The best handgun for deer hunting you ask? Wow! That’s a tall order. A question like that depends on so many variables there is no correct answer that is truly universal. As you know this really hinges on things like your comfort and confidence with a particular firearm. Of course there are natural pitfalls to some weapons based primarily on their inherent characteristics. All in all you need to know those and just as important you need to know the ranges in which you’ll be shooting. Add a healthy dose of ‘cheating’ as I call it and you’ll help yourself immensely.
When I refer to ‘cheating’ when shooting, it isn’t really. In fact, it is more appropriately called basic marksmanship. Simply put, brace yourself at any and every given chance. I don’t care if you’re leaning against a tree, resting your arms over a fence, or setting the base of the weapon atop a hay bale, you need to employ this technique whenever possible. Centerfire handguns can be average to great with accuracy, but in most uses, they’re considered a relatively shorter range weapon. So if you plan to use one beyond the average application, then you’ll need to be precise. The only way you’ll be precise is to be well practiced and well supported, literally, when you shoot. Trust me. It makes all the difference.
There are so many really great handguns available today that it can be hard to choose. Each has pros and cons of course. You’d be surprised how many weapons of yesteryear manage to fill tags as well. There are three basic categories you see routinely in Iowa. Granted there are a few others here and there, but most are pretty main stream as it were. You’ll fine semi auto handguns like 1911s or Glocks for example, used often. Revolvers are a favorite, especially in magnum chamberings. Another you see occasionally are the single shot units like the Thompson Center handguns. In Iowa, we’re relegated to a list of ‘approved chamberings’ the DNR has been gracious enough to allow hunters to use. They include: .357 Magnum, .357 Maximum, .375 Winchester, .38 Super, .40 S&W, .401 Powermag, 10 mm Auto, .41 Remington Magnum, .41Action Express, .44 S&W Special, .44 Remington Magnum, .44 Automag, .444 Marlin, .445 Super Mag, .45 ACP, .45 Colt, .45 Super Mag, 45 Winchester Magnum, .45 Silhouette, .451 Detonics, .454 Casull, .45-70 Govt., .460 Rowland, .460 S&W Mag, .475 Widley Magnum, .475 Linebaugh, .480 Ruger, .50 Action Express, .50 Linebaugh, .50 Beowulf and .500 S&W Mag.
Why a list of approved chamberings? I suspect two things, although I’ve never asked specifically to anyone in the Wallace Building. I’m sure the DNR prefers, as we do, that deer be taken, or attempted anyway, in a humane manner. I agree whole heartedly. In order to do this, a powerful enough chambering is necessary to adequately dispatch game. Why a specific list? Control and hogwash are the common answers you’ll get if you receive honesty. Wouldn’t it be easier to simply state two things? A minimum caliber or projectile size combined with a minimum power in terms of energy your choice in firearm has to have in order for it to be legal. Isn’t that really what this is about?
We could easily state that Iowa requires a .357 caliber or larger and also requires 600ft/lbs minimum of muzzle energy in order to be legal for use in a minimum barrel length. Wouldn’t that be simple? But the DNR is becoming more about control than balancing nature and man, so we have to grovel for our choices. Don’t fret. The groveling, while insulting, isn’t quite as terrible as you’d think. I was successful in adding the 50 Beowulf to the list by making a half dozen phone calls to find the right person and then submitting SAAMI load data. After I was put in touch with the gentleman I needed to speak with, it went really quickly. I don’t know with certainty, but I’d guess they simply took a peek at the performance and compared it against a couple of prerequisites like those I outlined in the beginning of this paragraph, and *voila*, it was added. What would your tax money do if there wasn’t somebody employed to force you to ask obvious questions and provide obvious answers with their permission while making $83,000.00 a year and full benefits? You may not have picked up on it yet, but I hold the opinion that some of the DNR’s “rules and regulations” are kind of foolish. I’ll just leave that one right there to simmer with you all for a bit.
We’ve established there are certain approved calibers you may use by law. I don’t advocate breaking it, so stay within it. Your options are to change the law, or submit a chambering for consideration. I suspect the reason for a law like this rests solely on that one guy we all know that runs his yap about using a 22mag on deer and how effective it is. In the DNR’s defense, that guy is a problem for us all. However, just like all gun laws, only the responsible obey them. I’d submit the responsible don’t need the law for they know up from down. That same 22mag moron is probably out there poaching the night before the season opener, so keep that in mind. We have to do our part too you know.
If you really jump headlong into this kind of shooting I think you’ll find one of the easiest and most effective weapons is the revolver. At least it has been for me. Some of the lifelong staples of the wheel gun world continue to impress year and year, decade after decade. When I strap on a Ruger Blackhawk in 44mag, I know things are going to go well. I have a powerful cartridge to use, and the trigger will allow me precise manipulation of the weapon. Provided I can do my part, I am supremely confident with that type of weapon I can make shots to as far as 80 and 100 yards.
Now… It is important for each of us to know our limitations. Would I shoot at a deer running flat out at 100 yards with the same Blackhawk? No. While many I know would and could do very well in that same scenario, I know I’m not confident I could, so I log that in my memory bank before a hunt. Don’t let buck fever push you into taking a lousy shot. That’s an important concept to have firmly entrenched in your beanie long before opening day. As you can tell, this is why I push so hard on training and practice. When you master your weapon and have practiced a lot, it is possible those same shots I decline would be no problem for you.
I took a really nice S&W 686 Plus out a few years ago chambered in 357mag, and I enjoyed great results with it. I wasn’t walking though, I was stand hunting with that handy little Smith and enjoyed it. Again, the trigger was great and the sights were perfect for me. Mama doe came be bopping by just after sun up, and I was able to place a humane shot all just a few paces from my stand out back of the house.
I’ll admit I have a soft spot for revolvers in this regard. I fixed up a really sweet 460S&W magnum a year or two ago. Granted, I had to do quite a bit of work to it in the shop, but in terms of overall performance it wasn’t much enhanced over what you’d walk out of a store with stock off the shelf. I added a really great scope and managed to get data in 25yard increments out to 200yards with it. It was plenty capable of shooting that distance. I’m not convinced I was, but none-the-less some of these really top shelf magnums are capable of rifle performance. Just like Faust discovered, there was a tradeoff. I saddled myself with an ultra-performance revolver, but it weighed nearly 8lbs. Try standing in the middle of a bean field and holding that still while you shoot. To say holding steady was hard is the understatement of the year. Weapons like that require being steady or they’re worthless. Besides, using one arm to steady a hand cannon and shooting it one handed is a really poor idea. It’s a safety risk number one and it’ll bite you in the face if you’re not careful. Also consider how much skin scorching flame is pouring out of the cylinder into the barrel in order to achieve that performance. You don’t want your hand or any body parts ahead of the cylinder on a weapon like that or you’re going to be sorry. So with performance comes another set of problems. Consider this carefully.
As far as semi autos go, I know a lot of guys that use 45acp chambered guns, but most are using them as secondary weapons. Honest to goodness I see quite a few guys transitioning into 20ga slug guns and carrying a 45 sidearm as a backup or the gun they’ll grab to use when shots are close and plenty of time is available. I don’t have a fundamental problem with this at all. But know that while the 45 isn’t a pooch, it isn’t a magnum either. So those dreams of 200yard shots with the flame thrower 460 revolvers are completely lost on the 45. It’s just physics. I believe sights are important on autos too. Many revolvers I use for deer hunting have adjustable sights. This is a big plus. Many of the semi autos I see out there have relatively coarse sights. You might consider a sight upgrade if you’re going to hunt with a gun like that. You’ll be better off with a precise and properly adjusted set of sights. You need to know where the bullet is headed, right?
The other unit I see picking up a lot of speed, pun intended, is the 10mm. Man do we have lots of guys asking for that one. I see just about half and half 1911s and Glocks. There aren’t a lot of semi auto manufacturers out there that chamber the 10mm, so Glock is one of the few high volume manufacturers that pushes that product out. If you combine the new Glock 40 with a nice red dot sight, you’re in tall cotton my friends. Those handy dandy red dot optics have made a huge impact on the market. My buddy Dave Funk pops into the shop routinely for smithing work and he’s outfitting a lot of this handguns with optics like that. “It’s turned things back into a shooting competition instead of a seeing competition,” Dave exclaimed to me the other day. For quick acquisition and ease of use, these things are tough to beat. We add them to as many 1911s as we do Glocks and weapons of that nature. However, if you were to ask me about range, I’m not sure I could say. I’ve never personally used one beyond 100yards, so I couldn’t say if you were safe beyond that distance and if so how far. Still, with capacity like that and a powerful chambering, you should be able to perform pretty well in most cases.
The last one on my list is the Thompson Center style weapon. Whether you’re running a Contender or not, it matters little. These are supremely crafted weapons and do a great job. The triggers are superb and most employ optics, while some prefer sights still with their barrel of choice. For those of you unfamiliar with this kind of weapon, you essentially buy a frame, and swap out the barrels as you see fit. They’re single shot break action weapons. They’re typically extremely accurate, but the downside is the one shot and reload scenario. Granted a well-placed shot with a Contender shouldn’t require a second pop, but you never know. Again, as you can see, The Ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself” is necessary. If you’re walking with a group of ten guys, and you’re a pusher I can see maybe using one. If you’re walking with a group of ten guys, and you’re a shooter, I’ll bet you don’t get invited back. If you’re in a tree stand in dense timber, I’d say you’re good to go. It all depends. You need to know your hunting area and your abilities and limitations.
I suppose there is one sub category, but it falls quickly into semi auto pistols. The AR15 is becoming popular. Even more so with the invention of the Sig pistol brace. The stock is removed from the AR15 and an arm brace is instead employed. Personally, I think they work good, but not great. But if you chamber an AR15 in something like the 50 Beowulf mentioned above you’ve got a great weapon for deer hunting. Plenty of power and good capacity are normal for this set up. I’ll warn you though, having helped pioneer this type of handgun several years ago, it’s a handful. We’re talking about the kind of power the 500S&W has in a weapon designed to be gripped with one hand on the pistol grip. When I built my first 50Beo pistol it had a 9” barrel and nearly no buffer tube. Stupidly, I latched onto the grip with both hands and let her rip. I remember waking up seconds later with a monster headache. The Sig style pistol brace aids a ton in the muzzle rise as does the modern brakes we now employ. However, when you want to be the first kid on your block with a weapon chambered in something it wasn’t designed for, you’re going to occasionally make an unscheduled trip to the dentist’s office.
All in all you have some really great options out there. For years and years in Iowa it was 12ga pump shotguns and little else. Personally, the diversity in firearms and new products out there are exciting and fun. An entire sector of supremely capable handguns and we’re set for a great, safe, and story-worthy hunt. Now that our shotguns, muzzle loaders, and handguns are capable of rifle performance it makes you wonder why rifles aren’t legal all the way across the board doesn’t it? I’ll stop there, as I had my DNR rant earlier in the article.
It’s a great time to consider something new folks. Get out there and give a new weapon a try. When your buddy offers to let you try his, stop being so timid and saying “No thanks,” like we think we’re supposed to. Instead, say “Thanks, I’d love to try on that thing,” and do it. Why not? Be safe, be respectful, and be kind – that’s what my six year old daughter tells me when I pick her up from the bus. It works just the same for a great Iowa hunt. Enjoy each day friends.