LONG RANGE POSSIBILITIES - American Pistol Shooting (2015)

American Pistol Shooting (2015)

Chapter XIX


EVER so often the subject of long range work with pistols crops up in the columns of the sporting magazines, usually in the form of a story on some remarkable shooting that has been done by an individual or club. The story is very likely to start a controversy, for every “doubting Thomas” in the pistol game—and there are many who know very little about the possibilities in this line of shooting—at once gets up and howls that it can’t be done. He then rushes madly into print to prove his contention which is based entirely on the fact that he has never been able to make even a fair showing at this special game.

The author holds no brief for those enthusiastic revolver shots who would like to convince others that the pistol is an effective long range weapon but he does feel that there are possibilities in the game that are extremely fascinating and worthy of study and practice by those who really wish to enjoy pistol work to the fullest. If one approaches the subject with an open mind and is willing to spend time and money in experimental work he will find that the results are worth the efforts he puts into the tests. Anyone who has gone through the discouraging stages of thousand yard rifle shooting on a windy, tricky range will get an idea of what to expect in long range pistol practice. The difficulties of the problem make it interesting and when good scores are finally made the satisfaction obtained thereby is quite gratifying. A rifleman when he first tries to hit the 36 inch bull’s-eye at a thousand yards on a range that is noted for its changing conditions of wind and light, runs into snags he never anticipated. He finds that there is much more to rifle work than he realized and that hitting the bull’s-eye is now a matter of not only holding well but one to make his sight corrections accordingly. He soon learns of being able to read the conditions before each shot and that failure to observe the changes from bright sunlight to cloudiness will cause him to hit the target one minute and to go over or under the next. He finds that if he cannot judge the wind by reading the mirage and catch the changes from one direction to the other he may go from one side of the ten foot target to the other on alternate shots. He will also find that to do the very best work at long ranges requires the greatest care in sight adjusting and in the selection of ammunition, as well as in holding and squeezing. And so it is with long range pistol work but to a less degree. Special care must be taken in the matter of sights and their adjustment. The weapons used must be of the best and preferably target revolvers or single shot pistols adapted to the most accurate pistol ammunition. The targets used should be proportionate to the range or the impossible will be attempted. Wind and light must be studied and care taken not to fire in unfavorable conditions. Even then, in spite of all his efforts, the marksman may find the work discouraging until experience has taught him the finer points of the game.

Quite a number of years ago a most interesting booklet was written by Mr. W. B. Altsheler entitled “The Long Shooters.” It was a narrative describing the experiences of certain members of the Louisville, Kentucky Revolver Club in old fashioned turkey shoots with revolvers. The original story, “The Turkey Shoot,” I understand created somewhat of a sensation among pistol men and resulted in much talk and much more shooting to verify the results obtained by the Louisville experts. Since that time several pistol shots of national reputation have gone on record as having accomplished equally remarkable results and yet whenever the subject is mentioned there are many who believe it is next to impossible. Capt. A. H. Hardy of Denver, Colorado, to prove it could be done, hit the silhouette of a turkey against a white background three times in fifteen shots at 300 yards using an S. & W. Target revolver with 6 inch barrel, chambered for the .38 Special cartridge. The shooting done by the Louisville experts was at ranges up to 300 yards and their favorite weapon seemed to be the revolver using the .38 and .44 Special cartridges.

A well known exhibition shot of one of our ammunition companies always includes some long range pistol stunts in his work if facilities permit it. He rather astonishes the spectators by hitting small barrels, “man targets” and similar objects with revolver bullets at ranges at which they have trouble hitting with a rifle. An army officer of my acquaintance gets great fun out of competing with the riflemen of his organization when they fire their qualification course offhand at 200 yards. Soldiers as a rule are poor offhand shots and this officer using a .38 Colt revolver and .38 S. & W. Special cartridges has no trouble holding his own and frequently beating his men in firing on the “A” target with its 10-inch bull’s-eye and 26-inch four ring.

Shortly after the National Matches of 1925 the author secured a case of new .38 Special ammunition of excellent reputation with the idea of specializing in long shooting. He was in good trim as a result of the matches and was holding well, and had had made a special high rear sight for his Colt Officer’s Model revolver. The rifle range used was well protected from wind and free from tricky air currents. Firing was done at one and two hundred yards against ten- and twenty-inch bull’s-eyes and prone and kneeling silhouettes. Several hundred rounds were fired but the results were so discouraging that the tests were discontinued. Every few shots there would be an unaccountable one that would strike low in the butts at 200 yards and ruin an otherwise good score. At first these shots were believed to be due to flinching and poor holding as it takes very little movement of the muzzle to miss the target entirely at that range. As these bad shots invariably went low, and many of them were called “Good” the ammunition was suspected and it proved to be the correct alibi as firing from a six point rest soon demonstrated. Discussing the matter with an authority on small arms ballistics who usually represents one of the large ammunition firms in the tests held for the selection of ammunition for the National Matches, he was informed that revolver ammunition never had been designed for long range work and that it was foolish to attempt or hope for satisfactory results beyond 75 yards. In view of this advice and his experience the author did as many others have done, let the tests drop with the mental reservation that it would be taken up again when a suitable opportunity presented itself and different ammunition could be secured.

In the Spring of 1928 while on leave of absence in California the author had the chance to discuss long range revolver shooting with the Capt. Hardy mentioned in the foregoing paragraphs and this resulted in our conducting tests covering three days’ firing. The work was done on the rifle and revolver range used by the Sheriffs of Los Angeles County and the Alhambra Rifle and Revolver Club, and was witnessed at times by various interested revolver shots. This range is laid out among the brown California hills but mostly in a ravine through which bothersome puffy breezes prevail in the afternoons and to a less extent in the mornings. The range runs about East and West. The Colt Police Silhouette Target was used by cutting out the silhouette and pasting it to a brown paper background four feet high and six feet wide. This paper was then mounted on a rifle target frame. Firing was done at 300 yards with an Officer’s Model Colt with 7½-inch barrel and special high rear sight. Peters .38 S. & W. Special cartridges were used.

Each shot that hit the paper target was marked with a three-inch spotter which was left in the bullet hole until the next shot was fired. A spotting telescope was used to read mirage and dope the wind and great care was taken to get the shots off under the most favorable conditions, that is, when there was a lull in the wind at the firing point and when the mirage at the target seemed to be running steadily and in the same direction for each shot. The “sighting in” was necessarily slow and was done from a substantial rest using the left hand as a support and cushion for the shooting hand. After the sights had been adjusted approximately, the final setting was determined by offhand firing. Due to a difference in eyesight or holding, it was found necessary to use a higher sight setting for Captain Hardy than for myself with the result that each time we alternated in firing we had to reset and check our sights.

The results of the first day’s firing were very encouraging, not from the standpoint of scores made, but because of the performance of the ammunition, which seemed remarkable after my previous experiences. Not a shot fell short and in fact not one hit in front of the target all day. Several hit the wooden target frame and tore through two inches of wood as though it were a shingle. Lack of practice in real close holding combined with the effects of a puffy breeze showed that we were not doing as good shooting as we knew we could do, and at the end of the day we found that we had averaged slightly better than one hit on the silhouette out of every five shots.

The second day’s experiments under very similar conditions raised the score to an average of two hits out of every five shots. On the third day all the firing was done in the morning with a little less breeze but a bad light as the sun came over the back of the target shading it badly. On this day each of us averaged three hits out of five shots and we felt that these results were quite satisfactory. The shooting did not seem difficult, in fact not nearly as hard as trying to hit the two inch center of the International bull’s-eye at fifty meters, although the black silhouette as an aiming point was relatively smaller than the eight-inch bull’s-eye and was on a darker background.

There is no doubt that under the best conditions an excellent revolver shot in good practice will make better scores than we did, but at that, three hits out of five shots at 300 yards on the half silhouette of an average sized man is not such bad work for revolvers and revolver ammunition.

One very noticeable detail about the grouping of the shots was that the vertical dispersion was much less than the horizontal errors. This may have been due to wind or to the natural tendency to have greater deflection errors in pistol shooting than errors in elevation. This point supported our contention that it was a big advantage to have a good coach when the wind and light conditions are variable and that perhaps the most important detail to master in this game is to know when not to shoot.

Prior to the firing just described we had determined the approximate height it was necessary to aim in order to hit at 300 yards with a revolver sighted for fifty yards. Using the silhouette target mounted as explained in the foregoing paragraphs we erected an aiming point on a pole above the target and when we had raised it to twenty feet we could get hits on the silhouette. The revolver used was a Colt’s Army Special .38 Cal. with 6-inch barrel. This test showed that the bullet fell approximately twenty feet below the line of aim at 300 yards.

Some firing was also done with a .22 Single Shot S. & W. Target pistol with an adjustable rear sight and the best score made was three hits out of five shots. This test was so limited on account of time that I am not prepared to say what can be done with this cartridge at 300 yards. I have used it very successfully at 200 yards with both pistol and rifle and have every reason to think that it will hold up, but undoubtedly the little 40-grain bullet is affected much more by wind currents than the heavier calibers, and more care must be taken in getting off the shots under uniform conditions. As in using the .38 Special ammunition, a good coach qualified to dope the wind and light conditions will be a great help in making good scores with the .22 Long Rifle ammunition.

If one contemplates long range firing and wishes to get the maximum satisfaction with a minimum of discouragement he will do well to consider carefully the equipment and ammunition he uses. There are a few revolver cartridges that will produce satisfactory results at long ranges and there is little to be gained by trying others. The same rule can be applied to pistols and revolvers. Problems of aiming are more difficult at long ranges because of the inherent defects of eyesight which make it impossible to avoid errors in aiming with open sights at long distances. The greater the range the greater the error. Obviously the longer sight radius we use the greater the accuracy and ease of aiming. The sight radius must necessarily be limited by the length of barrel that can be used, so we must consider not only this factor but the weight and balance of the pistol and the effect of wind on long barreled guns. The free pistols of Europe give every advantage in aiming, for with their long barrels and rear sight extension arm they have a sighting radius as long as some rifles. They also have excellent adjustable rear sights which simplify the problem of getting correct elevation. However, if used with set triggers, they are difficult to hold in a breeze and touch off at the instant the aim is correct. On still days or when firing from sheltered firing points they make good long range pistols, if chambered and rifled to use American long range .22 Long Rifle cartridges.

When it comes to the selection of revolvers for this class of work we should again resort to target guns with adjustable sights and even then it may be necessary to use higher rear sights than are issued by the factory. It is so much a matter of personal taste and the better revolvers are so nearly equal in accuracy that to say that one is the best for long range shooting is like making a decision on the best automobile. However, the accuracy of revolvers, other things being equal, depends on the ammunition for which they are designed and this limits the selection of guns to those using a few particular cartridges. There is no question about the superior ballistics of the .38 and .44 S. & W. Special cartridges when properly loaded. Any manufacturer may turn out an occasional bad lot of cartridges, as I have already indicated.

These two cartridges have frequently proven what can be done with them in long shooting and no doubt exists as to their accuracy for this work. The marksman should assure himself that whatever ammunition he uses is new and not some that has been in storage a long time under varying and extreme changes of temperature.

Going back to the question of revolvers, there are several that can be recommended. The .38 Officer’s Model Colt with 7½ inch barrel, the .38 S. & W. Military and Police Target with 6 inch barrel, the S. & W. .44 Target with 6½ inch barrel and the Colt New Service Target with 7½ inch barrel chambered for the .44 S. & W. Special cartridge are all suitable revolvers for long range work. The “Super .38 Colt Automatic Pistol,” using the latest high velocity .38 A.C.P. cartridges is also quite satisfactory for long range pistol work. This cartridge is being improved and may soon equal the .38 and .44 Special cartridges in accuracy. Smith & Wesson contend that no better shooting is possible with a 7½ inch barrel than with one of 6 inches in length and that the longer length makes holding more difficult and tends to make the arm muzzle heavy. In general the writer concurs in this statement and for ordinary target practice up to 50 yards, including slow, rapid, and timed fire, the six inch barrel is the best all-around length. For deliberate fire at 50 yards and for special practice at long ranges it is believed that the 7½ inch barrel aids materially in aiming and consequently in scoring, to say nothing of giving a slight increase in muzzle velocity with the .38 and .44 Special cartridges. Experience is the best teacher in this matter and as I have always been able to do better deliberate firing and have once won the timed fire match at Camp Perry with the longer barrel I naturally favor it for such work.

In the matter of sights the S. & W. revolvers are better equipped than the Colts. Changes of elevation are made on the front sight of the latter and there is only a limited adjustment possible, whereas the adjustable rear sight of the S. & W. target guns permits a much higher elevation. For use with my Colt Officer’s Model I have had special high rear sights made for two and three hundred yard shooting and these used with the adjustable front sight give a wide range of sight settings.