This article first appeared in the October 1968 issue of Shooting Times.
I can remember very few men who actually hunted with handguns, except when it was necessary to hunt for food or to kill a predator and a handgun was the only gun available. Albeit, my compadres have taken a trainload of game with the six-shooter, and I've brought home a generous share myself.
The distinction is a matter of semantics, and of the intent and purpose of the pistol packer when he leaves the hearth and takes to the field. The best men at the art of handgun game shooting are outdoorsmen, but not necessarily hunters as we think of hunters today.
Gun-toting cowboys largely belonged to the past even back when I was a boy. Some waddies, though, carried along a little ballast in their britches during their strenuous day's toil, and they brought home meat. When the bosses' bacon and beans got tiresome, it wasn't too much of a chore to bush them up with grain-fat mallards or Canada honkers, a Canadian River turkey, or the backstraps from a mulie buck. If these delicacies didn't make an appearance during a day's ride, the hired hand on horseback could always use a hogleg, generally carried in a chap's pocket rather than a holster, to gather a brace of cottontails or even a neighbor's Rhode Island Red.
I remember rural mail carriers, forest rangers, truckdrivers, farm hands, and telephone linemen who carried sideguns. And pistol-toting country doctors and seismograph crewmen and bulldozer operators and cattle magnates. These were not swivel-chair, once-a-year deer hunters but outdoorsmen who made intimate contact with game every day. Many were only so-so pistol shots, but free from the ravages of buck fever, they could Indian up close enough to an unwary deer to hit him with a rock, let alone a handgun.
Their guns were pretty sorry by today's standards. There were a lot of World War I Lugers, worth about five bucks during the Depression. Single-action Colts abounded in every caliber. Some of the better-paid invested in new Colt or Smith & Wesson double actions, and the real gun nuts were seen to carry the crisply made .22 Colt Woodsman semiautomatics. One self-sufficient country boy I knew left Texas and spent more than 10 years in the back country of Alaska, loading his Dodge Power Wagon with cooking utensils, several hundred pounds of books, a gasoline-powered washing machine, and a Colt Police Positive .32-20. He never passed a day there without eating meat.
It behooves the handgunner to take advantage of the excellent selection of hunting guns that are now offered. No serious hunter, when contemplating the acquisition of a new centerfire handgun, should consider anything but a Magnum.
To narrow it even further, I choose the .44 Magnum over the .41 Magnum for hunting, although the latter is extremely close to the .44 in potency. It is doubtful that a heavy animal would know the difference when hit with a factory or heavy handload from either of these calibers.
I pick the .44 simply because it does have a slight edge in bullet weight and diameter. The recoil-shy will also find that it kicks somewhat more strongly.
Barrel Length Matters
The matter of barrel length is important in several ways. The least noteworthy of these is the increase in velocity gained by a longer barrel. Approximately 100 fps difference exists between the performance of full Magnum loads in 5-inch and 8…œ-inch barrels. This is not sufficient to be a deciding factor in the choice of the length of your sixgun's barrel.
More vital are the enhancement of the holding qualities of your revolver when it gains muzzle weight with a longer barrel and the reduction in sighting error resulting from the longer distance between rear and front sights.
A Magnum to be used solely for hunting should carry a minimum barrel length of 6 inches. Longer tubes, up to 8…œ inches, are better. Anything longer than that is too unwieldy for normal use, negating what practical advantage it may have gained in power and accuracy. In 1958 I did considerable shooting with a 12-inch Colt Buntline .45. The old long Tom, even though mounted with fixed sights, shot beautifully, and I made some excellent groups with it. Most of my shooting had to be done from or near my car, since the only way to carry the Buntline was to carry it in the hand.
Other faults of the freakishly long barrel are that it tires the arm so rapidly in offhand shooting, and it is rather slow in aligning for a snap shot. Although these two shots will rarely be essayed at game, the barrel's length should not be so extreme as to handicap the shooter seriously.
Shooting Position Makes A Big Difference
The real sportsman always takes advantage of the best result available and shoots two-handed. When an offhand shot is absolutely necessary, the heel of the shooting hand should be rested in the cupped palm of the off hand. Lateral barrel movement can be dampened somewhat by extending the first two fingers of the lower hand to support the trigger guard.
Some hikers carry a staff and steady their handguns against it or the staff-holding hand. I have never found this comfortable, since the staff hand, if it takes a full grasp of the stick, leaves nothing but a couple of knuckles on which to rest the revolver. If the thumb is opened to allow the gun hand to rest on its web, there is never enough room, and unwanted side pressure is exerted against the gun.
When shooting from a rest, such as a fence post, remember not to permit any part of the gun itself to touch the surface of the rest. To do so will affect the point of impact of the bullet at the target, due to the revolver not being allowed to recoil naturally. The off hand should support the gun hand, as described earlier, and should itself rest on the hard surface to act as a cushion. Those with small or bony hands may find it desirable to wear a leather glove to protect their support hand.
When no rest is available, various positions other than standing may be employed for two-handed sixgun work. By far the steadiest is the back rest. If something solid, such as a tree or large rock, is handy, the shooter sits down, resting his back against the anchor object. Both knees are drawn up, and the forearms are rested on the insides of the thighs, just behind the knee joints. The handgun is grasped in the usual, two-handed manner, and the hold can be made rock steady by the application of a little inward pressure by the legs.
Sitting without a back rest is not so good. As the shooter lowers his head to see the sights, his body tends to rock backward, and it is necessary to hook the elbows in front of the knees on the shins to remain balanced. This is a strained position, and I do about as well standing.
The belly-flopping prone position is not as beneficial to handgunners as it is to riflemen unless an artificial rest--such as sandbags--or a pad are on hand to make a base for the gun. Without this support, the hands are extended too far forward and are held up by a framework of trembling muscles instead of bone. Another bad feature of the prone position is that the gunner's head must be held back unnaturally far to look down the sights. Also, the line of sight is extremely close to the ground, and view of the target is likely to be obscured by weeds, brush, and small rocks.
Better than going completely prone is to sit down, extending your legs in front of you. Then lean back, resting the weight of your upper body on your off elbow. Draw up the knees of your shooting side and rest the wrist and inner forearm against it. Although it looks rather strange, this is a very good position in lieu of a rest.
Given the proper gun and loads, anyone who has the desire and is physically capable can master the techniques necessary to take game with the handgun. Equally important as proficiency is attitude and conduct in the field. Handgun hunting needs the quiet, competent gent who obeys the rules of good sportsmanship, who picks his shots with care, and who can come home feeling rewarded on the day he didn't get a shot.