How to Pick a Handgun for Hunting

Thompson/Center Encore

The Thompson/Center Encore is a serious hunting handgun.

The key to selecting an effective hunting handgun is to choose a caliber that has enough power to humanely harvest the intended game and then mate it with a gun that has enough accuracy to deliver the shot. There are plenty to choose from.

The Ruger line of .22 semiautos and single-action revolvers, along with the Browning Buckmark models, are excellent choices for small game and can center a rabbit or squirrel’s head at 20 yards or more.

Bobcats and coyotes fall into the size range where a .357 Magnum is an excellent choice, and the Smith & Wesson Model 686, the Ruger GP-100, Ruger Blackhawk, and the Freedom Arms Model 83 single-action revolver, in the 6-inch or longer barrel lengths, have the accuracy to handle any that your call brings in.

With larger game, the .357 Magnum is a marginal performer. It can work at modest ranges, but it often takes multiple shots, and can sometimes fail with even good hits. Calibers that can humanely harvest deer-size and larger game start with the .41 Magnum, and include .44 Magnum, .454 Casull, .460 S&W Magnum, .475 Linebaugh, and the .500 S&W Magnum. Smith & Wesson offers excellent double-action revolvers in .44 Magnum, .460 S&W and .500 S&W. The Freedom Arms 83 is available in .41 Magnum, .44 Magnum, .454 Casull, and the .475 Linebaugh. The Ruger double-action Super Redhawk comes in .44 Magnum and .454 Casull, while the Ruger Super Blackhawk single-action revolver is available in .44 Magnum.

Semiauto handguns can’t handle the cartridges required to harvest big game, leaving revolvers as the choice for many. There are, however, single-shot handguns chambered for rifle cartridges, and when equipped with a scope, they are essentially short rifles. While a revolver has an effective range of about 150 yards, these single shots can double that distance and, in the hands of a skilled shooter, can rival the accuracy and range of a rifle.

The Thompson/Center Encore model is the most noteworthy. A top break single-shot pistol that’s been drilled and tapped for scope mounting, its 15-inch barrels are chambered for hard-hitting rifle rounds like the .30/06 Springfield, .308 Winchester and 7mm-08.

The Thompson/Center G2 Contender is a slightly lighter version, but also drilled and tapped for scope mounting, and chambered in 6.8 Remington, 7-30 Waters, .30/30 Winchester, or .45/70 Government. When properly rigged, the Encore and the Contender are capable of handling any big-game animal in North America. This single-shot design is inherently accurate, and these models are also chambered in popular varmint cartridges like the .204 Ruger, .223 Remington, and .22/250 Remington. On a prairie dog shoot out in South Dakota, I was hitting them regularly at 200-plus yards with a scope-equipped .223 Remington Contender.