In a world where long-range rifle hunting is all the rage, hunting deer with a handgun might seem futile. And while it’s true that even the best handgun hunter can’t drop a deer at a quarter-mile, today’s crop of hunting handguns is better than ever, thanks in no small part to innovative new loads and better optics. Plus, the challenge of taking a whitetail with a handgun is an exciting change from the standard practice of lugging a long gun into the woods each autumn.
While handguns do have their disadvantages, there are some very real benefits to hunting with a pistol or revolver. For starters, you’ll lighten your load considerably and you’ll have both hands free when moving. This makes it easier to travel deeper into deer country, and it helps public land hunters get farther away from roads where the bulk of other hunters set up shop.
In particularly rough country, having your hands free makes climbing much simpler, and in dense woods you won’t have to worry about maneuvering your rifle or slug gun barrel through dense brush. In many states, including Ohio where I live, most modern centerfire rifles aren’t legal anyway, and out to moderate ranges (say 150 yards) a practiced handgun hunter is not at that great of a disadvantage. Plus, a handgun is far easier to maneuver in the tight spaces of a ground blind or treestand.
The most compelling reason, at least in my opinion, to take up hand- gun hunting is the sense of pride in accomplishing something that not all hunters can achieve. I would be lying if I told you that hunting with a hand- gun is easy. It’s not, and it requires discipline, careful shot placement and plenty of practice. But the reward of knowing that you’ve slipped into an old deer’s home turf and tagged him using a gun you carried on your hip is something that has compelled many hunters to give up their traditional firearms and take up the mantle of handgun hunting.
GEARING UP FOR HANDGUN HUNTING
There are a variety of options when selecting a hunting handgun, but the first is action type. The bulk of hunting handguns are either single- or double-action revolvers, and which type you prefer will primarily be dictated by tastes and familiarity.
On the single-action side you have choices such as Colt’s New Frontier, Ruger’s Super Blackhawk and Freedom Arms’ Model 83. Some, like the Colt, are true to original single-action design and have a hammer-mounted firing pin and should therefore be carried with the hammer on an empty cylinder to prevent accidental discharges. Others, such as the Ruger and Freedom Arms offerings, have a transfer bar-design that prevents hammer strikes from igniting the cartridge.
Modern double-action revolvers are the most popular choice for handgun hunters and with good reason. They are simple to operate, extremely robust and reliable, and are available in a variety of configurations that make choosing the gun that’s right for you much easier. In addition, there are more models that are designed specifically for hunting applications, with long barrels and optics mounting systems.
Single- and double-action revolvers offer quick follow-up shots, but a crisp trigger makes that first shot (and likely your most precise and effective shot) easy to control. Suitable double-action handguns are available from Ruger (the Redhawk and Super Redhawk), Smith & Wesson (N-Frame and X-Frame, specifically) and Taurus.
Semiauto pistols aren’t traditionally thought of as hunting firearms, but that’s a mistake. The slim profile of powerful semiautos makes them easy to carry and follow-up shots are fast. Appropriate caliber selection is more limited than with big-bore revolvers, but there are a few standout cartridges, particularly the 10mm Auto, that can be loaded to nearly match .41 Rem. Mag. ballistics.
Are semiautos accurate enough for hunting? You’d better believe it. At a shooting class in Utah, a group of outdoor writers were banging deer-sized steel targets out to 125 yards consistently with a long- slide 10mm 1911 from Republic Forge. Various companies offer semiauto hunting handguns, such as the Glock G40, 1911s such as the aforementioned Republic Forge and SIG Sauer’s P220 Hunter.
Last but certainly not least are the single shots. Freedom Arms offers its single shot, and Thompson/Center’s Encore and G2 Contender both offer excellent modular single-shot options that can be turned into a rifle, shot- gun or muzzleloader in a few minutes, adding to their versatility.
Barrel length is a consideration when selecting a hunting handgun. Longer barrels develop higher velocities and produce flatter trajectories with the same loads, and that added sight radius also improves accuracy. Selecting the proper barrel length means balancing portability with accuracy and energy. Five inches is on the short side for most hunting applications, so leave your snub-nosed .44 bear gun behind. Six- to 8-inch barrels are most common, and guns with pipes of this length are both portable and potent. Barrels up to 12 inches are available, and they truly wring the most out of hunting rounds, but you’re sacrificing some portability and adding weight with barrels of that length.
Hunting caliber selection for handguns is dictated by state regulations, but for whitetail hunting the mini- mum is generally considered to be the .357 Mag. Larger calibers carry more energy and can extend range, and the most popular selections for revolvers are the .45 Colt, .41 Rem. Mag. and .44 Rem. Mag., with the .44 Mag. being the most popular. The .44 Mag. is a good choice and is prevalent for a reason; it provides plenty of energy at a recoil level most shooters can handle, and there is a wide selection of hunting loads with good bullets available from Federal, Hornady, Winchester, Remington and others.
Once upon a time the .44 Mag. was considered a very powerful handgun hunting cartridge, but it has been eclipsed by several other cartridges including the .454 Casull, the .480 Ruger, the .460 S&W Mag. and the .500 S&W Mag. to name a few. All of these are dedicated hunting cartridges, and pack enough wallop to drop even the biggest deer with the right bullet, but recoil levels will preclude some hunters from shooting them well. Still if you can shoot them they are very effective.
There is some rifle/handgun overlap with single-shot handguns, many of which are available in the aforementioned calibers. Single shots aren’t as limited in caliber selection as revolvers, and companies such as SSK Industries make barrels for single-shot Thompson/Center guns in a variety of standard and wild- cat calibers such as the .375 JDJ, a specialized cartridge that is a powerful hunting round. For semiautos, the 10mm Auto mentioned above is a popular choice and a good one, but there are a handful of other offerings such as the Magnum Research Desert Eagle in .44 Mag. that work well, too.
PRACTICAL HANDGUN WHITETAIL HUNTING
Your journey toward becoming a successful handgun hunter begins at the range. That’s where you’ll develop the skills you need for the field, and this requires time and an understanding of your gun and loads. I begin off sandbags at 25 yards, determining which loads shoot best from my gun and practicing my shooting skills.
The fundamental step to becoming an accurate handgun shooter is developing proper grip, and I learned from Smith & Wesson’s Paul Pluff, himself a seasoned and accomplished handgun shooter. Pluff says the grip should be firm but try to avoid a tight squeeze, which tightens the muscles of the arm and creates muzzle movement that will ruin accuracy. The shooting hand should have a solid grip on the gun and the trigger finger should contact only the trigger at the pad of the index finger. Dry fire practice helps greatly, and I like to start with reduced loads (you can use .44 Special in your .44 Mag. revolver, .45 Colt in a .454 Casull, and .45 Colt and .454 Casull in a .460 S&W revolver).
The key is to maintain a steady sight picture through the squeeze, which will result in better accuracy. A comfortable grip is important, and in many cases you can simply swap out factory grips for aftermarket models if you find something you like better. The support hand should wrap around the shooting hand and you must be certain that your hands are free from moving parts such as the slide of a semiauto. With proper prac- tice a suitable handgun and hunting load should be accurate to at least 50 yards, but most shooters will find that they can double that effective range rather quickly with consistent practice.
Optics are a great aid when hunting, and there are a number of choices in extended eye relief scopes, such as Leupold’s new VX-3i, Bushnell’s Elite 3500 and the Nikon Force XR. Another option is a lightweight red- dot sight such as those available from Leupold, Aimpoint and Trijicon, and although they don’t offer magnification, they do provide a clear aiming point that improves accuracy over iron sights.
Practicing in field conditions is critical. I always carry a light bipod when handgun hunting and this allows me to quickly gain a secure shooting platform from a kneeling or seated position. Once I feel comfortable with my gun and load from the bench, I immediately move to shooting from these field positions because this is how I will be shooting when I’m hunting. I also carry a pack, which offers me additional support and makes it easy to get into a prone position, which is optimum for field accuracy.
The 8-point whitetail moved through the dense thorn scrub, just his head and antlers visible as he trailed a doe through the dry West Texas winter. I brought the G2 Contender into position, steadied and waited for the deer to slip into the open at 35 yards from where I was positioned, the only shooting lane I’d have in that heavy cover. When he did he stopped broadside, lifted his head to test the wind, and when the crosshairs of the Leupold came steady just behind the shoulder I squeezed the trigger. The gun rocked up and away, and I could tell that the shot was good. The buck didn’t travel 20 yards before succumbing to the .44 caliber bullet.
He wasn’t the largest deer I’d ever killed, but hunting him in that Texas scrub country at close range during the rut was a thrill I’ll never forget. It was a challenge to be sure, but I knew from my practice on the range that I could make the shot and was very satisfied with the results of the hunt. That hunt will forever stand out in my mind not because of the inches of antler but because I had taken up the challenge of handgun hunting and had been successful.
Since then I’ve invested more time in handgun hunting and have become a fan, just as Pluff said I would. I suggest you give handgun hunting a try, not because it’s easy, but because the challenge makes it that much more rewarding.
— Brad Fitzpatrick is a whitetail hunter and outdoors writer from Ohio.