February 12, 2014
Ol' Elmer's 600-Yard Shot with a Handgun
By David E. Petzal
Life is filled with mysteries. Is there a sasquatch? What happened to Amelia Earhart? Why does Attorney General Eric Holder lack a chin? And did Elmer Keith really kill a mule deer at 600 yards with a .44 magnum handgun? It is, as Churchill said about Russia, a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
The bare bones of the story are these. In the mid-1950s, shortly after Smith & Wesson introduced the Model 29 .44 magnum revolver, Keith and a rifle-toting friend were hunting mule deer and the friend, who was out ahead of Keith, shot and wounded a mule deer buck on an adjacent ridge. Since the rifleman was making a mess of things, Keith assumed a reclining position bracing his gun arm along his leg and commenced to shoot at the deer with a 6-inch-barreled Model 29. The first four shots were misses but Keith was able to walk the rounds onto the buck; the fifth hit him and the sixth killed him. Keith claimed the distance from him to the deer was 600 yards, and he was challenged on it the rest of his life.
Did he really do it? For starters, judging distances from one ridgeline to another is extremely difficult. And even for an experienced shooter, judging distances beyond 300 yards is very tough. On the other hand, Keith had been hunting in that country all his life, was a member of the Idaho National Guard rifle team and was used to shooting at 600 yards and beyond (albeit on the flat, and marked). So how would he have know that it was 600 yards? It could only have been guesswork.
The load he was using was his beloved hard-lead flat-nose 250-grain bullets with a B.C. of probably 200 and a muzzle velocity of 1,200 fps or so. If you sight these in at 50 yards, they’ll drop 10 inches at 125 yards. I can’t find any data on how far they would drop at 600. Ten feet? Fifteen?
What I can tell you is that with a rifle firing high B.C. (.500 and over) bullets at 2,800 fps, you have to aim so high that many scopes do not have enough vertical latitude to handle the job. So with the huge amount of elevation required, how would Keith have even gotten a sight picture?
On the other hand, he was a master handgunner, and had spent no end of time shooting revolvers at long range. And he never claimed to have hit the deer on the first shot; he kept track of the bullet splashes in the snow and compensated.
My own feeling is that with all that was going against him, Keith probably did do what he claimed, or very close to it. The deer may have been 550 yards away, or 500. So what? If even this much is true it was still a fantastic feat of marksmanship. If you shoot long enough, you’ll eventually pull of a stunt like this. Then you can dine out on it the rest of your life.