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Best Centerfire Handgun Ammo for Small Game

by Allan Jones   |  September 19th, 2017 0

I receive a lot of questions about small-game hunting with firearms other than the rimfire or shotgun options. Some big-game hunters enjoy wild meat in the camp’s supper pot and don’t want to pack an additional long gun to feed the pot. They instead consider reduced loads in their big-game rifle or a centerfire handgun.

For this column “small game” means squirrels, rabbits, birds up to the size of pheasant, and similarly sized critters. Please note: Make certain that taking these animals with a rifle or handgun is legal in the area you hunt and that you have proper licenses and tags.

Because the inquiries I receive tend to repeat, I decided to do a question and answer format. Here are the answers to seven frequently asked questions about which centerfire handgun ammo is best for hunting small game.

When using a centerfire handgun for hunting small game like squirrels, the .38 Special is one of the finest cartridges. The old standby 158-grain lead RN factory load is a great choice.

When using a centerfire handgun for hunting small game like squirrels, the .38 Special is one of the finest cartridges. The old standby 158-grain lead RN factory load is a great choice.

What centerfire handgun cartridges work best for small game?

Accuracy is more important than terminal ballistics with handguns for small game. Ranges can be over 20 yards. Granddad’s war souvenir P-38 is not much good for this unless it can keep five shots under roughly 2 inches at 20 yards. Be prepared to practice; few of us are “naturals” at this.

With a handgun capable of that kind of accuracy, we can talk cartridges and bullets. The .38 Special is one of the finest small-game handgun cartridges. The old standby 158- grain lead RN factory load comes close to perfection. The velocity is just right, and the gentle tip design of the bullet will not damage too much edible meat.

What about “Magnum” revolvers?

Anything with “Magnum” appended to the name will work, but the extra velocity of magnum ammunition will tear up a lot of good usable meat on small-game animals. A .357 Magnum revolver should be loaded with .38 Special ammo. The .44 Magnum owner can use .44 Special lead RN loads.

Are semiauto pistols workable?

If accurate enough, yes. A slab-sided semiauto pistol can be much easier to carry than many revolvers. An accurate 9mm pistol loaded with a 147-grain FMJ bullet is spot-on for small game. The heavier bullet is quite accurate in many pistols, and the muzzle velocity is under 1,000 fps. As velocity increases, so can meat damage.

Can I buy factory small-game ammo for my big-game rifle if I’m not a handloader?

The short answer: no. There are some “reduced recoil” loads available, but their velocities are usually over 2,200 fps, well beyond the 1,600 to 1,800 fps zone where excessive tissue shredding enters the discussion. Given enough velocity, even a non-expanding bullet can make purée of formerly edible bits.

Can I make reduced small-game handloads for any centerfire cartridge I use?

No. Some popular centerfire hunting cartridges have too much case capacity to create ballistically consistent small-game loads. You could suffer a bullet-in-bore condition that could spell the end of a hunt. A general rule of thumb is that decent small-game handloads will be hard to achieve if case capacities are greater than the .30-06.

The 9mm Luger with a 147-Gr. FMJ is ideal for small game when fired through an accurate pistol. The heavier bullet can be very accurate in many pistols.

The 9mm Luger with a 147-Gr. FMJ is ideal for small game when fired through an accurate pistol. The heavier bullet can be very accurate in many pistols.

What bullets are best?

That depends on velocity. If you are trying to stay around 1,200 fps, try a lubricated cast lead bullet. A roundnose design will be easier on the meat than a flatnose, even at modest velocities. With jacketed bullets, strive for around 1,500 fps to minimize chances of the hard jacket acting like brakes and stopping the bullet in the bore.

Classic cast bullet reloading manuals are great resources even if you are lightloading a jacketed bullet. The propellants recommended are commonly the fast-to-medium-burning rate fuels that are most appropriate to modest velocities. You don’t want anything slower burning than IMR 4895 and its variants from other makers.

Here is a tip based on spending a lot of time living inside a pressure test barrel: You can develop more consistent reduced loads with a heavy bullet than with a light one. Light bullets can start to move too early in the pressure curve, and the amount of movement per unit of pressure varies too much. Heavier ones have more inertia and will start moving at higher pressures where burn characteristics are more uniform. In .30 caliber you will see reduced shot-to-shot velocity variation loading a 165- to 180-grain cast bullet compared to something in the weight range of a .30 Carbine bullet, 110 grains.

As a starry-eyed youth, I regularly read the old-time gun pundits praising the use of 90- to 100-grain .32-caliber cast revolver bullets in the .30-06 for reduced-velocity game loads. After working for several decades with the latest industry testing equipment, I now know those old-timers were either very lucky or were making up loads at the typewriter.

A general rule of thumb is that decent small-game handloads will be hard to achieve if case capacities are greater than the .30-06.

A general rule of thumb is that decent small-game handloads
will be hard to achieve if case capacities are greater than the .30-06.

Do I get the impression that there is an elephant in the room?

Ah, you are perceptive. Assuming you have dealt with shot-to-shot variation (see previous answer), there are two rifle issues here. The first is point of impact (POI) shift. With a massive change in velocity, reduced loads could print inches from hunting ammo POI even at close range. I would not like to be changing scope settings between big-game and small-game settings during a hunt. That sounds like the plot for a movie called Finding FUBAR .

The other ugly tusker causes trouble if you are using cast lead bullets: bore cleaning. Even the best quality cast lead bullets can leave streaking in the bore that should be removed before shooting jacketed bullets again. Restoring the bore for jacketed bullets can require more gear than most of us usually pack and can require extra accuracy checking.

As much as I like testing and shooting safe reduced rifle loads, I fall squarely on the side of the handgun as long as I can hit with it. In my cabinet are an old S&W Model 15 revolver and a match capable custom Colt 9mm Government Model. Both are very accurate. However, the issues raised here also mean keeping the rimfire option open. There are plenty of accurate rimfire pistols and revolvers that will take all the pot meat you need with less noise than centerfire.

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