Hunting With Sixguns--- The Long And The Short Of It
By John Taffin
October was made for hunting and the day was perfect. The oppressive heat of summer had given way to frozen mornings and warm afternoons, while the green was rapidly being replaced with gold and red splashes of color. Heavy flannel shirts and down vests were once again the dress of the day. Yes, it was a perfect day for hunting and the ram was standing almost defiantly broadside at 225 yards. A long shot? Definitely. Could I make it? Maybe. I assumed the steadiest position possible, sighted down the 10 1/2” barrel of the .44 Magnum Super Blackhawk, and squeezed the trigger sending a 265 grain hard cast bullet on its way.
This Is The Only Long Range Sixgunning
The shot was as perfect as the day. It seemed like an eternity as the flat-nosed bullet made its way to the target and I waited to hear the satisfying Whomp! as the bullet hit. Instead I heard Clang! for this critter was a steel ram and I was shooting long-range silhouettes. While I was active in silhouettes in the 1980s this happened hundreds of times as I, and thousands of others, successfully took chickens, pigs, turkeys, and rams. Silhouetting taught us a lot about long-range shooting, however most of what we did shooting the black steel animal silhouettes did not transfer positively to the hunting field unless we were really paying attention.
It is one thing to shoot a steel animal at a measured distance, standing still, allowing time for the shooter to assume the Creedmore position, and continuing to stand broadside as the shooter slowly squeezes the trigger from a well-known sixgun shooting the same load at the same distance as hundreds of times before. Silhouetting was and is a wonderful and satisfying shooting sport for handgunners, however it would be more realistic for the handgun hunter if the targets actually had a kill zone.
In the game fields bullet placement is critical; on steel critters a hit is a hit. I took many rams with perfect shoulder shots, however I also took them with horn shots, ham shots, gut shots, leg shots, and even shots which had they been ewes would have been complete misses. It didn't matter. As long as the ram went down the shot counted. We do not have this much forgiving situation in the reality of the game fields; bad shots remain bad shots often allowing animals to escape and die a painful lingering death. The two equal first rules of hunting are 1) Use enough gun, and 2) Respect the animal being hunted.
Reality Sets In
As most hunters I started my adventures afield with a scope-sighted, bolt-action rifle in what was then the most popular chambering, the .30-06. When I decided to become a handgun hunter I did not strap on the sixgun as a backup but instead left the ’06 at home. My 10” .44 Magnum Ruger Flat-Top in a Goerg shoulder holster carried so much easier than the old sporterized 1917 Enfield. As I made my way up the mountain I appreciated the Ruger more and more. I reached the top, sat down to rest with my back against a fallen log, looked across the canyon and there he was, the biggest mule deer I had ever seen. He was a long way off, however if I had the .30-06 Enfield I might have been able to move behind the log, roll up my down vest and use it as a rest, and take the shot. Instead, I just sat there and enjoyed the view.
He was much too far for an open-sighted sixgun shot even with the relatively flat shooting .44 Magnum. Perhaps I could have gone down into the canyon and back up to him however I was definitely too tired and it would be dark before I ever reached him. When one decides to become a handgun hunter, situations like this are to be expected. Three hundred yard shots may be possible with the accomplished riflemen, however they are totally out of the question for the sixgunner. I may have been able to hit 225 yard rams most of the time, however I was realistic enough to know my range with an open sighted sixgun was about one-third this distance, and 50 yards is even better.
Real Sixgunners Do It Up Close
Handgun hunters need to take a reality check and realize the normal front sight on a sixgun covers three inches at 25 yards; carried out to 100 yards the sight covers a lot of area, certainly greater than the kill zone on most animals. Factor in excitement, often an out of breath situation, and it becomes very apparent shots should be at close range. Two hundred yards? Three hundred yards? Forget it! Shooting at live targets at such distances with an iron-sighted sixgun is totally irresponsible. We can laugh with our friends when missing a steel ram or a distant rock, however there is nothing funny about wounding an animal.
My latest hunting trip after a Catalina goat is a perfect illustration of hunting with a sixgun and the choices to be made. Each year my two hunting buddies and I make a yearly trek to Clover Creek Ranch above Madras Oregon. Lately I have gone back to my roots doing most of my hunting with the .44 Special using the Keith load of a, what else, Keith bullet at 1200 fps from a 7 1/2” single action sixgun. I have a thing for red Catalina goats and had been hunting all day before I found any goats. We finally spotted a herd and tried to get close enough for shot. For the next two hours I waited. I waited while a wild pig came by and moved them out; I watched as a small herd of buffalo turned them back towards me. The goats finally settled down and I put the Bushnell Laser Rangefinder on the "my" pale red goat. He was 123 yards away and I never got any closer. It would be easy to say that it was just a Catalina goat and try the shot however I cannot operate this way. Fifty yards closer, a steady rest, standing broadside shot, maybe; a 50 yard shot would have been even better.
The Bigger They Are, The Closer We Get
The previous year at Clover Creek I had taken two huge feral boars with the same .44 Special. A reverse situation exists when hunting. It would be natural to assume the larger the critter the farther away we can shoot; actually the opposite is true. One rarely, if ever, hears of anyone shooting long-range on elephants or Cape buffalo. Shots are up close where a mistake is less likely to be made. I've shot pigs in many parts of the country as well as wart hog in South Africa and javelina in Texas. My longest shot has been well under 50 yards. The two feral boars, a little one at 500#, and his big buddy topping the scale at over 650# were both taken at 25-35 yards. Pigs are big and tough and can be dangerous; up close is the only way to take them with a sixgun.
I've taken two buffalo, more correctly bison, with a revolver. A meat cow was taken in a Kansas snowstorm at 50 yards using a heavily loaded .45 Colt while my trophy bull was taken even closer, about 35 yards, using a Freedom Arms 4 3/4” Model 83 and Buffalo Bore’s .480 Ruger load. Both are exceptionally big targets, however up close minimizes the chance of a mistake. As I type this, a cougar looks down at me from his log perch above my desk. He was taken out of a tree at 50 feet with a .44 Magnum. That was probably the hardest hunt I have ever been on making my way up the side of the mountain in waist deep snow. I would've been happy if he had been even closer. Cougars are relatively easy to kill however a mistake can get the dogs killed. This one was dead before he hit the ground.
Great Handgunning Memories
As I look around my office/trophy room I see a large aoudad taken at 40 yards with a .44 Magnum, a wart hog shot at about 25 yards with a .454 Casull, and several whitetail deer of the dozens I have taken with the .44 Magnum all one-shot kills. Only one of those whitetails was taken at a distance more than 50 yards. That one exception was a large, old management buck on the YO Ranch. On this occasion I had my 7 1/2” Freedom Arms .44 Magnum with a 2X Leupold scope in place. The distance was 125 yards, he was standing broadside and perfectly still, I knew my sixgun well, and I had a solid rest. Even so I felt I was stretching my distance to the maximum; fortunately it worked out perfectly.
Long shots are for the accomplished riflemen or the handgun hunter using a scope- sighted Thompson/Center Contender or Encore which is often more accurate than a rifle; for the sixgun hunter, the closer the better. Big bore sixguns are my passion. I enjoy shooting them long-range and also when hunting, however the two do not go together. It is most enjoyable shooting an iron-sighted sixgun at rocks at distances of 500-800 yards, when it comes to hunting I drop off that last “0”. Respect for the animal and pride in making one-shot kills are extremely important to me. It’s called sportsmanship.