Even though more than a century later, after the first case of gastrectomy has been successfully performed, the best surgical treatment for distal gastric cancer still remains controversial. Thus, the present study was designed to compare the survival impact of distal (DG) or total gastrectomy (TG) for distal gastric cancer. A total of 1262 distal gastric cancer patients were enrolled in current study including 1157 patients who underwent DG and 157 patients who underwent TG. The postoperative complications and 5-year overall survival were compared between the 2 groups. TG group presented a longer surgical time, a higher volume of intraoperative bleeding, and a larger number of excised lymph nodes (all P < 0.05) compared with the DG group. The postoperative complications were comparable (all P >0.05). The 5-year overall survival rate of DG group was significantly higher than that of TG group (67.6% vs 44.3%, P < 0.001). However, multivariate analysis showed that type of resection was not an independent prognostic factor for distal gastric cancer (P > 0.05). The factor-stratified multivariate analysis showed that only in the subgroup of Tumor-node-metastasis staging system (TNM) stage III (P = 0.049), TG was the independent prognostic factor for poor survival. In conclusion, DG was as feasible as TG; however, TG did not increase the survival rate. DG brought better long-term survival than TG in patients with TNM stage III tumor. We recommended that DG should be the optimal surgical procedure for distal gastric cancer under the premise of negative resection margin.