You need to know what handgun and ammo choices will best take deer in the most common field situations.
Handgun hunters face difficult choices when they are deciding which firearms and ammunition to use when hunting whitetail deer. Differences in geography, season timing, and specific hunting situations dictate that one cartridge/gun combo can clearly be the best pick—while other well-thought-of choices may wound game and frustrate the hunter.
Inside, we detail several specific cartridges, guns, bullets, and loads that will make you a more successful hunter in four common geographical areas. If you’re a rifle hunter who wants to try handguns to take game, or if you’re an experienced handgun hunter who wants to branch out and pursue whitetails in other areas, our advice can set you on the path to success:
Thick Brush, Big Deer
The wilderness of the Northeast is characterized by vast, thick woods and big, heavy whitetails. It is not uncommon to see 300-pound dressed-weight bucks coming out of Maine, and other Northeastern states are not too far behind in producing big whitetails.
Hunting conditions in these states dictate that a handgun bullet must penetrate enough to cause damage to the vitals of a buck weighing as much as 300 pounds from any angle and to provide an exit hole. Because of the region’s thick brush, hunters must often use less-than-perfect shot angles take shots at parts of a buck. Also, due to the thick vegetation, a deer may disappear quickly after the shot, and a hunter will probably need to track most deer. A bullet that exits the deer’s body from most angles will ensure that the projectile causes rapid death and creates a better blood trail to follow.
Much Northeastern hunting is in grown-up clear-cuts, deep swamps, and to a lesser extent, hardwood ridges. The best trophy bucks will almost always be found in the thickest vegetation available, often so thick that any deer without powder burns on his hide is considered a long shot, so flat trajectories are not a prime consideration. Many hunters will stay with iron sights here, but a low-power scope helps the hunter aim accurately when the light is poor. Electronic red-dot sights are also good optical picks.
Hunting methods such as tracking and still-hunting require that weight be kept to a minimum, that the gun carry easily, and that it can be brought into action quickly. A revolver satisfies all three requirements.
Of the available revolver cartridges, we believe the .357 Magnum is too small for deer. The .41 Magnum would be a good choice if terminal performance were the only factor you considered, but its poor availability makes it a second-rate cartridge choice. Thus, practical caliber choice really starts with the .44 Magnum.
Current .44 Magnum factory loads suitable for hunting are largely limited to jacketed bullets. Don’t be fooled by the high energies (on paper) of the 180-grain bullets; anything lighter than 240 grains is a poor choice. Lighter bullets lack the sectional density and weight necessary for penetration. For these reasons, 300-grain bullets are growing in popularity, but the 240-grain weight is still the favorite choice for hunting these big bucks.
Among the commercially available bullets in these grain weights, we would pick Hornady XTP bullets for hunting deer-size game. In our field experience, the XTPs have proven to be accurate, tough, and deadly. Also, factory loads with the XTP in .44 Magnum are available from Hornady and Black Hills Ammunition in both the 240- and 300-grain weights. Top-performing handloads use 24 grains of Winchester 296 powder and a CCI magnum primer for the 240-grain XTP bullet and 20 grains of 296 with the 300-grain bullet. In our guns, these loads give us about 1,400 fps and 1,200 fps respectively, depending on barrel length.
However, the best .44 Magnum hunting bullet may well be a similarly sized hard-cast, flat-nosed bullet with a large meplat. Penetration tests we’ve conducted have shown this design will penetrate better than most any other straight-walled handgun cartridge hunting bullet. Surprisingly, the cast bullets also create wound channel diameters that are often as large as those drilled out by jacketed, expanding bullets. The classic .44 Magnum cast-bullet load is one developed by Elmer Keith. It employs a 250-grain cast bullet of his design (RCBS mold No. 44-250K) over 22 grains of 2400 powder. A similar bullet in a Thompson gas-check design is the 245-grain projectile created from a Lyman No. 429244 mold.
Newer cast-bullet designs use heavier bullets with a larger nose. The nose has a straighter ogive profile and a large, flat meplat. A good one for the .44 Magnum is the SSK 320-grain weight. When loaded with 21.5 grains of WW 296 and a CCI magnum primer, they exit a 10-inch Ruger barrel at more than 1,300 fps. We have seen these bullets run through a bear end to end. When you need penetration from the .44 Magnum, this is the bullet to shoot.
PS Recommends: To ensure accurate, safe hunting with these handloads, we recommend using the Freedom Arms revolver. Carried in an Uncle Mike’s Bandoleer holster, the hefty wheelgun rides comfortably when you carry it over New England mountains. Topped with an M8-2X Leupold scope and JDJ TSOB mounts, the rig will run about $1,800.
Guns to avoid include any revolver with less than a 6-inch barrel. The sight radius is too short for accurate aiming, and the stubby tube will not generate enough velocity even with hopped-up handloads. Also, we think any handguns shooting cartridges from the .357 Magnum down are not deer guns. Furthermore, cannon-breech single shots and the Remington XP handguns present carrying problems that are not easy to solve for walking hunters, in our opinion. They don’t fit well in holsters, we believe, and are not particularly well suited for shooting offhand. They are better left for other types of deer hunting.
Midrange Greenfield Shots
A lot of the South is thickly timbered, as anyone who has tried to navigate the swampy ground of South Carolina’s low country or the tangled hardwood bottoms of Alabama has found. However, much Southern deer hunting is done over greenfields that are planted to attract deer. These are usually not large plots, and shots of 100 to 200 yards cover the majority of opportunities.
In these situations, hunters are often concealed in shooting houses. Ledges in these structures can be used as a rest, and the deer are usually feeding and undisturbed. Scopes are important here, both as accurate aiming devices and for their low-light performance. Many of the best bucks show themselves only at last light.
These Southern deer are not as big as the Northeast’s bucks, but they aren’t puny either. Many Alabama bucks weigh 220 pounds on the hoof. Still, penetration is not as important because most shots will be deliberate, and the hunter can wait for a broadside opportunity. What is needed, then, is a relatively fast bullet velocity and a high ballistic coefficient. These factors will ensure flat trajectories out to 200 yards. Accordingly, midrange greenfield hunting rules out most straight-walled revolver cartridges, which poop out at 100 to 150 yards. Instead, single shots are the Southern guns of choice.
Any of the cannon-breech guns or the now-discontinued Remington XP will work very well in these conditions, and they are undoubtedly chambered for some excellent calibers that will do the job. But the Thompson Center Contender—matched up with a soft-kicking but still effective round—is the best choice, we think.
Of the factory T/C chamberings currently offered, the venerable .30-30 is a top choice, as long as the proper bullets are used. Factory .30-30 loads, which employ flat-nose bullets so they will feed in tube magazines, plow through the air and shed velocity too fast, in our opinion. A much better choice would be a handloaded .30-30 with a 150-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip or Hornady 130-grain Single Shot Pistol Bullet. The pointed profile of these bullets will slice through the atmosphere easier and deliver more energy downrange.
The .35 Remington is another good Contender factory chambering. Most 200-grain factory loads will work, but their round- or flat-nose bullets aren’t the most aerodynamic choices. You can improve the round’s ballistics considerably with handloads using the Hornady 180-grain Single Shot Pistol or 200-grain SP bullets. They offer a higher ballistic coefficient with subsequently flatter trajectories and higher retained energy. When zeroed at 150 yards, the Hornady 200-grain round nose is 2.57 inches high at 100 yards and 6.61 inches low at 200 yards. The often-stated figure of 1,000 foot-pounds of energy is considered by many to be the benchmark for deer-sized game. This load drops below that mark at 139 yards. The spire-point bullet of the same weight and with the same zero is 2.25 inches high at 100 yards and 5.57 inches low at 200 yards. More important, it doesn’t drop below 1,000 foot-pounds of energy until 203 yards.
The JDJ calibers available from SSK Industries can make a Contender hum. Perhaps the best midrange Contender deer cartridge is the .309 JDJ. Though the 150-grain Ballistic Tip bullet is widely used in .309 JDJ handloads, its 165-grain big brother is a better deer bullet, we think. When pushed with 52 grains of H-4350 powder, it exits the barrel at 2,400 fps. With a 150-yard zero, it is 1.21 inches high at 100 yards and 3.11 inches low at 200 yards. It retains more than 1,000 foot-pounds of energy until 470 yards, beating out even the mighty .375 JDJ.
Loads we would avoid include the popular 7X30 Waters. The sole 7X30 factory load (offered by Federal) is a poor choice as a hunting round, in our opinion. It uses a flat-nose 120-grain bullet, and on deer we’ve shot with the bullet, penetration has been unsatisfactory. We saw one 100-pound doe shot with 120-grain Federal factory loads, and two shots failed to penetrate through the paunch on a quartering shot. A third broadside shot in the ribs dropped her but still failed to exit. We think that is poor bullet performance despite the deer being dead. To get the 7X30 Waters to perform, its originator, Ken Waters, developed the cartridge around a 139-grain bullet. The 7X30 will shoot and kill deer much better with that bullet weight in a Hornady SP or a 140-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip bullet cranked to the most velocity available from the Contender.
Another oft-seen round we would avoid is the .375 Winchester. It suffers from a lack of adequate bullets in both factory and hand loads.
PS Recommends: For midrange greenfield shooting common to the South, we would buy a Thompson Center Contender with an SSK barrel chambered for the .309 JDJ. We would top the rig with a Pentax 2.5- to 7-power handgun scope and shoot handloaded 165-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip bullets in it. We would avoid any straight-walled pistol caliber in these situations. Though they will kill deer out to 150 yards, you will regret not having more performance at your fingertips when the biggest buck you have ever seen steps out at 220 yards.
When you reach the wide-open prairies of the West, deer hunting becomes a long range–shooting proposition. There are giant bucks in the open country of eastern Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, and in the Dakotas. While the sensible limit for shooting at deer is 300 yards, that is still a very long way. A handgun that shoots flat, carries lots of energy to the target, and bucks the wind well is called for. It must also be accurate and shootable. A handgun with a poor trigger or grip design might be accurate from a bench rest, but it will not allow the hunter to hit anything under field conditions. Though the hunter may be on the move, he will usually not have to contend with lots of brush to get a shot. Thus, the gun can be carried on a sling or even in the hand with little discomfort.
Because ballistics are so important, a flat-shooting round is a must, which rules out Contender factory chamberings. The SSK .309 or .375 JDJ rounds mentioned above are viable options for Contenders, however. Also, T/C’s new Encore handgun, which will be offered in 7mm-08, .308 Winchester, and .30-06 Springfield chamberings, has promise.
But there is an existing, proven product available on the used-gun market that you can probably buy for a song. The Remington XP bolt-action handguns have been discontinued, but they are still readily available second hand. One of the best calibers offered in these guns is the 7mm-08. Using Federal Ballistic Tip 140-grain or Speer 145-Grain Grand Slam bullets, it is possible to get 2,650 fps or better from the XP’s 14-inch barrel. With a 200-yard zero, the Ballistic Tip bullet is 2.78 inches high at 100 yards and 6.69 inches low at 300 yards. With a 6-inch kill zone, the maximum point blank range is 264 yards with a 225-yard zero. At 300 yards the bullet is still carrying more than 1,400 foot-pounds of energy.
Other long-range choices include cannon-breech guns from Magnum Research and Competitor. They are all chambered for the .30-06, which is a fine choice for Western hunting. With a 165-grain Speer bullet clocking at 2,600 fps, a 200-yard zero produces a bullet strike point 2.23 inches high at 100 yards and 9.15 inches low at 300 yards. With a 6-inch target zone and a 221-yard zero, the point-blank range is 259 yards.
PS Recommends: Though the cannon-breech guns are excellent, we are partial to the Remington XP in 7mm-08. Topped with a Leupold 2.5- to 8-power scope and shooting 140-grain Ballistic Tip bullets, this gun/cartridge combo is sleek and will perform well at any reasonable hunting range.
Of course, any straight-wall caliber is completely lost in the big country, and the temptation to use the Contender in .30-30 or 7X30 Waters should be avoided, in our opinion. Those cartridges simply don’t have enough energy to provide any insurance on the long shots.