Thoughts About Handguns in the Field

By Chuck Hawks

I am a revolver guy. I learned to shoot handguns with a revolver. I have always been perfectly happy manually operating my handguns and I prefer to do so.

Whether carrying a single action revolver or a double action revolver, I cock the hammer before shooting. This gives a short, light trigger pull (typically adjusted between two and three pounds in my revolvers) and greatly enhances accuracy. Precise bullet placement is what matters when hunting, not speed.

I have never had much use for semi-automatic pistols in the field. Their strengths seem to be urban self defense against multiple targets, close range rapid fire (seven yards or less is considered typical) and fast reloads (as long as you have previously loaded magazines at hand). None of these qualities are very relevant for a hunting sidearm, or even for a handgun carried for protection from large predators. (See Handguns for Protection in the Field for more on this subject.)

I have never shot anything, except one tarantula, at less than seven yards in the field and that happened to be with a .357 Ruger Blackhawk single action revolver. That incident was also my only real life "fast draw" and shot. The big spider practically crawled into my lap while I was sitting on a dirt mound eating a sandwich. It startled the heck out of me and I jumped to my feet, drew and fired, practically in one motion. All that was left of the spider was a crater in the dirt. Tarantulas and I have never gotten along.

A 75-125 yard shot at a jackrabbit was common where I hunted. Easily within range for a .357, but hopeless with a .45. This was in the Mojave Desert, which was empty space back in the day. We almost never got a shot at less than 75 yards, as the animals had been pecked at with .22 LR rifles and shotguns and had learned to stay out of range.

When I was handgun hunting in the desert every week and shooting a lot I was also (of necessity) reloading a lot. That is another reason I don't like autoloaders, as I simply refuse to run around, constantly bending down and picking up brass, which is then dirty and often dinged. In the field, much brass is simply not recovered from an autoloader. A revolver allows you to eject fired cases neatly into your hand.

A .357 Magnum revolver (I mostly carried a Ruger Blackhawk with a 6.5" barrel) not only kills better, it shoots much flatter, more accurately and hits harder at much longer range than a 1911/.45 ACP autoloader. I tried a .45 (a service 1911A1) out in the desert and very quickly discovered it was virtually useless. Insufficient accuracy, rainbow trajectory, scattered brass all over the place, slow to reload an empty magazine, fixed sights--the gun just couldn't cut it in ANY way. I sold the thing within a month.

Incidentally, the only civilian gunfight any personal friend of mine was in took place at approximately 100 yards in the field. A guy fired at my friend Ricky with a rifle, missed, and Ricky hit him with his first return shot from his 6.5" Blackhawk .357, ending the fight. (Ricky wasn't carrying a rifle.) He would have probably died that day had he been carrying a .45 auto, because it was an attempted murder. The cause was bad blood over a woman.

You can see why I am not a fan of autoloaders or short barreled revolvers in the field. They are a big handicap for both hunting and protection from two legged predators armed with rifles. Only a magnum handgun (hopefully with a 6" to 8" barrel) gives you a chance against a fool with a rifle.

On several occasions I have run into pretty disreputable looking hombres in the field where the range and accuracy of the .357, which can out range a shotgun, service pistol or .22 rifle, may have prevented a confrontation. It is nice to be able to casually demonstrate shooting a white rock or some target of opportunity at 100+ yards--in a friendly way, of course--to such individuals. This earns some respect from illegal aliens, poachers and low life's when it is most needed. A 12 gauge shotgun trumps a .45 auto big time, but a .357 substantially outranges both.

Actually, a good .22 WMR revolver with a 6.5" barrel is more useful downrange than a .45 auto pistol. It is accurate and easy to shoot well. The .22 Magnum (40 grain JHP) shoots about as flat as a .357 or .44 and the bullets expand nicely when they hit. The drawback is that at long range on a running animal it doesn't kick up a visible dust plume, making it difficult to correct your lead.

Back in the day I wanted to try a Colt SAA in .32-20, but could never find one I could afford. I figured it would shoot flat, kick less than a .357 and still kick up dirt when the 100 grain bullet hit. Of course, I would have needed a flat-top model with adjustable sights for hunting. Now, I own a 5.5" Blackhawk in the new .327 Magnum cartridge, which shoots a bit flatter than a .357 or .44 Mag. and kicks a lot less. It is a terrific caliber that deserves more attention than it is getting at present. I think it would be perfect for the kind of hunting and shooting I used to do. One of these days I am going to try it on varmints in Eastern Oregon.

A .44 Magnum has about the same trajectory and is clearly better than a .357 for hunting large animals, but kicks a lot more and simply wasn't necessary for the hunting we were doing in the Mojave (jackrabbits, foxes and coyotes). The only deer shot with my .357 Blackhawk went down like the earth had been jerked from beneath it. (The Speer 146 grain JHP bullet took out both lungs.) That was about a 25 yard shot. It is bullet placement, much more than raw power, that matters when it comes to quick kills.

For protection in the field from large predators it is hard to beat a .44 Mag. revolver, providing you can shoot it well. As always, bullet placement is more important than raw power, so if the recoil of a .44 is intimidating (be honest with yourself), stick with a .357. Both can launch bullets of adequate sectional density and at adequate velocity/energy to do the job with a brain shot.

If I lived in Alaska and were in the field without a rifle (fishing, for instance), I'd always carry a .44 Mag. revolver for protection. In various parts of Alaska they have cougar, black bear, grizzly bear, brown bear, polar bear and, during the rut, bull moose to worry about.

However, I live in Oregon, where the only large predators are cougar and black bear and both are usually timid. These days, if I am in the woods without a rifle, I still sometimes carry a .44. However, more often I tote a 4" Colt Python .357 stoked with full power 180 grain loads.

I do like the .44 Magnum cartridge, which I believe to be the most accurate of all the centerfire handgun cartridges I have used. I have owned several .44's over the years and own three right now. These are Ruger Super Blackhawks and Redhawks, which are built on true .44 Magnum frames. I have always avoided the Smith & Wesson N-frame revolvers, as the frame is too big to be ideal for the .357 Magnum and too small to be ideal for the .44 Magnum.

Both my right shoulder and right wrist have been damaged from magnum rifle and pistol recoil and the retina of my left eye is partly detached. I am also half deaf from shooting magnum handguns, with almost no measurable hearing remaining above 3000 cycles, so I have paid my physical dues.

These days I shoot full power .44 Magnum loads sparingly, as they aggravate my wrist. For practice, I mostly shoot reduced power loads in both my .357 and .44 Mag. revolvers.

Yes, I have learned to be recoil adverse. I figure I have nothing to prove.

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Copyright 2014 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.