By Clair Rees
If you can keep all six shots inside a 6- or 7-inch circle without using a rest, you may be justified in targeting deer at that distance.
It was a tough decision. My left hand held the faithful .308 Sako carbine I’d taken I don’t know how many deer with over the years. My right hand hefted the Ruger Super Blackhawk I’d bought just months ago.
It was my second Thanksgiving hunt in Utah’s Dolores Triangle - a patch of sagebrush and pi–on desert sandwiched between the mighty Colorado River, the Dolores River and the Colorado border. Utah’s regular 10-day deer season was always held in mid-October. With the rut still weeks away, deer were wary and hard to hunt. Finding a real trophy then required work and lots of luck.
Only a limited number of permits were available for the late-season hunt. They were highly prized because that’s when giant bucks moved down from the Colorado plateaus to winter in Utah’s desert country. As a bonus, the rut would be in full swing.
The first time I hunted the Triangle, I had my choice of several monster muleys. I finally used the Sako to shoot a 4-point (Western count) buck with wrist-thick antlers. I’d hoped to return the following year, but when I arrived at the Wildlife Resources Office in Price on the morning the permits were issued, too many others were in line ahead of me.
A year later, Ken Turner and I left my home at 2 a.m. to make the 65-mile drive. We still weren’t first in line, but managed to score a pair of the coveted permits. The special hunt began early November, but, again, we decided to wait for the Thanksgiving holiday to give the really big bucks time to drift down from the high country.
Before we left the snow-covered tent that morning, I faced a dilemma. I’d never hunted deer with a handgun, and I’d brought my new Ruger .44 along for just that purpose. I’d done a fair amount of practicing with the big revolver, but I wasn’t confident of cleanly killing a deer much beyond 50 or 60 yards. The rifle had proven itself deadly at more than 250 yards. In the land of monster deer, did I really want to limit myself to close-range shooting?
Big, scoped .44 revolvers are best carried in the hand, not holstered.
“Don’t wimp out now,” Ken said. “You’ve talked all summer about handgunning deer, so here’s your chance!”
With a last longing glance at the rifle on my sleeping bag, I buckled on the holster and pistol belt and ducked through the tent door. Snow had fallen throughout the night, and large, heavy flakes were still drifting down. With no landmarks visible to guide us, we took a compass heading and started slogging.
We walked 100 yards together, then split up to travel in opposite directions. Ken carried his custom .25-06, while I was feeling less handi-capped by the open-sighted revolver. If the weather didn’t lift, we wouldn’t be able to see much farther than 50 or 60 yards.
Before long, I stumbled across what had to be a deer trail. It was partly hidden by snow, but deep indentations indicated recent use. Instead of stalking through the storm, I decided to see if the deer would come to me.
Kicking snow from the lee of a sagebrush, I lowered myself to a comfortable sitting position. Unholstering the revolver, I settled down to wait.
A half-hour later, my fanny was starting to freeze, but three does moving past my hiding place quickly warmed me. They daintily picked their way over the snowed-in trail, then one of the trio turned to look expectantly behind her. My pulse quickened.
Glancing carefully around my sagebrush, I spotted a good buck maybe 90 yards away. His attention was focused on the three does he was following.
Pay dirt! Bracing my elbows be-tween upraised knees, I s-l-o-w-l-y thumbed the hammer back, muffling the clicks with my glove. A few moments later, the buck was less than 40 paces away. I settled the front sight behind the deer’s shoulder and squeezed the trigger.
I never heard the report, but the gun bucked in my hand. The deer staggered a couple of steps, then went down in a heap. The 240-grain factory soft point had done its job. By the time I reached it, the buck was stone dead. I never measured the 3x4 muley, but it made an impressive trophy. I’ve since killed bigger deer, but none more memorable.
When it first appeared on the scene, the .44 Remington Magnum was the most powerful handgun cartridge in existence. Its reign was brief. Remember Dirty Harry? When he made his famous threat, the .44 Magnum had long since been surpassed by the .454 Casull.
Soon after Freedom Arms began manufacturing .454 Casull “five guns” (only five chambers were used to provide extra strength), I went coyote hunting with one of the borrowed pistols. I killed a pair of yodel dogs, gaining respect for .454 recoil in the process.
Because I make my living shooting and writing about guns, I’ve used most magnum revolvers currently available. In addition to the .454 Casull, this includes the .450 Marlin, .45-70 (a real pussycat in the Magnum-Research BFR), .455, .480 Ruger, .50 AE (Action Express), .475 Linebaugh and, of course, the biggest, baddest of the lot, the .500 Smith & Wesson.
Several years after killing that first buck with my Super Blackhawk, I flirted with more potent rounds as they came along. My first experience with the .454 left some kind of psychic scar, and I’ve never warmed up to this increasingly popular cartridge. Frankly, I don’t like the way it recoils. I prize a Freedom Arms revolver I have in .475 Linebaugh. In spite of its equally impressive power, I find the big .475 a lot more pleasant to shoot. Maybe it’s my imagination, but recoil doesn’t feel quite as quick and sharp. That’s the sidearm I carry in big bear country. I might hunt elk with it next year.
The .500 S&W? Been there, done that and didn’t much enjoy the experience, particularly with heavy-bullet factory loads. When used with 275- and 325-grain fodder, recoil is still very respectable, but not nearly as painful, particularly when a scope adds to the gun’s already impressive heft. A friend of mine took one of the massive Smith & Wesson revolvers to Africa recently and used it to bag a zebra and a blue wildebeest. If I carry a handgun to the Dark Continent, I might consider the big .500. But for North American game (excepting Alaska’s giant coastal grizzlies), it seems way too much of a good thing.
In the last year or two, I’ve come full circle. While dallying with mightier magnums was fun, I’ve returned to my old friend, the .44 Magnum, as my hunting sixgun of choice.
While the latest batch of uber-magnums are moving the .44 from the spotlight, don’t forget that handgunners like Larry Kelly and J.D. Jones used plain old .44 Magnum sixguns to kill everything from moose and giant grizzlies to the African Big Five. Properly loaded with hard-cast bullets or other deep-penetrating projectiles, .44 Magnums are still guns to contend with!
I remember when shooters who bought their first .44 Magnum were intimidated by its massive kick. Those days are laughably past. Compared to the really big boys, the .44 barely registers on the recoil scale.
One great thing about .44 Magnum revolvers is that they can be fed mild-kicking .44 Special rounds. This easy-shooting ammo is ideal for long sessions at the practice range, although you should fire an equal number of full-house magnum loads to gain real hunting proficiency. While I always use heavy-bullet .44 Magnum loads when hunting deer-sized (or larger) game, I switch to .44 Specials when I wander the Utah desert shooting jackrabbits, foxes or coyotes. These critters don’t require .44 Magnum oomph.
Because I’m no longer blessed with a teenager’s eyesight, I often use a 2x or 4x long-eye-relief scope when hunting with handguns. Two years ago, I shot a magnificent 14-point Texas whitetail with a scope-mounted Thompson/Center G2 Contender. While I was confident of killing a deer with this tack-driving rig at more than four times the distance, I dropped it at just 50 yards. I was shooting a 150-grain jacketed soft point from a .30-30 factory load. For the record, the .30-30 and .44 Magnum have roughly equal killing power out to 100 yards or so.
I still favor a scope when packing an Encore, Contender, Savage Striker or some other break-top or bolt-action pistol. These long-barreled hybrids are already awkward to carry holstered, and adding optical sights doesn’t make them less unwieldy. The fact that these handguns can digest long-range rifle rounds argues for using a scope.
I’ve also mounted scopes on a few .44 Magnum revolvers. My stainless Hunter Model Super Blackhawk (which replaced the blued version I originally bought many years ago) and a Super Redhawk .44 came complete with Ruger’s handy integral scope base and quick-mounting rings. I also own a highly accurate Dan Wesson .44 with interchangeable barrels and shrouds. The 8-inch barrel and shroud sport a 2x scope, and can be switched with the unscoped 4-inch tube in seconds. The ability to scope these guns at will adds to their versatility.
With a scope and a solid sandbag rest, any of these .44 sixguns are capable of shooting 2-inch six-round groups at 100 yards. I can do nearly as well when using a Steady-Stix bipod. Unfortunately, scoping any revolver means you’ll need a special holster if you don’t want to carry the gun in your hand. It also adds heft that isn’t always welcome.
These past few years, I’ve pretty well relegated handgun scopes to the long-barreled pistols I own. When I carry a .44 revolver afield, I prefer wearing it holstered and sans optical sights. A holstered sixgun at my hip feels natural to me. Strapping a scoped pistol or revolver to my chest doesn’t. It’s awkward, pulls me off balance and generally gets in the way. Where to hang my binocular is just one of several questions a bandoleer-style holster raises.
Then there’s the matter of aesthetics. Big revolvers, particularly single-action sixguns, are sleek, fast-handling firearms. They also look great and most point quickly and naturally. Mounting a scope invariably turns them into clunky, awkward affairs that weigh too much. That extra heft makes scoped handguns impossible to hold at arm’s length for more than a few seconds at a time. Unless you’re using a solid rest (always a good idea), shots at game must be hurried.
Yeah, I’ve already admitted my eyesight isn’t as sharp as it was a few dozen years ago. But I can still put a cylinderful of .44 Magnum loads into the vital zone of a deer at 50 yards. For that matter, I could probably do the job at nearly twice that distance. No, I don’t shoot 2-minute-of-angle groups with my iron-sighted .44s, but I can still place a half-dozen rounds within a 6-inch circle at 100 yards from a sitting or kneeling position.
That’s the litmus test for any hunting handgunner. When you can regularly keep all your shots on a paper plate at a given range, you may be justified in shooting deer at that distance. Personally, I want greater precision than this to avoid wounding an animal. That’s why I limit my hunting to 50 yards (okay, maybe 60 yards) when using an iron-sighted sixgun.
These days, the .44 Magnum is no longer cock of the walk. There are lots of bigger, badder, harder-shooting sixguns around, but you pay the price of extra recoil, muzzle blast and carrying convenience.
I’ve decided .44 Magnum sixguns are ideally suited for hunting most North American game. That includes everything from cottontails to elk, black bears and moose. Several Alaskan brownies have been taken with .44 Magnum revolvers, but I draw the line at bracing giant grizzlies with my faithful .44s. That’s what my .475 Linebaugh is for.
Reprinted from the November 2004 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine