Handgun Hunting

By Chuck Hawks

This article is about the handguns and handgun cartridges most suitable for hunting. I am limiting the discussion to conventional handguns and cartridges. Bolt action or other exotic single shot pistols with barrels in excess of 10" in length will not be covered. Such weapons really amount to carbines without a butt stock. Nor will it deal with rifle cartridges like the .22 Hornet, .30-30 Winchester and .45-70 Govt. that are sometimes adapted to these exotic handguns.

No, the subjects of this article are traditional revolving and autoloading pistols, plus the ubiquitous T/C Contender single shot pistol, suitable for hunting small and big game animals in a sporting manner. Any hunting pistol should have good, fully adjustable iron sights or an optical sight (red dot or conventional long eye relief scope). They should ideally have barrels of 6" to 10" in length, and fit into a holster. A barrel at least 6 inches long is needed for its long sight radius, and to get adequate performance from the high velocity pistol cartridges that are normally used for hunting. It is difficult to find a holster for gun with a barrel longer than 10 inches, and awkward to carry such a gun in a holster.

These traditional handguns are chambered for straight cased pistol cartridges ranging from the .22 LR to the 454 Casull and .480 Ruger. They are a joy to carry afield, and the most sporting and rewarding of all firearms with which to hunt. In the hands of an accomplished shooter, they can be very effective. Many rifle hunters that regularly bag game cannot shoot as accurately as an accomplished shooter with such a handgun.

In some respects handgun hunting is similar to bow hunting. Both are fairly short range weapons that demand superior hunting and marksmanship skills for consistent success. The hunter must be able to stalk within close range of the intended trophy. This is a very sporting proposition, one it would do many rifle shooters well to emulate. A handgun, however, is more accurate than a bow. And a bullet from a powerful handgun is more humane than an arrow, as it kills very quickly with a well-placed bullet. In that sense it is like a rifle. To me, handgun hunting is hunting at its finest.

Not only does the taking of game with a handgun bring a special feeling of pride, the pistol offers some positive advantages over the rifle as a hunting weapon. One of the most important of these is lighter weight. Obviously it is easier to spend the day carrying a 14 inch long, 3 pound pistol in a holster than an 42 inch long, eight pound rifle in the hand or slung over the shoulder. This is particularly true in very rough country, or when climbing, or following dogs. A handgun makes a fine brush gun, as it is very handy, fast, and woods ranges are usually short.

I particularly remember an occasion when three of us, all carrying only beltguns, were following a game trail up a granite cliff. It was a particularly difficult ascent that required two free hands (I am no rock climber). I remember thinking that I was glad I had not brought a rifle; even slung across my back it would have gotten badly scratched, and might have made the climb impossible.

Small game hunting
For small game hunting, the usual cartridges are the rimfire .22 LR and .22 WMR (Magnum). Over most of the country small game consists of squirrels and rabbits. In most states varmints and the smaller predators are also legal handgun fare, and there is no closed season. This usually includes such animals as gophers, ground squirrels, starlings, rats, foxes, coyotes, marmots, and jackrabbits. The .22 WMR is adequate for all of these, and in good hands the .22 LR will take many of them.

At handgun ranges, the .22 LR is the queen of small game hunting cartridges. Loaded with high or hyper velocity hollow point cartridges, the .22 LR can humanely and efficiently harvest small game the size of rabbits and squirrels. Where legal, many game birds also make fine (and very difficult) targets for the .22 pistolero who insists on taking only head shots. The .22 high-speed hollow point cartridge shoots flat enough to make 75 yard shots, if the shooter and the pistol are up to it.

The small game gun, and the shooter behind it, must be able to reliably put a bullet into a 3" circle, or a 1.5" circle if a head shot is called for, at whatever range small game is engaged. It is the pistol's accuracy or the shooter's ability, rather than the trajectory of either the .22 LR or .22 WMR cartridge, that usually limits effective range for the small game handgun hunter.

An accurate target type revolver or auto pistol is the probably best handgun for small game hunting. New or used, the Colt Diamondback and Smith & Wesson .22 Masterpiece double action revolvers, and the Ruger Super Single Six single action revolver are the wheel guns most commonly recommended for small game hunting. Equally useful are the some of the target or hunting style .22 autoloaders from Ruger, Browning, High Standard, SIG, and Colt. (The Colt and High Standard .22 autos have been in and out of production over the years, but are fairly common on the used market.) All of them should be capable of shooting, from a bench rest, into 1.5" from 25 yards or 3" at 50 yards, and sometimes they will do quite a bit better.

The squirrel is my favorite game animal for .22 LR pistols. They inhabit wooded areas, and can sometimes be treed before the shot. They are wonderful little game animals and, if you are clever, you can often stalk them to within range of your handgun.

The .22 WMR (Magnum) cartridge is the other popular choice for small game hunting and, due to its greater velocity and energy, extends the practical range to about 100 yards. The .22 Magnum is capable of humanely taking larger game, like marmots and jackrabbits, with body shots, which are not advised with the .22 LR. Due to its higher operating pressure and very long case it is almost exclusively a revolver cartridge. The AMT 22 Automag II, available with a 6" barrel and adjustable rear sight, is the only .22 WMR autoloader on the market as I write this at the beginning of 2002.

If you have a .22 Magnum pistol, or one of the suitable centerfire calibers discussed below, and live in or near an area where they can be found, I suggest you try hunting jackrabbits. If you take it slow and watch the shaded areas at the base of bushes you can often stalk to within 50 or 75 yards of a motionless jack. These animals are great fun to shoot at, and when alarmed they can really move out. Jacks run as fast a deer, and bounce up and down even more. They will teach you that you must lead a running target, and are probably the best way to learn how to hit running animals. As long as they are not infected with disease, they can be eaten--hamburger made with 50% jackrabbit and 50% lamb is particularly tasty.

Very interesting for hunting and general field use are the "convertible" .22 single action revolvers, which come with a cylinder chambered for the .22 LR, and a second cylinder chambered for the .22 WMR. Colt once offered their .22 Scout, and later their .22 New Frontier, as convertibles (both guns have been discontinued). Ruger's Super Singe Six Convertible has been the best selling convertible revolver for many years. Freedom Arms offers a convertible version of their .22 SA revolver. I have owned both Colt and Ruger convertibles, and both are excellent. Most .22 convertibles, in my experience, have been a little more accurate with .22 LR ammo, but my current Colt New Frontier shoots its best groups with the .22 WMR cylinder. You have to test the individual gun to find out for sure.

The 10" Contender break action single shot pistol is also "convertible" in a sense. This pistol features interchangeable barrels that allow the same grip, frame, and forearm to mate to barrels for everything from the .22 LR to the .45 Colt. The two calibers of primary interest to the small game hunter remain the .22 LR and the .22 WMR, both of which are available in the Contender. Contender pistols were designed for hunting and come with excellent Patridge-type iron sights; they are also drilled and tapped for scope mounts. The Contender is a big, somewhat clumsy pistol, but it is extremely accurate.

Hunting larger game
Centerfire hunting revolvers, autoloaders, and the T/C Contender single shot pistols are chambered for a variety of powerful, flat shooting cartridges. The current selection of revolver cartridges includes the .30 Carbine, .32 H&R Magnum, .357 Magnum, .41 Remington Magnum, .44 Remington Magnum, .454 Casull, and .480 Ruger. Auto pistols are usually chambered for the .38 Super, .357 SIG, 10mm Auto, or .45 Winchester Magnum. The Contender has been chambered for most of the cartridges on both lists at one time or another.

All of these cartridges have the power and trajectory for 100 yard shots at appropriate size animals. The old 9mm Luger, .38 Special, .44-40, and .45 Colt cartridges will also do for shorter-range hunting with expanding bullets (as far as 50-75 yards, depending on the load and the size of the target).

The .30 Carbine, .32 Magnum, 9mm Luger, .38 Special, and .38 Super are primarily useful for animals of 50 pounds live weight or less. The others are pronghorn antelope and deer cartridges within their range limitation. The most powerful cartridges, the .44 Rem. Magnum, .45 Win. Magnum, .454 Casull, and .480 Ruger can be used to take larger animals, perhaps up to the size of elk, under favorable conditions. Of course, all of the "deer" cartridges from the .357 Magnum on up have been used to take far larger animals on occasion, but this is more in the nature of a stunt than responsible hunting.

It is important to choose a gun you can shoot accurately with hunting loads. If you find shooting a .44 Magnum intimidating, don't be ashamed. A standard .44 Mag. revolver shooting full power hunting loads kicks with something like 22.5 ft. lbs. of recoil energy. This is way more than most people can handle (although few will admit it). Try a pistol chambered for a less powerful cartridge.

If your goal is to hunt deer, you do need be able to handle at least a .357 Mag. It is possible for most shooters to learn to handle a .357 and its 8-9 ft. lbs. of recoil energy, although it may take time and lots of practice. Mastering a magnum handgun places a premium on concentration and self-control. You must strive for a consistent surprise break. Concentrate on the front sight and squeeze the trigger gently until the gun fires. There is no short cut to excellence with a handgun, particularly a magnum.

For deer hunting, the hunter (with a deer pistol and hunting loads) must be able to consistently put his or her bullets into an 8" circle. This determines the maximum range and from what position the shooter can shoot a deer, out to the maximum effective range of the cartridge.

For example, when shooting a hunting pistol chambered for a 100 yard deer cartridge, if I can keep my shots within an 8" circle shooting with one hand from a standing position at 25 yards, I can shoot at a deer from that position at that range. If I can keep all of my shots within an 8" circle from a two handed standing position at 50 yards, that is the range at which I can shoot a deer from that position. If I can keep my bullets in an 8" circle at 75 yards from a sitting position, I am good to go from that position out to 75 yards. If I can keep all of my bullets in that 8" circle at 100 yards from a sitting position with a solid rest, I must be able to assume that position to engage a deer at that range, which is also the maximum permissible range for my cartridge.

Centerfire DA revolvers
Any number of good double action hunting revolvers chambered for various of the revolver cartridges above have been made by Colt, Smith & Wesson, Ruger, and (more recently) Taurus. Because there have been so many, it is impossible to mention all the decent DA centerfire revolvers suitable for hunting. I will try to mention a few of the standouts.

The first of these would have to be the Colt Python .357 Magnum. This famous revolver was introduced in 1955 and set the standard all others have been trying to match ever since. Barrel lengths for hunting are 6 and 8 inches. You can read more about the Python in the gun test The Colt Python .357 Magnum. The less expensive but still very nice Trooper Mk. III and its successor the King Cobra Mk IV came with 6" barrels in .357 Magnum caliber. The biggest of the recent Colt DA revolvers was the impressive Anaconda .44 Magnum. This heavy duty .44 Mag. was perhaps the most accurate of all the DA .44's. It was available with 6" and 8" barrels for the handgun hunter.

For smaller game, the Colt Diamondback with a 6" barrel was for many years the ultimate .38 Special. All of these Colt DA revolvers came with excellent adjustable rear sights, and scope mounts are available. It is my understanding that at the present time all Colt DA revolvers are discontinued except the Python, which is available by special order only from the Custom Shop.

The first .357 Magnum revolver was the S&W Model 27. This large "N" frame (.44 size) revolver has always been one of the premier .357's. Another fine S&W revolver is the Model 57 (blue) or 657 (stainless) .41 Magnum, also built on the large "N" frame. The best known of all S&W revolvers is the Model 29, popularized in Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry" movies. This was the top of the line S&W wheel gun for many years, and it is still a fine pistol. There are several Model 29/629 (the 600 series are made of stainless steel) variations today. An oddity is the S&W Model 610 Classic Hunter, chambered for the 10mm Auto cartridge. Like the top line Colt revolvers, all of these S&W models come with good adjustable rear sights. For hunting, hold out for the 6, 6.5, or 8 3/8 inch barrels in all models. Scope mounts can be had for all of these Smith and Wessons.

Ruger's top DA hunting revolvers include the modern GP-100 with a 6" barrel in .357 Magnum. This revolver can be had in blue or stainless, with a full length or short barrel shroud. The big Redhawk revolver comes with 5.5" or 7.5" barrels in blue or stainless steel, with or without integral scope mounts and rings. Calibers are .44 Mag. or .45 Colt. Ruger's most massive DA revolver is the huge Super Redhawk. It comes only in stainless steel, with a 7.5" or 9.5" barrel. All Super Redhawks come with integral scope mounts and Ruger scope rings. Calibers are .44 Magnum and .454 Casull. Weight with a 7.5" barrel is hefty 53 ounces. All of these Ruger DA revolvers come with very good, fully adjustable rear sights.

Centerfire SA revolvers
Hunting type single action revolvers have come primarily from Colt, Ruger, and Freedom Arms. Keep in mind that both single action and double action hunting revolvers are common on the new and used markets.

The best of the Colt SA revolvers for the hunter was the New Frontier. This was most popular in the traditional .45 Colt caliber, but was also offered in .357 Magnum. A visual standout, the New Frontier came with a color case hardened flat top frame, Royal Blue barrel, cylinder, and grip frame, and walnut grips with gold Colt medallions. It also came with a ramp-style front sight blade and a fully adjustable target type rear sight.

The very popular Ruger SA revolvers are all based on the "New Model" lock work, which allows safe carry with a fully loaded cylinder. The Blackhawk, probably the most popular hunting handgun in the world, comes with 6.5" barrel in .357 Mag./.38 Special and .41 Magnum. In .30 Carbine and .45 Colt the hunting barrel length is 7.5 inches, although shorter barrels are available for other purposes. The finish is blue or stainless steel with walnut grips, and all models come with Ruger's usual adjustable rear sight. A Bisley-type target grip and lower hammer are available on .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, and .45 Colt models. The .32 H&R Magnum has been offered in the Bisley version of the Super Single Six, a small frame (7/8 size) version of the Blackhawk. Scope mounts are available for all models.

The top of the line Ruger single action revolver remains the .44 Magnum/.44 Special Super Blackhawk. This is a slightly larger frame version of the Blackhawk with a longer grip. The traditional and most popular barrel length is 7.5 inches, although there is also a 10.5 inch version primarily for silhouette shooters. Finish is blue or stainless steel with walnut grips. A squared-off rear trigger guard and un-fluted cylinder help identify most Super Blackhawk models. There is a special Hunter version of the stainless steel Super Blackhawk with a full length barrel rib and integral scope mounts, which comes with Ruger scope rings. To my taste, this is the finest of all Ruger hunting revolvers. Standard on all models are Ruger's fully adjustable Patridge-type iron sights.

For whatever reason, all of the Ruger .44 Magnums with which I have had experience have been extremely accurate guns, capable of shooting outstanding groups from a bench rest. All Ruger guns these days come with heavier than desirable trigger pulls, but the design of the action makes this easy to rectify. I have always done my own action work on SA Rugers, the only revolvers I can say that about.

Freedom Arms makes the world's finest SA revolver. This large, beautifully made, stainless steel hunting revolver is very expensive (approximately $1500-$1960 at the end of 2001), but practically a work of art. The action is hand honed, and the trigger pull is excellent out of the box. There are Field and Premier Grades available in most models. The Model 97 is a 6-shot revolver in .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum, or .45 Colt. The best barrel length for the hunter is usually 7.5" although shorter barrels are offered. The Model 83 comes in .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum, and .44 Magnum, as well as a couple of rare and exotic calibers. There is also a special Silhouette Model 83. The similar 454 Model comes in .454 Casull only (but there is an optional cylinder available for .45 Win. Mag. and .45 ACP). These are large frame 5 shot revolvers with 6, 7.5, or 10 inch barrels. Depending on grade and model, grips are laminated hardwood, black micarta, or rubber Pachmayr. Excellent fully adjustable iron sights are optional for all models, and scope mounts are also available.

Single shot pistol
The Contender single shot pistol is chambered for a number of cartridges, including some exotics, and the list changes periodically. Perennial favorites have been the .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, and .45 Colt revolver cartridges. The break-action Contender's closed breech, plus its long 10" barrel, gives it a velocity advantage over revolvers chambered for the same cartridges. For example, .357 Magnum 158 grain JSP Remington factory loads gave a chronographed velocity of 1263 fps from the 6" barrel of my Colt Python revolver. The same loads, from the same box, gave a chronographed velocity of 1580 fps from the 10" bull barrel of my Contender. (As an aside, when I fired the same loads from the 18.5" barrel of my Marlin 1894-C rifle they gave a chronographed velocity of 1685 fps.) I also fired the best 100 yard group I have ever fired from any handgun from a Contender with a telescopic sight. The Contender is the ultimate hunting pistol whenever a scoped single shot is appropriate.

Autoloading pistols
Semi-automatic hunting pistols are few and far between. The limiting factor for most autoloaders is their indifferent accuracy. A level of accuracy that is perfectly suitable for a self-defense pistol at 10 yards may well be totally unsuitable for a big game hunting pistol at 10 times that range. The problem with most service type auto pistols is that they can't keep all of their bullets in an 8" circle from a machine rest at 100 yards. So no matter how good the shooter is, the pistol itself becomes the limiting factor. An average .357 Magnum Contender might be able to shoot a 5-shot, 3" group at 100 yards. An average high quality .357 hunting revolver might be able to shoot a 4" group at 100 yards. But an average high quality auto pistol might be able to group no better than 12" at 100 yards. This simply in not good enough for a hunting pistol.

One autoloading pistol designed and marketed specifically for hunting is the relatively rare gas operated Widely Pistol. These huge 64+ ounce stainless steel pistols come chambered for the proprietary Widely .45 and .475 Magnum cartridges, and the .45 Win. Mag. auto pistol cartridge. The Winchester factory load for the latter advertises a 260 grain JHP bullet at a MV of 1200 fps with 831 ft. lbs. of ME. This puts it between the .44 Magnum and .454 Casull revolver cartridges in power. The Widley pistols feature fully adjustable rear sights, a fixed barrel, and a 3-lug rotating bolt for accuracy. Barrel lengths for the Hunter Model in .45 Win. Mag. are 5, 6, 7, 8, and 10 inches. Extra long 12 and 14 inch barrels are available at extra cost. This is probably the premier autoloader for the hunter. The Widely is a very expensive pistol, the list price being between $1600 and $1700 at the end of 2001, depending on caliber and options. Where you are going to find .45 Win. Mag. ammo is another question, not to mention .45 or .475 Widely ammunition. I presume you could special order .45 Win. Mag. from most Winchester dealers.

Another possible choice is the famous gas operated Magnum Research Desert Eagle pistol in standard calibers .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum, plus the more exotic .50 AE. These pistols come with either 6" or 10" barrels and weigh around 70.5 ounces with a 6" barrel. They come ready to accept rings for mounting a scope. This is also supposed to be an accurate pistol, with the added advantage of being chambered for two widely available cartridges. This pistol lists for $1200 to $1300 in 2001.

Glock has recently been touting their Model 20 10mm Auto pistol for hunting. This autoloader is much lighter than the other two autos I have mentioned, at 21 ounces, and much less expensive also, at a list price of $645 with adjustable sights. Unfortunately, its barrel is only 4.6" long, and it is a typical short recoil operated pistol. This means that the barrel and slide (where the sights are) both move, and separately, with every shot. Frankly, as much as I like Glock pistols for defense, I have never shot one that was accurate enough to meet my standards for a hunting pistol. However, I have never shot a Model 20, either. The 10mm cartridge is a good one, offering ballistic performance between that of the .357 Mag. and .41 Mag. revolver cartridges with full power hunting loads (not the "FBI Lite" self-defense loads).

Glock chambers their Model 17L long slide competition gun for the 9mm Luger cartridge. This pistol has a 6.02" barrel and the option of an adjustable rear sight. It might have hunting applications for some of the smaller species of game.

SIG Arms offers their compensated Model P229S in .357 SIG caliber. This 40.6 ounce pistol has only a 4.8" barrel, but comes with fully adjustable sights. The .357 SIG cartridge is not exactly common, but it is available at the larger gun shops. This cartridge offers performance above that of the .38 Super, but somewhat below that of a full house .357 revolver load. The only factory load offered by the Big 3 is from Federal, a 125 grain bullet at 1350 fps with 510 ft. lbs. of ME. This should be an excellent defense load, but the bullet may be a little light for deer hunting. It should be fine for smaller animals.

This, then, is handgun hunting. For the price of two revolvers, say a .22 Convertible and a centerfire magnum, plus great deal of enjoyable practice, you can join the growing ranks of those who hunt everything from ground squirrels to big game with a pistol.

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Copyright 2002, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.