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When you are focused on accuracy, is adding another accessory able to bring you to the next level? For precision shooters – the age-old question is whether parts and accessories make the impact (that they seem to be able to in your mind) in the real world. In a day and age where an off the shelf AR upper receiver conversion kit can get you pretty close to 1 MOA, which if any accessories can have the biggest impact, and are you fooling yourself trying to tighten up your groups with hardware rather than training and experience?
If it’s a hybrid model involving both hardware and “software” – where are the biggest impacts to be made?
This is an article that explores the relationship between what you think will make you better, what can make you better, and the value of the different variables in the equation of getting better at precision shooting. This article focuses on the AR platform because it’s a perfect platform to get trained on, and the ability to customize the modular system over time from a hardware perspective allows shooters to get better and upgrade their firearm as they go to match their skills.
Are you fooling yourself and just trying to find a way to spend that money burning a hole in your pocket?
The short answer is no. There are plenty of improvements to be had with hardware components in the AR market. But the longer answer is far more complicated. Some of what you believe is marketing psychology at its best, and some of what you realize as improvement is just a factor of you getting better through trial and error, increased information consumption, and real world experience. It’s a combination of variables that go into your ability to improve on long-range efforts when focusing on precision shooting sports.
But, yes, hardware does matter. Skills do matter. The harmony you create between the two of them matters most.
And there are some accessories that have far less of an impact on our shooting than they seem to have prior to purchase. So, you’ll do well to prioritize your dollars for the hardware that makes the most sense from a value perspective and perhaps even on the training that may push you to beyond where you thought was possible.
The obligatory lecture
Practice makes perfect – not cool accessories. But that isn’t the whole story, is it? Let’s explore the idea behind incremental improvement and optimization on the backdrop of overall gains in performance.
A lot of precision shooters realize that the more rounds they send down range the better they get. But that’s true of everything, isn’t it? The more you experience something, the more you can digest what’s happening in real time and are able to make better judgments, and better adjustments, is what allows for incremental improvement over time anyway.
Long-range precision shooting isn’t about immediate impacts so much as it is about long-term honing of skills. No matter how much is spent on a custom rifle, the shooter needs to be able to outperform the hardware. And as you go along – the percentage increases lessen, because you get into the cycle of optimization which is shorter up front and gets longer as you improve little by little.
So, what’s the lecture?
- Don’t buy a gun that’s better than you just because you can unless you want to lengthen your learning curve – at least not at first.
- Prioritize dollars, and stack ammunition components
- Learn to reload/handload
- Never fire more than one shot a minute – make every shot count, and make every shot a routine delivery (of course if you’re training for a specific competition that requires multiple shots in a specific time you can do so) to ensure consistency, and pattern in your head
- Ultimately, unfortunately, the AR platform is not going to be your best option for precision long-range shooting, but you can and should start on an AR because it’s super approachable and offers a lot of value for spend
Note: while it may seem like it at times, this is not an article about how to shoot precision long range rifles. There are plenty of robust guides on that topic. This is about how you can avoid missteps in the market and on the procurement side of things, so that you can focus on the truly developmental and essential purchases that will drive you to be a better precision long-range shooter. Particularly, with the AR platform.
Do you have your priorities straight?
Is it your goal to look cool at the range through showcasing awesome guns or awesome results?
There is no right answer here. Car people show off their cars, even if they had nothing to do with building the engine or could not possibly harness the power the way a professional driver could. Some people indulge in watches worth more than most people’s mortgage notes. Some people buy $350 jeans. You like what you like. It’s ok to have great looking guns you are proud of.
But the point here is about results versus loadout. And more specifically is the loadout you want, designed to get results in the form of tighter groups and faster sets and further distances? Or is it designed to get people to look at your awesome guns. Both are fine answers. There may even be a bunch of other reasons for bringing a specific gun to the range too. And that is also fine.
If you are looking for end results that mean tighter groups, faster reaction times, and better on target performance for your chosen gun and you as the shooter, then your priorities need to involve more shooting, more focused and consistent shooting styles and the right purchases that lead to direct impacts on your ability to hit where you are aiming.
If in doubt about an accessory purchase other than optics (and sometimes with optics), buy ammunition instead with the money. That’s a no-lose situation for someone who is an avid shooter with money that’s burning a hole in their pocket.
About incremental improvement
Shooting performance improvement takes time. Yes, you can learn so much from binging on YouTube videos and reading blog posts and ultimately diving deeper and deeper until you get to the best figureheads sharing the best information. It’s possible to get yourself to a great place by simply digesting available information.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell sometimes which information is best, and whether or not you are moving down the right track. A good litmus test? Real world improvement. If you’re getting better keep moving down that pathway until you hit a wall.
At that point, reassess where you need to go, using the knowledge you gained as you improved in the most recent cycle of improvement. Your newfound wisdom will help you to further discern whether what you are hearing will be able to impact your progression properly.
More about optimization on your performance
Optimization is the more incremental, “incremental” improvement, and really should be geared towards shaving seconds off your reaction time, or tenths of inches off your group size, and only after you have a solid base of all the technical, mental, and physical concepts surrounding precision shooting.
At some point you will outperform your AR. You may have to move on to something made from a monolithic chassis, or something that can get down to the accuracy level you really want to be at. Most people would be incredibly happy with 1 MOA out of a military design. Some configurations can push down to near ½ MOA for a few thousand dollars on the AR, but you’re not going to be doing that easily. And if you aspire to get to ¼ MOA, you will become very disappointed in the platform – it’s just not built for that type of accuracy.
At some point, you will not see gains in a single session of shooting. Because you can only push your hardware to its limits and improve so much each time you learn and experience it on the level you need to at that point in your progression. It’s the way this game works. Getting a 1% optimization improvement will be a goal someday. And as crazy as that sounds, you will be ecstatic when you can prove you obtained that 1% improvement at that point. Some people call that level of achievement in shooting “enlightenment” or “exaltation”.
An action plan for those who love accessories but also need to improve on the underlying skills
Who are we to tell you what to like or spend your money on? That’s not the point. We look at it like this: we think you’re best off if you take a breather and plan out how you want to make gains. Everyone is going to prioritize different facets of their shooting performance.
- Consistency is everything. Are you being consistent in the entire process of sending a projectile down range?
- Have you chronographed your loads? If you don’t have a chronograph or know that you won’t be handloading at any time in the future – invest in better, more consistent ammunition from factory
- Is your optic properly mounted and unable to loosen up inadvertently?
- Has your bore been cleaned properly, inspected for fouling or imperfections, and potentially lapped to even out inconsistencies or improve the anti-fouling behavior?
- Are you understanding the forces that are in play, not only from a macro perspective (wind, heat, target movement, actual range variables), but from a perspective of “as each shot is taken”?
- In the AR specifically, is your load matched to a proper barrel length, twist rate and the precision measurements of the chamber – do you have play in your components or problems with a dirty gas system, or improperly fitted parts? Do you have a trigger that works with you, not against you?
- Is your bipod, sandbag, gun rest or bench properly serviced, put together and functioning on the level?
A note: the biggest improvement is in finding a repeatable, tightly held grouping of assets and procedures that you can use the same way each time. In real world terms: find the most consistent ammunition. Use it in a way that doesn’t alter it, even if it means handloading it into the chamber. Make your setup rocksolid so that variables in the real world cannot change it (e.g., loctite your scope mounts; buy a legitimate bipod, etc.). Take the shot using the same breathing patterns, and knowing exactly what you expect, take notes when things don’t materialize properly – always have a pen and paper. Get intimately familiar with the adjustments on your scope.
Don’t be afraid to think through any changes in your point of aim versus your point of impact – take your time on it. Demand improvement – hold yourself accountable for consistency and push to understand what you are doing on the molecular level before you send a shot downrange.
In case you are getting frustrated, don’t just send more lead down range – stop and remind yourself that some shots cost you $3. Or $2, or whatever premium price point you have bought your chosen cartridge at. The realization that dollar bills are launching down range may have the effect of slowing down your thinking and helping you to reexamine core principles to assess where something is going wrong.
Here is a list in order of importance of accessories that can have a major impact on your accuracy for the AR:
- Barrel, of proper length to maximize velocity at the moment of muzzle exit – not because peak velocity is most important, but because standard deviation spread is a killer of accuracy, and specifically of shot groupings. The twist rate is also of incredible importance – especially since, once you find a load, you probably aren’t going to be changing it
- Rock solid mounting hardware that bridges the gun properly to form a monolithic mount for your optic. The mounting is more important that the optic in most cases – at least under 600 yards
- Is the cartridge you are shooting inherently capable of the type of accuracy you desire? If you’re trying to squeeze ¼ MOA out of a .50 Beowulf, You’re going to be very disappointed (yes the bullet diameter is bigger than the group size you are hoping for – it was meant as an extreme example) – Buy the best cartridge option you can afford to shoot a large volume of whether it’s .224 Valkyrie or 6.5 Creedmoor or .338 Lapua (that last one may not be a viable option on the AR platform)
- Do you understand precision shooting math and how to gather and interpret variables at the time of shooting? Maybe some input gathering tools are in order? Think rangefinder, wind identification tooling and gauges or ballistics books
- Buy the best glass you can afford
A final word about accessories. If you are sure that you want a specific type of component or accessory, don’t settle for a lesser one, you will undoubtedly regret it. Wait until it comes back in stock and buy the one you want. A perfect example: sure, there are plenty of 18” 6.5 Creedmoor barrels available right now, but you are positive you need a 24” barrel at least to achieve the right velocity consistency and get the most out of the rounds you are loading. Wait for the 24” or 26” barrel to get back in stock, or have a bespoke barrel made.
Buy the things that make you better, but also invest in yourself. Learn the baseline best practices. Buy more ammunition to shoot. Dial in your consistent routines, and loads, and procedures, and practices. Ultimately, the match and balance between the barrel, and the cartridge, and your mindset, will combine for the most important variables you can reasonably be expected to contribute to the precision long-range shooting process.