Gun Notes: A Common Sense Look at Handgun Hunting
by John Linebaugh
My first sixgun was an old 3-screw .357 Ruger Blackhawk, 6 1/2" bbl. I shot this for about 1 year and then traded it to my brother and bought an identical gun 4 5/8" length. I was about 15 or 16 then and considered myself somewhat of a sixgunner. In my native state of Missouri I probably was. But in the eyes of real sixgunners I was plenty wet behind the ears. I read everything I could in the magazines about shooting and game shooting. To take a deer with a sixgun seemed an enormous task, one requiring exceptional skill and ability. I did not feel I was up to it. I continued to pack a sixgun for the years to come but never put it to use on anything bigger than rabbits and a few treed coon.
In 1976 I moved to Wyoming and was fortunate enough to meet two gentlemen who had over the several previous years taken nearly 100 head of big game between them - with sixguns! From what they taught and showed me I began to plan for some "sixgun only" hunts. I had reams of material, and each "expert" had his idea and method. However, none of them seemed to fit comfortable on me. Many used the short, underpowered rifles but I wasn’t fooled by that approach. I was too deeply engrained with theories of Elmer Keith.
I had a .44 Mag Super Blackhawk but planned to use a gun of equal power but with less noise and recoil. How could I do this? With the grand old .45 Colt. It gets its energy from bullet weight and caliber. I purchased an Old Model Abilene (pre-Mossberg) in 6 1/2" barrel length and started loading both 250 Hornady JHP and 260 Keith cast slugs. My loads were 29 gr. gr. H-110 under the 250 Hornady slug for 1420 fps and 27 gr. H-100 under the 260 Keith cast slug for 1400 fps. Both shot to the same point of aim and were very accurate loads. (These loads are safe in... my gun... I don’t know yours and do not suggest you use these - they are for information only.)
In Wyoming one can obtain up to 3 antelope licenses per year by drawing for addition doe or fawn-only permits. With permits in hand and .45 Colt Abilene I was very determined to become a true Sixgun or Handgun Hunter. The first antelope I shot was a doe bringing up the rear of a band of about 30 head. I was hidden and watched them file past....I purposely picked the last doe as I wanted an animal that was all alone as much as possible. First of all because I didn’t want to lose sight of my intended target in the dust storm that always follows a shot. Second, I wasn’t too steady and did not want to cripple any other animals. As the animals filed past I set my unsteady sights on the front shoulder section of the last doe antelope. I was concentrating so much on sight picture, trigger squeeze etc. I failed to note the sudden stop of the next-in-line antelope. They bumped together just as the Colt went off and to my dismay the lead antelope crashed to the ground as the last doe, which was my intended target, stormed off with the band.
I carefully reloaded my empty chamber and stepped off the 110 yards to the doe. My slug, a 250 Hornady JHP, had hit her "exactly" dead center in the round steak area. She never regained her feet after taking the shot. I finished her with a neck shot and started looking for my slug after dressing her. The 250 JHP cut dead center through both rear hip joints, shed its jacket and came to rest just under the hide on the off side. Now that’s not like I wanted the story to end....I would like to tell you I hit her within an inch of where I was aiming and she folded with a perfect heart shot. But I believe in the truth and facts.
Embarrassed a bit I was. But I learned many things from that shot. The most important thing I gained was, CONFIDENCE. More than I could ever gain from all the magazines ever printed. True, I couldn’t shoot as straight as say, Ed McGivern, but did get close, missing my intended target by about 1 foot at 110 yards. And I did hit meat. And the knock down power my gun delivered even with a lousy shot made me realize the true potential of the big bore sixguns. Everything I had read led me to believe the biggest and best sixgun could only approach a .30-30 rifle. Malarky! I do not believe that anymore.
The "industry" give us foot-pounds of energy figures to ponder over on cold evenings. We could shoot phonograph needles at the speed of light for, say, "20 tons" of energy and never stop anything bigger than a bull pack rat. Or we can shoot heavy .44 and .45 caliber slugs and do things very few would believe. I long ago quit using the foot-pounds formula ( using it only now to figure pressures ) and went to the most perfect formula by the late John "PONDORA" Taylor of African fame. Taylor’s formula that he called "Knock Out" is figured this way:
Caliber in diameter
bullet weight in grains
Don’t ask me how he came up with such a formula or what the "7000" figure comes from. I do not know. But I do know that the resulting figures you get are a very accurate example of what your gun and load will do on game. Taylor claimed that while shooting his big critters that could hit back, that the big guns offered KNOCK OUT over the little guns even though exact shot placement was not accomplished. Example: a charging bull elephant taken head-on in the forehead with .416 and .470 bore rifles. I quote from "African Rifles and Cartridges" page 12 ..author Taylor says, "If you take a frontal head shot at an elephant with a .416 and miss the brain by a small amount, you will probably not knock him out. His hindquarters will give way and he will squat there like a huge hog for few moments, then, if you don’t finish him off at once, he will heave to his feet again, slew around and clear off. But if you had taken the same shot with the .470 and missed the brain by the same amount, that elephant would have been knocked entirely unconscious, and would have remained down for anything up to five minutes - yet the theoretical energies of the rifles are the same."
Now Taylor was hunting Elephant, Rhino, Cape Buffalo and other dangerous game, plus was using rifles of immense power compared to our sixguns. This I will agree on. But by using this formula, that I believe is absolutely as perfect as humanly possible, to measure a projectile’s effect on a critter, one can realize the power and potential the big bore sixgun possesses. This formula will also show how the said sixgun with it’s big-bore and heavy slugs rates with the popular rifle caliber’s used by many hunters today. Here is a quick comparison:
.44 Magnum 240 gr. slug at 1400 fps : .430 X 240 X 1400
divided by 7000 = 20.6 Knock Out (KO)
.270 Winchester 130 gr. slug at 3100 fps : .277 X 130 X
3100 divided by 7000 = 15.9 KO
Interesting huh! It was shocking to me too. Now, you say, there is a bug in the works here ‘cuz you’re comparing a fast high-speed expanding slug against a heavy slow solid type slug. I agree, there are some variations we can argue ‘til the end of time and never solve the problem. But of the dozen or so deer and antelope I have taken and seen taken with a sixgun, the results compared to a comparable rifle are disgustingly similar. The front area on the big slugs do thing I don’t think anyone, no matter how much game he shoots in his lifetime can explain fully or accurately.
Now with this big caliber, heavy slug theory in mind I would like to throw out another.."myth" ...I will call it, that enters my mind. That is the never-ending story that full-power loads must be used. More power is always a welcome thing to have on hand, IF one can utilize it by hitting his intended target. If not, super power is harmless. Now I am a firm believer in Robert Ruark’s advice. "Shoot enough gun, and if you can’t, or won’t learn how to, STAY HOME!" But some of us may be in a situation that enough shooting can’t be done to harden ones nerves against blast and recoil. I myself have this problem as I proof my big guns several times, not just 6 shots, and then shoot them extensively before shipping to owner. Most of my big loads exceed .44 Magnum "considerably". I do not do this on a daily basis so I must fight flinch in between times. This is why I like the .45 Colt so much, as its big heavy slugs will perform even though I stay far away from anything resembling heavy loads. (Perhaps I should use the word "magnum loads" here, but I detest the word.)
A prime example of this happened a couple years ago. My wife and I made a quick antelope hunt. I found at the last minute the only .45 Colt ammo I had on hand was 8.5 gr. WW 231 under a 260 Keith cast slug. In her 4 5/8" Seville Birdshead grip this load chronographs an even 850 fps. Just a factory equivalent load with a good bullet. To make a long story short she shot a big doe antelope at around 90 yards. The old doe made a gallant attempt to keep up with the departing band of sisters, but got weak-kneed in 10 steps and died almost instantly. The big Keith slug penetrated both lungs cutting a full perfect .45 caliber hole right through. I want to say I don’t recommend this sort of thing unless you shoot very straight, or on any game over the size of deer. But the fact remains that good killing power exists well below the "bellerin" level. To those who like milder loads I will say this; I feel personally this sort of thing should be confined to the .44 and .45 caliber guns. Others just don’t have enough caliber or bullet weight to be dependable performers in this area.
Another thing that is involved with this type of load is the trajectory. A good buddy of mine once told me his .44 would shoot 2 or 3 inches flatter than my .45 Colt at 100 yards. I readily agreed but asked him to prove to me under field conditions that he could shoot well enough to notice it. Besides, isn’t handgun hunting supposed to be a close-in affair for those who want something a bit more challenging than "IF YOU CAN SEE ‘EM YOU CAN HIT ‘EM RIFLE HUNTING"? With good loads in a powerful accurate sixgun I can justify long shots on game. This same buddy told me he set a 100 yard limit on his shooting. Nothing over 100 yards. I told him I would not set such a distance limit but rather looked at each condition. I have seen times I would not shoot 40 yards and others when a 200 yard shot was not out of line. (But rare, I’ll agree.) The 40 yard shot would be in heavy timber, late evening and chancy, while the 200 yard shot was in open plains and no cover for hundreds of yards or maybe a mile or two. Let conditions and your known limitations be the judge.
Another misconception I see once in awhile is this....take a rifle hunter with his new .300 +P Belchfire Magnum and a 1 to 25 Power scope. He misses a shot and immediately blames the gun. Sound familiar? (And I am not putting down rifle hunters because I am one, still.)
The point I want to make is this...if a handgun hunter made an equal type shot under similar conditions and missed the following excuses would be spoken by non-handgun hunters: "Aw, those dang pistols ain’t accurate over 10 feet plus they ain’t got enough power for big game anyhow."
Don’t let this discourage you, especially if you are a beginner. Just do what the rifle shooter mentioned above would do...SHOOT AGAIN! But most of all, keep your confidence. Just remember you have a powerful weapon, one equal to most popular "big" hunting rifles used by the majority of hunters. You have limitations and you know them if you’re a serious hunter and shooter. Keep them foremost in your mind. You are out there for a fair chase hunt and have taken a back seat to all riflemen by choosing a sixgun for your only armament.
So when the moment of truth comes, that elusive buck is right there, just keep your cool, be confident, and KEEP SHOOTING!