An Introduction to Hunting Handguns
Hunters have packed handguns since they were first developed as firearms for medieval horseman to shoot with one hand. When pistols evolved into revolvers, hunters on the Great Plains started using the large cap-and-ball US Army Colts, which had more power than many of the cartridge rifles of the time, to ride up on horseback and kill buffalo. With the development of the .44-40 cartridge in the 1870s, hunters could carry both the Winchester Model 1873 and the Colt Frontier Six-Shooter chambered in this round, offering the convenience of having a rifle and a handgun that used the same ammunition.
Improved rifle cartridges made the .44-40 obsolete, or at least antique, and so most hunters’ handguns became .22s for use on the trail when they didn’t want to disturb the surroundings with the blast of a large-caliber rifle or tear up what they might be shooting for supper. And the .22 was just plain fun to plink around with during down times on the hunt.
But as rifles, cartridges, and optics became better and better, some hunters felt the need to handicap themselves in their choice of weapon, to test their basic hunting skills. And around the middle of the 20th century, more and more effective handguns and handgun cartridges for big game began to appear, feeding into the old desire for a challenge.
Today, hunters carry a wide variety of handguns, whether small, large, or monster caliber, iron-sighted or scoped, wheelguns, semi-autos, or breaktops, for reasons ranging from the utilitarian—collecting camp meat or for coups de grâce without causing unnecessary damage—out to the downright quixotic—elephant, anyone? What follows are my picks of the 25 best handguns for hunters, running the gamut from kit gun to hand cannon. In the immortal words of Rooster Cogburn, “Fill your hands, you—!”