Hunting Revolver Killing Power

By Chuck Hawks

A recurring question that we here at Guns and Shooting Online receive goes something like this: "In the article 'The Killing Power of Big Game Bullets' you state that 800 ft. lbs. of kinetic energy at impact is a reasonable minimum for deer hunting. Why doesn't this 800 ft. lb. minimum apply to handguns? If hitting deer with less than 800 ft. lbs. from a rifle is ill advised, then why is it not ill advised to hunt deer with any of the standard magnum revolvers, none of which deliver 800 ft. lbs. at 100 yards?"

This question is a valid one, and it comes up often enough that I thought it best to answer it in an article. So here is my response:

The article cited pertains only to rifle bullets. My statements regarding rifle bullet energy that you cited are widely agreed upon generalizations, admittedly imperfect, and are really intended as a general guide for comparing small bore rifle cartridges (basically from .24 to .32 caliber).

They do not hold up if comparing rifle cartridges to revolver cartridges, or even when comparing dissimilar rifle cartridges such as the .243 Winchester and .45-70. Both the .243 and .45-70 are effective deer cartridges and the 100 grain .243 bullet actually carries more energy at 100 yards than a 400 grain .45-70 bullet. However, the latter is a far better choice for hunting large game like elk, moose and bear that require more killing power than deer. And that conclusion is not based on theoretical calculations, but decades of experience by thousands of hunters using both cartridges in the field.

Energy is an important component of killing power, but clearly it is not the whole story; it is just one part of the picture. Focusing entirely on any one factor among the several involved in killing power can be misleading, and so it is when comparing rifle bullets to handgun bullets.

Remember that kinetic energy, per se, is not what kills deer. Kinetic energy powers the bullet expansion and penetration that destroys tissue, and it is the destruction of tissue (vital organs if the shot is a good one) that kills the animal.

All of the common revolver hunting cartridges (.357 Mag., .41 Mag., and .44 Mag.) are medium bore or big bore calibers. It is no secret that such calibers, primarily due to their greater frontal area, require less kinetic energy to achieve a similar amount of tissue destruction compared to small bore calibers. And pistol bullets are designed to expand properly at much lower velocity and with less energy than rifle bullets. By design they require less energy to power expansion. Penetration is not much of an issue on deer size animals as long as the bullet does not fragment on contact, so decent pistol hunting bullets at revolver velocities are generally satisfactory in that regard.

There are important differences between traditional handgun hunting and rifle hunting. Among the most important of these are the range involved and, frankly, the average level of competence of the participants. In reality, a 100 yard shot with a handgun is a long one. Most deer taken with a revolver are probably killed between 25 and 50 yards. In my experience, handgun hunters in the main are far more disciplined and experienced than rifle hunters. They are also much less likely to attempt shots beyond their sure vital area hit distance. They almost have to be stalkers and hunters rather than just shooters. The bottom line is that they are far more likely to make their shots count, and bullet placement is always the key component of killing power.

A poor shot who attempts to hunt with a handgun as some sort of stunt is a menace in the woods and even more likely to wound game than an inexperienced rifle hunter. Fortunately, at least where I live, such types are extremely rare.

In my home state of Oregon handgun hunters require a special handgun deer tag, yet they are allowed to hunt only during the regular (rifle) deer season. They cannot also purchase a rifle deer tag--they are committed to hunting ONLY with a handgun for that entire season. You have to choose before the season begins which sort of firearm you will hunt with. As a result, handgun hunters tend to be pretty serious hunters who are willing to handicap themselves in order to pursue their sport. The inexperienced hunter or the guy who just wants to kill a deer will choose a rifle tag 99% of the time.

The bottom line to all of this is that handgun hunting is not directly comparable to rifle hunting in terms of the reasonable level of kinetic energy required to achieve humane kills at normal handgun ranges.

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Copyright 2006, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.