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Selecting Your First Hunting Handgun

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By Gary Smith

There are two types of hunters in the world, those that are shooters and those that are not. The latter group is content to run a few rounds of ammo through Ol' Betsy just before the season opens and that's that. Many still get their deer to the freezer but the other group, shooters, practice year-round and are good candidates to become handgun hunters. Choosing a handgun to be used for hunting is a bit different than choosing one for self-defense or defense based competition. Few handguns well suited for serious hunting are also top choices for defensive purposes in non-hunting situations, so lets examine what makes a good hunting handgun.

Hunting with a pistol or revolver as the primary gun is a very challenging and rewarding sport. Like all other hunting it carries an ethic responsibility to be able to kill game as cleanly as possible. A target shooter missing the mark by a few inches does little more harm than briefly damaging the ego and most self-defense shooting is performed at distances measured in feet, not yards. Such is not the case for the handgun hunter. Consideration must be given to

Selecting a gun that's fun to shoot goes a long way in developing good shooting skills and becoming proficient.


power and accuracy at ranges from twenty-five yards too possibly a few hundred. As can be expected, shooting a handgun powerful and accurate enough to kill a deer or other game animal at extended ranges calls for some specialized equipment. With this in mind a fair number of would-be handgun hunters' start with a hard kicking gun, too powerful for a beginner, then abandon the idea after a few boxes of expensive ammo and poor shooting.

The best way to avoid this scenario is to buy smart. Start with the highest quality pistol or revolver you can afford, paying attention to a few key characteristics such as versatility, barrel length, trigger quality, power and accuracy, economy and the ability to accept a scope. Let's not forget fun to shoot, after all a handgun hunter is a shooter, right?

Many hunting handguns tend to be rather specialized like the single shots from Thompson/Center (T/C) and the bolt actions from various makers. Manufacturers like Ruger, Savage, Smith & Wesson, Taurus, H-S Precision, Freedom Arms, Magnum Research, MOA Corporation and now SIGARMS, offer numerous types of handguns well suited to hunting any game animal on earth but each type has pros and cons.

Most of us have some preference for the action type when choosing a gun. Some like single shots while others prefer a single or double action revolver and in .22 caliber, the semi-auto can also be viable for the handgun hunter. Does it matter whether you prefer a double action gun to a single action? For hunting, it doesn't make a bit of difference. In nearly every situation you'll be shooting a revolver in single action mode anyway. Does one type have an advantage over the other in versatility? Sure it does, some single action revolvers can be purchased with extra cylinders for firing different cartridges. A .22 LR/22 WMR combination is an old favorite. Newer versions offer 454 Casull/45 Colt and 475 Linebaugh/480 Ruger convertibles. Seeking the utmost in accuracy and versatility at a reasonable cost, it would be difficult to best a single shot from T/C in the new G2 configuration, the original Contender or the Encore. They offer a power advantage over revolvers due to the closed breech design, boast excellent triggers and are easily scoped with barrel lengths of 10, 12, 14 and 15 inches. An interchangeable barrel system makes the T/C fairly unique in its versatility.

A real concern for any shooter, especially the beginner, is selecting a gun that produces too much recoil for their capabilities. Cartridges like the 454 Casull, 375 JDJ and many others produce tremendous recoil and are poor choices for all but well seasoned handgunners. Many big bore shooters will tell you they must re-condition themselves to the recoil if the big guns haven't been shot recently. Other guns like the bolt action designs are fantastic for truly long range shooting but are also big bulky affairs which don't handle well in all hunting situations.

A beginner should give special consideration to economy and shy away from a gun that's expensive to shoot because becoming a proficient hunter is going to require shooting thousands of rounds not a few hundred and certainly not a few dozen just before deer season opens. The price of the firearm is just the initial investment - you'll spend far more money in the long run on ammunition than you ever will on a single gun. The winner hands down in the

A 22LR from Thompson/Center arms is tough to beat in nearly every respect - they are particularly accurate.



economy department, and my recommendation for the beginner, is a pistol or revolver chambered for the .22 Long Rifle. It's quite capable of taking squirrel and rabbit or small varmints out to fifty yards and there are a wide variety of guns to choose from. Several major manufacturers produce .22's that meet all the criteria for a good hunting handgun, most of which can be purchased for well under $500. If having one of the finest revolvers money can buy is an option, look at the Freedom Arms model 83-22 or the 97-22. Like the rest of their products line you're getting what you pay for - they are excellent in every respect.

Those having mastered the .22 and looking to move up to hunting larger game the same key characteristics should be considered for selecting a gun. The .22 LR performs very well even when fired from a shorter barrel, as do most of the straight walled pistol cartridges like the .357 and .44 Magnums. Still, six inches is about the minimum barrel length for a primary hunting handgun and eight or ten inches would be better. If a bottle neck cartridge is selected they are more rifle-like and typically require a 14 or 15 inch barrel to achieve the best performance.

When hunting is limited to whitetails or other game where shots are expected to be 100-yards or closer then a 44 revolver makes an excellent choice. One of the best buys in hunting handguns comes from Ruger. Their single action New Model Super Blackhawk Hunter is chambered in 44 magnum and can be purchased for under $500 without a scope, which it accepts easily. With the proper bullet and bullet placement the 44 is capable of cleanly taking game up to several hundred pounds. Recoil from the Hunter

Two great hunting revolvers are single actions from Freedom Arms (top) and Ruger (bottom). Although these are both big bore guns and not really recommended for the beginner, both companies also make 22's of excellent quality.


model is modest even with full power loads and in fact, my fourteen-year-old son handles the gun easily. Double action revolvers tend to be somewhat more expensive and should be fired in single action mode anyway when hunting. Ruger, Smith & Wesson, and Taurus produce numerous models from which to choose if the DA guns are preferred. My personal preference in revolvers is for single action designs.

If one were after pronghorns in Wyoming where a 200-yard shot is considered close, a much better choice would be a single shot chambered for the 7x30 Waters, 30-30 Winchester or similar bottleneck cartridge of relatively mild recoil. Of course these guns also perform well where shots are close. Much of my hunting is for whitetails on open farmland in Virginia and shots can range from very close to very long. I prefer to primarily use a handgun that is capable of making shots out to 300 yards; my personal favorite is the SSK 309 JDJ in a Contender. The 309 JDJ is a custom barrel wildcat from SSK Industries formed from 444 Marlin brass necked down to fire .308 diameter bullets. The T/C Contender or slightly more expensive T/C Encore is an excellent choice in the single shot market for $500 or less. The original T/C Contender has been out of production for a couple years but some excellent buys can be found for $350 - $400 on the used market. The second generation Contender, the G2 is almost in production at this writing but street prices have yet to be determined. It should still come in under the $500 mark without optics. Contender barrels will fit on both the original and the G2 versions.

As you consider a handgun select one having a good reputation as a hunting handgun. This may lead you to one more specialized but that's okay if your goal truly is to hunt with a handgun. Don't confuse its purpose with other aspects of handgunning. Being a handgun hunter is largely about one shot - the first one - placed exactly where it will do the most damage. For this reason my top choice for the beginner would be a scoped single shot from Thompson/Center followed by a scoped single action revolver from Ruger. I promise you can't go wrong with either of these two choices. Oh yes, what caliber should you choose? The 22 Long Rifle wins by a long shot for the beginner.


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Recent Comments:

Poster: bbonham    Date: 2012-08-29    Top

Nice article and I am a Contender fan all the way. I only have 3 barrels but, that covers a lot of stuff. The 22LR is a basic necessity for plinking and small rodents. The 357 barrel is awesome and I have some Czechoslovak rounds that do 1600fps and 1200 Foot pounds - yep, they hurt after 4 or 5 rounds. Mostly because the trigger guard smacks into my fingers every time. I do reload 357 and have found a sweet spot where accuracy, Me, and the hand cannon are happy. I can generally shoot under 4" groups at 75 yards with iron sights - the flyer does happen! Me and my shooting buds just look at me and say "We won't talk about that one" LOL I am looking at my latest acquisition - it is a 223 barrel in 21" - Want to cut it to 16.5" or there about. What do you think?
Poster: Team Amish 1    Date: 2011-07-30   Top

Thanks for the article, I enjoyed reading it and I could not agree more. When you say that you a gun that you think is fun to shoot goes a long way, you hit the nail on the head. The guns that fit me and that are fun to shoot get the most workouts. Your .22 comment is also spot on. Most of my practice is with .22's and I've burnt through 10,000's of rounds. A good .22 that is nice to shoot and accurate builds good shooting habits all by itself and it's cheap. My personal favorite is a DA wheelgun for good trigger manners but that's just a matter of preference.
Poster: Mike Harris    Date: 2010-12-23    Top

Great post. Thanks
Poster: JTT    Date: 2010-04-13   Top

Poster: Rick65    Date: 2009-10-24    Top

Thank you Gary for your very imformative article. I am new to fire arms altogether & want to move from Bow to Pistol. Do you have an opinion on the "T/Cís Encoreģ Hunterís Package" (with scope)? I will start with sqirrels, but eventually want to move to deer & Bear. Thank you, Rick
Poster: Dennis L    Date: 2009-03-10   Top

Also of note would be the ability to reload ammo. I like the 44 magnum because I can load up some rounds to work with and then develop for a load the gun likes. I have always thought that shot placement is the most important part of shooting. I spent several years in law enforcment and have seen people actually shot who were up and walking around after 2 rounds from a .357 and seen people dead from one .22 to the heart.




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