Field & Stream Picks the 25 Best Handguns for Hunters

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 grace 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--!"
--Tom McIntyre
The Old Kit Gun
Smith & Wesson Model 317 Kit Gun .22 LR
Hunting handguns can be revolvers, semi-automatics, single shots, and even muzzleloaders. But in the early 20th century, the .22 Long Rifle revolver was the most common handgun carried by hunters, trappers, and even fishermen (Ernest Hemingway kept a .22 semi-auto Colt on his boat the Pilar for shooting Gulf Stream sharks before hauling them onboard -- and succeeded in accidentally shooting himself in the left calf with it). Variously called "camp" or "kit" guns, these are lightweight handguns a hunter can keep comfortably on his hip or in a knapsack and use for shooting rabbits or grouse for the cook pot. They are also useful for eliminating pit vipers and other minor pests, particularly when loaded with No. 12 shot shells. The J-frame Smith & Wesson Model 317 Kit Gun .22 LR is the modern exemplar of this type of revolver, with an eight round capacity, three inch barrel, adjustable rear sight, green HI-VIZ fiber optic front sight, synthetic grips, and an unloaded weight of 12½ ounces. MSRP: $853. www.smith-wesson.com
The Dead Serious
Thompson/Center Larry Weishuhn Signature Encore Pro Hunter in .308 Winchester
At the opposite end of the spectrum from the utility kit gun is the large-caliber handgun dedicated to hunting big game, like the T/C Larry Weishuhn Signature Encore Pro Hunter. T/C was among the pioneers of the single-shot hunting handgun, and this one can be chambered in .308 Winchester, which can be loaded for handgun hunting and still be a highly effective deer round. This 15-inch fluted-barreled Encore comes as a complete package, including Pachmayr grips, soft case, and Nikon 2.5-8x40 scope, built specifically for this handgun on steroids. MSRP: $1199. www.tcarms.com
Gone, but Not Forgotten
The Colt Woodsman .22 LR
A classic never goes out of style, even if they stopped making it back in the Days of Disco. Colt manufactured the John Moses Browning-designed ten-shot semi-auto Woodsman for more than sixty years, starting in 1915, describing it as a gun "proven most practical and popular with shooters, sportsman, trappers, and others desiring a high-grade automatic pistol adapted for economical and easily obtained Caliber .22 Long Rifle Lubricated Cartridges." Now classed among firearms "curios and relics" by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (it's a party!), a good used Woodsman is still worth looking for at gun shows and elsewhere. (The photo at left is of my Second Series Woodsman, which was passed down to me. It's not for sale.) Starting Market Price: About $500. www.coltsmfg.com
The "Hell, It Was There!"
Ruger New Super Blackhawk Bisley Hunter .44 Remington Magnum
For some twenty years the .357, developed by Smith & Wesson, was the "magnum" -- the ultimate handgun cartridge for big game. But six-gun guru Elmer Keith thought it could be done one better and so with S&W worked on a .44 magnum. In 1956 Ruger actually beat S&W to the punch when it chambered its single-action Blackhawk "Flattop" in the brand new .44 Remington Magnum. The Blackhawk itself owes its origins to the Colt Single Action Army. Among the many styles of the Super Blackhawk now is the Bisley, named for the renowned national shooting range in the English town of Bisley. This gun carries over the features (longer grip, wider trigger, wider and lower hammer spur) that Colt incorporated into its 1894 target revolver. The stainless 7 1/2-inch-barreled Ruger Bisley Hunter also includes integral scope mounts that have been machined into the receiver, as well as a transfer bar under the hammer to prevent accidental discharge. MSRP: $805. www.ruger.com
Big Iron on His Hip
The Freedom Arms Premier Grade Model 83 .500 Wyoming Express
As Elmer Keith was working on a .44 magnum, experimenters Dick Casull and Jack Fulmer were bulking up the .45. The .454 Casull they arrived at required a handgun stronger than any being made at the time. In 1983 Wyoming's Freedom Arms Model 83 was the first commercial revolver to be chambered in the round. Since then, several other handguns have taken the leap, but the FA remains the benchmark of honkin' wheelguns. The 7 1/2-inch-barreled single-action revolver has a three-position hammer (safe, half cock, full cock) and a clean trigger pull. If you're looking for a proprietary caliber to shoot in it, go for the .500 Wyoming Express, which throws a 440-grain bullet at more than 1400 feet per second and is enough gun to take on a Cape buffalo. MSRP: $2320. www.freedomarms.com
The Space Age Marvel
Remington Model XP 100 Centerfire Long Range Pistol in .221 Remington Fireball
In the early 1960's Remington took its bolt-action Model 600 carbine, cut the barrel down to 10 3/4 inches, and mounted it into a white-diamond-inlaid nylon stock with a style reminiscent of a bull-pup (the grip ahead of the action). Chambered in the brand-new .221 Remington Fireball cartridge (which was designed specifically for the gun), and later in eight other calibers, up to and including .35 Remington, the "eXperimental Pistol Number 100" was a mainstay for not only silhouette shooters, but varmint and big game hunters for decades to come, until production of the pistol sadly ceased in 1994. Starting Market Price: About $600. http://www.remington.com/products/archived/centerfire/long-range-pistol/model-xp-100.aspx
Number One with a Bullet
The Thompson/Center G2 Contender .223 Remington
In 1967 Thompson/Center developed the first commercial break-open single-shot pistol capable of long-range shooting. The Contender was almost immediately popular with the same handgun shooters who appreciated the XP 100. In the early 1970s the late wildcatters Steve Herrett and Bob Milek devised the .30 and .357 Herrett cartridges specifically for the Contender, but they didn't have to invent the .223. The second generation Contender, the G2, with the .223 fired from a 14 inch barrel, is an ideal pistol for prairie dogs and rockchucks, and even small deer with the right load. And the barrel is also interchangeable with an extensive assortment of other chamberings, both centerfire and rimfire. MSRP: $694. www.tcarms.com
In the Beginning
The Ruger Mark III Hunter .22 LR
The first pistol (in fact, the very first firearm) built by Sturm Ruger was the semi-automatic .22 called the Standard. It's believed that the rear-cocking Standard was Sturm Ruger founder Bill Ruger's reinvention of the Imperial Japanese Army's Baby Nambu pistol, based on war souvenirs presented to him by a US Marine. In over sixty years, millions have been sold. The stainless-steel Mark III Hunter has a fluted bull barrel, adjustable rear sight and fiber optic front and holds ten shots in the magazine. The rigid connection between the barrel and receiver insures the sights remain in permanent alignment for greater accuracy. MSRP: $638. www.ruger.com
The Golden Touch
Browning Buck Mark Hunter .22 LR
The Browning Buck Mark has a Picatinny-style rail mount on the receiver to accept scope rings. Even with the heavy-tapered 7 1/4-inch, target-muzzle-crowned barrel, the aluminum-frame hunter remains lightweight. The action is a semi-auto blowback with a single-action trigger. The grips, or "stocks," are cocobolo wood and the trigger has Browning's distinctive gold plating. MSRP: $459. www.browning.com
Going Green
The Browning Buck Mark Lite Green .22 LR
A new variation on the Hunter is the Lite Green. The fluted 5 1/2-inch barrel is steel-sleeved alloy, making it even lighter than the Hunter. The ambidextrous soft nitrile Ultragrip RX stocks come with finger grooves for surer hold. Like the Hunter it also has an adjustable rear sight and Truglo/Marble's fiber optic front. A unique feature of the Lite Green is the green matte finish. Just don't lose it in the tall grass. MSRP: $519. www.browning.com
Plastic Fantastic
The Walther P22 Target Military Pistol .22 LR
When the first polymer-framed pistols came onto the market many years ago, hysterical alarums were raised about how these could now be smuggled through metal detectors, ignoring the fact that the most important parts of the gun, like the barrel, still had to be steel. So it is with the 5-inch barrel of the Walther P22. But the polymer frame and grip, with interchangeable back straps to give a custom fit to the shooter's hand, mean the pistol will stand up in the field. It also has a three-dot adjustable sight, single (4-pound pull) and double (11-pound pull) action trigger, and operates ambidextrously, for those whose right hands don't know what their lefts are doing. MSRP: $472. www.waltheramerica.com
Something Extra
Smith & Wesson Model 386 XL Hunter .357 Magnum
One of the newest "Smiths" is the 386 XL Hunter. Chambered in the old reliable .357, the pistol can also be loaded with the .38 Special and .38 + P. And instead of being a six shooter, it's a seven. Barrel length is 6 inches, very sufficient for maximum performance from the .357, with recoil a considerable step down from the .44 mag, and can be fired either double or single action. It comes with adjustable rear sight and HI-VIZ red optic front sight, a synthetic rubber grip, and a matte black finish. And built on the medium L frame, the 386 doesn't need a gorilla to hold it. MSRP: $1019. www.smith-wesson.com
Just for the Fun of It
The Ruger 22 Charger .22 LR
Ruger's Charger is a bit of a bastard handgun, based as it is on the five-million-selling 10/22 rifle, but with the bi-pod that comes with it, along with an ambidextrous stock, 10-shot rotary magazine, and combination Weaver-style mounts for a red dot or scope, the Charger is not just suited to burning up a lot of ammo on tin cans but provides a solid platform for reaching out at small game to the maximum range of which the .22 LR is capable. And yeah, it's a lot of fun just to play with. MSRP: $380. www.ruger.com
Not What You're Thinking
The Magnum Research BFR .45/70 Gov't Revolver
It's the "Biggest Finest Revolver"--what did you think it stood for? Magnum Research, recently purchased by Massachusetts-based Kahr Arms, is best known for its massive and photogenic Desert Eagle semi-auto pistol that seems to appear in almost every action movie and TV show. So MR isn't about to make any itty-bitty hunting handgun. Chambered to hold five .45-70 Government cartridges in the cylinder, the BFR has a 10-inch cut-rifling barrel and rear adjustable iron sight. It's also tapped and drilled to accept the MR silver scope mount, which is included in the price of the revolver. The BFR might be just what the doctor order for a BF bear. MSRP: $1050. www.magnumresearch.com
Good Company
The Kimber Rimfire Target .22 LR
The "biggest" anything isn't needed for shooting enough squirrels to make a decent Brunswick stew. Based on the design of the Colt 1911, the Kimber Rimfire Target .22 is a lightweight and boon companion to the small-game hunter. The flat profile lets it ride easily on the hip or in a shoulder rig. The gun has adjustable sights with a nearly 7-inch aiming radius, an exceptional single-action trigger, and black synthetic double-diamond grips for a solid hold, all contributing to reliable accuracy. Bon appetit! MSRP: $834. www.kimberamerica.com
Tales of the Highway Patrol(man)
The Smith & Wesson Model 28 Highway Patrolman .357 Magnum
The story of the Highway Patrolman is the same as the Colt Woodsman: They just don't make 'em like that anymore. Or at all. Produced between 1954 and 1986, the N-frame Smith & Wesson Model 28, called the "Highway Patrolman," was meant to be a service revolver for law enforcement, at a more moderate price than the fancier Model 27 (the .357's original claim to fame was that it could shoot through the engine block of a fleeing automobile, disabling it). It also happened to be a good hunting gun for the day (an old friend of mine once used one to shoot forest buffalo in French Equatorial Africa in the 1950s). The front sight is the Partridge style, and the rear is micro-adjustable. The gun has a case-colored serrated-spur hammer and grooved trigger. This Highway Patrolman (mine) has Crimson Trace laser grips that let me hit prairie dogs. Many years ago, before laser grips existed, I used this pistol to take a big treed male cougar near Republic, Washington, with one shot. Another one to look for used. Starting Market Price: About $500. www.smith-wesson.com
The Blast from the Past
Ruger New Bearcat .22 LR
In 1958 Ruger produced a classic six-shot kit gun that harkened back a hundred years before that. As with the Standard and the Blackhawk, the Bearcat had an older handgun in mind, in this case the 1858 Remington New Police percussion revolver. The Bearcat (one of Bill Ruger's best liked automobiles was the Stutz Bearcat; for a few years he even produced a 1929 Bentley-styled car called the Ruger Special Sports Tourer) is chambered in .22 and has fixed sights and a 41/5 inch barrel. Its size and weight epitomize the kit-gun concept. At one time priced at $39.50, regrettably you will have to pay a bit more today. MSRP: $556. www.ruger.com
Fear No Evil
The Taurus Model 444 Ultralite in Titanium Blue .44 Remington Magnum
It seems an odd question, but one asked all the same: What kind of handgun should I carry in bear country when I'm hunting? Well, assuming one is hunting with a rifle, what would be the need of a handgun? Actually, there is some logic to it, as at night in a cramped tent when it might not be possible to swing a long gun on a grizzly tearing its way in. And so Taurus has reintroduced the light-carrying Model 444. With a four-inch barrel and double-action trigger, as well as cushioned rubber grips, fixed rear sights, and fast-aiming red-fiber-optic front sight, this six shooter is a comforting bedtime thought if you're camping in the valley of the shadow of death. MSRP: $717. www.taurususa.com
The 'Tweener
Smith & Wesson Model 57 Classic .41 Remington Magnum
The .41 Remington Magnum is another large-caliber handgun cartridge worked on by Elmer Keith in the 1960's. When a friend of mine and his wife were shopping around for a hunting handgun for her, they settled on the S&W .41 for its trajectory, which is somewhat flatter than the .44 mag's, and recoil, which is also less than the .44's. This 6-inch-barreled Model 57 has a red-ramp front sight, checkered square-butt walnut stocks, and bright nickel finish. The .41 is more than just a gun that splits the difference between the .357 and .44; it is a true shooter in its own right. MSRP: $1161. www.smith-wesson.com
The Long Shot
Ruger Super Redhawk .44 Remington Magnum
Barrel length isn't the final determinant of getting the most power out of a handgun cartridge, but it sure can help. And the 9 1/2-inch barrel on this Super Redhawk will stretch out the .44 mag. The Redhawk was introduced by Ruger in 1979 to give it a massive double-action revolver to go along with the single-action Blackhawk. The cylinder holds six rounds. The stainless-steel gun is outfitted with black Hogue Monogrips and red-ramp front and adjustable rear sights. Of particular note to the big-game handgun hunter are the integral scope mounts in the top strap for extreme rigidity and recoil resistance. MSRP: $942. www.ruger.com
The Magnum Force
Taurus Model 991 Tracker .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire
A 6 1/2-inch-barreled, nine-shot .22 WMR revolver certainly exceeds the notion of a kit gun and moves up to serious varmint hunter for fox and coyote. Winchester introduced the powerful .22 mag in 1959, and it was loaded in Ruger and Smith & Wesson handguns before Winchester got around to chambering a rifle for it. The matte stainless-steel, double-action Tracker comes with a ribbed rubber grip and vented top rib, along with an adjustable rear sight. In some states, the .22 WMR is a legal round for hunting turkeys, which might just the ultimate test for a handgun hunter. MSRP: $489. www.taurususa.com
The Turn of the Century Revolver
Smith & Wesson Model 617 .22 LR
The origin of the Smith & Wesson Model 617 dates to the turn of the 20th century. The K-frame revolver was developed in 1899 for the .38 S&W Special cartridge that was favored by police and military. Smith still builds a .38 on this frame, but also this double-action .22. It has a ten-shot capacity with Partridge front and adjustable rear sights, which with the gun's 6-inch barrel produces a sight radius that gives excellent small-game hunting accuracy. MSRP: $940. www.smith-wesson.com
The Heavyweight
Taurus Raging Bull Model 454 .454 Casull
The .44 Remington Magnum had a relatively brief reign as the most powerful handgun cartridge in the world before the .454 eclipsed it in the 1950s, although it took almost thirty years before anyone could buy a commercially made revolver chambered for it. That has changed with any number of .454's being on the market, but the five-shot Taurus Raging Bull with an 8 3/8-inch barrel gives the Casull's big bullet room to run. Weighing just shy of 4 pounds, with cushioned-insert rubber grips and porting, the Taurus does much to soothe the savage beast that is this unarguably awesome big-game hunting cartridge. MSRP: $992. www.taurususa.com
The Performance Hunter
Smith & Wesson Model 629 Stealth Hunter .44 Remington Magnum
The 7 1/2-inch six-round 629 Stealth Hunter is a product of the Smith & Wesson Performance Center, where the gun is hand-cut and fine tuned. The red-ramp front sight is drift adjustable and the rear can be micro screw adjusted, while the broad top rib is cut to accept Weaver-style scope rings. The trigger has an over-travel stop, and the hammer has a pin sear, both case colored. The matte-black finish keeps it from glaring in the field, and the aggressively grooved synthetic rubber grip makes for a solid hold. All in all a handcrafted gun for handgun hunting. MSRP: $1778. www.smith-wesson.com
As Far as It Goes
Linebaugh Alaskan Model .500 Linebaugh
By his own admission, master gunsmith John Linebaugh considered himself something of a "sixgunner" when he lived in Missouri. But a move to Wyoming in 1976 made him rethink what this meant, and what a real sixgun was for hunting big game. In Wyoming he met hunters who had taken hundreds of head of game with their revolvers. A student of Elmer Keith, the knockout-power theories of elephant hunter "Pondoro" Taylor, and the experiences of the hunters he met, Linebaugh began customizing Ruger Bisleys (which he chose for their inherent strength) into super magnum revolvers. This 5-inch Alaskan Model is Linebaugh at the top of his game. The gun's exact alignment between cylinder throats and the barrel bore, extremely close tolerances in the chambers, and precision made ammunition are all the result of painstaking craftsmanship. The Alaskan is stocked by Linebaugh's son Dustin in bighorn-sheep horn. Chambered for the .500 Linebaugh it can print 3-inch groups at a hundred yards. But don't expect ever to see a scope on one of these. Starting price (including matching halfrich knife, shown) $6500. www.customsixguns.com