Effective Range of a Defensive Handgun

When considering your options for everyday carry, how often do you think about the maximum range you can shoot your weapon? Do you ever factor in your maximum effective range? When it comes to civilian self-defense and concealed carry, the expectation is often short-range engagements. Is that always the case? Should you train and practice to hit threats at 25 or even 50 yards? If so, how do you do that?

What’s more important: long-range or short-range shooting? Today, we plan to dig deep into the discussion of the effective range of a defensive handgun. 

Tactical Considerations

Many people will often rely on the classic 3-yards, 3-rounds, in 3-seconds argument. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s an argument that proclaims most self-defense encounters will occur at three yards, will involve three shots fired, and will occur in about three seconds. 

The argument isn’t wrong, but people rightly point out situations like the Greenwood Mall shooting, where a concealed carrier engaged a threat at 40ish yards and closed the distance. 

Another involved a cop firing one shot at a distance of 312 feet to stop an active shooter. 

Walther PDP and Glock 49
The Walther PDP Compact and Glock 49 with red dot sites. [Photo: Jason Mosher]
These events are outliers. It’s tough to gather some kind of country-wide consensus on the average engagement, but from the sources who have tried, we know that civilian defensive encounters tend to occur at closer rather than longer ranges. Professional firearms instructor Darryl Bolke once told me: 

“3 rounds at 3 yards in 3 seconds is a real thing within the context of folks with a lot of experience in domestic criminal violence.” 

It bears mentioning that Mr. Bolke is also an advocate for training at a variety of ranges and is a very accomplished shooter in his own right. Many people have trouble shooting at 5 yards, much less 50. 

firearm training
The more training you have, the further you can shoot. [Photo: Public Domain]
In my opinion, it pays to be a versatile shooter that’s capable of engaging at both close and long ranges. If you can only focus on one, then it seems like close-range engagements make the most sense. 

Mechanical Limits 

All firearms have mechanical limits to their accuracy. What separates a stock-standard Remington 700 from a Marine Corps Mk 13? They are both bolt-action rifles, but the Mk 13 is designed to be more accurate at extreme ranges. Mechanical accuracy exists. Will a gun’s mechanical accuracy limit your ability to engage a threat at long range? 

In reality, no, it’s not likely. Most handguns are pretty accurate, and a skilled shooter can take some far shots with their handgun. When you see an instructor demonstrate a hit at 75 yards with a P365 with iron sights, you realize, oh, hey, it’s not the gun. 

Colt Python revolver
Colt’s top-line Python cost $125 new and was suitable for Police Combat competition that had begun half a decade earlier using Colt silhouette targets similar to this one. [Photo: Travis Pike]
You’d have to be an extremely skilled shooter to outshoot your firearm’s mechanical accuracy. There are limits to the accuracy your ammunition can achieve. Handgun rounds can vary, but 9mm is an example cartridge that works best within 50 yards but can be shot out to 100 yards. 

Pistol rounds, in general, will become less stable at extreme ranges. What extreme range means depends on a variety of factors and changes from cartridge to cartridge. Most people won’t dedicate the time to becoming capable enough to outshoot their ammo with a handgun, but it’s more likely that you’ll outshoot your ammo’s ballistic capability than your gun’s mechanical capability. 

Skill Limits 

As much as it hurts my ego, the thing that stops me from shooting accurately at long ranges is me. It’s a skill issue. We’ve talked a bit about the tactical considerations and if the skill is needed. I think being a versatile shooter is invaluable. It’s a tough skill to build. For some shooters, especially new shooters, hitting an A-zone at 15 yards is tough. 

856 keeps a low profile
The 856 keeps a low profile for concealed carry. [Photo: Travis Pike]
Your skill limits are the easiest thing to change, but it takes time, a range, and lots of practice. I think a good shooter can easily learn to engage an IPSC, USPSA, or similar-sized target at 50 yards with decent accuracy. A week of good practice can make this a viable skill. Make sure you utilize lots of dry fire, reduced-sized targets, and some live fire every so often. 

Legal Limits 

There does seem to be a ton of misinformation regarding the legal limits on the range at which you can engage a threat. I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice, but I’ve never seen a law written with any regard to engaging a threat at specific ranges. Ultimately, most self-defense laws justify the use of deadly force if you reasonably believe that your life or the life of others is in danger. 

The forum lawyer telling you if you shoot a guy beyond 21 feet, you’ll be thrown in prison is selling you a load of bull. An active shooter at 50 yards is still a threat to your lives and the lives of others, so the range doesn’t really matter. It’s about the threat’s ability to harm you or others. 

How To Shoot Further 

I’ve gotten to the point where I can shoot pretty decently at longer ranges. I’m no pro, but I have learned a few things that I can pass on. I’m currently at the level where I can consistently and somewhat easily engage an IPSC-sized target at 50 yards with my P365. With my XFive P320, I’m capable of hitting targets as far as 100 yards. However, I’m only consistently able to hit a target at 75 yards. 

The biggest thing that helped me was learning to keep a solid, consistent grip on the gun. You’ll quickly learn that how you pull the trigger isn’t nearly as important as you thought. Your grip on the gun matters more than what your trigger finger is doing. Don’t just take my advice. John Shrek McPhee, a Delta Force member, says the same thing. Rob Leatham seems to slap the hell out of his trigger, and his shots land.

Outside of that, you’ll need to focus on finding a good stance, one that’s supportive and allows you to maintain stability with your firearm. A good sight picture matters, and admittedly, your sights will often cover your target. 

Outside of Skill 

With that in mind, some factors can increase your capabilities outside of skill. Namely, a red dot. A red dot on your handgun makes it much easier to shoot at longer ranges. Red dots cover less of the target, and you aren’t relying upon your ability to line up your sights to take the shot. Additionally, bigger guns are easier to shoot than smaller guns. The bigger grip is easier to grab, and more weight equals less recoil. 

nighthawk 1911
Nighthawk’s Richard Heine Long Slide 1911 is chambered in 10mm. [Photo: Nighthawk Custom]
Additionally, some calibers just work better at longer ranges than others. Flat shooting calibers like 10mm are great for longer ranges. The usual suspects, like the .357 Magnum, do well, and even oddballs like 5.7×28 do well at longer ranges. However, swapping calibers just on the off chance that you’ll need to take a longer shot doesn’t seem practical. 

The effective range of your defensive handgun is tied to many factors. Skill is one of the biggest factors, and luckily, it’s the easiest to build. Do you need that skill? I hope not, but it could be a very valuable one to have.

Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine Gunner and a lifelong firearms enthusiast. Now that his days of working a 240B like Charlie Parker on the sax are over he's a regular guy who likes to shoot, write, and find ways to combine the two. He holds an NRA certification as a Basic Pistol Instructor and is probably most likely the world's Okayest firearm instructor. He is a simplicisist when it comes to talking about himself in the 3rd person and a self-professed tactical hipster. Hit him up on Instagram, @travis.l.pike, with story ideas.

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