Little Pistols — How Far Will They Shoot Accurately

Do you carry a small pistol? Maybe a “pocket pistol”? How far can you expect to accurately shoot with it? Statistics tell us that most gunfights take place within three yards and expend approximately three rounds of ammunition, and generally last three seconds. So basically 3-3-3. Until they don’t. It’s nice to know statistics and to train mostly for what those figures tell us will likely happen. That said, I’m not sure we should entirely hang our hat on what usually happens. Thinking along these lines, I recently took four smaller pistols to the range to see how they would fare at extended distances.

Recent Events

Not long ago, a fellow had to engage a bad guy at a mall, and the range was around 40 or so yards, if my memory serves me. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon, given this example, of expecting their pistols to need to be able to reach out at distance in case a goblin has to be engaged.

A shopping mall.
Shopping malls can offer some very long-range shots.

The event got many of us thinking. And, without a doubt, this was not the only time in history that a good guy had to make his pea shooter reach out to a farther distance than comfortable to neutralize a threat. It does happen from time to time.

Maybe we’re in the grocery store shopping and a lunatic with a gun comes in and needs to be taken down. The ranges in some grocery stores can be quite long, well in excess of 40 yards. Same with a shopping mall or perhaps a parking lot. All offer distances that are pretty far and would stretch not only our skills but the capabilities of the handguns we might carry.

Conditions

I decided to shoot out to 75 yards on the premise that 75 yards is a pretty healthy range to be shooting small handguns at. It will certainly give us an idea of how effective these pistols are, out past the “bad breath” distance where most of them are designed to be used at.

All strings of fire were shot “cold.” That is, no warm-up or practice shots were taken. And there were no alibis; if a group sucked, it had to stand as it was, there were no re-shoots to see if I could tighten up the groups. That hurt! Because a few times, I was very tempted to shoot a stage over because I just knew that I could do better the next time around! I think it actually caused me physical pain to let some of those groups stand as they were.

25, 50, 75 yard range.
25, 50, and 75 yards are long shots for small handguns. Are you up to the challenge?

I fired five shots at each stage of the course. Why five? Because that’s what my revolver holds and I figured I’d keep things relatively equal across the board. And five shots will give us a decent representation of what a handgun is capable of as far as groups are concerned. Even so, I’d have obviously scored more hits on the targets had I fired a full magazine at each stage (and I’d have certainly missed more too, so I think all things were equal).

The stages were simple: targets were set up at 25, 50, and 75 yards. Standard B-27 targets were used. I fired from sitting at a bench and used my shooting bag as a rest. I wanted to take as much shooter error out of the test as I was able. Despite that, I know that I pulled a few shots as soon as they broke, not being accustomed to shooting at such distances on a normal basis.

The Guns

I used four handguns for this test. Three are mine and one is my daughter’s. If you don’t see your handgun listed here, it’s not because I don’t like it; rather, it’s because I don’t own it. I only have so many resources, so I went with what I have.

The guns that I used were:

  • S&W 642 in .38 Special firing 130-grain FMJ.
  • S&W CSX 9mm (all 9mm were firing 124-grain FMJ rounds)
  • Glock 43X
  • Springfield Armory Hellcat.

All of these handguns are good shooters at close range, say 20 yards. I believe they represent a good cross-section of what many people carry these days.

A Twist

I am right eye dominant and have used my right eye for distance shooting ever since I began shooting at the age of five. Now that I’m in my 50’s, things have shifted. My left eye sees the sights more clearly now. Because of this, for this test, I was firing right-handed but using my left eye. It is something I’m really not used to. No, I’m not dredging up excuses for crappy shooting. It is what it is. The challenges of aging are many and they affect shooting time on the range as they do many other aspects of our lives.

Jim Davis shooting pistol at long range
Old guy eyes. Diminishing vision does not make shooting any easier.

Shooting Little Pistols at Long Range — The Test

S&W 642

The barrel length on the 642 is 1 7/8 inches, being the shortest out of all the handguns used in the test. The sight radius is, obviously, extremely short. At 25 yards, the S&W 642 started out shooting fairly low, with the first two rounds impacting near the bottom of the target. I adjusted my aim and brought the following three rounds up. The results weren’t fabulous, but I scored four out of five hits on the target with one near miss.

25 yard target, 642.
The S&W 642 at 25 yards was viable. The author had to work to keep rounds on the target.

At fifty yards, the revolver was shooting so low that two rounds just clipped the bottom of the paper on the silhouette. I had been aiming at the neck region of the target. Bullet drop was extreme. The other rounds didn’t even hit the paper. But since I was committed to no do-overs, that was it. I’m sure I could have brought all five rounds on target had I aimed above the head of the silhouette.

Given these results, I did not bother trying to connect at 75 yards, as the holdover would have been extreme. Part of the issue was the extremely heavy trigger pull, which is an obstacle to accurate shooting. But in the end, the bullet drop got me. The fixed sights do not allow adjustment, so there was no way to make sight adjustments. To be fair, though, this little Airweight revolver is not designed for distance shooting, so the fixed sights are not unreasonable.

Bottom line—at 25 yards and a little beyond, the small revolver is viable. Beyond that, it’s a crap shoot. These are my results, and others might be able to do a lot better than I could. Just remember, it’s important for you, the shooter, to take your shooting irons to the range and see what you’re capable of!

S&W CSX

I’ve been carrying this little 9mm beauty for a few months now and like it a lot. It’s very compact and has a super comfortable grip. The alloy frame and single action are enough to be refreshingly different and fun. The barrel length is 3.1 inches and the capacity is 10+1 and 12+1 rounds.

My first string at 25 yards was decent. As soon as I broke the first shot, I knew I pulled it, and sure enough, it hit low on the target. The other four rounds were center mass. Overall, I was pleased.

25 yard CSX target.
At 25 yards, the CSX acquitted itself well.

At 50 yards, I wish I’d done a little better. I had a couple of center hits, but pulled two shots high, just grazing the head and neck of the target. Realizing that these errors were shooter induced, the CSX is still good to go at 50 yards.

At 75 yards, I was disappointed. I pulled two shots completely off the target, only scoring three hits. And one of those was a peripheral hit. So for 75 yards, the CSX is a bit shaky. Granted, I’m certain that, with a little practice, I could score better hits. And that’s something to keep in mind with your shooting, too—practice will improve things. I was doing this cold and had never fired the CSX at this range, so maybe this wasn’t such a horrible thing after all.

Glock 43X

The Glock 43X is a bit larger than the S&W’s that I used, so I expected a bit more out of it. I was not disappointed. Although the 43X is not a large pistol, it’s nowhere near a pocket pistol. I’d consider it to be around Medium sized for today’s handguns. The grip is slim and comfortable, which really is an advantage. The magazine is not quite a single stack, as it is slightly staggered, but it’s thinner than a double-stack magazine. As well, the sight radius is a little longer than the S&W’s that I used, which is another advantage. It’s a smooth shooter, for sure, and had the lowest recoil of any pistol fired this day. The barrel length of this pistol is 3.41 inches and the capacity is 10+1 rounds.

At 25 yards, I pulled two shots low, with the rest being center mass. All in all, each hit would have been effective.

25 yard 43X target.
The 25-yard target for the Glock 43X. Not bad. At this time of the day, the sun was shining in the author’s eyes, which did not make shooting more pleasant.

At 50 yards, the hits were low (mostly the 7 and 8 ring), and I managed to pull one nearly all the way off the target, it just hit the edge of the paper. The four shots that did hit, though, were surprisingly well-grouped.

Closeup of 50 yard 43X target.
A closer view of the 50-yard 43X target.

For 75 yards, I scored four hits and one miss. The four hits were fairly solid ones. So, out to at least 75 yards, the Glock 43X is effective. I believe it would be effective out to at least 100 yards, possibly a bit further. Again, your shooting may be better than mine.

Springfield Armory Hellcat

The Hellcat is a nicely concealable pistol that is a pleasure to carry. The one that I used for the test was borrowed from a family member who carries it often. The barrel length is three inches and the capacity is 11+1 and 13+1.

At 25 yards, the Hellcat did not disappoint, with all five rounds being solid hits. Out at 50 yards, I was pulling shots to the left but managed five hits, with one being near the bottom of the target. At 75 yards, I had four good hits and one miss. I believe the Hellcat would make hits to 100 yards and beyond, especially with a little practice.

75 yard Hellcat target.
At 75 yards, the author called one flyer that missed the target. The rest of the hits were viable.

Final Thoughts

I’ll admit that I was disappointed by the 642’s performance; I thought I’d be able to reach out to 50 yards with it. And with better sights, maybe I could have.

Two of the four pistols were solid performers out to at least 75 yards (the Hellcat and Glock 43X). They likely would go further, especially with some practice. And that really is what it all boils down to—practice. If you take a little time and get familiar with your handgun at extended ranges, it will pay dividends.

If you’re wondering how far you can effectively fire your pistol, especially the micro pistols that are popular today, give it a try at the range. You have nothing to lose except for a little time and ammo. At the most, it could save your life or the lives of loved ones.

No, it’s not a high probability that we’ll find ourselves shooting past even 25 yards. As outlined, though, there are places that we may find ourselves in our day-to-day travels that could necessitate us making a longer shot. One never knows these days what is going to happen next. Does it hurt to be over-prepared? I think not.

Jim Davis served in the PA Dept. of Corrections for 16 ½ years as a corrections officer in the State Correctional Institute at Graterford and later at SCI Phoenix. He served on the Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT), several of those years as a sniper, and also the Fire Emergency Response Team (FERT). For 25 years, he was a professional instructor, teaching topics including Defensive Tactics, Riot Control and Tactical Operations, Immediate Responder, and cognitive programs as an adjunct instructor at the DOC Training Academy. He was then promoted to the title of corrections counselor, where he ran a caseload and facilitated cognitive therapy classes to inmates. His total service time was close to 29 years. He was involved in many violent encounters on duty, including incidents of fatalities.

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