Competitive Shooting

How to Shoot a Handgun Long-Range

Colt SAA on Target

Long-range handgun shooting isn’t just in the province of old hands that have been at it for decades.

Shooters willing to put in the time and practice will find themselves connecting more often than not at 50 yards or more with pretty ordinary handguns.

There is some precedent to the need for long-range handgunning.

The Texas Rangers used their Colt revolvers at long range on many occasions, finding them more accurate than muskets.

They also found the .36 Paterson was pretty well out of steam and ineffective at long range, which led to the .44 Dragoon.

Later, Colonel Stephen Benet of Army Ordnance asked Colt to provide the Army with a revolver powerful enough to drop an Indian war pony at 100 yards.

This led to the development of the .45 Colt. It has been quite a while since the Army has had a need to drop war ponies, and long-range handgun shots are an exception, but they do occur.

A courageous Air Force policeman took out a lunatic armed with an AK-47 at a long 83 yards.

In another incident, a Federal agent stopped a shooter at a similar distance and a Florida lawman fired a single shot and stopped a barricaded individual from firing on officers from a long 60 yards.

When it comes to civilians firing to defend themselves at long range, I cannot find a single incident.

Just the same, there are times when long-range fire may be used to take small and medium game, in competition and for the sheer challenge.

There is always the chance of an active shooter, and no one wants to be helpless in such a case. I am concentrating on using standard handguns for long-range use.

A scope-mounted hand-rifle or 8 3/8-inch barrel Magnum isn’t quite as challenging. So we are looking at service-size guns most of us carry.

We are not practicing for long-range shots that come often in hunting and using a hunting handgun, but practicing for the uncommon emergency shot with a personal-defense handgun.

Revolvers with varying barrel lengths
Barrel length, frame size and grip configuration all affect your chances of making at hit at long range.

Most defensive shootings occur at close range.

Just the same, you may be confronted by a shooter behind cover, an assailant armed with a rifle, or find yourself in an otherwise bad tactical situation.

An active shooter may be the threat. It would pay to be reasonably proficient with the handgun at longer range.

Animal defense and the ever-growing coyote are a problem for the outdoorsman. As an example, an acquaintance told me of his encounter with a coyote.

This gentleman carries a 7.62 Tokarev TT-33 during his walks in the desert. While some may scoff, the pistol is more accurate than most realize and has similar velocity to the .357 Magnum.

It is stronger than the .32 Magnum with most loads. He spotted a coyote running over a hill at about 110 yards.

He drew the Tokarev, reared the hammer back and led on the nose of the canine. At the bark of the shot the coyote dropped.

A good shot with an ordinary handgun may work wonders. This fellow has spent considerable time firing his TT-33 at rocks and dirt clods at known and unknown distances.

This builds marksmanship better than shooting paper targets.

.357 Magnum Grouping on Target
At 25 yards, a quality .357 Magnum revolver may put three out of five shots into a ragged hole. At longer range, the group opens up considerably.

How to Shoot a Handgun Long-Range

If I knew a fight was coming, I would have a shotgun in my hands. This is my preparation for home defense.

If I knew a fight would occur at long range, I would deploy the M1A SOCOM. But we do not have prescience.

The handgun is a weapon of defense and opportunity. It is concealable, portable and always with us. Practice at atypical ranges may be beneficial.

For some of us, 25 yards is long range; for others, 50 yards is long range.

Unlike the .223 rifle or a fast-moving .30 caliber rifle, bullet drop in handguns must be accounted for at longer handgun range.

Sight picture and trigger control become much more important. Breath control isn’t usually a factor in handgun marksmanship, but it may be in long-range handgun shooting.

Finding a suitable brace is also important. Remember, a missed shot that is an inch off at 10 yards will be six inches or more off the point of aim at 50 yards, or a clean miss.

As an example, some shooters find that when holding the sights on the target at 50 yards a neck hold will plunge bullets into the chest.

On the other hand, the original 1911 .45 ACP was sighted to strike high at 25 yards in order to give soldiers a fighting chance at 50 yards.

A problem with holdover is that it is much more difficult when addressing a small target. Each handgun is a rule in itself.

Modern handguns tend to be properly sighted for close-range work, older service pistols must be used with the six o’clock hold.

Springfield Lightweight Operator 1911 on Target
This Springfield Lightweight Operator is useful well past 25 yards.

The front sight of most handguns will subtend (cover the target) at long range, making precision shooting difficult.

When addressing targets at long range, the front sight is slightly raised above the conventional sight picture.

If the front sight is serrated and you mark the holdover, (after much practice) the long-range shot comes easily.

In some handguns with low-riding sights, it isn’t possible to raise the sight properly. Good sights are essential for marksmanship and all the more so at long range.

If, like myself, you use a good number of handguns, you will find each offers a different sight picture.  Long-range fire stresses and reinforces the basics of marksmanship.

If you come under fire at long range, chances are you will have the option to seek cover or flee the area. But then there are times when you will have to stand and deliver fire.

Three revolvers with different barrel lengths
Long barrel revolvers such as the Colt (top) are well suited to long-range firing. The Ruger Bisley (middle) features a grip that aids accuracy.

There is no question that defensive training should prioritize close-range shooting.

Long fire should be practiced on occasion — and I have to admit that it is quite interesting for its own sake.

What I call the easy shots — center shots on a man-sized target to 25 yards — demand a good, fast, but not perfect sight picture.

Past fifteen yards, the trigger press is slowed and so is sight alignment. In close-range reactive work, the presentation leads to a firing stance and sight acquisition.

A firm grip and coordination are more important than a perfect sight picture in some situations. Hand-eye coordination is vital.

Whatever sights you use, they must allow the shooter to align the flat of the front sight with the rear sight and have a visible amount of light on each side of the front post.

Sometimes a fiber-optic front sight or red-insert front sight may limit a perfect sight picture at long range, while being a great advantage at short range.

You must be able to identify the top of the front sight. Small degrees of misalignment result in a huge miss at long range.

two revolvers with different barrel lengths
As a rule, the six-inch barrel revolver (top) is more accurate at long range due to a long sight radius. Recoil is dampened as well. The four-inch barrel Magnum (lower) has good potential as well.

Handguns and Calibers

At long range, the common service calibers beginning with the 9mm will punch a hole through a bad guy, but the bullet will probably not expand.

Ammunition choice goes upside down when the goal is long-range accuracy.

As an example, when Special Forces were looking for a long-range load for their HK MP5 9mm submachine guns, they had difficulty finding an accurate loading.

The 147-grain JHP was developed. At 100 yards, the 147-grain JHP is usually more accurate and retains more penetration than 115 and 124-grain loads.

By the same token, at 100 yards the 230-grain .45 is regarded as superior to the 200-grain .45 ACP. A 255-grain .45 Colt is an awesome number at 100 yards.

Now you ask how is it done? Don’t handgun bullets drop a great deal at 100 yards? They do, and it isn’t practical to sight the handgun in for 100 yards.

After all, the handgun is more for short-range personal defense. Unless you are hunting with the handgun, it is easier to have the handgun fire a little high at shorter ranges.

Learn the proper degree to hold the front sight above the rear sight notch.  This takes time and a lot of shooting.

Colt SAA on Target
Different bullet weights may strike to widely different points at longer range. It is up to you to nail down the facts.

The competition trick of holding on the neck to get an X-ring hit works for slow-moving calibers such as the .38 Special and .45 ACP.

Be warned that some handguns, such as the hard-kicking 10mm and snub-nose .38 Special, may exhibit such severe muzzle flip that the handgun may actually strike high at 100 yards.

Another thing to be accounted for is the width of the front sight.  Front sights on handguns are either ramps or a square post.

They offer rapid acquisition for defensive purposes. The front sight is broad enough that it will subtend (cover) a certain amount of a target at 25 to 100 yards.

This is why we use the six o’clock hold, holding under the target. This makes for the all-around best sight picture.

.45 ACP Grouping on Target - Shooting a Handgun Long Range
.45 ACP bullets grouped nicely in rapid-fire at 25 yards. At 50 yards from a benchrest, the bullets appear to be tipping in the upper group.

If you are going to get hits at long range, you need a solid firing position to compliment your skills.

I have done quite a bit of shooting with the handgun braced over the bed of a truck, it is handy and available.

Bracing on a tree is good, rollover prone is ideal. Keep the head on the biceps. Don’t stretch the neck or you will lose oxygen to the eyes and your vision will blur.

Firing from a standing, braced barricade will provide good results if you don’t allow the knuckles to be bashed against the barricade.

Another good position is back against a tree or post and the pistol braced on the knees. These firing positions are much sturdier than off-hand.

Practice is demanded and this should begin at 25 yards. Hardly any sight correction is needed at 50 yards.

Usually, the pistol will be used with the six o’clock hold at 25 yards and the dead-on hold at 50 yards.

At 100 yards, most handgun calibers drop eight to ten inches from the point of aim. Give long-range shooting with service type pistols a try, it may be a lifesaver.

Ammunition Choices

It is important to account for the difference in the point of aim and the point of impact with different loads.

I recently fired my Colt SAA .45 at 50 yards with 185, 230, 250 and 255-grain loads.

The difference in the point of aim and point of impact with different bullet weights could be as much as 4.5 inches at 50 yards.

In absolute accuracy, the best results have been with the Hornady XTP bullet and handloads.

With the .357 Magnum, I have loaded the 180-grain XTP in handloads with excellent results in the Colt Python.

Buffalo Bore’s hard-cast bullet loads have been very accurate.  Be certain to try the duty load at long-range occasionally. You may be surprised by the results.

Hornady XTP Bullet Expansion
As the distance grows, even a first-class expanding bullet such as the Hornady XTP will expand less, but there is some expansion even at 650 fps.

Do you practice long-range shooting your sidearm? What’s your farthest shot with a handgun? Let us know in the comments below.

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Comments (13)

  1. I carry a Zakharov 7.62 x 25 TT. I have found it to be a really flat and reliable shooter at rangers up to 100 feet.These things were designed to defeat barriers. I can usually hit man sized targets at this range, Now Wild Bill I’m not but I was trained to be a decent marksman at 50 yards. I always carried a revolver, a .357 magnum and a 2″ .38 special (with which I had no problem hitting a man sized target at that range, and found that, If I keep your head in the game, concentrate, and go slow in a hurry,you’ll most likely be fine. Because I always carried a wheel gun, economy of fire was just natural to me, Spray and pray DON’T WORK.all it does is waste ammo that would be more effective after you’ve wasted all of your ammo, and the enemy is now within your range, you’ll wished you had spent some time with a wheel gun and left the shoot-all-day-glock in the drawer for awhile. Don’t dismiss an old codger’s advice. Being older doesn’t make you stupid.

  2. My stepson set up a shooting range he stepped off at 100 paces. set up a platter sized target at chest height. I pulled my Sig 229 in .357sig and tried one shot . It matched the ballistic tables estimate of a 6 inch drop. I then corrected my aim and placed three shots into the target. When we walked out , there were three shots grouped together that my son covered with the palm of his hand at chest height. I was standing with a two handed Isosceles grip. I found it really easy with high velocity handguns . I have shot similarly with a Ruger Redhawk.

  3. I’ve been practicing longer distances with my new Sig 365. Hard to believe but at 40-50 yards this little booger is able to ring steel. Not every time but accurate enough to enjoy hearing the ring and keep me coming back. You’re absolutely correct you have to practice enough to develop the correct hold for the target. My longest shot is not really mentionable as it was my 44 mag and very little drop at 100 yards.

  4. I have practices at 100 yards on an 18” gong with a Sig P320 Compact. I can hit that target 80% standing unbraced and 100% braced. I thought I noticed more consistently using 124 and 147 grain. I found that this could be done with the S&W Bodyguard 380 braced on simulated cover or a tree.

  5. I enjoy hunting the elusive left-over Halloween pumpkins at 100 yards with my 6″ Smith & Wesson model 57 in .41 Remington Magnum. I also get pleasure killing 1 gallon paint cans at the same distance. I usually use Winchester 175 gr. Silvertip HP or Speer 210 gr. DCHP. Great fun for an old geezer. When this season opens up I plan to try my hand with a Cimarron Colt SAA clone in .45 LC with a 5.5″ barrel.

  6. I think Elmer Keith liked to have gold lines inlaid on his front sights (calibrated for known distances with given loads), so he could line up his front and rear sights at suitable angles for long-range trajectories.

  7. I have 2 handguns that I carry at different times 1) .30 carbine Ruger Blackhawk with a 7 1/2″ bbl..hunting I practice shooting to 125 yards..longest about 95 yds on coyote using 110gr hollow pts 2) Sig 2022 9mm is my carry piece 124gr hp and I practice on oil can size targets to 40 yd..longest 12yd on another coyote that decided to come look at my deer

  8. Interesting article. I use to shoot metallic silhouettes up to 200 yards open sights with great accuracy, both standing and in creedmore. Best grouping I ever had was with a Remington XP in 7BR, open sights and a group of 10 shots the size of a silver dollar at 200 yards-creedmore position Not a service gun but still handgun. Most guns were single shot but my revolvers were a Dan Wesson 357 mag, and max both capable of knocking down a 50 lb steel target at 200 yards. Both were open sights. So revolvers can be quit accurate at very long ranges in the right hands and with the right load. A trigger job and matching the exit bore sizes the cylinder plus proper alignment of cylinder with barrel helps also. Load was the most important and each gun had its own recipe.

    Dave

  9. Years ago I was a member of an informal combat shooting group. Our leader was the head of firearms training for a Federal agency, who had been a Marine special operator in Vietnam. He was a fantastic shot and an equally fine instructor. One of the group members lived out in the boonies in Maryland and we set up an assault course in a ravine in his back yard. The course started at 50 yards from behind a barrier, then you took off at a run and engaged targets at various ranges. There was a ’59 Chevy with a bad guy in the driver’s seat, a shack with a hostage situation in the window, and other assorted targets hiding behind trees and whatever. The course was scored on time and hits. We did a lot of practicing at 50 yards so we could max our scores, and most of the guys got pretty good at putting a pair of shots in the 10-ring at 50. I usually shot the course with a 6-inch Model 19. The Patridge sights and slightly longer barrel were ideal for the task at hand.

  10. Presbyopia makes even short-range accuracy challenging for us old-timers. Sans reading glasses, the front sight is blurry with indefinite edges. Identifying the top of the front sight (or the edges for that matter) becomes almost problematic. My two favorite carry handguns are a 45A semi-auto HK45 and a 454 Casull revolver. My technique for both weapons centers the upper part of the blurry front sight image on the in-focus target. It’s kind of like an offset center-of-mass sight overlaid on a center-of-mass target. With practice, keeping shots on a paper plate at 50 yards can be more-or-less routine.

  11. You can not find any record of civilian shooting someone long range, is probably due to the fact of being out of the threat zone. In most states, a civilian will be charged and end up in jail.

    I have Glock20 and XDM-10mm, I easily shoot skeet clay at 50, and with my hand loaded, at 100.
    Glock with adjustable sight and XDM with Optic. Both have trigger modified to 3.5lbs

    So caliber selection and velocity are major ingredients.
    I have had very poor result with 45ACP, due to being fat and slow moving caliber.
    And as you mention, practice, practice, practice

  12. Hi Bob. You started out saying “50 yards or more” is “long range”. 50 yards is the standard distance for slow fire bullseye shooting, and that is holding the gun offhand with one hand. I do not consider it to be “long range”!

    100 yards is pretty far for a handgun. 200 yards I would agree is handgun long range although that is the short range target distance for high power rifle matches that extend to 600 or 1000 yards. I do not practice with my handgun at 100yd+ distances, although as you suggested that is probably something that I should be able to do.

  13. Two comments. A (self-identified) former FBI pistol instructor told me to use the upper left corner of the front sight. And using this technique and an upright brace, I found that I could routinely hit a gong the size of a man’s chest at 100 yards using a Mk. IV Series 70 loaded with 230 grain cartridges.

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