Beginner's Guide to Big Game Handgun Hunting

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The first bugle of the season's challenge penetrated the forest as the huge six-point and brown-tined bull elk announced the beginning of the rut. His buckskin colored coat is matted with the remnants of his nearby wallow. He is mud-coated and urine-soaked and almost out of his mind with only two things that directs his instinct, fighting and mating. Everyplace he treads the wild grasses and small trees are mowed down in a display of his dominance and raw energies. In some areas it looks like a gorilla went on a rampage, complete with an overfill of hormones. It is the rancid scent of this majestic animal along with his disruptive behavior that entices his soon-to-be harem... and his enemies. His bold taunts are soon to be met by other neighboring bulls, all for a shot at the title of becoming king. He'll spare no foe nor will he run from combat, for tens of thousands of years this is what he has been bred to do. You say to yourself you want to harvest him with a handgun?

A safe and successful hunt with a handgun begins long before the season starts. When the autumn leaves begin to change their colors and the morning chill begins to seep into your camouflage clothing, one has to be completely familiar with every aspect of your weapon. That means knowing your handgun inside and out. It's not enough to know your game laws and the "paperwork" of a hunt. Any conduct less than that is not being a responsible hunter.

What Handgun to Choose?

If you desire to hunt with a handgun, without doubt, you need to do your homework. Many hunters who carry a rifle are not comfortable shooting with a handgun. Indeed, there are many reasons why one should hunt with a rifle but once mastered, a change of venue may be just what you are looking for. That's not to say hunting with a rifle is a cakewalk, it can be very challenging and in the favor of the game sought. When you pick up a handgun and decide to hunt big game, the bar is placed even higher.

The first question you must ask yourself is what game species are you going to hunt? Once decided, you can then pour over the many types of handguns you find to be suitable for that purpose. As with rifles, there is no one-gun for all animals. The high-stakes of big game hunting selection for your weapon is narrowed but still offers a wide range of single shot, five or six shot revolvers and semi-automatic handguns. If you are the type of person that flinches when shooting a 20-gauge shotgun, I do not suggest you purchase a 44 magnum or larger revolver. Some big-bore handguns such as the .41, .45, .454 Casul, 45/70 or the Smith & Wesson .500's are mule-kickers and not intended for beginners although some newly introduced hand gunners do quite well with them after proper instruction and experience. The smaller bore handguns (.38 caliber or less) may be suitable for plinking or small game harvest but they don't belong being aimed at big game. I have heard of kills being made with a little .22 on Alaskan Brown bear but one would have to be insane to try it. By it's very nature, a revolver is a very dependable weapon, and seldom do they fail. Extreme cold, snow, icing, dirt, sticks, or other environmental contaminants can compromise a semi-autoloader. You may research just what type of field conditions you will be subjecting your gun to and adjust your purchasing accordingly.

Hunting the Big Boys

Going after big game requires making certain you are competent in your marksmanship and knowledge of your intended animal. Without doubt, tin cans and paper targets are the best "game" to hunt initially. The critical factor in big game hunting when using a handgun is the education to select the proper caliber for the species intended. It is not just enough to be able to hit your target at the range, a possible scenario of severe injury or death can result if you wound an animal, remember, some will attack when hurt and make every effort to kill you!

I suggest you practice firing your weapon in as many different (and difficult!) positions as possible, no matter how ridiculous they may seem to be. When you are in the field, you may encounter a situation that was just like you practiced repeatedly. In order to make a quick and clean kill you may have to go into that position and then of course, it will be familiar to you. Practice shooting not only in a Weaver or Isosceles stance but also with either of your hands. Being right or left-handed doesn't necessarily mean that you will be presented with an opportunity to shoot with your favored hand. Think of your weapon as an extension of either since you may be required to shoot with the "weak" one. In a pinch (such as a bear attack) you will embrace having that ability.

A contradiction to the thoughts of many is if you are hunting larger game the notion is, "Bigger the Better" ideology. Not so, it isn't that simple. A complex amount of factors become entwined if consistent success is to be embraced. These combinations are as varied as the personalities of the hunters but one thing is for sure, having familiarity with your weapon is necessary. A nice array of calibers to hunt most North American big game animals are readily available but it is important to bear in mind that shooting distances will be a great deal less than with the rifles.

From the top species of Alaskan Brown bears one should take no less than a .357 magnum that provides 500ft/lb. of muzzle energy, enough to knock down the largest of them. .44 magnums (the one Clint Eastwood used in "Dirty Harry") is a popular bear protection handgun and small enough to carry holstered without enduring fatigue at the end of the day. It has 900 ft/lbs. of muzzle energy which is almost twice as much as the .357 magnum. The ever-popular .480 Ruger expels a powerful and lethal force of 1315 ft/lbs! The .454 Casul is a wonderful revolver that comes in two styles (field grade and premium) and is capable of killing the largest of creatures in the states including elk, bears, and moose. This Freedom, Wyoming manufacturer makes a top-notch weapon and is widely known for it's fine craftsmanship. This dual-action revolver spews it's deadly force with a staggering 1900 ft/lb. out of it's muzzle. At the top of the list is the new Smith & Wesson .500. It's monster of a weapon that can be enjoyed by hunters if they wish to pay the price of blasting power. The "typical" bullet carries 2600 ft/lbs. of energy that tops the list. The .45/70 revolver that Magnum Research offers is quite a handgun and should be reserved for only the large and steady hunter as these loads carry a huge wallop, even in rifles! Rest assured, these are big guns and carry big bullets, made to hunt big game, no questions asked.


This is single most important issue of big game hunting with a handgun. There are countless stories that involved careless handling and conduct of handguns, resulting in severe injury and death. With many distractions in the field, one can become complacent in handing their weapon. Numerous "accidents" involving handguns could have been prevented if the owner concerned himself with the potential lethality of accidental discharging of the weapon. Primarily, never POINT your weapon at anything but the intended target. A very critical timeframe is when you are handling a gun whether it is either being loaded or unloaded. The simple act of SHOWING a person a weapon becomes a launch site of potential harm. Removing the gun from it's holster is also a time when one should be extremely careful, the safety could be accidentally off and ready to fire. No matter if you are absolutely sure the gun is unloaded, never, never, point it at anyone, no matter what. Many hunters have been shot by their own gun in spite of being convinced that it was unloaded! Simply said, you can never be too careful with your handgun.

Know Your Handgun

It might sound a bit silly but knowing your handgun should be a point that is well taken. A hunting or protection weapon should be as familiar as your coffee cup. Being unfamiliar with your weapon implies when you are ready to use it; the device is somewhat foreign to you. Buying a handgun from your local dealer and then putting in storage until hunting season has started, is foolish. The old saying of practice makes perfect is a strong piece of good advice. In the case of using a semi-automatic handgun, do you know what to do if it jams? How long does it take you to un-jam it and reload? If it's more than a couple of seconds, you need to get to know your gun better. Does it come second nature to remove the magazine (not clip!) and reinsert another? How many cartridges does the magazine or cylinder hold? Can you close your eyes and reload?

If you feel uncomfortable with your gun, I would suggest that you contact your local Dept. of Fish & Game or Natural Resources Dept. offices. Enquire to see if they hold any classes to educate owners of firearms, both in classroom and outdoors. In actual field conditions you may experience a situation that requires you to hold your eye on the quarry since taking your eye off of it may mean you lose sight of it forever. Do you count how many times you have shot and how many shots you have left? Standing in front of a world record or simply a potential freezer full of meat isn't the time to discover you are out of ammo. It takes great discipline to count your shots as they are being fired, make every attempt to practice this. Being a well-rounded handgun hunter doesn't mean you simply pull the trigger and shoot the game. Not by a long shot...

To Scope or Not to Scope

A difficult decision to make is whether to mount a scope on your handgun or not. If you are going to hunt species that inhabit thick or dense vegetation areas, leave the scope off. The majority of shots are taken at extremely close distances and (100 feet or less) using open sights. The advantage is the present ability to draw and aim quickly without attempting to accommodate a scope to look through. Another helpful tip is to target practice with your gun within the distances of which you will be hunting. Being familiar with this adds comfort and will result in better-placed shots and a higher kill ratio. If you are not well defined in consistent groups in target practice and at long ranges, don't be tempted to fire a round just to see if you might hit your quarry. Prudent handgun owners will not fire unless they are absolutely sure of hitting their target and killing it humanely.

If you decide that your game animal will be at greater distances then a scope might be warranted. If this is the case, be advised this is not the place for a cheaply made scope. Besides poor lighting is usually the norm in hunting big game (most big game are crepuscular (most active in the very early mornings and at dusk), a cheap scope does not have the light-gathering abilities. This will result in poor vision through the scope, you need high-definition and resolution (brightness and sharpness). Another factor for a high-quality scope on your handgun is they take a beating. The discharge of these large calibers lay a heavy dose of shock onto everything. It's no place to have the internal lenses come loose or mal-alignment of the base when you are firing at a trophy ram that you just stalked 10 miles for on a windswept mountain range.

Laws Regarding Handguns

Make sure you check the laws governing transport of your firearm in each state that you travel in regardless of what you might think. Criminal prosecution is quite possible if you are found to be in violation and usually the penalties are stiff. If you travel north to Alaska, DO NOT TAKE YOUR HANDGUN INTO CANADA. Have it shipped by an FFL licensed dealer and retrieve it once you arrive. It will be confiscated and not returned as well as a possible fine being administered. Do not take these laws lightly. When you decide and purchase the handgun you desire, you will be required to have a federal check through the FBI and sign the necessary paperwork that details information about yourself.

When your hunt is completed and your handgun cleaned, locked and ready to be put away, make sure it is out of reach of everyone except those of whom you delegated responsible. If not, you could be held accountable and imprisoned and fined in the event a youngster gets ahold of it and accidentally shoots someone.