Rifle Shot Group Analysis Essay

By David Bookstaber

When testing guns for accuracy it is common practice to look at the Extreme Spread of a group of 3 or 5 test shots. I will explain why this is a statistically bad measure on a statistically weak sample. Then I will explain why serious shooters and statisticians look instead at some variation of circular error probable (CEP) when assessing precision . . .

It is easy to fool yourself with Extreme Spread…and even easier to fool others. First, note that even the most precise rail gun will occasionally print a “flier.” If 99 out of 100 shots nestle into a dime group, but one breaks away by an inch, would you characterize the accuracy of that gun as shooting one-inch groups? Now pick up a rifle, pop in a beta mag, close your eyes, and empty it from the hip. There’s a decent chance that 3 of those shots will be touching at 100 yards. But does that tell you anything about the precision of the rifle or your shooting?

The answer to both questions is “of course not.” And it gets worse: Why not crop one of those cloverleaf shot-from-the-hip groups and share it online. Then tell everyone your rifle shoots like that “all day long.”

Well not you, of course. You probably want to test your mettle and your gun’s metal and really figure out what you can do together. Maybe your manufacturer gave you a “1-MOA guarantee,” by which they mean that your gun will shoot a 3-shot group into 1” at 100 yards with quality ammo. So you hit the range, tighten your scope, and fire three shots at the same point. Bingo: You don’t need calipers to see that they’re within an inch of each other. You’ve really got a sub-MOA rifle!

Well you’ve got a full box of ammo, so why not knock the center out of that pretty little group? You take another shot and, damnit, it goes wide. (You’ll have to crop that group pretty tightly to show it off now!) But everyone knows you can call fliers, so you take a breath and try some more. Before you’re through with the box you will probably notice something unfortunate: The more shots you take, the wider your group tends to get.

Now something doesn’t add up here. The manufacturer guaranteed your rifle would shoot three shots within 1 MOA. But neither they, nor you, nor your gun could predict which order the shots in that group would appear. If your gun is really sub-MOA you should be able to pick any three at random as your “group” and it should measure under 1 MOA. You’ve just discovered one of the industry’s inside jokes: Accuracy guarantees expressed in terms of finite shots are either impossible or meaningless.

(Side note: I’ve actually made two accuracy returns in my life. One was to a manufacturer with no explicit accuracy guarantee, who nonetheless test-fired the gun, got decent results with one type of ammo I hadn’t tried, and returned it with that explanation and sample targets. In another case the manufacturer eventually agreed the barrel was bad and sent me a new one.)

You’ve also discovered one of the problems with the Extreme Spread: It all depends on the number of shots you take. Worse yet, it doesn’t differentiate between a target where most of the shots are in a tight group and there’s a lone “flier,” and one with the same extreme spread but with every shot scattered about the same distance from the center.

If you kept your sight zeroed and logged every shot taken with a given rifle and lot of ammunition, after 1000 shots your aggregated target would look something like this:

We’ll call this picture a sample “distribution” of shots. It doesn’t matter how accurate or inaccurate your gun: its shot distribution is the same as the one that produced this sample. The only thing that varies with accuracy is how large or small this cluster is. (The dots represent the center of each hit, not the size of the holes cut by the bullet.) The red circle is drawn around the center of the distribution and contains exactly half of the shots in the picture. The radius of that red circle is called the Circular Error Probable (CEP), and that single value is sufficient to characterize the accuracy of a gun. Some real-world CEP values:

  • The U.S. Precision Sniper Rifle contract called for CEP better than 0.3MOA
  • The M24 and M110 acceptance standards require CEP better than 0.6MOA
  • XM193 ammunition from a test barrel has to shoot tighter than 0.7MOA CEP

For example, from a fixed barrel XM193 ammunition should put at least half its shots inside a 1.5” diameter circle at 100 yards. (Note that all of these specifications are given with the angular measure MOA, or Minute Of Arc, which is equal to about 1.05” at 100 yards. By using an angular measure we don’t need to specify the distance of a particular target or test.)

A useful “accuracy guarantee” would read something like these military performance standards, which one way or another boil down to the following: “CEP will be no greater than a certain value.” Traditionally CEP is given for the 50% (median) level, but it can also be given for other probability levels. For example, a manufacturer might instead say that their gun should put 90% of its shots inside a 1-MOA circle.

We are focusing on circles, but if you’ve shot a lot of groups you might be more used to finding ellipses. There are a few things that can cause your shots to string out vertically, like barrel heating or long distances with less precise ammunition. Also, wind can cause your shots to string out horizontally. But removing those factors your gun will shoot into a circular distribution like the one shown.

What does this mean for accuracy? You don’t get to pick the order in which those shots are fired. Any individual shot is essentially selected at random from that distribution of shots. This has substantial implications for people who try to deduce their accuracy from small samples.

If you pick 3 shots at random from that distribution you could end up with three holes practically touching. They might be near the center of impact, or they might be far away. Conversely, you could end up with three shots quite far from each other. Three shots don’t tell you very much: Half the time their extreme spread is wider than the CEP.

More importantly, especially for sighting in, on average the 3-shot center is 60% of the CEP away from the true center! It’s theoretically impossible to be certain you’ve found the exact center of impact, but you can see that three shots aren’t a very good indication. In fact, to double the precision of your zero you have to take 10 shots! (At that point we expect the sample center to be within 30% CEP of the true center.)

So what’s a shooter to do? For one thing: ignore 3-shot groups. If you want to get a sense of a gun’s precision then shoot larger groups. I tend to shoot 10-round groups and use computerized target markers to precisely calculate my CEP. For the most accurate guns at closer distances that tend to create jagged holes I instead shoot several 5-round groups.

If you’re not going to bother calculating CEP and just want to stick with Extreme Spread because it’s so easy to measure at least move up to 5-round groups. They are statistically more efficient and less prone to abuse than 3-round groups. Use multiple groups, and don’t throw away the bad ones. For example, the American Rifleman’s protocol of taking the average extreme spread of five 5-round groups is only about a third less efficient than the most statistically efficient precision estimator.

For more on the theory and practice behind measuring shooting precision visit ballistipedia.com.

Group Size Statistical Analysis

 A PDF version is here

The relationship between a rifles inherent accuracy and the size of a group it can shoot at a specific range is very interesting. This article shows this relationship in a way that clearly connects the accuracy of the firearm to the size of the groups it will produce. A table is presented to allow a shooter to estimate the actual Minute Of Angle (MOA) accuracy of the firearm from one or more groups. The overriding assumption of the following discussion is that we are dealing with a very simple statistical model, one that does not take into account all the common factors that cause a variable shot to shot dispersion, such as the shooter, ammo, wind, unbalanced bullets, etc.

Most Common Method Used to Determine Group Size

By far the most common method for measuring the accuracy of a given rifle is to shoot a few groups of some number of shots each, and measure the average of the distance of the two shots in each group that are the farthest apart. The assumption we will follow here is that this is done at a standard range of 100 yards. Then the shooter will convert this distance to MOA using the approximation of 1 MOA = 1 inch @ 100 yards.

For example, given the target shown below in Figure 1, for 3 shots @ 100 yards:

Figure 1 - Typical group measurement method

Here this three shot group would be said to have a group size of d inches, as measured from the center-to-center distance between the two farthest spaced shots. If, for example, this measured to be 0.75 inches, it would normally be said that this is a 0.75 MOA group. Note that the US Military uses the measurement of the mean radius of all the shots in each group as the definition of the angular accuracy of a given firearm, not this “extreme shot distance” measurement.

There are a number of assumptions that should be noted when using this convention; these are detailed as follows.

Inches, MOA, and MILs – Measurement of the Angle of Shot Dispersion

For a target at 100 yards, an angular spacing of 1 MOA, or 1/60 degree is very close to, but not exactly one inch:


Another measurement that is commonly used is the Mil, short for milliradian, or one thousandth of a radian. There are 2*PI radians in 360 degrees, so a milliradian is equal to:


Therefore, it is a valid approximation to equate a one inch distance at 100 yards to 1 MOA. We will use this approximation for the remainder of this article. If the reader desires to measure in MILs, we will leave it up to the reader to perform the appropriate conversions.

Accuracy and Repeatability

Most shooters will refer to the group size as an indicator of the accuracy of the rifle, while in fact it is really an indicator of the repeatability of the rifle.

A shooter will fire a group at a particular Point Of Aim (POA), and the resulting group center or mean Point Of Impact (POI) will usually be offset somewhat from the intended POI or the POA. This offset is an indicator of the accuracy of the rifle, since it is this bias that must either be removed using the scope adjustments, or by applying an offset “hold” when firing a shot. Assuming that the scope can be adjusted appropriately, or the shooter can consistently hold off the POA by the necessary amount, then this will be the most probable POI for any given shot. This accuracy can be affected by many variables, such as variations in the charge weight, ignition and burning rate, bullet consistency, barrel and action heating, and wind. We will ignore these effects for the remainder of this article.

Once a given POI is established, a group of shots will be distributed around the mean POI in a (usually) random fashion. The size of this distribution is the repeatability of the rifle. This is what has been described above as the group size. An important assumption here is that we are ignoring many real-world effects such as shot-to-shot velocity variations (causing a vertical dispersion which is added to the random distribution), and that of wind (causing a horizontal dispersion which is added to the random distribution), as well as many others.

A truly accurate rifle will have a precise and repeatable POI and a small distribution of shot impacts around that point.

Gaussian Distribution – A Simple Model of How Shots are Dispersed

Another major assumption we will make in this article is that the above mentioned dispersion of shots around the POI is distributed in some known fashion.  We choose to use the normal or Gaussian distribution model. This is the famous “bell curve”. Obviously, it is impossible to determine if any given rifle or load for that rifle will have a true normal distribution of shots around the POI. However, through a lot of observations and lead thrown downrange the author has found this model to fairly accurately describe group distributions for most rifles and loads.

Figure 2 - Gaussian (Normal) Probability Distribution

Figure 2 shows the double-sided Gaussian distribution as a probability density. The X axis is the offset from the mean in units of standard deviations. The area under this curve is identically equal to one. A standard deviation defines a specific deviation from the mean (a mean of zero in this case) that can be expected a certain percentage of the time. This means that if a process has this distribution, 68.2% of the time the value will fall between -1 and +1, 95.5% of the time between –2 and +2, and 99.7% of the time between –3 and +3.

We can apply this to our shooting model by defining the accuracy of our model as the angle in MOA of the standard deviation for the projectile from the true flight path.

Figure 3 - Shot Deviation Angle

Figure 3 shows the deviation angle as the deviation away from the perfect (straight) path. We wish to define our model such that this deviation angle (cone angle) has the distribution shown in Figure 2, and that each shot will exit at a random angle with equal probability around the perfect path (clock angle). Figure 4 illustrates this definition.

Figure 4 - Definition of Cone and Clock Angles

Since most shooters use the distance between the two farthest shots in a given group, we need to define the angular (cone angle) standard deviation of our model as the double-sided standard deviation. This means that the standard deviation of the cone angle shown in Figure 4 will be one half of the desired angular deviation. As an example, if our imaginary rifle had a double sided standard deviation of one MOA, then 68.2% of the time a shot will fall within a one inch diameter circle at 100 yards, centered at the actual mean POI.

The Simulation and Some Results

A Matlab program was written that simulated 100000 shots from a rifle, with a one MOA double sided standard deviation of cone angle, at a target 100 yards away. The simulation then formed as many groups of N shots as it could from the total of 100000, and calculated and recorded the largest center-to-center distance of each group of N. N ranged from 2 to 20 shots. It then averaged all the group sizes recorded for each N, resulting in the average group size for a N shot group. For example, given 100000 shots, there were 5000 groups of 20 shots. This resulted in 5000 group size measurements, and one average group size value for a 20 shot group.

Figure 5 shows a simulated target after 250 shots. The rings are spaced 0.5 inches apart. Notice that most of the shots fall within a one inch circle, but there are only a few that are more than one inch away from the mean POI. In fact, the center regions of the target are hit most frequently, and with far fewer hits at the edges of the target.

Figure 5 - Simulated Target After 250 Shots

A histogram showing the distribution of the shot impact locations for the above conditions is very interesting and is shown in Figure 6. The spike shows clearly that a shot is most likely to land in the center, with shots far away from the center occurring much less frequently. This result shows clearly that one could shoot two or more three shot groups with a small (say 0.5”) group size, then have another 3 shot group exhibit two shots very close to each other with a third shot landing an inch or more away. The distribution shows only the probability of a single shot falling at a point away from center, not the probability of a group of shots falling at a particular distance. This explains why one may see unexplained “flyers” out of a good shooting rifle. These are not true “flyers” in the sense that some process other than the normally distributed angle deviation caused them to diverge significantly, such as a damaged crown or an unbalanced bullet, but are the result of the characteristics of the shot angular distribution itself.

By intuition, it is obvious that a total aggregate of three shots is clearly not a large enough sample size to accurately determine the true distribution of a rifle and load. The lesson here is to shoot many shots, usually in multiple groups of five, and average these to get the aggregate. Just how many shots are needed to form an accurate estimate requires a deeper mathematical analysis of the underlying statistical model, and will be the subject of a future paper.

Based on these conclusions, the author uses 4 groups of five shots for the final proofing of a load.

Figure 6 - Target POI distribution for 100000 Shots

Now that we have simulated the perfect one MOA rifle, how does the group size measured for a particular number of shots per group actually correspond to the one MOA accuracy? The average group size measured for shot groups of 2 to 20 each is shown in Figure 7.

Figure 7 - Average Group Size as a Function of the Number of Shots Per Group, 1 MOA standard Rifle at 100 Yards

Notice that if you use three shot groups to determine the actual accuracy, you will observe a 0.863” average group size for a one MOA rifle. In other words, you must measure the average group size in inches, and multiply by the correction factors in Table 1 to get the actual MOA accuracy for the rifle. Remember that this example assumes a 100 yard target range. For ranges other than 100 yards, one can scale the value obtained from the group size measurements after correction by the factors in Table 1 by the ratio of the actual range to a standard 100 yard range. A fairly accurate way to do this measurement without calculation is to use 4 shot groups, as the correction factor is closest to one (0.979).

# Shots

Correction Factor







































Table 1 – Group Measurement Correction Factor

The equation below summarizes the measurement and correction process:

For example, your rifle averaged 0.75 inch 5 shot groups at 200 yards. The correction factor from Table 1 for 5 shot groups is 0.876. Therefore, your rifle is shooting at 0.75 X 0.876 X 100/200 = 0.329 MOA.

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