Long Range Handgunning

by Skeeter Skelton


Shooting Times Magazine

November 1968


Dave Beavers is a better handgun shot than I am. At least he says he is, and when you think as positively as this irascible Texas gunsmith, saying so wins half the pistol match.


Dave keeps a little bullet trap in the back of his cluttered gun shop, and we lock horns in occasional night time indoor schutzenfests. Shooting one .22 hole into a white, bull-less target paper we then use that first hole for a mark and fire a five shot string, the tightest group winning the money.


Under flickering fluorescent lights (I suspect Beavers of deliberately keeping them that way to bumfuzzle the competition), we shoot his High Standard Supermatic with its high, black steel target sights and a Smith & Wesson K-22 to which he has affixed a red insert ramp front and white outline rear blade. Both guns have trigger pulls of less than two pounds, are superbly accurate, and are sighted precisely dead center at this 15 foot range.


Under these conditions, Beavers invariable cleans my plow. The dim lights make my eyes water as I try to line up on the flyspeck size .22 hole. The ⅛” width front blades swallow up the tiny spot, and it is almost impossible to tell when it lies atop the center of the post. My blurry vision betrays me, and I frequently let the post lie right or left in the rear notch, shooting wide when things seem right for a center hit.


This is Dave’s bag. He’s been shooting the same course for years, and seldom shoots a group a penny wouldn’t cover. The fact that he lost the vision of his right eye in an accident and must shoot righthanded from his left eye is not exactly balm to my ego.


My revenge on this indoor shark came while we were sighting in our deer rifles preparatory to a Colorado hunting trip. I hate to admit it, but Dave is also a fine rifle shot. After getting his scoped .270 Mauser on the money at 200 yards he jerked his chin at an old badger hole in the face of the caliche hill that backstopped our rifle range. The hole was about four feet in diameter, and lay about 25 yards beyond our 300 yard target frame. “Let’s say that’s a deer,” said Beav, drawing a quick bead and snapping an offhand shot that kicked up dust in the little cave.


He had named my game. Pulling my .44 Ruger, I leveled at the distant hole, held up a hunk of the front sight, and squeezed, while Dave smiled smugly, sure I would miss by a mile.


The first slug kicked up chalky dust, 20 yards short of the hole. Getting a fresh breath, I extended a hair more of the front blade above the shoulder of the rear sight and squeezed again. After a definite wait, the 250 gr. Cast bullet thunked into the cavern, throwing out a dusty cloud. The remaining three followed it in, one glancing off the badger den’s rim in a sort of bank shot.


“Well, I’ll be damned,” said old Beav.


The rest of the evening dissipated itself while he got the hang of this handgun mortar work, using his own S&W .44 Magnum and his own handloads. After about ten rounds he was as adept as I, but insisted on playing the new game until his shells were all burned up.


As it does to everyone who hasn’t tried, it seemed farfetched to Dave, this proposition of hitting a target several hundred yards away with a handgun that is sighted for 25 yard shooting. The fact is that with the right outfit, long range pistol shooting is much easier than it looks. By way of equipment, you need an inherently accurate handgun, preferably in a powerful, flat shooting caliber, with a light trigger pull. Above this, the most important special equipage necessary on your farshooter is a set of good sights.


Before the turn of this century, a thoughtful gent named E.E. Patridge devised a type of handgun sight that, fortunately for serious shooters, has become the standard in this country. Miscalled the “Partridge” type by some, this arrangement replaced the older thin-blade-and-U-notch sights of earlier cartridge revolvers and found quick acceptance by the target buffs of the day.


The Patridge sight is superior to older styles because the sight picture it offers tends to warn immediately of any misalignment. The front blade choose a blade of  1/10” or even less width parallel vertical sides and a flat top. This flat top can easily be lined up with the equally flat upper plane of the rear sight to give perfect elevation control.


Windage errors are corrected by centering the sides of the front blade in the rectangular rear notch, the walls of which are also parallel to each other and to those of the blade. When the strips of light visible at either side of the blade are of equal size, and the blade’s top is on the same level as the top of the rear shoulders, you have a perfect sight picture, and one that can be duplicated with no guesswork. This duplication leads to hitting the same spot, every time.


While they have an application in snapshooting at fixed ranges, bead front sights, along with the semicircular rear notches that usually accompany them, lack the versatility of the Patridge. Ordinarily of  some eye-catching, colored material such as ivory, gold or red plastic, the convex surface of the bead sometimes fools the eye when sunlight hits it from the side. The light reflecting from the bead gives the side it hits the illusion of more width, and the shooter tries to move this seemingly wider bead into the center of the notch, thus shooting away from the source of the light, and making a wide hit.


About the only handgun manufacturer that today offers any option in sights is Smith & Wesson. Any of their target revolvers may be fitted with the standard Patridge front and adjustable rear. If you prefer, and most shooters who carry their handgun in a holster do, the vertical Patridge blade may be replaced with a ramped version, serrated to retard light reflection, that runs easily in and out of the leather without dragging or scraping up pieces of fiber that cling to the metal and impair the sight picture.


If you wish, the S&W front blade may have a McGivern gold bead set in its face. This bead has the fault of the traditional bead in that it gathers light from the side, but an advantage in that it can be blacked out with a flame when the usual patridge picture is desired.


A better bead is the Call model, which is inset in a hole in the sight face, protected from sidelights. The face of the S&W blade may also be had with a red plastic inlay which gives the same rectangular outline as the standard Patridge but shows up better against dark backgrounds in the woods or against the black bullseye of a target.


This red insert is also available on the S&W front ramp, and is standard on the .44 Magnum and .41 Magnum models. It is usually accompanied by a rear sight leaf that has its notch outlined with a white stripe, to offer quicker contrast for the eye to pick up.


Under certain conditions, these colored sights are superior, but for all-purpose use I prefer the standard, blued steel Patridge, in the ramped form when holster work is contemplated. To my eyes, the red insert glares excessively when a shot into the source of light is attempted, and it becomes difficult to center. When the light comes from behind the shooter, the red blade is crisply outlined and shows up beautifully.


As for the standard, all-steel ramp, it is never as clearly defined as the flat front of a true Patridge blade unless it is smoked. A further improvement on the standard blade is the old Marine Corps sight, which is a sloping undercut that leaves its surface in the shadows. It is the most distinctly seen of any Patridge-type blade, but is impossible in a holster.


The European V notch rear and inverted V front combination as found on Mauser rifles and Luger, Mauser, and some Browning pistols is not as bad as it has been made out to be for close range work. Correctly aligned, the sight picture forms a W, the middle point made by the front blade. I have managed some good shooting with these sights as long as it was not necessary to elevate the front blade out of the rear notch to compensate for extreme range – then they become impossible.


The rear sight on my military Browning handles the problem well by being quickly adjustable in 50 meter increments to a range of 500 meters, leaving the same sight picture at each interim range. In practice, the settings on my Browning’s sight are quite accurate and dependable, but those on many pistols with similar sights are not, and in any case are dependent on ammunition of standard velocity and bullet weight to be reliable.


Adjustable sights on your long range gun are most desirable, but not necessarily for the reason you may surmise. Some shooters elevate their rear sights and sight in for 100 yard shooting. This leaves them shooting impossibly high when a target is presented at 25 or 50 yards. If, in order to maintain the classic Patridge sight picture their eye has become used to, they run the rear leaf up to 500 yards, they must forget close range work until the pistol has been tediously resighted.


Different loads shoot to a different point of aim. I prefer to adopt a single load for each of my handguns. I carefully sight the gun in at 25 yards – the range at which the bulk of my shooting is done. Then, at longer ranges, I learn through practice just how much of the front sight must be held above the level of the rear sight to score a hit.


At extreme ranges the rather thick Patridge sight comes to appear much wider than the usual target. I prefer the center hold, rather than the target shooter’s 6 o’clock hold, at ranges up to about 75 yards. Beyond that, because of the target’s beginning to look like a sugar ant crawling on the top of a brick, I place the mark on top of the post. At long ranges the ⅛” sight is too coarse, especially on barrels of less than 6”. When they are available, I choose a blade of 1/10” or even less width for a long range handgun.


Revolvers are better than automatics for long range shooting for two reasons. First, the best long range guns are the magnums, which shoot heavy, wind-bucking bullets at velocities unattainable by today’s autos. Second, the sight picture problem with which we are trying to cope demands that the front sight be rather high, so that we may elevate it far above the rear notch for a hit at, say, 400 yards.


Try this with a 1911 .45 automatic and you will be looking at the fat part of the slide after the nubby front blade has compensated for no more than 75 yards’ range. The .45ACP target guns, with their extremely high sights, are well suited for long practice, but are handicapped by the leisurely ballistics of their high-trajectory load.


When I tell my shooting pals to hold up a dab of front sight to hit that big rock across the canyon, they invariably look puzzled and justifiably ask, “How much is a ‘dab’?” I can’t answer them but I can give an example.


My .44 Magnum Ruger has a 7 ½” barrel. It is sighted to the point of aim at 25 yards, using the Remington jacketed softpoint load. I have never shot this revolver from a machine rest, but as near as I can tell from sandbag shooting, it shoots thus sighted 1 ½” low at 50 yards, 3” low at 75 yards, and 6” at 100 yards. To elevate 6” on a target 100 yards from the gun requires only a tiny amount of holdover.


The amount of holdover needed as a range is stretched and the bullet slows down in enormously magnified. By the time my bullets are taking a big target at 400 yards, I am evening up the back-sight with the shoulder on the lower part of the sloped front blade, exposing approximately ¼” of sight above the plane of the rear leaf.


Another load that goes up or down the scale in bullet weight or powder charge would necessitate holding up a different measure of sight blade. Multiply this by the number of good calibers available, and the different handloads they could be stoked with, and you’ll see why it is impractical for anyone to tell you exactly how much front sight must be held up for those long shots with your caliber and load.


The solution waits for you out on some lonesome flat, with maybe an old oil drum or an abandoned car body that will toll your hits with a tinny “thunk”. Take a two-handed hold, from a steady rest. Lift up some front sight, then a little more for good measure. Hold your breath, squeeze the trigger, then wait until the dirt flies. A cylinder of cartridges will tell you how much sight blade constitutes a dab.


Holding the same sized dab for that next shot is the hard part.


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