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by Jim TaylorComing up the hillside I tried to be as quiet as I could. I knew that someplace above me there was a herd of Mule Deer grazing and I did not want to spook them. Climbing over the rocks and making my way through the brush I suddenly saw movement ahead of me and stopped. Then easing my way slowly I moved to where the brush was not so thick......and there they were! Spread out in a little hollow maybe 150 yards across the herd was grazing and moving up the mountainside. A nice forkhorn was grazing about 70 yards in front of me and while there were bigger bucks among the herd I decided I would take him. He was in the best position for a good, clean shot.
I raised the revolver and lined up the sights on the deer, moving them until I had a good sight picture on his left shoulder. At the shot the buck flinched, looked around, and then put his head down like he was going to eat some more. I thought to myself, "Did I miss!?" and made ready to fire again. The buck now was walking towards a mesquite tree and I noticed he was staggering. I watched as he laid down under the tree, sat a minute or two, and then his head fell over. I stayed still for another few minutes and saw two does sneak back in and sniff around him before they left. Then I made my way to where he lay and began getting ready for the hard work.
The handgun used in this hunt was a .454 Casull. This was back in the 80's and it was the first kill I ever made using the new Freedom Arms revolver. I had hunted for years with a sixgun but never one as powerful as the Casull. My favorite gun to that time was my old Ruger Blackhawk 45 loaded with 300 gr. cast bullets. It had accounted for a number of deer, Javelina, coyotes, foxes and other critters. And the truth is, I still like to hunt with the Ruger. It is accurate and I am comfortable with it. Self-assurance adds more than you think to a hunt.
I learned that truth the hard way. One Javelina Season I missed a big boar at about 50 feet. He was standing broadside to me and I missed! I felt terrible about making such a lousy shot and decided to do something about it. I set a 13" car rim on a hillside and then spent the next 6 months running up an opposite hill, pulling my gun and shooting the rim while winded and breathing hard. It took awhile, but soon I was able to keep my shots on the rim from 50 yards. I also spent time every week shooting 8" paper plates from 25 yards to 120 yards. I practiced until it was normal to keep all my shots on the plate no matter what the distance. The next season I stalked to within 80 yards or so of a nice pig, set down, leaned back on my left elbow, laid the gun alongside my upraised right knee and nailed the pig easily. It did not seem hard. I had done my homework. There is no substitute for practice.
One thing that I still do to increase my self-confidence and to help me know where the game lives is to hunt them with a camera during the "off" season. If you can sneak in close enough to get a decent shot with a lens no larger than 200 mm you are within handgun range, if you practice. When you follow animals around awhile trying to get a shot with a camera, pay special attention and watch where they go, how they react to noise, other creatures etc. Also try to see where they head for when frightened or nervous. If you have not done so already, figure out what it is they particularly like to eat. Often you can set up to catch them going to or coming from favorite feeding areas. All the time you spend learning their habits will pay off when hunting season comes.
Practice being quiet in the field. Learn to walk quietly. It helps if you walk toe-to-heel instead of heel-to-toe as most of us do normally. Put your toe on the ground first, easily. Let the rest of your foot down slowly until your heel is resting on the ground. Then pick up your other foot and step forward, putting your toe down first. Practice this and you will find it accomplishes several things: You move slower, so you move more quietly. Because of that you spook less game. You will be able to feel with your toe if you are about to step on branch or stick and after a while and with practice you can move very quietly.
Learn to use the wind and the sun. I have gotten within spitting distance of deer simply by moving slowly, keeping the wind in my face and the sun at my back. It is not always possible to set up on a deer like that, but when you can it is pure music. On a Fall Turkey hunt I once crawled up to within 10 feet of a Whitetail Doe and her fawn, just to see if I could do it. It took me a long time, but it was fun just getting up close to them. Javelina are rumored to have poor eyesight. I do not personally know if that is true or not, but I have eased up to within 10 or 15 feet of Javelina on more than one occasion. It is all a matter of practice, time and determination.
A way to maintain good hunting accuracy and other skills is by shooting small game during the times when big game seasons are closed. In the West Jackrabbits were one of the best targets. A big Jack can soak up a lot of lead and still navigate. A policeman-friend and I were out walking one day and came up on a big Jack. Tom pulled his .38 and whacked the rabbit. It just flinched and set there. He shot twice more and still it set there. I could see the roundnose 38 slugs go through and saw he was hitting it pretty solid. The rabbit hopped off and Tom whacked him with his last 3 slugs and finally the bunny toppled over. He had 4 good hits through the chest/lung area, but the little roundnose bullets did not seem to have much effect on him for a while. Old-timers used to say that Jackrabbits were 3 parts barb wire and 2 parts whang leather. I know they can take a hard lick.
I hunted them in Arizona and Colorado quite a lot some years ago. The Colorado jackrabbits are different kind of rabbit than the Arizona ones, but they are about a large and tough. I have hit a big old Jack real solid with a 300 gr. flat-nosed .45 and still had them run 50 or 60 yards before expiring. I have seen them hit with a .22 hollowpoint and run 300 or 400 yards before dropping. People who have never seen a big Antelope Jack up close do not realize how big they are. They have good eyesight and hearing as well as a good sense of smell. And they can hide in a patch of nothing. Sneaking up on a Jackrabbit is a bit of work and luck combined. Doing it is great practice to sharpen big-game hunting skills.
When I was a kid my Dad would give me 3 or 4 .22 shells to hunt with. By the time I was 13 I usually brought back at least one rabbit for every 2 shells. I learned to stalk them and follow them, waiting for a good shot at a distance where I knew I would not miss. And I rarely did. It was great training and taught me the value of taking my time and getting in close. I have applied that to hunting big game and it is worthwhile. It is true that the .44 Magnum, the .454 Casull and other of today's modern sixguns have the power to kill a deer cleanly at 200 yards. However, we have to remember that the difference between a heart shot and a broken front leg is just a drop of a few inches. It is best to learn to get inside the maximum distance that you know you can hit at. If you know you are skillful enough to put the shot exactly where you want it at 75 yards, get in to 50 yards and it will be an easy shot. Just don't get over-confident.
There are no great big secrets to successful handgun hunting. It is mainly a lot of work. It takes time and energy. Hard work... Sticking to it..... Practicing the basics over and over and over. But it pays off in the end.
I had planned the deer hunt for a month. The tree stands were in a place that overlooked the trail that the deer used quite often. I had scouted the area, watched the deer moving, and had practiced with my .454 until I felt very confident. Using the 300 gr. JSP load by Black Hills Ammunition I had fired a group at 100 yards that measured less than 4" - from a fixed sight revolver. I knew where it hit at 50 ft., 25 yards, 50 yards and 75 yards. I felt ready.
Opening day found me in the tree stand before dawn. The weather was cold, 25 degrees, with a brisk wind blowing right in my face. I had my insulated coveralls on and plenty of clothes and was excited. However, by 9 AM I was also frozen! Not seeing anything moving in the woods I decided to get down out of the tree before I froze there permanently. I decided I would skirt the woods, hunting the edge of the prairie. Over the next hour I slipped along quietly, taking my time, watching but seeing nothing. I would move 5 or 6 steps and then stop, looking and listening.
By about 10:30 I came up a little draw that had a small stand of trees running east and west. I moved slowly along the South side, taking my time and keeping a lookout. I reached the end of the stand of trees and waited a bit, then decided to move back down the treeline the way I had come. I was still moving slowly, stopping every few steps, when I saw movement on the other side of the trees. I froze in place and watched as a Whitetail buck came slipping along the trees, head up, apparently looking for me. He paused across the small valley from me looking and listening. I raised the .454 and waited. The deer took a few steps forward and I could see his head and left front shoulder clearly through an opening. Remembering that this load hit 6" high at 25 yards I moved the sights down his front leg a bit and touched the trigger.
At the shot his back legs shot out like a horse bucking, then the deer turned to run uphill and was lost from view. I watched the top of the treeline but the deer never appeared. I waited what seemed like an eternity but was only about 5 minutes, then worked my way through the brush to the other side of the valley. I went straight up the hillside the way the buck had gone and in about 50 feet came upon him laying in the prairie grass. The bullet had gone through the heart and lungs and he was bled out by the time I found him. Preparation had paid off.
Books To Read
This book is out of print but if you can find a copy it is worth the trouble.
Successful Handgun Hunting
Handgun Hunting and Hunting Handguns