November 30, 2022
Former Petersen’s Hunting editor John Wootters pioneered modern deer management and introduced the art of antler rattling to the whitetail hunting world. His book Hunting Trophy Deer, first published in 1977, is widely considered to be one of the greatest works published on the topic, and even after 40 years, the text remains relevant and timely. Wootters was an inveterate handgun hunter, and his affinity for chasing deer with single-action Ruger revolvers became as much his trademark as his camouflage cowboy hat and Texas drawl. Late in his life, Wootters carried a wheelgun into the woods more than any other sporting arm. A detached retina played a role in Wootters’s transition to handgun hunting, but perhaps the man who had been so far ahead of the whitetail hunting curve knew something else we didn’t: Chasing deer with a handgun is great fun.
I'm from the generation of young hunters who read everything Wootters wrote, and because he was such a proponent of handgun hunting for whitetails, I decided I’d give it a try. In my teen years I shot my first whitetail—a doe—with a Ruger Redhawk .44 Magnum revolver, and the hunt was a disaster. The gun performed perfectly, but the bullets I was using weren’t designed for hunting, and the deer didn’t expire quickly. I swore off hunting whitetails with a handgun then and there.
Since that time I’ve harvested whitetails in multiple states with single- and double-action revolvers, semiauto pistols, and single-shot handguns. I’ve probably sworn off the sport a few more times, but I’ve always returned and have finally resigned myself to the fact that I’m a chronic handgun hunting fanatic.
WHY HUNT WITH A HANDGUN?
In a world where scopes automatically provide holdover data and rifles shoot 10-inch groups at 1,000 yards, it seems ludicrous to carry a handgun in search of whitetails. A handgun’s effective range isn’t near that distance, so why take up the mantle of hunting whitetails when there are far simpler ways to fill a tag?
The challenge of getting close to game and the fulfillment of knowing where your food came from are the motivating forces that carry us into the field regardless of the weapon we carry. A rifle shooter may be able to make a clean kill from 400 yards or even farther. The effective range of a handgun is far less, so the sport requires added discipline, but the rewards of making a clean shot at close range on one of the world’s wariest animals makes the extra effort worthwhile. You’ll have fewer shot opportunities hunting deer with your handgun, but you’ll remember the shots you do take because the deer will be close.
WHAT GUN IS BEST?
There are a number of excellent single- and double-action wheelguns suitable for hunting. Ruger’s Blackhawk and Super Blackhawk are probably the most popular single-action revolver options and with good reason. These guns are safe and durable, they’re available in a wide selection of suitable hunting calibers, and the price is right. What’s more, the Super Blackhawk Hunter comes with scope ring cutouts in the rib, which makes mounting an optic on these guns fast and easy. Other single-action options include Ruger’s Vaquero, Uberti’s 1873 clones and Callahan Target, MG Arms’s Dragon Slayer, and Colt’s SAA, and in the right hands all of them are superb weapons for hunting whitetail.
Double-action revolvers are the most popular option for handgun hunters. Smith & Wesson’s K, L, N, and X Frames, Ruger’s Redhawk and Super Redhawk, and Taurus’s Raging Hunter double actions are all suitable for whitetail deer. Large-frame double-action revolvers are capable of handling extremely large, powerful cartridges like the .480 Ruger, .454 Casull, and the .460 and .500 S&W Magnums, and good double actions are quite accurate.
While revolvers remain the most popular option for handgun hunters, semiauto pistols are quickly gaining ground thanks in part to renewed interest in the 10mm Auto cartridge. Glock and Springfield both offer striker-fired, polymer-frame 10mm semiautos, and there are a host of different 10mm 1911s from companies like Ruger, Dan Wesson, and Kimber. Most of these models have five-inch barrels and weigh around 40 ounces, so they’re lighter, smaller, and easier to carry than many competing single- and double-action revolvers, yet 10mms offer enough energy to humanely kill a whitetail at moderate ranges. Shooters who are familiar and comfortable with semiautos don’t need to change to a revolver if they don’t want to, and several companies offer optic-ready 10mm handguns.
Single-shot pistols like Thompson/Center’s Encore and Contender are also solid options. Having just one shot on tap isn’t a major disadvantage—you’ll have to choose your shots carefully, though—and single shots allow the use of powerful cartridges like the .308 Winchester that aren’t available in semiautos or revolvers. In recent years bolt-action handguns like the Remington 700-CP and the Nosler Model 48 Independence have become popular, and with the right scope and rest, these guns are capable of bridging the performance gap between traditional hunting revolvers and centerfire rifles.
Wootters considered the .357 Magnum the absolute minimum for handgun hunting, and I agree. When fired from an eight-inch barrel, Hornady’s 140-grain FTX .357 Magnum generates around 500 ft.-lbs. of energy at 50 yards, and with a shorter barrel, you can expect even lower energy levels. The .357 Magnum demands close shots, and anything beyond 50 yards is asking a lot of this cartridge. On the bright side, the .357 Magnum’s recoil is mild compared to the larger .40-caliber magnums.
The rimless 10mm Auto falls between the .357 Magnum and .41 Magnum on the power curve. Most hunting loads from a 10mm Auto average between 500 and 600 ft.-lbs. of energy at 50 paces, and there are lots of quality hunting loads for this cartridge. I think the 10mm is a great option for close-range whitetails, and its recoil and muzzle blast are far more palatable than larger rounds.
The .44 Remington Magnum is to the handgun hunting world what the .30-06 is to the centerfire big-game market. It’ll perform on just about any game, recoil is manageable, and there are plenty of guns chambered in this round. Several ammo companies offer high-quality .44 Magnum hunting loads, and volumes of reloading data exist for the cartridge. The .44 Magnum’s recoil is at the upper threshold for most hunters, especially those for whom handgun hunting is a casual pastime. However, with a bit of practice, the .44 Magnum becomes at least manageable (and you can always practice with milder .44 Special ammo). The .44 offers better punch than less-powerful rounds, yet it isn’t as punishing as the really big stuff.
The .45 Colt is an often overlooked hunting cartridge, and it offers adequate performance on game with less recoil than a .44 Magnum. The .45 Colt is not a long-range round, and that heavy bullet loses energy quickly, but it’s a solid option for hunting deer-sized game at moderate ranges. The .454 Casull, .460 S&W Magnum, .480 Ruger, and .500 S&W Magnum top the list of suitable handgun hunting calibers in terms of energy, cost of ammo, and recoil. These guns aren’t for the faint of heart, and their prodigious recoil and earth-scorching muzzle blast are off-putting to many. But these powerful magnums are capable of impressive performance in the field. The .454 Casull generates about 1,500 ft.-lbs. of wallop at 50 yards, and at 100 yards it’s still holding onto 1,200 ft.-lbs. with a 300-grain bullet, which is more energy than some .44 Magnum loads generate at the muzzle. The .460, .480, and .500 are all capable of similarly eye-popping performance—if you can handle their bark and bite.
Wootters denounced scopes on handguns, saying they added extra bulk and made shooting more difficult. I find scopes on handguns work just fine, although the popularity of reflex sights makes them a viable option. Reflex sights allow the shooter to keep both eyes open, and they’re small and unobtrusive yet rugged. Red-dot handguns oftentimes don’t require special holsters liked scoped guns. I used a Trijicon SRO on a Smith & Wesson 629 to take a buck last year and was impressed by the revolver/optic combination. Reflex sights like the SRO, Leupold’s Delta Point, and Aimpoint’s Micro T-2 improve my accuracy and extend my maximum range well beyond what I can master with iron sights.
LEARNING THE ROPES
Wootters may have been an inspiration to become a handgun hunter, but it was Ruger’s Paul Pluff who taught me the ropes of the sport. Pluff is a dedicated and proficient handgun hunter who has taken over a dozen whitetails with various handguns at ranges out to 225 yards. While Pluff and I were on a whitetail hunt in Texas, he walked me through the finer points of handgun hunting like trigger control, proper grip, managing recoil, and getting set up to take a shot in the field.
“Handgun hunting adds a different level of excitement to a hunt,” says Pluff. “It’s close and personal, and it requires a unique skill set.” Pluff ’s drill for new handgun hunters is to begin by shooting a five- or six-inch pie plate, which roughly corresponds with the size of the vitals on a whitetail deer.
“Begin shooting close,” he says. “Ten or 15 yards to start, maybe 20 if you feel comfortable.” From there he recommends adding five yards and shooting again. To be proficient at a specific range, the hunter should be able to hit the plate several times in a row. Once you can no longer consistently hit the pie plate from a stable field position, you’ve reached your maximum effective range with a handgun. Pluff also recommends making ballistic cards that tell both the drop and energy at different distances. Pluff doesn’t like to shoot deer at any distance with any handgun that isn’t producing roughly 900 ft.-lbs. of energy.
Maintaining a steady sight picture while pulling the trigger is critical for success with a hunting handgun. This begins by establishing a firm grip on the gun without squeezing so tightly that muscle tension causes the gun to move. Pluff prefers to hunt with double-action handguns, and interestingly, he fires them in double-action mode without first cocking the trigger. This takes time and practice, but he feels it prevents him from “snapping” the trigger and forces him to keep the sights in position throughout the entire firing process.
“Even on my longer shots I rarely use more than a 4X scope and never more than a 6X,” says Pluff. According to Pluff, higher magnification can amplify the gun’s natural movement, and this, in turn, distracts the shooter. Wobble isn’t as pronounced with low-power scopes and red dots.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Last fall I chased whitetails with a handgun in Nebraska while testing Hornady’s new Handgun Hunter ammunition. I saw a number of good bucks on that hunt, but on the third day a heavybodied, broken-antlered buck appeared on the far edge of a CRP field. After chasing a doe in a series of widening loops across the CRP, the pair came to a stop not far from my blind. The buck paused to batter some low-hanging branches with his broken antlers and offered a broadside shot at 50 yards. When the Trijicon SRO’s dot came steady behind the buck’s shoulder, I pressed the trigger. The Smith & Wesson Performance Center .44 roared, and the buck took a half-dozen steps, paused, then fell dead.
Would that hunt have been as memorable if I’d shot the buck on the opposite side of the CRP field with a centerfire rifle? Maybe, but the pressure of having to wait for the right shot and then seeing the opportunity unfold is what stands out most clearly in my mind about the hunt. I’m not knocking centerfire rifles, and I’m certain that I’ll kill far more deer over the course of my career with a long gun than a revolver, but there’s something special about hunting with a handgun. Wootters, dean of deer hunting, once wrote, “I’ve taken deer with just about everything except sharp sticks, and can testify that a clean kill on a mature buck with a single-action hogleg comes close to being the most fun I know how to have in the woods.”