GAME SHOOTING - American Pistol Shooting (2015)

American Pistol Shooting (2015)

Chapter XVIII


THERE have been many occasions when big game hunters, trappers, cowboys, miners and even fishermen have had opportunities to shoot game with a pistol, and because of their lack of skill with the hand gun have passed up chances to secure trophies, or to provide a much needed change in the camp menu by the addition of a toothsome grouse or rabbit. There have been other critical times, fewer in number but more impressive in memory, when men have had to depend on their skill with the pistol to save themselves from the sudden attacks of big game that has been wounded or suddenly brought to bay by surprise or fright. A State hunter of one of our western states, whose main occupation is the hunting and killing of cougars and wildcats as one of the means of conserving the deer of that section, has claimed that he has killed many of these mountain lions with the old .45 Single Action Colt after they had been treed by his dogs. His use of the revolver was no doubt mainly due to the fact that it was much easier to “pack” during the long strenuous climb on the mountainous trails than a rifle would have been.

In some sections of the country where big game can still be hunted each fall, it is quite customary for the hunter to carry a small bore revolver or pistol to shoot grouse or rabbits for the pot during the course of his day’s hunt after deer or moose. He may do this because he does not wish to use his heavy rifle for fear of alarming the game he is hunting, or because he knows that to hit a partridge with a high powered soft nose rifle bullet in any place but the head or neck will result disastrously and be a waste of good food and ammunition.

Trappers running their trap lines have found it much easier to carry a pistol than a rifle with which to despatch wounded fur bearers and they, too, take advantage of the hand gun to secure an occasional meal which offers itself in the form of small game, in the course of the day’s work. Many a coyote has been brought to earth with a pistol bullet fired by a cowboy in his rambles about the range and even the husky timber wolf has been put out of business by the same men, while their cattle have been pastured in the mountains in the summer. At one time in the open country of Montana, it was a favorite Sunday sport to get together a crowd of cow punchers and run down coyotes. When the prairie wolf was overtaken, the last act of the play was to see which rider could kill him with his six shooter, as he scurried about or doubled back through the sage brush. It was no easy matter to hit this dodging streak of fur when shooting from the back of a horse running at break-neck speed over rough uneven ground. A trout fisherman I once knew in Washington always carried a target revolver with him when whipping his favorite mountain streams in the early fall, when the blue grouse season was open, and he seldom failed to bring in a mixed bag of cut throats and birds to show for his day’s excursion. Not infrequently we read inquiries in the sporting magazines from men who expect to do hunting in Alaska, the Canadian Rockies or the few places in our western country where big game can still be found, asking which kind of side arm is the best to carry for emergency use on such expeditions. These queries may be encouraged by the advertising matter circulated by some of our large pistol manufacturers in the form of vividly painted scenes in which a hunter or fisherman is being charged by a grizzly bear or by a springing lion or some other member of the cat family. Incidents of this kind have occurred and there are a few places in the world today where they might happen again, but carrying heavy revolvers or automatic pistols, primarily for one’s protection against wild animals, is not nearly as essential as it is to carry them for protection against human animals, in certain sections of the world.

There are various reasons for supporting game shooting with pistols and for touching on the points in the game that the paper target shot seldom thinks of when popping away at a clearly defined bull’s-eye under favorable natural or artificial light. The first consideration has already been touched on and that is game shooting with a hand gun to supplement the larder while one is engaged on a big game hunting trip or a fishing or camping trip during the open seasons for small game. Even fifteen years ago, while deer and moose hunting in Maine, I recall quite clearly the efforts of the guides to prevent any promiscuous target practice with large caliber rifles, because of its effect on the game we were hunting. They believed that rifles should be “sighted in” before entering the game country and that if small game was to be killed it should be done with small bore weapons that could not be heard for any distance. And they were quite right, too. At that time the bag limit on ruffed grouse was five birds a day or ten birds in one’s possession at a time. The birds were reasonably plentiful and they certainly did improve the camp meals during the time we were in the woods and they made a nice bag to take home, especially if one was not successful in getting his deer or moose. While hunting there I carried a small bore single shot target pistol in a shoulder holster, rather than resort to using my rifle on the birds. A companion who accompanied me one day pointed out a grouse in the underbrush as we were returning to camp, and suggested we try for it. It was off about fifteen yards, standing alert but immovable and watching us as we passed, as the partridge will often do. My friend thought he was enough of a marksman to hit the bird’s head and wanted to shoot it with his big rifle while I was anxious to try for it with the pistol. He took the chance and when he fired the grouse simply exploded and all we could find were its extremities, for the 220 grain soft nose bullet he was using had hit it in the body and simply blew it to pieces. After that experience we depended on the pistol for birds.

Considering game shooting with the hand gun as a sporting proposition there is much to be said in its favor provided proper guns are used for the purpose. An enthusiastic pistol shot may hunt game in much the same spirit that an archer does. He is not intent on merely killing his quarry or he would pursue it with rifle or shotgun, either of which will accomplish the results much easier. He believes, with the archer, that there is much more satisfaction to be experienced in bagging a game bird or animal as the result of careful stalking and accurate shooting than there is in killing it at easy ranges with weapons that give the hunted little chance for its life. There is no doubt that if game shooting is done with the pistol the game will be conserved, for there are few more difficult things to do in the shooting line than to hit a carefully concealed and camouflaged bird or animal in his native environment. Because it is difficult to do, it is conducive to the development of greater skill and this makes better pistol marksmen.

Success in hunting with the pistol also requires a study of the habits of the game hunted, in order that it may be found and approached in a manner that will afford a reasonable shot for the weapon in hand. This acquirement of skill in stalking introduces a factor in the sport that is not always present when one uses other weapons in the field. As an example, take squirrel shooting with its problems and fascinations. One may take a shotgun and walk along the small creeks and bottomlands of Eastern Kansas where walnut trees abound, and stumble on many chances at the scampering fox and gray squirrels as they rush for cover when surprised. To bag them with a charge of shot is not difficult, but if one hopes to get them with a pistol he must station himself under the trees, possess his soul with patience, and await quietly until the watchful little rascals come out of their nests and resume their interrupted operations. In time the hunter may be able to discern a small head beset with two shining eyes alertly watching from over a high limb apparently believing itself unobserved. If the shooter’s movements are very deliberate, his pistol accurately sighted and his skill of a high order, he may be able to aim carefully, squeeze slowly and at the crack of his gun have the satisfaction of seeing a limp ball of fur tumble to the ground. If he is only an average shot and unaccustomed to the squirrel shooting game, he will probably see the head disappear as the little watchful-waiter flattens himself out on the safe side of the tree, or scampers away to his nest. Ofttimes better shots will be afforded and no one should complain of a target such as a full grown gray or fox squirrel offers as he perches on a branch and busily gnaws away at a choice nut.

Game shooting also introduces a psychological factor that does not enter into target work. A person may blaze away all day at a paper target and do very fine shooting without once becoming mildly excited over the prospect of making clean bull’s-eyes. Let him prepare to fire at an animate object, especially if it be small game that he is anxious to bag and that he knows may move any instant and his system experiences a different sensation than that felt when firing at a bull’s-eye. There is always a thrill of anticipation in game shooting, no matter how small the game, that will usually cause a noticeable decrease in a marksman’s skill. The element of time has something to do with this for the inexperienced hunter may hurry his shots with the usual results.

Small and difficult targets like these present another phase of the aiming problem that is not always thought about when paper targets are used and that is the matter of getting clear definition of the target and of sighting a pistol properly for this work. To do accurate work it is of course necessary that the sights be seen and in order to do this in the shades and shadows of the woods it is obvious that they must be of a color different from the background of the target or its surroundings. Pistols must also be sighted so that the bullet will hit the aiming point and not a few inches above it, as is usually the case when one practices against the standard paper targets. It will not take a novice in game shooting long to learn that black sights are generally the least desirable for the purpose and that instead, a gold or ivory faced front sight is much to be preferred for the average background. The relative merits of these two kinds of beads has long been discussed and both have their adherents. The beginner can only determine which is the best for his use by trying out both kinds in the particular environment in which he expects to do his hunting.

One accustomed to normal practice at paper targets will often be surprised at the ease with which he misses small game perched directly overhead in a high tree or on the face of a cliff. There is always a tendency to overshoot when firing at such targets but the effect is not so great as with a rifle, because of the comparatively shorter ranges at which the firing is done. It is an acknowledged principle of gunnery that a rifle or pistol, sighted to hit a target in the same horizontal plane, will overshoot the same target if it is placed directly above or below the gun. If a shot is fired from a pistol or rifle with the barrel horizontal the bullet will begin to drop the instant it leaves the muzzle due to the action of gravity on it. To overcome the effect of gravity we must therefore incline the barrel upward an amount sufficient to equal the drop of the bullet. This is done by raising the rear sight or lowering the front sight which makes an angle between the line of aim and the axis of the bore. Then when we aim at an object in a horizontal plane the barrel is actually pointing above it. If we were to shoot straight up the action of gravity would be directly down and if we had our sights set with an angle between the line of aim and the axis of the barrel we would be aiming at a point vertically overhead while our barrel would be pointed behind the aiming point and we would hit there. If we fire at any object not directly overhead we will shoot above it and the more nearly it is to the horizontal the closer we will come to it. The same rule applies to shooting at targets below the pistol. At the ranges at which one would be likely to fire at game with a pistol there would not be much tendency for a pistol to overshoot, if it was first sighted in a horizontal plane to hit the point at which it was aimed. There is however a tendency for a shooter to aim higher when firing at objects above or below him and this combined with the effect of the gun overshooting may make a considerable error in the impact of the bullet. The reason for this may be largely psychological but it exists nevertheless and many a bird, squirrel and rabbit has been lost by overshooting, whereas if a little more care had been taken in aiming, the results would have been more satisfactory.

Of equal importance with the aiming problems is that of using the right gun and ammunition for this class of shooting. I now have little patience when I see writers advocate shooting small game with any old kind of small bore guns and cartridges. Two incidents are indelibly stamped on my memory in this connection. On one of those hunts in Maine previously mentioned I was again armed for small game with the .22 single shot pistol carried in a soft leather shoulder holster, when I saw a grouse about fifteen yards away clearly outlined against the ground and rigid as a statue. There was no underbrush and the rains had soaked the leaves underfoot. I drew the pistol, sighted deliberately and fired carefully. The bird crumpled up on the ground apparently stone dead. I stood my rifle against a tree and replaced the pistol in the holster having some difficulty in doing this because of its position and the lack of stiffness in the soft leather. Turning to pick up the bird I discovered he was not in sight and a hasty search availed nothing. To make a short story of it, I spent about twenty minutes carefully combing the open ground where he had fallen and finally found him in the hollow stump of a tree nearby where he had crawled, though he had been shot squarely through the body. While packing into a deer camp on the Elwah River in the Olympics one fall, I carried a .22 target revolver for small game and used the long rifle cartridge. During the day I had many chances at the large blue grouse of that locality and after shooting five of the big birds out of tall fir trees so that they hit the ground with a solid thumb and only securing three I stopped trying for them. Then as never before I realized that the little 40 grain bullet was not large enough to immediately kill such large birds and when only wounded they get away easily in the dense underbrush. Since that time I have never used small bore pistols for the blue or ruffed grouse or for sage chicken and rabbits and I have killed many of these with the pistol. I will grant that the hollow point bullet will do better execution than the solid nose .22 but still I prefer something heavier. There is one class of small game that it is permissible to use small bore cartridges on and that is the lowly but delectable bull-frog and incidentally he furnishes great sport in localities where he abounds.

In selecting a suitable pistol for small game shooting, one must consider whether he wants it as an adjunct to his big game rifle or as his only hunting weapon. He must consider weight, convenience of wearing, ease of cleaning, weight of ammunition, accuracy, killing power, and the number of shots available. At one time I thought the single shot pistol with its long barrel and sighting radius was the best side arm to take on a big game hunt and as a consequence used one for three years in Maine. After several annoying experiences with it and in the light of greater knowledge I now state that I think it is the poorest arm for the purpose that one can pack around. It has the one advantage already mentioned but to offset this it is inconvenient to carry either on a belt or in a shoulder holster because of its length. It is slow to manipulate and has only one shot without reloading. Ever so often one runs into a covey of partridges and frequently several shots will be afforded if too much time is not taken between shots. The single shot pistol is certainly not the most desirable arm to have at times like this. With only one hand free to draw and fire a pistol, assuming that the other one holds a rifle or some other equipment it is an advantage to have a gun that can be manipulated without the use of two hands. A good target revolver or automatic pistol is much better for the purpose. If one believes in the .22 hand gun for small game then he cannot do better than to secure either the S. & W. .22-.32 Heavy Frame target revolver, the Colt .22 Woodsman Automatic or the Colt Police Positive Target revolver. The automatic has the advantage of more shots without reloading and of only the barrel to clean at the end of the day, which incidentally is worth something when one is tired. Any of these guns is light, convenient and very accurate and can be easily fitted with gold or ivory front sights if desired. There are other small bore pistols that can be used, but I consider these three the best in their class. For those who do not believe in small bore guns for game shooting, and there are many who think as I do in this regard, there are several suitable large calibers, or perhaps we had better say medium calibers, that are qualified as game getters. One summer in Wyoming I used a .32-.20 S. & W. revolver for sage chicken shooting from the saddle and found it quite satisfactory. In hunting from horseback I was able to approach closer to the birds than when I was afoot. In several cases however, when using this gun I have shot a bird through the body and have had it travel some distance before collapsing. Some one whom I do not recall, has recommended the .32—.20 for game shooting but using in it the .32 S. & W. short and long cartridges, claiming that while the cylinder was not chambered for these cartridges they give very good accuracy at small game ranges.

Personally I have but one choice as the result of much small game shooting and that is a good .38 caliber target revolver using the .38 Special cartridge and the mid range loads of the same caliber. This gun is not too heavy to pack around, it has splendid accuracy, good stopping power when used with the full factory loaded cartridge with square shoulder bullet against game up to the size of deer, and for small game the mid range wad cutter ammunition is ideal. This last cartridge will drop the big blue grouse “deader than a door nail.” As to particular revolvers there is little choice between the Colt and S. & W. target models and either are excellent weapons. One fits my hand better than the other so I use it, although I have owned and used both makes. Like good automobiles they both have their strong points and a few weaknesses. I would not be covering the game fully if I didn’t mention that at times there have been advocates of game shooting with hand guns who have had made smooth bore single shot pistols and revolvers in which they use shot cartridges. The late Walter Winans, a noted international pistol shot used a specially made duelling pistol with a .32 bore ten inch barrel, in which he fired a charge of ⅜ ounce of shot and l¼ drams of black powder. He claims this was quite successful for live pigeon shooting up to 12 yards rise. I venture to say that many large caliber revolvers have been altered to shoot shot cartridges both for game shooting and for exhibition work. This can be done successfully and is a means of using an old gun and barrel when it has passed the stage of usefulness for which it was intended. The large calibers such as the .45 Colt and the .44-.40 (.44 Winchester) with a 7½ inch barrel are the best to convert into shot revolvers. These weapons must be rebored into choked smooth bores and the ammunition specially loaded to get the best patterns.

In anticipation of small game hunting it is well for the marksman to give himself training in this kind of shooting by practice at targets made to resemble the game he expects to shoot. Silhouettes of birds and animals colored to look like the real thing and then placed in the trees or underbrush where they will be concealed in a manner that will make them as difficult to see and hit as the game in its native environment will afford splendid practice and be something out of the ordinary run of target work.


Suitable silhouettes for practice in small game shooting.