Choosing a Handgun for Serious Hunting

Over the past 20 or so years, there has been an increase in the number of individuals hunting big game as deer, pronghorn, elk and bear with various types and calibers of handguns. This changing role for the handgun as a primary hunting arm correlates with the improvement in guns, optics and calibers/ammo over the years. Due to the surge in popularity of handguns for all types of game, there have been handgun only hunts throughout the country.

When it comes to handguns as a primary hunting arm, more individuals are becoming quite serious about “short barrel firearms.” Although one caliber is not ideal for all game, here is what has worked for me when hunting pronghorn and deer to elk with an assortment of specialized handguns and related equipment. Overall, this armament includes big caliber revolvers, bolt actions and especially single shots, usually topped with a scope and in either a “rifle” or wildcat caliber.


For whitetail and black bear, most shots will be taken within 75 yards which makes the .41 or .44 magnum revolver acceptable.

These have the energy and accuracy for a humane harvest if you stick within that abstract number of 75. Sure, one can shoot farther but to do so consistently, there are better calibers.

In my opinion, to shoot beyond 50-75 yards and especially in thick woods after game such as whitetail, it is advantageous if that handgun is topped with a scope.

With good optics, one can usually place one’s bullet a little more accurately as well as better see any obstructions along the bullets path to the target.

Yet, my good friend Lynn Thompson, president of Cold Steel, usually uses an open sighted Freedom Arms revolver in .454 Casull for big game since he is an exceptional shot and still has terrific eye sight. He is also willing to spend the money and take the time to practice.

Due to his personality and martial arts skills, Lynn loves to get in there close no matter how dangerous the situation. He has successfully harvested truly big game as cape buffalo, elephant, etc., all with an open sighted revolver in .454 Casull. It can be done.

Therefore, concerning single action revolvers, if you want one of the most powerful and well made, then take a good look at the Freedom Arms .454 Casull. Big and dangerous game all over the world have been dropped with it even out there at 200 yard. It is a handful but not uncontrollable. If you shoot the .41 or .44 magnum well, then you should be able to handle this one. The other revolver from Freedom Arms I use is their .50 AE which is a good 100 yard handgun without the recoil of the mighty .454. Freedom Arms also now has one of these revolvers chambered in .475 Linebaugh. In big bore revolvers, Taurus, Ruger and Magnum Research all have a .454 Casull chambering along with additional calibers. The latest of these is the Ruger Super Redhawk chambered for the .480 Ruger with Taurus also chambering their Raging Bull in this new caliber.


Such handguns are available in calibers one may only expect to find chambered in rifles. They include the .260 Remington, 7-30 Waters, 7mm-08 Remington, .300 Savage, .308 and .358 Winchester, .444 Marlin and .45/70 Government to mention a few I use and like plus calibers common to revolvers. To go beyond the realm of factory calibers, we also have wildcat calibers which were originally designed for the T/C Contender and now the Contender G2. Some of these that I use are the 6.5 Bullberry and JDJ, .309 JDJ, .338 JDJ #2 and .375 JDJ to mention a few. Many of these, and especially the .375 JDJ, has also been used to harvest tough African game as the cape buffalo. I used this caliber in a Contender with 270-grain Speer bullets to harvest a Montana elk at 250 yards as well as Pennsylvania whitetail at 50 yards. This, one of the most popular of JD Jones’s calibers, will cover it all along with his 6.5 JDJ in the Contender.


Top, a Freedom Arms revolver in 50 AE with a 7.5-inch barrel and new Bausch & Lomb second-generation HoloGraphic sight. Below, a Mag-na-port customized Freedom Arms .454 Casull with a 10 -inch barrel, Mag-na-brake and Weaver 4X scope.

To divide single-shot handguns by manufacturer, the most common is the Thompson/Center Contender which handles lower pressure cartridges as the .30-30 Winchester or .45/70 Government and their newer but beefier model, the T/C Encore. Due to this handgun being heavier built, it will handle everything and especially high pressure calibers of which one of the best factory cartridges for it is the .308 Winchester. What is nice about these handguns is that both are reasonably priced and due to their design, allows one to change calibers by simply switching the barrel. This saves money as well as giving the handgun hunter the versatility of owning various barrels/calibers for the same frame, one that feels the same no matter what barrel is attached.


Top, a Freedom Arms revolver in 50 AE with a 7.5-inch barrel and new Bausch & Lomb second-generation HoloGraphic sight. Below, a Mag-na-port customized Freedom Arms .454 Casull with a 10 -inch barrel, Mag-na-brake and Weaver 4X scope.

When talking about high pressure rounds in handguns, the Magnum Research Lone Eagle is gaining in popularity. This breech loaded single shot is also reasonably priced and, like the Contender and Encore, allows the user the option of changing barrels so as to have additional caliber options. Calibers I have used in the Lone Eagle are the .260 and 7mm-08 Remington, .308 and .358 Winchester. The RPM-XL is another unique handgun from a US company headed by national silhouette champion Jim Rock. From the factory, this handgun has the best trigger pull of any I have tested and I have borrowed three of these over the years from Jim. One in .223 Remington, .356 and .375 Winchester. Jim tells me that the biggest high pressure cartridge he likes to chamber in his handguns is the accurate and reliable .308 Winchester.


Yes, these do look like a shortened rifle but still fit under the category of a handgun. Remington had marketed the XP for years, then dropped it from production. In its place, they came out with the XP100-R of which the R means repeater. This was unfortunately short lived and today, it is no longer a part of the Remington line. While the XP-100R was manufactured, Weatherby had offered a well made bolt action which I had borrowed and tested in a varmint caliber. It functioned and shot extremely well. Yet, they also have dropped it from production.

Savage, with their well made bolt action handgun, is also starting to impress more handgun hunters. These handguns are reasonably priced and from what I have seen on the range are quite accurate. What is also interesting is that their owners are quite pleased with these handguns which is one of the best recommendations any firearm can have. Again, I would go for the 7mm-08 or .308 chambering in either of these bolt actions for hunting game such as deer.

As you can imagine, there are handguns for various budgets and skill levels. Take your pick! To help you do that, here are some suggestions.

First, do not buy too quickly but research the options. Then look at various handguns, hold and if possible, fire them while using the proper eye and ear protection. I have found that the blast from many is more intimidating than the actual recoil. Cut out a portion of the sound and some of these so called “heavy recoiling” handguns are not that bad to fire.

Next, I would seriously look at the Contender G2 due to the interchangeable barrel option which includes a 22 rimfire. If you buy one, I would highly suggest a match .22 LR barrel due to being superior in velocity over a standard chambering and quite accurate. Concerning center fire cartridges, if you are only going to hunt whitetail and varmints such as the ground hogs, look at the 7-30 Waters. If bigger game is more to your liking, then consider the .375 Winchester, .45-70 Government or the Encore, a .308 or .358 Winchester. These are what I have used successfully for big game! Then if you elect to go with the bigger calibers, consider a muzzle brake which drastically reduces the recoil.


On top is an SSK Custom Contender in .45/70 Government with the Marlin carbine below, also in that caliber. At the bottom is a SSK Custom Contender in .444 Marlin with the Marlin carbine above, also in the same caliber.

Also, do not forget the wildcat calibers as the .338 JDJ #2 or .375 JDJ since either of these two cartridges in a Contender will give you the capability to hunt any game in North America.

When sights are considered, I would first try the factory open sights. If you really want to get the most from your handgun, and do not have the eyesight you once had, then by all means scope it. If you’re not used to scopes on handguns and therefore have trouble looking through one, then start off with a 2X or spend the extra money for a variable. A 2-6, 2-7, 2-8 or 3-9 is hard to beat. Ones I would not hesitate to recommend due to extensive experience with them are from Bushnell/Bausch & Lomb, Burris, Leupold, Redfield, Simmons and Weaver. These have taken a beating on my handguns and just keep on working. As with a rifle, when you hunt, set the scope to a low power and only turn it up when a long shot, preferably with a rest, is an option.

Before hunting, to help determine your effective range, put up a 6-inch paper plate at 25, 50, 75 and 100 yards. Shoot 10 shots from a rest and then off-hand. Where you start to miss more than hit, practice more and for now, do not take a shot over that distance. Due to this drill, you will know what your limits truly are.


The author harvested this elk in Montana on a high country hunt at approximately 250 yards with a T/C Contender and SSK barrel in .375 JDJ and Speer 270-grain bullet.

Now for the controversial question which is why not use a .357 Magnum? Sure, it has been used to humanely harvest whitetail but it is marginal at best. At longer ranges, it just does not have the energy for consistent kills. If you do use the .357, pick your shots within 30 yards, load the best bullet for the game and it can be a good deer gun but in reality, there are so many better calibers available for hunting. An exception to this is the Freedom Arms Model 353 since it will safely handle .357 Magnum loads that were only designed for this handgun and are not safe in others. For this reason, when Cor Bon loads this special ammo, it seats the bullets out to where they will only chamber in this Freedom Arms single action. Good luck, practice and safe hunting. Caption A: Bob Baker, president of Freedom Arms, took this whitetail with one shot from his companies then new Model 353 in .357 Magnum. On his left is Mark Hampton, international big game handgun hunter with six continents under his belt.

Larry Pearson is an NRA certified pistol instructor and a member of the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers, as well as a former police officer, former military firearms instructor and lifelong student of the martial arts. He also felt that he had something of value to share with the firearms community, and wondered which gunzines he should approach with the above essay. The problem was that he was dealing in ideas and concepts, and virtually all of the present gunzines only want articles about products and services so that their advertising department can sell space and everyone can make money. This is the American way. This is his first published work.

1 Comment
  1. […] is the only way to ensure a proper choice. Because handguns are seldom the weapon of choice when selecting a firearm for hunting, those parameters are not discussed […]

Leave a reply