Pistol vs. Rifle: It’s Not as Uneven as You Think

I’LL SAY IT DIRECTLY: SOME OF YOU ARE MORE ANXIOUS about facing a rifle with nothing but your carry pistol than you should be. It’s not that we should not respect a rifle in the hands of an attacker; we should respect any weapon in the hands of an attacker. We should always be mindful of the ability of that weapon, whatever it is, to be used to hurt or kill us. Some of you are giving more credit to the rifle for being able to do that than you should though. That will only reduce your ability to effectively counter a rifle-armed attacker if you ever have to face one. Let’s see what we can do about changing that.

There are two advantages the rifle offers over the pistol: It is more powerful and it offers greater accuracy potential over a longer range if it is used correctly. Greater standard ammunition capacity could be considered another advantage, but the vast majority of encounters are going to be decided before the first magazine is expended no matter which weapon you have. So I’m not counting that here. It is also larger and heavier, harder to carry and conceal, and harder to maneuver, especially in close and confined areas. Those are its disadvantages over the pistol.

Shooting Range Report

I am going to break the rifle-vs-pistol matrix into two ranges: “close” — 20 yards or less (very often less) — and “long” — more than 20 yards. (For some of you, “close” could extend to 30 yards, depending on your level of skill with the pistol.) The majority of attacks featuring rifles with which I am currently familiar take place at close range, often inside a room or building.

At close range, you react to the rifle as you do any gun in an attacker’s hands: if possible, movement with simultaneous access of your own weapon. Then shoot. (If you have trained and developed the ability to shoot accurately on the move, there is no need to stop moving while you shoot either.)

If hard cover is close by (two, three sprinting steps at most), head for that. Don’t forget that little in most buildings will stop a rifle bullet and only small portions of a vehicle will either. Quick response and violence of action are keys to your survival and victory in this fight.

If you can move and you have a choice of direction, try to get on an oblique forward angle in relation to the attacker (10- to 11-and-a-half o’clock or NE-NNE/NW-NNW on a compass). This will get you to his flank and force him to move the rifle quickly at a more acute angle than if you move in other directions.

Train to be able to hit where you need to and let the situation guide your target selection.

In this way, you take advantage of the length and weight difference between his rifle and your handgun — you can move your weapon to track a target easier and faster than he can. That makes it easier for you to keep a firing solution against your attacker and harder for him to keep one on you.

One potential exception to the immediate-movement rule of thumb is when the attacker is aiming or shooting at someone else. In that case, it might be better to remain still and set up your shot or shots, possibly using a table or wall surface to steady and support your arm and gun.

A principal ascertation you’ll have to try to make is whether the shooter is wearing anything that looks like body armor, a load-bearing rig of some type or a bomb vest or belt. If you detect or suspect any of that on the shooter, then you have to decide whether to go high or low to avoid that. (Experiments I have conducted with 9mm hollow-point ammunition against steel AK-47 magazines lead me to rate a chest-mounted ammunition carrier as light armor of sorts. It is not as good as a IIA or IIIA vest but does have an effect on rounds that have to go through the magazine and carrier before they reach the body.)

Either area or direction has its advantages and disadvantages that are beyond the scope of this article to consider. All I can advise here is to train to be able to hit where you need to and let the situation guide your target selection.

When Facing a Rifle — Get a Move On

Facing a rifle at long range, and especially where distances are beyond 50 yards (almost any big-box store or mall parking lot, for instance, or the promenade area of a mall), is harder but not impossible. Your basic choices are to attempt to close distance, escape or go to ground. You can execute any of those options while returning fire.

If you have good cover and there is not a reason to move, going to ground — whether you shoot back or not — isn’t a bad idea. Try to find cover that will handle multiple hits, be aware of the danger of ricochets (set your standoff distance accordingly) and keep an eye on the shooter while you’re hunkered down. The shooter might not move against you specifically, but he likely will move and you don’t want to find out he has an open angle on you by being hit.

If others have done it, you can too. Remember that.

Closing the distance to get a better shot or to reach an exit, or opening the range for escape, require the same kind of movement: short, erratic rushes from cover/concealment to cover/concealment or a short quick movement followed by you going to ground (prone or as near as you can get to it). Your goal is to avoid moving in a straight line longer than about three seconds. The old infantryman’s chant — “I’m up, he sees me, I’m down” — is a good guide to the length of the rush. Up, run, down and, while you’re down, plot the next place to which you’re moving. Try your best to not give in to panic or anger and just run. Doing so could lead to gunshot wounds and is counterproductive (to say the least).

Understand that, as the situation changes, so might your choice of which option to exercise. Understand also that you might need or can decide to shoot back at any time while exercising any of the three options.

Speaking of shooting back: Just because the attacker is 50 or more yards away does not mean that you can’t 1) hit him and 2) hurt him with a handgun. Even a .22 retains enough energy to penetrate and kill at 100 yards or more, much less the 9mm, .40S&W or .45 ACP rounds that most of us load into our carry guns. If you hit him, you can damage him. If you can damage him, you can stop the attack — even at that range — and hitting him is not as difficult as it might look, especially if you pay attention to the fundamentals of shooting and use properly supported and braced shooting positions.

Make Yourself Comfortable

Wherever and whenever possible, you want to rest the gun on something besides part of your own body. Unless you can remain as calm during a dynamic threat to life as you are during a relaxing afternoon benchrest shooting session, there is going to be some movement transmitted to the muzzle any time you are not braced or resting on a solid surface (and sometimes even when you are).

This can be as little as the outside of your arm against a wall when you are in a kneeling position or the back of your hand against the corner of a car you’re crouched behind. Something to stop the natural tremors and vibrations of your body from getting to your gun will be decidedly advantageous if you have to make a long-range shot. There will always be something, even if only the ground when you’re prone. Familiarize yourself with this ahead of time.

Proper use of cover and a cool head go a long way, as do the proper equipment and techniques.

Proper use of cover and a cool head go a long way, as do the proper equipment and techniques.

Do Your Homework on Your Self-Defense Gun

Also take the time to learn how much target your front sight covers at given distances and how much (if any) a bullet fired from your carry gun will drop at that distance. Your sight might cover the entire target beyond a certain range, and you might need to sight above the actual target to get a hit; then again, you might not if you’re shooting a particularly fast or flat-trajectory round, such as some +P/+P+ 9mm or .357 SIG. Test this at the range before you have to do it for real, and make sure you do so with your actual carry ammunition. Know what your points of aim/points of impact are out to 100 yards in 25-yard increments with your chosen carry round.

While a rifle provides some advantages to the shooter over a pistol, it is not and never will be a guarantee. In the end, no weapon ever is. Throughout history, the determining factor has always been the individual behind the gun. Others have beaten rifle-armed attackers with pistols before. If others have done it, you can too. Remember that.

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