Handgun hunting may be the outcast of the outdoor scene, but it still has a few things going for it.
For those familiar with firearms, pistols offer many of the same challenges as bows without the necessity of learning an entirely new skill set. Handguns are easy to pack and stow, and modern cartridges exist that can take down any North American game animal.
Handguns also promise novelty to veteran hunters looking for new ways to test themselves in the outdoors.
MeatEater’s Ryan Callaghan told me about an old outfitter he once knew who used a .45-caliber handgun that “rattled around in his truck door” to bag a nice whitetail buck. When I asked Cal why his friend decided to use a the .45, he said, “Novelty, I think.”
Todd Orr agrees. Orr has been hunting elk and other big game with handguns for the last 30 years and he described a similar search for novelty among the veteran hunters he knows in Montana, himself included.
“I wanted more of a challenge,” Orr said. “I’ve been addicted to pistol hunting ever since.”
Orr took up handgun hunting after a dislocated shoulder ended his bowhunting career, and he’s used his .44 Remington Magnum to take deer, moose, bears, and 30 bull elk during his years in the woods. He lent me his considerable experience outlining the real-world costs and benefits of several of modern cartridges.
.22 Long Rifle For small game, you can’t go wrong with a .22 LR. It’s slower than the .22 Magnum, but it’s cheaper, more widely available, and is more than adequate for small game within 35 yards.
As with all handgun cartridges, load and bullet selection are important. Bullets shot from shorter barrels achieve lower velocities, so it’s crucial to make sure you know how fast your chosen bullet will travel.
Ballistics By the Inch is a great place to find this info. Their .22 LR page shows that while a standard Remington 36-grain Golden Bullet drops down to 984 feet per second (fps) from a 4-inch barrel, CCI’s 40-grain Velocitor maintains 1,120 fps.
That’s more than enough power to take any kind of small game, which makes CCI’s super-fast .22 LR is a great choice.
Plus, lots of gun makers offer accurate, inexpensive pistols chambered in .22 LR, and these days many are optics-ready. Outfitted with a red dot, your handgun can achieve the precision accuracy needed for a successful day in the squirrel woods.
.357 Magnum The .357 Magnum was the most powerful handgun cartridge in the world when it was introduced in 1935, and it’s still used as a pistol hunting round today.
While Orr cautioned against using anything smaller than a .357 on large game, Frank C. Barnes notes that it’s well respected for its “flat trajectory, deep penetration, and great knockdown power.” Hunters have used it successfully on deer, black bears, and elk.
Many ammo makers offer .357 loads designed for medium game, like this 158-grain option from Federal. Loaded with a Fusion soft-point bullet, these rounds travel 1,240 fps from a 4-inch barrel and impart 539 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle.
The .357 can also do double-duty in pistols and rifles. A wide array of firearm companies produce revolvers and lever-action rifles in the .357, so hunters have multiple options while out in the field. Many such .357s will also accept .38 Special rounds.
10mm Automatic If you want to take an auto-loader on your next deer hunt, the 10mm Automatic is a great choice.
Originally designed for semi-automatic handguns, the 10mm is effective on hogs, deer, antelope, and bears, according to Orr. He’s even taken an elk with a 10mm but limited himself to shots within 100 yards.
The 10mm can push a 200-grain bullet a whopping 1,200 fps at the muzzle to deliver 635 ft.-lbs. of energy. Federal, for example, produces this Swift A-Frame cartridge specifically for deer hunting, and it achieves 631 ft.-lbs. of energy at the muzzle and 461 at 100 yards from a 5-inch barrel.
For comparison, a 135-grain 9mm produces only 337 ft.-lbs. of energy at the muzzle and 268 ft.-lbs. at 100 yards.
The 10mm’s weakness has always been cost and availability. You can find practice ammo online for about $1 per round, but good hunting cartridges are at least $2 per round. This is great compared to rifle cartridges, but it’s steep when compared to more popular handgun rounds.
.44 Remington Magnum Orr’s not shy about his love for the .44 Rem. Mag. He’s used other cartridges but he keeps coming back to his Ruger Super Redhawk chambered in this powerful caliber. The .44 Mag. displaced the .357 Mag. as the most powerful handgun cartridge when it was introduced in 1955, and Orr told me it offers the perfect combination of power and recoil.
“I’ve always been a .44 Magnum guy,” he said. “A .44 is plenty adequate for any North American big game animal as long as you take your time, make a good shot, and you don’t push the distance too far.”
Orr tries to keep most shots from his 9.5-inch-barreled Redhawk within 100 yards, though he said he once took an elk at 200 yards because he had a solid rest. His gun is also outfitted with a 2-7x scout scope, which he usually keeps at 5x in the woods.
He recommends a 240-grain bullet for elk-sized animals. This Fusion load from Federal, for example, throws a 240-grain bullet 1,290 fps at the muzzle and produces 887 ft.-lbs. of energy.
.460 Smith & Wesson If you want to step up from the .44 Mag. for very large or dangerous game, the .460 Smith & Wesson will get the job done.
The .460 is the fastest revolver cartridge ever produced. It can push a 200-grain bullet over 2,000 fps, and a 260-grain Fusion bullet 1,600 fps from an 8.4-inch barrel. At the muzzle, that bullet imparts 1,476 ft.-lbs. of energy, and at 100 yards it’s still moving fast enough to produce 872 ft.-lbs. of energy (about the same as the .44 Mag. at the muzzle).
The .460’s ballistics, in other words, rival some rifle cartridges.
All that power comes at a cost, of course. Orr pointed out that the .460’s recoil is so violent that shooters often don’t want to fire more than six or eight rounds in a session. Since handgun hunting requires lots of practice, this can be a real problem.
“It’s a great long-distance pistol but it’s so much heavier than a .44 and the recoil is considerably greater,” he said. “I had a girlfriend who said the .44 was a pea shooter compared to the .460.”
Honorable Mention: .30-30 Winchester Most wouldn’t consider the .30-30 Winchester a pistol caliber cartridge, but Ryan Callaghan recalled that outfitter he mentioned above, who bagged antelope, a nice mule deer buck, and several does with a Thompson/Center Contender pistol chambered in .30-30. The break-action, single-shot pistol isn’t for everyone, but it’s worth a mention.
Last Shot: Practice and Ammo Selection Handgun hunting is fun and attainable for most hunters, but it shouldn’t be undertaken lightly. Muzzle velocity and effective range are greatly reduced as compared to rifles, and handguns are easier to pull off target. The only way to overcome these barriers, Orr said, is range time.
“One of the key things is practice,” he emphasizes. “When you pull the trigger, you can move the barrel quite a bit more than a rifle. You have to know exactly what bullet drop is going to be and how wind affects the bullet.”
“I’ve passed up dozens and dozens of bulls because it wasn’t quite right,” he said.
Bullet selection is also crucial. Hollow-point rounds designed for self-defense will shatter when they hit an elk’s shoulder bone and they won’t penetrate deep enough to make a vital shot on some game animals. Orr recommends soft-point or hard-cast bullets that will open up to 1.5 times their original size but stay together long enough to penetrate deeply.
If you practice and make a good shot with the right bullet at an appropriate distance, you can expect the animal to go down in a hurry.
“Everything I’ve shot has either dropped in its tracks or gone down in less than 100 yards,” Orr said. “Just like with a rifle, if you make a good shot in the lung or the heart, they’re not going very far.”