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Shooting: Little Gun, Big Handgun Hunting Power

Maximize your handgun's hunting capabilities by choosing the right ammunition.

Shooting: Little Gun, Big Handgun Hunting Power

A single 130-grain hardcast bullet from the author's .327 Fed. Mag. cleanly took this whitetail at 40 yards and passed through the deer for complete penetration. (Photo by Richard Mann)

A guide and I were sitting in a pop-up blind, not far from the Texas coastline. I was helping with a culling operation for whitetail deer. It was my job to do the shooting and the guide's job to tell me what to shoot. I'd already taken two deer at a little over 100 yards with a rifle when several came out of the brush closer to the blind. Pointing, the guide said, "That one."

I unholstered my 4 5/8-inch Ruger Single Seven revolver in .327 Fed. Mag. and said, "If you don't care, I'll use my handgun."

The guide kind of grimaced, "I'm not sure that thirty-two is enough gun."

Leveling the little revolver on the whitetail at about 30 yards, I whispered, "Watch." The revolver bucked and so did the deer. Then it ran about 35 yards and piled up stone dead. "Well, I'll be," he said. "Let's go have a look."

As we crawled out of the blind, I ejected the empty to load another round. That's when I noticed I'd inadvertently loaded the revolver with .32 H&R Mag. ammunition instead of .327 ammunition; the 130-grain hardcast loads from Buffalo Bore looked identical except the .32 H&R Mag. cartridges were just a tad shorter. Upon inspection, we found the bullet had passed through and poked a good-sized hole in both lungs, busting a rib going in and another going out. Impacting at only about 1,000 fps with just around 300 ft-lbs. of energy, my little "thirty-two" had indeed been enough gun.

Outside of the big revolver cartridges, like the .480 Ruger and the .460 and .500 S&W Mag., handguns launch bullets at slow velocities. Even the hottest .44 Mag. hunting loads leave the muzzle at only around 1,400 fps. That's about 1,000 fps less than the best .30-30 Win. loads. And many hunters think the .30-30 is where deer cartridges start.

These same folks often suggest 1,000 ft-lbs. of energy at bullet impact as the minimum acceptable for deer. This is, as the .32 H&R Mag. has proven, baloney. Shot placement and bullet construction are what matter most.

Whether fired from a handgun or a rifle, bullets kill in the same way. They damage tissue and cause blood loss. The difference is that with rifle cartridges, the bullets impact at much higher velocities. This allows tissue damage to extend well beyond the hole poked by the bullet.

With the low-velocity handgun bullets, tissue damage is mostly limited to that little hole. Therefore, bullets that deform or mushroom—develop a larger frontal diameter—are often preferred. However, with handgun bullets that deform, penetration becomes a problem. The larger the frontal diameter of the bullet, the less it will penetrate.

Ammo for Handgun Hunting
Monometal Hornady Monoflex bullets are designed to mushroom on impact, while hardcast bullets like those from Buffalo Bore are not. (Photos by Richard Mann)

With most centerfire handgun cartridges—even those commonly used for self-defense like the 9 mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP—you can expect about a foot or so of penetration in deer-sized game. With conventional jacketed-hollow-point (JHP) bullets, exit wounds are rare. It's hard for bullets that mushroom wide to defeat the stretchable hide on the offside after they've lost so much velocity. With cartridges like the .357 Mag., 10 mm and .44 Mag., you'll see a bit more penetration, but not much. However, with all these cartridges, penetration is generally sufficient if a perfect broadside shot is taken. With quartering or angling shots, you need deeper penetration, and the best way to get it is with a non-deforming hardcast bullet.

Hardcast bullets are often thought of as lead bullets. They're made of lead but not pure lead; antimony, silver and tin are added to make them harder—as much as eight times harder. This extreme hardness allows these bullets to break bones and penetrate extremely deep because they do not shed weight and do not mushroom. Compared to jacketed-soft-point (JSP) and hollow-point (HP) bullets of the same weight, hardcast bullets can penetrate twice as deep or even more.

Also, the best hardcast bullets for hunting have a flat nose. This flat nose works in a similar way that a hollow-point bullet does when it deforms. The flat nose helps increase the shock and the dispersion of fluid and tissue caused by the bullet. A hardcast bullet will not kill an animal any deader or quicker than a JSP or HP bullet, but it will penetrate deeper and substantially increase the odds of an exit wound. Exit wounds help blood find the ground, and the more blood that finds the ground, the easier blood trails are to follow.


How effective can a hardcast bullet be on a big-game animal? Well, I already relayed how a 130-grain hardcast bullet from a .32 H&R Mag. easily put down a whitetail. But Alaskan bear guide Phil Shoemaker once used a 9 mm pistol loaded with 147-grain hardcast bullets to stop an attacking grizzly. Was it the best option for the threat at hand? No, but it worked.

When hunting with handguns, you want ammunition loaded with heavy-for-caliber bullets that—whether they deform or not—will hold together. This gives the bullet the best chance to deliver optimum penetration. And whether the bullet deforms or not, it if does not deliver sufficient penetration, you're going to have problems. This applies to shooting whitetail deer, feral hogs, elk or brown bears. The bullet must go deep enough to damage vital organs. Hardcast bullets offer the best chance for this to happen.

Buffalo Bore offers a full line of handgun ammunition loaded with hardcast bullets. Not only will you get the advantage of the hardcast bullet, the Heavy or Outdoorsman loads also use heavy-for-caliber bullets loaded to deliver maximum velocity. For example, out of a 5-inch barrel, the 180-grain Buffalo Bore Outdoorsman load for the .357 Mag. will begin at nearly 1,400 fps. Out of my 4 5/8-inch Ruger Single Seven, the .327 Fed. Mag. Buffalo Bore Heavy load pushes a 130-grain bullet to almost that same speed.

The next-best option would be a monometal bullet like Hornady uses in its Handgun Hunter line. It includes loads for everything from 9 mm Luger to .460 S&W Mag. These bullets are made of the same lead-free material as Hornady's GMX bullet, and just like the GMX bullet, they're designed to flower open on impact. To make this flowering happen more reliably, Hornady added an elastomer plug to the bullet’s hollow point. These bullets will penetrate deeper than most comparable JSP or JHP bullets, but still only about half as deep as hardcast bullets for the same cartridge. The advantage they bring is the increased diameter formed by deformation.

If you're patient enough to wait for the perfect shot—never a bad thing no matter the animal or the gun—these deforming monometal bullets are fine for handgun hunting. But, if you want the absolute best penetration possible, even after the bullet has busted through a shoulder full of heavy bone, cartilage and muscle, hardcast bullets are the way to go.

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