Handgun Hunting How-To

by Skeeter Skelton


Shooting Times Magazine

October 1968


Barring any stifling new legislation that would completely curb the use of pistols, handgun hunting now has a strong enough foothold to be called a serious sport. Bow hunting has received more publicity, has gained the acceptance that led to pre-season hunts on game preserves and other favored treatment. Unfortunately for the sixgunner, his hunting gun is one that often is associated in the minds of lawmakers and a large part of the general public with murder, mayhem, and outlawry.


Then, too, it’s a sad fact that our image is sometimes tarnished by the screwballs in the handgun game. These types seem to believe that using a sixgun rather than a rifle entitles them to throw sportsmanship out the window. They attempt casual, offhand game shots at ridiculous ranges, thankfully missing their targets most of the time, but frequently crippling animals that could have been surely taken with a rifle.


Some of these sad sacks believe that the purchase of a Magnum revolver will somehow make up for lack of skill. They who can’t connect with a beer can at 25 yards, shooting a .22, invariably seem surprised when their .44 Maggie doesn’t strike within spilling distance of a beer keg at 100. Never ones to admit personal ineptitude, these are the boys who write gun editors for dope on how to load the .44 up to .300 Weatherby performance, or where to get a scope for 1,000 yard work, and “Is it legal to put a shoulder stock on it?”


Given their heads, they would soon “accessory” themselves back into the rifle business.


I can remember very few men who actually hunted with handguns, except when it was necessary to hunt for food or to kill a predator, and a handgun was the only gun available. Albeit, my compadres have taken a trainload of game with the six-shooter, and I’ve brought home a generous share myself.


The distinction is a matter of semantics, and of the intent and purpose of the pistol packer when he leaves the hearth and takes to the field. The best men at the art of handgun game shooting are outdoorsmen, but not necessarily hunters as we think of hunters today.


Gun-toting cowboys largely belonged to the past even back when I was a boy. Some waddies, though, carried along a little ballast in their britches during their strenuous day’s toil and they brought home meat. When the bosses’ bacon and beans got tiresome, it wasn’t too much of a chore to bush them up with grain-fat mallards or Canada honkers, a Canadian River turkey, or the backstraps from a mulie buck. If these delicacies didn’t make an appearance during a day’s ride, the hired hand on horseback could always use his hogleg, generally carried in a chap’s pocket rather than a holster, to gather a brace of cottontails or even a neighbor’s straying Rhode Island Red.


I remember rural mail carriers, forest rangers, truck drivers, farm hands, and telephone linemen who carried sideguns. And pistol-toting country doctors and seismograph crewmen and bulldozer operators and cattle magnates. These were not swivel-chair, once- a-year deerhunters, but outdoorsmen who made intimate contact with game every day. Many were only so-so pistol shots, but free from the ravages of buck fever, could Indian up close enough to an unwary deer to hit him with a rock, let alone a handgun.


Their guns were pretty sorry by today’s standards. There were a lot of WWI Lugers, worth about five bucks during the Depression. Single action Colts abounded in every caliber. Some of the better-paid invested in new Colt or Smith double actions, and the real gun nuts were seen to carry the crisply made .22 Colt Woodman automatics. One self-sufficient country boy I knew left Texas and spent more than 10 years in the back country of Alaska, loading his Dodge Power Wagon with cooking utensils, several hundred pounds of books, a gasoline-powered washing machine, and a Colt Police Positive .32-20. He never passed a day there without eating meat.


It behooves the modern handgunner to take advantage of the excellent selection of hunting guns that are now offered. No serious hunter, when contemplating the acquisition of a new, centerfire handgun, should consider anything but a Magnum. While it is true that revolvers like the .38 Special, the .44 Special, and the .45 Colt and .45 AR can be handloaded into excellent performance, the Magnums can likewise be handloaded to outperform these older calibers at the peak of their efficiency. The shooter who plans to spend all of his time taking jackrabbits with mild, .38 Special target loads is better off with a .357 than he would be with the finest .38 Special revolver. With the Magnum version, simply dropping the right ammunition into the chambers will equip him to cope with chance shots at bobcats, javelina, or deer, and his .357 will be of the same, highly refined grade as his choice of the best of .38 revolvers.


With their wide range of bullets and loadings, the .38 Special and .357 cartridges can do anything that might be desired of less powerful loads, and would thus preclude the choice of a new hunting revolver in a lesser, centerfire caliber.


This statement might raise the eyebrows of devotees of varmint pistols like the .221 Remington and the .256 Ruger Hawkeye. While they are interesting guns, and most efficient when applied as varmint killers, these two pistols do not fit my interpretation of the gun to be carried by the everyday woodsman. To take full advantage of their long range accuracy, they must be fitted with telescope sights. This is acceptable to an experimenter or specialist who carries his gun on a car seat, but the total bulk of the resulting rig makes it as cumbersome as a small rifle, thus removing it from the handgun category.


The new Ruger .30 carbine revolver can be expected to throw lighter bullets of smaller diameter at velocities comparable to those of the .357. So doing, it will have definite limitations as to the size and variety of game it can adequately kill.


The .44 special and .45 guns, while quite good, do not have the latitude in power of the .41 and .44 Magnums, yet cost more money when purchased new. I have both calibers in my collection, and wouldn’t be without them, but for a new hunting six-gun I would, of necessity, select the Magnums.


To narrow it further, I choose the .44 Magnum over the .41 for hunting, although the latter is extremely close to the .44 in potency. It is doubtful that a heavy animal would know the difference when hit with a factory or heavy handload from either of these calibers. The two javelina I have killed with my .41 Smith & Wesson were certainly dispatched as fairly as I could have expected them to be by the .44.


I pick the .44 simply because it does have a slight edge in bullet weight and diameter. The recoil-shy will also find that it kicks somewhat more strongly. In the deluxe grade, the Smith & Wesson .41 and .44 Magnums are offered in 4”, 6 ½”, and 8 ⅜” barrel lengths, and are identical in every respect including price. The model 58 Smith .41 cannot be considered a hunter’s gun because of its short barrel and lack of adjustable sights.


Ruger’s catalog does give some reason for choosing the .41. Their Blackhawk single action in that caliber lists for a modest $87.50, making it a very reasonably priced heavy six-gun, with all the refinements necessary for game killing. It is offered in 4 ⅝” and 6 ½” lengths, the latter best for hunters.


This matter of barrel length is important in several ways. The least noteworthy of these is the increase in velocity gained by the longer barrel. Approximately 100 fps difference exists between the performance of full Magnum loads in 5” and 8 ⅜” barrels. This is not sufficient to be a deciding factor in the choice of the length of your sixgun’s barrel.


More vital is the enhancement of the holding qualities of your revolver when it gains muzzle weight with a longer barrel, and the reduction in sighting error resulting from the longer distance between rear and front sights.


A Magnum to be used solely for hunting should carry a minimum barrel length of 6”. Longer tubes, up to S&W’s 8 ⅜” model, are better. Anything longer than that is too unwieldy for normal use, negating what practical advantage it may have gained in power and accuracy. In 1958 I did considerable shooting with a 12” Colt Buntline .45. The old long Tom, even though mounted with fixed sights, shot beautifully, and I made some excellent groups with it. Most of my shooting had to be done from or near my car, since the only way to carry the Buntline was to carry it in the hand.


Other faults of the freakishly long barrel are that it tires the arm so rapidly in offhand shooting, and is rather slow in aligning for a snap shot. Although these two shots will rarely be essayed at game, the barrel’s length should not be so extreme as to handicap the shooter seriously.


The real sportsman always takes advantage of the best result available, and shoots two-handed. When an offhand shot is absolutely necessary, the heel of the shooting hand should be rested in the cupped palm of the off hand. Lateral barrel movement can be dampened somewhat by extending the first two fingers of the lower hand to support the trigger guard.


Some hikers carry a staff, and steady their handguns against it, or the staff-holding hand. I have never found this comfortable, since the staff hand, if it takes a full grasp of the stick, leaves nothing but a couple of knuckles on which to rest the revolver. If the thumb is opened to allow the gun hand to rest on its web, there is never enough room and unwanted side pressure is exerted against the gun.


Neither do I care for the lanyard arrangements sometimes seen. Although useful in preventing loss of the gun, and an aid to steady holding when the shooter is pointing straight in front of him, these accessories, to my way of thinking, simply add to the paraphernalia that a man is trying to rid himself by carrying a handgun in the first place.


When shooting from a rest, such as a fence post, or from a car window, remember not to permit any part of the gun itself to touch the surface of the rest. To do so will affect the point of impact of the bullet at the target, due to the revolver’s not being allowed to recoil naturally. The off hand should support the gun hand, as described earlier, and should itself rest on the hard surface to act as a cushion. Those with small or bony hands may find it desirable to wear a leather glove to protect their support hand.


When no rest is available, various positions other than standing may be employed for two-handed six-gun work. By far the steadiest is the back rest. If something solid, such as a tree or large rock, is handy, the shooter sits down, resting his back against the anchor object. Both knees are drawn up, and the forearms rested on the insides of the thighs, just behind the knee joints. The handgun is grasped in the usual, two-handed manner, and the hold can be made rock-steady by the application of a little inward pressure by the legs.


Sitting without a back rest is not so good. As the shooter lowers his head to see the sights, his body tends to rock backward, and it is necessary to hook the elbows in front of the knees on the shins to remain balanced. This is a strained position, and I do about as well standing.


The belly-flopping prone position is not as beneficial to handgunners as it is to riflemen unless an artificial rest such as sandbags or a pad are on hand to make a base for the gun. Without this support, the hands are extended too far forward, and are held up by a framework of trembling muscles, instead of bone. Another bad feature of the prone position is that the gunner’s head must be held back unnaturally far to look down the sights. Also, the line of sight is extremely close to the ground, and view of the target is likely to be obscured by weeds, brush, and small rocks.


Better than going completely prone is to sit down, extending your legs in front of you. Then lean back, resting the weight of your upper body on your off elbow. Draw up the knee of your shooting side, and rest the wrist and inner forearm against it. Although it looks rather strange, this is a very good position in lieu of a rest.


Given the proper gun and loads, anyone who has the desire and is physically normal can master the techniques necessary to kill game with the handgun. Equally as important as proficiency is attitude and conduct in the field. Handgun hunting needs the quiet, competent gent who obeys the rules of good sportsmanship, who picks his shots with care, and who can come home feeling rewarded on the day he didn’t get a shot.






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