Handgun hunting isn’t just a stunt or an activity practiced by hunters too lazy to carry a rifle. It’s a passion that, for the practitioners, yields far greater satisfaction than they experience in rifle hunts. Having pursued handgun hunting for 5 decades in many parts of the world, I have developed my own list of favorite cartridges.
1. The .44 Magnum
The .44 Magnum is recognized worldwide as handgun hunting’s number one achiever. While its power and accuracy potential can’t be mastered by everyone, keep in mind that handgun hunting is pursued only by folks who practice and are willing to risk failure by leaving their long guns at home. .44 Magnum handguns are generally well-made, quality firearms that require high performance ammunition. Both guns and ammo are available from several factories and numerous custom shops. Whether your interest is long-range antelope hunting with light weight, high velocity, 180-grain jacketed hollow points, or using heavy weight, hard cast bullets to get up close and personal with large, dangerous critters, the right load is available. And is there a gun store anywhere in the country—or perhaps world—that doesn’t have a box or two of .44 Magnums with “standard” 240-grain jacketed bullets? Countries that allow handgun hunting but are suspicious of unknown calibers sign off immediately on an application listing .44 Magnum as the chosen caliber. Even relatively new handgun hunters can master the .44 Magnum if they start with lighter loads and work their way up.
2. The .454 Casull
The .454 Casull redefined and elevated the capabilities of hunting handguns while still allowing the use of reasonably sized, portable firearms. Considerably more difficult to master than the .44, it requires even more dedication from its followers, but like the .44, it is also recognized worldwide as a premier hunting handgun worthy of field use. Even more capable than the .44 Magnum, this cartridge extended pistol hunting ranges by pushing velocities up toward the 2000 fps mark and flattening trajectories while still using straight walled cartridges. To achieve the 454’s full potential, hunters should consider installing optics, something previously not required on a revolver. Ammo manufacturers have caught up with the capabilities of the .454 and offer a wide variety of ammunition suitable for all handgun hunting. You might not find a box of ammo for it in your remote hunting location, but local hunters will know of the .454’s power.
3. The .41 Magnum
The .41 Magnum is much more than just the “me too,” compromise middle magnum. Initially judged a failure when introduced as the perfect police cartridge just before law enforcement agencies started their mass migration to semi-auto pistols, the .41 picked up an almost cult following of folks who thought it was the perfect all around, do everything cartridge. Easier to master than the .44 Magnum and gentler on both guns and shooters, the .41 Magnum met Elmer Keith’s minimum criteria for a big bore caliber and has made its bones as a bonafide successful hunting handgun. Major ammunition companies produce high velocity ammo with light weight JHP bullets as well as heavier weight, hard cast lead bullets for larger animals. There’s very little the bigger magnums will do that the .41 won’t, and there’s nothing in America that the .41 can’t hunt. By the way, slightly down loaded, the .41 Magnum is one hell of a defensive handgun.
4. The .357 Magnum
The .357 Magnum—America’s first magnum—received some almost hysterical press coverage and was marketed as having potential well beyond its true capabilities. Some of its early successes in the game fields used hotter ammunition than is available today, with the ultimate result that all ammo companies toned down the power levels of their products. That said, the .357 Magnum is an excellent entry-level cartridge for the smaller variety of big-game species, specifically whitetail deer. Barring infirmities, the .357 Magnum can be mastered by almost any reasonably serious shooter. Using lighter weight jacketed hollow points, the .357 Magnum was a long-term, mainstay defensive weapon for police and civilians alike. Substituting lighter weight cast bullets makes it a superb small game and varmint caliber.
5. The .480 Ruger
The .480 Ruger—though under-appreciated by most shooters—is an excellent big-game getter. Loaded in a standard magnum length case and using moderate weight jacketed and cast bullets, the cartridge avoids the crushing recoil of the bigger calibers while still being capable of taking the biggest and most dangerous game. If a hunter doesn’t go crazy in his or her quest for high velocity, and relies instead on the .480’s increased bullet diameter, this cartridge can hunt any animal on any continent, but you’ll probably have to take your ammo with you. You’ll surrender one round capacity, since the caliber dictates a five-shot rather than the standard six-shot revolver cylinder, which is not a huge consideration in hunting. It will require more recoil tolerance than its smaller diameter brothers, but it’s the most useful and useable of the bigger handgun calibers.