There is no shortage of reasons why big-game hunters might take to the field with a handgun, however, the challenge of “getting close” usually tops the list. Other drives can include that a smaller, more compact, and usually lighter arm delivers less recoil to the shoulder than a rifle would. Whatever the motive, there’s much appeal to hunting large species with a handgun.
Before we delve into specific cartridges, lets first focus on the handguns. Why? By opting for a specific platform, the cartridges available may be limited. Moreover, there are advantages and drawbacks to each handgun design.
Handgun Selection As is the case with rifles, there are ample cartridges to choose from when selecting a handgun. “Rifle” chamberings aren’t excluded, either. Sometimes the firearm—be it a semi-automatic, revolver, bolt-action or single-shot—limits the options. For example, modern, rimless, bottlenecked “rifle” cartridges—such as the .308 Win.—can only be had in bolt-action and single-shot handguns. Similarly, rimmed cartridges are rarely encountered in semi-automatic pistols, and rimless rounds—think 10mm Auto, .45 ACP, etc.—are relatively uncommon in revolvers, though the trend of utilizing moon clips to improve cartridge diversity is growing.
Deciding which handgun is right for you requires forethought. Obviously, with a single-shot, you’re limited to one round before reloading—a slow process. That being said, these handguns are archetypally more accurate and, due to their chamberings—usually high-pressure cartridges, though others can be had as well—they exhibit unparalleled external and terminal ballistics. There’s no doubt the absence of a performance-robbing barrel-cylinder gap (necessary on a revolver) maximizes its potential; no performance is lost. They’re also easily scoped, though their larger size and/or weight can be deal breakers for some. Much of this applies to bolt-action handguns, which are atypical outside of used models, such as Savage’s long-discontinued Striker series.
Semi-automatic pistols, on the other hand, are easy to carry and grant rapid access to subsequent shots, but the number of suitable chamberings is very limited. The list shrivels even more when costly, semi-custom and custom M1911-style pistols aren’t considered. The 10mm Auto is the practical option. Accuracy of “polymer” pistols is fair to good but can generally be improved by adding a reflex-style sight—especially for those with aging eyes—and mastering (or tolerating) the trigger—perhaps even upgrading it.
Having hunted with various types of handguns for nearly two decades, I feel that revolvers are truly the best choice. Users have immediate access to multiple, magnum rounds, and accuracy is usually quite good—especially when topped with a quality optic of suitable magnification. More than once I’ve been surprised by the tiny clusters they produce. That gives me the confidence to extend my effective range.
Revolvers also permit the use of appropriate, less-potent cartridges for practice. For instance, .357 Magnum-chambered revolvers can safely fire .38 Special and .38 Special +P loads, while wheelguns in .44 Remington Magnum can also employ .44 Special ammunition. There are others, too. Lastly, although optics-equipped revolvers aren’t as compact as most semi-automatic pistols, they’re still more easily carried afield than single-shot and bolt-action handguns wearing a scope. Exceptions do exist, and the S&W Model 460XVR and its ilk are examples.
Cartridge Selection As is often the case, limiting oneself to a small, set number of cartridges naturally omits others, which are equally capable—perhaps better. Still, I stuck to five. Don’t like one? Contribute to the comment section below.
.357 Magnum Frankly, some hunters would consider the ubiquitous .357 Magnum to be a poor choice for the hunting of medium and big game. I disagree. Beyond the fact that it was once successfully used—foolishly, mind you—on quarry as large as grizzly bear, the cartridge is actually perfectly capable of downing deer-sized game and hogs in short order. This isn’t anecdotal; I’ve used a .357 Mag. handgun on the aforementioned species with terrific results. There is a caveat, however; premium, controlled-expansion bullets are suggested when pursuing larger species with this cartridge, and the shots must be well-placed. Forget the lightweight, self-defense ammunition; get true hunting loads.
As mentioned elsewhere, .357 Magnum-chambered revolvers can safely fire lower recoil .38 Spl. and .38 Spl. +P ammunition, too. That makes it a perfect choice for the budding handgun hunter or individual who’s recoil shy. Additionally, in a hunting-type revolver (not an ultra-lightweight carry gun) the recoil the round generates is quite mild. Finding a suitable .357 Mag. revolver is uncomplicated—they’re omnipresent.
If you’re only hunting swine or deer at close range and can accurately place your shots, the .357 Magnum is all you need.
10mm Auto Like several other cartridges on this list, the rimless 10mm Auto wasn’t conceived as a hunting cartridge; instead, it was envisioned by Jeff Cooper as a combat (i.e. law enforcement/self-defense) cartridge, and it was adopted by the FBI. Eventually, it would be supplanted by a cartridge that effectively offered the same performance as the reduced-recoil “10mm Lite” load that the agency demanded: the .40 S&W. Still, the 10mm Auto has a dedicated following among personal-protection practitioners and handgun hunters who prefer semi-automatic pistols.
Arms and ammunition manufacturers have no doubt contributed to its increasing popularity. Models such as the 6.02-inch-barreled Glock G40 Gen4 MOS are designed with the hunter in mind. This long-slide variant can be topped with a reflex-style sight, and it has a 15-round capacity magazine. There’s also the Springfield Armory 5.25-inch XD-M Competition Series Handgun, which has an identical capacity, and the 6-inch-barreled 1911 TRP Operator Longslide. It’s fed by an eight-round magazine. And this is only the beginning of the semi-automatics available. Revolver aficionados can find it in the Ruger New Model Blackhawk and Super Redhawk, among others.
Ammunition makers have really stepped up. No longer do you need your defense loads to pull double-duty (which is less than ideal); instead, there are dedicated, premium hunting loads. Federal Premium, for instance, loads the 180-grain Trophy Bonded Bear Claw and 200-grain Fusion Bonded Soft Point. Other options include: 150-grain Underwood Xtreme Hunter, 150-grain Lehigh Xtreme Defense, 200-grain Hornady XTP, and 180-grain Bonded Jacketed Hollow Point; Hornady Handgun Hunter 135-grain MonoFlex and Custom 180-grain XTP; Barnes VOR-TX 155-grain XPB; and Atomic Ammunition 180-grain Bonded Match Hollow Point. Fortunately, there’s also a wide assortment of less costly “range” ammunition to build proficiency with.
With ballistics comparable to those of the .41 Remington Magnum, the 10mm Auto is suitable for most North American game, and many employ it for protection while in bear country as well. For pistol fans, there’s no better option.
.41 Remington Magnum Likely the least understood and underutilized cartridge in this roundup, the .41 Remington Magnum began its career as a law enforcement round—similar to the 10mm Auto. And, like the 10mm Auto, it was viewed as too much of a good thing—too much recoil, muzzle blast, etc. Nevertheless, big-game hunters recognized its virtues, and they’re the ones that have kept it afloat. Count me among them.
Unfortunately, the .41 Rem. Mag. doesn’t garner the attention of the vaunted .44 Rem. Mag., though its external ballistics are virtually identical when bullets of similar weight are used, and no game animal could tell if it was struck by a 0.410-inch-diameter bullet (.41) or one measuring 0.429-inch (.44). In fact, according to Cartridges of the World, 10th Ed., “The round is a more practical all-round hunting cartridge for the average individual than the .44 Magnum.” I concur. The .44 Rem. Mag. does, however, offer bullets heavier than those in .41 Rem. Mag., which top out around 265 grains. With the exception of leadless options, most popular jacketed, lead-core loads are in the 170- to 210-grain range.
Ammunition in .41 Rem. Mag. is less diverse and scarcer than just about any other chamberings on this list, but the adage “the juice is worth the squeeze” certainly applies to it. Nigh all expanding projectiles in .41 Rem. Mag. loads will quickly down deer-size game; however, when pursuing larger species, I’d recommend that you choose a controlled-expansion load. Several solid choices are: Federal 210-grain Swift A-Frame; Remington HTP 180-grain Barnes XPB (also loaded by Barnes and Federal); and Underwood Xtreme Hunter 150-grain Lehigh Xtreme Defense.
Like .41 Rem. Mag. ammunition, revolvers in the cartridge are few in number. Several are available new from Ruger and Smith & Wesson, as well as on the secondhand market.
Thanks to its modest recoil, the .41 Rem. Mag. is shootable by all but the most recoil intolerant, and terminal performance is such that nearly all North American quarry is fair game. For these reasons (and others), in my opinion, it’s the best option for the majority of handgun hunters.
.44 Remington Magnum No handgun cartridge listing would be complete without the .44 Remington Magnum. Easily the most recognizable big-bore revolver cartridge, the “.44 Mag.” has an enviable record as an accurate, big-game stopper. But such performance comes at a cost—recoil. In fact, according to Cartridges of the World, 10 Ed., “It takes a seasoned handgunner to shoot it well as both recoil and muzzle blast are considerable.” If you’re willing to invest the time (and pain) that it takes to master the .44 Mag., you’ll have enough to kill all but a handful of the world’s game animals. If you don’t, you’ll be disappointed with the results—big bullets don’t overcome poor shooting.
Found in nearly every imaginable revolver of suitable size (including punishing lightweight models), semi-automatic and single-shots, accessing the cartridge is easy. So too is finding ammunition; even “big-box” stores carry at least a sampling of the many .44 Rem. Mag. loads, which range from 160 to 340 grains. As a rule of thumb, the light- to mid-weight loads are the best choices for smaller, thin-skinned game, such as deer, feral hogs, caribou and black bear, while those at the heavier end of the spectrum are suitable for the largest species you can hunt with the cartridge, including elk, moose, grizzly and brown bear. For backcountry protection, many hunters choose a .44 Mag. revolver loaded with heavy, hard-cast ammo. They’d also serve well for anchoring big bull elk and moose.
The .44 Rem. Mag. is the gold standard in handgun hunting; it offers everything that’s needed—top-tier accuracy, respectable trajectory, and eye-opening terminal ballistics. But to access these, you must commit to practice—lots of it.
.460 Smith & Wesson Magnum Choosing the fifth, final and largest cartridge for this list was difficult, as there are so many excellent options. Ultimately, the .460 Smith & Wesson Magnum won the day for several reasons. Developed in 2005, the .460 was billed as the fastest revolver cartridge, which it handily fulfilled. Given it was designed for big-game hunting at distance, that’s an asset, as gains in velocity naturally decreases drop and wind deflection, while simultaneously increasing on-target energy—all desirable attributes in a hunting round.
But the .460s versatility doesn’t stop there; beyond the cartridge itself, revolvers chambered in it can also shoot .45 Schofield, .45 Colt and .454 Casull ammunition interchangeably, the latter of which is among my personal favorites. These can be used for practice, or in the case of the .454, hunting. Need extra distance? Reach for a full-house .460 with a streamlined bullet, such as Hornady’s 200-grain FTX. When zeroed at 100 yards, the bullet will only strike 10.8 inches low at 200 yards. While this projectile is rated for larger species, I’d opt for something more robust when targeting them, such as the Underwood Xtreme Hunter 220-grain Lehigh Xtreme Defense, Federal Premium or Swift 300-grain A-Frame, or, my personal favorite, the 275-grain Barnes XPB as loaded by Federal or Buffalo Bore. Like .41s, .460s are more difficult to locate locally, and they’re pricey as well. Expect to pay $2 to $3 or more per round.
As you can imagine, recoil generated by such a round is prodigious. The muzzle blast—especially with the attendant brake—is even worse. Double up on the hearing protection. Fortunately, the design of S&W’s Model 460XVR frame aids in controlling it. Still, it takes much practice to become comfortable with the .460 S&W Mag. If you do, you’ll have a handgun that’ll challenge the external and terminal ballistics of many rifle cartridges.
Handgun hunting is a fun and rewarding method of pursing big game. But pleasure and success begin with selecting the right handgun and cartridge from the get-go.