By John Haviland
Ruger MKII .22
A handgun chambered for a small game cartridge is ideal for the trail.
Is a handgun a necessary piece of a big game hunter’s equipment or several pounds of impractical steel hanging from his belt? Well, yes and no.
Many hunters carry a handgun in addition to their rifle. They lug a large-caliber revolver, like a .44 Magnum, as a backup to their rifle in case a bear attacks. They also hope to save a rifle cartridge by using their handgun to finish off big game once they’ve downed it with their rifle.
Once game is down, hunters leave their rifle in camp or in the truck at road’s end. With a handgun on their hip, they’re protected against bears following the smell of blood to an easy meal. Without the awkward burden of a long gun, it’s much easier to pack out a load of meat and antlers. Backpacking hunters also carry a handgun to shoot small game for the pot.
The bellow and recoil of a .44 Magnum revolver gives the impression of a powerful cartridge. But actually, it’s relatively impotent. A 300-grain bullet fired from a .44 packs 750 foot-pounds of energy at 25 yards. In contrast, a 180-grain bullet from a .30-06 at 2,700 feet per second hits with nearly four times that amount of energy at the same distance. I’d much rather have one effective shot from a rifle than a couple of shots from a magnum revolver when a bear charges. I’d be more likely to hit a bear, too, with a rifle.
But bear attacks happen so quickly, I’m not sure if anyone can react fast enough to keep a bear off of them in the first place. A friend of mine was walking up a mountain trail in the wilderness one fall. A grizzly rushed around the corner in the trail and was past him and gone before he had a chance to point his rifle, let alone pull the .41 Magnum revolver from the holster on his hip. “If the bear wanted to,” my friend said, “it could have killed me right there with no problem.”
For a couple of years, I carried a Ruger Blackhawk revolver in .41 Magnum as a backup to my rifle. I figured if a buck was close, I’d shoot it with the pistol. But I never did, and I didn’t finish off any game with the gun, either. A single additional rifle cartridge that weighed an ounce did that chore instead of the heavy handgun. The only time I fired my .41 was to blast grouse along the trail. The weight of that 2 1/2-pound pistol returned all of a half-pound of mangled grouse meat.
A .32 H&R Magnum, introduced in 1983 as the perfect centerfire cartridge for small game, put this grouse in the pot.
A Suitable Carry
A companion handgun should have a separate use from a rifle. While a rifle covers big game, an accompanying handgun should be suitable for small game and portable enough to carry comfortably.
On one backpack elk hunt in the mountains, a covey of spruce grouse sat next to the trail. I thought a few of them would make our boiled noodles taste better. My cousin Rich thought the same thing. He pulled his Ruger Single-Six .22 from its holster and potted two of the grouse. They tasted wonderful.
A handgun in .22 Long Rifle is most useful to big game hunters. A box of 50 cartridges weigh slightly less than 6 ounces. In a 4-inch-barreled revolver, most Long Rifle loads develop about 1,000 fps. Self-loading pistols gain about another 100 fps over revolvers because their closed chamber has no cylinder gap to bleed off powder gas.
A 40-grain .22 Long Rifle bullet usually goes all the way through grouse, squirrels and rabbits. I used to shoot blue grouse with 40-grain solids. But some of the bigger birds flew off before they died. The 36-grain hollow points expand somewhat, even at pistol velocity, and kill the big birds quicker.
Suitable .22 handguns for the trail range in weight from 10 ounces for the 3-inch barreled Smith & Wesson Model 317 Airlite revolver to 35 ounces for the Ruger Mark II autoloader with a 4 3Ú4-inch barrel. One of my most cherished possessions is a Colt Diamondback revolver I bought 25 years ago. I’ve carried it up many elk ridges and high above timberline without thinking about it, that is until a grouse or rabbit appeared.
The various .32s are a centerfire alternative to the .22s. Guns for the .32 are usually built on the same size frames and weigh the same as .22 handguns. As a whole, though, the .32s are nearly obsolete. Even the .32 H&R Magnum, introduced in 1983 as the perfect small game cartridge, has never caught on. However, the .30 Carbine, a sort of a .32, is quite popular. My older brother packs a Ruger Blackhawk in .30 Carbine. He has shot all manner of small game with it, from grouse to marmots. One time we were standing on a hilltop glassing for elk when a flock of blue grouse flew into the trees below. David pulled his Ruger out of his holster and slipped down into the trees. I heard five shots. A few minutes later, he came climbing up the hill carrying three grouse.
The .38 Special is the reason the .32s are not more popular. The variety of loads and lightweight handguns for the .38 seem endless. The .38 is best for small game when it shoots bullets at slow velocity. The .38’s bullet diameter is plenty wide enough without expanding to kill small game. I load a 150-grain flat-nose bullet with a light charge of Unique powder for a mild speed of 600 fps in my Smith & Wesson Model 19 with a 4-inch barrel.
One September, I was hiking into mountain goat country. A couple of blue grouse sat perched on a log along the trail. The birds cocked their heads and stared as I slid off my backpack and unzipped the pocket that held my pistol loaded with .38s. I shot each bird from about 20 yards. They flopped off the log and never moved. When the trail crossed a creek farther up the canyon, I dressed the grouse and rinsed them in the water. The bullets had left neat holes, with no bloodshot meat.
The 9mm Luger in an autoloading handgun makes a good small game round if velocities are held down. But developing a mild load that still cycles the action can be a problem. Loading a heavy 140-grain bullet in the 9mm helps keep pressure up and velocity low. This heavy bullet cast of a hard lead alloy at 800 fps will plow through small game without expanding.
A handgun chambered for a small game cartridge is worth its weight on the hip of a big game hunter. It’ll provide small game for the camp pot, without dragging down your pants.
Reprinted from the August 2004 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine