The Law of Diminishing Returns: Are We Spending Too Much for Precision?

There is a story about the late Colonel John Boyd in which he admonishes a young crowd of Air Force officers about progressing through their careers.

And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” He raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.” Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference. To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?

The message here is essentially one warning young officers about careerism; a phenomenon I liken to Pournelle’s Iron law of Bureaucracy: an observation on how those who work hard to perform the mission and carry out the vision of an organization will usually advance slower than those that work to support the organization itself. But this is not a post about the perceived organizational woes of the Air Force. This is a blog about marksmanship. How does Boyd’s advice apply to shooting?

There is a strong tendency among shooting enthusiasts to always be looking for the bigger better deal; to get to the next level with a minimum of effort. This often manifests itself as spending exorbitant amounts of money on a rifle in pursuit of producing tighter and tighter groupings. There is certainly a time and place for that in bench rest competitions. But what about practical applications of marksmanship?

Day after day, we see newer shooters on the boards asking advice about their first rifle for hunting, target shooting, or even self-defense. We often see them planning around very accurate rifles, often capable of ½ MOA or better. Others in the discussion will agree and point the person in the direction of the top gunsmiths and custom rifle builders in the country, who charge thousands of dollars per rifle, and who already have year-long backlogs of work.

I simply have to ask: At what point are we just spending money in order to say we have something?

The Precision Rifle Blog put up a post last month concerning the relationship between a rifle’s ability to shoot tight groups and actual hit probabilities at long range. Examples were modeled, using Brian Litz’s software, for a 10″ plate at 700 yards and a 20″ plate at 1000 yards. The simulation assumed perfect marksmanship fundamentals regarding trigger control, rifle cant, follow through, and stability. The only variables were the rifle’s precision (1 MOA to .1 MOA), and variance in wind call of 2.5 mph (which is also an expert-level wind call).

The analysis showed that the probably of it for a 10″ plate at 700 yards goes from 70% with a 1 MOA rifle to 78% with a .5 MOA, and to 80% with a .1 MOA rifle. 

The end result shows that for a 20″ plate at 1000 yards, there is effectively a 3.8% improvement in hit probability by going from 1 MOA to .5 MOA, and only a 1.2% improvement by going from .5 MOA to .1 MOA. Think about that for a second.

How much more money does it cost in equipment to go from a 1 MOA to a .5 MOA capable rifle? Many very reasonably priced factory bolt guns are already capable of shooting about 1 MOA out the door. Many will gladly spend a thousand dollars to get that extra .5 MOA– for an extra 3.8% probability. Furthermore, those statistical results were assuming perfect marksmanship fundamentals, world-class wind calls, and nearly perfect consistency of ammunition velocity. How many people looking to purchase or upgrade to rifles capable of that kind of precision can claim they have already mastered these other elements? At what point is a shooter better off buying ammunition to practice with than buying a new barrel/upper/trigger? At what point are we just wasting money on perceived capability that we cannot actually take advantage of?

My argument here is that John Boyd’s advice relates to shooting as much as military careers. There comes a point in your shooting career where you have to decide if you are going to “be someone” and just continually buy top-end equipment for the sake of saying that you own it; or you are going to “do something” and practice enough to use the equipment you have to its fullest capability. Ideally we could do both, but unless you are independently wealthy or have a list of sponsors buying your equipment, then you are going to have to make a choice for the time being.

A marksman that practices the fundamentals endlessly so that they have the ability to shoot any rifle in nearly any condition to the maximum capability of their equipment will always far outperform the one who shoots a couple boxes of ammunition per year, but owns top of the line equipment in every respect.

As the old saying goes, “Beware the man with one gun…”

7 thoughts on “The Law of Diminishing Returns: Are We Spending Too Much for Precision?”

  1. Reblogged this on rifletalk and commented:
    This is such a great post – I have seen many people chase small groups through the checkbook; just like golfers who try to buy an extra 20 yards off the Tee.

    1. Thanks! I’ve been struggling with these tendencies forever. My worry is that I’m trying to be so careful about it, that I actually don’t spend money where it would really be of benefit.


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