Practical Carbine Accuracy: Off the Bench and In the Field

img_0233There’s a lot of confusion even among longtime shooters between what a rifle is capable of doing off the bench on a nice controlled square range and what’s actually practical for a serviceable combat weapon. The two really aren’t the same. While tight groups are definitely a plus and a goal to be attained, having a precision weapon in the general purpose role is not always completely necessary to make one combat effective. There’s a happy medium to be found, and getting there is not always hard or expensive. Above all else, it’s the fundamentals of the shooter that make a weapon deadly, no matter what.

One of the really neat things about the past couple decades, firearms-wise, is the real renaissance we’ve seen in weapons development and maximization of potential. Most visibly is this phenomena with the proliferation of the AR-15 platform, but really among all classes of weapons. One can pick up even a lower-tier carbine and have a decent action capable of making solid hits at further distances than many shoot on average. That is, if the shooter is capable. Some of this has to do with the plethora of modern ammo choices out there, some with the advent and precision of CNC machines, and some with the proliferation of free-floated handguards. While the Colt M4A1 series has a mil-spec tolerance of 4 MOA, or a ~4 inch group at 100 meters, and usually easily exceeding this your common off the shelf AR-15 can expect much better than that on average. It begins, however, with the skill of the man behind the trigger.

The same can be said for the huge boom in the Long Range hobby. Lots of people are getting into it and it can be a lot of fun putting steel on target from 500m or more. The ability to squeeze every last fraction of capability is definitely nice. And usually the underlying question, whether plinking, running 3 gun or Long Range type stuff, is ultimately protection of hearth and home. But the question that comes to my mind is do you really need all of that to make an effective rifleman? The answer is largely determined by the rifleman’s purpose. For a combat weapon, even a designated marksman’s role, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a .5 MOA rifle or even one that really impresses at the range. Gasping for air, I know. Practical accuracy is a different animal from mechanical accuracy. But let’s look at some reasons why.

1. What is the median distance you plan to engage?

For my operating environment, I live in mostly dense forest with rolling hills. The long distance stretches are either pastures, power lines, or highways. From a light fighter’s standpoint, these three amount to the cardinal rule of never walking in the open or crossing a linear danger area with no overwatch. Overwatch, by the way, is not some fancy buzzword to sell you junk but actually is someone on your team hidden watching for muzzle flashes in case you get shot…while you’re crossing in the open or across linear danger areas. They watch over you. That said, my average engagement distance here is under 100m. Are you accurate enough to be lethal within 100m? How about 200m? How about 300m? Do you really need to shoot further than that? Maybe, maybe not. What are the intermediate barriers, i.e. potential cover (rocks, deadfall, etc) between you and where an adversary may fire from? Are you capable of shooting over those same open areas that they may cross?

Average backwoods of NC.

A good way to put this into context is to think of the average shot a deer hunter will make in a given area. Around here, between thick Carolina conifer and hardwood stands, shotguns do just fine for 99% of putting meat in the freezer. Rifles are nice for shooting across cutovers or fire breaks- those open areas requiring a little more range I just warned you about. And how accurate is that Remington 770 or 742 with meat ammo versus a heavyweight barreled Remington 700 5R and precision handloads? Mechanically it wouldn’t make much difference in the woods over relatively short distances. But the weight sure as heck will, regardless of whether you’re a twenty something stud out shootin’ n’ lootin’ or a mid 50s patriarch looking to protect his home. Doesn’t mean that any of these are my personal choice for anything other than hunting game, but the concept is basically the same. Which bring my next point.

2. What is your Weight Threshold?

I knew a guy a while back who had a uber-high end semi-auto AR-10, decked out to the nines, with every cool guy thing you can imagine and a giant NightForce 56mm celestial telescope on top. Beautiful rifle, crisp glass. Weighed 18lbs empty and carried like a 4×4 in the hands. And there’s nothing wrong with that, if you want a high end benchrest-type gun. But that’s a ridiculous and unnecessary amount of weight for a general purpose weapon. For him, making tiny groups at a given distance was a lot of fun. But when it came time to carry it, you’d see him ditch that for his handy WASR-10 that weighs half as much loaded and accomplishes the same task within 100m.

The point is that what feels heavy but tolerable in your hands at the gunstore becomes a boat anchor after carrying it over distances with supporting equipment. Common knowledge usually dictates weight equates superior accuracy, but too much becomes self-defeating. That lightweight AR-15 with a pencil barrel can get heavy too. After a four day cave clearing mission in Afghanistan my M4 felt like a cinderblock. And aside from a PEQ-15, it wasn’t too far removed from the AR-type carbine pictured above. Granted, I was carrying a lot of other equipment including a SMAW-D and several days worth of 5590 batteries (which is like toting around bricks), but the point is that a carbine I intend to fight with needs to remain lightweight to keep me unencumbered. There’s a reason the broad shouldered bubbas get picked to hump the M-240B; it’s big and heavy, and the small guys can’t handle and effectively employ it over long distances. Even the meat eaters get tired though, and shaving a few ounces here and there makes a world of difference when you’re gassed.

3. Remaining Combat Effective- Remember BRAS

The reality of fighting in armed groups is that it is nothing like sitting at a range plinking targets. That’s nice for basic rifle marksmanship, and it’s really important to work on fundamentals. It’s purpose is to confirm zero & dope (Data Of Previous Engagement- a record of ballistic data for that weapon and specific ammo load) and make sure you can hit a target at a given specific distance, hence why most square ranges are referred to as Known-Distance or KD ranges. Square range time is critical, and should be at least a monthly training event for you and your group. But understand it is not the end-all-be-all; its just a foundation for Basic Rifle Marksmanship consisting of BRAS- Breathe, Relax, Aim, Squeeze. For creating and maintaining proficiency this is the proper cadence for trigger control. It’s easy to get right when relaxed and very easy to get wrong any other time. Only training on a 100m square range is a dangerously false sense of security. Only shooting from a bench and calling it good is preparing you for nothing except shooting off a bench. Getting out and humping that safe queen through the woods for a bit is critically more important than making tiny groups from the bench or even shooting fast at stationary targets in the 3-gun stall. You learn the ins and outs of that weapon on a patrol and get to make it better.

You may very well learn that what you can do with a 12lb rifle you can also do with an 8lb rifle, and that 4lb weight saving could make a big difference. If I’m running a .5MOA rifle but it’s a beast to carry with that 20in bull barrel, I may end up being so exhausted after a movement or a quick react to contact that I can’t hit anything with it because I can’t settle down behind the gun. Under duress this will happen to you. If you’re out of shape this will be you. And at that point the rifle’s accuracy is irrelevant. Shooting a half inch at 100m now becomes not even being able to acquire a target in that 14x zoom lens, because you’re spent and can’t think through your situation. Believe me, it will happen to you.

4. “If you can’t do it with irons, don’t bother with optics”

I was talking recently with an old-hand Sniper Instructor who told me this. It may come as a shock to some of you but I agree wholeheartedly for making new riflemen. The optics themselves make life easy, especially today in the world of precision machining and glass manufacturing that makes even lesser-expensive options fairly high quality. And it can produce marksmen in a shorter amount of time because the process of sight-aquire-fire now becomes streamlined. But- and this is a big objection- without the fundamentals of proper marksmanship, an optic of any type does you little good and in some cases might make you worse. If I’m running way more glass than necessary, such as putting a 16×50 on an M4 because it helps me shoot tiny groups off a bench or in the prone, I’m not effective anywhere but in that one scenario. I may very well lose my target if something throws me off kilter as usually happens in a dynamic environment and I may also have trouble getting on target with any amount of speed. If I back the zoom off but have a second focal plane scope, now my reticle is worthless for any sort of bullet drop or ranging measurements.

His logic is that if I can do it with iron sights, then I have zero problem with optics. The fundamentals are there, along with my confidence. The foundation is laid. Optics of any type are a tool to enhance one’s capability, not a shortcut in training. If Joe knows he can ring steel with irons on his weapon at an average engagement distance, then an optic of any type enhances his capability. He now has confidence in himself and his weapon. And confidence is the difference maker above any piece of kit. So with that said, anyone getting started in rifle marksmanship should begin with iron sights and graduate to implementing optics down the road. Simplicity equals success. Keep in mind this is for basic training purposes; a standard for those new or inexperienced. Additionally, for those simply thinking optics always equate accuracy, buying airsoft-grade trash or even decent glass but a skimpy or improper mounting solution is a recipe for problems in the long run. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. If you genuinely don’t know, swallow that pride and get some instruction- I promise, it will be worth it.

Mechanical vs. Practical

M4A1-accuracy-vs-M16A2.jpgMechanical accuracy definitely plays a large role in practical accuracy, but if your fundamentals are trash nothing is going to make you a good shooter. While you’ve read up until now that pinpoint accuracy is not a central requirement in a primary fighting carbine or rifle, good mechanical accuracy is definitely a desirable asset. If my weapon shoots 2 MOA, or a 2 inch group at 100 yards, that means on an average man-sized target at any given distance I have some margin of error to still make solid hits, all things being equal. Anything up to 4 MOA for a general purpose carbine then becomes perfectly acceptable. Even out to 600m this gives us, in theory at least, 24 inches of spread but still perfectly capable of a solid hit if you do your part. But you have to know how to do your part, and that only comes from solid training. But will you need to shoot that far? Probably not in most cases- and only your own situation can determine this. Most often our expectations should be half that distance at the most, but if everyone in your group can make those kinds of shots, then they’ll have no problems engaging closer than that.

Practical accuracy comes from the individual rifleman; riflemen are only produced and maintained through quality training. The tactics of the Team of Riflemen are the real difference maker. You should be seeking out training outside the square range on a regular basis. My friend JC Dodge has an upcoming class which will go beyond the typical comfort zone of most, pushing both the student and his equipment. In addition, I’m available for those seeking private instruction on both making the shot and proper field techniques, along with other small units skills such as off-grid communications, Recon & Surveillance, and Combat Casualty Care. We’re not the only ones who can teach this stuff; there’s many others. But I highly implore the reader to get that training along with all the other skills to give you the tactical edge in setting up a secure retreat, even if you think you’re the ‘expert’. And with that, I’ll leave you with a quote from the late, great Peter Kokalis:

To train others in the art of war, you must both know war from the trenches and undergo constant training from others, both to keep the sharp edge and be exposed to the ever-evolving tactical concepts of combat at the down and dirty level. Several have asked why an “expert” (God how I loathe that word) like me would need to participate in training at a firearms school. The answer is simple: for the same reason tennis and golf pros constantly train under other tennis and golf pros. You cannot observe yourself while shooting, but the professional firearms instructors under whom I train can constantly detect slight nuances of incorrect movement that need to be reprogrammed.

-From Weapon Tests and Evaluations, The Best of Soldier of Fortune


34 thoughts on “Practical Carbine Accuracy: Off the Bench and In the Field

  1. Excellent and spot on. We have spent too long focusing on the bad breath distance style shooting skills. The vary nature of CQB tends to ignore or de prioritize weight. We need (and it is being done here) to reexamine the true lightfighter principles of old, with a weathered eye to leverage to tech of today.

  2. “If you can’t do it with irons don’t bother with optics”

    Wise man.

    If you can’t do it with irons, don’t bother with optics”

    Scopes were scarce in the W.V mountains where I learned to shoot.
    I was 22 before I owned a scope.
    Plenty of deer dropped to 94 Winchester that was my grandfathers then my dads before I got it. Couldn’t put a scope on it anyhow back then, since it was top eject.
    You are spot on with the lack of shooting skills and thinking ahead and planning many are guilty of.
    Too much gear and no idea how to use most it.
    You have to get out in the field with your gear- including carbine and handgun- or you have no idea if your set up is going to work or not.

  3. LodeRunner

    Spot on as usual, brother. Good discipline and good training are the essential aspect of readiness.

    A wise friend of mine once said,”Good gear is best used by those with the best skills.”

    Let me add this little thoughtwave to the conversation – Everyone wants to be a sniper, yet very few know how to shoot well in the field. A sniper is, first a foremost, a rifleman. He must know how to work with his team, how to select cover/concealment in an instant, how to move in a coordinated fashion, how to keep his wits about him and recognize both danger and opportunity. He must be constant and reliable in his ways so that his squad, his brothers, trust him absolutely. Once he is a good rifleman, then he has a chance to become a good sniper, if he is humble and willing to train relentlessly, and serve his squad tirelessly. The sniper is the last man on his team to withdraw – he covers the extraction of the wounded, secures the exfil route for his brothers, and often takes the most miserable duties, wheter within the hescoes or out on patrol.

    This image of the sniper as a lone-wolf and proud trophy bagger, springs from the minds of preening fools, without the constitution or moral fortitude to fight, who have vainly imagined what such work must be like. They could not be more wrong. Sniping is, by far, the most humbling thing I have ever done.

    If you would be a sniper, then take joy in regular 20-milers in full kit, and in regular nights alone in the wet and cold. Learn how it is to live for days on end, never more than a ‘three count’ away from being behind your rifle and ready to engage the enemy. Learn to make shots on moving targets, in the wind, at first light and last dusk, at 200 to 400 yards.
    Discipline yourself to know always, where each man on your team is. To know every aspect of each of them so that in the moment of engagement you easily discern them from the enemy, when they are within spitting distance of one another, and you are 300 yards away with a partially obscured view.

    The above standard, properly fulfilled, is far more valuable than achieving an “800 yard kill”. Skills and discipline make a good rifleman. And only a good rifleman can become a good sniper. Meanwhile, even the best kit is still just kit – it won’t make you anything at all.

    1. Which illustrates another issue inherent with prepper groups, survivalists, militias and such staffed by those with limited experience- if one shows up with gear that fits a certain role, they think that somehow makes them that role, qualification & training be damned.

      There’s a reason Leaders issue weapons.

      1. LodeRunner

        “There a reason leaders issue weapons”. Yeah. “…or not, as the case may be.” For as much as I was trying not to go there, on your chit –

        But then arises the question, “who choses the leaders?” And how much difference is there, between severely lacking experience, and being totally clueless?

        Most of those groups you mention – the ones lacking for experience and a solid command structure – they won’t last long when things go live. ‘The Great Sorting’ will handle those issues which death doesn’t remediate first.

    2. PRCD

      If you would be a sniper, then take joy in regular 20-milers in full kit, and in regular nights alone in the wet and cold. Learn how it is to live for days on end, never more than a ‘three count’ away from being behind your rifle and ready to engage the enemy. Learn to make shots on moving targets, in the wind, at first light and last dusk, at 200 to 400 yards.

      The only way I can see to get the kind of training described above is to take up elk hunting with a bow on public land. The guys on the Gritty Bowmen are the only ones I know of who have the level of fitness at middle age required to do the things you describe.

      The ARRL exam session today was 3 times fuller than normal after the fires. I now have a technician license.

  4. That sound you just heard…. it’s as if thousands of lungs were suddenly filled with air via simultaneous gasps, creating a large vacuum across the net….and were then suddenly silenced as if their very breaths were held……

    Sorry, bad Obi Won paraphrasing.

    As usual, it’s so reassuring to hear those far smarter and far more experienced than me, saying the same things I’ve been saying for years. It’s nice to not feel like the lone voice in the wilderness and have things validated.

      1. Atlas Shrug

        Solid points all around – I wish more would heed the words in this piece.

        I’ve standardized on Mk262 equivalents for everything from trunk gun AR pistols to scoped DMR/SPR type rifles. Efficient and effective. The IMI 77 load is a good performer IME, and affordable ($0.67/round).

        Sharing the same AO, maybe we should get together during the holidays? I think I’ll ping SFMedics and see if he can set something up.

        Keep your powder dry, and keep speaking The Truth.

        Atlas Shrug

  5. Pingback: Brushbeater: Practical Carbine Accuracy – Off the Bench and In the Field | Western Rifle Shooters Association

  6. Will

    With decent ammo-nothing exotic, just good quality M855/M193, there is no reason that a reasonably priced AR15 can’t be had that will shoot 3 MOA or less. I have several that will do 2-2.5 MOA and they are chrome lined, nothing really special rifles.

    While I understand iron sights-grew up shooting small bore competitively, and their utility, quality optics are a force multiplier that simply cannot be ignored. People get small when they get shot at, seeing small at any realistic distance in the bush requires optics.

    I think the formula for a “modern fighting AR” at this point is pretty well known. Quality Chrome lined or nitride 16″ barrel, Free floated for accuracy and attachment of accessories, milspec or better bolt, good mags, good ammo, plenty of lube, optic of choice with the trend on low power variable, good sling and light. Done, unless you have NODS, Suppressors etc…

    It works….

    1. To your first point, yes, I said just that. And you concur. The .mil tolerance for the M4 is 4 MOA.

      The debate around irons (I knew this would come) is not a debate at all-

      IF I CAN DO IT WITH IRONS, I EASILY DO IT WITH OPTICS (of any type). Maybe you missed the rest of that section.

      As for setting up what is the general purpose carbine or rifle, I’ve already covered that:

    2. Centurion_Cornelius

      You and ncscout are right on, Will.

      BUT–for us “over-the-hill” bunch (70+ Summers) those optics sure do help our vintage “headlights!”

      Weened on the Garand, graduated to the M14/M1A, and carry the AR15 these days. Plus, keep “Old Trusty,” the .30/06 bolt gun with scope at the ready.


  7. Gary Nezat

    I guess to each his own, but I question the necessity of a light in an field type environment. While in an urban/mout/fuba I would definitely. I guess the product of, and came up in the Fulda gap scenario and find the weight and light discipline violation unwanted.

    If you favor it, please only take my criticism as polite discourse and not an attack. The majority of you have much more time behind the buttplate than I. Good day

    1. I didn’t bring up anything about a light in the article, and don’t recall addressing it in any post prior (but I may have).

      The answer is, like most things, it depends. My equipment is set up for rural asymmetric fighting- quiet movement, baiting, and marksmanship. So on those weapons for such a fight, should one come, a light is a liability far more than a necessity.

      When I was a door kicker in Samara and on those Direct Action missions in Afghanistan that called for it, I used one. For home defense, they are vital at night for target identification and disorienting an adversary.

      In both cases my selection is the same- Surefire G2 in a Vltor offset mount. Light, tight, extremely durable, unobtrusive and relatively cheap.

    2. LodeRunner

      The Fulda Gap – theres a trigger for lotsa memories. Was there in the mid-late 80s, including the razing of the Berlin wall. Wild times. It’s ironic how many people are totally unaware that defections and sniper take-downs happened on the European frontier right up to the end, just as they still do on the Korean DMZ.

      Anyone who says “the cold war is over” doesn’t know what they’re talking about. It’s just that the commies moved their flag to within Western territory, so the cold war changed its character into a purely economic one. Solzhenitsyn told us that was what would happen. It was always in their plan to infiltrate our institutions and do it this way – from within our society.

      1. DAN III


        Spent time myself at OP Alpha. However, preceded your time there by several years. Yes, it was an interesting time.

  8. “It’s not the dope on the weapon, it’s the one behind the weapon” Thought you may like this one my friend. Btw, you have way to many irons in the fire, hell, I thought I was busy up on the mountain when I am home, you are an industrious ant for sure!

  9. kbgoldteamglobal


    This is [REDACTED]. I hope you are doing well. My wife and I are now in[REDACTED] and I was wondering if you wanted to link up. Just let me know. Thanks.

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