Guns & Ammo: Big Game Handguns

By Gun Rack Editor Ed Hall


Seated position for hunting handgun


I shot a dandy Wyoming antelope at 275 yards, with an Encore handgun. The Thompson/Center 15-inch barrel in 7mm-08 was topped with a Burris 2-7X scope, and a Harris Benchrest pivoting bipod steadied the shot.

We first saw the little band of antelope at 700 yards as we were returning in late afternoon from sighting in our guns. Kelly Glause, our guide and owner of Cole Creek Outfitters, suggested that he and one of us hunters use the rolling hills to work our way closer. My hunting partner Jim King graciously suggested I try it with the Encore. As we gathered gear for the stalk, Kelly threw a Remington rifle over his shoulder, saying we might have a really long shot.

We spooked the antelope and they took off, but Kelly said they might not run far in the cover of the rolling hills. We could follow, staying out of sight in the valleys, and perhaps catch up and get close enough for a shot.

More than a mile and two spookings later (by then we had judged one was a true trophy goat), I crawled up and finally peeked over a hill at the big antelope, standing beside two others. It was a long shot, but the top of the hill crested nicely to set me up for it. I looked back for Kelly, thinking about switching to the long gun, but he was 40 yards behind.

The antelope apparently had seen me peeking over the crest, so there was no option but to use the pistol or watch them run again. I had peeked over the hill with Leupold range-finding binoculars, so I had the distance at 275 yards. I shoot woodchucks regularly out to 300 yards with the same Encore using a J.D. Jones 15-inch .22-250 barrel and practice shoot the 7mm-08 out to 300 yards, as well.

I slid the pistol forward on the bipod with my fist as a support under the grip, and the crosshairs never wavered. Fortunately, the wind wasn’t blowing. The goat ran 80 yards after the shot before tumbling. Despite misconceptions to the contrary, barrel length has little to do with accuracy. Practiced handgun silhouette shooters consistently hit game-sized steel targets at 100, 150 and even 200 yards, and they do it with potent cartridges, such as the .44 Magnum.

Yet several factors do make handgunning more challenging than shooting a rifle. A rifleman’s cheek is firm against the stock, such that his eye, the rifle’s rear sight and front sight remain in fixed alignment. Rifle sights also are quite far apart and any misalignment is quickly noticed and resolved. Only a steady hand can keep pistol sights somewhat aligned with the eye, and the short distance between the pistol’s front and rear sights makes alignment error more difficult to notice. The lousy triggers on most handguns don’t help, either. Yanking on a heavy trigger surely jerks the sights off target.

It is understandable why skilled riflemen are often frustrated when it comes to shooting a handgun accurately, but it isn’t impossible. Perhaps the first step to developing long-range handgun hunting skills is to accept that such shooting absolutely requires a steady rest.

The most versatile setup for hunting handguns is an attached bipod. The pivoting Harris Bench Rest model, with a tiny sandbag under the grip, gives me a rock-steady three-point rest. The legs extend from 6 inches (used most often) to 9 inches for shooting uphill or to get over short grass.

Most of the better .357 and .44 revolvers produce 6-inch groups at 100 yards, when fired from a steady rest, and some do much better. My scoped Smith & Wesson, Model 629 Performance Center .44 Magnum groups consistently under 2 inches at 100 yards, shooting handloads with 240-grain Sierra bullets and Hodgdon H-110 powder. I’ve enjoyed excellent accuracy with this revolver shooting Black Hills and Cor-Bon factory ammo, as well.

Still, the .44 Magnum revolver’s fat, slow bullet does limit range. It leaves the muzzle at relatively low speed, and it loses that velocity and punch rather quickly.

The fact the T/C Contender was introduced chambered for faster rifle cartridges, first in .22 Hornet and soon afterward in .30-30, had much to do with the single-shot handgun’s initial success.

Then, custom gunsmiths wasted no time taking advantage of the new shooting platform’s potential. J.D. Jones, of SSK Industries, is well known for developing “Hand Cannon” cartridges for the Contender. His .375 JDJ is popular for elk and is carried regularly in Africa. Other cartridges of his design, also perfect for the Contender, deliver plenty of potency for deer, and they do it with very manageable recoil. I especially enjoy the 6.5 JDJ, which drives a 130-grain .264 bullet to more than 2,300 feet a second from a Contender handgun barrel, with more retained velocity and energy at 200 yards than a .30-30 rifle has at 100. The 6.5 JDJ and the .375 JDJ are so popular data for them can be found in the Hornady Handbook of Cartridge Reloading.

The Contender’s big brother, the Encore, is more often seen as a rifle or muzzleloader. Yet it also makes a fine handgun and can be chambered for today’s most popular big-game rifle cartridges. Mine in 7mm-08 shoots a 120-grain Ballistic Tip at 2,700 ft/s. That’s serious deer medicine in anyone’s book.

If you own an Encore long gun, you need only change to a pistol grip and a handgun barrel. But first check the state handgun licensing requirements, and never combine a handgun-length barrel with a shoulder stock.

Another lesser-known single-shot handgun, the Competitor, has a strong, cannon-breech that can withstand even the modern .458 Winchester Magnum. If you think a .44 Magnum kicks, you should fire the .458 just one time. The brutal recoil will likely leave you thinking that the .44 Magnum is rather pleasant to shoot.

I handload for four stair-step loads for the .458. Most folks who try them say they have had enough and stop with the mid-power loads. The Barnes 250-grain X bullet, designed for the .45-70, makes a perfect deer load at 2,100 ft/s.

Al Straitiff, the Competitor’s manufacturer, will accommodate just about any cartridge you’d like, excluding the newest fat-bodied magnums. Mine in .25-06 may well be the best deer handgun available. It shoots under MOA with Black Hills 100-grain ammo.

If you are “old school” and believe bigger, heavier bullets are better, a barrel in .35 Whelen covers that very nicely, too. I have a .300 Win Mag 15-inch barrel that equals .30-06 rifle velocities.

Many handgun hunters, and rifle hunters, for that matter, just can’t wrap themselves around a single shot. For them, the ultimate big-game hunting handgun may be the mighty Smith & Wesson X-Frame revolver in .460 S&W Magnum. Mine is topped with a Burris 2-7X pistol scope and often fitted with a Harris bipod. It shoots 2-inch groups at 100 yards with full-power factory ammo from Hornady or Cor-Bon, driving 200-grain bullets at 2,300 ft/s.

While it is a handful to shoot with 395-grain bear loads, one of the .460’s strong points is the versatility to use lighter, higher-velocity pointed bullets, combining modest recoil with long-range punch. Again, my .460 shoots 2 MOA, which is about a 5-inch group at 200 yards, with but 5 inches of drop and plenty of retained energy.

The .460 also shoots shorter-cased .454 Casull ammunition, offering elk potency, and the .460’s weight tames Casull recoil down to less than most .357s.

When bear hunting with hounds, I keep the scope in my pack. If I need it, I can install it in seconds with the Warne mounts. Just be sure to keep your hands clear of the cylinder gap when shooting these powerhouse revolvers, especially when shooting from odd positions.

Handgun hunting for big game can often be made easier with a little forethought. Two of my homemade ladder stands include safety rails built from 2-by-4s, and I bring an 8-by-8-inch board with two 8-inch 2-by-4s underneath. It drops over the safety rail to give me a rock-steady platform for the handgun.

I also like to slip into the middle of large blowdowns, which provide rests in all directions. Yes, I pass up some shots that I might take with a rifle, but certainly fewer than I’d pass up with a bow.

Is deer hunting more challenging with a handgun? Guess that depends on the situation. I also like to roam the Vermont mountains, and that calls for quick, mobile shooting that just doesn’t lend itself to hunting with a handgun.

Likewise, I often join deer drives with friends, and hunting with a handgun is not considered then, either. But when and where practical, the handgun has become a favorite deer gun.

Woodchuck hunting is an ideal way to develop and evaluate big-game handgunning skills. I own both Competitor and Encore .22-250s, and both are topped with 3-12X Burris scopes and bipods. Both provide half-MOA with my handloads or Black Hills ammo. An older Contender in .22 Hornet is another favorite for this type of fun summer hunt.