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By Gary Smith
Handgun hunting is a challenging endeavor for many people. Those that are willing to put the time into learning the proper techniques will be much more successful than those that don't. If that sounds just like any other sport it should. Even if you are new to hunting you can be as successful with a handgun as someone with a rifle if you prepare properly.
In the following pages I'll describe the techniques and the equipment I've used for hunting in the eastern states for the last 20 years. There are certainly other viable approaches to handgun hunting, they just don't work as well for me. I'm not going to comment much on handgun hunting for western big game since I have only limited experience in that area; the techniques can be different depending on the terrain and the size of the animal.
Handgun hunting was new to me about 20 years ago when I was in college. I had been reading about Bob Milek's adventures with a handgun for several years and I knew I had to try hunting with one. Dad didn't own any handguns when I was growing up so I had to learn everything on my own. While I can't recall the entire conversation when I was trying to talk him into signing the paperwork. I can hear him giving his assessment of the situation like it was yesterday. "You can't hit nothin with that!" I was quite certain I knew more than dad about this, imagine that, and convinced him to sign for it.
There were a couple of us that were relatively experienced hunters at school and we would slip out to a makeshift target range after class. Handguns were the natural choice as they could travel in and out of the dormitory with much less difficulty than a long gun, if you know what I mean. Not only had Mr. Milek's many articles on the subject sold me on a Thompson Contender but at $185 dollars brand new they were just to hard to pass up. Handloading wasn't an option either. I was willing to sleep with a 44 stuffed under the dorm mattress but I didn't think I could get away with bolting a reloading press to my desk. Unlike today, the list of cartridges suitable for deer hunting was limited mostly to the 41 & 44 magnums, the 30-30 Winchester, the 35 Remington, and the 30 and 357 Herrett. The latter two were eliminated at the time due to their wildcat status. I could buy fifty 44 rounds for only a little more money than twenty rounds of 30-30 cartridges. Additionally, a couple of the guys already had 44's and it seemed like the logical cartridge to choose as we could split a box if we had to. I know, a 22 would have been far more economical than any centerfire but we were men by god, full of testosterone and stuff and didn't want to waste our time fooling around with 22's.
We went plunking fairly regularly. It didn't take graduating from college to figure out 44's don't plink. I think the best thing that could have happened did when two of us decided to drive over to Beckley West Virginia and shoot an NRA Hunters Pistol Match. I believe I got nine out of forty and my buddy got three. I was hooked. Looking back we really did pretty well considering we had no concept of actually adjusting the sights as the targets got farther out and we were shooting 240 grain factory loads. I thought perhaps we had a little more gun than necessary when one of the more experienced silhouette shooters walked up behind me after the first bank of chickens and asked "what in the hell are you shootin?" I think those guys are still looking for a couple of those chickens. Fortunately there was also a smallbore classification and that prompted me to get a 22 L.R. barrel for Christmas. My buddy had a revolver and he was stuck with one caliber.
By the end of the summer both barrels had scopes and I was shooting scores in the high 20's at the pistol matches. Squirrel season opened in September and I was figuring on doing some extra field research for biology class. We had a kitchen on our floor right next to our room and squirrels travel into the dorm a lot easier than a smelly old deer. We did learn one night after a squirrel hunt that it isn't a good idea to skin a copperhead in your dorm room, but that's another story. Well maybe it just isn't a good idea to put a copperhead in that little refrigerator while you're fixin to skin it. Okay, we did it on purpose; that girl never spoke to either of us again. I think she transferred. That snake sure did stink up the place when we skinned it but the hatband was beautiful.
What gun should you buy? I'll let you decide after you finish reading. There are many handgun hunters that favor a revolver and a few others use a semi-automatic. Neither revolvers nor semi-auto pistols meet my requirements for hunting. There are several reasons for this but the main ones are the accuracy and power advantages available in other types of guns. Basically, there are two other action types that fit the bill, break-open single shot pistols and bolt actions. There have been a few other designs that have surfaced over the years but failed to gain wide acceptance.
Accuracy is one of those topics when discussed by ten people in a room there are usually as many different opinions. For me it boils down to this, if the gun won't shoot darn close to a minute of angle from a solid bench then it's probably going to have a new home. Someone once said, "only accurate guns are interesting", I agree. Fortunately there are several excellent choices available from Thompson Center (T/C), Remington, Savage, Weatherby, and Anschutz. There are a few others that fall into this general category however the drawbacks of the design or overall quality keep them from making the cut. The Weatherby is quite pricy and will be eliminated by many based on the cost. I'm sure there are people that disagree with my accuracy requirements believing that such a level of precision isn't required. After all, it can be difficult to make full use of it in hunting situations, but not impossible. The photo above shows a very tight 5 shot group from my XP-100 in 223 Remington. The group was fired from the rest shown below.
Power is akin to accuracy in that it's not widely agreed upon as to how much is needed. If you are disciplined enough to hold your shots to 50 or 75 yards then a 44 Magnum revolver is all you'll ever need for most hunting in North America. However, if you want to reach out and touch something 100 yards and farther then give serious consideration to one of the handguns designed specifically for hunting at extended ranges. Nearly any of the bottle-neck cartridges will outperform a straight walled cartridge except for perhaps the 45-70 Government. Generally the .243 through .30 calibers are best suited for deer and other medium sized game. Varmints can be shot with anything but the best choices are the .22 through .25 calibers. Once bullets get larger than .25 caliber they tend to be too heavily constructed for expansion on varmints. I think it was Bob Milek who wrote an article once describing a handgunners battery of three guns. The calibers were a 22 L.R., a 223, and I believe a 7 TCU although it could have been a 35 Remington. He wrote fondly of both the latter cartridges and the 35 Remington is a factory round as Bob would quickly point out. Three of my favorites are the 22 L.R., the 223 Remington, and the 309 JDJ (a wildcat 444 Marlin necked down to .30 caliber). Each of these rounds is highly accurate and flat shooting.
No other guns are as versatile as the Contender and Encore from Thompson Center. If you have any doubts about this take a look at the list of available chamberings for their handguns from the custom barrel shops like SSK, Bullberry, and Virgin Valley. The only drawback to the Contender is that it cannot handle the high pressure rounds like a 22-250, 243, or 308 Winchester. The T/C Encore has solved that problem with a redesigned and much stronger action. It benefits from interchangeable barrels like the Contender but it cannot fire rimfire cartridges as configured from the factory. I really don't believe there is anything the Encore can do that a Contender can't and the Encore doesn't adapt as quickly to rimfire as the Contender. The Thompson Contender with a 10" 22 L.R. barrel would be my first recommendation for the beginner. You might as well get the match barrel while your at it. Put either a Burris or Leupold variable handgun scope on it and start practicing regularly. When you're ready, buying a barrel for big game is a couple hundred dollars cheaper than buying another gun for the big bore chores. The money you save in ammo cost while practicing will pay for the big bore barrel and scope in short order. For my money the Contender is the "best buy".
Todays handgun scopes are a vast improvement over what I started using twenty years ago. Leupold still makes the 2x and 4x EER and both scopes are very durable and of high quality. They aren't my first choice anymore but I sure killed alot of deer using their 4x model. Leupold also makes a 2.5x8 variable but I have heard enough reports of failures to keep me from buying one. In my opinion Burris is making the best handgun scopes today. I like high powered handgun scopes. If I can't see the target I can't hit it, which is why I don't use iron sights for hunting. Burris is constantly forging new ground for the handgun hunter as evidenced by their latest addition, a 3x12 variable with an adjustable objective (A/O) and target knobs. Even my 22 L.R. barrel has a 3x9 A/O mounted on top. Clean kills on squirrels out to 75 or 80 yards are relatively easy with that setup. My big game outfit carries the Burris 2.5x7 A/O. I don't use the lowest setting much except occasionally on a running deer and I suspect it may have a 3x12 soon. There have been several occasions where I just didn't have enough magnification to make the shot for certain and I had to let the animal walk off. A beginning handgun hunter would be wise to choose one of the variables. The low power will be a blessing until you become proficient enough to make use of the additional magnification. The bottom line is if you're going to hunt with it, get a good Burris or Leupold scope.
I have to discuss binoculars briefly. I didn't use binoculars until I started handgun hunting. I just used the rifle scope if I needed to see something. The handgun scopes I was using didn't provide enough magnification to tell whether I was looking at a bush or part of a deer at times so I started carrying a set of compact 8x20 Nikons. After a good bit of hard use they no longer functioned properly and even when they did I had to remove my glasses to get the full field of view. As you can imagine this was a real pain. When they finally gave up the ghost I decided to spend the big nickel and bought the 10x42 Swarovski SLC's; the best money I ever spent. If something happened to those binoculars I would replace them tomorrow. They are absolutely incredible and I can see the entire field of view without removing my glasses. I cannot stress enough how important good optics are when hunting and until you use top shelf binoculars for a season you won't believe what you've been missing.
Develop Your Shooting Skills
Shooting a handgun is a little different than shooting a rifle. I know many hunters who actually shoot their gun very little unless game is afoot. A large number of hunters shoot less than a box of ammo a year through their guns. Maybe a few sight in rounds then off to the deer woods. If you're one of these people forget about doing that with a handgun if you want to be successful. I would really rather you wouldn't do it with a rifle either but I'm probably being a little optimistic.
Shooting a handgun accurately takes lots of practice. While actively shooting in NRA Hunter's Pistol competition I would expend about 600 rounds a month. I shot 160 rounds in the matches and the rest were fired in practice sessions. I also painted a target on the shed in back of the house and practiced dry firing almost every day. That amounts to a fair amount of shooting and unless you're independently wealthy the cost of centerfire ammunition is going to put a big dent in your wallet. Since I'm not wealthy the majority of my practice was done using the T/C 22 L.R. barrel on my Contender. I consider learning to shoot a handgun much like learning to shoot as a youngster. I wasn't given a big kicking gun to start out. Were you? I had a BB gun, then I moved up to a 22 rifle and 410 shotgun. Next was a 30-30 and you get the idea. The horsepower only increased when I was ready; dad took care of that. Why do grown men go buy something along the lines of a 44 Magnum to learn to shoot a handgun? I know I did but I'm older and wiser and I'm trying to help someone else not make a similar mistake. If you want to hunt with a handgun learn to shoot first. My best advice is to get a high quality, low recoil gun to start. You can't have the concentration necessary to shoot well if you are worried about it kicking. Everyone owes it to the game we shoot to make quick kills whenever possible.
Learning to shoot a scoped handgun can be rather difficult. The largest obstacle I faced was learning to live with the wobble. If you don't know what I mean look through a scoped handgun and try to hold it still. You can't; no one can. Crank up the magnification a bit and you'll think you're experiencing an earthquake. I have handed my gun to a few folks over the years who wanted to try it and after a few seconds looking through the scope they gave it back without firing a shot. "Here...I can't shoot that thing. How do you hold it still?" You have to learn to ignore it. Extreme concentration on the crosshairs and trigger control are vitally important to a well placed shot.
Let's talk about practice sessions. One thing that many people overlook is proper ear and eye protection. Ear protection is not only important so you'll be able to hear what the grandkids are saying some day but it will help you shoot better too. I always wear a set of foam insert plugs and a good pair of headphones. Why both? Because the muzzle of a handgun is much closer to my face than the muzzle of a rifle. In my opinion unarrested muzzle blast can contribute as much as heavy recoil to developing bad habits. Handguns are loud. If you're shooting at a covered range the blast wave tends smack you right in the face. You'll blink, tense up, and fail to follow through. Next thing you know you've developed a flinch. Handguns with brakes are especially bad about excessive muzzle blast and noise.
Like training a puppy, practice should be fun. I like things that ding, fall over, explode, and so forth. I read a great article recently about a guy that shot "urban varmints" for practice. He was using 20oz. and liter soda bottles filled with water. He had equated the 20 oz. bottles to prairie dogs and the liter jugs to groundhogs. Great idea, just be sure to pick up the trash when finished. I don't think I would want to explain to Mr. Farmer where the soda jug came from that clogged up his hay bailer. By the way, a groundhog left in the field can have the same effect. There are also numerous steel spinners & assorted swinging targets sold commercially that can be great fun.
I really must stress the importance of dry firing. My basic exercise is to pick a stationary target or better yet set up a target of what you'll be shooting at and dry fire until I get ten shots off with the cross hairs on target. Some days I squeeze off ten shots and put the gun down, other times it takes more. If it takes more usually I'm not concentrating enough on what I'm doing. A little more challenging exercise is to pick out a horizontal plane and track the crosshairs in the plane with out dropping off. Once you get proficient at that try doing it while breaking the trigger. The top rail of a fence works well but the possibilities are endless. Just don't use the rail on your neighbors deck if they are looking out the window. Not that anyone would ever do such a thing.
Squirrels and Varmints
This is really where the beginner should start handgun hunting. Targets are usually numerous and connecting on a squirrel from fifty yards or so will do much to build the shooters confidence. There isn't quite as much frustration from missing a squirrel or a groundhog as there is from missing a deer and besides, it's fun. If I could only hunt one animal I think it would be the squirrel. Bag limits are generous in most places and they are certainly a worthy adversary if you use a handgun or a rifle. Squirrels and groundhogs also provide even a seasoned hunter excellent practice stalking and still hunting. Shooting groundhogs or any of their hole digging friends with a handgun requires some specialized equipment in order to make the longer shots. A shot of two or three hundred yards or longer is very common. There is hardly a cartridge better suited than a 223 however most any of the centerfire 22's work quite well out of a pistol.
Here is a better look at my varmint rest. I struggled for years over rests that would be portable and still deliver adequate accuracy in the field. I tried bipods (couldn't see over the grass), camera tripods, shooting sticks, and a bevy of other commercially manufactured and homegrown rests. I finally solved the problem by attaching two Harris 1A2-25 bipods to the bottom of a piece of plywood. I screwed an MTM ammo box to the top for additional elevation and I carry three small sand bags in a fanny pack. Few groundhogs escape this setup out to 300 yards.
More people probably start out handgun hunting for deer than any other animal. Deer hunting is being in the right place at the right time and seeing the deer before it sees you. When handgun hunting I prefer to pick a stand in a relatively open area which provides good visibility and multiple shooting lanes. It has been my observation that it takes me at least ten to fifteen seconds longer to get a shot off with a handgun than with a rifle. Because it takes longer to shoot I want to have as many open shooting lanes as possible. I nearly always take pruning shears with me when I'm hunting. In the places where I expect to see deer I will cut shooting lanes about ten yards wide and frequently over one hundred yards long. Usually I will only need to remove small saplings that will deflect a bullet. Those dime size and smaller trees are very difficult to see in a handgun scope especially early and late in the day. They absolutely will deflect a bullet enough to miss unless the intended target is extremely close to whatever the bullet contacts. The buck in the photo above is not positioned well for taking a shot. He is head on with a tree partially obscuring his vital area. Shoot just as he takes one more step in the direction his head is pointing and you'll likely have a long and fruitless tracking job on your hands. Wait for a better shot. This deer is feeding and unaware that he's being watched.
Moments later he's finished eating and back on his way presenting a perfect broadside shot. Ideally this buck should have been shot just as soon as he cleared the tree at his rump. He now seems aware something needs his attention. His ears perked forward, one movement or noise and he'll be gone. You had better shoot soon.
Learning a deer's body language is especially important. The buck in this photo has seen me but he is unsure what I am. This is another difficult shot but one I would take only if I had a solid rest. A six inch or less error in bullet placement to the left and you've got a deer with a broken shoulder and that's about it. This is a perfect case for using an accurate gun. There is one spot about three inches in diameter where the bullet needs to be placed. Would you shoot at this deer from eighty or a hundred yards with a revolver with open sights. I hope not unless you're good enough to put ten of ten shots in a three inch circle while your heart is pounding like you just ran a marathon.
Still hunting for deer is probably the most challenging way to hunt them. It takes a great deal of patients and time in the woods to perfect your technique. I do still hunt some but not usually until after the first couple of weeks of the season when some of the hunting pressure has subsided. I can usually manage to sneak up on deer two or three times per season. When I'm still hunting I move very slowly of course, but where I stop is even more important. I work out the path ahead picking out stopping places well in advance of getting there moving from tree to tree. I came to realize how important this is only after I got caught standing in the open several times with nothing to rest the gun on for a shot. Don't be afraid to move to slowly. I frequently stay in the same spot twenty minutes or more if I feel like I'm in a high percentage area. I don't usually proceed until I've glassed everything many times and identified all of the noises. Hunting squirrels the same way is the best practice I can think of.
Hunting with a handgun is certainly one of my passions in life and I encourage anyone interested to give it a try. It isn't difficult it just takes a little more practice to develop and maintain good shooting skills. You don't have to be a better hunter or a better shot to hunt successfully with a handgun you just have to be as good as everyone else ought to be. When you've reached the level of confidence to leave the rifle at home then you're ready to start hunting with a handgun.
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