Why Hunt with a Handgun? By: Shane Jahn

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Handgun hunting is nothing new. Look back in any gun or hunting magazine from the 1970s through the 90s and you’ll see I’m correct in my statement.  Men like Al Georg, Elmer Keith, Bob Milek, Larry Kelly, J.D. Jones, and Mark Hampton, (just to name a few) have been pioneering and successfully hunting with handguns for decades. John Wootters, widely known for the trophy whitetail movement and hunting across the globe with rifles, was also a handgun hunter. Skeeter Skelton, Hal Swiggett, John Taffin, Larry Weishuhn, Jim Wilson; every one of ’em a handgun hunter.

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Four styles of hunting handguns include the Thompson Center (T/C) G2 Contender, a custom Remington XP-100 bolt-action handgun, Ruger's Bisley Blackhawk and a Smith & Wesson Model 29.
Hunting handguns come in a variety of configurations. Shown here is the T/C Contender (top), followed by the custom Remington XP-100 that is flanked left by a Ruger single-action and right by a S&W double-action revolver.

Oddly enough, some still view hunting with a handgun as some sort of stunt. This misguided notion baffles me. Bowhunting is wildly popular and accepted by most. I don’t bow hunt, at least not yet anyway, but I am totally behind it. If the method you choose to hunt with is ethical and legal, and you can quickly and cleanly dispatch whatever animal you are hunting, I support your right to do so.

In some ways, handgun hunting is similar to hunting with the bow and arrow. In most cases the hunter gets as close as they can to their intended game, their weapon of choice is just different. No matter what we are hunting or what we are hunting with, we all owe it to the animals to be as confident, accurate, and deadly with our shotgun, handgun, rifle, bow, etc. So, for those on the fence about hunting with a handgun, or for my fellow handgun hunters reading this, here are the reasons I do it.

Hunting with a handgun is definitely a challenge.

No matter if the handgun is an open-sight revolver, a semi-auto pistol with a reflex sight, or a scoped “hand rifle” like a T/C Contender, it takes skill and patience to seal the deal. One of the most challenging characteristics I have encountered, especially with my bigger, scoped guns is getting a stable rest in the field. This is where practice, both live fire and dry, becomes invaluable. Want a challenge? Figure out how to get a solid rest (quickly) with your hunting handgun while out walking and glassing for game in the wide-open of west Texas! It’s not easy, but that’s part of the challenge.

The author rests his T/C Contender on the broken trunk of a Spanish Dagger cactus for a solid shooting rest from kneeling.
The handgun hunter learns to take a solid shooting rest when possible. This natural rest, an old Spanish Dagger trunk works well.

In most cases, handgun hunting will require you to get closer or be hidden in a pre-determined ambush spot to be within optimal range of the animal to make the shot. This will depend on where, what, and how you are hunting. Handgun hunting in heavy timber might not be as much of a change where shots could be relatively close but climb up in a tower blind in south Texas where you can see 400 yards down a sendero and you are going to have to know your limitations with your hand cannon.

While I have taken deer with my scoped T/C Encore, I get the most satisfaction from hunting with my open-sight revolvers.  When hunting with them, you have to use all of your woods skills to get within acceptable range for a sure shot.  This past summer I used an open-sight Freedom Arms revolver in 454 Casull to hunt on foot in South Africa. My main goal on the trip was to find an old cape buffalo bull and take him with the handgun. With the help of excellent professional hunters and trackers, we got it done. Challenging? Yes. Exciting? Most definitely! And, extremely rewarding to take such a wonderful and potentially dangerous animal with a traditional handgun.

A custom handgun by Tyler Gun Works rests on a Skinner Sights soft gun case.
A hunter’s handgun is easily customized like this one by Tyler Gun Works.

I will admit that for me the scoped guns are harder to shoot in the field. One reason is the shot might be further, depending on what cartridge is used and the magnification of the scope on the handgun.  

Another reason is that you see how much you actually are moving through the scope—motion you are not aware of when looking through iron sights. I had to pass on a shot at an aoudad ram with my Remington XP-100 in 308 Winchester last spring. I was steady, with my day pack on a boulder providing a solid rest, but the 2X scope was simply not enough to ensure proper shot placement on the old ram as he temporarily stood broadside at a bit over 200 yards. Getting closer was not an option since there were several other sheep between us. Had I swapped the 2X out for more magnification before the hunt, as I had intended, I might have had a better story to tell.

On that note, the challenge of limitations of handgun hunting adds spice to the game, as long as you are willing to accept them and decline a shot opportunity if there is doubt about making a quick, clean kill.  Every form of hunting requires practice on the range and oftentimes practice in the form of dry firing with snap caps. Including field-positions practice in the backyard and living room ensures we are competent to quickly transition to the best one to make the shot on the hunt.

The author is dry-firing on a drawing of a cape buffalo from field positions.
Realistic dry-fire practice from field positions will prepare you for the hunt.

Handgun hunters must be willing to practice more than everyone else.

The handgunner will have to practice more than the rifle hunter who will sit in a blind and take his or her buck at 80 yards from a sitting, rested position. This means you must take the time and accept the added costs of ammunition to be as competent as you can be.

A Smith & Wesson and Ruger Single-Six chambered in 22 long rifle are excellent for handgun hunting practice.
Hunting with a handgun requires practice. A good 22 LR similar to your hunting gun is a boon to good shooting.

Handgun hunting is hard. It’s a challenge. And it’s extremely rewarding when you cleanly take the game you are hunting.  The challenge, excitement, and simple fact of knowing I am carrying on handgunning traditions set forth by hunters like those mentioned above—those are the reasons why I do it.