With just a few exceptions, Maine youngsters learn to shoot with a .22 rifle and a small-bore shotgun, most likely a .410 or 20 gauge. As these blossoming hunters grow and mature, paper targets and tin cans change to upland birds, waterfowl and big game animals, so their long guns must also change to provide better accuracy and greater speed and knockdown power. Once a sportsman reaches a satisfying level of proficiency with a high-powered rifle, certain shooters yearn for a greater challenge, and this is where archery, black powder weapons and handguns enter the picture.

My love affair with handguns was kindled early on thanks to a High Standard, bull-barrel .22 target pistol my Dad used to bring along to the gravel pit when we went plinking. After a few cans were rattled around with the .22 rifle and single-shot .410, I couldn’t wait to fire the accurate long-barreled target pistol. Hits were few and far between, but instead of becoming discouraged I became determined. Ignoring the long guns, I’d fire 50 rounds from the handgun. Rather than tell you the year or my age at those weekend target shoots, let me say a box of .22 shells was 50 cents.

All these many years later, my enjoyment of shooting pistols and revolvers has only gotten greater, and with the ever-increasing selection of dependable handguns and ammo over the last 25 years, big-game hunting options have skyrocketed. Not only is the number of sportsmen shooting handguns at indoor and outdoor target ranges increasing annually, but the number of local, regional and national competitions sponsored by big-name sporting companies are growing each year as well. For any outdoorsman who has flirted with the idea of hunting deer, bear or moose in Maine with a handgun, now is the time to get involved.

In the beginning

Prior to the mid-1950s, handguns were considered to be side arms carried mostly by law enforcement or military. On the rare occasions a handgun was worn in the woods, it was as an adjunct to trapping, coon hunting or pest control. Although the .357 had been available since the Depression, it was considered marginal at best for shooting deer and black bear. Recent advances in ammunition made the .357 a more potent and accurate caliber, but most experienced handgunners still feel it is a borderline choice for big game and prefer heavier, faster loads. A few wildcat loads and guns were produced by independent gunsmiths in those early years, but few made it into mass manufacturing for public sale.

In 1956, the introduction of Smith and Wesson’s Model 29 revolver chambered in .44 magnum turned the world of handgun hunting on its ear. A few years later S & W developed the .41, a smaller but faster cartridge with the plus of reduced recoil which opened the sport of handgunning for big game to an even larger fraternity of small-framed, recoil-sensitive men and women shooters.

Twenty years later, in 1967, Thompson/Center developed a handgun that many sportsmen consider to be the greatest boon in the history of short-gun hunting. T/C Contenders were actually single-shot, short-barreled, hand-held pistols that fired rifle calibers. These handguns were far more dependable firearms at long ranges than other currently available straight-walled cartridge choices. Due to their ability to digest and spit out bottle-necked rifle shells, Contenders really caught on. While a .41 or .44 magnum was pushing the envelope at 125 yards in the hands of a practiced marksman, scoped Contenders in .30-30, .35 Remington, 7-30 Waters, .308 Winchester and other potent loads could easily knock down game at 200 yards for an average shooter.

T/C Contenders evolved over the years into Encore models and the new G2, all with a wide variety of interchangeable barrels in an array of calibers to fit any target or hunting situation. Despite T/C handguns’ many attributes, one faction of traditional revolver shooters consider these hand-held rifles to be stepping over the line, and they prefer to stick with their old-style wheel guns.

Heritage-style handguns got a real boost in firepower in the early 1980s when the 454 Casull went into production. Dirty Harry’s “Make my day” S & W .44 magnum, “the most powerful handgun in the world,” was dethroned. In 1988 the .475 Linebaugh came on the market but received a lukewarm response. A lull of 12 years occurred until Ruger developed and produced a brand-new caliber in 2000, the .480 Ruger. It was a large-framed beast launching a 325-grain slug at 1,350 feet per second with 1,515 foot pounds of muzzle energy. Its load hits with as much power at 100 yards as the S & W .44 has at the muzzle!

Not to be overshadowed Smith and Wesson’s brain trust created not one but two new calibers that allow handgun devotees to safely and efficiently hunt the largest, most dangerous wild game with confidence. The .500 S & W produces twice the muzzle energy of a .44 magnum with a far heavier load, and the S & W .460 XVR hit the market in 2004 and, with the right loads, yields the fastest velocity of any straight-walled cartridge on the market today. Each revolver has a bite and bark at both ends and is not for the faint of heart or hand, but serious shooters will learn to handle them just fine.

The right action

In essence there are just four types of handgun actions for hunters to select from: semi-autos, bolt actions, single shot, and revolvers (single and double action). Most big-game gunners do not consider semi-autos as hunting guns, and with the exception of the Desert Eagle .41, .44 magnum and .50 action express, I agree, and even this hand cannon should be limited to less than 100 yards. As for bolt-action handguns, unless one of the older models such as the Remington XP 100 can be purchased second hand, only Savage’s Striker is currently available.

Single-shots, such as the T/C Encore or the Magnum Research Long Eagle, when chambered with rifle rounds can certainly reach out to long ranges when properly scoped. With lots of practice and a solid rest, only one shot should be necessary to down moose, caribou, elk, deer, bear and even African plains game at 200 yards or better. A single-shot has no advantage over a bolt-action, both are dependable first-shot game getters, but what happens if a quick followup shot is needed? Worse yet, what if the target is dangerous game that turns on the shooter after being wounded? This is where a revolver with five or six rounds in the cylinder earns its keep.

What wheel guns lose in long-distance shooting, they make up for with a quick second shot — and a third, if necessary. Revolvers also allow the escape of gases around the cylinder, and with a ported barrel, this results in reduced recoil unlike a closed-system single-shot or bolt-action. Larger caliber revolvers are built on heavy frames, so this extra weight also helps dampen recoil, and in combination with a ported barrel, the shooter can return the sights to the target quicker. Another asset for cylinder handguns is the opportunity to carry two different loads at once for different game, or perhaps for different shooting conditions such as open ground compared to thick brush. A quick rotation of the cylinder allows the gunner to change bullet options to match current needs.

Personal preference

As with any rifle or shotgun, final selection of caliber, manufacturer, finish and action comes down to each sportsman’s personal preference. In most cases a hunting handgun isn’t going to be a target range gun; they are too expensive to shoot and produce too much recoil to be fun after a dozen rounds. A pistol or revolver that can be used for both will probably not be a dependable big-game gun. If you want to plink cans or punch paper, buy a second fun gun for the range.

Of the last six black bear I’ve shot in Maine, each one was taken with a different caliber and style of handgun. Three were revolvers, three were single shots, and one of those was a .50 caliber black powder muzzle-loader. I like them all, but harbor a bit more affection for the revolvers, so for this reason I’ll be lugging a S & W 460 XVR next month when bear season begins. Rather than a magnifying scope or open sights I’ve opted for a Trijicon red dot sight for brighter pinpoint aiming under dusky conditions in thick tree cover.

Another reason I selected the .460 S & W is my desire to practice frequently with a handgun to make sighting and shooting second nature. After a few shots with heavy hunting loads during sight- in, the gunner’s hands and wrists feel like they have been stuck into a bee hive. Thankfully the .460 will also fire .454 Casull or 45 long Colt loads, allowing me to keep shooting without the abuse. Other calibers, such as the .44 magnum, also have a variety of lighter loads that offer more pleasant practice gunning than the hunting rounds.

For those just getting into handgun hunting I’d suggest that before selecting a caliber, decide which type of big game it will be used on most often. Talk at length with experienced handgun shooters, gun shop owners, and even tag along to the range to test fire several styles and calibers if the opportunity arises. Worry about optics and loads after a hunting handgun is selected.

I’ve mentioned a number of top-rate choices already, Smith and Wesson in .41, .44. .460 and .500, the Ruger .480 and the Desert Eagle 50 AE. Double-action revolvers with a dependable reputation include the Colt Anaconda and the Ruger Redhawk in .44 magnum, while the Ruger .44 Blackhawk is an old standby for single-action shooters. Magnum Research BFR long-cylinder revolvers are chambered in .30-30, .45-70, and 444 & 450 Marlin to name a few dependable deer and moose loads. As for the single-shot T/C Encore, the 7mm-08, .243, and the 7-30 Waters are great whitetail and bear calibers for young shooters and small-framed females. For more firepower try the .270 or 375 JDJ in the Encore or G2; small buck or big bear, it will get the job done.

There’s always another quarry, a different caliber and perhaps a new gun around the corner. It takes me back to my first grade school dance, standing on one side of the gym looking at all the pretty young ladies on the opposite wall. I like them all and I didn’t know where to start, but just knew I had to get started. Handgun hunting is like that, not only enjoyable and challenging, it becomes somewhat addictive and offers a lifetime of fun.