When a hunter carries a handgun afield for big game, he or she joins an elite group of marksmen, unique to America, to the West.
Of necessity, the handgunner spends months before the season at the range. Minor modifications and changes in loads necessitate more target practice. The hunter gains advanced proficiency with his firearm.
As the practice goes all year, so goes the hunt: varmints and black bear in the spring; hogs in the summer; pronghorn in September; whitetails, blackmails, mule deer and elk in October; coyotes in December.
Field-craft and woodsmanship aside, there is one training discipline that prepares the handgunner better than any other. In handgun silhouette competition, the shooter engages cast iron chickens, pigs, turkeys and rams at varying distances against a timer. Overseen by International Handgun Metallic Silhouette Association, local matches lead up to the World Championships held each July.
IHMSA shooter John Cullison won 10 trophies in 2009, including the Iron Man trophy for the second year in a row.
In silhouette, the shooter first focuses on the physical fundamentals. Over time, the challenges become mental. "Once you've mastered the physical ability then you've trained the subconscious. If you train enough, your subconscious will do it for you," Cullison said.
To take handgun hunting to the next level, Cullison recommends the hunter first take his revolver to a revolver specialist. An action and trigger job can smooth out the internals and make the trigger pull crisp.
Cullison's taste runs to older Ruger Redhawks and Super Redhawks, Freedom Arms wheelguns and single-shot Encores and Contenders.
"The Freedom Arms, that's the gun you win World Championships with. The Contender? You can use it with a .22 barrel or max it out with a .45/70. Hunt mice before lunch and moose after."
One of the easiest modifications to make is to trade out the factory grips. Not only can aftermarket grips be fitted to a shooter's hand, the right grips take the punishment out of big bore recoil.
A high-tech option is the Hogue Tamer, designed for Ruger's Super Redhawk and GP100. Kevin Wright of Hogue said the Tamer is a one-piece design with an internal recoil management pad under the web of the hand. The Sorbithane cushion also relieves felt recoil in the finger grooves and palm swell.
One of the most obvious mods is a scope. But scopes are not an improvement for every handgun, every hunter, in every habitat. To shoot a scope on a handgun requires training, Cullison said.
A handgun hunter wants low-power optics for shots out to 150 yards. Eye relief -- the distance between the eye and the eyepiece -- should range 9-26 inches. Handgun scopes are offered in fixed 2X to 4X and variables that range to 8X.
Last year, I used Nikon Encore in Warne mounts on my Ruger Charger. In the alfalfa fields, it proved worthy against the pests of the irrigation pivots. On a walk-and-stalk, I would set the scope at 2.5X. On the shooting platform, I dialed it up to 8-power.
Shot from a handgun, ammunition designed for rifles does not reach the same velocity. It also expands at a different rate. Manufacturers bring out more loads each year designed just for handgunners. Handloaders can tailor loads that shoot the best in their individual guns.
For the single-shot enthusiast with a penchant for the .30 caliber, Nosler's 150-grain round-nose Ballistic Silvertip has a polymer tip with a ballistic coefficient of .232 and expands reliably at velocities generated by the .30/30 Winchester.
Winchester's Dual Bond Big Bore Handgun ammunition is billed as a bullet within a bullet with two layers of petals that open into 12 segments and maintain close to 100 percent of its weight.
When hunting from a tree stand, the hunter has options for resting the gun. The stand's safety bar, a tree branch or the crook of the knee from a seated position, anchor the shooter. But still-hunting or out on the prairie, a set of shooting sticks is a most useful accessory.
My favorite sticks are built by Jerry Eckert of Clackamas, Ore. The heavy duty bipod or tripod can be carried quietly by sliding a grommet down the legs. Up top, a rubber yoke anchors the handgun for the shot.
To get the most out of the handgun, a shooter should memorize range data with his chosen hunting load. Shooting champion Cullison recommends a data card to be used in conjunction with a rangefinder. There are dozens of ballistics programs. One of my favorites is the Ultimate Data Card Software from Darrell Holland in Powers, Ore. The software helps the hunter determine range, drop, drift and compensation for uphill and downhill shots.
Nikon's Spot-On ballistics calculator is also worth checking out.
On a stalk, the gun should be in hand, but a holster allows the hunter to put the firearm away. Climbing and riding, packing-in or taking a lunch break, the gun can be secure but close to hand. For a lot of hunters, a shoulder holster in a cross-draw rig makes the most sense. The Bianchi Ranger HuSH (Hunting Shoulder Holster) distributes the weight of the gun across the body.
Another choice employed by thousands of hunters and anglers in bear country is the Alaska Sportsman. The rectangular chest holster has cartridge loops or speed loader pouches on the panel, and puts the gun right on the chest with an adjustable shoulder harness and safety strap.
A minor modification or adjustment can make a big difference downrange. Accessories like shooting sticks, a data card or holster can help put a buck in the back of your truck.