Preparation for Successful Handgun Hunting
In areas where it's permitted and environments in which it’s practical, many shooters have responded to the challenge of handgunning for small and medium game. For many hunters, the handgun does not replace the rifle, but it presents a challenging alternative for those who are confident with a handgun. The initial challenge is to develop sufficient skill and proficiency with a sidearm to ethically choose it as an option. The shooter must master the basics of handgunning under difficult conditions, often in physically demanding circumstances.
Special equipment is not a requirement, but accuracy is an unavoidable prerequisite. Revolver, autoloader or single-shot, if the handgun is capable of accuracy in your hands, it is suitable for use in the field. It need not be equipped with optical sights, nor must it be expensively accessorized. When I began hunting small game with a handgun more than 45 years ago, I used a S&W K-22 revolver with 6-inch barrel. Having had fun shooting at pine cones, balloons and clay targets, I began using the .22 rimfire revolver for pest control, carrying it in a Tom Threepersons holster, made by S.D. Myres, that rode high on my right hip. I also used a Ruger Blackhawk .357 Magnum revolver in those early days, but the K-22 did the greater share of the field work. Both sidearms had adjustable rear sights and both proved well-suited to the task. My targets of opportunity for the K-22 were ground squirrels and marmots. When you’re on foot and make an effort to be quiet and still, your patience will often be rewarded.
We must consider, are YOU ready for handgun hunting? No matter how competitive a shooter may have been in the past, it is unreasonable to assume he (or she) can perform as accurately or effectively months or years later without having practiced in the interim. Be realistic, because a small error in sight alignment or poor trigger control will result in a complete miss or wounded game. If you cannot hit the vital area of the game you hope to hunt, you must improve or opt for a rifle. The margin of sighting error with a handgun is relatively narrow.
On the pistol range, accuracy is an exercise in concentration and adherence to basics of good shooting technique. Conditions in the field may differ, and accuracy is difficult when your respiratory rate increases and your heart is pounding after an uphill hike. Practice at the range would establish a baseline, a performance level under low stress and optimum conditions but, having done so, it's time to take it to the field and practice more realistically.
Determine your maximum effective distance by firing at increasing distances until you can no longer keep your shots on a 6” or 8” paper plate, brightly colored party balloons or clay targets. Practice shooting at these, starting at relatively close range, what you regard as an “easy shot”, and extend the distance to target until you find the distance at which you cannot consistently hit those targets. The distance you determine is the maximum at which you can ethically take the shot. If it's 20-25-50 yards, accept that limit. With practice, proper equipment and accessorization (a dot or telescopic sight), you can extend that distance to 50-75-100 yards. Over time, I confess my lights have noticeably dimmed and I am not capable of the visual gymnastics that yielded the accuracy I enjoyed as a young man, so I rely more heavily on scopes and dot sights these days.
The first handgun scope I recall was a Bushnell Phantom, a 1.3X scope (and, later, a 2.5X scope) that initially met with lukewarm enthusiasm; however, the Remington XP-100, a single-shot, bolt action handgun chambered for the .222 Rem and .221 Fireball (introduced in 1963 or ’64) revised the thought process of many who thought a handgun was a good choice for self-defense but inappropriate for hunting. The XP-100 was so inherently accurate that the single sighting plane of a scope was an obvious asset, but it was so unconventional that it met with mixed reception by handgunners who either swore by it or swore at it. I should add, those who objectively tried the XP-100 usually proved to be the most enthusiastic proponents, and their proven accuracy and demonstrated results eventually overcame many of the critics.
If credit must be given to handgun developments for fueling interest in handgun hunting, the Remington XP-100 must share that credit with the Thompson-Center Contender, a single-shot, break-open handgun introduced in 1967.
In choosing a handgun with which to hunt, your selection must be accurate. More specifically, YOU must be accurate when you use it. Your practice sessions should include shots that will challenge you and define your limits.
I frequently carry a case, daypack or backpack, depending how much time I plan to spend afield, and I have "sandbags" filled with rice or thermoplastic beads, light and portable, to provide a rest for the firearm and a protection for the handgun. If you rest the handgun directly on a hard surface, you can damage the finish or ruin a set of custom grips when the piece recoils.
Similarly, don't position the front sight or barrel UNDER a hard surface, like the crossmember of a fence. The piece will rise on recoil and you can ruin the finish or damage the sights, so I rely on the bag or a cupped hand to protect the wood grip or blueing. Don't place the thumb of your firing hand against a solid vertical surface (such as a tree of fencepost) as you fire because you'll develop a new appreciation for your cartridge's recoil.
When you've practiced sufficiently to develop a good level of proficiency and confidence, use everything you've learned and all the skill you've developed to hunt. Remember, it's a process of continual development and improvement.
Riflemen appreciate the prone position as a relatively solid one but, I must admit, I rarely get a chance to use the prone position because the terrain or vegetation seldom favors it, so I use the sitting, kneeling or standing position and I practice each of them. I also practice in different positions with my handguns. We can choose what we believe is a promising firing point but, when opportunity presents itself, we may have to adapt and be creative, so exercise forethought and provide yourself with the best support you can find or exploit, whether it's a rock, a tree stump, a fence post.
Make a serious effort to duplicate the conditions you’ll probably encounter. If you have convenient access to your preferred hunting area, study it from a different perspective. How dense is the vegetation? At what range can you expect your shots to be taken? What positions or terrain features can you use to your advantage? You may find a clearing with a 75-yard diameter, and rocks or trees that will provide good cover and concealment. You must practice to extend your abilities to cover the diameter of that 75-yard clearing, but if you find accurate placement difficult beyond 50 yards, you must exercise self-discipline and fire only on game that falls within your demonstrated capability. It’s a good incentive to practice! I leave the amazing shots to amazing shooters, and limit myself to shots with which I can deal with confidently.
Practice as often as possible with the loads you intend to use on the hunt. If you’ve decided to use your .44 Magnum to harvest your venison, practice with the jacketed bullets you will use for the hunt, not the .44 Special ammo or reduced loads that are less punishing and economical. It is not intelligent to change loads on the morning the season opens. Change ammunition to higher performance loads and you may expect a change in the point of impact at distance.
Let us assume you’ve practiced diligently, and you’re confident that you are ready to use your sidearm for the hunt. You’ve practiced for months on the range and in the field and you’ve found the load that performs consistently for you. Before you take to the field, a “dress rehearsal” is often a good idea. For example, your belt holster may be well suited to a summer or autumn afternoon but, if you’re hunting in winter’s worst weather, there are a few factors to consider.
Your gunbelt may not encompass your increased girth over a parka or coat. Your weapon may not be accessible with reasonable speed or convenience while encumbered with winter clothing that limits your range of motion. You may have to reposition your holster or choose another, especially if your natural draw allows a hammer or rear sight to catch on a garment. The best way to avoid potential problems is to wear the weapon with the same clothing you intend to wear when the mercury drops.
A great many quality holsters fit your sidearm well and may seem ideal when you purchase them or wear them on the range, but they prove impractical or useless while actually hunting. Have you tried hiking with your holstered handgun? I don’t mean a few steps across the living room or a short stroll from the minivan; I mean a brisk hike over irregular terrain. Does the belt or holster shift position or require frequent repositioning or adjustment? Is it comfortable? Can you lift your legs to clamber over fallen trees or rocks? How securely does the holster hold your weapon? How much protection does the holster offer your weapon if you trip or fall against a boulder? If you damage a sidearm, it will ruin your trip. If your sights are damaged, it will spoil your hunt. Good holsters are admittedly expensive, but a good handgun justifies that expense.
Some of my wool trousers, though warm and comfortable, are worn with varying thicknesses of shirts or undershirts, as layering dictates, and I often wear suspenders or braces when I use a belt holster. When the temperature drops further, a belt holster is impractical because a parka or coat will be worn as my outermost garment. I must choose a different holster, and a shoulder holster (depending on the sidearm) is often a good option. Handguns equipped with scopes or dot sights may not lend themselves well to holsters, though I’ve seen some intelligently designed holsters for large handguns like the scoped N-frame S&W revolvers and the Ruger Super Blackhawk. As illustrated, I often rely on a padded case carried in or attached to my backpack. That doesn’t permit quick access, but it makes better sense when firing from a decently prepared position.
Do you expect to wear gloves while you hunt? You’d be wise to include gloves in your dress rehearsal. I’m reminded of an occasion when I fired at jackrabbits with a S&W Model 28 revolver and the seam of my gloved finger caught between the trigger and trigger guard as I cocked for single-action fire, which kept the revolver from reaching full cock, so that opportunity was missed. I have other gloves, just as warm, without a similarly placed seam, but I should have tried those gloves earlier.
When I’m asked if I consider a revolver more accurate than an autoloader, I have to respond that I’ve experienced praiseworthy accuracy from a great variety of handguns. I often use a revolver because I handload my centerfire ammunition, and expended brass is easier to control and retrieve with a revolver or single-shot handgun. The S&W K-22 revolver and Colt New Frontier .22 revolver that I relied upon years ago (and mistakenly sold both) have been supplanted in the past several years by a Taurus Model 94 revolver in .22LR (photo above) and a Ruger Government Target Mark II with a 6-7/8” barrel, equipped with a Burris 2X pistol scope, which has proven every bit as accurate as a .22 rifle up to 50 yards, under the right circumstances. The Taurus revolver reminds me very much of the S&W Kit Gun, a good choice for plinking.
I’ve used my .45 ACP for varminting. I’m aware that seems excessive and probably wouldn’t be the first choice of most of my colleagues, but it keeps me in practice with that trusted sidearm.
Any rest or support is better than none, unless it takes too long to exploit. A friend injured his knee and, for some time after knee surgery, he used a cane or walking staff on our field trips. We were beside a dirt road on his property, shooting at distant targets that I’d set up. There were a few fenceposts we relied on at roadside as a steady rest but, beyond those, there were no boulders or trees we could use for support and the vegetation was tall enough to render the prone position pointless. My friend used his cane as a monopod support in the sitting and kneeling positions, and that was a practical and effective approach.
When we embark on a hunting trip, we do more than compete against the game animals in their environment; we assume a responsibility to the wildlife. I actively practice because I owe it to the creatures I hunt to be mercifully accurate. None of us hunt to wound a game animal. The objective is to drop the creature with one well-placed and instantly effective shot. If we assume that we can accomplish this without preparation, practice and self-application, then we are underestimating the required level of skill.
If you are not capable of the required skill, if your equipment is not up to the task, if you do not operate within your limitations, then you do a disservice to the animals you hunt and to your fellow sportsmen and sportswomen. It evidences a lack of respect for the life of the game you seek, and a failure to understand your role and responsibility as an outdoorsman. We owe the game animals the best effort, accuracy and precision of which we are capable.
We hunt because we’re psychologically adapted to it and because it fits into the larger picture of game management and conservation. As hunters, we are closer to nature than others who participate in many other sports and hobbies. We receive a great deal from this relationship, and we are obligated to give a great deal of ourselves to it. A part of that entails obeying the laws and hunting regulations, respecting private property, and using safety-oriented judgment in the field. Our right to hunt in the public lands of this great nation, and our privilege to be permitted to hunt on private properties is more vulnerable than ever. Let us conduct ourselves responsibly, and pass that legacy to the next generation.
Edward J. Palumbo © 2015