The Complete Handgun Hunting Battery
By Chuck Hawks
"I have a suggestion for an article for your site." That is how an e-mail from Guns and Shooting Online reader Graham Hopley began. He went on to say, "I think an article about what an ideal, cohesive, extensive and specialized hunting gun collection would look like if one had the opportunity to build it from scratch using a large, but not unlimited budget, would make for some good reading and food for thought." Graham then went on to list various purposes for which he thought an appropriate handgun should be included in a complete battery. He also asked for a brief description of the purpose for which each handgun is intended, the appropriate game and type of hunting. This sounded like a valid suggestion, so I went to work.
All of the handguns specifically mentioned in this article have been covered in depth on Guns and Shooting Online and you can find those articles and reviews on the appropriate index pages. These include Handgun Information, Handgun Cartridges and Product Reviews. The Guns and Shooting Online internal Google search engine on each index page can help you find the relevant Main Site articles. (It doesn't work for the Member Side articles, though.)
To illustrate appropriate handguns in each category, I will use examples from my personal battery and suggestions from others on the Guns and Shooting Online staff. There are certainly alternative, and perhaps arguably better, choices. However, these are handguns with which we have personal experience and a personal investment.
As with any firearm, I recommend avoiding economy guns. In the long run, they are never a good investment. Pay enough to get a solid, high quality handgun made in the U.S. or Europe.
Holsters are an important accessory for most handguns, as they leave both hands free when used. Most of us on the G&S Online staff prefer a cross draw belt holster for field use. Handguns equipped with optical sights (scope or red dot), however, present serious problems when it comes to selecting a holster. Sometimes a leather holster can be modified with an Exacto knife to carry a scoped handgun. More often, some sort of bulky, shoulder pouch rig is required. For shooting, a handgun with optical sight is great, but for convenient carry they are a burden.
Small game (CXP1) usually means rabbits, squirrels and similar size animals taken for the pot. Because they are both small and edible, high power cartridges, especially centerfire magnums, are not desirable for small game hunting.
The odds-on choice in small game cartridges is the venerable .22 Long Rifle. That is the easy part of choosing the small game hunting handgun for your battery, since the .22 LR was designed for the purpose and nothing is better. Copper plated LHP hunting ammo is the way to go. An alternative choice would be the.22 WMR (40-45 grain). However, the .22 Magnum rimfire requires head shots, as otherwise it is prone to do excessive damage to edible small game animals with body shots.
.22 single shot pistols, double action (DA) revolvers, single action (SA) revolvers and autoloading pistols are all viable choices for small game hunting. Examples would be the T/C Contender single shot, Ruger Super Single Six Convertible single action revolver and Browning Buck Mark Hunter. The most important qualities are a good trigger, good (adjustable) sights and a high degree of accuracy. The barrel should be at least 5" long in an autoloader or 6" in a revolver, both to provide adequate ballistics and for an adequate sight radius.
I prefer a revolver for small game hunting. Holsters are widely available for all popular revolvers, reliability and accuracy are excellent, a rapid second shot is available if required and they are safer for carry in the field than most autoloading pistols. The two models I have used the most are the (discontinued) Colt Diamondback .22 LR double action and the Ruger Super Single Six Convertible .22 LR / .22 WMR single action. The Diamondback should have a 6" barrel and the Super Single Six a 6.5" barrel. Both come with fully adjustable, micrometer sights of the Patridge type. These are also popular choices among most of the G&S Online staff.
For affluent small game hunters, the Freedom Arms Models 83 and 97 rimfire SA revolvers are available. The Model 83 is supplied with a 10" barrel in .22 LR caliber, while the Model 97 can be had in .22 LR with a 4.25", 5.5", 7.5" or 10" barrel. With the 7.5" or 10" barrel, either is a superb choice. The only drawback is these Freedom Arms revolver's very high prices. The 2012 MSRP for the .22 Model 83 is $2270, while the MSRP for the Model 97 is $2020.
Among autoloading pistols, the aforementioned Browning Buck Mark Hunter, High Standard Victor II and Ruger Mark III Hunter are popular with the staff. All can be equipped with red dot sights and ours are. Red dot sights just seem to go with .22 hunting pistols, although they complicate holster selection.
Fully adjustable Patridge type iron sights should be supplied on any small game hunting handgun worth its salt, unless it is specifically designed for an optical sight. Among optical sights, a red dot optical sight is all you need for small game hunting. These are lighter than a conventional telescopic sight, yet allow excellent accuracy at handgun hunting ranges, which probably average around 25 yards for small game. I have an old 40mm Tasco red dot on my High Standard Victor II and it works very well. Get the smallest dot available; you are looking for precise bullet placement, not speed, with any red sight purchased for hunting.
Short Range Varmints
Varmints are nuisance rodents about the size of small game animals. The main distinction is that varmints are not usually eaten. Typically, these include rats, gophers, ground squirrels, marmots (ground hogs, rock chucks, wood chucks, etc.) and similar small pests.
There are some shortened, usually bolt action, carbines with handgrips instead of butt stocks on the market that technically qualify as handguns and are used for shooting varmints. Barrels usually run about 14" long, just short enough not to be legally considered carbines. However, these hybrid rifle/handguns cannot be carried in a holster and it is hard to see what advantage they have over a real rifle or carbine. This article is concerned only with real handguns and rifle derived pistols will not be considered.
The .22 Long Rifle loads that are used to harvest small game will kill most varmints at a similar distance. However, unlike small game animals, varmints are usually shot in semi-populated areas, typically in fields on farms. This means that ammunition must be chosen to minimize the possibility of ricochet and the standard 36-40 grain .22 LR HP bullet is very prone to ricochet, making it unsuitable for most varminting.
The .22 WMR is the obvious choice among rimfire handgun cartridges for varminting. It offers a flat trajectory and is available with rapidly expanding varmint type bullets. CCI, for example, offers Maxi-Mag .22 WMR cartridges loaded with 30 grain HP+V JHP bullets, 30 grain TNT JHP bullets and poly-tip V-Max 30 grain bullets specifically intended for varminting. An alternative rimfire cartridge currently available, as far as I know, only in the Freedom Arms Model 97 SA revolver is the .17 HMR cartridge.
Centerfire handgun cartridges intended for varminting are rare. The .22 Jet was offered in an S&W revolver for varminting and the .256 Win. Mag. was offered by Ruger in the Hawkeye single shot pistol. The .221 Fireball was designed by Remington specifically for use in their long discontinued bolt action pistol. The one successful centerfire pistol suitable for serious varminting has been the T/C Contender, which has been offered in practically every cartridge imaginable, including the .22 WMR and .17 HMR rimfire magnums and all of the aforementioned centerfires, as well as rifle cartridges, such as the .22 Hornet and .223 Remington.
There are a number of adequate .22 WMR handguns suitable for short range varminting on the market. Foremost among them is probably the Ruger Super Single Six Convertible mentioned in the "Small Game" section. The top of the line Hunter model would be an exceptionally good choice, particularly when equipped with an optical sight.
The Freedom Arms Model 97 SA revolver in .17 HMR caliber is offered with a 5.5", 7.5" or 10" barrel. This cartridge depends on high velocity for its killing power, so opt for the 10" barrel.
Alternatively, any of the small game hunting handguns mentioned in the section above will suffice for short range varminting if fed hyper velocity cartridges, such as the Remington Yellow Jacket or CCI Stinger. I have had good success shooting sand rats (a sort of ground squirrel that acts like a gopher and can decimate Eastern Oregon alfalfa crops) with my High Standard Victor II target pistol and CCI Stinger .22 LR ammunition. I normally use a .17 HMR varmint rifle for shooting sand rats at ranges from 50 to 175 yards. However, for the occasional sand rat that pops up in a field at distances less than 50 yards, I switch to the pistol in the interest of sportsmanship.
For longer ranges and centerfire calibers, the T/C Contender with a 10" or 12" barrel is the obvious choice. Unfortunately, the current G2 Contender model is only available in varmint calibers with an awkward 14" barrel.
Optical sights are definitely preferred for varminting, as ranges are typically longer than for small game hunting. A red dot sight will do and a handgun scope is even better. I would consider a variable power scope in the 1-4x range ideal. Leupold, Weaver, Nikon and Bushnell, among others, offer good handgun scopes.
Medium game for handguns includes herbivorous animals from about the size of javelina to feral hog, deer and antelope species weighing up to a couple of hundred pounds. There are single shot pistols with 14" barrels chambered for rifle cartridges on the order of the .30-30 and .35 Remington, but these rifle cartridges and the guns that shoot them are beyond the scope of this article.
Medium game hunting is largely the province of revolvers and therefore most of the suitable cartridges are designed for use in revolvers. The .357 Magnum was the original magnum revolver cartridge and it remains one of the best. Later introductions include the .41 Remington Magnum and .44 Remington Magnum. This trio has accounted for the great majority of medium game that has been taken by handgun hunters. The .357 Maximum, a silhouette and big game hunting cartridge based on a lengthened .357 Magnum case, is effective, but very rare. The very powerful (at both ends) .454 Casull is adequate for both medium and large game.
I can testify that the .357 Magnum is adequate for one shot kills of medium size deer within 50 yards, given good bullet placement. JHP bullets in the 140-158 grain range are probably the best choice for medium game. For years I used the 146 grain Speer JHP-SWC bullet and H110 powder for my .357 hunting handloads. More recently, I switched to the Speer 140 grain JHP. Hornady specifically recommends their 140-160 grain JHP bullets for hunting medium game. Speer recommends their 158 grain Uni-Cor and Gold Dot Hollow Point bullets for medium game. A good 158 grain JHP would also be appropriate for a .357 Maximum pistol.
The .41 and .44 Magnums offer greater killing power than the .357, at the cost of greatly increased recoil. More power is better, but bullet placement is far more important than raw power. Only use the larger caliber magnums if you can shoot them as accurately as you can shoot a .357. Most .41 Magnum hunting bullets intended for use on CXP2 game weigh about 210 grains, with modern JHP designs predominating. In .44 Magnum, appropriate hunting bullets for medium game are generally in the range of 200-240 grains. Once again, modern JHP designs are the right bullets for the job.
The .454 Casull, as a medium game cartridge, is probably too much of a good thing. However, if you have a Casull for hunting large game, it will also do the job on deer size game. For medium game, I would suggest JHP bullets in the 240-250 grain range.
The 10mm Auto cartridge (.40 caliber) first achieved limited popularity in the Colt Delta Elite, a 1911 type pistol. More recently, it has found a viable home in the Glock 20 autoloading pistol. In killing power, the 10mm auto is similar to the .357 Magnum. 180-200 grain JHP bullets, such as the Speer Gold Dot and Hornady HP-XTP, are appropriate choices in 10mm.
The T/C G2 Contender single shot pistol is currently available in .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum with a 12" barrel. The Freedom Arms single shot is offered with a 10" barrel in 7mm BR Remington, .357 Magnum, .357 Maximum and .454 Casull calibers.
The SA Ruger Blackhawk revolver in .357 or .41 Magnum calibers with a 6.5" barrel is an excellent choice for hunting medium size game, as is the Company's Super Blackhawk .44 Magnum revolver with a 7.5" barrel. The Super Blackhawk Hunter model is designed for use with optical sights. Freedom Arms offers their big Model 83 Premier grade stainless steel SA revolver in .357, .41 and .44 Magnum calibers with fully adjustable sights and 6.5", 7.5" and 9" (.357) or 10" (.41 and .44) barrels.
For double action (DA) revolver fans, the .357 Magnum Ruger GP100 (6" barrel) is a good choice. The finest of all DA .357 revolvers is the discontinued Colt Python, which was offered with 6" and 8" barrels. In .44 Magnum, the Ruger Redhawk and discontinued Colt Anaconda revolvers are standouts with 7.5" or 8" barrels. Ruger also offers their massive Super Redhawk in .44 Magnum with 7.5" and 9.5" barrels. Aside of having a frame machined to accept scope rings, it is hard to see the necessity for such a large hunting revolver in .44 Magnum, when the standard Redhawk (itself a big, heavy revolver) can do the same job.
Among autoloading pistols, the 10mm Auto Glock 20 is the most common alternative. Glock specifically markets this model for handgun hunting. The standard barrel length is 4.61", but a 6" barrel is available as an option. Mounts for red dot sights are available.
Fully adjustable Patridge type iron sights should be supplied on any hunting handgun, unless it is specifically designed for an optical sight. Among optical sights, a red dot sight or a low power scope works well. These allow good accuracy for medium game to at least 100 yards. I have a Weaver red dot sight on my 8" Colt Python. Get the smallest dot available, you are looking for precise bullet placement, not speed, with any red sight purchased for hunting. A low power scope in the 1.5x or 2x range is even more precise and doesn't require batteries, although a bit slower to use. Leupold, Nikon, Bushnell, Weaver and others offer handgun hunting scopes.
Large game for handguns means herbivorous animals such as caribou, red stag, elk, Scandinavian moose and similar size creatures. These large animals take a lot of killing, so powerful calibers and 100% correct first shot placement are crucial to success. Predators such as black bear and cougar, although potentially dangerous when riled, are usually inoffensive and can be included in this category. Especially with the predators, disabling first shot placement is required.
Large predators, such as African lion and grizzly, brown and polar bears can be taken with powerful handguns, but they are far more sensibly hunted with a medium bore rifle. I do not recommend hunting any dangerous game with a handgun. If you feel a need to prove your manhood, get a woman instead of a handgun.
The .44 Magnum is the most popular handgun cartridge for hunting large game. The standard .44 Magnum hunting bullet has long weighed 240 grains, the bullet weight for which the cartridge was developed. Today, 250-300 grain hunting bullets are available in .44 Magnum factory loads, as well as to reloaders. Heavy bullets are appropriate for heavy game.
If you can stand the recoil, which is very substantial, the .454 Casull is an even better large game cartridge. It offers decent sectional density in bullets weighing 250-300 grains, combined with high energy and a flat trajectory.
Even more powerful cartridges, such as the .460 S&W, .475 Linebaugh, .480 Ruger and .500 S&W kick so hard and are so limited in application as to barely be worth mentioning. Do not buy one of these behemoth revolvers before trying it and ensuring that you can handle the blast and recoil while delivering consistently accurate bullet placement. It makes sense to choose bullets with a sectional density (SD) of .200 or better for your monster revolver.
The T/C G2 Contender single shot pistol is available in .44 Magnum with a 12" barrel. The Freedom Arms single shot is offered with a 10" barrel in .454 Casull caliber.
The Ruger Super Blackhawk Hunter is an excellent choice in a .44 Magnum SA revolver. The fine Freedom Arms Model 83 Premier grade stainless steel SA revolver is available in .44 Magnum and .454 Casull. This revolver was specifically designed for the .454 cartridge.
For double action (DA) revolver fans, Ruger offers the Redhawk in .44 Magnum and the Super Redhawk in .44 Magnum and .454 Casull. At one time, Colt offered their now discontinued Anaconda in .44 Magnum. Any of these are good DA hunting revolvers. Only Smith & Wesson chambers DA revolvers for their .460 and .500 cartridges and at present no major manufacturer chambers for the .475 Linebaugh or .480 Ruger, although Ruger briefly offered the .480 in their Super Redhawk revolver.
It is worth reiterating that fully adjustable Patridge type iron sights should be supplied on any hunting handgun, unless it is specifically designed for an optical sight. Among optical sights, a red dot sight or a low power scope works fine. These allow sufficient accuracy for large game to or beyond the maximum point blank range (+/- 3") of any handgun cartridge. A fixed power scope in the 1.5x or 2x or a low power variable in the 1-4x range is even more precise and doesn't require batteries, although a bit slower to use. Leupold, Bushnell, Nikon, Weaver and others offer good handgun hunting scopes. My .44 Magnum Super Blackhawk Hunter wears a Nikon 1.5-4.5x24mm handgun scope.
Protection in the Field
I have written in detail about protection in the field in my article "Handguns for Protection in the Field" that you will find on the Handgun Information index page. Protection in the field is different from hunting, as you are not seeking an encounter with a dangerous game animal and should only shoot when there is no alternative. This means that the range will be close, so close that shots at the central nervous system (usually the brain) are not only possible, they will probably be the only viable way to stop a charging bear or big cat. The most important factor in saving your life is bullet placement, followed by deep penetration. The latter implies tough bullets of superior sectional density fired from a magnum handgun. Caliber and bullet expansion should take a back seat to penetration.
The other possible defensive situation in the field could be against human predators. Although it may not be the optimum load for the purpose, a solid hit from a load that will drop a bear is also likely to discourage an aggressive primate.
Keep in mind that handgun cartridges are wimpy compared to rifle cartridges and only very powerful rifle cartridges are recommended for stopping big predators at close quarters. For protection in the field, use the most powerful cartridge you can shoot with extreme accuracy. I emphasize accuracy, because your target (the brain) is smaller than your fist and probably moving at about 30 MPH. Near misses and wounding shots don't count, so you need to be a very good shot with your handgun. Any cartridge you find difficult to control should be eliminated from consideration.
The usual cartridge options include the .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum, .44 Magnum, .454 Casull, .460 S&W, .475 Linebaugh, .480 Ruger and .500 S&W. Note that the .44 actually uses .429" bullets, the .460 actually uses .452" bullets and the .480 actually uses .475" bullets.
All of these magnum revolver cartridges have the velocity, energy, bullet diameter and bullet sectional density for killing brain shots on large predators. However, the correct bullet weight and style must be chosen. Here are some heavy for caliber bullet sectional density numbers: .357 Magnum / 180 grain = .202 SD; .41 Magnum / 220 grain = .187 SD; .44 Magnum / 300 grain = .232 SD; .454 Casull / 300 grain = .210 SD; .475 Linebaugh and .480 Ruger / 400 grain = .253 SD; .500 S&W / 350 grain = .200 SD.
Suitable, heavy for caliber bullets are not available from all manufacturers in factory loaded ammunition. Here are some factory loads that are available: Winchester, Federal and Cor-Bon offer serious 180-200 grain .357 Magnum factory loads; Winchester and Cor-Bon offer 240-250 grain loads in .41 Magnum; Hornady, Federal and Cor-Bon offer 280-320 grain .44 Magnum factory loads; Federal, Cor-Bon and Hornady offer 300-360 grain .454 Casull loads; Cor-Bon and Federal offer 300-395 grain .460 S&W loads; Hornady offers 400 grain .475 Linebaugh and .480 Ruger loads; Cor-Bon, Winchester and Hornady offer 350-500 grain .500 S&W factory loads.
For the person who absolutely must have an autoloader, the 10mm Auto would be the only reasonably powerful cartridge that is even moderately popular. Unfortunately, the choices in 10mm factory ammunition suitable for protection in the field are not extensive. Hornady offers a 10mm factory load using their 200 grain jacketed hollow point XTP bullet (SD .179). Hornady recommends this bullet for "medium game," which would presumably include cougar and black bear, but not grizzly, brown and polar bears. Cor-Bon offers a 10mm load in their Hunter line using a 200 grain Penetrator round-nose bullet (SD .179). This is the 10mm load I would choose for protection in the field. The best 10mm Auto loads are about equivalent to the best .357 Magnum revolver loads.
Any firearm is better than none, but for protection a repeating handgun is clearly preferable to a single shot. The choices basically come down to a 10mm autoloading pistol, of which there are few, or a revolver chambered for a powerful magnum cartridge, of which there are many.
Since a handgun carried for protection is not intended to be a primary hunting weapon, the long barrels favored for big game hunting revolvers may get in the way. The protection handgun must be compact enough to be carried at all times in the field without getting in the way of other activities. Barrels must be no shorter than 4", to preserve at least some magnum ballistic efficiency, and probably no longer than 6.5" for portability.
To my mind, the standouts for protection in the field are both Ruger products, namely the SA Super Blackhawk and the DA Redhawk. Both are .44 Magnums available with 5.5" barrels, which is probably ideal for a protection revolver. Their respective weights are 45 ounces and 49 ounces (empty) with a 5.5" barrel. These are big revolvers, but almost petite compared to a S&W Model 460V (.460 Mag.) with a 5" barrel, which weighs 61 ounces empty. The biggest advantage of the 10mm caliber Glock 20 autoloader is its relatively light weight, only 27.7 ounces empty and about 39 ounces loaded with 15 cartridges.
In a dire situation at very short range, fully adjustable Patridge type iron sights, standard equipment on most hunting revolvers, are probably the way to go. Some handgunners like to substitute a McGivern gold bead front sight for the usual flat-topped Patridge blade, finding it easier to see in poor light. A further modification is to exchange the square notch Patridge rear sight for an express-type shallow "V" rear sight. Use whatever sight you can align quickly.
Although they are more accurate at a distance, the field of view provided by optical sights is probably too small and too slow to acquire. Also, optical sights make a defensive revolver too bulky for convenient carry in a belt holster.
Copyright 2012, 2015 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.