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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.[PAGEBREAK]
The double-action-only Smith & Wesson 5946 was a considerable challenge at 50 yards. A standard Glock, with its blocky sights, also proved to be less than accurate beyond 25 yards. However, with minor modifications, the Glock worked fine.
For example, when the Glock is fitted with night sights, the sight picture is much improved, not only for dim light shooting but for long-range tactical shooting. My personal Glock is fitted with Aro Tek sights, a simple and worthwhile addition.
The Smith & Wesson 5906 is the heaviest double-action pistol that we tested. This rugged weapon’s additional weight minimizes recoil, making it pleasant to fire and easy to hold on the target. Accuracy was good due to a combination of Novak-designed sights and a good trigger action with no backlash and rapid reset.
Much the same results were achieved with the Beretta Elite. This pistol also features Novak sights and has a good trigger action. Muzzle flip was subdued in either pistol.
Our SiG test pistol was a P220 in .45 ACP. When shooting this semi-auto, we discovered that the key to using SiGs well at long range is mastering the white insert—or Von Stafenhagen—sight. At moderate ranges the large sights of the SiG are fine for rapid fire but, when you need precision, use the white inserts.
The P220 is an accurate gun, but as a somewhat compact pistol, it also generates less muzzle velocity than other models. For example, a 230-grain JHP develops 780 feet per second from a P220, as opposed to 850 fps from a full-length barrel.
To counter this problem, Winchester developed the +P version of its SXT load. This gets the P220 back in line as far as velocity and the load is not too difficult to control at close range. However, due to increased muzzle flip, a product of the SiG’s high bore axis, bullets fired from the P220 strike above the point of aim at 50 yards.
This is not that unusual. I have experienced the same difficulty with hard kicking 10mm pistols. You just have to remember that the point of impact when firing +P ammunition in the P220 is above the point of aim by several inches and compensate accordingly.
The Kimber that we tested had the exact opposite problem. It has a low bore axis, which results in little muzzle flip. When the weapon is properly sighted for 25-yard fire, the point of aim for proper placement at 50 yards would be the throat on a 50-yard silhouette.
We don’t have room to analyze the long-range idiosyncrasies of every pistol that we tested for this article, much less every common duty weapon. And the truth is that there would be little value to the information. We offer this brief glimpse at pistol behavior at 50 yards just to give you some idea of what to look for when working with your own weapon.
And that’s critical. To make a successful pistol shot at 50 yards, you need to know your gun. There are differences in each weapon that you must learn on your own.
Now that we’ve looked at the challenges presented by some standard police duty weapons when they are used for extreme range shooting, let’s look at the tactics that you will need to survive such an encounter.
Cover is your overriding consideration. If you are hurt, cover is especially important. One of the outstanding lessons in taking cover is found in the North Hollywood shooting in Los Angeles. Despite the presence of automatic weapons in the hands of bank robbers, by use of cover and good tactics the LAPD was able to contain the situation and prevail without any police fatalities.
If you are not killed outright your chances of surviving a bullet wound are good, but multiple wounds are more problematical. This is why cover is your first concern.
When coming under long-range fire our first instinct may be to draw our weapon and return fire. But first sprint for cover, then draw your weapon. Attempting to draw the weapon while moving is clumsy. An alternative is to draw the weapon and then run, but firing on the move at long range is not usually a good idea.
Once you have cover, you’ll need to respond to the threat. The form of your cover will dictate your firing position.
For example, a fire hydrant is solid and offers good cover but to get the most protection you will have to streamline your body behind it. Vehicles can be good cover but are by no means bulletproof (See “Lead Vs. Steel,” POLICE, April 2003), especially against high-powered rifles.
Your best bet for accuracy is to be able to stand behind your cover and steady your aim with a solid, flat surface. Your hands and wrist, not the gun itself, should be braced against the barricade object. You may think that you can make the shot without a brace, but remember this is not the range. You are under fire and a braced position will help to eliminate the effect of nerve tremors in your hands.
If your cover won’t permit you to stand, that’s OK. Although standing is more accurate, many people can shoot very accurately with a handgun from prone and kneeling positions.
There are advantages to being prone. It can give you maximum protection from your cover. But there are disadvantages as well. Once you are in a prone position, you are dedicated to it, as it requires some effort to move out of it. And remember, if the adversary has a height advantage such as a second story window, then your prone body offers a long, wide target.
The kneeling position used in PPC competition has proven to be accurate, given good stability. As long as the bones of your support arm and your leg are properly lined up, giving a solid foundation, this is a good firing position. It might work especially well when firing around a wall. But try to keep as much of your body as possible away from the edge of your cover to avoid being struck by return fire or ricochets.
Making a long-range pistol shot under combat conditions requires proper aim and proper mechanics. Concentrate on your sights and squeeze the trigger. Maintain a solid firing grip and be sure to follow through.
Also, watch your rate of fire. At close range, you’ve probably been taught to put as many rounds into the target as quickly as possible to neutralize the threat. The thinking behind this is that two shots can be delivered practically as quickly and accurately as one shot at close or even moderate range.
At longer range this cadence cannot be maintained. You must fire accurately above all else and understand why you missed when a second shot is required.
To gain proficiency with a handgun at long range, you’re going to have to practice. Unfortunately, many agencies have only 25-yard ranges. Using a reduced sized silhouette can help you approximate the challenge of shooting at longer distances. However, it’s not exactly the same.
To make a long-range shot, you must understand that a handgun bullet will drop at extreme range. By studying ballistic tables, you can gain an appreciation for this phenomenon.
After firing well over 1,000 rounds in evaluating the problems encountered in long-range fire, I believe that trained officers are far from helpless at extended handgun ranges. If you have fired 6-inch groups at 50 yards in practice, then a center hold should produce a hit within 3 inches of the point of aim in either direction. Using these techniques and tactics, you can hit a man in combat conditions at 50 yards.
Just like a great basketball player must practice the fundamentals constantly in order to perform at his peak in a big game, a good shooter must know the basics to have any chance of making an accurate long-range shot with a pistol.
Let's take a refresher look at the basics of marksmanship.
Grip-Hold your weapon correctly and present it toward the target so that the sights meet the eye, breaking the plane between the eye and the target. It's easier said than done.
Sight Alignment-Properly line up the front and rear sights, with the proper relationship between the front post and rear open sight.
Sight Picture-You need to know what constitutes an accurate sight picture.
Trigger Compression-Smoothly squeeze the trigger until it breaks and fires the weapon.
Follow Through-Retain control of your weapon in recoil as it fires. Bring it back on target.
R.K. Campbell has 23 years of experience in law enforcement. He holds a degree in criminal justice and has served in most police capacities.