Regular hunting of big game with handguns is a fairly recent development in the sporting fields. While a very small number of hunters made use of handguns previous to the 1960’s it’s only been recently that properly designed handguns have come on to the market. Which has opened the sport up to most anyone with an interest.
Presently the handgun is probably the least popular choice when it comes to big game hunting. Rifles, shotguns and muzzleloaders are all more popular choices due to higher level user-friendliness and greater perceived utility. Making clean, ethical kills on big game with a handgun requires a tremendous investment in practice ammunition, time and of course, a certain amount of luck. Many hunters go through their whole careers without trying the handgun method.
The handgun can open up a whole new level of sport to a hunter. With the handgun every harvest is a trophy, every hunt is an adventure and a full freezer is a definite bragging point. Handgun hunting is always a challenge. As such, it is recommended that handgun hunting should only be tried after you have experience hunting with shoulder arms, which provide you with an idea the methods and options required in the sport.
Obviously the handgun is never going to be the most utilitarian choice for hunting so when selecting this type of firearm, the hunter should try to maximize available utility. Often the handgun can open up new options to the hunter in the form of special seasons and hunting areas that disallow the use of rifles but are open to handgun hunting. These areas and seasons typically have special regulations that center on keeping the handgun as a relatively low velocity firearm, thereby minimizing the probability of errant bullets escaping the hunting area. The law of the land varies from state to state and from area to area, but in most cases the following restrictions must be observed.
The barrel of the handgun must be under 10-inches in length. Increased barrel length can increase velocity, so the limit is usually set at this length.
The handgun must fire cartridges designed for use in handguns. Rifle cartridges fired from 10-inch barrels still develop high velocities, so they are normally restricted in handgun hunting areas.
The cartridge, which the handgun fires must be a straight-walled cartridge without a neck. Obviously, necking big handgun cases down to smaller calibers would result in higher velocity. These creations could simply be labeled wildcats specifically for handguns, so necked cartridges are prohibited.
There are always a few bolt-action or single-shot handguns on the market. However, these are basically cut down versions of the original rifle forms, so they rarely meet the above requirements.
The current handgun hunter’s options are limited to the single-shot actions, single-action revolvers, double-action revolvers and a small selection of semi-automatics that fit the bill. So, aside from adhering to the above legal requirements, what makes a handgun a hunting handgun? A few small features make all the difference in the world. For starters, the handgun needs to be powerful enough to make an ethical kill shot on big game. This means that there should be a reasonable expectation that one shot from the handgun in a vital area will put the animal down.
The next item on the wish list is a set of adjustable sights. Good shooting can be done at longer ranges with fixed sights, but life it much easier when they’re adjustable. Being able to set your target in a proper, consistent, sight picture takes a lot of the luck out of shooting at around 100-yards and allows skill to replace it. Speaking of sights, if you think a scope would make life easier there are several hunting handgun models available today which are ready made for a scope and some are sold with rings included.
The final necessity for a true hunting handgun is that it must be accurate. Handgun cartridges do not have as much muzzle energy as the rifle cartridges most of us are used to hunting with, no matter the size. This lack of energy means that the hunter must be very careful about his shot placement to assure ethical kills. If the handgun is not capable of consistently placing its rounds in a pie plate at 100-yards it’s not a hunting handgun. Naturally, when it comes to accuracy the shooter must do their part, but if the weapon is not capable the shooter never will be either.
The most useful and readily available single-shot hunting handgun is the Thompson Center Contender. The Contender is a pistol with a break-open action, much like the action of the T/C Encore rifle. The idea of a single shot pistol gives some shooters pause, but for hunting purposes the Contender is more than sufficient. It can be chambered for any handgun cartridge that you choose and the barrel can be easily replaced if a different cartridge seems like a better fit. Barrel length, chambering, sights or scopes can all be easily traded, making the Contender the most flexible hunting handgun on the market.
The Contender offers a very strong design, which provides good service over the years regardless of the chambering. This firearm also has one of the nicest triggers of any handgun on the market today, which is a great feature for the kind of long range shooting the gun is meant for. Chances of the Contender wearing out or breaking is a very rare. Finding one on the used market is also a rarity, as the owners of these guns seem to develop a real affection for them.
The slightly odd design of the Contender gives some people trouble. The grips tend to be rather large, although they can be replaced by aftermarket alternatives if a smaller grip is preferred. Getting used to the break-open action takes a while as well. It’s a strange way to reload a pistol. Additionally, on older models it was required to break them open to cock the pistol if the hammer was lowered without firing. Even with these foibles, once you master the T/C Contender, it is capable of fine accuracy and can offer all that is required of a hunting handgun. It has few other uses, but in its niche it really shines.
America has had a long association with the single-action revolver. Colonel Colt’s revolver was used for hunting long before handgun hunting was a sport, but it was never considered all that effective. Modern, purpose-built single-actions are equipped with adjustable sights and are beefed up to handle the pressures produced by today’s popular magnums. Leaf springs have been replaced with coil springs to increase dependability and modern materials decrease maintenance requirements. With a minimum of moving parts the single-action revolver is both reliable and strong. The simplicity of its design means that it can be produced at a lower cost than other types of revolvers while still offering a high level of customer satisfaction.
When selecting a single-action revolver the first and most important item on the checklist should be to make sure that the fully cocked hammer in no way makes contact with your hand, usually in the area of the web between thumb and forefinger. Depending upon your location, you might even allow a little extra wiggle room for a gloved hand if you’ll be hunting in cold weather.
Aside from reasonable prices and great reliability the single action revolver can also offer a bit of recoil reduction thanks to the grip design. Most of these guns that are on the market have grips very similar to Sam Colt’s original design, which causes the gun to “roll” back in the hand instead of “kicking” directly back. If you are used to autos or double-action revolvers this can be a strange sensation. Keep in mind that it does reduce the felt kick of heavy recoil, using big bore handgun cartridges. The rolling action makes the second shot a bit slower, but the first shot much less disagreeable.
The advent of truly useful handgun cartridges for hunting more or less coincided with the peak of the double-action revolver popularity. As a result, the first handgun really geared toward hunting were double-actions. This boosted popularity of the sport in the early days because the only difference between your hunting revolver and your service revolver or personal defense revolver was the level of recoil. As the semi-auto rose in popularity as a defensive arm the double action revolver became more of a rarity.
Large frame double-action revolvers have a limited demographic. Their factory grips tend to be rather large, but these can always be replaced for a better fit. What is non-negotiable is the distance between the back of the grip frame and the trigger. If the shooter’s hand or fingers are not large enough to easily bridge this distance then the revolver will never be the handy, functional weapon that it should be. If the double-action trigger pull cannot be properly utilized a shooter could obviously just use the single-action function, but in most cases if the only method for properly firing a double-action revolver is cocking it first then the single-action is a better choice.
The main attraction of the double-action revolver with regards to hunting applications is its long double-action trigger pull. Firing handguns out to or beyond the 100-yard mark isn’t easy, so hunters want any advantages they can get. Some feel that the long trigger pull of the double action allows for every shot to come as something of a surprise. This mitigates the tendency some shooters develop to flinch or jerk when firing large bore handguns. The longer trigger pull is usually harder to master but easier to live with.
The idea of a purely hunting-oriented semi-automatic pistol has been floating around for decades and several companies have tried and failed to make of go of it. The main problem with a semi-automatic is that it is powerful enough to take big game, but the large cartridges required to do the job must be kept in the grip of the gun. This means that the grip is enlarged and the pistol placed outside the ergonomic requirements of most of the market, except those with very large hands.
The other frequent complaint regarding the semi-auto is that as a recoil or hesitated-release operated weapon, the loads fired from it must be kept at a certain power level for the pistol to cycle properly. Revolver shooters enjoy the option of using soft-loaded ammunition, but this is rarely an option for the semi-auto. The requirement for full power loads is credited with causing the disappearance of both the LAR Grizzly and the AutoMag from the market. For a time the Wildey, which was gas operated, solved this problem, but its expense and large size kept it from true popularity.
Currently the only semi-auto on the market that can be used for all types of big game hunting is the Desert Eagle produced by Magnum Research. The Desert Eagle is an interesting piece of equipment, but suffers from the same pigeonholing that its predecessors did. It is a very large, heavy pistol and, while it is gas operated, it doesn’t seem to work well for softer loads. In spite of its limited market, the Desert Eagle has been in production for some time and shows no signs of going away. It has met with more success than the designs that came before it, but it will never be as popular or functional as other hunting handguns.
The only other option for the hunting-minded semi-auto enthusiast are pistols chambered for the 10mm Auto such as the Glock 20 or Colt Delta Elite. The popularity of autos chambered for the 10mm Auto has always been a bit limited due to the grip size of guns like the Glock 20, which has a double-stacked magazine. As well as the increased felt recoil with 1911-style platforms like the Delta Elite. The idea of using the .45 Auto cartridge on big game is considered and usually tried by almost every handgun hunter, but in the end they all come to the same conclusion, which is that the .45 Auto with ball ammo offers the level of required penetration. However, it does not provide the proper wound channel. Hollow points give good wound channels and reduced penetration, but often result in feeding problems. The. 45 Auto has shown itself useful in a hundred other applications but big game hunting is not one of them.
The two smallest-bore handgun cartridges for big game are the 357 Magnum and the 10mm Auto. The availability of controlled-expansion hollow point bullets like the Hornady XTP has made these two cartridges more useful than ever in the last few years. While they are better than they used to be, it is advised that they only be used on game up to the size of a deer. The 357 and 10mm lack the high muzzle energy that is required to give good through-and-through penetration on larger game. But they are wonderfully user-friendly fodders for animals like deer and pronghorn.
The .41 Magnum and .44 Magnum are both extremely shooter friendly (by magnum standards) and are adequate for large game up to the size of elk. The .41 and .44 were once the most powerful cartridges that could be found. Although in recent years the power level has been considerably surpassed by newer, bigger designs, both of these cartridges remain more than useful and are often preferable recoil-wise.
The old .45 Colt makes for an excellent big game cartridge as long as the ammunition used produces muzzle velocities in excess of 1000 fps. This, of course, means that a modern, high-strength firearm must be used. With a modern single- or double-action the Colt can deliver performance similar to the .44 Magnum, making it an effective and pleasantly retro option.
Once the case size of the .45 Colt is surpassed we begin to get into the truly large, powerful and often times unpleasant-to-shoot cartridges. The 454 Casull, 460 S&W, 480 Ruger, 475 Linebaugh, 500 S&W, 50 AE and 500 Linebaugh are all capable of producing what might traditionally be thought of as rifle ballistics.
If mastered, all of these cartridges are capable of bringing down any game on the planet, but mastering them is difficult and expensive. All of these behemoths can be tamed to a point with handloading, but the factory-produced ammo will always be very expensive and very powerful. If you can honestly say that you enjoy firing cartridges in this class then the results can be very impressive. They are all capable of accuracy and ethical hunting out past 100-yards. Some hunters, who possess the right combination of disposable income, practice time and masochism even use them out to 200-yards, but this is rare. The recoil and muzzle blast from these cartridges is a definite eye opener, so keep that in mind when you’re considering your options.
Before choosing the hunting handgun for yourself, take the time to think about what type of game you plan to go after. Also consider things such as how large or small your hand is and how certain guns fit your hands. Also take time to consider your ammunition and what type of recoil your body can handle. By giving the proper thought to your options, you will make a wiser choice in your hunting handgun and will enjoy the sport much more so.