Big-Bore Sidearms For Sportsmen
September 18, 2006
These new heavy-hitting high-tech revolvers provide serious outdoorsmen with the security of a powerhouse backup sidearm.
Hunting handguns and hunters' handguns are not necessarily the same thing. A hunting handgun is what a handgun hunter uses as his primary game-taking tool. Something like a scoped big-bore single-action revolver, a long-barreled single shot, or a bolt-action pistol.
A hunters' handgun is what a rifle hunter or shotgun hunter carries as a sidearm to supplement or serve as a crisis backup to their primary hunting gun. Even handgun hunters carry such companion sidearms--as do smart fishermen and backpackers in bear country.
Of course, small and lightweight .22 rimfire or .32/.38-caliber centerfire "kit gun" revolvers have long been popular as hunters' belt guns. But here I'm talking about something different. I'm talking about serious, powerful, backup and point-and-shoot survival tools, where a .357 Magnum is the absolute minimum and the maximum is as much as you can handle.
The problem was that until very recently a truly heavy-hitting handgun needed to be a heavyweight handgun. So many big-game rifle hunters and bear-country fishermen have found themselves needing a Magnum-level companion gun in the field but didn't have one just because they weren't inclined to have that additional weight on their belts as they clambered across rugged terrain or waded the streams.
These days we have much better choices. Four of our leading revolver manufacturers are offering entirely new generations of "companionable" powerhouse double-action revolvers, in traditional heavy-frame designs and also in new full-size ultralightweight formats engineered from high-tech titanium and scandium/aluminum alloys that weigh as little and are as easy and comfortable to carry as a compact personal-defense pocket pistol. Here's a quick survey of some top-end models of both types.
Emergency Survival Kits
With more models of field-companion and survival revolvers than any other maker, both heavy all-steel as well as ultralightweight, Smith & Wesson is clearly the current leader in each category. At the top of the list are S&W's new Emergency Survival Kits, unveiled at this year's S.H.O.T. Show and developed to provide outdoor enthusiasts of all types with a variety of tools for emergency situations.
The 460ES kit contains a massive Smith & Wesson Model 460XVR .460 Magnum revolver featuring a safety yellow rubber grip with a 23/4-inch barrel; the 500ES kit contains a Model 500 .500 Magnum revolver of the same barrel length with a safety orange rubber grip.
One benefit of the Model 460 version is that it will also fire .454 Casull and .45 Colt loads. The kits are packaged in an extremely rugged waterproof and floatable yellow (460ES) or orange (500ES) crash-resistant case. Each ES kit contains several survival tools: heavy-duty folding survival knife, flexible tree/firewood saw, signal whistle, compass, signal mirror, strike lighter, fire starter accelerant packets, two emergency blankets, and a book with tips on preventing bear attacks. The book is a nice touch, but the idea is that once you've read it, you'll leave it at home and use its compartment in the case to store whatever holster you buy for the gun.
Heavy-Hitters & Lightweights
On the other end of S&W's weight/power spectrum are the Model 329 AirLite PD .44 Magnum and Model 357 AirLite PD .41 Magnum, which represent the capstone of S&W's recent pioneering development of ultrahigh-performance, ultralightweight Magnum revolvers. These are large-frame, six-shot, four-inch, full-featured .44 Magnum and .41 Magnum revolvers--that weigh 26 ounces. No misprint: These are full-size Magnum revolvers that weigh a quarter-pound less than a snubnose two-inch S&W .38 Special made of standard steel. The secret behind this remarkable accomplishment is the unique AirLite Sc frame, which is fabricated of aluminum/scandium alloy; plus an aluminum-sleeved steel barrel and a titanium cylinder. (Incidentally, the "3" in these model numbers signifies the frame material, and the "29" and "57" refer to the original model numbers of S&W's first .44 Magnum and .41 Magnum guns. Which is why the Model 357 is not a .357 Magnum.)
The Model 329 and Model 357 are designed to be the ultimate in lightweight, comfortable holster carry for a powerful sportsman's sidearm. Both sport a matte black finish and feature a HiViz fiber-optic front sight, a fully adjustable micrometer-click rear sight, and both an Ahrends finger groove wooden grip and a Hogue soft-rubber Monogrip. At first feel the weight-to-size ratio of these two revolvers is absolutely startling.
What are they like to shoot? Well, with full-power heavy bullet Magnum loads they are very abrupt. You'll want to use the Hogue rubber grips--for sure. The wood grips are just for show--unless you're shooting light .44 Special loads in the Model 329. Even better, I've found that the wraparound Hogue grips designed specifically for the bigger S&W X-Frame revolvers will also fit on the N-Frame guns, and they provide a cushion for the thumb/forefinger web that is not present on the standard N-Frame grips. These grips increase comfort dramatically.
And with any load, both guns are definitely a joy to carry. Strap one on and forget it's there--until you need it. S&W's Product Manager Herb Belin observed to me that the Model 329 and Model 357 are designed to be used and not shot. By that he means no one in his right mind will want to go out plinking with full-power loads. But when a bear comes crashing out of the willows while you're fishing, you'll never even notice the recoil.
Taurus is a close second in the number of revolver models and types designed as outdoorsmen's companions. And like S&W it covers the range from the heaviest to the lightest. New this year is a 2-inch version of Taurus's massive Raging Bull Model 500 chambered for .500 Magnum and built on the new Taurus XL frame. Also available is a 2-inch Model 454 Raging Bull .454 Casull on the smaller Taurus large-frame platform. Both models feature the Raging Bull series diagnostic integrated muzzle ports and shock-absorber rubber grip design. For .44 Magnum fans, Taurus also offers the 4-inch Ultra-Lite Titanium Model 444 built on an alloy Raging Bull frame with titanium cylinder and weighing just 28.3 ounces.
My favorites among the Taurus field-sidearm list are all from the medium-frame Tracker Total Titanium series, led by the five-shot, 4-inch .41 Magnum Model 425 Titanium Tracker in Shadow Gray finish. (Taurus also offers a same-scale seven-shot titanium .357 Magnum Model Model 627TT with 4- or 61/2-inch barrel.) All Titanium Tracker models have titanium frames, sideplates, yokes, and barrels that are drop-forged in Taurus's metallurgical facility in Brazil. The titanium cylinders and titanium internal studs are CNC-machined from extruded titanium bar stock.
These revolvers have a huge advantage over steel models in terms of weight and durability. Titanium is less than two-thirds the weight of an equivalent volume of steel, so an all-titanium revolver actually weighs less than a same-size aluminum-frame/steel-cylinder revolver. The .41 Magnum Titanium Tracker weighs exactly 24 ounces. A similarly featured, 4-inch, adjustable-sight, stainless-steel Taurus Model 66SS .357 Magnum weighs 38 ounces. The Tracker is nearly a pound lighter--37 percent lighter, in fact. As for durability, titanium comes as close to being indestructible as any manufactured material can be. Even the best stainless steel will eventually rust or corrode. Titanium won't.
The Tracker grips are the patented Taurus Ribber design, which absorb recoil and increase controllability to an amazing degree. Molded from a soft-textured polymer, the Ribber's backstrap is thickly cushioned around the reduced-dimension inner titanium grip frame, and the front and sides of the grip are formed by wraparound, closely spaced small elastomere ribs, which deform and squeeze together when grasped, shaping themselves into natural finger grooves that mold to the individual shape and surface of the palm and fingers of the specific hand.
Released, they return to natural, ready for the next different grasp. Plus, the many small ridges greatly increase the surface area contact between the grip and your palm as compared to conventional solid-surface grips. This grip, combined with the Tracker's integrally ported 4-inch full-lug barrel, makes the gun genuinely comfortable to fire, even with full-power .41 Magnum ammunition. As an exercise, I've rapped five rapid-fire rounds of Winchester's 240-grain Platinum Tip out of the gun just as fast as I could pull the trigger, and the ported barrel's quick recovery kept them all in a 12-inch circle on a seven-yard target. Which is as close as I'm inclined to let a mama bear get.
Guns For The Wilderness
Ruger's offering to the field-sidearm category is the Super Redhawk Alaskan, introduced in 2005 in .454 Casull/.45 Colt and .480 Ruger calibers. Now in 2006 it's available in .44 Magnum as well. The Alaskan features a 2 1/2-inch hammer-forged barrel fitted inside the unique Super Redhawk extended frame manufactured from proprietary Ruger stainless steel. The short-barreled, easy-to-carry, backcountry revolver features Ruger's famous triple locking cylinder mechanism and is equipped with a special-design wraparound Hogue Monogrip to help cushion recoil. The grip is similar in design to the Hogue/S&W X-Frame grip.
Nonetheless, the double-action Super Redhawk's hump-shouldered frame design (like S&W's) transmits recoil energy impact directly backward into the palm and wrist without the moderating rotational vector associated with a smooth-shouldered single-action grip design. Compared to a single-action .454 Casull revolver, which will rotate in the shooter's grip to a near-vertical barrel position after firing, the recoil force that is dissipated through the rotation of the grip sliding through the shooter's hand in an SA design is transmitted straight back through the grip into the shooter with the DA design. It hits you.
That's the bad news. The good news is that should you ever have to use the Super Redhawk Alaskan model .454 for its intended purpose, the last thing in the world you'll be paying attention to is recoil. Using full-power .454 ammunition, the Alaskan's purpose is close-up protection from in-your-face predators with fangs and claws, and you'll actually be best off with the loads that have the most power and recoil possible.
On the other hand, the Alaskan's .45 Colt capability gives it a broader, more recreational application as well, which is why Ruger has gone out of its way to emblazon all Super Redhawk .454 Casull models with three separate .45 Colt caliber-stampings (twice on the cylinder; once on the frame extension) along with the .454 Casull marks. Shooting the Alaskan with .45 Colt loads, even .45 Colt +P or handloaded ammo at .44 Magnum-type power levels, is entirely pleasant. So loaded, it's even a reasonable choice for medium-weight or antlered game hunting in close-brush circumstances, regardless of its relatively short barrel length. Its accuracy with .45 Colt loads will surprise you; its chambers are specced to a tight .479-inch diameter, not the sloppy .488-inch diameter that is SAAMI-standard for .45 Colt-only guns.
The last notable backcountry sidearm to mention here is the Dan Wesson 445 SuperMag Alaskan Guide Special, which not only offers a beautifully configured wilderness sidearm but also takes full advantage of the versatile Dan Wesson system providing the options of ammunition and barrel interchangeability. Well proven in the hunting field, the 445 SuperMag cartridge has been a champion among handgun big-game cartridges for decades. The 445 SuperMag offers approximately 25 to 35 percent more performance than the standard .44 Magnum but also allows use of .44 Special and .44 Magnum ammunition as well.
Now back in production after a several-year hiatus, the Dan Wesson Model 445 Alaskan Guide Special (AGS) was designed specifically to be a companion on rugged outdoor adventures in the wilderness areas where, as the Dan Wesson literature so charmingly puts it, "humans are not always the top of the food chain." From its modern frame and barrel design to the durable matte black Yukon Coat finish, the AGS is made to perform.
Equipped with a 4-inch barrel and compensated barrel shroud, the revolver is designed to be a powerful stopper yet also convenient to holster and carry in rugged terrain. The modern design grip angle works particularly well with the compensation system to allow recovery control with the SuperMag cartridge. Firing .44 Magnum loads, it's a pussycat. Plus, the barrel assembly is interchangeable with all Dan Wesson Firearms 445 SuperMag barrel assemblies. Dan Wesson ammunition in various bullet weights is available from your local dealer, direct from Dan Wesson Firearms, and CZ-USA. Brass for handloading is available from Starline.
Consider this: The intelligent way to prepare yourself for carrying any of these heavy-hitting guns would be to entirely familiarize yourself with its feel and function by shooting it as much and as often as you can with as strong down-power loads as you find comfortable and controllable and then loading it with the real mastodon-killers when you go into the backcountry. In an emergency, your reflexes will kick in, and the gun will feel familiar and comfortable in your hand, whatever the load. This is not just idle talk. I've spoken personally with survivors of grizzly attacks who saved themselves by rapid-fire emptying DA .454 revolvers into the animals at touching distance. None of them had any consciousness of recoil or muzzle blast at the time.
I started this review by distinguishing between hunting handguns and hunters' handguns. But when you get right down to it, of course, any of these new tools will also make pretty good primary handgun hunting tools. I carried my Taurus .41 Magnum Tracker stuck in the cargo pocket of my Carharts up and down the Utah canyons for three days in two feet of snow a few winters ago, chasing cougars, and I never even had to think about it being there until I pulled it out to drop the finally treed cat with a single point-of-aim shot.
On a belt in a nylon-fabric holster and loaded with aluminum-case CCI Blazer ammo, you'll literally have to touch a Smith & Wesson Model 357 .41 Magnum to remind yourself it's there. A heavy Taurus Model 500 or S&W Model 500 or Ruger Alaskan in a well-designed field shoulder holster is no less comfortable to wear than a hiker's daypack. Pick whichever brand or model suits your fancy: These new, heavy-hitting high-tech powerhouse revolvers leave no serious outdoorsman with any excuse for not packing the security of a backup sidearm.