Good weather is coming up and with that, varmints will be on the move. But can you hunt them with a handgun? Well, most varmints do not have a large body mass, which obviously makes them a small target. Yet for many hunters, the handgun is still a viable piece of equipment if one takes the handgun seriously and practices. For many the challenge is all about using a firearm with a grip only and no stock, and then consistently and humanely hitting a small target at various ranges. This is just another form of hunting that over the past 20 years has been attracting more new hunters...in part because it's a fun challenge, in part because you may be able to use the handgun you already have, and in part because nobody likes groundhogs in their garden. But it's important to remember, as when hunting any game with a handgun, carbine or rifle, that matching the cartridge to the game along with your skill is crucial.
Single-Shot vs. Revolver:
The advantage with the single-shot is that many rifle cartridges can be chambered in these. Their barrels from the factory are usually 12 to a max of 16 inches with most (as the Thompson/Center Contender is) at 15 inches. This is why the velocity they produce is higher than in revolvers chambered with the same rimfire cartridges, but with shorter barrels as 4, 6 or 8 inches—lengths I use mostly for plinking. With any revolver, the cylinder gap is responsible for the shedding of a few feet per second (fps) in velocities...which, for most practical purposes is not a lot. The T/C handguns I used for this article offer one shot. The shooter then reloads if necessary (which, with practice, is not that slow a process). With a revolver, simply squeeze the trigger—or better still, to be steadier at say 50 yards, retract the hammer and then fire. That helps to keep the revolver's sights on the target. Over many years, I have successfully hunted with T/C and SSK firearms with 14-15 inch barrels and do so because that is what I prefer, even for varmints. What I am stating is to try various lengths of barrels and use what you prefer, what's legal in your area, and what fits your needs.
Rimfire Cartridges Preferred:
What I found to be excellent in single shots and revolvers are cartridges as the .22LR, .22 WMR and .17 HMR. On one of many Wyoming varmint hunts at the Silver Spur Ranch, a S&W Model 647 Performance Center double-action revolver chambered in .17 HMR with its 12-inch barrel as shown. What was nice with this model, which today is no longer in production, is that it was easy to attach a bipod which steadied it on a fence post or whatever I used at the time.
With good equipment, that makes it hard to miss! Just kidding...since no matter how good one's gear is, the shooter has to be comfortable with the firearm selected. Remember, all it takes is one small mistake, with any firearm, which then usually translates into a miss. For a comparison of velocities as per handguns I use for varmints versus a rifle length barrel which I also use, here are some examples as to fps. vs. these factory length barrels.
1 .22 LR: Winchester Power-Point 40-grain
T/C Contender 15-inch bbl. MV 1165 fps
23-inch bbl. MV 1272 fps
2. 22 Winchester Magnum: Federal Premium 30-grain Sierra JHP
T/C Contender 10-inch bbl. MV 2052 fps
Ruger 77-22 20-inch bbl. MV 2188 fps
3. .17 HMR: Hornady 17-grain V-Max
T/C Contender 14-inch bbl. MV 2448 fps
23-inch bbl. MV 2561 fps
4. .223 Remington: Black Hills 60-grain SPT, 1 of 2
T/C Contender 15-inch bbl. MV 2933 fps
23-inch bbl. MV 3136 fps
Black Hills 50-grain V-Max, 2 of 2
15-inch bbl. MV 2944 fps
23-inch bbl. MV 3248 fps
Centerfire Cartridges Preferred:
My favorite all-around cartridge in a single-shot handgun with a 15-inch barrel is the .223 Rem. The .204 Ruger is also good, but ammo is harder to find and I found that ballistically, the. 204 does much better in rifle-length barrels. Therefore, I stick with the 223! In a rifle or handgun-length barrel, this cartridge does well and there are a lot of ammo options available. Plus, much of this ammo is reasonably priced and generally easy to find in stores. And sure, there are T/C Encore handguns in .22-250, .243, .25-06 etc. but the cost of ammo as I see it is not worth it except for those really long shots. Here is where a heavier bullet is preferred, especially in a rifle's long barrel.
A Good Rest is Key:
If you do not carry a portable rest with you, always look for what could be made into a solid rest. When reviewing the then-new S&W Model 647 Performance Center DA in .17 HMR, I was able to hit prairie dogs at 130-140 yards...but the rest was the key. If using a single shot, I sometimes carry shooting sticks. Yet I can not use these with a revolver since the escaping gases from the cylinder gap do a lot of damage where the rest holds the handgun. However, when possible, I prefer to attach a bipod to a long-barreled revolver if the barrel is so equipped. On the Silver Spur Ranch, as with many ranches, there were a lot of fence posts and along woods/fields, fallen trees which also served as a rest for handgun or rifle which I take advantage of when possible. Give it a try...and let those garden-destroying varmints beware.