There are lots of handgun options on the market for deer hunters, from single shot pistols in rifle calibers to a revolver that’s been around for almost 60 years. Here, handgun-hunting expert Layne Simpson chooses the best pistols on the market for hunting whitetails, breaks down the specs for each, and provides a brief history of handgun hunting. The first two guns on the list are his favorites, the rest are in alphabetical order.
1. Freedom Arms Model 83
Type: Single-action revolver MSRP: $2080-$2460 Chamberings: .357 Mag., .41 Mag., .44 Mag., .45 Colt, .454 Casull, .475 Linebaugh, .500 Wyoming Express Barrel lengths: 4 3/4, 6, 7 1/2, 10 inches Sights: Fully adjustable open sights and/or scope mount
Freedom Arms is to the revolver what Purdey is to the shotgun. While the Model 83 is priced much higher than other revolvers, it’s worth every penny. Fit and finish is excellent, the gun is more durable than its competition, and it is the most accurate by a considerable margin. Five shots inside five inches at 100 yards is considered excellent accuracy from most revolvers, but my Model 83 in .454 Casull will consistently average that at 200 yards with Federal ammunition loaded with the Swift 300-grain A-Frame bullet.
A revolver’s potential level of accuracy is greatly dependent on the exact alignment of each chamber of the cylinder with the bore of the barrel during lockup. Freedom Arms accomplishes this by hand-fitting each cylinder to its frame, and then line-boring each of its chambers in perfect alignment with the barrel. I know of no other manufacturer that goes to such great lengths in the search for perfection.
2. SSK Industries Contender
Type: **Single-shot, tip-up action **MSRP: $1395 Chamberings: Various factory and SSK proprietary cartridges Barrel lengths: 10 to 15 inches Sights: T’SOB (a proprietary Weaver style) scope mount
J.D. Jones of SSK Industries has used his custom pistols to take about every game species on earth, including Cape buffalo and African elephant. These are built on the T/C Contender action. SKK also offers barrels for those who already own a Contender pistol. In addition to a line of proprietary JDJ cartridges in calibers ranging from .257 to .375, factory chamberings such as the .30-30 Winchester, .30-40 Krag, 6.5mm Grendel, .444 Marlin and .300 Savage are also available.
I have hunted with several SSK barrels and chamberings through the years, and if I had to pick one as a favorite for deer, it would be the .309 JDJ loaded to 2,600 fps with the Sierra 150-grain SPT bullet. The 6.5 JDJ loaded to the same velocity with a 120-grain bullet is almost as effective and a better choice for those who are sensitive to recoil. I highly recommend the strong T’SOB scope mount, the name of which is an acronym you will easily figure out.
3. Freedom Arms Model 2008
Type: **Single-shot, tip-up action **MSRP: $1495 Chamberings: .260 Rem, .308 Win, .338 Fed., .375 Win. and others Barrel Lengths: **10 or 15 inches **Sights: None; drilled and tapped for scope mounting
Introduced in 2008, the Freedom Arms single-shot is the latest long-range handgun to become available. Sturdy enough to handle various rifle cartridges, it is also available in .454 Casull. It has the same grip as the company’s Model 83 revolver as well as an external hammer with safe and fully cocked positions. After the gun is fired, its hammer automatically moves to the safe position and at that point it is blocked from contact with the firing pin.
Pulling on a sliding breech bolt located atop the receiver allows the breech end of the barrel to tip up for loading. The quality of this extremely well made gun rivals that of the Model 83 revolver. It is priced lower because it is easier and therefore less expensive to manufacture. My pick of a chambering for deer in this gun is the 6.5x55mm Swedish, but the 7mm BR Remington is the best choice for recoil-sensitive hunters who handload their ammunition.
4. Magnum Research Desert Eagle
Type: Gas-operated semi-automatic MSRP: $1,563 Chamberings: .357 Mag., .44 Mag., .50 Action Express Barrel Lengths: 6 or 10 inches Sights: Fully-adjustable open sights
The Desert Eagle weighs 4 1/2 pounds, and that weight, along with its gas-operated action, makes it one of the more comfortable .44 Magnum handguns to shoot. If kept clean and fired with a firm two-hand hold, it is also quite reliable. Accuracy is seldom as good as some of the revolvers here, but it is good enough for bumping off a deer out to 100 long paces.
The fully adjustable rear sight is fine for hunting at closer ranges, but attaching a scope to the Picatinny rail machined into the top of its barrel makes vital hits on distant deer much easier. The .357 Magnum is a bit light for big deer, and the .50 AE is more than needed, making the .44 Magnum the best choice. With a round in the chamber, the gun gives you nine tries at the target. Due to the absence of a barrel/cylinder gap, the Desert Eagle delivers slightly higher velocity than a revolver with a barrel of the same length.
5. MOA Maximum
Type: Single shot, falling-block action MSRP: $1,259 Chamberings: Numerous factory cartridges and wildcats Barrel Lengths: 8 3/4, 10 3/4, 14 inches Sights: Fully adjustable open sights or scope mount
One of the most accurate handguns I own is a MOA Maximum in .260 Remington. The smallest five-shot group I have fired with it at 100 yards measured darned close to a quarter of an inch. Mine has a target-weight barrel, but lighter barrels better suited for hunting are available. It has an external hammer and an extremely strong falling-block action with a unique safety system.
A button on the side of the receiver aligns a transfer bar with the hammer and firing pin; a squeeze of the trigger fires the gun. Raising the button lowers the transfer bar away from the hammer and firing pin, making the gun safe. You can buy the Maximum with fully adjustable open sights, but its accuracy potential is realized only with a good scope. Numerous chamberings are available, and for deer you won’t go wrong with the .260 Remington, 7mm-08 Remington, or .308 Winchester. Those who prefer less recoil should consider the .257 Roberts.
6. Ruger Blackhawk & Super Blackhawk
Type: Single-action revolver MSRP: $575-$829 Chamberings: .30 Carbine, .357 Mag., .41 Mag., .44 Mag., .45 Colt Barrel Lengths: 4 5/8, 6 1/2, 7 1/2 inches Sights: Fully-adjustable open sights
While Remington and Smith & Wesson were secretly collaborating on the .44 Magnum cartridge back in 1955, word leaked out and Ruger was almost first to get a revolver chambered for it in production. Ruger may have come in second in the arms race, but the Blackhawk was $44 cheaper than the S&W Model 29, and it proved to be far more durable when both were used with heavy loads.
While the standard Blackhawk remains one of the world’s all-time great buys in revolvers for those who stick with open sights, hunters who prefer to use a scope are better off with the Super Blackhawk Hunter. In addition to its fully adjustable sights, an integral rib on its barrel accepts scope-mounting rings included with the gun. Like the Blackhawk, it is available with a standard or Bisley-style grip, and I have decided neither has any practical advantage over the other.
7. Ruger Redhawk & Super Redhawk
Type: Double-action revolver MSRP: $989-$1049 Chamberings: .44 Mag., .45 Colt, .454 Casull Barrel Lengths: 2 1/2, 4 1/4, 7 1/2, 9 1/2 inches Sights: Fully-adjustable open sights
I prefer the looks of Ruger’s single-action Blackhawk, but find the double-action Redhawk to be more comfortable to shoot. In addition to being a bit heavier, the angle and shape of its grip make it easier on the hand. Two variations are available, and choosing between them is easy. If fully adjustable open sights will do, the less expensive standard Redhawk is for you. If you prefer a scope, the Super Redhawk is the only choice.
In addition to fully adjustable sights, the thick extended top strap of its frame is machined at the factory to accept scope-mounting rings included with the gun. Like all Ruger revolvers, the Redhawk and Super Redhawk are extremely durable and quite capable of trouble-free operation for thousands of rounds of heavy loads.
8. Smith & Wesson Model 29/629
Type: Double-action revolver MSRP: $1,019-$1,329 Chambering: .44 Magnum Barrel Lengths: 5, 8-3/8, 10-1/2 & 12 inches Sights: Fully adjustable open sights
I used to hunt wild pigs with the assistance of hounds quite often, and one of my favorite handguns for ending the chase was a S&W Model 29 with a four-inch barrel. More recently I took a very nice Alaska-Yukon moose with a Model 629, which is the practical stainless-steel version.
Standard versions of both have fully adjustable open sights, but if you prefer to use a scope, a Model 629 Hunter from the S&W Performance Center is a better way to go. The Models 29 and 629 are strong revolvers but they are not designed to withstand as many heavy loads as the S&W Model 460, which is built on a larger frame. Even so, the hunter who mostly practices with .44 Special ammunition while reserving the .44 Magnum for harvesting a supply of venison will find either fully capable of surviving a lifetime of hunting and shooting.
9. Smith & Wesson Model 460
Type: Double-action revolver MSRP: $1,319-$1,619 Chamberings: **.460 Mag. _Barrel Lengths:_ 5, 8 3/8, 10 1/2, 12 inches _Sights:**_ Fully adjustable open sights and/or scope
The Model 460 is built on a larger frame than the S&W Model 29, and for this reason it weighs about a pound more. That’s beneficial, because the extra weight serves to dampen some of the recoil of the .460 Magnum cartridge. The big gun also shoots .454 Casull ammo, which, contrary to advertising claims, is only about 100 fps slower. It is also available from more sources, making it easier to find.
You can also shoot .45 Colt ammo in the gun, and reserving the two more powerful cartridges for serious hunting saves wear and tear on both gun and shooter. Another option is to hunt deer with milder-recoiling .45 Colt +P loads from Buffalo Bore and Cor-Bon, which nip at the heels of the .44 Magnum in power. The standard model 460 has fully adjustable sights, and while it can be equipped with a scope, a more expensive version from S&W’s Performance Center with a Picatinny rail machined into the top of its longer barrel is better suited for use with a glass sight.
10. Taurus Raging Bull
Type: Double-action revolver MSRP: $1,094 Chamberings: .44 Mag & .454 Casull Barrel Lengths: 5, 6 1/2, 8 3/8 inches Sights: Fully adjustable open sights
The Brazilian-made Taurus Raging Bull comes with several nice features, including a ported barrel for muzzle-jump reduction, a recoil-absorbing cushioned rubber grip, and a buttery smooth trigger pull. The cylinder locks up at front and rear, making it a very rugged revolver. A key-operated internal safety system prevents the gun from being fired by unauthorized shooters.
The .454 Casull chambering really jumps around when fired, so the 8-3/8 inch barrel is the best choice for that caliber. Like all .454 revolvers, softer-kicking .45 Colt ammo can be used for practice. Most shooters will choose the .44 Magnum in this particular gun, because in addition to being more comfortable to shoot than the .454, mild-mannered .44 Special ammo can be used. For attaching a scope on the Raging Bull, I highly recommend the mount from Jack Weigand. It requires the drilling and tapping of two holes in the top of the barrel rib by a gunsmith, but is worth the additional cost.
11. Thompson/Center Encore
Type: Single shot, tip-up action MSRP: $967 Chamberings: .223 Rem. through .30-06 Barrel Lengths: **12 or 15 inches **Sights: Fully adjustable open sights/scope mount
I prefer the SSK Industries Contender because it is trimmer and about a pound lighter, but the stronger action of the Encore allows it to handle more powerful rifle cartridges such as the .270 Winchester and .30-06. Like the Contender, barrels in different calibers are easily interchanged, making it an extremely versatile handgun.
All things considered, the .260 Remington, 7mm-08 Remington, and .308 Winchester are hard to beat, but they do churn up a bit of recoil. Out to 200 yards or so the .243 Winchester in the 15-inch barrel is big enough medicine for deer, and much more comfortable to shoot. It is also more suitable for varminting. The Encore comes with fully adjustable sights, but equipping it with a scope extends the shooter’s range considerably. The additional weight also reduces recoil. ––Layne Simpson
My First Handgun Deer
A few years ago I went handgun hunting for the first time ever. I have to admit that when I realized this doe was going to walk into range, my heart raced the way it did to when I used to bowhunt 20 years ago.
I got some pointers on handgun shooting during my visit to Smith & Wesson in September. I practiced with this .357 revolver a fair amount this fall before I took it out to my cousin’s place last night. From a rest, I am dangerous to 30 to 40 yards at most, so I had to be much more patient (and by “patient” I mean shaking uncontrollably while trying to remain inwardly calm) than I ever would have with a slug gun or muzzleloader as I waited for the deer to come close.
After standing behind a tree seemingly forever, the deer stepped out and gave me a broadside shot at 35 steps. I rested the revolver on the shooting rail in the treestand and put the dot just behind the shoulder. The doe went about 50 yards before falling over.
The revolver is a S&W 627 from their performance shop. I mounted the excellent Burris FastFire reflex sight on top and shot Federal Premium ammo loaded with 140 grain Barnes Expander copper bullets. I found the bullet in the hide on the far side of the deer. It weighed 138.2 grains on my reloading scale which is pretty close to the advertised 100% weight retention.
I have always told my editors at F&S that I bet a lot of our readers hunt with handguns, which is a topic we rarely cover. Here’s your chance to speak up and prove me right. After last night, I can see why you like this handgun hunting thing. ––Phil Bourjaily