Hunting large game with a handgun

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To those who haven’t tried it, hunting large game with a small gun may seem absurd, perhaps even irresponsible. But handgun hunting introduces a number of exciting challenges that make a successful hunt that much more memorable.

My fascination with handgun hunting began with a missed shot on the biggest buck I’d ever encountered. I was living in central Iowa at the time as a Minnesota expat. After receiving an invitation from a buddy who owned a vineyard to come hunt his land and kill one of the numerous pesky whitetails eating his grapes, I applied for a license. Turns out, though, it takes a bit of work to prove to the DNR that you’ve become a resident when you’ve previously bought an out-of-state license. It looked like it would take months to iron things out, so I figured I wouldn’t be able to hunt that year. But at the last minute, the Iowa DNR came through and gave me the green light. I rushed out, bought a tag, and began rummaging through my gun safe for a suitable tool. Rifles—my usual fare for northern Minnesota deer hunting—weren’t legal in my zone, so I settled on a youth model pump-action 20-gauge and a handful of old estate-sale slugs. No rifled barrel, no aftermarket sights. Catch as catch can.

Fast forward a few days to dusk, opening day. Lining up the gold bead front sight on the healthiest horse of an 8-point buck I’d ever seen, I squeezed the trigger and cleanly missed. I was devastated, but, frankly, deserved to be. It was a haphazard approach and the results reflected that. A while later, while lamenting my situation to a fellow hunter, he suggested I buy a shotgun better suited to shooting slugs. “Or,” he added offhandedly, “you could hunt with a handgun, instead.” I was intrigued. From that point on, I’ve been hooked, using handguns for hunting everything from whitetail deer to feral hogs.

But here’s the thing: Handgun hunting means giving away just about every advantage you’d otherwise have with a rifle or a slug gun. To help improve your chances of success, here are a few suggestions for choosing the right handgun and getting the most out of it when taking it into the field.

Caliber and velocity

We’ve all heard the argument that caliber doesn’t matter as much as shot placement/accuracy, but when it comes to handguns, you’re playing at a disadvantage on both fronts. The very composition of a handgun means you’re working with a shorter barrel, which delivers a smaller sight radius and lower bullet velocity; a less-powerful cartridge (with exception to handguns chambered in rifle calibers); and no shoulder or forestock for stability. Your effective range, then, is going to be a fraction of what it would be with a long gun, and when the bullet gets there, it’s not going to do as much damage.

No one said this would be easy.

Even magnum handgun calibers struggle to deliver the payload of modest rifle rounds. Take the classic 30-30 Winchester, for example. It can propel a 150-grain bullet at around 2,400 FPS, delivering approximately 1,900 ft. lbs. of energy on target. A .357 Magnum, slinging a similar 150-grain bullet, would struggle to break 1,400 FPS and would consequently deliver a comparatively meager 600 ft. lbs. of energy, give or take. Most handgun rounds won’t deliver the temporary cavitation in tissue that a rifle will. Simply put, handguns are just less lethal all the way around.

With that in mind, for medium to large game, I wouldn’t feel comfortable hunting with anything smaller than a .357 Magnum. My personal favorite is the relatively unknown .41 Magnum, a flat-shooting and gentle-recoiling compromise between the .44 Mag and the .357. Production handguns come chambered in much larger calibers, if that’s your speed, with the mighty .500 S&W currently resting at the top of the heap. Bear in mind, though, that handguns chambered in these mighty magnums have recoil ranging from severe to downright punishing. Familiarity with and experience shooting your handgun is paramount.

On the left, a .44 Remington Magnum. On the right, a .500 S&W.

Selecting a handgun

In recent years, gun manufacturers have been delivering more hunting-specific handguns with longer barrels, adjustable sights, integral scope mounts, and other features specifically designed for advantages in the field. The added barrel length helps to squeeze a little extra velocity out of your handgun while also delivering a larger sight radius and taming some of the more punishing recoil of the larger magnum calibers by adding weight on the front end. You have your pick of semi-autos in calibers like the venerable 10mm or .50 AE, or single- and double-action revolvers in damn near every magnum caliber under the sun.

Optics

Most handguns designed for hunting will have adjustable iron sites and a means of mounting either a rear-mounted reticle (RMR) (on a semi-auto) or a scope. If you plan to add a scope, note that handgun and rifle scopes aren’t interchangeable. You’ll need an optic with excellent eye relief—the distance between your eye and the scope at which you can see a clear image—because you’ll be looking through it with your arms almost fully outstretched.

Ammunition

Identifying the ideal bullet and load is always a challenge regardless of what gun you’re using, and selecting one depends on a number of factors. What game are you hunting? Are you looking for rapid expansion on a thin-skinned animal? Or maximum penetration and limited deflection on a thick-skinned, heavy-boned predator?

In either case, test a number of loads until you find one that works reliably in your gun and you can shoot accurately. Avoid personal defense ammunition—what works well in a personal defense situation seldom translates to hunting applications.

Taking the shot

Use steady sticks or a rest of some kind to help stabilize your shots. Even a fence post or a low-hanging branch can provide a firm shooting platform in a pinch. Also, recognize your limits when it comes to effective range: Even experienced handgun hunters might be reluctant to take a shot ranging beyond 75 yards.

Enjoy the challenge

If you’re approaching hunting from a strictly pragmatic perspective, using a handgun probably doesn’t hold much appeal to you. But if you enjoy a unique challenge in which you deliberately give up a few advantages to level the playing field between hunter and quarry, I’d recommend giving handgun hunting a try.

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