Going hunting with your handgun

Beginner Handgun Hunting

Interested in handgun hunting? Sure beats the pants off toting 10 pounds of bolt gun and scope around. You can just put a pistol and holster on and hit the brush until you come upon the game of your choice.

Just make sure you're wearing a good gun belt, or shoulder rig.

There are thousands of handgun hunters out there that fill their freezers, but for those looking to get into it...there are a few things that will differ from rifle hunting that certainly bear attending to. The nature of handguns mandate that a number of things be done different than rifle hunting. Here are a few things that you'll need to know before buying your tags.

Handgun Range Is Much More Limited

The range at which your handgun is effective

While handgun range is longer than you might think in terms of how far the bullet will go, effective range is quite a different story. The effective range of the popular rifle calibers for hunting can be well in excess of 1,000 yards; some are capable of killing things from a mile away.

The truth about handgun range is that there's something of an economy of scale. Caliber, for instance, matters; a more powerful round carries more kinetic energy and therefore has a longer effective range.

Conventional wisdom is that handgun hunting should be confined to about 100 yards for the most part, though a little more breathing room is considered feasible for the largest and most powerful of handgun rounds, such as .454 Casull, .480 Ruger, .460 S&W Magnum and .500 S&W Magnum. Shots to 150 yards and beyond are commonly held to be a bit risky for all but the most experienced and accurate of shooters.

As a result, your spot and stalk game had better be on point, because that means you're going to have to get close.

This also makes dense brush that might otherwise deter rifle hunters a viable location.

Importance of Handgun Hunting Ammunition

bullet selection for hunting

Bullet selection for handgun hunting is critical. While there are a number of perfectly capable rounds for the task, the bullets you load are just as important if not more so.

For defense against humans, the jacketed hollowpoint rules the roost. A good JHP round works exactly how it's supposed to when it comes to hitting human meat. However, they are lousy for hunting.

How come?

Most critters that people hunt have heavier hides and bone structures than people do. A jacketed hollowpoint will expand quickly, as that's what they're designed to do. However, that quick expansion will also mean it doesn't penetrate deeply enough to do fatal damage or won't as easily.

Instead, controlled expansion along with good penetration are desired qualities, as is a good transfer of energy into the target. Bullet designs that are well-suited to the task include semi-wadcutters, such as Keith bullets and lead semi-wadcutter hollow points. Jacketed soft points and hardcast bullets are also well-documented performers, as are flat-point bullets.

Though the temptation is to select a lighter bullet for an increase in velocity and flatter trajectory, heavier bullet weights are preferred and especially for bigger game such as moose, elk or black bear. You can load down a little for boar or deer, but not too much.

For instance, a 300-grain bullet in .44 Magnum or .45 Colt +P are decent hunting loads. Going down to 250 grains or fewer would be okay for boar or deer, but not the best idea for larger game.

As to caliber, bigger is usually better as a bigger quality bullet is more likely to do sufficient damage to bring a game animal down. Also, you better like revolvers because those are going to be among the best tools for the task.

hunting revolvers best suited for the task of hunting

Most popular semi-auto rounds are just not sufficient. A .357 Magnum would be more or less the bare minimum, so if you're bound and determined to use an autoloader, get a 10mm for the power it has. You could, with the right load, consider some boutique rounds like .357 Sig or .38 Super, but 10mm is considered THE hunting round for semi-autos.

Forget what the 1911 guys say. The .45 ACP is not now, nor has ever been, a good hunting round. Fantastic to shoot people, not so great with game.

The .44 Magnum is the most popular, though strong loads of .45 Colt (Ruger loads) are certain viable. Other good (and common) chamberings include .454 Casull, .480 Ruger, and the .460 and .500 S&W Magnums. There are some wildcats and other overlooked rounds...or rather, even more boutiqueish...that will also work, but these are the ones that you'll be more likely to find a gun and ammo for with any kind of regularity.

As an aside, the presumption so far is that you're interesting in hunting medium to large game with a handgun. For small game, you get a .22 LR or .22 WMR with which you attempt to dispatch squirrels, rabbits, grouse and other small critters. However, everything else written here applies.

Don't Neglect Handgun Optics And Sights

revolver hunting scope

Another thing to be aware of is that you'll also want to attend to your handgun optics and sights. You can hunt with the stock sights, to be sure, but that will add a greater degree of difficulty, so you better know how to apply a little Kentucky windage.

As to scopes, a lot of people will insist they're all but mandatory. Many hunting handguns come prepared for scope mounts; some even ship with Weaver rings in the box.

Like rifle optics, there are telescopic scopes (meaning you can use the zoom) or fixed power scopes. Fixed power are quite popular, with 2x and 4x magnification being the most common. Those with eyesight tending to the nearsighted may want to find a 6x to compensate. Telescopic scopes can go up to 12x, depending on the model.

Whether you'll be able to use it in the field (movement will spook game) is another matter.

As to actually using said sights and scopes, ballistics of handgun rounds are vastly different than that of rifle rounds. A .30-06 actually rises for the first 100 yards or so, and doesn't start to drop until about 150 yards. By 300 yards, it's dropped a few inches.

By contrast, a .44 Magnum will have dropped a few inches (it depends on bullet weight, velocity and so on; presume 2 to 4 inches; perhaps 3 inches on average) at 100 yards. Granted, drop is also relative to the range you zero the pistol at; the drop will change if you zero at 70 yards compared to 30 yards. That said, you had better have a good working knowledge of drop at distance relative to your zero.

To do that requires spending a good amount of time at the range, as does scoring accurate hits.

Just as with self-defense, good hunting requires appropriate load selection and good placement. If you can place a good quality bullet where it needs to go, you'll be able to put meat on the table.

Happy hunting.

Sam Hoober  

About The Author

Born in southeastern Washington State, Sam Hoober graduated in 2011 from Eastern Washington University. He resides in the great Inland Northwest, with his wife and child. His varied interests and hobbies include camping, fishing, hunting, and spending time at the gun range as often as possible.

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