When I initially considered handgun hunting, I dismissed it as something for either an expert looking for a challenge or just plain silly. Handguns lack the range and accuracy of rifles, they are more challenging to steady, and big revolvers (which were the only kind I ever considered) are quite expensive, recoil fiercely, and are pretty much useless for anything besides hunting.
I was not wrong about any of this. It was true and still is. It is what I DIDN’T consider which made me re-evaluate my judgements. And most of this came about from experience with deer hunting in the East, where range and accuracy concerns are really quite minimal. One of the greatest challenges in deer hunting comes AFTER the killing shot is made. Most hunters focus almost solely upon preparations and strategies leading up to the killing shot. Really, once a killing shot has been made, the matter has only begun.
Of top concern after a shot is made is locating the deer. Unless what I considered greatly overpowered cartridges are used, deer do not just drop down dead in their tracks usually. This is something that novice and video-game hunters believe because they see it on screens. This is just not reality. Unless a direct shot to the central nervous system is made, and this is not recommended, deer die from BLOOD LOSS, which takes a while. Massive blood loss leads eventually to very low blood pressure and de-oxygenation of central nervous system, or brain death. When deer “go down” after being shot it is from concussive or shocking forces. They are very much still alive, thought they may not be able to move (because legs/shoulders/spines were broken). I have shot deer with 12 gauge slugs broadside trough shoulders, and they will look straight at you as you approach. They live until their lungs fill with blood downing them (this happens often when bullets do not pass through) or until they bleed out. To minimize the suffering and improve meat quality is advisable to exsanguinate. The easiest, quietest, and most humane way is to cut their jugular with a sharp knife if they are not moving. A very strong buck with antlers flailing about is not something one should approach, but if they are weak, you can hold them down by the antlers and cut their jugular. They die in seconds once the blood flows from their jugular. You can tell from their eyes if they are open how quickly the life passes out of them. A little old knife kills them much better than much more powerful firearms.
Given these truths about death, the actual power of the cartridge becomes rather unimportant. It really needs only sufficient power to cause enough blood loss to leave a trail of blood heavy enough to follow. You do not gain any advantage from causing more destruction to the animal, and you do not reduce their suffering appreciably. You do them a favor by shooting them cleanly in the heart or lungs. This is what will arrest their movements the quickest, cause the most bleeding, and is the most reliable shot you can take since the impact is perpendicular the the line of the shot, and is a fairly large area. Yet folks will go on agonizing over “killing power” of cartridges and bullets and ammo and whatnot. After you’ve shot some with many different kinds of ammo, you will have a very jaded view of such discussions, recognizing them for what they really are, marketing myths that have been implanted in the minds of the inexperienced by ammo/firearm manufacturers, which bankroll every hunting/gun publication and sometimes gun writers and professional hunters.
I’ve shot deer with and seen deer shot with just about everything now, and it all seems to work within reason. 357 Magnum should be viewed as the minimum out of a revolver (semi-automatic pistols in 9mm, 45 ACP, etc. lack accuracy and power) and should only be used within short ranges, with 75 yards being the most that should be considered. Given that perhaps 60% of opportunities will be had in this range, one can think of a 357 Magnum revolver being the 60% gun. And these are as common as can be. Now compare this to a typical “hunting” rifle like a 30-’06 bolt action. Such a rifle will be able to cleanly take deer out to 300 yards if the hunter’s skill level and judgement is adequate. This means that perhaps 95% of opportunities will be manageable. Think of it like a 95% gun. Then compare this to something like a 30-30 lever action. This will cover perhaps 90% of the opportunities if 150 yards is taken as a maximum effective range. Now with the rifles you have a firearm that must be aimed with both hands, and is somewhat difficult to carry, usually with one hand on it at all times, even when a sling is employed. So that increase in 30-35% opportunities translates roughly to greater difficulty in movement, especially in tight blinds and tree stands. It also means that after a kill you don’t have two hands to work around brush, climb a ladder, or drag the animal. It also means that you can’t really put the firearm down. It is not safe to do so, and the thing soon becomes a pain to keep out of harms’ way until you get back to your vehicle. Now the handgun is starting to have some apparent advantages.
Now consider a handgun like T/C Contender, equipped with a red-dot sight, and using ammo tailored to the situation (which is easy and affordable with inter-changeable barrel Contenders). With $3 shooting sticks made from hardwood dowels and a cheap nylon shoulder holster you approach rifle-like opportunity characteristics with handgun convenience.
I recently purchased a 357 Maximum Contender barrel and worked up some loads using Lil’Gun powder and a variety of bullets. I observed very impressive performance, both in the velocity department, and in the accuracy one. 357 Max was a early 80s wildcat, developed by Elgin Gates to be the last word in slammin’ steel on the Silhouette range, and was called 357 Supermag. He originally intended it for revolvers. It is basically a 357 Magnum case lengthened an additional 3/10ths of an inch for more bullet weight and powder charge. In the Ruger Blackhawks and Dan Wesson revolvers it was originally chambered, flame cutting of the top strap and rapid throat erosion was observed, particularly with light bullets (under 158 grains) in the Rugers. Because the Dan Wesson revolvers have adjustable cylinder gaps, much of the problem could be eliminated, but Ruger was so alarmed that they quickly discontinued production, which sentenced the Max to relative obscurity for over 30 years as the fortunes of the Dan Wesson company declined. Not long after its quasi-banishment in revolvers, the Max found a foster home in the T/C Contender, which honestly is the platform where the Max can shine. Since Contenders have NO CYLINDER gap, the flame cutting problem is a non-issue. And since Contenders have relatively long barrels, typically 10-15″, the Max can generate considerably more velocity than in a 4-8″ barreled revolver using the slow-burning powders and heavy-for-caliber bullets that deliver maximum performance. Out of my 10″ Contender I clock 1700 FPS with 200 grain jacketed bullets and 1750 FPS with 180 gainers. This translates to essentially a flat trajectory out to 150 yards (about 5″ drop with blunt or hollow nosed bullets), with adequate velocity at that range to reliably pass through deer. Suddenly, this handgun becomes a 90% gun, like that 30-30 rifle. Yet it still can be holstered comfortably, freeing both hands, and isn’t an annoyance at your side.
Now, at ranges beyond 100 yards, I really think iron sights are inadequate. Magnifying scopes on a handgun are problematic, though, because they require a set amount of eye relief, or distance of the eye to the ocular lens of the scope. Handguns can be used in all sorts of positions, or propped against trees or placed on shooting sticks. My feeling is that a non-magnifying sighting aide, like a “red dot” sight, is ideal. They have no eye relief restriction and no magnification, but they provide a precise single focal point to aim. I have found them to greatly enhance accuracy since handguns are much more wobbly than rifles (it’s amazing how much a butt-stock can reduce small vibrations). This wobbliness makes pressing the trigger at the precise moment when the sight is over the target even more important. And the dot is to me less obstructive and more instinctual than is a cross-hair or two iron sights. I really like my 2nd gen 25mm Ultradot with 2MOA dot size on my Contender. It is also very small, so you don’t need silly hammer extensions to hammer back like you do with most handgun scopes. I have little difficulty getting 1-2 inch groups at 50 yards off sticks with my Contender, and that is all you need to hunt deer. Off hand I need to me more mindful, but I am getting better every day. In short, my accuracy with this handgun under 150 yards is nearly approaching what I can do with my Mossberg 464. And of course, being totally ambidextrous, a contender is as easy to use for a left handed shooter as a right handed one.
Shooting sticks can be made with a bit of para-cord and two 3/8ths or 7/16ths hardwood dowels. You can get all fancy and epoxy some cartridge cases on the dirt end and thread them to take arrow points. But this isn’t necessary. The knot used is called a Pruitt knot, and there are several YouTube videos that show you how to execute the knot. You want there to be a certain amount of friction so that the weight of the pistol resting on the knot will not work down, but you do not want it so tight that you cannot adjust it easily.