The Long-Range Handgun Load

Shooting a handgun long-range requires the right loads. But that's not all.
This week’s column deals with long-range handgun loads for revolvers and semi-auto pistols in 9mm, .357, .41, .44 and .45 calibers (not for “hand rifles” and their associated rifle calibers; I have nothing against the hand-held long shooter, such as the Remington XP and its clones, but loading for them and their longer barrels is a science unto itself).

Elmer Keith wrote much about long-range handgun work, and took many big game animals out to several hundred yards.

I have been an avid handgunner since my teenage years but didn’t really get hooked until I bought my first revolver, a Smith & Wesson Model 28, in 1973. This is the Highway Patrolman model, same exactly as the N-frame Model 27 except for finish.

With its 6-inch barrel and my near-maximum handloads, that first 28 took several deer and various varmints to over 200 yards. This was made possible due largely to the fact that I was shooting it every day. My brother-in-law owned the exact same model and, for a period of several years, neither of us was ever without a Smith.

Anyone interested in long-range handgunning should secure a copy of Sixguns by Keith, the standard reference work by Elmer Keith. Through descriptions of his various experiences written in that wonderful bygone “Keith” style, he draws a good picture of just what can be accomplished with a good handgun and a healthy dose of practice. This book was largely responsible for my entry into the world of handgun hunting; I still enjoy re-reading it today. Truly, the man that is well-practiced with a good handgun has no trouble bringing home the game.

The revolver is usually the subject when long-range handgunning is discussed. Ed McGivern, that wizard of fast and fancy revolver shooting, once said that armed with a good 6-inch .357 magnum revolver he felt he was the match of any man with a 94 Winchester to 600 yards. While I might not entirely agree with that statement, I feel completely comfortable carrying the 6-inch Smith during deer season as my only gun.

In my Model 28 Smith and my two Ruger single action guns — one a Bisley with 7 ½-inch barrel and the other a Blackhawk with 4 5/8-inch barrel — I use 14.5 grains of #2400 with the 158-grain Hornady or Nosler jacketed hollowpoint. This one load has proven very accurate and stiff enough to kill our large-bodied mountain whitetails to 200 yards, usually completely penetrating them.

While I have owned and shot just about all the “normal” handgun calibers I still like the .357 best of all, for killing power, trajectory and “shootability”, the ability to keep all of the shots in the X ring. By the way, since these loads are for a revolver, a good strong crimp is necessary to keep the bullets from backing out in the cylinders when you let one go!

The .41 magnum is a wonderful cartridge for long-range shooting and in a fairly heavy revolver with a 6” barrel it can be mastered by most shooters. My favorite load in the Model 57 Smith & Wesson is 21.8 grains of H110 with the 210-grain Hornady flat point. This load will flatten the biggest whitetail with a solid shoulder hit — at least that’s what it’s done for the 10 years I have shot with it.

There may be a difference in performance between the 240-grain, .44 Magnum load and this .41 load, but I can’t see it in live, deer-sized game. It’s very flat shooting for ranges between 100 and 200 yards.

The .44 Remington Magnum has been done and redone in print, so I won’t rehash all the BS and hype. It’s a very good long range handgun cartridge. Some say the best. But I disagree because it’s not for the majority of shooters. In a handgun with a barrel length between 6 and 10 inches, it can still be too much for most people to shoot accurately.

For shooting beyond 100 yards, I’ve  always liked the Ruger Super Blackhawk shooting 20 grains of #2400 behind the 250-grain Keith-type cast bullet. This is a great load for accuracy at long range. In my Ruger, it’s the best I’ve tried with this bullet. My second favorite is 21 grains of #2400 under the Hornady 240-grain jacketed flat point. Either will penetrate a motor block.

Long-range handgun shooting is possible with the right loads and lots of practice.
Long-range handgun shooting is possible with the right loads and lots of practice.

The .45 Colt is a great old cartridge, newly re-discovered by the cowboy action clan. My favorite load, however, is not for them. Using 7.5 grains of Unique with the 250-grain jacketed bullet from any maker in a good, strong 6 1/2-inch Ruger revolver with good sights, I can keep all my shots within 6 inches at 100 yards. This one kicks, but not as bad as the .41 and .44.

For a cast-bullet long-range load, try 15 grains of #2400 and a 250-grain Keith-style flat point, but only in a good, strong revolver.

While Keith spent the lion’s share of his time with the revolver, some semi-auto handguns can be remarkable performers at long range. My son Wade and I have done some good work with the Beretta 92FS and 5.5 grains of Blue Dot under the 147-grain Speer hollow point. From a steady rest we can repeatedly hit a coffee can at 150 yards, not bad for the “anemic” 9mm Luger cartridge and a semi-auto, fixed-sight pistol. This is not a deer load, but if pressed it would do to this range, if it were necessary.

The old .45 ACP can also turn in some respectable long-range groups, in the right gun, in the right hands. We shoot a lot of .45 ammo. My favorite load for game is also a great self-defense load, and is pretty darn accurate in Wade’s Colt Government 1911. It is 6 grains of Unique with the 230-grain hollowpoint from Speer.

Some say it’s not powerful enough for long-range shooting, but I don’t think I’d want to be hit by it, at any range. I’ve seen Wade, with his 25-year-old eyes, keep a full magazine of shots on a 5-gallon bucket at 200 yards and inside of 5 inches at 100. (Damn kid.)

As usual, take these loads as maximum and work up carefully to them. As I have no control over your load technique or system, I can assume no liability for your use of them.

Walt Hampton is a professional gunsmith and writer from Virginia. He and his son operate Buck Mountain Rifle Works, building custom rifles and making replacement gunstocks. Visit his website at www.buckmountainrifleworks.com or write him at walt@buckmountainrifleworks.com


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