Handguns Chambered in Rifle Cartridges: Ballistically Effective?

When it comes to hunting and survival, rifles beat handguns every time...or do they?

posted on July 27, 2022

It is a misconception that one needs a rifle to shoot far and to do that accurately. It is also a fallacy to believe that only a firearm with a stock and long barrel will cut the mustard for a multitude of game. Today, due to most rifle cartridges being effectively chambered in handguns, game animals from prairie dogs to the mighty game of the far North can be humanely harvested with a short-barrel firearm—the handgun. Modern bullets and powders can obtain excellent muzzle velocities, so you do not always need a long 26- or 28-inch barrel. With the right cartridge and load, muzzle velocities from a 12- to 16-inch barrel are not as far apart as one may believe.

Incidentally, there's a tremendous advantage to having a handgun and rifle chambered for the same cartridge. Those of us who remember the Great Ammo Shortage of 2009 don't need a reminder that having one cartridge that can function efficiently in a handgun and rifle could be a big plus.  

Ballistic Comparisons:
For an idea of what you can expect as to muzzle velocities with common cartridges chambered in a handgun and rifle, the following is data I obtained from shooting various kinds of both with the same cartridge through an Oehler 35-P chronograph.

.22 long Rifle, Winchester Power Point 40 grain ammunition

Handgun: Thompson/Center Contender, 15-inch barrel: MV 1170 fps

Rifle: Thompson/Center Contender, 23-inch barrel: MV 1277 fps

.243 Winchester, Black Hills Gold 95 grain SST ammunition

Handgun: Weatherby CFP, 16-inch barrel: MV 2620 fps

Rifle: Winchester Model 70, 22-inch barrel: MV 2838 fps

.270 Winchester, Hornady 130 grain SST Light Magnum ammunition

Handgun: Competitor, 16-inch barrel: MV 2780 fps

Rifle: Thompson/Center Encore, 24-inch barrel: MV 3020 fps

.30-30 Winchester, Hornady 160 grain Evolution

Handgun: Thompson/Center Contender, 14-inch barrel: MV 2225 fps

Rifle: Thompson/Center Contender, 23-inch barrel: MV 2320 fps

.308 Winchester, Winchester 150 grain Ballistic Silvertip

Handgun: Thompson/Center Encore, 15-inch barrel: MV 2470 fps

Rifle: Thompson/Center Encore, 24-inch barrel: MV 2710 fps

These five examples demonstrate that ballistically there is not as big a difference in velocities as one may think between many handgun and rifle-length barrels. The only downside I can see is that for the novice, shooting a handgun as accurately as a rifle is more difficult (but then again, it is for most everyone). This is obviously due to a rifle being secured to the shoulder as per the stock and with a hand on the fore-end, which makes it much easier to steady.

When hunting with a handgun, you can compensate for this with the two-handed hold. This is how I fire most every handgun. Hunting handguns tend to be heavy (particularly with a scope attached), which helps to lessen felt recoil and to steady the aim. Concerning many scoped single-shot handguns, with practice as when shooting from a bench rest, it is not unusual to be able to shoot a 1.5-inch three-shot group at 100 yards. This is with an array of cartridges used in the various handguns designed specifically for hunting varmints to big game. To do that, as with a rifle, take a good solid rest and squeeze that trigger without flinching.

One for All Options:

What I prefer to hunt with are T/C Contender or Encore handguns since the grip and frame are the same. To change cartridges, simply change the barrel for one suitable as the .17 HMR for varmints or .30-30 Winchester for game as the whitetail. When my wife and I hunt whitetail, she may take a T/C Encore rifle in .308 Winchester and I an Encore handgun, also in .308 Winchester. Thanks to a lot of practice, I can humanely drop a deer at 100 yards or more and besides, it is lighter to carry. 

The Blast Can be Worse than the Bite:

As an example, when my daughter Erin was in high school, I took her to the range to fire a .22 LR revolver and a .357 Magnum, which she did well. I also took a scoped .454 Casull revolver. She asked about shooting it so I said it kicks more than a .44 Magnum but you can handle it. I loaded it, she aimed off hand at a 20-yard target and on firing, she hit it in the center. I said wow and she said it kicks. I replied that she obviously could handle it, so she shot again...but this time she closed her eyes when she fired and missed the paper. I asked her to shoot it again but this time I pretended to load it and when she fired, she closed her eyes and flinched on the click of the empty chamber. Then for her next shot, she was ok! What happened is how most novices handle a big bore handgun, they let it control them instead of the other way around. It is now 20 years later and she remembers that lesson which I tell to her young daughters, and they laugh. I remembered this well since that was done to me when I was quite young and that taught me a lesson which carried on into my hunting/instructing experiences. Today, I actually usually prefer handgun hunting to rifle hunting: I have dropped elk, a caribou, mule deer, whitetail, boar, etc. My favorite cartridge in a handgun is a .375 JDJ and .338 Federal!

Today, bolt-action and various single-shot handguns are chambered in what was once only considered to be rifle cartridges  Even big-bore cartridges found in lever guns as the .444 Marlin or .45-70 Government are all interchangeable in handguns so chambered. With muzzle brakes, the recoil is controllable and such a handgun is fun to shoot. What seems to contribute to flinching, especially when brakes are used, is the noise...so use those electronic muffs even when hunting and you will “feel” how easy big-bore handguns are to fire accurately.

Safe shooting!



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