A little practice and sound hunting technique are all that’s required.
Handgun deer hunting has come a long way since I took my first white-tailed buck with a 6-inch S&W .357 Magnum revolver back in 1979.
Then, anyone who went out after deer with a revolver, or even a single-shot .44 Magnum Thompson/Center, was considered mildly disturbed. Leading hunting writers commonly referred to handgun big-game hunting as a stunt.
Today, top level U.S. handgun manufacturers such as Smith & Wesson, Ruger, Taurus and Thompson/Center offer extensive product lines specifically designed and configured for deer hunting — the S&W .460 XVR, the Ruger Super RedHawk and the Thompson/Center Encore, to name a few.
A full range of purpose-loaded handgun hunting ammunition is available from companies like Federal Premium, and optical sights for hunting handguns are a significant part of most leading brand catalogs. Buckmasters has a pistol category in its record book, and the list of states allowing handguns for deer hunting continues to grow.
Yet for many hunters who have never tried it, or those who are not active handgun shooters by avocation, the entire notion of whitetail hunting with a handheld sidearm still seems extreme — and daunting. Many who might otherwise be interested mistakenly believe handgun hunting requires skill, discipline and equipment beyond their means.
There’s no real difference between handgun deer hunting and any other kind of deer hunting. No greater degree of shooting skill is needed, and no complex or specialized equipment is necessary. The amount of practice and discipline required is no greater than what is needed to become a successful and responsible hunter carrying a rifle, shotgun or bow.
I’ve always described hunting deer with a revolver as “bowhunting with gunpowder.” Both disciplines require close proximity to the deer, the same careful attention to good hunting technique, and practiced marksmanship with an accurate tool.
In many ways, handgun whitetail hunting requires the same skills as successful slug gun hunting, which is the main reason so many Illinois hunters leapt into it when their state added handgun hunting to its smoothbore slug-only shotgun seasons a few years ago.
Handgunning for whitetails falls into two basic categories: conventional, traditional-form revolvers or autoloaders (of any legal caliber); or longer range, higher power single-shot or bolt-action handguns firing rifle-level cartridges. Each presents its own kind of challenge.
If you hunt with a conventional handgun — say a .44 Magnum revolver, scoped or not — you are essentially talking about a close-in endeavor. You need to be able to get close enough that a deer can smell you before you can take a reliably productive shot. Virtually all hunting encounters will be inside 100 yards and require the hunter to be woods-wise.
For the vast majority of hunters who live in the eastern half of the nation, that’s handgun whitetail hunting.
The other form involves guns like a scoped 14-inch T/C Encore 7mm-08 Remington. Such rigs are common in the western plains and prairie states.
Some say hunting with such long-barreled tools chambered for high power rifle cartridges isn’t really handgun hunting. I say if it doesn’t have a shoulder stock and can only be held in the hands, it’s a handgun.
Either way, marksmanship comes first. Power is not a crutch for poor shooting.
It’s impossible to discuss what cartridges or guns are appropriate without reference to the ability of the shooter to place his shots. The primary reason ever-more-powerful hunting cartridges have grown in popularity during the past 70 years is because, as a whole, American hunters have less time available to invest in marksmanship practice.
An increasing numbers of hunters would rather shoot with a load that does major damage with a marginal hit than spend the time and practice necessary to make a well-placed shot with a less powerful cartridge. This in spite of the fact that high-recoil guns are actually harder to fire with accuracy.
In pre-Magnum America, when putting food on the pioneer family dinner table required nearly every male to hunt, success required practiced familiarity with less powerful arms and ammo, along with better hunting techniques.
Handgun deer hunting is a step back into that bygone era, because even the most powerful modern handgun cartridges cannot match the energy of popular centerfire rifles. Put a .308 Winchester in a bolt-action hunting pistol, and you still don’t have the power of a .308 hunting rifle. Even the vaunted .44 Magnum fired from a revolver has much less power at 50 yards than a .30-30 from a traditional lever-action rifle.
Simply stated, the absolute key to success in handgun hunting is a well placed shot.
Having said that, you don’t have to be Jerry Miculek or Ed McGivern (look them up on the Internet). If you’re going to take a maximum 50-yard shot at a whitetail and use a 6-inch .44 Magnum revolver with metallic sights, all you need to do is be able to hit a dinner plate at that distance.
The degree of accuracy you will need with your gun and load should be determined entirely by the size of the vital zone of the game you plan to hunt and the distance you will allow yourself to attempt a shot.
The heart/lung zone of an average-size Midwest whitetail is about 10 to 12 inches in diameter. If you can keep five shots inside an 8-inch circle at 50 yards from your chosen hunting revolver, you will have no problem putting down a whitetail cleanly and ethically.
Going for whitetails is actually one of the easiest forms of handgun hunting. Targeting squirrels or rabbits is a lot more difficult. If you want to hunt squirrels with a .22 rimfire pistol, you need to be able to keep your shots grouped inside a 2-inch circle at 30 to 40 yards. That’s tough!
When I conduct handgun hunting clinics for my fellow Illinois deer hunters, I have them practice on an 8-inch Shoot ’n C target at 50 yards from a standing, unsupported position with both hands.
When they are in the field hunting, they’ll employ the most stable shooting position they can achieve and utilize any available rest. But rests are not always available, and it will do little good merely to be able to put five shots into a kill zone diameter target from a sandbag rest if the actual hunting situation calls for a shot from an unsupported position after a quarter-mile stalk.
Once my students have practiced until they think they have freehand shooting licked, I have them jog a brisk 100 yards up the firing line and then try to get five shots into that same target. It puts a different perspective on things and simulates how their hearts likely will be pounding when a monster buck steps out.
Handgun hunting also has benefits that long-gun hunting does not, such as the weight and maneuverability of your hunting tool and the increased mobility it provides. Handgun hunters travel light. They can carry a scoped primary gun, capable of precision accuracy to 200 yards, plus a belt-holstered, iron-sighted companion gun for close encounters, and still be packing less weight than a rifle hunter with a single gun.
You can also carry a hunting handgun in a holster, leaving both hands free. You have to carry a long gun in your hands or slung over your shoulder. If you sling a long gun with the strap across your chest, it’s fairly inaccessible. If you sling it over one shoulder, you need to hold the strap to keep if from sliding off.
That’s not a problem when you’re moving across open ground. Have you ever needed both hands to climb up a rocky slope or into a treestand?
How many times have you had a rifle slide off your shoulder and down your arm to clatter against the rocks or branches when you took your hand off the sling to negotiate a particular bit of difficult terrain?
How many times have you had a protruding barrel bump against or get hung up on obstructions like tree branches when you slung it across your back so both hands could be free?
As for sights, any iron-sighted handgun intended for hunting needs adjustable sights. There is no other way to ensure you will have the desired point of impact at a desired range with your chosen load. When faced with the sudden demands of game in the field, you don’t need the added complication of trying to compensate for fixed sights. Figuring trajectory to the target distance will be challenge enough. The real question is whether to use an optical sight instead of metallic ones.
Generally speaking, most hunting handguns should be optics-equipped for the same reason a hunting rifle should usually be equipped with a scope. An optical sight is valuable not because its magnification will let you reach out to vastly extended effective ranges (a scope will not turn a handgun into a rifle), but because the clarity of an optical sight picture allows you to more easily place your shot precisely, even at closer ranges.
This is particularly important for those of us whose aging eyes have difficulty resolving the short sight radius of typical handgun iron sights at arms’ length. It also explains why non-magnifying reflex-type dot sights are so often seen these days on conventional hunting handguns, even on 6-inch revolvers.
I hunt whitetails with a handgun, and I would rather hunt with a handgun than any other type of firearm. I find it more challenging and more rewarding, and I know from 35 years’ experience that being a handgun deer hunter is not as hard as many claim. You just have to be as serious about it as every hunter ought to be.
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This article was published in the Winter 2014 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.