Is handgun hunting for whitetails a viable option? You bet! In fact — from revolvers to autoloaders — many handgun hunting options exist for deer hunters.
Years ago, I was one of the loudest proponents for big-game handgun hunting in Washington State, and when we finally got the Game Commission to approve it, I quickly focused on a single-action Ruger Blackhawk chambered for the .41 Mag. cartridge, with a 6 ½-inch barrel.
I still carry a .41 Mag. Blackhawk (this one with a 4⅝-inch barrel) during deer season, and occasionally when I’m hunting grouse where there might be an encounter with a black bear. The 6½-incher is in my gun safe. I couldn’t sell it. I’ve killed two deer with it. Still, perhaps the most popular handgun round for deer is the .44 Mag. And with a heavier bullet, the .357 Mag. has plenty of punch for deer-sized game. I prefer the 125-grain JHP in the .357 Mag. because it is accurate and because it will penetrate deep into the vitals of a deer.
Of course, there are lots of other handgun cartridges around. Rifle-class cartridges fired from single-shot handguns such as the Thompson-Center Contender and big-bores (including the .460 and .500 Smith & Wesson, .454 Casull and .480 Ruger) are extremely deadly, but the .44 Mag. is about all the horsepower many people can handle.
I prefer the .41 Mag. for several reasons; not the least of which was a tale by the late Elmer Keith about a trek he took to Alaska with a pair of the first Smith & Wessons chambered for the .41 Mag. He shot caribou with the guns.
About 20 years ago, the hot talk shifted at least momentarily to the 10mm Auto, a round that was reputed to be the semi-auto equal to the .41 Mag. As it turned out, the 10mm Auto is more in the realm of the .357 Mag. Admittedly, the cartridge intrigued me because it was a true .40-caliber with a lot of muscle, and it appeared on the scene with the ill-fated Bren Ten.
Even being carried by the Sonny Crockett character on “Miami Vice” couldn’t save the pistol, but the cartridge has remained.
Glock 10mm for Deer Hunting
Colt chambered its Delta Elite for the round — and there have been other pistols — but the one that seems to be at the top of the heap currently is the Glock Model 20. As it happens, my hunting pal Brian Lull — who took delivery of a stainless Ruger Super Blackhawk in .44 Mag. earlier this year — owns a 10mm Glock, and it’s a real shooter.
The Glock platform does not do well in my hand and one of the first things a devoted handgunner has to realize is that he/she will not be able to master all handguns. I call it poor fit because Lull is an excellent shot with that autoloader while I consistently shoot low with it. If you can shoot it, the Glock is a great gun. At close range, the 10mm full-house load with a 200-grain bullet is a whitetail killer with an average velocity of 1,069 fps. The 180-grain option will leave no deer laughing in the woods, either.
The Glock pistol, with its rugged slide and polymer frame is virtually impervious to a wet climate, and if you’re brush hunting for Northeast Washington whitetails, the 10mm Auto will put them down. Lull was packing his Glock in a nifty shoulder rig last fall when we hunted grouse and scouted elk in the Central Cascades, and I would not care to be an animal on the receiving end.
How far can they shoot?
On a couple of occasions many years ago, when big game handgunning was just hitting its stride, I was interviewed on a local outdoors radio show and the host suggested that at ranges greater than 50- to 75 yards, a handgunner was shooting “at the animal” and not trying for precise bullet placement. That just isn’t true. If you are good with factory metallic sights, being able to hit a deer out to 125 or even 150 yards is not out of the question.
After all, I’ve competed a couple of times in the annual Elmer Keith Memorial Long-Range handgun shoot over by Spokane and have hit 6- and even 4-inch plates at better than 150 yards with my Smith & Wesson Model 57 in .41 Mag. I can certainly hit something bigger. The deer I shot were both center-of-mass in the vitals. I missed the heart by very little but destroyed the lungs both times. Plus, there are good handgun scopes available.
If you go that route, you can stretch your range farther. Just make sure the round and bullet are up to doing their job downrange with enough power and accuracy to make a clean kill.
Don’t be shy about trying a handgun for deer this fall or the next. It’s challenging and rewarding, and by necessity it makes one a more careful marksman, and perhaps a better stalker.
— This article appeared in the October 2012 Gun Shop column of Deer & Deer Hunting.
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The bill would have given hunters more access to public lands, establish more shooting ranges and banned the EPA from outlawing lead in ammunition.
The EPA now has a clear mandate to ban lead ammo in the future. The bill that was sponsored by Democrate John Tester, only one Democrate voted against the bill.
The Republicans said they voted it down because they were too stingy to spend any money on it.
Interesting article, since I have handgun hunted for at least ten years of my life, mostly with Ruger Blackhawks, TC Contender and Double action S&W, the key is practice, practice and practice. You should morally only shoot as far as you are comfortable or accurate to. Since a twelve inch paper plate was used as my standard for a kill zone, you should only push your skill level at the range not on the hunt. Of course optical sights help when you have open fields but not in the quick river bottom action where typically iron sites prevail. The skidish whitetail is a very formidable opponent for a handgun of any caliber. Bullet selection is very critical as well, in my opinion, broken bones and penetration have always worked for me by using hard cast bullets in revolvers and getting a good performing bullet using the Contender that will actual expand from handgun velocity shots, finding that bullet can be difficult as they are built for performance at higher velocities that you can not get out of a handgun typically.
I too am addicted to handgun hunting. However, old fashion. I wouldn’t trade my 657 with an 8 3/8″ for anything. I give one of my best friends a hard time about his hand rifle. I have taken 8 deer and 6 hogs with my 657 – all one shot kills except for 1 pig that took 2. I agree that everyone should limit themselves to their effective range and, for most handgun (true hangun cartridge) users, that probably is 50 yards or less. However, if you run a few thousand rounds a year thru one, you can become effective to 100 yards or so. I have good, consistent 3″ groups at 100. You must know your ballistics, wind, etc. to do so. I won’t strecthy my shots at game beyond 75 yards.
Considering the skill level of most people I know they should limit their shots to 50 yards and under. This includes even a rock steady rest.
In European countries the 9×19 and .30 Mauser have long been used to take European Red Deer. The .30 Mauser with its 1600 fps velocity is a deadly handgun round. This is unknown to most Americans who choose to believe that only a .50 Smith and Wesson Magnum is adequate for stopping the vicious and determined charge of your average barn mouse. They will solemnly shake their heads at tales that state that it took 3 shots to stop one of these fearsome creatures.
Great article Dave,
I for the most part hunt with a handgun exclusively for white tail. Including a TC muzzleloader pistol (45 cal) drives the long gun guys “nuts”. Both my 460XVR and TC are equipped with AimPoint 9000SC red dots. I’m comfortable out to 125 yards with each. Here in TN my lease is a good mix of pine and mast so a good percentage would be in the 30 to 70 yard range, telescopic optics not necessary. One day I decided to go “old school”; a 30-30-lever action and my 6” SS S&W 357 (357 is more then adequate with hot loads) strapped to the hip, open sights both. Took a healthy 7 point with the 30 and a doe with the 357 on the same day. Never tried an auto style pistol, somewhat of a single action guy.