Hunting is an American past time, and for many, a way of life. When asked whether you can hunt game with a pistol…the short answer is Yes. The long answer is, it depends. Hunting game is a state-to-state regulated activity. While most states allow you to hunt a variety of game with pistol, just like hunting in general, you have to understand the rules before going out. My recommendation of where to start researching for your state is to go to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (fws.gov). From there you can choose your state and dive into the specific regulations for your region. But let’s get into some general aspects of hunting with a pistol.
Type of Pistol
There are three types of pistols that you can choose from: Single-Shot, Revolver, and Semi-Automatic. Each have their pros and cons.
This type of pistol isn’t one that many of today’s shooters think of when they think of a pistol. Back when sailing and horses was a main form of transportation, single shot pistols were much more common. Am I alluding to pirates? Okay maybe a little. That type of pistol was also known as a flint lock pistol, where you loaded the ball from the front and had to pack in your powder and wad prior to each shot. But today you’ll find what is called a Break-Action pistol.
I grew up knowing of the Thompson Contender by TC Arms. Ours was a .44 magnum pistol that has the capacity to mount a 4x scope on top. Pretty wicked setup when you’re looking to hunt with a pistol. TC Arms' whole system is interchangeable so you can switch barrels depending on the caliber you want. The drawback, it’s a single shot. It’s great for hunting deer or something medium sized like that you know you’ll be able to take it down in one hit. But terrible if you need to have a follow-up shot or have a hog charging you head first.
This heavy hitter is definitely the most common, most known, and a highly respectable pistol type used for hunting. The revolver first went into product in 1836 and was created by Samuel Colt. Although the design has been tweaked throughout the decades, the main idea behind the pistol has largely stayed the same.
You have a cylinder that, depending on caliber, holds between 5 and 10 rounds at a single time. It uses either a single or double action mechanism that incorporates a hammer to strike the primer. Earlier models were break away, but more current ones allow for the cylinder to swing out the side of the pistol.
The reason that a revolver is the most popular type of pistol used for hunting is two fold. The first reason is the range of calibers that this style of revolver is made in. Calibers ranging from a .22LR, all the way up to a 500 S&W Magnum, have a revolver that is manufactured for it. You could hunt squirrel with the small caliber revolvers or Bear with the big boy toys. The options are nearly limitless when choosing a revolver caliber.
The second reason that a revolver is a popular pistol style for hunting is the ability to mount a scope to it. Many revolvers, such as the Ruger Super RedHawk .44 Magnum that was handed down to me from my Grandfather, come equipped with the ability to mount a small scope to it. More contemporary looking revolvers such as the Chiappa Rhino or the Smith and Wesson Performance Center Model 460, will come standard with a picatinny rail for scopes and other optics.
All in all, the revolver is the standard when you think about hunting with a pistol. On to the third type of pistol to consider when hunting.
The Semi-Automatic pistol is an extremely common pistol in the market today. Perfect for military, police, home defense, and personal everyday carry. Not the most likely choice for hunting though, but still, there are some that prefer to carry this well-rounded pistol for hunting.
One of the main reasons people choose a semi-automatic is because it’s a great backup sidearm. The ability for you to carry multiple rounds in the magazine for the purpose of safety, and it still being compact is a major plus. Many Alaskan guides choose the popular 10mm semi-auto in case they need a lot of rounds to stop a charging bear or some other pissed off game. It’s typically easier to carry than a .357, has more stopping power than your extremely common 9mm, is fast for follow up shots, and quick to reload.
For the main purpose of hunting game, your goal should always be to take a quick and clean kill. Having a lot of rounds with fast reloads is more for a safety precaution than a hunting tactic. You can definitely use a 10mm pistol such as a Sig Sauer P220 for hunting, but majority of hunters prefer it as a backup plan pistol.
So, if you are a hardcore semi-auto enthusiast and have your heart set on using a P220 or something similar for hunting, then go for it!
When choosing what style of pistol to use for hunting, your first decision will be what caliber you will need. This choice is determined by what game you are hunting and the regulations for that game. If you are hunting small game or varmints and your local government allows for pistols to be used, then choose the proper caliber for that game such as a .22LR up to a .38 Special.
If you’re hunting medium sized game such as deer, use something such as a .357 or larger. And bigger game, lean towards for .44 magnum, .454 Casull, or maybe a 500 S&W Magnum. Always consult your local government hunting regulations and understand what calibers you can use for the desired game you are looking to hunt. This will be tremendously helpful in determining which caliber you should look at. Once you have that determined, choosing your type of pistol should be much easier.
Next thing you need to consider when looking at which type of pistol to hunt with is the type of optics you want. Iron sights, red dot, or scope are your three main options, with each being progressively easier to hunt with.
Nearly all pistols are equipped with iron sights, so if you are looking to go with a raw and stripped-down type of hunt, try your hand at iron sights. Using them will take a decent amount of practice to become proficient and will force you to keep the distance between you and your game fairly close. The reason for this is simple, the further your target is, the higher you will need to aim to compensate for bullet drop. So Ideally, you’ll want to keep game within 25 yds to avoid having to compensate for bullet drop.
Next up is a red dot, a great alternative to the standard iron sights. Many pistols are set up to accept a red dot so choosing this type of optic is many times a no brainer. You still need to keep your game close as most red dots don’t have the ability to compensate for bullet drop, but you will have a larger sight picture in case you need to do a little compensation.
A downside to consider with a red dot that I’ve personally experienced is weather. If you use a conventional red dot, you’ll want to be conscious that rain, snow, and sometimes dust or tree things could hinder the visibility of the glass on your optic. Not a massive issue but one to keep in mind if you are hunting mountain lions or cougar in in the snow.
Lastly, the most common optic used for pistol hunting, the scope. As you have already guessed, a scope is a great optic to use with a pistol when hunting due to its superb accuracy. Scopes are one of the major reasons that a revolver is one of the most preferred handgun types when hunting with a pistol. No need to worry about slide action on the scope, and many times, the added weight of a scope allows for a reduced felt recoil in a revolver.
Another reason a scope is preferred over say a red dot reticle, is the magnification and price point. Of course, you have limitations on the size of scope, you don’t want to slap on a 2lb scope that has a 16x zoom onto your revolver, even if it makes you look cool. Ha! Your typical scopes that are designed for a pistol will have a zoom range between 2-7x. Plenty when you are considering that you need to have an extremely steady hand for this style of hunting. And they are priced reasonably between $200 and $700.
Enough on the equipment for pistol hunting for a second. Let’s talk about the challenges.
Hunting game with a pistol is fun and rewarding because it brings in a new set of challenges that your average hunter needs to learn and adapt to. The two biggest challenges that you’ll face with pistol hunting that differs from conventional rifle hunting is the distance to your target and the steadiness of your aim.
Pistols don’t have the same range capabilities as rifles, we all know this, which means you need to get close to your target. Deer, bear, hog, squirrel, it doesn’t matter what game you are hunting, they are smart. They have heightened senses that we don’t naturally possess, which means we need to be just as clever as them. Understanding wind direction, terrain, and elevation will be even more crucial when you hunt with a pistol because you need to close the gap between you and your game. You won’t have the luxury of 200 yds and a ton of obstacles, to breakup your scent before it reaches the animal. This is what makes hunting with a pistol fun though! You’ll be challenging your skills of tracking, stalking, and being able to get up close to your target.
The other reason you won’t have distance on your side is the pure physics of a pistol. The barrel isn’t very long which means accuracy will become increasingly more difficult the farther out you’re shooting. This is where the steadiness of your aim comes into play. You’ll need to practice how steady your aim can be. Practice standing shots, kneeling, sitting, and even laying down. It would even be smart to practice getting your heart rate and breathing elevated by doing some climbs or sprints before stopping to take your shot.
You can never really anticipate the situation that you will be in when that perfect opportunity comes along to take your shot at the trophy, so make sure you prepare.
Also, consider using a shooting stick to help with your steadiness. Not every situation will allow for you to utilize a shooting stick to stabilize your shot, but it definitely will help in slowing things down and making sure your little 6-inch barrel becomes as stable as possible before squeezing the trigger.
This all brings me to my last suggestion, be patient. When you are hunting with a pistol, regardless of the caliber, type of pistol, and type of accessories you use, you will want to be patient with yourself. This is even more important if you are brand new to pistol hunting. Take your time and put in the practice to make sure you tip the scale of victory in your favor. Be smart and safe when you’re out there in the wilderness.
When the perfect opportunity arises and your trophy game is within range, remember to breath, stay calm, and if you are confident in the shot, then take it. It’s never great to force a shot if you aren’t confident in the situation or your ability at that moment. Recoup, get close, or change whatever needs to change in order to get a clean kill. We want to keep the sport of hunting alive and well in this country. That all comes down to practicing safe and ethical hunting.