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Handgun Hunting Loads-A Critical View
J. Marshall Stanton on 2005-09-10

Handgun Hunting Loads-A Critical View

By J. Marshall Stanton

Elmer Keith launched the notion of a heavy sixgun as not only a viable tool of opportunity in the field, but as a primary tool of harvest for the accomplished hunter.  His viewpoints on the subject of heavy revolver loads and handgun hunting forever changed perceptions of the handgun as a legitimate hunting weapon.  Too, the development of the .44 Remington Magnum launched a race for higher velocities and heavier loads for those handguns taken afield hunting.

 Now fifty years down the road of handgun hunting and development of specialized guns and loads for what is now a very popular and lucrative pursuit;  the vast arrays of handguns specifically designed for this distinctive niche, and the ammunition to feed them are available from the mass producers of firearms to the vogue boutique revolversmiths of the present day and many semi-custom suppliers in-between.

 Fueling an exponentially expanding handgun-hunting market in the firearms industry has been a virtual who’s-who parade of noted gun-scribes promoting bigger, better, faster, heavier-hitting cartridges, all imminently superior to their has-been predecessors, thereby attempting to relegate reliable field-proven standbys to obsolescence with the stroke of a pen. 

 No doubt that this fervor to create the “perfect hunting revolver” has spawned not only some useful, but highly efficient handgun cartridges.  From these developments come such cartridges as the .454 Casull, the .480 Ruger, .475 Linebaugh, .500 Linebaugh and the burly .500 Smith & Wesson.  These relative newcomers are indeed awe-inspiring, accurate when properly loaded, and pack fearsome terminal potential when loaded to extremes of their potential.

 In addition to the many cartridge developments in the hunting handgun race are multiple monuments to mechanical engineering genius in the form of brute-strong pieces of precision workmanship and design represented in the new breed of heavy revolver design excellence we now enjoy.  Accompanying these feats of mechanical design are incorporation of the highest technology in modern metallurgy, creating revolvers of incredible strength while exhibiting superb durability, resistance to the elements and wear, and possessing incredible reductions in overall weight, feats that two decades ago were only fanciful daydreams.  Today products incorporating all these design benefits not only are available in relative abundance in sporting goods stores and gunshops throughout the country; they are generally affordable for the average hunter.

 While cartridge and firearms design engineers have artfully and successfully delivered a multitude of firearms and cartridges imminently suited to harvesting any game animal on planet earth,  yes, there are times that nothing less than a fire-breathing revolver throwing bowling-ball dimensioned projectiles is not only comforting in hand, but imminently necessary.  However, for the North American hunter confining his pursuits to the lower 48 states, this type of raw handgun horsepower simply isn’t necessary.

 The purpose of this article is not to minimize the recent development of increasingly more powerful handguns and cartridges, but to take an honest and critical assessment of practical handgun hunting needs, and the attributes necessary for reliable, decisive and humane big game harvests.

 Interestingly during the true settling and taming of our American West, the two principle revolver cartridges carried and used were the .45 Colt and the .44-40 WCF.  In capable hands these fine old cartridges dispatched crippled and diseased stock, harvested wild game, defended the homestead, and warded off predators, both two and four legged.  By today’s standards, neither of these cartridges in their original factory-loadings would raise even an interested eyebrow, but non-the-less, the day-to-day chores of frontier life requiring the sixgun as tool of daily survival were well served by these old blackpowder cartridges and their revolvers.

 Today the shooting public as a whole, and handgun hunters specifically, are bombarded with a marketing blitz attempting to convince them that today game is tougher, the hunting conditions more severe, and that bigger, faster handgun cartridges and revolvers will somehow insure more filled game tags and fuller freezers.  This of course is the rhetoric that leads to increased firearms and ammunition sales for those companies dependent upon the fickle nature of the shooting public who hangs on the latest word dripping from the gun-scribe’s pen. 

 Reality in the game field however, is an entirely different story.  It is not complicated, complex or otherwise unintelligible.  The truth is, that other than those of us who are blessed to live either in the Pacific Northwest, or the Rocky Mountain States, the most pursued, hunted, sought-after and harvested big game animal in the United States, is the whitetail deer.  In fact, many places in the country have much more liberal bag limits on deer than we do in Idaho on forest grouse!  Putting handgun hunting into this context, the requirements of the guns and loads taken afield acquire an entirely different list of requirements than if grizzly, leopard, lion or cape buffalo are on the agenda.  The simple truth is that neither whitetail nor mule deer require all that much killing!  After all, there’s only so much penetration can take place on a deer or pronghorn.  Even throwing black bear into the mixed bag doesn’t materially change the physical requirements necessary for reliable, humane, and consistent terminal performance from a revolver and load.

 Too, when examining the physical wound channel necessary to efficiently, and cleanly harvest a deer, the requirements aren’t too demanding.  In truth, deer and pronghorns are relatively fragile critters, and knocking a permanent wound channel ranging from a half an inch, to an inch and a quarter in diameter, all the way through the body results in near instant incapacitation so long as that wound channel passes through the heart and lung cavity, regardless of the angle of the shot.  A permanent wound channel as described above nearly instantaneously drops the cardiovascular blood pressure to zero when a wound is pumping a thumb-sized or larger stream of blood from the chest cavity.  This of course equates to no oxygen delivered to the brain, and immediate incapacitation.

 Please keep in mind that the preceding paragraph relates primarily to the permanent wound channels created by non-expanding bullets.  The dynamics become somewhat more complex when an expanding bullet enters the equation, and often times the terminal performance of an expanding projectile on game isn’t as predictable as that of a wide-meplat non expanding bullet.  I don’t pretend to understand all the dynamics that occur when a game animal is impacted with any projectile, but am simply relaying real-life field experience and the reports of hundreds and hundreds of our customers over the years.

 In examining the worth of a cartridge for hunting purposes in the revolver, the first consideration, other than basic accuracy of the gun and ammo in concert with one another, is the design of the bullet in question, the frontal area, or meplat of that bullet, and the striking velocity of the bullet when it arrives on-target.  Regardless of popular opinion, urban legend, or mythology of ballistics, the actual permanent wound channel created in a game animal is entirely generated as a function of the diameter of the frontal area of the bullet, and the velocity of that projectile upon penetration.

 To some extent, increased velocity in handgun cartridges does enhance penetration potential of the bullet, but this benefit is not linear in its gains, nor is it entirely necessary in many applications.  The greatest gains in penetration capacity or potential are contributed by an increase in projectile weight.  Interestingly, this increased penetration is nearly a linear function of the increase in bullet weight, provided that velocity remains constant in comparing one load to another.  However, bear in mind, that there is only so much terminal performance that can actually be utilized on deer-sized game!  Increases in either velocity or bullet weight while enhancing potential penetration, also generate more recoil, muzzle blast, and muzzle flash as a general rule.

 Now, taking a look at some numbers generated by the Ballistician’s Corner Calculators found at www.BeartooothBullets.com it is time to compare some practical hunting numbers.  In the chart below are listed the nominal bullet caliber designations as well as the nose design configurations as offered by Beartooth Bullets, and the meplat diameters of each of those designs.  Also in the chart notice a listing for wound channel diameter as calculated at the listed impact velocities for the given meplat diameters.  From studying the data presented in the chart below, it immediately becomes apparent that impact velocities of what seemingly might be considered very conservative, mild loads can and do deliver devastating game harvesting potential to deer-sized game.

 

Predicted Wound Channel Diameter

At Given Impact Velocities

Bullet Caliber &

Nose Design

Meplat

Diameter

1100 fps

1000 fps

900 fps

800 fps

700 fps

600 fps

.38/.357 Caliber

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keith

.250”

.688”

.625”

.563”

.500”

.483”

.375”

FN

.280”

.770”

.700”

.630”

.560”

.490”

.420”

.41 Caliber

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LFN

.280”

.770”

.700”

.630”

.560”

.490”

.420”

WLN

.320”

.880”

.800”

.720”

.640”

.560”

.480”

.44 Caliber

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keith

.300”

.825”

.750”

.675”

.600”

.525”

.450”

LFN

.300”

.825”

.750”

.675”

.600”

.525”

.450”

LMN

.320”

.880”

.800”

.720”

.640”

.560”

.480”

WFN

.340”

.935”

.850”

.765”

.680”

.595”

.510”

WLN

.340”

.935”

.850”

.765”

.680”

.595”

.510”

.45 Colt Caliber

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LFN

.320”

.880”

.800”

.720”

.640”

.560”

.480”

LMN

.340”

.935”

.850”

.765”

.680”

.595”

.510”

Keith

.350”

.963”

.875”

.788”

.700”

.613”

.525”

WFN

.360”

.990”

.900”

.810”

.720”

.630”

.540”

WLN

.360”

.990”

.900”

.810”

.720”

.630”

.540”

Sledgehammer

.370”

1.018”

.925”

.833”

.740”

.648”

.555”

.475/.480 Caliber

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LFN

.350”

.963”

.875”

.788”

.700”

.613”

.525”

WFN

.390”

1.073”

.975”

.878”

.780”

.683”

.585”

.500 Caliber

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LFN

.370”

1.018”

.925”

.833”

.740”

.648”

.555”

 Note that by carefully selecting the bullet nose configuration, the actual permanent wound channel may be specifically tailored to a desired on-game outcome based upon anticipated striking velocities.   Too, when the necessary permanent wound channel on game for consistent clean, humane harvests with well placed shots is ideally somewhere between ½” and 1 ¼”, high muzzle velocity from handgun ammunition assembled with wide-meplat hard-cast bullets is not necessary.  Take note that all of the given wound-channel diameters listed are for impact velocities of 1100 fps and less, yet many loads deliver potentially very effective harvest performance down to a lowly 600 fps.

 Taking into consideration the data provided thus far, I’d like to make some pertinent observations in regard to selection of a load for practical handgun hunting applications.  Putting aside game outside the lower 48 states, and looking at strictly deer, pronghorn and average black bear sized critters, an effective hunting load need not be over 1100-1200 fps with careful bullet selection.  In fact, both my experience, those of hunting partners, and countless customers attests to the fact that cast bullet loads with muzzle velocities in the 1000 to 1100 fps category are truly amazing in their terminal performance!

 While wound channels are what causes hemorrhage and quick kills, this is only one facet of the terminal equation.  Penetration potential must also be balanced into the mix in order to insure that the wounding capacity of the projectile of interest possesses sufficient penetration qualities to reach vital organs even with deep penetration from hard angle shots. 

 Interestingly, simply selecting the heaviest bullet from within those available within a given caliber designation is often not the correct solution to this issue.  Too, arbitrarily choosing the widest possible meplat and not considering the penetrating qualities of the bullet can lead to just as dismal an outcome simply due to compromised depth of penetration.  By comparing the wounding capacity of various nose configurations in the table above, and then studying the relative penetration index of the same bullets from the chart below, a much clearer picture of the overall bullet performance emerges. 

 The relative penetration index (RPI) as listed below is just that:  it is simply a relative figure for the comparison of the potential penetrating qualities of different bullets based on a function of the meplat diameter of non-expanding bullets, and bullet weight.  The resultant number is not indicative of inches of penetration or any other quantifiable unit of measure, but rather simply a basis for comparison of potential bullet penetrating qualities. 

 Also included in the accompanying table is the foot pounds ft/lbs of free-recoil generated by an 1100 fps load using the corresponding bullet found in the chart.  This recoil is calculated of course using the bullet weight, the 1100 fps velocity and factoring in a 44 ounce handgun.  The weight of the handgun is designed to represent an average weight of a practical hunting revolver.  Yes, there are many heavier models in use, and lighter ones as well, but for a meaningful comparison to be made in regard to potential recoil generated, an average weight had to be established.  This handgun weight, for the purposes of calculations for this study is 2.75 lbs. or 44 ounces.

Relative Penetration Index (RPI) values do not represent quantifiable

units of measure, but are presented as a viable tool for comparing

actual the actual penetration potential for non-expanding bullets, and

are calculated as a function of meplat diameter and bullet weight.

 

Recoil values in ft/lbs were calculated using all bullets at 1100 fps

muzzle velocity fired from a 2.75 lb. (44 oz) handgun.

Bullet

Meplat

RPI

Recoil ft/lbs

.38/.357 Caliber

 

 

 

160g FNBB

.280”

29.15

5

165g FNBB

.260”

34.87

5

173g Keith

.250”

39.54

6

185g FNGC

.280”

33.71

6

.41 Caliber

 

 

 

250g LFNGC

.280”

45.55

10

265g WLNGC

.320”

36.97

11

280g WLNGC

.320”

39.06

12

.44 Caliber

 

 

 

240g WFNPB

.340”

29.66

9

250g Keith

.300”

39.68

10

250g LFNBB

.290”

42.47

10

250g LFNGC

.300”

39.68

10

250g WFNGC

.340”

30.89

10

265g WFNGC

.340”

32.75

11

280g WFNGC

.340”

34.60

13

280g WFNPB

.340”`

34.60

13

290g LFNGC

.300”

46.03

13

300g LMNGC

.320”

41.85

14

300g WFNGC

.340”

37.07

14

325g WLNGC

.340”

40.16

17

330g LFNGC

.300”

52.38

17

335g LFNPB

.300”

53.17

18

355g WLNGC

.340”

43.87

20

.45 Colt Caliber

 

 

 

255g WFNPB

.360”

28.11

11

255g RNFPBB

.320”

35.57

11

265g WFNGC

.360”

29.21

11

265g Keith

.350”

30.90

11

280g Sldghmr

.370”

29.22

13

285g LMNGC

.340”

35.22

13

300g WFNGC

.360”

33.07

14

300g LFNGC

.320”

41.85

14

300g WFNPB

.360”

33.07

14

300g WLNGC

.360”

33.07

14

325g FNGC

.315”

46.79

17

330g WFNPB

.360”

36.38

17

340g LFNGC

.320”

47.43

18

345g WLNGC

.360”

38.03

19

350g LCMNGC

.340”

43.25

20

355g WLNGC

.360”

39.13

21

.475/.480 Caliber

 

 

 

325g WFNGC

.390”

30.53

17

355g LFNGC

.350”

41.40

20

385g LFNPB

.350”

44.90

24

420g LFNGC

.350”

48.98

28

420g WFNGC

.385”

40.48

28

.500 Caliber

 

 

 

450g LFNPB

.370”

46.96

33

 Using these tables to examine the potential performance of a given bullet/load combination greatly simplifies load evaluation for hunting purposes.  In selecting a handgun load for deer hunting it becomes a simple matter of choice when the tools of evaluation are laid out for examination.  By balancing bullet weight, striking velocity and meplat diameter,  tailoring a load that delivers ample penetration, manageable recoil and effective wound channels in the game field becomes a pretty straight forward proposition.

 Too, since deer, pronghorn and black bear don’t require tremendous amounts of penetration, there are a vast number of bullet choices that will deliver well balanced terminal performance at very mild velocity thresholds.  This of course equates to pleasant shooting, and field confidence when the moment of harvest presents itself.

 One recurring question that I answer frequently regarding low to mid velocity handgun hunting loads regards trajectory, and the vast benefits of high-velocity rounds to insure best bullet placement across long yardage shots.  Below is a table with statistics and ballistic values for some popular factory loaded handgun hunting ammo, as well as those of more moderate velocity handloads for comparison.

Statistics for factory loads taken directly from manufacturer’s online data, and calculations based upon those published statistics. Ballistic Coefficients were calculated using published velocity values and calculated using G-1 drag function tables.  BTB ballistic coefficients were calculated from chronograph data using the G-1 tables as a basis for calculations as well. Trajectory values are inches

Bullet/Load

BC

MV

50yd

Vel

100 yd

Vel

25yd

Traj

50yd

Traj

75yd

Traj

100yd

Traj

.357 Magnum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rem Express 180 SJHP

0.169

1145

1053

985

0.7

0.0

-2.6

-7.3

Win 180g Partition Gold

0.169

1180

1088

1020

0.6

0.0

-2.4

-6.9

Fed 180g Cast-Core

0.223

1250

1160

1080

0.7

0.0

-2.5

-7.1

BTB 185g FNGC

0.227

1100

1036

985

0.7

0.0

-2.7

-7.6

.44 Remington Magnum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Win 250g Partition Gold

0.196

1230

1132

1057

0.05

0.0

-2.3

-6.3

Rem Express 240g SP

0.177

1180

1081

1010

0.6

0.0

-2.5

-6.9

Rem 275g Core-Lokt

0.221

1235

1142

1070

0.5

0.0

-2.2

-6.2

Fed 300g Cast-Core

0.223

1250

1140

1080

0.5

0.0

-2.1

-6.0

BTB 250g WFNGC

0.209

1100

1033

981

0.7

0.0

-2.7

-7.6

BTB 265g WFNGC

0.218

1100

1036

985

0.7

0.0

-2.7

-7.6

BTB 280g WFNGC

0.221

1100

1034

982

0.7

0.0

-2.7

-7.7

BTB 290g LFNGC

0.227

1100

1038

988

0.7

0.0

-2.7

-7.6

BTB 300g WFNGC

0.225

1100

1037

987

0.7

0.0

-2.7

-7.6

.45 Colt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Win Super-X 255g LRN

0.153

860

820

780

1.3

0.0

-4.5

-12.4

Rem Express 250g LRN

0.151

860

820

780

1.3

0.0

-4.5

-12.5

Buffalo-Bore 325g LFN

0.221

1325

1215

1126

0.5

0.0

-1.9

-5.4

BTB 265g WFNGC

0.198

1100

1030

1001

0.7

0.0

-2.8

-7.7

BTB 280g Sldghmr

0.216

1100

1035

1008

0.7

0.0

-2.7

-7.6

BTB 300g LFNGC

0.232

1100

1039

990

0.7

0.0

-2.7

-7.5

 In practical terms, due to the nature of hunting revolvers, the sighting limitations of a hunting handgun and realistic field conditions, very few hunters actually take shots much over 75 yards, and most are less by a large percentage.  Some very accomplished handgun hunters, using scoped revolvers from a solid rest might stretch that range to 100 or 125 yards maximum, but for most average hunters, under normal conditions, the actual handgun harvest will be under 75 yards.

 Now, in taking a look at the table above, and honestly comparing the trajectory values for all of the loads listed, even the higher velocity factory loads really don’t offer a sound advantage to the hunter who ethically limits his shots in the field to 75 yards and less.  The simple truth speaks for itself in regard to trajectory in the hunting handgun.  Within viable hunting ranges velocity in terms of trajectory improvement is a moot point!

 So, now that the issue of handgun trajectories in relation to velocity is hopefully put to rest for a time, let’s a last look at the core issue in selecting an effective load combination for the hunting revolver.  The two critical factors are selecting a bullet that delivers an optimal permanent wound channel at the striking velocities of the load developed, and at the same time insuring the projectile penetrates through even from hard angles to the vitals with enough momentum to carry that optimal wound channel through the target of interest and exiting to leave a double blood trail, one from an entrance wound, and one from the exit as well.

 For my purposes in the field it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a .357 magnum, a .44 magnum or a .45 Colt that I’m carrying, in regard to the velocity of the loads I shoot.  Virtually all of the ammo that accompanies me afield in my sidearm is loaded to around 1100 fps.  As the table above clearly illustrates, these loads shoot virtually to the same trajectories as one another out to 75 yards.  As such, it’s simple to become familiar with those trajectories, and then be deadly with your handgun because the loads are pleasant to shoot, accurate and predictable.  Even both of my teenage daughters shoot any of my heavy sixguns with great proficiency due to the relatively mild recoil, and them being intimately familiar with the trajectories of their own .357 revolvers.  The points of impact are virtually the same for all of the wheelguns when so loaded, and the transition from one to another is seamless. 

While there is no quantitative measurement that can positively predict the terminal outcome of a deer/bullet collision, the tools presented here should remove some of the myth and hype that has come to permeate this sport.  A fire-breathing, ear-splitting, wrist wrenching, full-throttle load  most likely isn’t needed, nor even desirable for the purposes of harvesting deer sized game.

 Many up-side benefits are reaped from these seemingly mild hunting loads.  Perhaps the first, and most obvious is the reduction in recoil and muzzle-blast.  Along these lines also comes the potential for very fast follow-up shots should they be necessary.  Finally, these loads are easier on the shooter, the ears, the pocket-book (reduced powder costs), longer case-life, and besides being just plain fun and enjoyable to shoot!  With the pleasant shooting nature of these loads, shooters tend to shoot volumes more at a shooting session, and as a consequence become not only more familiar with their gun and load, but with that experience comes confidence because accuracy improves with practice! 

 Isn’t it time to put fun and common sense back into your handgun hunting experience?

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