Without a doubt, handgun hunting is one of the most challenging of the hunting sports. When done properly and successfully, it combines marksmanship, knowledge of the game and woodcraft at an extremely high level. I started handgun hunting about 40 years ago. I have always enjoyed getting close to a wild animal and making a clean kill; sort of beating him at his own game, if you will. After all these years, I still look forward to the fulfillment it provides. Believe me when I say that the path to success lies in practicing safe gun handling and marksmanship, and determining your maximum effective range. If you carry those skills into the field, a clean, humane kill and a great day in the woods will result.
Safe gun handling is a skill that is often overlooked. The handgun hunter must become so familiar with his handgun that he can get it ready to make the shot while his eyes stay on the game. He should be able to recharge the gun, remove the scope covers, cock the hammer or otherwise do whatever is needed without looking at his handgun.
He should also be able to get into his chosen shooting position without covering himself with the muzzle. It sounds simple. But how many times have you seen a handgunner get into a kneeling or sitting position and then draw his handgun? Think about it. He will almost always cover some part of his body with the muzzle. Often it is the femoral artery.
Getting into solid field positions should begin with the handgun drawn and the muzzle pointed in a safe direction. Only when this is done is it safe to assume the position. Getting into field positions shouldn’t be an event. It should be second nature. That means that one doesn’t have to look down at his feet, or the ground, while he is assuming a kneeling position. He goes to the practiced position while his eyes remain on the animal and his muzzle is pointed in a safe direction.
The goal of any hunter should be to deliver a quick and humane killing shot. To accomplish this it is necessary to pay close attention to the three basics of marksmanship: sight picture, trigger squeeze and breath control. Those who do not master these basics will never be successful in the field.
To begin with, the hunting handgun should be sighted in so shots print dead-on at a practical range, say 50 yards. Practice will tell you just what sight picture the handgunner should see to deliver a shot to the proper point of aim. If that sight picture changes, even as he is in the act of squeezing the trigger, he learns to make the slight adjustment necessary to correct it.
Trigger squeeze, or trigger press, refers to slowly and gently adding pressure to the trigger until the gun discharges. When practiced properly, the trigger squeeze is so gentle that it is accomplished without affecting the sight picture. Rather than anticipate when the gun will fire, it’s best if the discharge is a bit of a surprise. The real challenge occurs when the gun fires, because the thumb and three fingers of the shooting hand must maintain a strong grip on the gun to control the heavy recoil of hunting ammo, while the trigger finger must gently pull the trigger.
While these basic marksmanship skills seem simple, it can be difficult to put them together in the proper combination needed to make an accurate shot. This is why practice is so important. It is also the reason a handgun hunter, especially a beginner, is better off taking a shot at standing game that is not alarmed. Even on running game, however, basic marksmanship skills are critical to ensure a clean kill. With practice, the handgun hunter learns to compress the basics and make the shot.
When kneeling, position your legs at a 90-degree angle from each other to provide the most solid foundation. Don’t rest your support elbow directly on your knee, as this is bone-on-bone contact and can get wobbly. Place your support elbow in front of your kneecap and line it up with your support knee, one atop the other, allowing the bones to support the gun and not the muscles.
When shooting off sticks, it is best to rest the wrist of your shooting hand—not the gun—in the crotch of the sticks whenever possible. A gun rested on a hard surface, even shooting sticks, may cause the point of impact to change. I think the handgun hunter should practice with and without sticks. Sticks work best when you have a guide to set them up for you. Doing it by yourself can waste valuable time and prevent you from getting off a shot.
Know Your Limits
Maximum effective hunting range is that range at which the shooter can place all shots into the game animal’s vital zone on demand and under field conditions. That “on demand” is an important term. In other words, it’s not what you’ve done once, but what you can do virtually every time. Again, determining your effective range takes practice. Obtaining life-size targets of the actual game animal you plan to hunt will provide some realistic practice and also an opportunity to study the anatomy of game.
One quickly realizes that the vital zone of most game animals can be contained in an 8-inch circle. So an excellent and inexpensive target can simply be an 8-inch paper picnic plate. Set up the plate on the backstop and shoot from the various field positions that are useful in actual handgun hunting: standing, kneeling and sitting. In each position, the range at which all shots will stay on the plate is the maximum effective range. Obviously, the more one practices, the more that range can be extended.