The Quest for Better Accuracy
January 04, 2011
When looking at the overall improvement in accuracy that has taken place through the years, we have to explore the advances in bullets, barrels, actions, and sighting systems
Layne says dramatic improvements in bullet quality through the years have contributed more to long-range accuracy than any other single development.
No one knows for sure when the search for improvements in accuracy began. It could very well have taken place when a spear hurled by Joe Caveman missed the vital area of a saber-toothed tiger and onlookers watched helplessly as their fellow citizen ended up in the stomach of the hunted. The next step in the evolution of accuracy might have been accomplished by attaching fletching made of feathers to the shaft of the spear. While that improvement may not have actually extended the effective range of the weapon of the day, it improved its stability in flight, thereby increasing the odds that it would strike its intended target.
Then came arrows and bolts propelled by powerful bows. In addition to improving the accuracy of the shooter, they also made it possible for him to strike a deadly blow at greater distances.
When gunpowder finally arrived, the first arms that used it were capable of penetrating the armor of a mounted knight, but they were less accurate than the English longbow. It took less than a century for that to change.
The first big advances in firearms accuracy came with the development of the rifled bore and the patched ball and bullet. Prior to that, the smoothbore musket had plenty of range, but its accuracy left a bit to be desired. In addition to improving accuracy of the round ball, rifling also made the use of the conical bullet practical by stabilizing it in flight. Due to its greater sectional density, the bullet shed velocity much slower than the ball, and that gave it greater range. But there is another advantage as well; when both weigh the same, the conical bullet is also capable of penetrating deeper into various materials.
The development of the jacketed bullet was another giant step in the right direction, but its great benefits were not fully realized until the introduction of smokeless powder. When blackpowder and lead bullets were in common use, most rifle cartridges operated in the 1,200- to 1,500-fps range, and that along with a few other details made long-range accuracy as we know it today rather elusive if not impossible.
Use of the new propellant along with jacketed bullets increased velocities well beyond the 2,000-fps level, with the .30-30 Winchester and .30-40 Krag being two of the first cartridges to take advantage of both developments. Older cartridges may have been equally accurate for a few shots, but as blackpowder fouling built up in rifle barrels, accuracy began to deteriorate much more quickly than with smokeless cartridges.
When looking at the overall improvement in accuracy that has taken place through the years, we must go into four categories consisting of bullets, barrels, actions, and sighting systems.
Put On A Jacket
The manufacturing methods used to produce jacketed bullets are not a lot different today than they were at the turn of the 20th century, but the series of dies that make them are now held to closer dimensional tolerances. Equally important is the fact that the uniformity and concentricity of bullet jackets are far better today than in the past. Among all the characteristics that make a bullet accurate, concentricity is the most important, and today's bullet makers manage to accomplish maintaining a high level of concentricity while doing a pretty darned good job of keeping prices affordable for most shooters.
Some of today's mass-produced barrels are as good as target-grade barrels of yesteryear.
While it is true that actions, barrels, and sighting systems are better than they used to be, I am convinced that their influence on accuracy is not as great as that of improvements in the quality of the jacketed bullet. I say this because several big-game rifles I own, some of which were built as far back as the 1920s, are as accurate as rifles built today when shooting modern bullets. To illustrate, I went through the pages of my shooting journal and picked out results from several rifles that I had performed accuracy tests on during recent years. Back when some of the rifles were the latest development of their manufacturers, 3 to 4 inches at 100 yards was about as good as most rifles were thought to be capable of, but as you can see, when fed today's bullets, all are now capable of minute-of-angle accuracy or close enough to it.
Rifle barrels have also improved partially because of the development of new and better ways of manufacturing them--with button rifling being an example. But mainly, it's because barrel makers have gotten better at making them accurate. Some of the mass-produced barrels made today are as good as the hand-made, custom target barrels of yesteryear.
A barrel must have two things to be accurate. For one, its groove diameter must closely match the diameter of the bullet fired in it. Even more important, bore and groove diameter must be precisely the same from one end of a barrel to the other. Benchrest-grade barrels made by Shilen, Hart, Schneider, Lilja, and others will usually have no more than 0.0001 inch variation in bore and groove diameter from chamber to muzzle. To put that into perspective, the thickness of a page in the magazine you now hold in your hand is about 0.002 inch. That's 20 times the maximum dimensional variation in the bore of such a barrel. It is simply amazing to say the least.
|Vintage Rifles & Modern Bullets|
|Bullet||Powder Type/Grs||Velocity (fps)||100-Yard Accuracy (fps)|
| Winchester Model 54, .22 Hornet (1920s Vintage)|
|Hornady 35-gr. V-Max||W296/ 11.0||2915||0.84|
|Nosler 40-gr. Ballistic Tip||Lil'Gun/ 12.0||2788||0.62|
|Remington 35-gr. AccuTipV||Factory load||2955||0.79|
| Sako L46, .222 Rem. (1950s Vintage)|
|Berger 50-gr. HP||IMR-4198/ 20.0||3186||0.53|
|Berger 52-gr. HP||H322/ 22.0||3140||0.59|
|Remington 50-gr. AccuTipV||Factory load||3083||0.82|
| Remington Model 722, .244 Rem. (1950s Vintage)|
|Hornady 65-gr.V-Max||H4895/ 40.0 || 3533||0.82|
|Nosler 85-gr. Partition||Reloder 19/ 48.0||3255||0.96|
|Remington 80-gr. PSN||Factory load||3362||1.10|
| Sedgley Springfield, 7x57mm Mauser (1920s Vintage)|
|Sierra 140-gr. SPT||IMR-4350/ 47.0||2842||1.26|
|Sierra 150-gr. MatchKing||Varget/ 39.0||2478||0.72|
|Federal 140-gr. Nosler Partition||Factory load||2610||1.15|
| Winchester Model 54, 30-30 Win. (1920s Vintage)|
|Nosler 125-gr. Ballistic Tip||Reloder/ 30.0||2478||1.22|
|Hornady 150-gr. SP||VV N 135/ 32.0||2316||1.04|
|Hornady 160-gr. FTX||Factory load||2416||1.18|
| Winchester Model 70, 300 H&H Mag (1930s Vintage)|
|Sierra 168-gr. MatchKing||IMR-4350/ 68.0||2950||0.65|
|Swift 180-gr. Scirocco||Reloder 22/ 70.0||3046||1.18|
|Federal 180-gr Nosler Partition||Factory load||2965||1.07|
|NOTES: Accuracy is the average of five three-shot groups fired from a sandbag benchrest at 100 yards. Velocity is the average of 15 or more rounds measured 12 feet from the gun's muzzle. All powder charges are maximum and should be reduced by 10% for starting loads.|
The turn-bolt action has also improved, with a decrease in locktime being one of its more important advancements. At less than 3 milliseconds, the locktimes of modern rifles such as the Remington Model 700, Savage Model 110, and Weatherby Vanguard are more than three times quicker than those of the Model 98 Mauser and 1903 Springfield and are considerably faster than those of earlier sporting rifles such as the Winchester Model 54 and Remington Model 720.
Triggers have also seen improvement through the years. While they, along with faster locktimes, do not improve the mechanical accuracy of a rifle, they do make it much easier for the average shooter to shoot the rifle accurately.
Then we have the matter of sighting systems. The standard open rear sight with its v-shaped aiming notch is plenty accurate for close-range shooting. Even today, it is still the best choice for some hunting applications. An example is the hunting of black bear with hounds in thickly wooded country where the distance for a shot at a bayed bruin is likely to be measured in feet rather than yards. But for shooting at distances much greater than 100 long paces, other types of sights are superior.
Back before the telescopic sight began to gain acceptance among hunters, the aperture sight was a popular choice. A number of different variations of the aperture sight were made for most rifles by Lyman, Marble's, and other companies. Some were attached to the receiver of a rifle, while others sat atop the tang, the latter style seen most often on pumps, autoloaders, lever-actions, and single-shots. One of the more unusual peep sights was attached to the cocking piece of the 1903 Springfield.
The present-day Weatherby Vanguard (top) has a much faster locktime and a better trigger than the 1920s-vintage Sedgley Springfield below it; both features make the Weatherby easier to shoot accurately.
For shots at longer ranges, the aperture sight was--and still is--more accurate than the open sight. On the negative side, it is not as good in low-light conditions during early morning and late afternoon when game movement is often at its peak.
All things considered, I don't believe anyone will argue that the telescopic sight hasn't improved the accuracy of shooters by leaps and bounds. In addition to encouraging accurate bullet placement, the scope also makes it easier for the beginner to learn to shoot accurately. Learning to plaster the crosshairs behind the shoulder of a deer is much easier than aligning front and rear sights while placing the bead where it should go.
The ability to transmit lots of ambient light to the eye of the shooter is another reason why the scope is superior to any type of iron sight. In the beginning and for a decade or two to follow, scopes were fragile enough to make the combination of quick-detachable mounting systems and backup iron sights quite popular, but top-quality scopes made today are about as durable as the rifles that wear them and the hunters who use them.
Finding The Niche
I don't believe the inherent accuracy of mass-produced, bolt-action big-game rifles has improved as much during the past century as some would have us believe, but premium-grade and custom-built rifles are another matter entirely. A number of gunsmiths as well as niche rifle companies are now capable of building rifles chambered for cartridges powerful enough to be used on everything from deer to elk, and they are still capable of consistent half-minute accuracy. That's a luxury we did not have only a few decades ago.
The biggest accuracy improvement in big-game rifles I have noticed in my lifetime is in the tube-fed lever-action, more specifically the Marlin 336.
I have owned a number of Marlin Model 336 rifles in various calibers through the years, and I can remember a time when most of us who hunted with them were happy and content with groups measuring 3 to 4 inches at 100 yards. Every Model 336 I have checked out during the past 10 years or so has been capable of shooting three bullets inside 2 inches at that distance, with individual groups measuring 1 inch and sometimes less. Fact of the matter is, today's Model 336 is about as accurate as most bolt-action hunting rifles.
Rifles used in benchrest competition have also advanced greatly in the accuracy department. Back in the 1940s when benchrest competition was in its infancy, aggregates of less than an inch would win matches. But by the time the 1950s rolled around, a rifle that would not shoot inside half an inch was best left at home.
Nowadays, a good bench gun is capable of averaging 0.200 inch, and some are better than that. Of course, a big part of the accuracyimprovement in that game is a result of better bullets and the ability of today's bench shooters to correctly read wind and mirage before squeezing off each shot.
I seriously doubt that the average big-game hunter or varmint shooter of today is born with the ability to shoot a rifle more accurately than the rifleman of a century ago, but thanks to dramatic improvements in bullets, barrels, actions, and sighting systems, he enjoys a level of accuracy that shooters of yesteryear could only dream about.
The development of the telescopic sight illustrated by the 1930s-vintage Weaver 330 (top) greatly improved a rifleman's long-range accuracy, and the superior optical quality and higher magnification of a more modern scope like this Swarovski 4-12X further improve it.