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How far is a pistol lethal?

There are many factors that determine how far a pistol can be lethal, including the type of pistol, the type of ammunition, and the location of the gunshot wound. In general, pistols can potentially be lethal within 50-100 yards depending on these variables.

How pistols work

To understand how far a pistol can be lethal, it helps to first understand how pistols work. A pistol fires a bullet that is propelled by an explosive charge contained within the ammunition cartridge. When the trigger is pulled, a firing pin strikes the cartridge’s primer, igniting the gunpowder inside. The expanding gases from the burning powder propel the bullet through the barrel and toward the target.

As the bullet travels down the barrel, it engages with rifling – spiral grooves cut into the inside of the barrel. The rifling causes the bullet to spin, improving accuracy and stability in flight. Upon leaving the barrel, the bullet begins to immediately slow down due to drag and gravity.

Factors affecting lethal range

There are several key factors that affect how far a pistol bullet will travel before it is no longer lethal:

Bullet design

  • Weight – Heavier bullets will better resist air drag and retain more momentum and energy downrange.
  • Shape – More aerodynamic pointed bullets stay stable in flight longer compared to round nose bullets.
  • Composition – Solid copper or brass bullets resist deformation better than jacketed hollow points.

Ammunition power

  • Caliber – Larger caliber bullets have more mass and surface area to stay in flight longer.
  • Velocity – Faster muzzle velocities result in a flatter trajectory and more energy downrange.
  • Charge – More gunpowder equals higher muzzle velocity and energy.

Pistol characteristics

  • Barrel length – Longer barrels allow more complete powder burn for higher muzzle velocity.
  • Rifling – Faster barrel twist rates improve bullet stability in flight.
  • Action type – Revolvers typically achieve lower velocities than semi-automatic pistols.

Shooter ability

  • Sight alignment – Better sight picture and aim leads to more accurate shot placement.
  • Trigger control – Smooth trigger press improves precision shot placement on target.
  • Grip – Proper hand grip reduces pistol recoil and muzzle flip.

Typical pistol lethal ranges

Under optimal conditions with heavy target round ammunition, longer barrel target pistols in trained hands can potentially achieve lethal effect at up to 100 yards. However, for typical self-defense pistols and shooters, maximum lethal range is much shorter.

Here are typical maximum lethal ranges for common pistols and ammunition:

Pistol Type Caliber Maximum Lethal Range
Subcompact semi-auto 380 ACP 50 yards
Compact semi-auto 9mm 75 yards
.357 revolver .357 magnum 100 yards

As the data shows, smaller pistols firing lower power ammunition have shorter maximum lethal ranges compared to full size pistols firing magnum rounds. However, even compact 9mm pistols can potentially deliver lethal wounds out to 75 yards. This demonstrates the importance of using cover and seeking tactical advantage when facing a pistol threat.

Ammunition performance comparisons

Let’s take a closer look at how ammunition performance differences affect lethal range, using a Glock 17 9mm pistol as a standardized test platform.

Ammo Type Bullet Weight Muzzle Velocity Muzzle Energy Maximum Lethal Range
FMJ target 115 gr 1,150 fps 333 ft-lbs 100 yards
JHP self-defense 124 gr 1,100 fps 364 ft-lbs 75 yards
+P+ self defense 147 gr 1,250 fps 584 ft-lbs 100+ yards

The lighter 115 grain FMJ round starts with a velocity advantage but sheds energy rapidly. The heavier 147 grain +P+ load delivers the most muzzle energy and pentrates deepest due to greater mass. This demonstrates why +P+ and magnum rounds extend lethal range over regular ammunition.

Shot placement importance

Beyond ammunition selection, shot placement is a key factor determining lethality regardless of distance. Hits to vital organs like the heart and central nervous system have the greatest stopping power. Even at long distances, accurate fire directing rounds to these vital zones can still potentially produce rapid incapacitation or death.

In contrast, limb strikes or grazing wounds to non-vital areas are less likely to produce rapid stops or lethality. However, these peripheral hits can still potentially cause severe bleeding or broken bones depending on the round’s energy. Accurate shot placement should never be assumed when evaluating threat potential, even at extended ranges.

Barriers and obstructions

Barriers and obstructions along the bullet’s path will also reduce pistol lethality at range. Intermediate targets like glass, car doors, walls, tree branches and brush can all deflect bullets or degrade performance. Proper use of cover can protect from otherwise lethal hits at close to moderate ranges with many pistol rounds.


In summary, while lethality varies based on many factors, typical self-defense pistols using standard ammunition have a maximum lethal range of around 50-75 yards. Smaller subcompact pistols would occupy the shorter end of this spectrum, with higher muzzle velocity magnum revolvers reaching out to 100 yards or slightly more. Proper shot placement, choice of defensive ammunition, and use of cover are all critical to stopping a pistol threat as rapidly as possible.

Treating all pistol threats as potentially lethal until 100 yards emphasizes tactical situational awareness and careful shot placement when using a pistol defensively. Understanding the realistic capabilities of pistols helps inform policies, training and procedures for use of force incidents involving pistol threats.