Hand gunning for deer might not seem like much of a challenge these days, considering the powerful big-bore handgun cartridges introduced the past few years. Some of those guns can shoot farther than and produce as much energy as favorite deer rifles of days gone by.
The type of handgun you pick for deer hunting will depend greatly on the type of hunting you do. Although all are capable of taking deer-sized game in perfect situations, we know perfect situations are rare in the field. Also, local game laws might restrict your choice of weapons and calibers, so make sure your equipment complies with regulations.
Caliber Choices: Revolvers
I think it’s fair to start with the .357 Mag. It gave up being the most powerful handgun cartridge long ago, but its still popular and capable of taking deer. Many states make it the caliber minimum. At ranges of about 50 to 100 yards, if the shooter does his job, it will cleanly take deer.
My preference for a deer handgun is the .44 Mag. or .45 Colt, with the Colt in the lead. Both are superb calibers for deer-sized game and provide more terminal energy at longer ranges. I watched a bull elk fall to a 6-inch .44 Mag. many years ago at about 50 yards. The slug passed through the elks chest and was lodged in the hide on the other side. For deer, the 240-grain loading has more than enough energy for a clean kill.
The .45 Colt is capable of similar performance but should be loaded and shot in handguns designed for the pressure, such as the Ruger Blackhawk. Unless you use CorBon or Buffalo Bore loads, most .45 Colt factory stuff is rather light to be safe in a variety of Colt SAAs. In a Freedom Arms, Ruger Blackhawk or old-style Ruger Vaquero, a 300-grain slug can leave the bore around 1,200 fps — more than enough junk to take deer or elk. Depending on how traditional you want to make your deer hunt, you could use a black- powder load topped with a 250-grain lead slug. I’ve sent these through the chronograph at 900 fps before. That’s more than enough for deer, considering reasonable distance. Be sure to mark these hot .45s so you don’t put them into a weaker SAA. They will dissect such guns.
A 5-inch barrel is my choice for hip carry, and the 71/2-inch barrel is also a good hunting choice.
Going up in power, though not necessary for deer, we come to the .454 Casull. With a slightly longer case than the .45 Colt, 300-grain factory loads leave the bore at 1,600 fps. That produces awesome energy, and if you want a caliber for larger critters, your deer load could be .45 Colt shot through the same gun. I like the Ruger Redhawk with a 71/2-inch barrel in .454 for bear hunting. I can easily pack it in a shoulder rig and have all the power I need for reasonable bear ranges. The Redhawk I had was topped with a 2X Leupold pistol scope, and a gallon milk jug had no chance at 150 yards.
With revolvers, the larger the caliber, the more recoil and noise. If you’re going to hunt bigger game or are interested in longer-range shooting — or you just like big revolvers — there are hundreds of choices and calibers from which to choose. My favorite revolver for deer is a Ruger old-style Vaquero. I can load a moderate load that would cleanly take deer at reasonable distances. Well, at least at ranges my eyes will focus on with open sights.
Another option for deer handgunning is a single-shot. The Thompson/Center Contender has become a household name for handguns, and for good reason. It’s a handgun-sized weapon that fires rifle calibers.
One of my favorite calibers for the Contender was the .35 Rem.
Awesome as a lever-gun load, it really took to the Contender. It has plenty of knockdown for deer and other animals, and with a 4X Leupold, 200-yard kills are possible.
The beauty of the T/C single-shot handgun is interchangeability of calibers. Want to hunt something else? Just get another barrel, and change to a more efficient caliber for that critter. The T/C barrels come in 10- and 14-inch configurations. I preferred the 14-inch for hunting to burn up a little more powder, and it wasn’t that much more to carry. With the scoped barrel easily switched out, one gun could handle many functions. I’m surprised today’s preppers haven’t latched on to the Contender — or maybe they have.
That brings me to shorter-range pistols — the semi-autos. I’m referring to everyday carry semi-autos, not bigger Desert Eagle-type guns, which, incidentally, are also excellent choices for deer.
Common calibers include the .45 Auto, 9mm, 40 S&W and it’s forefather, one of my all-time favorite pistol calibers, the 10mm Auto. Although shooting deer with a 9mm wouldn’t be my first choice, the caliber is capable of killing deer at reasonable distances.
I have killed two vehicle-injured moose and one deer with my duty gun. The deer would not let me get closer than 45 yards, so it was a chest shot with the 9mm. That Winchester 115-grain Silvertip passed completely through the chest and lodged in the hide. She ran about 25 yards and stacked up. One of the moose was taken at 20 yards with a .45 Auto, and the other was point- blank, so it didn’t really matter.
There’s another advantage to using semi-autos. I prefer to hunt with the handgun I will likely have with me all the time, if legal. In my case, that’s a semi-auto. That makes my handgun hunting a close-up affair, not much different than bowhunting. I live in Idaho, where I can take deer with my everyday-carry sidearm. I’m not a handgun-only hunter, but I usually won’t pass up an opportunity to challenge my sneaking abilities on a deer with my sidearm, which is usually a .45 Auto. If I really think I’m going to sneak on deer, I use my favorite 10mm Auto in a Delta Elite configuration.
The 10mm was supposed to be law-enforcement’s answer to handgun stopping power, and it failed to gain popularity in that arena. What it left was a superb semi-auto handgun cartridge for those of us who appreciate its attributes. It’s extremely accurate, more than potent enough for big game and packaged in an easily carried and handled pistol. Col. Jeff Cooper compared the 1911 in .45 Auto to a well-trained rhinoceros. That makes the Delta in 10mm a trained rhino thats been jabbed in the butt with a hot poker.
For hunting deer, the 180-grain Sierra hollow-point is my pick. I like to load my hunting ammo to balance velocity and power. In the semi-auto configuration, the recoil isn’t that bad, and the report is loud but not like bigger magnums. A few deer have fallen to my 10mm, and I suspect a few more will. I would not take a shot at game of more than 75 to 80 yards with the Delta, but I’ve kept it on 18-inch steel at 150 yards.
The .45 Auto will also take deer at about 100 yards or less, especially if you use 180-grain bullets, which leave the station at a much faster velocity. The 230-grain standard, at 900 fps, will get the job done, but the 180 traveling closer to 1,100 fps will have a bit Hatter trajectory with plenty of energy to get into the pumphouse. As with all handgun hunting, remember your limitations, and stay within them for a clean take. Again, all handguns will take deer with the proper bullet placement. Make sure you take a shot you can make.
Hunting deer with open-sighted duty-type sidearms requires that you hone your stalking skills. I hunt a section of willows along a high valley river that provides good opportunities to get close to elk and deer. I can also get to high ground, locate critters and plan out a wind-wise stalk.
The wind is the most important consideration, and camo clothing doesn’t hurt, depending on how close you want to get. If you’re sneaking on a standing animal, only move when its head is down or its looking away. Movement will bust you just as fast as scent. If the animal winds you, it will run off hard and not look back. This seems to be especially true with white- tails. When they run, it’s time to plan another stalk.
Just as with duty gun, a secure holster is mandatory for handgun hunting. There is a holster for every gun, and for hunting, I like leather. Kydex is noisy, as is nylon, although not as much. Shoulder carry is usually more comfortable for large revolvers and single-shots, and leather outfits for six guns and semi-autos are still available.
Handgunning for deer is just another way to add challenge to the sport. Limiting yourself to shorter- range weapons puts the hunt back in hunting. My primary motivation for hunting is meat. But with several tags available after meat is in the freezer, sneaking on a buck with my 10mm is definitely an option.