Handguns and Optics
September 23, 2010
Like the guns under them, handgun optics have come a long way in the last decade, and they can increase accuracy and speed in the field.
It was one of the defining moments of my hunting life. A mature kudu bull had just stepped out of the bush and into the corner of a small opening. He, all 500 or 600 pounds of him, was not completely clear of the brush, and I had just a small hole through which to thread a bullet. I reached up and dialed the scope up from 2X to 6X and double-checked the shot. A few minutes later, standing over a perfectly shot kudu, I marveled at the revolver and scope in the holster at my side. I was thoroughly convinced that an optic-equipped handgun was the way to go.
I grew up around big-bore handguns, and at 11 or 12 years old, I got to squeeze off rounds from my dad's S&W Model 58 .41 Magnum. I was hooked and hunted with handguns when the conditions were right. That mostly involved tucking an iron-sight Smith Model 686 and later a Model 657 Mountain Gun under a rain jacket and slipping around pine plantations looking for bedded bucks. All my guns wore iron sights and nothing else, since shots were usually less than 50 yards. Handguns were meant to be handy, and putting a big scope on the topstrap defeated the purpose.
After quite a few hunts, a lot of thinking, and the introduction of some potent cartridges and handguns, I have reevaluated that position, and more often than not, I find myself carrying a big-bore handgun with an optic. If you have never considered matching your favorite handgun with an optic, it might be worth a look. The right optic could allow you to shoot faster and more accurately.
Handgun optics, like all other optics categories, have changed considerably in the past decade, and just about every segment of the handgun world has specialized optics. I'm focusing on hunting handguns here because it would take every page in this magazine to cover them all.
Variable- And Fixed-Power Scopes
In Africa, I carried S&W's .460 XVR, a revolver capable of accurately putting bullets on target past 200 yards. Many bolt-action and break-action pistols chambered for rifle cartridges are capable of delivering killing blows well past that. My hunting companion, Bill Booth, also was shooting a .460, and he dropped two game animals at ranges in excess of 200 yards.
My longest shot was 150 yards.
But the majority of my shots were well within 100 yards, and that is why I like variable scopes on long-range handguns. My gun was paired with a Bushnell Elite 3200 2-6X 32mm that, on lower settings, allowed me to precisely place bullets while maintaining a large field of view. When the shots got long or I had to thread the needle, as in the case of my kudu, I had the option of dialing up the power.
Because of the generous eye relief possessed by most handgun scopes, point of impact shifts due to parallax or magnification changes are rarely a problem. It is more likely the cumulative effects of the rest, grip, and reaction to recoil that send bullets astray. Still, I did take the time to shoot groups at 100 yards with my scope on 2X, then 6X, just to be sure.
The Bushnell Elite 2-6X 32mm was the perfect scope for an African safari where shots ranged from 27 yards to 150 yards.
If shots were going to be within 100 yards--shooters might be limited by terrain or caliber--I would probably stick with fixed 2X or 4X optics. "Keep it simple, stupid" are words to live by, and not fiddling with a power ring will shave a few seconds off your time to target.
Mounting a handgun scope is pretty easy, even though they are short and spaces between turrets are small. Eye relief is generous, and small adjustments can be made by retracting or extending the arms. Ruger makes it easy with its integral rings and bases. I love the Warne rail mount that replaces the back sight on Smith & Wessons for its strength and versatility. Talley's one-piece alloy base/ring combination is great for Encores and the like, reducing weight by a few ounces over steel mounts.
What they lack in magnification, reflex sights make up for with speed. Since there is effectively no parallax, if you can see the red dot, the bullet will find its mark regardless of how unorthodox your view through the optic might be. Shots on walking or running game are doable, and the dot is far more precise than iron sights and far more visible in low light.
My favorite hog set-up is a Smith Model 657 Classic Hunter paired with an Aimpoint Comp ML2 on Warne mounts. The gun is light enough to be worn and walked all day but very quick on hogs in thick cover. The 2-MOA dot allows shots out to 100 yards if my rest is steady. The little red dot is far better than even an orange insert in the front sight in low light.
I must admit that my experience is limited with the latest generation of ultracompact red dots like the Trijicon RedDot, Burris FastFire, Docter Optic Red Dot, and JP JPoint, but the potential of these sights looks limitless. They add mere ounces to the overall weight, and finding the dot is easy since it is usually just over the front sight. Mounting options increase every month, it seems, and the only big question I have is durability. My friends who use them in race-gun competitions have reported excellent results but rarely shoot in the rain or fall down mountains. I have plans to swap out the Aimpoint for a Trijicon RedDot in a LaRue Iron Dot low-profile mount and report back after a dozen or so hog and deer hunts.
In many cases, the right optics can really take your handgun's field performance to the next level; in others, they will only marginally improve on iron sights. You have to weigh the factors involved, pick the right optic for the job, and spend plenty of time practicing before you can decide if handgun optics are for you.
After three days of climbing mountains and arduous stalks, the author dropped this gemsbok in its tracks with a 150-yard shot. The 6X magnification was a handy feature at extended ranges.