Let's say you're at the shooting range with a 2×2-foot target at 10 yards. You pick up your handgun and fire at the target 15 times, but your shots scatter unevenly across a 1.5×1.5-foot area on the target. Seeing this group, you might think you aren't very accurate with that pistol. But ironically, your accuracy was flawless — your use of the word “accuracy” wasn't.
Before you go thinking that we're just being pedantic grammar nerds, hear us out. Much like the terms MOLLE and PALS, accuracy and precision are words with two very distinct meanings. Using them interchangeably leads to confusion, and this can negatively impact your firearm training and performance at the shooting range. To become a better shooter, you need to be both accurate and precise, and understanding the meaning behind each of these words can help you learn how to correct problems with either.
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Today we’re taking a slight deviation from our normal format of Language Lessons and covering two different words. They’re so closely related that it’s very difficult to talk about one without bringing up the other — which is one of the reasons they’re so often confused and used interchangeably instead of independently. A thesaurus will even list them as synonyms. But in the context of firearms (and science) synonyms they are not, as you will soon see.
Terms: Accuracy & Precision
Category: Shooting Terminology
Application(s) of Use: Shooting of all kinds, and any projectile weapon
Definition (Accuracy): The closeness of a measured value to a standard or known value. I.E. How close a shot is to the desired point of impact.
Definition (Precision): The closeness of two or more measurements to each other. The closer together each measurement is, the more precise the instrument is. I.E. How close individual shots are to one another, regardless of point of impact.
Why it Matters: You can have high accuracy and low precision, vice versa, and everything in between. If you’re shooting for the smallest group possible (such as during initial zeroing of an optic), precision is what you’re looking for. You want a tight group with a clear median in order to determine the required adjustments to bring you to your desired point of impact. Actually hitting that target is accuracy.
Into the Weeds: High accuracy combined with high precision is definitely something to strive for, but what degree of each one needs is totally dependent on the desired or required outcome. A higher degree of both is needed for a sniper or long range shooter, versus what’s required of a machine gunner, infantryman, or artilleryman. For this reason snipers and long range shooters have rifles and ammunition capable of far more precision than your mass-issued M4 and M855A1. Similarly, a pharmacist requires a more precise and highly calibrated (accurate) scale for measurement of medication relative to what Rosie O’Donnell would use to track her [attempted] weight loss.
If your zero is off (which can happen for many reasons) you may well find yourself in a situation with high precision but low accuracy. Thankfully, this plight can usually be remedied with a re-zero, especially if you know your DOPE. Running down a bug regarding precision is the stuff of nightmares for long range shooters, as there are seemingly endless variables that contribute to its degradation.
In summary, precision and accuracy are closely related, but independent terms. Being high in both categories is always a positive, but not a requirement for all situations.