Hunting with a handgun takes patience and diligence, but the up close and personal experience is very rewarding. Modern handgun loads feature premium bullets which give both excellent accuracy and excellent terminal ballistics, giving much the same improvement in performance as we’ve seen in rifle cartridges. Handgun hunting embraces the same principals as any other implement: you need to place an accurate shot and the projectile needs to penetrate deep enough to destroy vital tissue. While there are many handgun cartridges to choose from, from the small to the gigantic, there are some sensible choices that still rise to the top. Here are my selections for the top five handgun hunting cartridges.
1. .357 Magnum
The smallest of my choices, the .357 Magnum—especially when loaded with a premium 180-grain bullet—is a perfectly viable choice for deer, hogs and similar-sized game. In comparison to the larger bore diameters, the .357 is easy on the shooter and can be very accurate in a handgun with a barrel of proper length. Ammunition is on the cheaper side, there are plenty of good choices and the hunter can spend time practicing with the lighter, cheaper .38 Special ammunition.
2. .44 Remington Magnum
Dirty Harry’s darling also makes one of the most excellent hunting cartridges for the handgun hunter. Driving a .429-inch diameter bullet—the “.44” designation being carried over from the era of heeled bullets—weighing between 240 and 340 grains (in the heavy hard cast varieties), the .44 Remington Magnum was a brainchild of Elmer Keith. Keith experimented with both the .44 Special and .45 Colt, and ended up choosing the smaller diameter .44 case to make a stronger cylinder. I like the 240-grain bullets at 1350 fps for deer and similar-sized game, and the 300-grain slugs at 1150 fps for larger, tougher game.
3. .45 Colt
Dating back to 1873, the .45 Colt, also known as the .45 Long Colt, can be a perfectly viable all-around hunting cartridge in a modern handgun like the Ruger Blackhawk. I just so happen to hunt with this combination, and my 7.5-inch barreled Blackhawk will push a 300-grain bullet to almost 1300 fps, and it takes deer very cleanly. I wouldn’t hesitate to use this combination on hogs, bear, elk or moose. Granted, the older SAA and its clones can’t handle these kinds of pressures, but that Blackhawk sure can, and it’s easier to shoot than you’d think. Practicing with lighter loads—like a handloaded 255-grain lead round nose bullet over Alliant Unique Powder—is both economical and effective. With the adjustable target sights, I can hit a vital-sized area out to 75 yards when using a rest, and given my aging eyes, that’s a testament to the accuracy of the .45 Colt.
4. .454 Casull
Taking the .45 Colt one step further, Dick Casull and Jack Fullmer beefed up the .45 Colt case and took things to an entirely different level. The Casull case uses the same case head dimensions as the .45 Colt, but is extended 0.10-inch and will run at a higher pressure than the Colt, and will push that 300-grain bullet to 1650 fps—a significant advantage over the .45 Colt. However, that velocity and energy advantage comes with a price, and that price is recoil. While I feel that even the beefier .45 Colt loads can be managed by the average handgun shooter, the .454 Casull can be stiff in the recoil department—sometimes too stiff. But with practice—and the .454 Casull can safely fire any .45 Colt load—the cartridge can be mastered, and will make a solid choice for nearly all the big-game species the average hunter will pursue. The Casull is flexible and powerful, and for those who wish to put in the practice as a handgun hunter, it may represent the most balanced choice, as it will use the full gamut of projectiles for the .45 Colt, as well as some of the heavier 350- and 400-grain hardcast bullets.
5. .475 Linebaugh
The year 1988 saw the release of the .475 Linebaugh, a .45-70 Government case cut down to 1.40-inch and configured to hold .475-inch diameter bullets. The Linebaugh can push a 400-grain bullet to a muzzle velocity of 1400 fps, for over 1,700 ft.-lbs. of muzzle energy. Frankly, there are few, if any, game animals that should be hunted with a handgun that a .475 Linebaugh can’t handle, but it does come with some hefty recoil. Though there are many more handgun and ammunition choices available for the .480 Ruger, the .475 Linebaugh chamber can safely fire .480 Ruger ammo. This gives the option of lighter-recoiling ammunition, well-suited to many hunting situations, as well as target practice. The .475 Linebaugh makes a solid choice for a serious handgun hunter, and a Freedom Arms revolver feels like a Swiss watch mated with a bank vault.