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Effective Range of Pistols, Rifles, & Shotguns

What’s one of the most critical components to using a weapon effectively?

Safety? Skill? Practice?

Sure, all those are important, but so is understanding your firearm’s effective range.

Effective Range Rifle
How far can your gun reach?

Today we are going to discuss the effective range of pistols, rifles, and shotguns.

We’ll run you through why knowing your effective range is important when shooting, hunting, or in self-defense, and we’ll talk about the average range for all three shooting platforms.

So, keep reading to learn more.

Table of Contents

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What’s So Important About Effective Ranges?

You might be wondering why you’d even need to know what your effective range is?

Understanding effective range means you know your firearms’ limitations.

Staccato XL Shooting

Knowing the max range of your caliber and weapon system ensures you can accurately and safely make shots within its range.

This equates to ethical and humane shots on animals if you’re a hunter and successful hits on target if you’re shooting for fun.

Author on a previous hunt using an AR-15 for hog eradication
Knowing your effective range makes for ethical hunting.

Basically, it allows you the ability to pick the right tool for the job.

The absolute max range a projectile will go without a target in mind isn’t a huge consideration outside of safety.

If you aim a gun up in the air in an arc-like fashion, you can make the round go pretty dang far.

But no one sells a gun because their projectile can go a max range of 10 miles in one random direction.

Daniel Defense MK18
You aren’t going to be aiming randomly…hopefully.

Max effective range is what people need to know, but it has some nuance behind it.

The max effective range I can hit on a piece of paper might not be the same when hunting.

In the field, I need to know how much energy the round has at a particular range to ensure I achieve a humane kill instead of merely wounding an animal.

50 Beowulf Coyote Hunt
We’re all about ethical hunting here.

If I’m only hitting paper, then I can extend the range a bit.

So, from a ballistics standpoint, let’s look at the max effective range of pistols, rifles, and shotguns.

Effective Range: Rifles

Rifles provide the longest effective ranges of the big three types of firearms.

Within the category of rifles, we have calibers made to hit targets several miles away and calibers that work perfectly at 10-yards.

Effective Range Rifle
Rifles can go the furthest.

To reach a max effective range, a caliber demands a rifle that allows it to perform.

A 6.5 Creedmoor can easily be a 1,000-yard rifle cartridge, but it won’t reach that range in an AR-10 with a 10.5-inch barrel.

Not only is your effective range ammo-dependent, but it also depends on the rifle firing it.

Effective Range rifle calibers
The caliber makes a difference.

What happens when a rifle round is used at a range it’s not designed for?

When you take a caliber out to a range beyond what it’s intended for, you begin to see serious accuracy issues.

Bullets are more prone to destabilizing and feeling the effects of the wind as the range increases. Your groups open up and predictably become guesswork.

A 5.56 tasked with hitting a target out to 800-yards can be done by a skilled shooter, but it’s much easier to use a caliber designed for that distance, like 6.5 Creedmoor.

.223 Long Range Shooting Setup
.223 Long Range Shooting Setup

For the everyday shooter, this isn’t usually a big problem. It’s more of a concern for military members who consistently shoot further than their civilian counterparts.

That said, the average civilian shooter still needs to consider effective range, especially for defense scenarios with a rifle.

Choosing a caliber will too much oomph for short distances will punch right through a bad guy…and continue.

Body Armor Test LAPG Level 4 M80 Gel Man
Body armor aside, you don’t want a through and through shot.

When this occurs, the round does a perfect ‘in and out,’ leaving a little hole in the bad guy.

And the round will retain enough oomph to continue traveling after it leaves the bad guy’s body. This could easily harm an innocent person.

On the other hand, an intermediate caliber at close range will yaw and tumble as it travels through a bad guy. This will create more damage overall and is less likely to over-penetrate.

Hunters most certainly need to know the effective range of their ammunition and the energy it carries downrange.

Must Have Hunting Gear Duck Hunting

Operation outside of its effective range, a round can hurt the animal but not quickly and humanely kill it.

Like everything in the world of firearms, we choose the right tool for the right job.

An intermediate caliber can hit a target at 800-yards, but it isn’t the best tool for the job.

A 7.62x39mm round can engage at close range, but again, is better suited at further distances.

Some 7.62x51mm Rounds
Some 7.62x51mm Rounds

Long-Range Cartridges

For rounds like the .50 BMG, .300 Winchester Magnum, the .416 Barrett, and the .338 Lapua…the sky’s the limit.

These cartridges can reach out well beyond a mile.

.50 BMG
.50 BMG

Paul Phillips set a world-record 4-mile shot using the .416 Barrett cartridge.

A Canadian sniper killed an Iraqi insurgent at a little over 2 miles with a .50-caliber sniper rifle.

With an experienced shooter behind it, these can touch pretty far out.

Big Bore Calibers

Calibers like .458 SOCOM, .50 Beowulf, .350 Legend, .375 H&H Magnum, and the like pack a lot of power but not a ton of range.

Like me sprinting, they tend to run out of gas quite quickly.

So, what purpose do they serve? Taking down a big target decisively at relatively close range.

.458 SOCOM (500gr)
.458 SOCOM (500gr)

Many of these, if not all, are straight-walled calibers.

Certain states ban bottleneck rounds for hunting. So, straight-walled cartridges are the only allowed rifle rounds for hunting.

Their lack of long-range capability helps ensure a safe hunt in densely populated areas.

Full-Sized Rifle Calibers

Full-sized rifle calibers refer to full power rifle cartridges that are not long-range rounds and included favorites like .243 Winchester, .308 Winchester, 6.5 Creedmoor, .303 British, and the classic .30-06 Springfield.

These rounds are often quite effective within 1,000-yards and are popular hunting rounds well known for their ability to quickly take down animals.

Sig Sauer Hunting 6.5 Creedmoor Ammo
Sig Sauer Hunting 6.5 Creedmoor Ammo

At extremely close ranges, these rounds tend to simply fly through a target unless loaded with expanding ammunition of some kind.

When these rounds penetrate at close range, they tend to poke a clean hole with minimal to no yawing or tumbling.

This makes them poorly suited for conflicts at home-defense ranges.

Intermediate Cartridges

Intermediate cartridges like the 5.56 NATO, 5.45x39mm, .300 Blackout most often see use inside of 500-yards or so.

Most dominate the 300-yard range, with the better of these rounds making it to 500-yards and possibly beyond.

Popular 5.56 and .223 Ammo
Popular 5.56 and .223 Ammo

Specialized intermediate rounds like the .224 Valkyrie are changing this perception. But as of this writing, it’s safe to say they are few and far between.

These calibers occupy most modern semi-automatic rifles and are popular choices for defensive use.

At close ranges, they do very well in close-range combat and are less likely to over-penetrate; instead, they yaw and tumble when they strike soft targets.

Small Bore

Small-bore calibers like .22 LR, .17 HMR, .22 WMR, and even non-rimfires like 5.7x28mm are best used within a couple of hundred yards or so.

While the .22 LR box may say the round can travel over a mile, that’s not a realistic range.

Popular .22LR Ammo
Popular .22LR Ammo

These light bullets excel within 100- to 200-yards and even work well at tens of yards on small game.

They also preserve small game, ensuring the meat stays edible when the round blazes its way through.

Effective Range: Pistols

Max range for pistols, like rifles, depends on the caliber and weapon selection.

It’s nowhere near as critical as with a rifle, but it’s worth noting.

Pistols are often firearms used at roughly 50-yards max.

Effective Range handgun 50 yards
50 yards is about as far as you can take a pistol.

That’s not to say pistols can’t reach beyond that, but it takes an extreme amount of skill.

A skilled shooter can take a pistol out to 100-yards, but it often requires a magnum caliber, a pistol optic, and some form of rest to balance their guns on.

(We all know Ed McGivern hit targets with a .357 Magnum out to 600-yards, but that’s not a typical use.)

Extremely modern pistols like the FK BRNO can reach out to 100-yards with its seven-and-a-half cartridges, but again it’s not the common use for a pistol.

FK BRNO 7.5 Field Pistol (National Interest)
FK BRNO 7.5 Field Pistol (Photo: National Interest)

Handguns are inherently harder to shoot accurately at longer ranges due to their design.

Pistol calibers often can’t go far with an extreme amount of accuracy.

They do not stabilize and are more susceptible to wind and drop as their velocity quickly dies off.

Not to mention, the smaller a handgun, the harder it is to shoot.

Micro compact 9mms like the Sig Sauer P365 are much harder to shoot out to 50-yards than a Glock 17 equipped with an RMR.

Glock G43X Eric Shooting
Small guns can’t punch out as far.

Typically, larger handguns with longer barrels offer high velocities, a longer sight radius, and more gun to grip.

When handguns are tasked with hitting targets beyond their effective range, the round is more likely to hit something besides the target — creating an unsafe situation for everyone.

Effective Range 1911 Pistols
One of these can go further than the other.

Also, handguns suck ballistically, and the further they travel, the less likely they’ll be effective on target as they lose velocity.

Standard Pistol Calibers

Standard defensive pistol calibers like 9mm, .40 S&W, and .45 ACP excel in the 0- to 25-yard range with a rough effective range of 50-yards or so.

Popular 9mm Ammo
Popular 9mm Ammo

Sure, people can hit targets further than this, but it’s uncommon, to say the least.

Small Pistol Calibers

Small pistol calibers like .25 ACP, .32 ACP, and even .380 ACP typically falls short of the 50-yard range.

This compounds when placed into super small pocket pistols and mouse guns.

.380 ACP Round
.380 ACP Round

Full-sized guns in small calibers can hit targets at 50-yards, but as the gun shrinks, so does the range.

For common small pistols in small pistol calibers, stick to a 25-yard line.

Magnum Calibers

If you want to extend your range as a pistol shooter, opt for a magnum caliber.

From the .357 Magnum and 10mm to the mighty .500 S&W Magnum, these calibers engage targets out to 100-yards and beyond with the right combo of optics, gun, and accessories.

.357 Magnum Round
.357 Magnum Round

When hunting animals, shooters must pay attention to foot-pounds of energy a pistol puts on target.

At these excessive distances, the round hit the animal, but might not be enough for a humane kill.

S&W 686 and .357 Ammo
.357 Magnum is a cool cartridge practically perfect for handgun hunting and there are lots of options on the market.

Effective Range: Shotguns

The masters of close-quarters shooting, shotguns quickly become less efficient as range increases.

Shotguns utilize three main loadsbirdshot, buckshot, and slugs. Each has its own effective range.

Effective Range birds, buckshot, and slugs
Bird, buckshot, and slugs

Birdshot and buckshot loads are a multitude of projectiles that spread widely as range increases.

When either of these loads is tasked with shooting a target beyond their effective range, their effectiveness lessens, and the threat to others beyond the target increases.

Effective Range Shotgun
Shotguns have a shorter range..

This is particularly true with buckshot, as the pellets are heavier and deadlier.

Buckshot pellets spread as the range increases, and this can cause strays pellets to hit non-targets.

This is hardly an issue for home defense, but for ranges outside the home, the pellet spread creates a serious threat to public safety.

Effective Range shotgun 25 yards
25-yards with a shotgun.

Birdshot

Birdshot is not effective for targets outside of bird and pest size.

12ga Birdshot
12ga Birdshot

A bird’s smaller body allows this extremely small shot size to be effective out to 50-yards or so.

Shot size varies a good bit and can affect the range on particular animals.

Buckshot

With buckshot you can manage 35-yards but there’s potential for 50-yard capabilities if stray pellets aren’t a cause for concern.

Good shells for self-defense
Buckshot

Modern loads like Federal FliteControl make shots on target out to 50-yards very possible and even safe.

Beyond 50-yards, we begin to see buckshot pellets lose lots of velocity and speed.

Effective Range regular buckshot 15 yards
Regular buckshot 15-yards.

Once that occurs, they often fail to penetrate consistently.

Don’t discount their ability to harm, but don’t rely on them as effective fight stoppers or deer slayers.

Effective Range flitecontrol 15 yards
FliteControl at 15-yards.

Slugs

Shotguns come in two categories when we discuss effective slug ranges — normal smoothbore shotguns and slug guns.

Slug guns utilize rifled barrels and are designed solely for slug use.

12ga Slugs
12ga Slugs

A normal smoothbore shotgun with proper sights can go out to 100-yards or so with decent effectiveness but really dominate between 50- and 75-yards.

When smoothbore shotguns push slugs beyond their effective ranges, the slugs can fly errantly and off-target easily.

Mossberg 500
Mossberg 500

They also often lose velocity quickly due to the fact they weigh an ounce.

Slug guns extend that range to 150-yards and tend to be much more accurate.

Groups present much smaller with rifled barrels and slugs. The biggest effect on range is the weight and ballistics of the slug.

Conclusion

Effective range is a very nuanced topic, and it can be tough to discuss when it comes to generalities.

Birchwood Casey 3D Target

Please remember the above is more or less the average to conservative ranges of each type of weapon and each caliber of weapon.

Surely specialized shotgun slugs, wildcat cartridges, and fantastic shooters can go well beyond the above ranges.

What is the furthest you’ve pushed a cartridge or gun? Let me know in the comments below. Want to reach further? Check out our Long Range Shooting Fundamentals guide, or grab a Long Range Optic to help you reach your goal.  

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11 Leave a Reply

  • Blake

    When a rifle cartridge does "a perfect ‘in and out,’ leaving a little hole in the bad guy" it's due to bullet construction, not because it has "too much oomph." If you loaded a belted magnum with a hollowpoint made of soft lead and shot someone at hallway range, the bullet would absolutely fragment and leave massive craters in their back. Effective range regarding a particular target has much more to do with bullet construction than muzzle energy. I feel like this article should have emphasized that quite a bit more

    August 15, 2021 3:50 pm
  • Russ

    Good article………. Wasn’t Ed McGivern more known for very fast and accurate close-range double-action revolver shooting; while Elmer Keith was more into center-fire (both single- and double-action) revolvers for hunting at extreme (600-yard) ranges?

    August 11, 2021 9:31 am
  • Stephen Patterson

    Not sure where you got the "yaw and tumble" information in the rifle part of this article. It doesn't happen. Ever!
    Also, you really should do a little more research before you include the 375 H&H with "popgun" AR cartridges like the SOCOM and "Legend". It's not even in the same universe!
    Stick with what you good at! Handguns and shotguns!

    August 11, 2021 5:04 am
    • Paul Mancuso

      Trust me, I've seen a lot of post mortem bullet wounds on a human being that have yawed and tumbled. U.S. Marine, Vietnam, 2 tours, Police officer, 30 years.

      August 11, 2021 10:53 am
  • Chris Sweeton

    Travis, this was a great article. I think it would be worth a short article on the shotgun. I've seen a number of shotgun wounds and wouldn't discount birdshot for close quarters. The small pellets cause so many holes, even at short distance, it's hard to stop the bleeding. Also, there are so many positive aspects for the shotgun in defense. I think it would be worth the risk to take a shot a 25 yards, under some circumstances in a public setting. You all do great work and I know I would enjoy reading it.

    August 10, 2021 6:14 pm
  • Rob

    Nicely done and informative. For me, all I am concerned about is self defense distances inside my home. The longest sight picture I have is around thirty feet. At these distances I don't even have to use my sights. Most of my range practice time is devoted to point and shoot. At ten yards, pointing and shooting with my Glock G30 and G36 I consistently have less than a foot group. The shorter the distance, the smaller the group gets. At three yards it is fist sized. With my 300 Blackout AR 15 the group size is half a fist at all distances. I live in the DPRC (California). Therefore, I am unlikely to shoot at any one outside of my home.

    August 10, 2021 5:40 pm
  • Jim R

    Chuck Hawks has done extensive research on maximum effective range of many rifle cartridges. It's really good, useful information. Go check it out! You will be happy that you did.

    August 10, 2021 3:33 pm
  • A.J. Hodges

    A point to consider with effective range is, as mentioned, use case. If your purpose is self defense then your limiting factor is less likely to be your abilities with your gun and more likely to be what you (read: your lawyer) can justify to a cop, prosecutor, or jury. All but the smallest of handguns can reach beyond what most (non-gun) people think is readily justifiable but special circumstances (like they are shooting at you from significant distance) can certainly make every case unique. Remember, a "jury of your peers" is statistically unlikely to include anyone who knows as much about guns as you, based solely on your having read this article.

    August 8, 2021 11:45 am
  • John

    if the bad guy goes down as a result of your shot and does not get up again, that's an effective range :)

    I think the longest effective hand gun shot that took a bad guy down that I have personally seen was with a beretta 92 9mm at 80 yards.

    August 7, 2021 11:20 am
    • Silky Johnson

      In what situation would a cop or service member shoot a bad guy with a pistol at 80yds? Let alone “took them down” at that distance. Sounds like a bunch a bull to me.

      August 10, 2021 5:13 pm
      • Meeester Paul

        if a bad guy warranted shooting I'd send rounds at them and expect to perforate their epidermal layer at that range and more. That being said; I don't have or would likely be using a compact pistol, or a 9 for that matter. I certainly would reach out rather than do nothing.

        August 10, 2021 6:25 pm