When it comes to hunting with a handgun, there are two basic categories of hunt: hunts in which the handgun is the primary, if not sole, firearm used on the hunt; and hunts in which the handgun is used as an adjunct or option to a rifle or shotgun on the hunt.
THE AUTHOR SHOWS bison he took with a Smith & Wesson 500. He also has taken bison with the .480 Ruger.
Once it is determined how the handgun will be used on the hunt, it is much easier to decide what kind of handgun, caliber, sights, etc. are needed for success.
If the handgun is the primary/sole firearm used on the hunt, effective range is important – the longer the better. Some hunting handguns are credible to at least 300 yards. These typically are single-shots that are chambered for “rifle” cartridges. Representative models include handguns like the Thompson/Center Contender, Remington XP-100 and Savage Striker. Barrel lengths of 10 to 14 inches are common for this type of handgun.
Should the intended shooting distance be within 100 yards and very likely inside 50 yards (game like wild boar, deer in the woods or small game), then more classic handgun designs come into play.
Powerful revolvers can be very effective on large animals and a lot of fun to shoot. Smith & Wesson’s Model 500 in .500 S&W Magnum comes to mind as king of the hill in this genre. Other cartridges typical in this category are .460 S&W, .45/70 Govt. and .454 Casull.
BILL BOOTH SHOWS a nice bushbuck he took in Africa with a Smith & Wesson 500.
The .500 S&W Magnum is not an entry-level handgun cartridge. It produces enough recoil to cause pain if the handle doesn’t fit right or if the shooter doesn’t hold it right. Like big caliber dangerous game rifles, these handguns need to be held very firmly, but not with a “death grip.” I love the .500 S&W, but know a number of serious shooters who simply can’t handle it. Nothing wrong with that. A handgun must fit the individual “hand.” If hand size isn’t right, shooting such a handgun is not fun.
For those who want to shoot a .50 caliber handgun, but who can’t or don’t want to handle the .500, try the .50 Action Express. Velocity is similar to factory loaded .44 Magnums and recoil is similar – perhaps a bit more of a push, but generally similar. Magnum Research makes the BFR single-action revolver in this cartridge and it is a nice combination. I have one and have used it extensively with stellar results.
Shooting any of the .50 caliber handguns is pricy. It is less expensive to shoot .45s. Here is where the .460 S&W, .454 Casull and .45 Colt come into play. A handgun chambered for the .460 can shoot all three of these cartridges and a handgun chambered for the .454 Casull also can shoot the .45 Colt.
Another handgun cartridge that can work fine for big game at close range is the .480 Ruger. These are not encountered often, but it is a nice cartridge in a handy handgun. I have taken a number of animals with this cartridge, including bison.
LONG RANGE HANDGUN hunting calls for the right handgun and use of some kind of rest like the tripod shown here. Handgun is a Thompson/Center Contender in .30/30 Win.
For handgun hunting of big game, the .41 and .44 Remington Magnums are on the low end of power for primary handguns and rather average for optional use when a rifle is also carried. The 10mm/.40 S&W and .45 Colt/.45 ACP can be fine for coups de grace situations as well as handy when primary shots are close – like under 20 yards (5 to 10 yards even better).
The .357 Magnum is a great cartridge, but has rather limited application for use on hunts for medium or larger game. Great for coups de grace situations and superb as a medium-range varmint/small game cartridge.
Speaking of varmints and small game, a whole world of handguns comes into play. These include the rimfires like the .17s and .22s as well as the .32 and .38 centerfires. For example, squirrel safaris with .22 rimfire handguns are a real hoot. Rabbits lend themselves to handgun hunting, as well. In fact, it can be a lot of fun to carry a holstered handgun when upland bird hunting with a shotgun. Then, a chance meeting with rabbits or other small game can provide a prime opportunity to use the handgun rather than the shotgun. Adds another dimension to the hunt.
Expanding bullets make total sense when handgun hunting. Velocities are significantly lower when any ammo is shot through a handgun as compared to when the same ammo is shot through a rifle. Most rimfire bullets expand well at the lower impact velocities, so terminal performance remains good.
There is an effort afoot in Gundom these days to hype the 10mm auto as a “hunting” handgun cartridge. Certainly it can be effective, but has limitations when it comes to primary use on wild boar and deer size or larger animals. By comparison, the 10mm auto is not quite as powerful as the .41 Magnum and the bullet is ever so slightly thinner (.40 caliber vs. .41 caliber).
HANDGUN HUNTING FUN can mean a walk in the woods with a .22.
When used adjunctively to a rifle, handguns can be a lot of fun for varmints like coyotes. Although coyotes are often shot at quite long distances, there are, from time to time, coyotes that are referred to as “shark dogs.” These are coyotes, which come to the call straight on and at full speed. Literally, they will run over the camoed hunter if not stopped. For shark dogs, a handy holstered handgun like a 1911 in .45ACP, any semi-auto in 9mm or .40 S&W and just about any revolver can be pressed into service and add a new dimension to the hunt.
Many times during the year, when there are no significant game animal or bird seasons in progress, it can be a lot of fun to go into the wilds with a pair of binos and a holstered handgun, just to see what is happening in nature at that time and in that place.
Revolvers, both double and single-action, are really nice for such times. Barrel lengths of four to six or eight inches make sense, and there is no need for special sights. Shots will be shots of opportunity. Many folks like to carry .22 rimfires at such times, and that is fine. I prefer either one of the .32s or .38s. They are easy to shoot, aren’t terribly loud and offer performance that works well on small game/varmints.
One word of caution about hunting with a handgun: it can be addictive. Bang, bang.
SQUIRREL SAFARIS CAN be a lot of fun with a handgun like this revolver chambered for .22 long rifle.
HOLSTER HANDGUNS LIKE this Colt in .38 Special can be a lot of fun when engaging small game.