I do not like summer! I would gladly trade every July and August for one great October. This particular long hot summer had been worst than most, actually there were three painful summers in a row. The only way to survive summers with any semblance of a good attitude remaining is plenty of time for shooting, camping, hiking, and outdoor activities with the family. However, my last three had been spent sitting in a non-air conditioned graduate school classroom at the University of Montana working on my Master’s Degree. Like most things, good or bad, the time passed and it was finally over. I had survived. I had my degree. I deserved a reward.
A stop at the Gunhaus revealed the appropriate specimen, my wife graciously agreed, and I had my first long range single action sixgun. At the time I felt $150 was a lot of money to spend for a Ruger single action sixgun, however it was unlike any Ruger .44 Magnum I had ever seen and the stocks, although factory, were made of beautifully grained fancy walnut. What made this Ruger .44 Flat-Top different is the fact it was one of the very rare 10” sixguns made in the early 1960s. My wife insisted that we could afford it and she has proven to be far more perceptive than I am as that Flat-Top Ruger is now worth at least six times what we paid for it.
For hunting, that Ruger was matched up with one of the Al Goerg shoulder holsters of the time. I would hate to have to retrace all the miles the Ruger, shoulder holster, and I made together. When Ruger dropped the Flat-Top Model in favor of the Old Models in 1963, the longest barrel offered was the 7 1/2” version Super Blackhawk. With the debut of the New Model Super Blackhawk .44 Magnum in 1973, the barrel length stayed at 7 1/2”. As a mate to my 10” Flat-Top, I had Trapper Gun build me a custom New Model .44 Magnum with a 10” barrel and a satin nickel finish. That sixgun is marked “Trapper Long Range” on the left side of the barrel and has also been used for many hunting trips both with iron sights and a scope for more than 25 years.
My wife and I both were early participants and eventually settled on a pair of long range single actions for Revolver Category when Ruger finally brought out 10 1/2” .44 Magnum Super Blackhawks for the silhouette shooters. Both of those sixguns were magnificently accurate, however even they were runner-ups to Ruger’s next long-range sixgun, the 10 1/2” stainless Ruger Super Blackhawk. They shot well; this one really shoots very well!
Elmer Keith writing in Sixguns (1955) Keith said, “During the Indian campaigns on the plains, quite a few cavalry officers who had learned to shoot a sixgun during the Civil War became very expert at long-range revolver shooting. Many a time with their horses shot out from under them, they were able to keep enemies out at long rifle range and completely out of bowshot with the old 7 ½” Peacemaker. A good revolver shot with a long barrel gun and accurate heavy ammunition, can, and they frequently did, make it hot for enemy horsemen out to 400 or 500 yards. When the shooting was over dry, dusty plains or over water where the strike of the bullet could be located, they could hold accordingly and soon walked their shots onto the target.”
Twenty-five years earlier Keith had writing about long-range sixguns in two of articles in the American Riflemen (Sep. 1928, Apr. 1929) told of a visit from Harold Croft and the long-range shooting at 700 yards they did on Keith’s little cattle ranch out of Durkee Oregon. Keith would follow these articles with one in November 1930 showing pictures of custom Flat-Topped Colt Single Actions and Bisley Models looking much like the current Ruger Blackhawks and Bisley Blackhawks. Want to bet a young teenager by the name of Bill Ruger saw and mentally preserved those old articles? In an article written in May of 1939, Keith mentions earlier proponents of long-range shooting such as Chauncey Thomas, E.A. Price, and Ashley Haines, all well-established writers and editors when Keith was a young man.
B Western cowboys always shot one-handed and there is a faction of the Cowoby Shooting game who wants to see only one-handed shooting claiming two-handed shooting is a recent arrival with Jack Weaver and his ilk, but no one knows who the first pistolero to practice long range sixgunning was. I would guess it goes back at least to the Walker Colt of 1847. We do know that the Colt Walker was advertised as being effective on both man and horse out to 200 yards. To hit as this range one needs a solid rest or two-hands. Early in his writing career Elmer Keith began talking about sixguns that were more than a short range proposition, and after being guided by Keith on a pack trip, Zane Grey wrote the novel “Thunder Mountain” featuring the use of a sixgun at long-range.
Keith often talked of shooting his sixguns at ranges of 500 and 600 yards using such targets as rocks and stumps. At no time did he ever advocate taking such long range shots at big game. For Keith and men like him from his time frame, the big bore sixgun, be it .44 Special, .45 Colt, or the later .44 and .41 Magnums, was a tool of convenience that was belted on in the morning and not taken off until bedtime at which time it probably went under the pillow or bedroll to spend the night within easy reach.
The sport of Long Range Silhouetting certainly proved all of these men were correct in their assessment of the use of revolvers for long-range shooting. Several shooters have managed to shoot perfect scores taking down all 40 targets, 10 each at 50, 100,150, and 200 meters with a revolver. I never achieved perfection but did come close shooting a score of 38 with my single action 10 ½” Ruger .357 Maximum leaving one turkey and one ram standing. That remains, and will always remain, a local club record as the club has disbanded and the rails removed. The Maximum came after the 10 1/2” Ruger .44 Magnum Super Blackhawks my wife and I both used, and later came the Freedom Arms 10 1/2” in .454 Casull, .44 Magnum, and the most accurate sixgun I have ever experienced, the Model 83 .41 Magnum.
I decided to find out for myself if Sam Walker and Keith were correct in that it was possible someone caught in the open could actually survive against a large group of hostiles with nothing more than a Colt Single Action US issue 7 1/2” .45 Colt. No, I did not shoot a horse to use for cover and a rest, however the sixgun used was an original circa 1881 US marked 7 ½” Colt Single Action Army chambered in .45 Colt. Instead of modern square sights with a square rear notch matched up with an equally square front sight, this old sixgun has a very shallow “V” rear sight and a very thin tapered front sight. With black powder loads, the only loads that should be used in an old sixgun such as this one, I knew it would keep five shots in one inch at 50 feet. I used the same loads, a 255 grain conical bullet over 40 grains of black powder in old style balloon head brass, as this was the original loading of the .45 Colt.
Shooting two-handed and using a solid rest such as the saddle on a downed horse would be, I discovered several things. Standard man silhouette targets were set up at 50, 100, and 200 yards and the old .45 Colt and I went to work with two cylinders full fired at each target. At 50 yards that old sixgun and I could be counted on to deliver head-shots; if our targets were at this range and standing still they had no chance. At 100 yards, we could consistently place our shots all in the body; once again, the enemy would not have a chance. Moving out to 200 yards changed things consideerably. Sighting at this distance with those 125-year-old sights, and my not quite as old eyes, made it very difficult. I never did hit the outlined body of the target silhouette, however I did hit the paper several times and those shots that did miss the paper were so close that any enemy would consider real carefully about moving from any cover he had.
Long-ranging shooting, like plinking, has no rules, no required stances, no maximum sight radius, and no caliber restrictions. Even though I prefer big bore calibers, .44 and up as the bigger and heavier the bullet the easier it is to see it hit; and longer barrels, 7 ½” to 10 ½” for shooting at long distances. We can shoot as away as we can see and also shoot safely. This is for fun shooting not for hunting! The longest revolver shot I ever made at a big game animal was 125 yards on a Texas whitetail buck. The revolver was a Freedom Arms Model 83 7 ½” .44 Magnum with a 2X Leupold scope, a revolver that had been shot extensively during many whitetail hunts and always used with the same ammunition, Black Hills’ 240 gr. jacketed hollowpoint. I knew the sixgun, I knew the ammunition, and I knew what I was capable of doing when shooting from a solid rest. I had a solid rest, the whitetail was standing perfectly broadside presenting me with my kind of shot and the results were perfect. One shot, one deer whose only movement was straight down.
We have no restrictions placed upon us when long-range shooting with iron-sighted sixguns at inanimate objects except the responsibility of a safe place to shoot with a backstop for any shots we fire. Whether we miss or hit has no great consequences. No prizes are awarded if we hit, no animal suffers needlessly if we have a near miss. If so inclined we can count only the hits and forget the misses if we also learn in the process. It is very unlikely we will ever have to hold off a half dozen pursuers while waiting for help to come but it is mighty reassuring to know if we had to we could.
Rocks and old tree stumps make excellent targets, however any safe target is acceptable, with a large safe backstop being absolutely necessary. It should go without saying, that signs, utility poles, etc. are totally out if the question. As our country becomes more and more urbanized with housing developments packed closer and closer together it is imperative we know where are bullets are going to finally come to rest. Many of the barren areas I used for long-range shooting 35 years ago are now places of habitation.
My pistol packin’ preacher friend and Brother, Jim Taylor, were shooting above the Gray’s River in Wyoming during a Shootists Holiday in the late 1980s. Our targets were long abandoned log cabins constructed of logs six to eight inches in diameter, and our sixguns were quite similar. Jim and I were both using 7 ½” Rugers, his a first-year .45 Colt Blackhawk and mine an even older .44 Magnum Flat-Top. Ou r laods were also much alike, both of us using 300 grain bullets, his at 1,200 fps, mine slightly over 1,300 fps. Sitting down on the hillside with a right knee drawn up and used as a rest neither one of us had any problems hitting those cabins; even at 700 yards they were fairly large targets.
What is of significance is the fact those bullets had enough energy left at that distance to penetrate the front wall and exit the back. Once heavyweight bullets get moving they are very difficult to stop. After Elmer Keith told of his now famous 600 yard shot on a mule deer wounded by another hunter, Col. Charles Askins said he would stand out at 600 yards and catch any .44 Magnum bullets fired from a sixgun in a catcher’s mitt. He would have needed a mitt made of heavy-duty steel!
The next year again in Wyoming, outside of Cody this time, we set up a two-foot square section of metal brightly painted orange and propped up against some sagebrush on the side of the hill. The distance was 700-800 yards this time and it looked awfully small out there in the sagebrush over fixed sights. This time shooting the same .45 Colt load in a 4 ¾” Freedom Arms and standing using both hands, I was able to hit that target several times before my box of 100 rounds was gone. Normally shooting long-range we do not hold over the target but rather raise the front sight in the rear notch with the target perched on top of the front sight just as Elmer Keith had always taught. This target was so far away I had to aim at a sagebrush bush way above it.
As mentioned earlier my preferred sixgun set-up for shooting long-range is a 7 ½” to 10 ½” barreled single action big bore revolver and I prefer I to have large, square, black sights. For my eyes the choice is a black front post without a white outline rear sight. An undercut post is even better but it wreaks havoc with the interior of leather holsters. Ramp style front sights tend to get lost, at least for me, in bright sunlight and the same is true of colored inserts.
What is the best shooting position? This is purely subjective. One of the most practical is that of standing on hind legs, almost squarely facing the target with the shooting side leg slightly forward, and using two hands with the off hand used to support the shooting hand as. I like to exert a slight push-pull action with the shooting and supporting hand. It is the easiest position to assume, the quickest, and also the most comfortable. If a backrest is available it can be used to excellent advantage from the sitting position with both elbows resting inside the drawn up knees and once again shooting two-handed. The downside here, is the fact pants, or worse, can be burned by the hot gases exiting from the gap between barrel and cylinder. The worst position for me is prone. I have no neck but rather my head just sits upon my shoulders and there is no way I can hold my head back enough to shoot prone whether with a handgun or rifle.
There are three ways to shoot one-handed. The classic bull’s eye stance with the shooting arm extended straight, the body slightly turned with the foot on the shooting arm side forward and the off hand at the side tucked in a pants pocket or with the thumb tucked in the belt, is one of the toughest ways to hit long-range which of course makes it the most gratifying when we connect. Long-range silhouetters used and still use the modified Creedmore position. This is assumed by lying on one's back, placing the offside arm under the back of the head, the shooting side knee is drawn up with the shooting hand resting against the outside of the knee and the elbow on the ground. Some shooters are able to place their left-hand on the ground behind their head, however I always had to forcibly hold my head up due to the no-neck situation. If any amount of shooting is to be done this position requires some sort of a blast shield to protect the leg from the hot gases coming from the barrel-cylinder gap of a revolver.
The best one-handed position for me, perhaps the best position period, is the classic Keith position. This is shot from sitting, leaning back on the off hand elbow, drawing in the knee of the shooting side, and the shooting hand is then placed upon that knee for support. With a little practice this position becomes very stable and also capable of allowing us to shoot very accurately. With a little practice, a long-range sixgunner soon finds it fairly easy to outshoot the average rifle shooter.
For the most part, long range shooting with a sixgun is a game, a most pleasant way to spend an afternoon especially if one can shoot in an area that has plenty of different sized targets; I prefer rocks, at various ranges. There are no rules; there are no minimum caliber regulations; there is no required shooting position, sitting, standing, kneeling, prone, as you prefer; and barrel length can be anything desired. Actually all one needs is an accurate sixgun with a good trigger and a good set of sights. With a little practice, one finds hits come much more frequently, and even near misses are exciting as there are no five shot or six shot groups to be measured. The preferred method of sighting that will give the best results is not holding over targets at long-range, unless the range is so extreme as to run out of sight height, but rather perching the target on the top of the front sight blade which is then raised as high as desired in the rear notch. Some shooters prefer gold bars inlaid in the front sight blade to compensate for different distances, however I am past the age of seeing them well enough to make any difference.
If you’ve always been a close range paper puncher find an area preferably with dry, dusty ground that will easily show point of impact and prepare to enjoy yourself with a different kind of shooting. The result will be enjoyment and in all probability better “scores” than expected.