I don’t personally know anyone who ever doubted Elmer Keith, not the man nor his exploits nor the grand pronouncements he made based on same. I understand there were some skeptics who thought Elmer exaggerated because he was a small man who always wore a large hat, but I think the skeptics just couldn’t shoot straight and were not happy that Elmer could.
Gunwriter Roger Clouser has an incurable addiction to 1,000-yard revolver shooting. He claims that shooting distant 24-inch steel gongs offhand while standing on the front porch of his mountain cabin has altered the molecules in his brain to such an extent that he now considers such pursuits normal. Roger shoots .44 Magnums almost exclusively, and his favorite 1,000-yard loads are 300 grain jacketed bullets at 1,325 fps out of heavy single-action Freedom Arms revolvers and 1,050 fps out of lighter Smith and Wesson Model 29s.
Clouser gives some of the best advice on long-range handgun accuracy I’ve ever heard: “With an experienced hand and match grade revolver and ammo, gun handling in recoil is by far the most important accuracy variable, in my opinion. Second is trigger work, and third is probably the wobble radius in holding the piece. That radius is easily decreased with dry fire practice, and good trigger work can be learned with practice and experience. But riding the bronc -– that’s the tough one. Its huge effect on accuracy is because the bullet is still in the barrel during the recoil. My slightest muscle inconsistency in the ballet is a disaster, and brings with it a cacophony of cerebral cortex nasty comments through plugs and muffs. A proper recoil ballet will bring me the relief of head silence and allow contemplation of life, happiness and impending chocolate chip cookies while waiting out the four-second flash-to-bang time, which feels long enough to sit down and eat my lunch. Long-range revolver work can be embarrassing if one is unprepared, as gongs have no mercy in their snickering and cat calls. But a determined, experienced shooter with an accurate piece can make a 1,000-yard gong as nervous as a hen pheasant in a ditch with its neck stuck up.”
Clouser’s explanation of his introduction to long-range handgun shooting warms my heart because it sounds exactly like my own introduction to long-range handgun shooting, including the little Chief’s Special as the agent of enlightenment. Roger says, “Twenty years ago I went after 140-yard tin cans on a dirt bank with a 19 oz., 2” barreled S&W Model 36 Chief’s Special. Shooting off the roof of my car, I found the snubby .38 Special was shockingly effective. Any decent shooter would have no trouble getting first shot hits on a 12-inch gong at that range. The largest detriment to the capabilities of a handgun at longer ranges is between most shooters’ ears.”
Long-range handgun shooting is done from all the conventional positions, such as prone and offhand, and includes an Elmer Keith innovation called the sitting back rest, where you sit on the ground with your back braced against a tree or other vertical backing and your knees are raised to provide support for your arms while shooting. Keith also gives some unconventional advice on long-range sighting with factory iron sights. The problem is, if you just raise a conventional sight picture higher than you want to hit, you obscure the target, and aiming somewhere in the sky above your target can hardly be considered precise gunhandling. The Keith method is to hold the front sight blade up above the rear notch a certain measure. It takes a while to determine how far to raise the front sight for different ranges, but the technique can be surprisingly accurate out to about 500 yards.
Because we think of our pistols as short-range weapons, inexperienced shooters trying for a long shot tend to shoot high in general and to ignore the wind, which is long-range shooting’s greatest enemy. Even if you never plan to shoot past five feet, serious handgunners should practice on 12-inch gongs or cardboard pie plates at 100 and 200 yards and should be on familiar terms with the sight picture of their primary defensive piece to at least 200 yards. You never know ...
If you get hooked on shooting handguns accurately at long-range, you might even want to compete with others of like mind or altered molecules.
Don Bower and Marc Sheehan (firstname.lastname@example.org) put on an annual long-range handgun shooting seminar with games that include shooting golf balls and splitting bullets with angle iron at 600 meters.
The International Handgun Metallic Shooting Association (IHMSA, http://ihmsa.org/) is an organization started in 1976 with the purpose of promoting handgun silhouette competition. The object of the competition is to knock down life-size steel silhouettes of chickens, pigs, turkeys and rams at various ranges out to 200 meters. The sport has spread to many countries and matches are shot all over the USA. There are many different types of matches with different handguns from .22 to big-bore and different shooting positions from standing to free-style and it’s all fun.
The burgeoning sport of handgun hunting is a great proving ground for the guns and ammo that produce long-range accuracy. Probably the most famous single perfect shot, written up by myself as well as other gunwriters, was the one fired by Ted Nugent from his 10mm Glock 20 into a South African warthog at 106 paces.
Shooting handguns accurately at 100 to 500 yards was once thought to verge on the impossible. Elmer Keith tells the story of a day in the life of a prototype Model 29, with a 6.5” barrel. “One day Judge Don Martin and I were shooting the big gun over at the city dump. When we started back, I spotted a rock down the canyon below the dump at what looked like 500 yards from the road. The rock was about three feet long by about 18 inches high in the middle tapered a little bit at each end. Resting my arms out the car window, I tried it. The first shot was low. Holding up more front sight and perching the rock on top of it, I managed to put the next five on the rock. Don said, “Damn it, I seen it, but I still don’t believe it.”
A little later, Elmer took the first game ever shot with the new .44 Magnum. It was a goshawk perched in a tree at 100 yards. After that he was called upon to kill a rifle-wounded deer at 600 yards, which he did, and long-range handgun hunting was suddenly a reality. It has been said that Elmer Keith almost single-handedly pioneered modern sport handgunning. His influence on handgun design was substantial, his influence on handgun cartridge design truly revolutionary. One strong man supplied the guts and the vision, and the world followed, which is the way things usually work in real life.
Long-range mechanical accuracy is easy enough to figure. If you and your gun can shoot 2-inch groups at 50 yards, you can shoot 4-inch groups at 100 yards and so on out to 40-inch groups at 1000 yards. But anything that seems that simple is never that simple. There is something I call the Zen effect which will sometimes let you hit things you can’t even really see at distances you don’t believe yourself. These are the shots you keep quiet about, for fear that the Short-Range Police may throw you in the slammer along with characters like Elmer Keith, Roger Clouser and Ted Nugent.
LEARNING YOUR GUN’S TRAJECTORY
The best sort of place to develop your long-range skills is against a barren hillside that provides a safe backstop and gives you all-important feedback in the form of dust and dirt splatters so you know where your bullets are hitting. With a target as simple as a distant rock, and other small landmarks to guide you, you can adjust your sight picture accordingly and walk your shots right up to whatever you’re shooting at.
No matter what caliber your pistol, large or small, or the velocity of your projectile, fast or slow, your bullet starts falling toward the ground at the same rate the moment it leaves your muzzle. Since it’s moving forward at the same time it’s falling, it draws a curved line, or an arc, that’s called trajectory. With your sights level, the gun is actually pointed up to some degree so that by the time the bullet arrives at the distance you’ve used as a sighting-in point, the bullet has progressed along its arc sufficiently to drop right into the bull’s-eye. A so-called “flat shooting” bullet doesn’t fall any less or at a slower rate, it simply moves faster and therefore farther along toward the target for every inch it falls. By arriving at the target sooner, a “flat shooting” bullet has simply had less time to fall below the point of aim. If you know your trajectory at any given range, you can hit your target dead-on with any gun, whether “flat shooting” or not, at any distance the bullet is still making forward progress, which is far beyond the distance the target can even be seen.
When you shoot at long range, you can often hear the bullet ripping through the air, and you can sometimes see it dancing through the rays of sunlight as it speeds along its path. It takes a little time for the bullet to arrive at its destination and kick up enough dust for you to see it has landed. It takes even longer for the sound of the bullet’s impact to finally make its way back to your ears. By separating all these various components that are normally compressed into what appears to be a simultaneous and single intense experience in short-range shooting, long-range shooting expands time to give you a more leisurely look at all the things that happen when you pull the trigger. The experience is very much like shooting in slow-motion. For many people, this insight gives them a greater appreciation of the accuracy potential they hold in their hands, and they learn to shoot better at any distance because of it.
It may come as a surprise to you the first time you hit something with your pistol that most people couldn’t hit with a rifle. It will surely come as a surprise to those around you. The trick, as in all accurate shooting, is to be able to repeat your performance, to do the same thing the same way time after time. Shot-to-shot consistency is the biggest secret to accurate handgun shooting. If you didn’t know this already, a little time spent shooting at long range will drive the lesson home. Consistent hits at long range requires consistency in grip and trigger pull, consistency in sight picture, consistency in the way you handle recoil –- “riding the bronc,” as gunwriter and long-range handgun shooter Roger Clouser describes it.
He goes on to say, “The recoil cycle influences accuracy more than any factor because the bullet is still in the barrel while the gun is moving and the shooter controls how the gun moves. Any inconsistency whatsoever on the part of the shooter in any part of the gun movement cycle is an accuracy disaster since the muzzle and departing bullet will be pointed in a different direction. This is true with any caliber handgun, including .22 LR.
“Recoil is not something that should be struggled with, fought or tamed, because that can’t be done consistently either. One takes a ride with recoil in a firm, positive and consistent fashion. A shooter needs to learn the best ballet for his piece and himself. ... The ballet must become the shooter’s friend, observed closely and treated identically with every shot.”
In terms of sight picture, rather than aligning your front and rear sights as usual and “holding over” or aiming at some point above your target, it is far more precise to raise the front sight post above level in the rear notch and place that sight picture on your target. Inexperienced long-range shooters tend to overcompensate and shoot high. Be assured that your gun will generally shoot straighter than you think it will.
1,000-YARD REVOLVER SHOOTING
I know some guys who get their kicks with handguns shooting 24-inch steel gongs offhand at 1,000 yards. They use factory revolvers with iron sights they carry around in holsters every day, not short rifles with big scopes set up for such almost-farther-than-the-eye-can-see shooting scenarios. One thing they get out of it is a whole different perspective on handgun accuracy.
Clouser says, “On one occasion after the serious 1,000 yard target work was finished, we turned our offhand attention to a 12-inch, 200-yard steel gong on a side hill. It was so big, close and such a lark to hit we grew tired of it in short order.”
Imagine what that kind of experience might do for your accuracy on the 7-yard line.