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Dialing Long Distance

You need to make a long-range shot with a pistol. Can you do it? Should you even try?

November 01, 2003  |  by R.K. Campbell

Standing is your best position for a long-range shot, but it also gives your adversary a big target.

Peace officers attempting to respond with handgun fire against long-range threats have seldom been successful. They simply could not make the shot under stress because they haven’t trained to use their pistol at anything beyond a comfortable handgun distance of, for example, 25 yards.

We all know that most police-involved shootings develop at a range of just a few feet. But there are exceptions. Sometimes officers have been thrust into situations where they have come under fire from rifles and all they have had to respond with is their sidearms.

In such a critical incident could you rise to the occasion? Probably not.

It’s likely that you haven’t trained to do so because most officers believe that shooting a pistol beyond 25 yards is futile.

Case Studies

The truth is it’s not easy to hit a target in combat at long range with a pistol. But it can be done.

Officers have met a threat at long range. Among the best known is when military police officer A.P. Brown responded to a rifleman armed with an AK-47 who had wounded several people on his base. Despite the long range—more than 80 yards—Brown was able to respond with his issue Beretta 9mm and shoot and kill the attacker.

Brown’s marksmanship and courage against heavy odds is not an isolated incident. A federal agent in Oklahoma was able to do much the same against a rifle-armed assailant. In Florida, a detective armed with a Glock 19 9mm pistol was able to fire at a barricaded subject at a long 60 yards and strike and neutralize him.

What made the difference for these officers and the innocent people they were protecting is that they were completely familiar with their weapons, well trained, and confident in their skills.

I know what you’re thinking. Many agencies issue patrol carbines to combat this problem. So odds are that you will have a long gun to counter long-range threats.

Don’t get me wrong. The change in administrative thinking that has led to agencies placing carbines in patrol cars is a good thing. But what will you do if you can’t get to that carbine? And how much damage can the shooter do while you make your way back to your car—or worse, for those agencies that don’t issue long guns to all officers, wait on a supervisor to come to your rescue.

In the incidents listed above, the officers and agents responded immediately. Had either dashed for help or a long gun, civilian casualties would have been inflicted.

Does this mean that you should charge a barricaded sniper with just your SiG P226? Of course not. You have to know your limitations. But if a shot presents itself at say 50 yards and it will save your life or the lives of innocent civilians, you need to be able to make it.

Long-Range Shooting

Few agencies conduct training past 25 yards. But that does not mean that your pistol is ineffective beyond 75 feet. It’s a decision made by police trainers who know that most deadly force encounters occur at near-pointblank range. Or worse it’s a nod to bean counters who want your range time to be short, easy, and cheap.

Why is it so difficult to hit a target beyond 25 yards? Because every little mistake that the shooter makes is magnified by the distance the bullet has to travel. You really have to control your sight picture, sight alignment, and trigger press when the target is 150 feet or more away.

At long range, a small mistake such as relaxing the grip too quickly or jerking the trigger results in a wide miss. When working at moderate range, we are doing coarse, quick shooting. And we often think in terms of “good enough.” But before you congratulate yourself for “good enough” shooting, realize that an inch or two off the X ring at 10 yards translates to a complete miss at 50.

Combat Conditions

Also, don’t be too thrilled that you can hit a static target at 50 yards with a pistol rest. In the field, you’re going to be under stress, you’re going to have to use sound tactics, and you won’t have the tools of a match shooter.

When faced with a long-range threat, we must make the decision to take cover as quickly as possible. Then when returning fire we need a way to stabilize our weapon. A braced position is an amplifier of marksmanship, and while we won’t have a fancy pistol rest in the field, stabilizing your pistol on a patrol car hood can do wonders for your marksmanship.

Consider this. When firing from a solid brace, many experienced shooters can achieve accuracy levels almost up to their weapon’s potential. And that can be quite good. Many handguns are surprisingly accurate when stabilized. In machine rest testing, a number of SiG models, for example, have shown an ability to group five shots into 1 to 2 inches at 25 yards and 4 inches at 50 yards.

Your Equipment

Your shooting prowess is not the only concern when attempting a long-range shot with a pistol. You also need a good tool, i.e. your sidearm. And you need to optimize it for the job at hand.

To get a good feel for the performance of common police sidearms at 50 yards and what minor modifications need to be made to them to make them more accurate, we packed up five common makes and headed to the range. Our test weapons included a Glock; a SiG; a Smith & Wesson; a Kimber; and two Berettas, one in 9mm Parabellum and one in .40 caliber S&W.

Before we continue this discussion, it should be noted that the goal of this exercise is not to evaluate or compare these weapons, but to find ways to make them better suited to long-range combat shooting.

A good two-hand grip and steady hands are essential for successful long-range shooting.

The first thing we learned is that sight alignment is a different problem at 50 yards. Area aiming at center mass is not acceptable. Careful aiming at a specific point on the target is the only route to success.

We carefully fired five rounds of timed fire from each handgun, standing, using a solid two-hand hold, at 25 yards and then at 50 yards. The differences were striking.

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