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Wiltz: The rundown on handgun hunting

The day would be overcast. There was just enough light on the eastern horizon to guide me, and it looked good — mild temperatures and nary a trace of wind. I headed south out of the hay yard and worked my way up the gradual incline. My destination was a bowl like impression, a miniature amphitheater, that was hollowed into the modest rim I climbed.

It was a honey hole, a deer magnet that I had discovered a year earlier while field-dressing a mediocre whitetail buck. Better bucks came by me as I tended that deer. In following years, my first muzzleloader deer and my best ever Jerauld County buck would come from this same location.

I wanted to face west and cover both the south and north entrances/exits. After stowing my gear, including the bulky shoulder holster, I filled an empty shot bag with sand, tied it shut with bale twine, and laid it on the downed cottonwood that lay beneath the east rim. I would take my post behind the deadfall, my oversized Contender handgun resting on the sandbag.

One of the most lucrative fields in today's world of outdoor marketing has to be handgun hunting. It is relevant to us as our South Dakota is a pro-gun, pro-hunting culture. Manufacturers including Ruger, Smith & Wesson, and Freedom Arms are having a difficult time keeping up with the demand. Reloading equipment sales are soaring, and bullet and ammunition manufacturers such as Grand Island, Nebraska's Hornady are going 24/7. A visit to the Hornady plant is worth the drive.

While most handgun hunters are looking at deer, and perhaps feral hogs, as their primary quarry, big handguns are being used to take bears including browns and grizzlies, moose, and even big African game. On the downside, handguns are banned in some countries, including Canada.

At one time, I was into this handgun hunting rage up to my chin. I owned both a Ruger Redhawk and a Ruger Blackhawk in .44 Magnum caliber. Both had mounted scopes. I also had a Thompson/Center Contender with a 14-inch barrel in .30-30 caliber. Hornady made a .30 caliber bullet that was especially tailored for hunting deer-sized game with the Contender. I also had a big shoulder holster for that gun that Betsy gave me for Christmas.

I never wrote about it until today, but back in the 90's I killed a whitetail doe with the Contender. I also bagged prairie dogs with the Contender using a 14-inch barrel in .223 caliber. The Thompson/Center folks aren't going to like my saying this, but I never felt especially proud of my Contender handgun deer kill. I've never been a good handgun shot, and my tremor has only made it worse.

In bagging the deer, I rested the Contender over a big log while snuggling it into the sandbag. This took place in the Wessington Springs Pony Hills. With that 14-inch barrel, I saw more rifle in my Contender than handgun. It required little handgun skill, and eventually I traded it off at a gun show.

This is strictly my opinion, but big revolvers are real handguns, not single-shot rifles in disguise, and I certainly support and encourage handgun hunting. I've mentioned this before, but in the past, Game, Fish, & Parks has often given us an "antlerless" deer tag along with our "any deer" tag or "any whitetail" tag. That "antlerless" doe hunt can be made more challenging by going after that doe with a handgun or any gun that adds some pizzaz to the hunt. Where I once used that Contender, today I might use my vintage Winchester Model 94 with open sights. Were it not for my tremor, I'd use a handgun.

Rather than drag you through a lengthy list of recommendations for a hunting handgun, I have one gun in mind, and I feel that my reasoning is sound. I like the stainless steel Ruger Super Redhawk.

Though I think that the .44 Mag is more than adequate for deer, the .454 Casull caliber is available at no extra charge if you want one of the heaviest hitters out there. The grip shape makes it comfortable to shoot and easy on the hand. The top strap is machined to accept the scope rings that come with the gun. The sights are fully adjustable for those who prefer open sights. While the 7-1/2-inch barrel is a good all-around length, especially if home protection is an issue, I'd go with the 9-1/2-inch barrel if the primary use will be hunting.

Cost is around $1,000, but with those hot deal cards one gets in the mail, I'm thinking under $900. This is expensive, but not as expensive as Smith & Wesson's rival Model 460 that begins at $1,600.

What's legal for handgun cartridges in South Dakota? 500 foot-pounds of muzzle energy is the minimum factory load handgun requirement. This makes the .357 Magnum legal for deer, antelope, and mountain lions. Typical .357 loads produce 600 pounds of muzzle energy. The .45 Colt falls under the minimum as well as the .44 Special. The .41 Mag makes the minimum and the .44 Mag typically generates a 1000 pounds as a handgun. Some .40 S&W ammo will qualify, but it's a gray area. The .454 Casull typically produces 1800-1900 pounds of energy.

What's going on with our deer? I tentatively plan to attend the June G&FP meeting and find out. See you next week.