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How-To Advice: Measuring Bullet Groups Accurately

Many shooters don’t know the best way to size their accuracy performance consistently and correctly. Here’s how to do it.

The Neil Jones target-measuring tool allows
the shooter to accurately estimate a distance
between the centers of the two most widely
separated bullet holes in a group.

If you look at enough groups fired and measured by different shooters, you might come to the conclusion that an inch isn’t always an inch. Two groups of different size may be scored the same, or the bigger might even have been measured as smaller. The real explanation for this problem, of course, is not variation in the inch, but that people use different methods to measure groups, and some are incorrect.

This is not a matter of earth-shaking significance. The national deficit won’t go up or down because you consistently measure groups a hundredth of an inch smaller than they really are. But it does hamper communication and learning about shooting when you and I can’t be sure what the other person means when stating a group size. We can only judge what really works to improve accuracy if we have a consistent standard to go by.

Here’s how to determine that standard.

GROUP-SIZE DEFINITION
A normal group measurement is the distance between the centers of the two most widely separated bullet holes. This is a good basis of comparison because it is not influenced by the caliber of the bullets, but there is a problem with it: The center of a hole is not a precisely defined point from which we can make simple measurements. To get around this problem, many shooters measure between the outside edges of the two widest holes, then subtract a bullet diameter. Yet, while this technique is sound in principle, it does not give accurate group measurements for two basic reasons.

First, you can’t be sure of the exact outside edge of the mark left by a bullet on paper. Second, paper stretches when a bullet passes through it, so the mark left by the bullet doesn’t have the bullet’s precise diameter. These two factors combine to make the figure produced by outside-edge measurement and center-diameter subtraction smaller than actual group size.

A BETTER SOLUTION
But there is a way to obtain accurate group measurements. It’s an elegantly simple method devised by benchrest competitors many years ago: Visually centering the bullet holes in a circular reticle.

If you scribe a circle of approximately the same diameter as your bullets on a piece of transparent material, then lay that material on a target, you’ll be able to center a bullet hole in the circle within a few thousandths of an inch. This is important because you have also located the hole’s center to the same degree of precision. All you need now is a way to measure how far the circle travels when you move it to a hole on the other side of the group.

The Neil Jones Custom Products target-measuring fixture shown in the accompanying photographs is based on this simple principle.

The Jones fixture consists of two main assemblies. The first is a block that attaches to the fixed jaw of a dial or digital caliper. It contains a spring-loaded plunger with a sharp point. The second part attaches to the caliper’s movable jaw assembly, and holds a clear plastic “reticle plate” that is scribed with several circles of different standard bullet diameters along a visible, straight line.

The fixture is simple to use. Place your target on a flat surface. Turn it so an imaginary line connecting the two most-widely spaced bullet holes is horizontal. Make sure the caliper jaws are fully closed, then center the appropriate circle around your leftmost bullet hole while aligning the reticle plate so the scribed line passes through the approximate center of the rightmost hole. Without disturbing the caliper’s position, push down and hold the plunger so its sharp point anchors caliper and target to the flat surface. Open and adjust the caliper until the same circle is centered around the rightmost hole. Then, all you need to do is read the group size directly from the caliper.

AVOIDING PITFALLS
Simple as this measuring process is, there are still two potential problems. You will get slightly different readings every time you measure the same group, due to changes in light and the way your eyes perceive the reticle and bullet holes. So don’t just make one measurement. Make two or three, starting from scratch each time, and use the average. Also, with really good groups, you won’t have separate bullet holes to measure from. You’ll have a single irregular “cloverleaf.” In this situation, all you can do is align the reticle circle with the partial bullet holes at the outside of the group as best you can. With a little care, this should still be enough for precise results. Just maintain the same even contact or spacing between circle and partial hole. Don’t merely bring the reticle into contact at a single point.

I get more consistent results if I use a reticle circle that’s a little larger than the bullets I’m shooting. I can center the circle more easily by maintaining an even gap around the hole than I can with the circle covering the rim of the hole. You may prefer using a circle of exact bullet diameter. Regardless of your choice, remember to position the circle so it’s centered on the hole rather than contacting it on one side.

Any magnifier that leaves your hands free to operate the caliper will make precise measurement easier. Neil Jones offers an optional lens that attaches to the target measuring fixture shown here. It is quite handy to have around.

The three best ways to get accurate results are practice, practice, and more practice. With experience, repeated measurements of the same group should vary no more than two or three thousandths of an inch. When you reach that point, you will be measuring groups about as well as the job can be done.

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-By Dan Hackett




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