Sunday, September 7, 2014

Handguns Provide Hunters A Challenge

Dan Bowers reaches for the bullets he will use with the
handgun he uses for distance hunting Wednesday,
Aug. 20, 2014, at a shooting range near his house
in Armagh, Indiana County. Bowers has different handguns
 for every situation he would come across while hunting.
By Bob Frye

There's an irony here somewhere.

Dan Bowers' trips to the shooting range and woods sometimes can be “quite the production.” You're liable to see sandbags, rangefinders, wind meters and the occasional surveyor's tripod.

It's a lot of stuff, some of it large and bulky, almost cumbersome.
Then he pulls out his guns.

It wouldn't be fair to call them tiny or doubt their lethality. But they are among the smallest tools on these expeditions.

Bowers of Armagh, Indiana County, hunts exclusively with handguns.

“I used to really be big into archery, hunting and shooting competitively, but I'd taken it about as far as I could. I'd taken a hobby and turned it into a job that wasn't fun anymore. And picking up a rifle wasn't too appealing to me. It seemed too easy,” Bowers said. “So I've been handgun hunting ever since.”

Bowers estimates he's killed between 30 and 50 Pennsylvania whitetails over the last 17 years as well as everything from squirrels and rabbits to turkeys and antelope.

That kind of success doesn't surprise Gary Smith, the Austin, Texas-based editor of the online Handgun Hunter Magazine. He, too, hunts entirely with handguns. Over the last 35 years, he has taken everything from whitetails in his native Virginia to, this past year, Cape buffalo and a lioness in South Africa.

It's not a gimmick, he said.

“A lot of people, even a lot of hunters in the United States and some people in game departments, they don't understand what handgun hunting is and what these guns are capable of. But there's nothing that a handgun that's been set up correctly for hunting can't handle, from elephants right on down,” Smith said.

Bowers hunts with single-shot bolt-action handguns like the Remington XP 100, Thompson-Center Contender and the Competitor Corp. pistol. All come chambered in flat-shooting rifle calibers.

Smith prefers revolvers. He hunts with Freedom Arms wheelguns in mammoth calibers like .44 Magnum, .454 Casull and .475.

The two agree on one thing, though: To be a successful handgun hunter, you have to commit to practicing.

A single-shot handgun with a scope can “shoot half-inch groups at 100 yards all day,” Smith said. Even a good revolver with open sights can be effective out to 75 yards or so.

But you've got to make sure your abilities match the gun's, he said.

“If you think you can go out there and buy a box of shells and go to the range and shoot a few of those and be good to go, I can tell you that you're not,” Smith said.

Range time with the gun and ammunition you'll be using afield is the best practice, Bowers said. Practicing at home has its place, too, though.

Firing an unloaded gun — triple-checked to be sure it contains no live rounds — or one containing snap caps at things like light switches will teach you about grip tension, trigger squeeze and sight acquisition, he said.

Hunting small game with a .22 comparable in size, shape and action to your big-game handgun, meanwhile, teaches you about real-world conditions, he said.

All that practice will help you with “wiggle,” Smith said. That's the wobble you'll notice when trying to hold a handgun sight on target.

“Your sight picture will never be as steady as with a rifle. Some guys can never overcome that,” Smith said.

That's why it's imperative to always have a rest of some kind, be that a tree to lean against or a shooting stick you carry with you, he added.

Even then, to be ethical, you have to understand your limitations and live within those boundaries, Bowers said. Handgunning is much like bowhunting that way, he said.

“It's about truly assessing your practical range and waiting for game to get within that range. If you're only confident with putting your shots into a 6-inch circle at 40 yards, you have to wait for that animal to get within 40 yards. If it's 60 yards away, you have to let it walk,” Bowers said.

That might make handgun hunting sound tough, and it can be, Smith said. That's why so many people try it only hesitantly. They take a handgun into the woods but carry a rifle, too. In the end, they never kill anything with their handgun because — at the moment of truth — they fall back on the rifle, Smith said.

The moment you commit to leaving the long gun at home is when you become a real handgun hunter, and that's special, he said.

“It's something different,” Bowers agreed. “If you're a sportsman, and you're getting bored with what you're doing, it's a new challenge to take up.”

Handgun hunting rules

There are about 13.7 million hunters in the United States, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's last count, in 2011. Some estimates suggest about 1.4 million hunt with a handgun at least on occasion, said Handgun Hunter Magazine editor Gary Smith.

The rules for their use vary by region.

New York, for example, limits handgun hunting to state residents. Delaware will let anyone hunt with a handgun but only for white-tailed deer.

Handgunners get their own season, though.

It attracts about 12 percent of the state's deer hunters, said Joe Rogerson, a biologist with the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife.

In Pennsylvania, hunters must be at least 21 to hunt with a handgun and obtain either a sportsman's permit from a county treasurer or a concealed carry permit from a county sheriff. Most hunters opt for the latter because of the extra privileges it provides, Indiana County sheriff Robert Fyock said.
Beyond that, hunters can use handguns — revolvers and single shots but not semiautomatics — in existing hunting seasons, said Pennsylvania Game Commission press secretary Travis Lau. They must be sufficiently large to do the job, however.

“That handgun isn't necessarily restricted for hunting a certain species so much as the handgun has to be of a high enough caliber for that species,” Lau said.

Modern handguns for big game must be at least .45 caliber; muzzleloader handguns must be least .50 caliber, he said. Hunters can use things like .22-caliber handguns for small game.

The commission does not track handgun use or harvest, so there's no telling how many sportsmen use them in Pennsylvania or how much game they take, Lau said.

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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