Game at Hand
Hunting with handguns is hardly innovative.
Firearms date back in Europe to at least the 13th century. For the most part these were artillery pieces. Later, handguns, or “handgonnes,” were developed to be fired by one man from the shoulder. The pistol was a creation of the 16th century, made for use from horseback. “Horse” pistols were usually carried, for self-defense on the highway but also finding their way into hunting such as the chase for boar or stag, in a “brace” of holsters on a saddle. (Meriwether Lewis had a pair of horse pistols on the Corps of Discovery Expedition, which he used in a skirmish with the Blackfoot.) Toward the end of the 18th century, the English developed the ponderous “howdah” pistol. A howdah, from where the name came, was a wicker basket in which tiger hunters rode on the backs of elephants, using their large-caliber rifles to hunt. The howdah pistol, double barreled, sometimes four-barreled, was there on the chance the tiger made it through the cloud of blackpowder smoke and leapt onto the elephant and went for the hunter.
Chronicler of life on the Western frontier in the 1840s, Francis Parkman, described the buffalo “runners” who pursued bison on horseback. Along with rifles, pistols were used–muzzle-loading pistols. Riding at a gallop, they would carry three or four round balls in their mouths (do not try this at home, any of this!). Pouring powder down the bore, they would spit in a ball and pound the gun butt on the pommel to tamp down the load, all while in flight over the plains. A bison would invariably spring “at his enemy,” requiring the hunter to maintain “a tenacious seat in the saddle, for if he is thrown to the ground there is no hope for him.”
Twenty years later, George Armstrong Custer, alone on his first hunt for buffalo on the Kansas prairie, spied what he would always consider the biggest bull he was ever to see out of hundreds-of-thousands of bison he would go on to see. After a long chase, Custer drew up beside the bull and reached out with his gun hand, filled with his 44 Army revolver. It was then the bull lunged to gore the horse; and the horse, which had come through the Civil War with the Brevet General, crow hopped to the side. Custer fought to stay in the saddle, and the revolver discharged–between the horse’s ears, proof that, as history would confirm, serving under Custer was a good way to get yourself killed. Sitting flat on the ground, dazed, Custer looked up at a very bemused buffalo that simply seemed to shake its great wooly head and amble away.
Modern handgun hunting began in the 1930s with the development of the first truly magnum pistol cartridges, popularized by the stories of one magnum-gunmaker’s hunt for antelope, elk, and moose in Wyoming, along with walrus hunted by an Arctic missionary priest, and of the famed tigrero, Sasha Siemel, who carried a magnum with him along with his six-foot spear when he hunted in the Brazilian rainforest.
In the mid-1950s sixgunner extraordinaire Ol’ Elmer Keith was packing one of his pet magnum pistols on a mule-deer hunt with a friend. When the friend wounded a buck on an opposite ridge, and then couldn’t finish it, Keith got down and, bracing the gun, began firing at the deer. It took four rounds to walk in the distance, and two hits to bring the buck down. Range? According to Keith, 600 yards. Don’t believe it? To paraphrase the title of one of his most famous books, Hell, he was there!
From Browning’s extensive line of pistol ammo, there is a choice for the small- and big-game hunter. Quick word on scopes: A handgun requires a dedicated handgun scope. While a rifle scope may provide three to four inches of eye relief, a handgun scope needs something like 15 to let the shooter find the target with the crosshairs when he is resting the pistol out at full arm extension. A handgun hunter wants a window, not a keyhole.
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