Master the Mechanics for Deer Hunting with Handguns

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Much like renewing your wedding vows, getting back to the basics can serve even the veteran handgun hunter extremely well.

Finding a handgun platform that suits you well is critical. Comfort goes a long way toward building confidence. Should you choose a single- or double-action? .357 Mag. or .44 Mag? .454 Casull? Long barrel? Short barrel? Scope? Open sights? What configuration will fulfill your needs? There are a number of questions you need to answer honestly to zero

in on what will best serve your big game hunting aspirations. If at all possible, you should try a number of different revolvers. Recoil characteristics vary greatly between the different types and makes, and let’s face the facts, large- caliber revolvers deliver sizable recoil.

The Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum is a powerful handgun that will take down deer and other game, provided the hunter is confident with it, has a good shot and has practiced enough to make it. (Photo: Alan Clemons/DDH)

Double-action revolvers tend to concentrate recoil force straight back into the web of your hand, while single actions tend to twist upward, sparing the shooter some of the unpleasantness. The two configurations are worlds apart in how they transfer recoil to the shooter.

I could go into the various single-action grip-frame profiles, but we don’t have room for that here. My personal favorite is Ruger’s take on the Bisley grip frame. It is optimal for control in my hands because it has more of a double-action-like recoil dynamic. Freedom Arms’ Model 83 grip is another that I really like.

I recommend testing a few of the different makes, models and calibers before you make this decision. If you don’t know anyone with a variety of revolvers to try, I suggest visiting any number of websites or chat rooms dedicated to revolvers and handgun hunting. You might fin someone local who is willing to let you shoot some of their guns.

Everyone has different preferences, so there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to picking a plat- form. For me, single-action revolvers point more intuitively than double actions. They are almost an extension of the hand. Gunslingers of the Old West were undoubtedly well aware of this handling characteristic, relying on point shooting for survival. On the other hand, we are not gunslingers but handgun hunters, and the double action may offer some advantages when quick follow- up shots are needed to dispatch a departing animal.

PICKING THE RIGHT CALIBER
This is as good as any time to briefly discuss calibers. While the .357 Mag. is not my first choice, it can be effective. Remember that shot placement is key, and a half-inch hole won’t make up for lousy marksmanship. Loaded with a quality bullet, I wouldn’t hesitate to use the .357 Mag. on deer. However, I still prefer erring on the larger side with regard to calibers.

The .41 Magnum revolver is a good starting point for deer hunters for several reasons, including knockdown power and lighter felt recoil than the larger calibers.

The .41 Mag. is a good starting point and compromise, though factory ammunition is somewhat scarce. The champion of all big-revolver rounds from an ammunition availability standpoint is the ubiquitous .44 Mag. No other caliber can boast the sheer variety and quantity of available ammunition, and it is fully up to the task of taking any and every game animal that has ever walked the face of this earth.

One of my personal favorites is the .45 Colt — yeah, that old blackpowder cartridge from back in the late 1800s. It can be loaded considerably hotter than its original configuration (limited to 14,000 psi). I’m not suggesting turning your .45 Colt into a .454 Casull, but revolvers such as Ruger’s Blackhawk in .45 Colt are considerably stronger than a Colt Single Action Army or the many facsimiles available on the market and are able to safely handle considerably hotter loads than the 14,000-psi maximum imposed upon the smaller and more fragile revolvers.

Adhere to published load data, and do not exceed the maximums recommended by the manufacturer, because there is no need to turn your favorite revolver into a hand grenade.

There are quite a few big calibers that are fairly brutal to shoot, and I don’t recommend them to the neophyte. There are some, such as the .480 Ruger, that offer a fine compromise between power and recoil. However, you can load the big calibers down to “soft” levels and they still offer a sizable advantage over their smaller siblings. They don’t need to be pushed hard to be terminally effective. Keep this in mind when you are deciding on a caliber for a hunting revolver.

You need to be honest with yourself as far as your limitations. There is no shame in a low tolerance for recoil. These big-bore revolvers can be very difficult to shoot, because you generally have only 3 pounds to contain the considerable recoil generated by some cartridges. Take pride in being able to shoot your chosen revolver well and effectively. Let someone else’s ego dictate their caliber choices. Confidence and competence will go a long way to filling the freezer with game meat. Confidence follows competence, and consistent competence is the offspring of practice.

Let’s briefly talk about bullets. We live in what I consider the Golden Age of handgun bullets. There are bonded, jacketed, controlled expansion, violently expanding, deep penetrating, soft-point, flat-point, hollow-point, monometal and hard-cast, to name just the big players. It’s important to match your bullet to your game.

Soft, thin-skinned game respond well to violently expanding bullets where deep penetration isn’t needed. When hunting thick-skinned, heavy- boned animals, an expanding bullet of tougher construction, such as Hornady’s Magnum XTP or the Swift A-frame, or a minimally expanding bullet, such as a flat-nosed hardcast, are preferable. Expansion is more critical in smaller calibers, but when your bullet is starting out at or nearly a half-inch in diameter, expansion isn’t all that important. All that said, I always prefer two holes to one and put a premium on penetration.

LEARNING TO SHOOT
Now that you have chosen your revolver, it is time to learn how to shoot it well. Simply stated, shooting a handgun accurately is more difficult than shooting a rifle. You won’t have the luxury of using your body to stabilize the firearm by bracing the buttstock firmly into your shoulder.

Consistency is the name of the game here — of grip pressure and trigger control. Changing your grip tension will change the point of impact of your bullets. This is why it is so important to shoot in the same manner each and every time, and repetition is habit forming. If fatigue begins to rear its head as you practice, either rest or stop for the day. Bad habits can form quickly when pushing your own limits, and if your grip begins weakening during a shooting session your marksman- ship will suffer.

Limit your time on the range so you end each range session on a high note. This will allow your muscles to retain the memory of doing things correctly. It won’t serve you well to shoot until you develop a flinch. Undoing a flinch can be frustrating and time consuming. You will know when you reach your limit and, when you do, hang it up until the next practice session.

Range time should be spent practicing the various field positions, while the bench should be visited sparingly — to sight-in and to check zero. Field positions include offhand practice, which I find to be very useful. In fact, I spend most of my practice time shooting offhand.

Practice makes perfect when it comes to hunting with handguns.

ASSUME THE POSITION
The two reigning offhand shooting stances are the Isosceles and the Weaver stances. The Isosceles puts both of your feet on line (actually, the latest trend is to drop the strong side foot back a bit but not as severely as with the Weaver stance), while you face nearly flat toward the target with both arms parallel and straight out or slightly bent. Equal pressure is applied to the gun in a 360-degree fashion. It’s great for defensive shoot- ing, but not so good with a heavy revolver that generates a lot of recoil.

The Weaver stance pulls the revolver with the weak hand, pushes with the strong. I use a modified Weaver stance with my weak-side forward and my supporting arm’s elbow tucked to my side for support. The Weaver stance, at least for me, is more logical and comfortable. I boxed for a couple of decades, and a fighting stance, leading with the weak side, is natural for me.

Shooting sticks should also be part of your practice regimen. I have a tripod from Stoney Point I am quite fond of. I’ll use support systems at the range and out in the field. Sticks aren’t burdensome to carry and are quickly and easily deployed. They provide a solid rest. In fact, any kind of rest should always be considered where available, because it can increase your success rate immensely.

Also, you can practice without breaking the bank or your wrists. Sessions don’t have to be long on able to put strings of shots together in one hole at 100 yards, but you should be able to put one bullet in your intended target the first try.

Practice should not be limited to the range. If you are like me and have a life that is chaotic, short on time and long on work, making frequent trips to the range isn’t really an option. Burning powder is good, but dry firing is also a great way to get in shape for the hunt.

Keep in mind that some revolvers will require snap caps to perform this practice regimen (contact the manufacturer for their recommendations). A snap cap is a plastic or aluminum dummy round with a spring-loaded primer that allows the firing pin to fall safely on a surface with good resistance — preventing potential damage to your firing pin and fire control mechanism.

Trigger squeeze and control is the name of the game here. A jerked trigger will throw shots way off target. Muscle memory requires time on the trigger, and there is no way around this if you want to be a successful handgun hunter. Much to the chagrin of my wife, I get in front of the TV and practice my trigger squeeze by dry firing. Even the dogs look at me like I am crazy — they are very intuitive. Perform so many repetitions that your shots become mechanical and devoid of emotion. This will help you when you have the buck of a lifetime in your sights.

One more thing: small-caliber revolvers are good for practice. There’s no need to assault your senses and abuse your body all of the time. Low recoil will allow you to perform and analyze your fundamentals, as well as practice that all critical trigger squeeze. Similarly sized revolvers chambered in .22 LR are a great choice here.

SIGHTING OPTIONS
Your eyes and, most likely, your age will play a large role in helping you choose a revolver sighting system. I am not a big fan of scopes on revolvers. The eye relief is just too great for me and the wobble all shooters exhibit is greatly exaggerated when peering through a scope with some magnification.

I understand the appeal — a good rest and a variable power scope make those long shots doable — but that’s not why I got into handgun hunting. I like to get close. It’s just a personal preference. I really like red-dot sights, because they are very hard to beat in low light. The downside is they rely on batteries to function and could leave you high and dry out in the field. I carry spares in case of a failing battery; I have never experienced such a failure on a hunt.

For the purist, open iron sights are the only way to fly. Some of my revolvers will never be fitted with an optic. This is purely aesthetic for me, but I also love that an iron-sighted revolver can sit in a holster, not be intrusive in any way and be pressed into action quickly.

For now, I would like you to go back and re-examine your regimen. Remember that practice is absolutely critical and that a dry-fire routine can be performed in the comfort of your home. Trigger control is of absolute importance to making first shots on game. What are you waiting for? Practice. You will be better for it and reap the rewards, knowing that you successfully chose the harder path to hunting prosperity.

— Max Prasac is an experienced handgun hunter from northern Virginia, book author and a regular contributor to various magazines.