We train with our handguns for personal protection at close range. The history of violent incidents tells the story that these are most often arm's length to across-the-street events. With little to no warning of the threat, we have to be ready to respond, and the handgun will likely be the means to do so.
But what if you face a situation where you have to stop a threat well beyond the everyday training scenario? Can you make the long shot, just in case? What does it take, and how do you train for it?
My reading education on extended-distance pistol work started with gun writer Elmer Keith and his classic book, Sixguns. He dedicated a chapter to long-distance handgun shooting and described the technique that allowed him to make hits on targets hundreds of yards away. Simply put, he wrote, the key to getting those long-range hits is to lift the tip of the front sight blade above the rear sight notch. He then held at six o'clock on the target. Keith's method allowed him to keep the target fully in view, and you have to see the target to hit the target.
My distance pistol shooting practical education started with my dad's six-inch Colt Python and .38 Special wadcutters. In my early days as a police officer, we shot the 50-yard FBI revolver course. Most officers hit the target in close but could not qualify at the 50-yard line. There was no instruction on precision shooting techniques for this yardage, and we were told to aim center mass. In the 1970s, 50 yards was eliminated from most police pistol qualification, but I never lost the desire to test myself at distant targets with a handgun.
My focus on extended-distance handgunning was rekindled this past spring with the opportunity to try out the new SIG 1911R TacOps in .357 SIG. This is a magnum-velocity semiauto round that clocks 1,350 fps to 1,600 fps depending on bullet weight. The pistol and cartridge combination proved accurate at 25 yards, but I wanted to see what it could do way downrange.
The opportunity came during a rifle class located on a range that had a knockdown system of three-foot plastic silhouette targets ranging from 50 to 300 meters. It's a challenge to shoot a clean score with a rifle, and of course it's much more of a challenge to do it with a handgun. Shooting offhand with the 1911 SIG, I was able to get multiple hits by holding on the base of the target head on the 50- and 100-meter targets. With the high-velocity .357 SIG, bullet drop out to 100 meters was minimal and simply using a neck-high point of aim put rounds on the top center chest.
Then came the 150- to 300-meter targets. Using Keith's method of extending the front sight blade above the rear notch and holding at six o'clock, I made hits at each distance—not every time, but often enough to prove the sighting method worked. The farthest 300-meter target was knocked down a number of times, and the misses could be seen in the dirt close to the target. It seemed incredible to be able to hit a target, located more than three football fields away, using a handgun.
Given the results of that day, I set out to do a series of tests with varying calibers at both 100 and 200 yards. "Just use a rifle," a friend said. "Why go to all the effort?" My reply was that the fun of shooting is about experimenting and testing the limits of your ability and the gear you carry. More importantly, there may be that defensive situation when your pistol has to be your rifle. Again, it is all about "just in case."
Training for distance pistol shooting includes making use of stable shooting positions and rests. Pressing against or across a stable surface offers increase effectiveness, but we also have to be ready to stand and deliver.
A key point is focus on trigger manipulation. How we control the last tenth of an inch of the trigger press determines the path of the bullet. Speeding up at the end of the trigger press can move the muzzle both downwards and sideways.
Consider how often you have missed low and to the side when shooting fast and in close. Right handers miss low left, and lefties miss low right.
Every motion-induced error in the trigger cycle will be multiplied many times over as the distance increases. We can get away with a bit of trigger disturbance when the targets are close, but not when they're at distance.
We must use our trigger finger like a piston, pressing straight to the rear. Slow down at the very end as the trigger breaks and follow-through on the press. This is about accuracy, not speed.
Grip should be tight and solid. Both hands become the jaws of the vise, locking around and about the grip with full strength. It can be fatiguing to use this grip for extended periods. It takes hand, wrist and arm strength to lock in hard, but it is essential to maximize your accuracy.
The sights must be aligned with the target, and as Keith wrote, you have to know where to position the tip of the front sight in relation to both the rear sight and the target. For extended distances, you have to allow for bullet drop due to gravity pulling down the bullet in flight, as air friction is slowing its velocity. To hit targets at 200 yards with the handgun requires holding the sights higher than the target. This is because the bullet trajectory has to start at a point up to six feet above the target as it begins its inevitable fall to earth.
Keith's solution was to mark the face the front sight blade with two equally spaced horizontal thin gold lines. He used the lines as elevation markers and raised the front sight blade above the rear sight notch to the chosen gold line.
To get an understanding of the math behind the long-distance pistol ballistics, I reached out to master gunsmith Ned Christiansen. Ned explained that to determine front sight elevation for distance shooting, we needed to know the bullet drop at the distance we were shooting. The equation is bullet drop, divided by the distance to the target, times the sight radius—all in inches.
For the first test at two hundred yards, we switched to a Kimber 1911 .45 auto. I wanted to use a common defensive carry round at non-magnum velocity. Using Federal's Web-based ballistics calculator, we set up a 200-yard calculation using the SIG 200-grain JHP V-Crown as our test ammo. With a velocity of 900 fps, the approximate bullet drop was six feet or 72 inches. The distance to the target was 200 yards or 7,200 inches. The sight radius of the Kimber 1911 is 6.3 inches. So, 72 divided by 7,200 equals .01; .01 times 6.3 is 0.063 or 1/16 inch. The sight blade is 0.185 inch tall, which is 3/16 inch, so we were looking at one-third of the sight blade raised above the rear sight notch.
To set up the front sight for the Keith method, instead of gold wire I applied bright orange Krylon paint with a toothpick to mark and divide the rear of the sight blade. It was not perfectly measured, but it proved close enough. If you have night sights, just paint around them. As it wears off, paint it on again.
We placed a black B-27 silhouette target at 200 yards and covered the center with a bright yellow 8.5x11-inch sheet of paper for a visible aiming point. We had a table for a rest and a good quality spotting scope to spot shots. Lighting on the day we tested was good, so it wasn't hard to tell where our shots were hitting.
The painted one-third section of the front sight was elevated above the rear sight, with the bottom of it even with the rear-sight notch notch. The tip of the front sight was then placed at the six o'clock of the yellow sheet. The first round hit high, next to the head and a bit right. On closer inspection, it turned out I had painted close to half the sight blade instead of the one-third amount, which would account for the high impact.
Adjusting the point of aim slightly lower, my shooting partner Kim Heath fired 15 rounds of the 200-grain .45 V-Crown. Twelve of the 15 rounds were hits on target with the remaining rounds near misses and three rounds cut the same hole.
Following up on that day, we used the same sighting method to shoot a number of handguns and different calibers. We found that out to 100 yards using standard front and rear sight alignment, a neck-high point of aim worked across the calibers from 9mm to .44 Magnum.
Using a Glock 17 with Federal 124-grain HST +P ammo, for example, it was so easy to achieve hits at 100 yards that we quickly moved to 200 yards. As the distance approaches 200 yards, the Keith method of sight blade elevation and holding six o'clock center was most effective.
The final test was done with a Smith & Wesson Model 27 .357 revolver with a six-inch barrel and the SIG .357 1911. Velocity was 1,440 fps for the V-Crown 125-grain .357 Magnum and 1,350 fps for the 125-grain .357 SIG. With these faster rounds, we needed only to lift a sliver of the front sight above the rear notch to get regular hits on the 200-yard target. A good takeaway for any of our duty-size pistols is that using a third of a sight blade elevation, holding center target, will put you close on target at distances of 100 yards and farther.
The results proved that with our daily carry handguns, long-distance accuracy is not only possible but also quite doable. It requires a bit of study and, above all, practice. If you're interested in the subject, pick up a copy of Sixguns to read about Keith's work.
You may never need to stretch the range of your handgun, but one thing's for sure. If you work at distance shooting for any length of time, when you move back to traditional handgun range the targets will look like billboards.