if the frame is out +.001 and the cylinder is out -.001 we can only be out of alignment .002 total. But getting what the blueprints call for in actual useable parts is quite another job. Let's use the example in our story of the .003 runout. With +.003 in the cylinder and -.003 in the frame we have .006 against us. Now let's say we have .004 left on the bolt notches and .005 right on the bolt window. Here we have .009 total alignment problems. A gun with this type of alignment problem could shoot very well, but in all probability not as well as a gun made to proper dimensions. In my daily gun work here I find most sixguns I work with vary plus or minus about .004 maximum in the location of the barrel and cylinder and about plus or minus .008 in the bolt window. Bolt notches on the cylinder vary plus or minus .003 to .004. What we end up with here is a puzzle of parts that are assembled and sold to the shooters of this great land.
Speaking in terms of dimensions, if we are fortunate enough to get a sixgun that has a high cylinder in a high frame, and a left notch in a left window, you have a shooter. The same could be true with a low cylinder and low frame, and good notches and a good window. As you can figure out for yourself the combinations and degrees of error for the good and for the bad are considerable. This is the reason for the oversize forcing cones in the rear of the barrels of factory guns. They accomplish two goals: First, they eliminate all lead shaving and spitting that is so unpleasant to the shooter and bystanders, and second, they gently guide the slug into the bore and try to true it up as best as possible before it's slammed into the rifling and thus stabilized. In more cases than not this stability is questionable and gets worse with the more degree of misalignment. No amount of forcing cone, or special angles, or free bores can take the place of good gun tolerance and alignment. On guns badly out of alignment, some tinkering with barrel forcing cones and loads can improve the accuracy considerably, but still technically the gun is not right.
Next to alignment, I feel good ammunition goes a long way towards making an accurate sixgun. In our testing here the most accurate loads have always been with heavy slugs and near maximum loads using H-110 powder. Try to stay away from ultra light slugs ofr extremely heavy slugs. I like the 300 grain class of slugs in the .44 caliber as maximum and use the 310 and 320 grain slugs in .45 colt caliber. Either a time-proven Keith style slug from NEI moulds, or the LBT slugs are very accurate if cast and sized properly for the individual gun. In the .475 and .500 Linebaugh revolvers we use the LBT-LFN style slugs exclusively. The .475 is happiest with a 385 to 420 grain slug and the .500 thrives on the 410 and 450 grain LBT slugs. In many cases we have obtained under 3" groups at 100 yards with the .500 caliber and these bullets, and again with maximum loads of H-110. Consistency is the name of the game here and one can't be too careful in bullet casting or sizing. Hand pick your slugs and examine them carefully. If they are an less than perfect, they're not worth wasting a primer on. Less than perfect ammo is like a less than perfect gun. True, it may shoot pretty well, but it's technically out of order. Lots of wrongs can't make a right. Making match grade ammo for a sixgun is something I haven't spent much time at. Just use good cases, seat primers properly and to the bottom of the primer pocket, and be picky about your slugs. Bullet lube can affect accuracy and I personally won't use any of the new lubes that resemble crayons. My personal choice is Javelina or NEI Hawkeye. Some say too much lube can cause a bullet to "float" on a layer of grease in the barrel, thus never allowing the bullet to really take a bite on the barrel. I have seen this effect to a degree, and by wiping 90% of the grease out of the bullet lube grooves, accuracy improved considerably. But each gun and it's barrel is a case of it's own, and only lots of experimenting could prove this out in each case. In our case we were using a very slick and smooth Shilen blank and I personally feel this type of barrel needs less grease than a rougher barrel. Also, the hotter the powder and loads, thus higher pressure, the more grease we need as the powder gases and high pressure burn up and blow away more of the layer of grease on the bore. These theories are extremely variable and hard to nail down. I have seen the results of these conditions but haven't done enough testing in this area to draw any hard and fast rules. Serious testing with your particular gun and loads is the only way to find the best combination.
I will probably draw some fire from this statement, but I feel that the quality of the barrel in a sixgun, and it's effect on the gun's accuracy is not as important as many people think. Good alignment and ammo will do wonders in a "just fair" barrel. True, the slicker the barrel etc..., the harder and cleaner it will shoot, but I have seen some very rough barrels shoot near the 1" mark at 25 yards. As long as the barrel has no tight or loose spots, the crown and forcing cone are cut true, and a good properly sized and lubed slug is used, surprising accuracy can be obtained. In several cases we have taken a gun that was rebuilt and aligned properly, and put on several different barrels from the best grade Douglas and Shilen, to poor homemade handcut barrels. Surprisingly the difference is minor. Now I do believe that with less than perfect ammo or other variables that the better the barrel the better the chances of it shooting well become apparent. Several of my friends here shoot old time lever guns and trapdoor Springfields with lead slugs. I have on many occasions seen amazing accuracy even to extreme long range from guns that have barrels so pitted and worn as to be discarded and though of as worthless. Ruger barrels in general on their sixguns are about the best all around style and design you can ask for. They will shoot almost anything tolerably well. The S&W 5-groove is very good and has a better finish thus making it less apt to lead. The Douglas barrels we use here in the shop on all our conversions are very smooth and have shot extremely well in our applications. Lapping a barrel in my opinion never hurts anything but doesn't always help. In some cases, especially if the barrel is tightened to much into the frame and "choked" (like 90% of the Rugers are done), much can be gained by lapping this tight portion out. With this tight section of barrel the bullet is undersized and then is allowed to rattle the rest of the way down the barrel. Too hard a slug can basically do the same thing. Once it is engraved by the rifling upon entry to the barrel it will continue to wear away until undersize at exit of the muzzle. I once shot some very hard heat-treated slugs into heavy bone and wet paper. These slugs were headed for Africa and a bull Elephant. The barrel showed leading and the chronograph showed only slight increases in velocity with each added grain of powder. Upon recovery of the slugs from the wet paper the diameter of the bullet showed a .508 size. This started at .512 and passed through a .510 barrel. The slug had worn away a full .002 in the 5 1/2" barrel. This explained the white barrel with much leading effect and the lower than normal velocities. As the bullet wore away it lost it's resistance to the barrel and leaked gas. Had the bullet stayed full bore size it would have maintained it's seal and kept up it's job of creating resistance and thus kept the powder working in it's proper curve. Never the less the gun shot well enough to kill a pair of bulls. The gun shot near the 2" mark at 25 yards with these slugs and this condition of too hard a bullet leaving the muzzle undersize.
CHAMBERS & TOLERANCES:
Sloppy chambers and oversized tolerances plague the gun industry today. Chambers are getting larger and ammo is getting smaller. In the .45 Colt this is especially true and some claim this came from the absolute need of firearm reliability under trail conditions and black powder fouling from our frontier era. In my opinion these so-called trail conditions just don't exist much any more and black powder isn't used in my new modern sixguns for any reason. A dirty uncared for gun is more of a sign of laziness, not a "rough trail". With an extreme array of loading dies, slugs, loading operators, and so forth, the companies have opened up their chambers for absolute reliability. With good ammo loaded properly most chambers are several thousandths bigger than they need to be. But believe it or not this will not cause a gun to shoot big groups like you may believe. Most rifle builders I talk to agree unanimously that Remington rifles have the widest variation of chamber dimensions of any maker. But Remington rifles, especially in the smaller varmint calibers shoot extremely well out of the box with these sloppy chambers. I've seen several Colt SAA and Rugers shoot well under the 1" mark at 25 yards with oversized chambers. What we gain by minimum chambers and tight throat tolerances is less brass working and better gas seal behind the slug. This basically adds up to more velocity per grain of powder. A tight chambered gun will shoot harder than a loose chambered gun. TIght barrel cylinder gap is very important for velocity. The smaller the throats in the cylinders - as long as they are larger than a properly sized slug by at least .001 - will help velocity a lot. A small forcing cone in the rear of the barrel has the same effect. This is what you get when you have a well made gun or a custom gun made up. When the cartridge is fired, the gas expands to push the bullet out the barrel. If the chambers are oversized the case expands more than normal. If the throats in the cylinder are oversized the gas leaks by the slug. If the forcing cones is much larger than necessary, gas expands into the limits of it's tolerances. Every time gas has to fill an area because of sloppy tolerances, we are robbing power from the bullet. A wide barrel / cylinder gap leaks badly and robs more. Our modern powders are progressive burning and require resistance to make them work properly and efficiently. Large tolerances don't seal properly to create this resistance, so in most cases the powder never gets to working properly. The slower the powder the more apparent this becomes. We have to take up the slack by loading heavier loads, thus we are generating more gas to push the slug to the desired velocity. Basically it's like cars and miles-per-gallon. A tight, well-built engine gets more miles per gallon than an identical engine that is worn and loose. The loose sixgun and engine wastes fuel intended to drive the slug and the piston. One thing that is for certain, guns have personalities just like humans. No two are exactly alike. One can take the finest sixgun made and if you look long and hard enough, you can find a few out-of-the-box, well used sixguns that will shoot just as good or better. You could probably find a few street punks in the ghetto that are powered by Snicker's Bars and Pepsi that can outrun our best professional athletes with all their intense training and superior diets. But overall, it's a rare thing. Another much overlooked factor is confidence. This is totally human, I know, but is a very important part of the shooting system. If the best shooter doesn't have confidence in his firearm, his groups will tell the tale. Knowing one has a fine sixgun, in all areas of dimension, fit and finish only makes the system more complete and harmonious. The sixgun has simply replaced the blade of yesterday. But the artistry and love of one's weapons is alive in all of us. I'm not educated well enough in the area of just how much 'confidence' plays a part in our ability to apply the resources our firearms afford us, but I personally feel it's a lot more than most of us would dare to believe. With the finest sixgun, and utmost confidence, one must still practice. Gimmicks and gadgets can't replace that endless struggle we have to conquer or master. Practice the art of hitting with a sixgun and you will be rewarded to the extent that you work at it.