By definition, the category of “handguns” encompasses a host of firearms that can be held in one hand, which have no buttstock and a barrel usually shorter than 16 inches. The majority of handguns are designed for self-defense and are wholly unsuitable for hunting deer-size game. But there is a group of specialty handguns that are more than adequate for deer and, in many cases, much larger game.
This class is made up of single-shot and single- and double-action revolvers that are built stout enough to chamber mega rounds — rounds often designed for full-size rifles. Make no mistake: When you shoot a handgun that is chambered for the likes of a .308 or .45-70, you’ll be hanging onto a pile of recoil. Factor in a short barrel, and you’re in for a helluva roar and buck when you squeeze the trigger.
Perhaps the biggest player in this arena, and considered by many to be the company that started it all, is Thompson/Center Arms. Its Contender and Encore series of single-shot, break-open-action firearms are the gun of choice for many dedicated handgun hunters. The original Contender is the smaller-framed of the two, and chamberings for it range from rimfires up to .30-30. The latest entry, the Encore, was built on a much larger frame and designed to handle much bigger and higher-pressure cases.
Revolvers chambered for rounds adequate for deer include those from manufacturers such as Smith & Wesson, Ruger, Taurus, Freedom Arms and more. These are very large handguns chambered for everything from the .44 Mag. up to the .500 S&W. There is little doubt that these rounds, and their respective handguns, are perfectly capable of killing a deer with a solid hit. The real question is, are you up to the task?
Before you attempt to take any big game with a handgun, you need to know your limitations, and field practice with hot ammo is the only way to find out what they are. Off a bench and from a solid rest, I’m reasonably capable of holding respectable groups to about 100 yards. When I grab a set of shooting sticks and wander and plink from field-shooting conditions, that comfort zone drops to about 50 yards. Beyond that, consistently holding groups inside of a six-inch circle gets iffy. Any number of diehard handgun hunters have bragged to me about how well they can shoot to 100 yards, but when I hang a paper plate and tell them to shoot sitting, or kneeling, or off an impromptu rest, the claims go out the window. Big handguns are a handful under the best conditions, and in the field, even with a rest, everything changes. Your limit is the distance you can hold inside of six inches off a field-shooting position or impromptu rest. Exceed that and you’re asking for trouble
Some marksmen can make excellent shots using iron sights — I envy them. In my early days when my eyes were younger, I could hold my own, but today I don’t go beyond paper targets without an optical aid. I’m fine at the 10- or 15-yard defense stuff, but at 50 yards and beyond, I and the vast majority of shooters do better with an optical sight. A set of simple crossed shooting sticks will greatly improve your success with any handgun. I slip mine into my belt, and can pull them out and drop to one knee in a flash. With the single-shots, cradle the sticks as far back as you’re able — just forward of the trigger guard works best and has minimal effect on accuracy. With revolvers, cradle the sticks on the trigger guard, never on the barrel or the cylinder area. A glove or bandana in the V area of the sticks helps steady everything.
Long-eye-relief scopes ranging from 2X to 7X allow pinpoint placement of the crosshairs. The problem is, along with that very long eye relief comes a good deal of difficulty acquiring the target. Any magnification over 2X has such a built-in acquisition delay that the scope is only useful if you have a whole lot of time. My live targets rarely give me that opportunity.
I limit my handgun scopes to 2X. My shooting is always close and I often need to get on target fast. The best option by far is the unmagnified red dots, and in that category, the latest mini dot from Trijicon has become my favorite. With this type of scope, acquisition is instantaneous, and the dot can be seen from any awkward shooting position. Of course, if you’re trying to stretch a handgun chambered for a .308, .45-70 or such, you need the magnification power of a scope, but long-range shots usually provide ample time to find the target and set up. For the close-range shooter who needs to get on target fast, often in dark timber or deep woods, the red dot is hard to beat.
Those elegant walnut or rosewood grips gracing that big gun are lovely, but when trying to manage a handful of iron that is trying its best to rip itself from your mitts with each shot, big rubber aftermarket grips are best.
Several manufacturers offer aftermarket grips that replace the factory options. Thompson/Center offers several recoil-softening designs for the Encore and Contender, and firms such as Hogue and Pachmyer offer replacements for most of the revolvers. With anything chambered over .45 Colt, the difference in control and accuracy is substantial. Even my Freedom Arms Premier, a .44 Mag. on a .454 Casull frame, is far easier to shoot accurately with hand-filling rubber grips. On my Blackhawk, it’s a must.
In the field, these grips cut my group size by half, and they are a lot easier to hang on to when I’m wearing gloves. For wet, cold weather, good grips are essential. If you’re going to shoot the big guns, make a set of Pachmyer or Hogue grips a must-have.
Hunting with a handgun takes a lot of preparation, plus a lot of self-control and discipline. Handguns are far easier to pack than a long gun, they’re lighter on the shoulder, and they don’t give up anything in power — but they will limit your options. For those willing to put in the time, handgun-hunting is a great sport. Any trophy taken cleanly with a handgun is one you will be proud to hang on the wall.