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The Fun And Challenge Of Handgun Hunting
written by Keith Sutton

More hunters are going afield with handguns every year.
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 A little research and some hands-on experience can help you make the right choices for purchasing hunting handguns.

The wooded bottoms along Dirty Creek in Muskogee County, Oklahoma, are full of squirrels. Bill Scherman of Muskogee has been hunting squirrels in these bottoms for years. But today, there's a new twist to his hunt. Instead of hunting with a rifle or shotgun, Scherman hunts with a .22 handgun.

     

"I'm glad we don't have to rely on what we kill for our supper," Scherman says.

"Otherwise, we might go hungry tonight."

     

Scherman is one in a group of outdoor writers and natural resources professionals gathered in Muskogee at the invitation of Smith & Wesson to try handgun squirrel hunting. As the regional wildlife supervisor for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation in this area, it's his job to help us find game.

     

"These bottoms are full of fox and gray squirrels," he says with a sweep of his hand. "We usually look for fruit or nut-bearing trees along the logging roads, then sit and wait for the squirrels to come. Or we ease through the woods 'till we find them."

     

The three in our party -- Scherman, myself and Covey Bean, a writer from Oklahoma City -- split up to hunt the Dirty Creek bottoms. Another group hunts a large pecan grove a few miles away.

     

Though I consider myself a competent pistol shooter and squirrel hunter, I figure this will be a difficult hunt. I haven't shot a handgun in several months, and on top of that, a drizzling rain is falling. As it turns out, there are plenty of squirrels along Dirty Creek; I see 12 in two hours of hunting. They're skittish, however, feeding on treetop leaf buds, not low-to-the-ground mulberries.

     

The handgun I've chosen to shoot is a top-of-the-line target pistol -- a Smith & Wesson Model 41 .22-caliber autoloader outfitted with a Bushnell 1X handgun scope with an illuminated dot reticle. But fancy equipment can't compensate for my lack of practice. Twice, I center the scope's red dot on the head of a squirrel. Twice the squirrel escapes unscathed. My woodsmanship isn't what it ought to be, either. The other 10 squirrels scamper away through the treetops before I'm close enough to try.

     

Scherman and Bean are better marksmen. When we rendezvous at our appointed meeting place, Covey has a gray squirrel dangling from his belt. Bill has two -- a fox and a gray.

     

"I don't know how the cowboys in the Old West did it with their handguns," says Scherman. "Guess we wouldn't go hungry, but it's a challenging way to hunt."

     

"It's a good thing we aren't cowboys," says Bean. "If we had to face an outlaw for a shoot-out in the street, we might wake up dead. I count three squirrels, and I heard at least a dozen shots."

     

"Must have been Sutton shooting," Scherman says grinning.

     

The group in the orchard has better luck. Ken Jorgensen from Massachusetts reports nine in the bag for three hunters.

     

"These big pecan groves are ideal for this," he says. "There's no understory to contend with like you have in the woods, so you have more open shots. And the trees are full of fox squirrels. You couldn't have asked for a better handgun hunting situation, though admittedly, we missed our share, too."

     

"It's fun, though" says Scherman. "And I intend to try it again. With some practice, I might actually be able to kill enough squirrels for a mess."

     

Despite the enthusiasm of a small but devoted group of followers, hunting game with a handgun remains a pretty esoteric business. Its satisfactions are great, but its practitioners are few.

     

Handgun hunting for other game, however, is a growing phenomena. More hunters are going afield with handguns every year, more states are allowing handguns to be used on big game, and better products are making it all feasible. If you've considered hunting with a handgun, now's the time to accept the challenge.

     

The three most important things for a handgun hunter are practice, practice and more practice.

Handgun hunting appeals to a variety of sportsmen. There's the hunter who has taken all sorts of game with rifles and wants to try something new. It's for blackpowder and archery hunters who can employ their stalking ability for a successful handgun hunt. Serious handgun shooters and competitors who are proficient on the range are applying their handgun skills in the woods and on the prairies.

     

There have been tremendous improvements in guns, ammo and optics in recent years. A little research and some hands-on experience can help you make the right choices.

     

The handgun of choice should be capable of accomplishing the task at hand but also one with which you're comfortable and can develop adequate marksmanship skills. A .44-magnum revolver, for example, can deliver the accuracy and power needed to take deer, antelope, wild boar, or even elk. A .357 Magnum can be relied upon to take many game animals if the distance is reasonable and shot placement is precise. A friend of mine used a .41 Magnum on a couple animals last year and said he was very pleased with the performance. He noted it was more pleasant to shoot than some .44s and certainly did the job.

     

Twenty-two-caliber pistols and revolvers are ideal hunting handguns for squirrels, rabbits or other small game. Twenty-twos are fun to shoot, inexpensive and also make great practice firearms. You can put hundreds of rounds downrange for a few dollars while you learn sight alignment, trigger control and other basics.

     

Choosing proper ammo also is essential. There are many new and improved bullet designs marketed today. It used to be you made a choice between expansion or penetration, but that's no longer the case. Today's ammunition is better at providing both, and there's a factory load for every quarry. Consult ammunition guides and other hunters for help in making a decision.

     

After equipment is chosen, the important work begins. The three most important things for a handgun hunter are practice, practice and more practice. Shooting a handgun accurately, especially at the distances many times needed in hunting situations, takes lots of practice. You must be good enough to hit your target when it counts.

     

Safety also should be stressed. There are four rules each handgun hunter always should follow: 1) Treat all firearms as if they are loaded; 2) Keep you finger off the trigger and outside the trigger guard until ready to shoot; 3) Don't point at anything you're not willing to shoot; and 4) Be certain of your target and beyond. These are rules that we can all live with.

     

Handgun hunting is a challenge worth pursuing. Cover the basics, develop your skills through practice and you'll find the sense of accomplishment in a successful handgun hunt is well worth the effort and discipline.

 

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