When it comes to choosing a defensive handgun, most experienced shooters and self-defense trainers agree on a hierarchy of must-haves. Reliability takes first place, with power (caliber), ammo capacity, simplicity and ease of carry being additional considerations. But benchrest accuracy is not a priority.

Whenever a defensive handgun is tested and reviewed, ballistics information is included. This commonly shows velocities with various brands and types of ammunition. Such information can help you choose both guns and ammunition. The same tests normally show accuracy results as well, traditionally calculated for handguns at 25 yards.

Some competition guns will produce groups as small as 1 inch and others as large as 4 inches. Most self-defense pistols and revolvers fall into a range between 2 and 3 inches for a five-shot group at 25 yards.

But remember that when it comes to self-defense situations, there is little consequential difference in accuracy between a $4,000 custom competition pistol and an off-the-shelf, bargain basement gun (whether auto-loader or revolver). There are reasons for this.

Distance Matters

Rifles, especially hunting rifles, are used at distances where accuracy can indeed make a difference. Factors such as trajectory and wind come into play. And when it comes to truly long-distance shots (500 yards or more), a tiny difference in accuracy can also be the difference between a hit and a miss.

But we are talking about handguns for use in self-defense, where the distances involved are most often in the 10- to 15-foot range, sometimes even closer — virtually “contact” range. At such a range, trajectory is essentially a straight line, and wind has no discernible effect.

More importantly, our target is much larger; we are trying to hit an area approximately the size of a paper plate. Whether a gun shoots a 1-inch group or a 5-inch group at 25 yards will be indistinguishable and utterly irrelevant at a typical defensive range of, say, 5 yards.

When we talk about accuracy in relation to self-defense, we mean combat accuracy — rapidly putting multiple shots into the aforementioned paper plate at 3 to 7 yards.

As a result, what really matters is not how accurate the gun is when being test-fired from a bench. The real issue is how accurate YOU are with any particular gun. This is why we always encourage anyone who intends to carry a gun to, if at all possible, “test drive” before buying. It’s the only way to be sure.

I once had a student who was 6 foot, 3 inches and weighed nearly 300 pounds. His fingers were the size of sausages. When he held his five-shot Smith & Wesson J-frame, the gun was barely visible in his huge hands. But he shot that little gun astonishingly well. Who’d have thought?

Train Like You Will Fight

Anyone can shoot tiny groups with a carefully aimed target pistol. Self-defense is another matter. What we seek to achieve is an ideal balance between reasonable (i.e. “combat”) accuracy and “appropriate” speed — what Wyatt Earp described as a kind of “deliberate haste.”

That takes a different kind of training and practice, emphasizing drawing from concealment, then a rapid transition from the ready position to actual firing. If your range does not allow drawing, be sure to practice it at home as often as possible.

The bottom line is that learning to shoot effectively for self-defense takes the right kind of practice — and lots of it. But it’s absolutely worth it.