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Handgun Hunting 101: The Mechanics

Whether getting started or renewing your vows, it’s time to get back to the handgun hunting basics.

I know some of the more experienced handgun hunters will feel perhaps a bit slighted by the following discussion; we are repeating what you may already know, after all. However, that shouldn’t be the case. Getting back to basics can benefit even the veteran handgun hunter.

My goal is to introduce the uninitiated, drill the experienced and reflect on my own handgun hunting regimen. So I will focus on the mechanics and not the field craft of handgun hunting (that is a topic for another article). And I will focus on revolvers, not single-shot specialty pistols.

Choose a Platform
Finding a platform that suits you well is critical. Comfort goes a long way to building confidence. Will it be a single-action or double-action revolver? What caliber will fulfill your needs: .357 Mag., .44 Mag., .454 Casull? Long barrel? Short barrel? Scope? Open sights? There are a number of questions you need to answer honestly to help you home in on what will best serve you, the budding handgun hunter. If at all possible, you should try a number of different revolvers. Why? Because recoil characteristics vary greatly between the different types and makes of revolvers. Besides, the fact is large-caliber revolvers deliver sizable recoil.

Double-action revolvers tend to concentrate recoil force straight back into the web of your hand, while single-actions tend to twist upward, sparing the shooter some unpleasantness. The two configurations are worlds apart in how they transfer recoil to the shooter.

I could go into the various single-action grip-frame profiles, but we don’t have room for that here. My personal favorite is Ruger’s take on the Bisley grip frame as it is optimal for control—at least in my hands as it has a more double action-like recoil dynamism. Freedom Arms’ Model 83 grip is another one I really like. I would again recommend testing out a few of the different makes, models and calibers to help you make this decision. It is one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. If you don’t know anyone with a variety of revolvers to try, I suggest joining any number of websites dedicated to revolvers and handgun hunting. You may find folks locally through the site who can help you decide what is best by letting you shoot some of their revolvers.

Everyone has different preferences, so there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to picking a platform to fulfill your own needs. For me at least, single-action revolvers point more intuitively than do double-actions. Single-actions are almost an extension of the hand. Gunslingers of the Old West were undoubtedly well aware of this handling characteristic, relying on point-shooting for survival. Alas, we are not gunslingers, but handgun hunters. The single-action (in my hands at least) may offer some advantages when quick follow-up shots are needed to dispatch a departing animal.

This is as good a time as any to briefly discuss calibers. While the .357 Mag. is not my first choice, it can be effective. Remember that there is no replacement for placement, and a half-inch hole won’t make up for lousy marksmanship. Loaded with a quality bullet, I wouldn’t hesitate to use the first magnum on deer. However, I still prefer erring on the larger side with regards to calibers. The .41 Mag. is a good starting point and compromise, though factory ammunition is typically rather scarce. The champion of all big revolver rounds from an ammunition availability standpoint is the ubiquitous .44 Mag.. No revolver round can boast the sheer variety and quantity of available ammunition, and it is fully up to the task of taking nearly any head of game that has ever walked the face of this earth.

One of my personal favorites is the .45 Colt—yeah, that old blackpowder cartridge from the late bench shooting1800s. It can be loaded considerably hotter than its original configuration, which is limited to 14,000 psi. I am not suggesting turning your .45 Colt into a .454 Casull, but revolvers like Ruger’s Blackhawk in .45 Colt are considerably stronger than a Colt Single Action Army or any of the many facsimiles available on the market, and they are able to safely handle considerably hotter loads than the 14,000 psi maximum imposed upon the smaller and more fragile revolvers. Adhere to published load data and do not exceed the maximums recommended by the manufacturer as there is no need to turn your favorite revolver into a hand grenade.

There are quite a few big calibers that are fairly brutal to shoot; I don’t recommend them to the neophyte. There are some, like the .480 Ruger, which offer a fine compromise between power and recoil. However, the fact is you can load the big calibers down to “soft” levels and they still offer a sizable advantage over their smaller siblings. They don’t need to be pushed hard to be terminally effective. Keep this in mind when you decide upon a caliber for a hunting revolver.

You need to be honest with yourself as far as your limitations are concerned. There is no shame in a low tolerance for recoil. These big-bore revolvers can be very difficult to shoot as you generally have only 3 pounds in your hands to contain the considerable recoil generated by some of these cartridges. The prospective handgun hunter should take pride in being able to shoot his/her chosen revolver well and effectively. Let someone else’s ego dictate his caliber choices. Competence and confidence will go a long way to filling the freezer with game meat. Confidence follows competence, and consistent competence is the offspring of practice—lots of practice—but more on this later.

Let’s talk bullets briefly. We live in what I consider the Golden Age of handgun bullets. We have bonded, jacketed, controlled expansion, violently expanding, deep-penetrating, soft-point, flat-point, hollow-point, monometal and hardcast bullets and more. I think it is important to match your bullet to your game. Soft, thin-skinned game responds well to violently expanding bullets where deep penetration isn’t needed. When hunting thick-skinned, heavy-boned animals, an expanding bullet of tougher construction (like Hornady’s Magnum XTP or the Swift A-frame), or a minimally expanding bullet like a flat-nosed hardcast, is preferable. Expansion is more critical in smaller calibers, but when your bullet is starting out at or nearly a half-inch in diameter, expansion isn’t all that critical. All that said, I always prefer two holes to one, and put a premium on penetration. I am taking a harder look at some of the monometal designs that have cropped up recently like those offered by Cutting Edge Bullets (CEB). Their Raptor bullets are designed to open up and then shed their petals while the core base continues to plow forward like a solid, offering the best of both worlds: deep penetration as well as a large wound channel.

Learn to Shoot
Now that you have chosen your revolver, it is time to learn how to shoot it well. In no uncertain weaverterms, shooting a handgun accurately is more difficult than a rifle. Handgun shooters/hunters don’t have the luxury of using their bodies to stabilize their firearms by bracing the buttstock firmly in their shoulders.

Consistency is the name of the game here—consistency of grip pressure and consistency of trigger control. Changing your grip tension will change the point of impact of your bullets. This is why it is so important to shoot in the same manner each and every time. Repetition is habit-forming. If, when practicing, fatigue begins to rear its head, it is time to either rest or stop for the day. Bad habits can form quickly when pushing your own limits, and if your grip begins weakening during a shooting session, your marksmanship will suffer. Limit your time on the range until you are in “shooting shape.” You should end each range session on a high note. This will allow your muscles to retain the memory of doing things correctly. It serves no one to shoot until he develops a flinch. Undoing a flinch can be frustrating and time-consuming. You will know when you reach your limit. When you do, it is time to pack up for the next practice session.

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1 Response to Handgun Hunting 101: The Mechanics

Frank G wrote:
June 04, 2014

Well done Max. Hand cannons are the way to go. When out of bow season I'll hunt with handguns exclusively. My go to guns are: 460 XVR, TC muzzle loader pistol, both with Aimpoint 9000SC red dots, S&W 357 mag AND a 1851 Confederate Navy Colt. Comfortable out to 100 with first two, 50 with the 357 and not over 20 with the 1851. Talk about driving the long gun guys nuts. There is no finer weapon then a handgun when stalking.