Handguns for Dangerous Game
February 15, 2011
Why would anyone in his right mind choose to hunt dangerous game with a handgun? Because it's challenging, it's exciting, and it's an adventure. But it's not for everyone.
Dangerous is as dangerous does. What creatures are truly "dangerous?" Well, just about any, if you antagonize them, abuse them, or back them into a corner. Even your household pussycat. Of course, we primarily think of dangerous game as species with fangs and claws who think humans are prey: lions and tigers and bears. Oh, my. There are also a lot of big, heavy-footed or sharp-horned herbivores over in Africa that will gleefully stomp you into pudding should you violate their sense of personal space: elephant, Cape buffalo, or hippopotamus.
As for the U.S., I've read a lot from "experts" who claim there are no truly dangerous game animals in the Lower 48 States, and that anybody who's ever been slashed by a wild boar in the thickets of South Carolina or palmettos of Florida, or assaulted by a black bear, or trampled and gored by a bison in Yellowstone Park, did something really stupid to provoke them. But what about those mountain lions that track and maim or kill unwary hikers in the wilderness outskirts of Los Angeles? There have been 73 reported cougar attacks nationwide (10 fatal) since 1990. Or what about the dead-and-devoured grizzly bear victims over the years who were innocently camping in the mountains of Montana or Wyoming? (Two unprovoked fatalities in 2010 alone.) Not to mention alligators occasionally snatching unwary fishermen or swimmers (Florida reports about seven a year; 13 fatal since 2000). And I'm not even going to open the whole wolf can of worms. Me, I think there are a lot of truly dangerous and increasingly aggressive game animals in America as well as in Africa.
So why would anyone want to use a handgun to hunt any of these creatures, either here, or in Alaska, or on any other continent? I mean, it's one thing to carry a big-bore major-magnum revolver on your side as a companion piece when hiking or hunting in bloodthirsty country, but to choose a handgun on purpose as your primary tool for an intentional hunt for true dangerous game? You'd have to be crazy, right? Probably yes.
So I'm crazy.
I've many times used a revolver over the last 30 years as my primary hunting gun for dangerous game, indeed as my only hunting gun--from wild boar to cougar, black bear, alligator, Cape buffalo, and others in between, even semidangerous big game such as bison. Why? Because it's challenging, because it's exciting, and because it's an adventure. One thing it is not, is a stunt. Nor is it irresponsible--any more than bow hunting for boar or bear or cougar or any other big-game species is irresponsible.
Today's hunting handguns and ammunition, even more than today's archery tools, are completely capable of dealing quick-killing death blows to virtually any available quarry on the planet. The only real difference between them and dangerous-game big-bore rifles is the margin of error they allow for making a shot (not much), the closer distance you must approach your quarry (sometimes pretty close), and the consequent fact that a handgun (like a bow) requires the hunter to be truly adept and skilled with his tool under close-quarters pressure. (Not that a rifle hunter can afford to be casual about dangerous-game hunting, either.)
Choosing Your Load
Anyone contemplating a dangerous-game handgun hunt first needs to select a load that's specifically appropriate for the particular quarry. The one thing you don't want to do is rely on minimum-recommended cartridges. A cartridge that requires a precision, deliberately placed shot with perfect presentation of quarry may be fine for hunting antlered game, when you can pick and choose your ranges and take your time and pass on a shot if it's not quite right. But that's not what you need for dangerous game. There, you need the biggest, hardest hitting load you can effectively handle when fast, repeat shots may be absolutely necessary. You need the load most likely to put your chosen quarry down as hard and as instantly as possible when it's close and in your face. Yeah, there are guys who kill wild boar with a Bowie knife, who wade in on a hound-bayed tusker and stick it to him. More power to them. It's their chosen form of hunting adventure. But that's not my cup of tea.
Generally speaking, dangerous-game handgunning starts with the .41 Magnum and goes up. The .357 Magnum, in any form, doesn't cut it. I'm fully aware that many experienced cougar, boar, and black bear guides carry .357 Magnums as their sidearms. And yes, a carefully aimed and well-placed .357 Mag. shot with the right load will definitely kill such beasts. But it's not a stopper. A treed or ledged cougar is an angry animal. So is a hound-bayed bear or trophy European boar. I've seen a cougar come out of a tree like a rocket, eviscerating a hound and running right over a hunter, barely slowing down on its way out, leaving him clawed and bloody. One of America's foremost black bear outfitters for years carried a .357 Mag. until a bayed bear tore into his pack of hounds and killed two while soaking up a Ruger-full of .357 Mag. rounds and still made it off into the woods to be tracked. He immediately switched to a .41 Mag. and has never regretted it.
The .41 Mag. is my cartridge of choice for cougar, which is a relatively lithe and thin-skinned animal. I've taken several boar and black bear with it as well, although for heavier-bodied, dense-muscled, and thick-boned big specimens, a .44 Magnum, .480 Ruger, .454 Casull, or even .475 Linebaugh are harder-hitting and more effective overall. Any of these are also fine for big alligator, although here the key is precision accuracy and shot placement rather than absolute power, since only a brain shot will ensure instant reptilian death. You don't wade into black Everglades swamp water to recover an alligator unless you absolutely know it's already stone dead. And should you move all the way up to the biggest potentially dangerous game, like Alaska grizzly or Cape buffalo (or even free-range truly wild bison), the only reasonable choices are a heavy-loaded .460 S&W Magnum or one of the top-powered .50-caliber handgun cartridges like the .500 Wyoming Express, .500 Linebaugh, or the king-of-the-hill .500 S&W Magnum.
Choice of bullet and its loaded power are as critical as the choice of cartridge itself. With all the cartridges mentioned, with any weight bullet, the primary choice is between an expanding-form jacketed projectile or a nonexpanding solid. The fur, fat layers, muscle, and heavy bone typical of large dangerous game require bullets that will penetrate deeply. Even for smaller and less tough-bodied dangerous game, typical JHP "deer bullets" or personal-defense bullet types are not recommended.
Thick-jacketed, bonded, softnose bullets are okay for animals like cougar, black bear,
and large boar. That's what I use. They provide a modicum of upset and impact shock, retain their weight, and won't blow right through a smaller-bodied animal leaving only a small full-metal-jacket-type wound channel. But for big tough guys like grizzly, Cape buffalo, or bison, large-bore, nonexpanding, hard, cast lead bullets (or monolithic solid-copper bullets) are required to crush and break through heavy bone and penetrate deeply no matter what the approach angle of the shot.
Non-handgun hunters are frequently concerned about lesser penetration of handgun cartridges on truly large game compared to rifle cartridges. That concern may have been warranted in the past, but no longer. The Cape buffalo bull I low-crawl approached within 60 yards of in thick South African bush along the Limpopo River fell to a single .500 Mag. revolver shot through its front-quartering shoulder. The recovered 440-grain Precision Hard Cast bullet shattered the heavy leg bones, took out the lungs and top of the heart, and continued straight-line through the liver and viscera to come to rest in the opposite rear thigh for 5.5 feet of measured penetration. It had 98-percent weight retention. The gascheck was even intact.One of the professional hunters in camp (who hadn't volunteered to guide me, by the way) later remarked, "You know, a 440-grain, .50-caliber bullet, carrying a ton and a quarter of energy--that's better than a lot of the big double-bore blackpowder rifles the old-timers used to kill a lot of bulls. So why should we have been worried?"
Choosing Your Handgun
Your primary firearm choice for a dangerous-game handgun hunt is between a revolver and a single shot. Prior to the advent of the .460 Mag. and .500 Mag. revolvers (or semicustom revolver cartridges like the .500 Linebaugh), those who wanted to go after Alaska grizzly or Africa's Big Five with a handgun were pretty much limited to rifle cartridges chambered in custom-barreled single-shot Thompson/Center Contender or Encore pistols. Handgun hunting pioneers like Larry Kelly and J.D. Jones successfully put down some of the biggest and most dangerous game in the world, including elephant, using those tools at close range. Other single-shot purists continue such hunts today.
I have no more of a problem with handgun hunters who pursue dangerous game with single-shot pistols than I do with those who use big-bore single-shot Ruger No. 1 rifles (or double guns). I understand and appreciate the challenge, and the skill and nerve, involved. But I like having my own follow-up shots. I might need them. The backup PH with his heavy rifle might not be in position. So, now that these newer big-bore Magnum handgun hunting cartridges are available, I use revolvers. All the cartridges mentioned here are chambered in large-frame, five-shot or six-shot revolvers from a variety of manufacturers, in either single-action or double-action designs. Either format is fine, although the repeat-pull capability of a double-action trigger does offer additional reassurance in case of a really close encounter.
Barrel length is also a consideration. Several manufacturers offer single-action and double-action hunting revolvers in big-game chamberings with 10-inch barrels, which add some ballistic reach and are fine choices for carefully aimed shots at longer ranges. But they are also somewhat unwieldy and less easy to handle quickly in typical dangerous-game handgunning situations. For dangerous game, a 7.5-inch bore is about as long as I care to go with for my primary hunting revolvers.
Sights are another important matter of choice. I use scopes on nearly all my hunting handguns, with the exception of hunting cougar or black bear with hounds or stalking boar in the thickets. I even used a 2.5X scope for that Cape buffalo in the dense South African bush because of the clarity it gave me in resolving the target and picking out a clear, small window through the thorny brush to place the shot. Of course, I've been hunting with scoped handguns for more than 30 years, and I can acquire a sight picture through a scoped revolver as quickly as I can with iron sights. (Not to mention my aging eyes don't resolve iron sights as well as they used to anyway.) A lesser-practiced handgun hunter might not be as quick with a scope, and a lot of dangerous-game handgunners simply prefer open sights, period. This one is really a matter of personal choice. Pick what works best for you.
Do You Have What It Takes?
All heavy handgun hunting cartridges produce significant recoil, which affects your ability for quickly aimed follow-up shots and also presents a challenge for mastering control and accuracy with the gun in the first place (that little problem called "flinch"). So even if you choose exactly the most appropriately powerful and properly configured dangerous-game handgun available, if you cannot shoot it quickly and accurately under pressure, stay home. The absolute Rule Number One of dangerous-game handgun hunting is practice, practice, practice with your gun. Practice until you are at least as comfortable and adept with your chosen tool as with the zipper on your pants.
Also, if you're prone to "buck fever," if you start trembling and hyperventilating when a trophy whitetail buck steps out in front of you while you're sitting snugly in an elevated treestand, well, you may not be temperamentally suited for dangerous-game handgun hunting. It's only going to get worse when you're at ground level after a quarry you're thinking may be likely to injure or kill you. Mental attitude and control of your nerves is the primary key to handgunning for dangerous game. It's mainly a state of mind thing--kind of like combat or being in a true self-defense situation where your life is threatened. You may have thought about it a lot, but nobody really knows how they are going to react when bullets start flying or knives start slashing until it actually happens. Is there any way you can test your reactions and abilities in advance? Well, at least try this:
Go out to your practice range and set a basketball-size target 50 yards in front of your firing point. That's about the immediate kill-zone diameter of any dangerous game animal you will likely pursue (except for alligator). Then go back 100 yards behind the firing point with your fully loaded dangerous-game revolver and run just as fast as you can up to the firing point and fire all five or six shots into the target offhand. If you can't hit that 8-inch target with every shot while your pulse is elevated and your breathing is rapid, you need more practice. And you probably need to get in better shape.
Practice, practice, practice. Know your limitations. Study your chosen quarry thoroughly. Read everything you can about it. Talk to real people who've been there and done that.
And whatever handgun and cartridge load you choose, make sure you can handle it.