Does Less Recoil Mean Better Shot Placement?

The central argument behind choosing 9mm over larger and more powerful defensive handgun rounds is that shot placement is key. The biggest, most powerful round that doesn’t hit anything vital (or doesn’t hit anything at all) doesn’t do you much good in a fight. Lower recoil rounds are a lot easier to shoot with greater accuracy and speed on the range, so it makes a lot of sense to use what works best, especially with advances in ballistics that make for some very effective lower-recoiling ammo choices.

But, this isn’t the whole truth.

handgun ammunition ammo
Common handgun ammunition (Dan Z. for TTAG)

First off, the range isn’t a great analog for a real defensive encounter. Adrenaline levels, the need to move to avoid danger, and the complexity of the environment all make for far less accurate shooting when you’re being attacked than we see on the range.

That doesn’t mean we can skip range practice (because you don’t want to start out inaccurate and then get worse under stress), but it does mean that the accurate shot placement you got on paper or steel is going will be harder to repeat on the street.

A 2018 study bears this out. The sad fact is that there’s no correlation between caliber and shot placement away from the shooting range or plinking in the desert or woods. Or, as the study of hundreds of shooting says, “Firearm caliber had no systematic association with the number of wounds, the location of wounds, circumstances of the assault, or victim characteristics.”

I know that a study of shootings, including criminal activity, defensive gun use, and professional law enforcement shootings leaves some room for argument (pretty much everything involving caliber comparisons does).

If we’re going to include gang bangers who don’t bother with sights, a good guy spending time on the range and getting professional instruction should get better results, right? But, if that were the case, there’d be at least some statistical clustering in the data caused by police, who get, er, “professional” training.