It really seems relatively simple. After all, you’ve probably already filled your larder with venison several times with a rifle, and the ranges seem reasonable. Why not try using a handgun to fill your venison needs? As a Westerner, I came to know whitetail deer a little later than most. My deer hunting had all been in the West chasing mule deer. By the mid-’90s, I had killed a couple of wild hogs in the Central Coast region of California with a handgun, but my experience with the eastern cousin to my mule deer had been zip. As it turned out, I ended up killing the first whitetail buck I ever laid eyes upon in 1996—with a scoped Freedom Arms single-action revolver in .41 S&W Magnum. The first evening of hunting found me in a treestand overlooking a green field. As the last vestiges of light were fading away, I saw a deer silhouette across this green field—my first whitetail sighting.
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The following morning found me in the forest proper, in another tree stand overlooking a trail that led from a feeding area to a bedding area. It also found me in a downpour. The skies cleared during lunch, and I made an unfortunate decision to leave my rainwear at the lodge to dry out. For the afternoon hunt I was led out to where two dirt roads forked and instructed to get into an elevated blind set right where the roads divided. Just as I got settled in the uncovered blind the skies opened up again—this time with a vengeance.
My revolver lay under my coat to protect the scope from the rain. About three hours later the rain finally let up. I was stewing about the hunt, looking blankly at the edge of a hardwood forest that sheltered another green field. Suddenly, as if I were watching a stage show, an eight-pointer leaped from the forest and onto the grass. A moment later, another eight-pointer trotted in, followed by a button buck. They all began feeding on the bright, green grass at 25 paces. I moved painfully slow, withdrawing the revolver from under my soaked coat and cocked it carefully.
The first buck was the best one, and I brought the cocked revolver up onto the padded top edge of the blind. But now the buck I decided I wanted was facing away from me and feeding toward the far edge of the green field. He finally turned broadside at about 80 yards, and I put the cross-hair on the center of his chest. After the shot he leaped and ran; the other two made a hasty retreat back into the woods. Within 15 seconds I heard a crash in the timber in the direction my buck had run. He turned out to be the best buck of the hunt, and I was hooked on handgun hunting.
Preparing for a handgun hunt isn’t too different from preparing for any big-game hunt. A truly good shot with a handgun can take a deer cleanly out to 200 yards, perhaps more. Most of us, however, will limit their field shooting to 100 yards or less. You will need to make that determination yourself. The best way to make an honest judgment about your range limitations is to see how far you can consistently keep all your shots within an 8-inch circle with the gun and ammunition you’ll be hunting with. Paper is much more accurate and honest than steel for a target because it leaves you with a permanent record. Like any other skill, shooting a handgun accurately takes a lot of practice. And when you are shooting to determine your maximum effective range, shoot from field positions, not off a benchrest.
The definition of a hunting handgun, like so many things in our modern culture, has been blurred. For a while, as the power race raged, rifles with cut-off barrels and the rear part of the stock removed enjoyed some popularity. My definition of a hunting handgun is one that can be readily carried in a holster on your body—the upper limit being the Thompson/Center Contender or Encore.
Revolvers and single-shots pretty much rule the roost of hunting handguns. Yes, there are those who use semi-autos, but they lack range and have minimal stopping power, one of the reasons nearly all self-defense instructors advise you to place two shots into an adversary. Unless you are extremely fast, you won’t double-tap a deer.
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Opinions vary, but most agree that for deer-size game the .357 Magnum represents the bottom of the power requirements for hunting. Some claim the .357 Magnum isn’t capable of taking a 100-pound whitetail doe. When Douglas Wesson introduced the .357 Magnum back in 1935, he traveled all over the world taking game as small as deer and pronghorn and as large as moose and walrus. The key to humanely taking an animal or stopping a threat is shot placement with a good bullet. If the .357 Magnum is all you can or care to handle and you can drive tacks with it, you’ll be fine on the deer stand. Most opt for a jacketed hollow point, but I find that I get deeper penetration and a better wound cavity using an RCBS 82032 semi-wadcutter. Its advertised weight is 150 grains, but my alloy that closely replicates linotype falls from my mold at 155 grains. I load this bullet atop 14.5 grains of Alliant 2400 powder, and it leaves the muzzle of my 5-inch-barreled Smith & Wesson Model 27 at 1,368 feet per second (fps).
Next up for power are the .41 and .44 Smith & Wesson magnums. I group them together because, for all practical purposes, they are the same ballistically. There are those who will argue the .41 Mag. has a flatter trajectory or the .44 handles heavier bullets better, and that’s all true. But the deer doesn’t know the difference. I have several .44s—both single action and double action —and have used them successfully on deer and wild hogs. I still prefer casting my own semi-wadcutters for these revolvers, usually relying on a Lyman 429421 mold that yields me a 248-grain bullet. The traditional load of 22 grains of Alliant 2400 is a good one, generating about 1,450 fps from a 6.5-inch barrel.
As I mentioned earlier, I shot the first whitetail buck I ever saw with a .41 Magnum, and that’s the only one I have shot with that caliber. Because I was on an industry hunt I used what they provided, which was a Federal 210-grain hollow-point load, but if I were to go back to the .41 I’d still cast my own semi-wadcutters. If I seem to be riding the cast semi-wadcutter wagon too much, it’s because they have a proven track record and I like the independence of rolling my own ammunition.
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For about 30 years there have been some individuals who have explored the upper limits of handgun power. Famed gun designer and maker Dick Casull started even longer ago by taking the .45 Colt cartridge beyond anything envisioned at its inception—more than 2,000 fps with a 260-grain bullet. Eventually, it became the .454 Casull, first available in the superb Freedom Arms revolver. Other manufacturers have jumped on the .454 Casull bandwagon, and the chambering is now available from Taurus and Ruger.
John Linebaugh began modifying Ruger revolvers for his line of ultra-powerful cartridges. Like the rest of the top end of the power curve, Linebaugh’s .475- and .500-caliber handguns are primarily targeted to those hunters who seek very large and dangerous game animals. They’ll certainly handle a whitetail deer, but you’ll pay for it in terms of recoil and noise.
Smith & Wesson has been at the forefront of powerful revolvers for more than a century. Since its inception, the company has introduced designs in smaller calibers and chamberings, then they would enlarge the design to handle more powerful cartridges. Smith & Wesson has brought us the .357, .41 and .44 Magnum revolvers, and recently upped the ante again with the .460 and .500 S&W Magnum revolvers. Built on a much larger X-Frame, these revolvers are pure hunting instruments. I’ve used both of them, taking a 2,000-pound bison with the .500 and a blesbok and a nyala with the .460 in Africa. These revolvers and cartridges are very accurate, although the compensators (a.k.a. muzzle brakes) that tame their otherwise ferocious recoil and make them easier to shoot require that you wear full-coverage hearing protection.
There are a few single-shot pistols out there, the most popular being the Thompson/ Center Contender and Encore. Here the sky is the limit. Barrels chambered in everything from .22 LR to .45-70 and beyond are available. I have a T/C Contender with a .30-30 WCF barrel. Because there is no tubular magazine to deal with, I can handload spire point bullets into the Contender to make it an effective 150-yard deer gun.
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Today, we have a wide choice of sighting systems for our handguns. Factory iron sights are still the most popular, but for a dedicated hunting pistol optical sights provide a distinct advantage. Red- or green-dot sights allow the shooter to adjust the brightness of the aiming point to the lighting conditions, and they really make it easier to focus on the aiming point. While they do not have much in terms of magnification, these sights are excellent for those who hunt the deep woods.
Handgun scopes offer magnification, but it’s a double-edged sword. The more magnification you have the greater the shakes appear when you are trying to get off a shot. My T/C Contender barrels all have scopes on them. They go up to 6X, but I rarely shoot them at anything greater than 4X, and 2X to 3X is where I keep them.
If you choose to add an optical sight to your handgun, make sure the mounting system is bull strong. Often this means drilling and tapping the frame of the handgun to accept several larger-than-normal screws. Many a newbie handgun hunter has had the unpleasant task of halting his hunt or range session to retrieve his sighting system after it left his gun under recoil.
Most of us have at least a .357 Magnum or a .44-caliber revolver around our rural home. That’s all one needs to get started. Practice with it until you have the confidence to hit a deer at 100 yards and take it to the woods. It will change your attitude about hunting.
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For More Information
Smith & Wesson: smith-wesson.com; (800)331-0852
Thompson/Center Arms: tcarms.com; (866) 730-1614
Sturm, Ruger & Co.: ruger.com; (888) 220-1173
Taurus: taurususa.com; (800) 327-3776
This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN ™ 2015 issue #174. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.