The author picks five of the best handguns for hunting deer and other game.
By Clair Rees
Leaving the tent before dawn, I headed toward a heavily used deer trail I’d found the previous day. My feet crunched through 15 inches of snow that had fallen during the night. Instead of the .308 carbine I usually carried, I wore a Ruger Super Blackhawk holstered at my hip.
I’d shot rabbits and squirrels with .22 pistols, but this was the first time I’d hunted deer with a handgun. Weeks of practice made me confident of hitting a buck’s engine room with the open-sighted .44 magnum, as long as I had a solid shooting position and the range was under 50 yards. Beyond that distance, I wouldn’t shoot.
Scattered flakes were still drifting down when I finally reached my ambush site. Fresh tracks marked the otherwise invisible trail. I sat in the snow, a large sagebrush behind me breaking my outline. My blaze-orange jacket was being dusted in white, making it less conspicuous. If I remained motionless, I should be almost invisible to a color-blind deer.
Elbows braced against upraised knees offered a solid shooting position. Ruger in hand, I settled down to wait.
Twenty minutes later, two does picked their way down the trail, passing without a glance. One paused to look back — a clue I’d been watching for. I eased the hammer to full cock, muffling the sound with my glove.
Moments later, a buck appeared. The big desert muley had thick-beamed antlers — only three points to a side, but wide and heavy. The deer was 35 yards away when I settled the front sight behind his shoulder and pulled the trigger.
Totally focused on the animal, I was oblivious to blast and recoil. The deer made two mighty bounds, then collapsed in the snow. The 240-grain soft point had done its job. I’ve taken many deer in a lifetime of hunting, but none were more memorable.
The Super Blackhawk I currently own is a stainless Hunter version sporting a solid rib machined for Ruger scope rings. This is one of my all-time favorite handguns for hunting deer. It’s deadly out to 50 yards, so I seldom bother with a scope. Stalking close is part of the challenge handgun hunters enjoy.
Another .44 magnum revolver that sees lots of use is my 6-inch-barreled Smith & Wesson Model 629. A stainless-steel version of the famed Model 29, the 629 is currently offered in seven variations, including a 3-inch-barreled version that’s the centerpiece of S&W’s new Model 629 ES Emergency Survival Kit. A book titled, “Bear Attacks of the Century” is included, in case you wondered what emergency the kit is intended for.
My personal “emergency” bear deterrent is a Model 629 Mountain Gun I acquired years ago. Thanks to a relatively slim .44 Special contour, 4-inch barrel, this handy powerhouse is lighter and more compact than my other .44 magnums, making it a great choice for the trail. I prefer my longer-barreled 629 for serious hunting, but the Mountain Gun is easier to tote.
Smith & Wesson’s monstrous Model 500 revolver was designed with just one activity in mind: hunting large, possibly dangerous critters. Generating between 2,200 and 2,800 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle, this gun punishes at both ends. If S&W’s M629 Emergency Survival Kit seems too anemic, a 500 ES version is also available.
I’ve done a fair amount of shooting with S&W’s Model 500 “five gun” (it has only a five-shot capacity), and didn’t much care for 500-grain factory loads. Lighter 275- to 300-grain fodder produces plenty of punch and causes less flinching.
While I haven’t yet hunted with the Model 500, my friend Tim Janzen took one to Africa soon after the hand cannon was introduced.
“We’d stalked a herd of blue wildebeest through dense brush, trying to get within revolver range,” Janzen recalls. “The animals were milling around in a wallow 75 yards away. The bull we wanted was surrounded by cows.
“My PH and I decided to set up and hope for a clear shot. I’d have to shoot from a sitting position to clear the tall grass. I was glad I had my Stoney Point shooting sticks.”
Janzen ranged the bull at 87 yards. Elbows hooked in front of his knees, he rested the barrel of the big gun on crossed shooting sticks.
“The bull was quartering to the right,” Janzen says. “The bullet would have to break through the ribs on his right side, pass through the stomach and penetrate deep to reach the vitals. I was shooting a Barnes 325-grain XPB bullet that exited the muzzle at just over 1,800 feet per second.
“As loud as the muzzle-braked gun was, I only remember hearing the thwack as the bullet hit home. The animal staggered, regained its footing, then disappeared into the bush. We found the bull just over a 100 yards away.”
The handgun I’ve probably hunted with most is Thompson/Center’s break-top Contender. Unlike revolvers, Contender (and Encore) pistols are specifically designed for use with scopes. I was introduced to handgunning varmints by the late Bob Milek, who gave a convincing demonstration of the long-range accuracy possible with scoped, single-shot pistols. I’ve watched him take prairie dogs at a lasered 400 yards with the T/C.
I couldn’t count how many groundhogs, prairie dogs, ground squirrels and coyotes I’ve since taken with .223 and .22-250 Contenders. Shooting varmints with a handgun is more challenging than using a rifle — but not by much. With a steady rest and good optics, long-range prairie dogging is surprisingly easy. All it takes is a little practice.
Contenders have taken practically every kind of game on the planet, including pachyderms. My largest whitetail buck to date sported a 14-point rack and scored 163 inches and change. It dropped to a single .30-30 factory load from a G2 Contender. The big advantage this gun has over the original Contender is that, once the hammer is lowered, you don’t have to break the action before recocking the gun.
Remington’s XP-100 was the first factory-made bolt-action pistol. The mid-handled single shot digested the then-new .221 Remington Fireball. This awkwardly designed pistol soon gave way to new single-shot and repeating rear-handled XPs in a wide variety of chamberings. Savage countered by offering the Stryker—another bolt-action pistol with similar capabilities.
Both the XP-100 and Stryker are now discontinued, leaving the bolt-action pistol field to Weatherby’s excellent Mark V CFP (Compact Firing Platform). This is basically a lengthened, improved version of the Mark V CFP Weatherby introduced earlier, then discontinued.
I’ve been using a new Mark V CFP, and it’s extremely accurate. Its reciprocating bolt action adds to the gun’s length, but that’s not a problem for hunting varmints. It’s offered in .223, .22-250, .243 and 7mm-08 chamberings.
The five best hunting handguns? My votes go to the Ruger Super Blackhawk, Smith & Wesson Model 629, S&W Model 500, Thompson/Center’s G2 Contender and Weatherby’s Mark V CFP. Hunters will find those guns hard to beat.
Reprinted from the August 2007 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.