Handgun hunting has become increasingly popular over the last few decades. There are now a wide variety of calibers, loads, and guns available for use in the field. So much variety, it would seem, that it can be a little overwhelming when trying to figure out what caliber is best for you. Obviously, this will depend greatly on what it is you’re planning to hunt. There are plenty of options available, but these are the ones that came to my mind first when I began whittling down the list. As such, here are my top 10 handgun hunting cartridges: .22 LR
Modern hollowpoint .22LR ammunition is more powerful and precise than ever. photo from Federal
Even though it’s small, the .22 LR is definitely one of the most popular handgun hunting cartridges of all time. Perfect for small game of all sorts, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t relished in the .22’s capability of harvesting squirrels and rabbits. Plus, modern loads and bullet designs make the diminutive but eternally useful .22LR more deadly and more precise. The rimfire round was developed way back in 1887—apparently they got something right.
The round was a game-changer when it was introduced in the 1930s, and still remains a solid hunting cartridge for deer and similar sized game. photo from Hornady
When it debuted in 1935, the .357 Magnum was a game-changer. Developed in part by early handgun hunter Elmer Keith, a 200-grain .357 projectile boasts 644 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle and is travelling at 1,440 feet-per-second. With those numbers, it can easily be used to harvest deer and similar game. It was based on the .38 Special cartridge and most any .357 revolver will also fire .38 Special rounds.
Today, the .357 Magnum is used in wheel guns, but also in semi-auto pistols like the Desert Eagle and in rifles like the lever-actions made by Marlin and Henry Arms.
The legendary .44 Magnum hardly needs an introduction. The powerful cartridge can take all North American game and was even used successfully to kill a polar bear in the 1960s. photo from Hornady
Dirty Harry trusted his life to it and publishing magnate Robert E. Petersen used it to harvest a polar bear in 1965, cementing his place in history as the first person to take a polar bear with a handgun. There are a wide variety of commercial loads available for the .44 Mag, but let’s look at Hornady’s XTP with a 200-grain bullet. Measured using a 7.5-inch barrel, the .44 Magnum has 999 foot-pounds of energy and travels at 1,500 feet-per-second when it leaves the barrel. At 100 yards, it’s still going almost 1,200 fps with more than 600 ft/lbs of energy.
The cartridge was born from people like Elmer Keith tinkering with the .44 Special cartridge and was first chambered in Harry’s favorite, the Smith & Wesson Model 29 revolver.
Production of the round began in 1955 and it is suitable for short-range hunting of all North American game animals.
The .454 Casull was, for a brief time, the most powerful commercial handgun cartridge in the world. It’s still on the upper end of the power scale, but generates significant recoil. photo from Federal
Developed as a wildcat cartridge in 1957, it took 40 years for the .454 Casull to go mainstream with the help of the Ruger Super Redhawk, which was the first commercially-available revolver to chamber the cartridge. A 240-grain projectile has 1,923 ft/lbs of muzzle energy and is travelling at 1,900 fps. At 100 yards, it’s still moving at almost 1,500 fps with more than 1,100 ft/lbs of energy. That’s a lot of power, more than enough for medium and large game as well as defense against bears.
Its existence was first announced in the ’50s, though it wasn’t commercially produced until 1998. The .454 Casull is basically a lengthened and structurally improved .45 Colt, similar to the relationship between the .44 Special and .44 Magnum mentioned above. In fact, .45 Colt and .45 Schofield rounds can fit in the chambers of a .454 Casull revolver.
Taurus followed Ruger in 1998 and with the Taurus Raging Judge Magnum in 2010 chambered for the powerful round.
But the round is a kicker. For some perspective, the .454 Casull generates almost five times the recoil of a .45 Colt, and about 75 percent more recoil energy than the .44 Magnum.
Based on the .45-70 Government cartridge, the .475 Linebaugh is ballistically similar to the Casull, but a bit more powerful. photo from HSM
Need a backup gun when you’re hunting dangerous game? Go with something chambered for the .475 Linebaugh cartridge, developed in the late 1980s by John Linebaugh. Based on the .45-70 Government cartridge, the Linebaugh uses a case that has been cut down by about half an inch from its original Government length. With a 325-grain projectile, it clocks in at 1,700 fps at the muzzle.
The .475 Linebaugh and the .454 Casull are ballistically similar, but the .475 Linebaugh still has an edge on the latter when it comes to raw power. However, the round remains fairly obscure, partly due to rounds brought to market by Smith & Wesson like the .460 Magnum and the .500 S&W Magnum.
The .480 Ruger is basically a downgraded version of the .475 Limbaugh. photo from Federal
Based on the .475 Linebaugh, the .480 Ruger was introduced in 2003 through cooperation between Ruger and Hornady and was designed with the Ruger Super Redhawk revolver in mind.
Traveling at 1,350 fps and packing 1,315 ft/lbs of energy at the muzzle, the 325-grain projectile can handle all manner of large game. Introduced at the same time as the .500 S&W Magnum, the .480 Ruger remains popular, but is less well-known.
Some call the round a .475 Special, because it has a similar relationship. Basically a downgraded version of the .475 Limbaugh, the .480 Ruger will fit and function i .475 revolvers, just the the .44 Specil and the .44 Magnum and the .38 Special and .357 Magnum.
This round is capable of taking any game in North America, and most game found in Africa. mfg photo
Based on the .348 Winchester cartridge case, the .500 Linebaugh is a .50 caliber heavy hitter. It is capable of taking any game in North America, and most game found in Africa. With a 350-grain projectile, test results reveal a muzzle velocity of 1,450 fps. While the cartridge is proprietary, cases can be readily ordered online.
The cartridge was developed by John Linebaugh of Maryville, Missouri. In 1986, Linebaugh was convetring .45 Colt six-shooters to five-shot revolvers, offering a stronger cylinder that can withstand higher pressure ammunition. Because this was so successful, he searched for a more powerful cartridge, resulting in the .500 Linebaugh.
When it comes to energy, the .500 is comparable to the .454 Casull, though the former has a larger diameter, heavier bullet with a greater sectional density.
.500 S&W Magnum
Smith & Wesson developed the .500 S&W Magnum cartridge and the X-frame revolver side by side. photo from Fusion
The .500 Magnum is a behemoth, no doubt. Developed for Smith & Wesson’s X-frame revolvers, it can harvest pretty much anything you encounter. When firing a 500-grain projectile, it has 2,254 ft/lbs at the muzzle and travels at 1,445 fps.
In the 1970s and for most of the 80s, Smith & Wesson held the tile for most powerful handgun cartridge in the world, until the .454 Casull went commercial along with a number of loads that eclipsed the .44. The development of the .500 S&W Magnum was intended to put the company at the top of the power heap once again, and it worked.
The .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum was built and designed alongside the new cartridge. Both were unveiled in January, 2003.
“Shoots like a dream … Hits like a sledgehammer!” photo from Rowland
“Shoots like a dream … Hits like a sledgehammer!” That’s the tagline on Rowland’s website, which specializes in conversions of .45 ACP pistols and complete custom semi-automatic pistols chambered for the .460 cartridge. The benefit of the .460 Rowland is that it affords .44 Magnum ballistics, but with less recoil. A 185-grain projectile clocks in at 1,575 fps with more than 1,000 ft/lbs of energy at the muzzle.
The round was designed for use in semi-auto pistols and has a case approximately 1/16th longer than a .45 ACP, but the overall cartridge length is the same, as the bullet is seated deeper. This is done to prevent the high-pressure .460 Rowland from accidentally be chambered in a .45 ACP handgun.
The .460 generates a much higher chamber pressure and gas volume compared to the .45. This higher pressure delivers magnum-level performance from compact, lightweight semi-auto pistols.
The 10mm was developed by the legendary Jeff Cooper and was briefly the FBI’s ammo selection. photo from Hornady
For those claiming 9mm isn’t powerful enough and lament the fact that there isn’t an 11mm option, the 10mm will get the job done. It’s also appealing to hunters who would rather use a semi-auto over a revolver. Firing a Hornady XTP 155-grain projectile, the 10mm travels at 1,265 fps with 551 ft/lbs at the muzzle. At 100 yards, it’s still travelling at more than 1,100 fps and packs more than 350 ft/lbs of energy.
The cartridge was first developed by the legendary Jeff Cooper and was introduced in 1983 along with the Bren Ten pistol of Miami Vice fame.
The round gained prominence when it was selected for use by the FBI in 1989, after the devastating 1986 FBI Miami shootout. Though the FBI dropped the 10mm after it proved to have too much recoil for the average field agents to master.
The round is powerful enough to take white tailed deer and a variety of other game.