Smokey Merkley

Smokey Merkley

Do you carry a handgun when you are hunting. If so, what is the intended use for a it on your hunting trips?

Think about it. There should be a good reason for everything you decide to carry with you.

Some people actually like the challenge of hunting with a handgun instead of a more powerful high-powered rifle. It certainly requires getting closer to game and the ability to precisely place the shot.

Others say they just feel better having a handgun with them for defensive purposes and when they are in camp after the rifles have been unloaded and stored in their cases. Some people have told me that the handgun they carry is for signaling if they get lost. Still others want a handgun with them in case they run into a cantankerous wolf, mountain lion or bear.

Seeing a handgun on hunters’ hips or in shoulder holsters is more common now than when I started hunting. As a matter of fact, my father originally told me that I could not own a handgun, but now I carry one every time I visit the backcountry to hunt, hike or camp.

The variety of trail guns I see range from .22-caliber single-action pistols to .44 Magnums and .45 Colts. They all have a place in the backcountry, but I suspect that some, if not many people, have a misunderstanding of what the handgun they carry is good for.

Handguns are generally not as powerful as rifles and would normally not be preferred over rifles for shooting game, especially large dangerous game such as bears, or even a surly elk or moose.

At this point, I can hear someone recounting all the instances of people shooting and killing bears, moose, elk and deer with a handgun. It has certainly been done, generally by those who purposely hunt with a handgun or those who carry a handgun in case of a dangerous encounter with an animal, and know how to place the shot accurately.

Some of us who visit the backcountry on a regular basis, whether for hunting, hiking or camping during the summer, wear a handgun because it is lighter to carry than a rifle when not hunting.

If we are visiting known bear country, the handgun is normally a .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, 44 Auto Mag or a .45 Colt. Some of us also load those handguns with a 240- to 325-grain 15 Brindell hardcast bullet manufactured by HSM or Buffalo Bore Ammunition companies. HSM even calls their ammunition bear loads.

Neither the HSM or Buffalo Bore ammunition should be used in handguns, other than Thompson Contender, Post-1973 Ruger Blackhawk or Casull. The ammunition should not be used in Pre-1973 Ruger Blackhawk, Ruger Red Hawk, Ruger Vaquero, Colt single-action, any of the Colt single-action clones or the .44 Auto Mag.

Folks who like to load their own bullets can buy 15 Brindell hardcast bullets online from Hunter’s supply and .22 long rifle solids are available from Ammo to Go at This opens up the possibility of sticking to the pressures a particular hand gun was designed for, but using a bullet that is harder than expanding ammunition and will drive deeper.

A few hardy souls carry a .454 Casull, a .460 White Horse, a .50 Action Express or a 500 Smith and Wesson. These are very powerful handgun cartridges that are very capable of killing anything on the North American continent. However, the recoil from those handguns is extremely hard on the wrists and takes a couple of large hands to control.

If you are carrying a revolver in the backcountry, and your handgun doesn’t have a transfer bar that places a block between the hammer and firing pin until the piece is cocked or the trigger is pulled, be safe and carry your revolver on an empty chamber.

Handguns are more frequently carried in the backcountry now than 20 or 30 years ago, but they do have their place. If you decide that you want a handgun when you hunt or visit the wilderness areas, make sure you choose a caliber and load that fits your needs.

Smokey Merkley was raised in Idaho and has been hunting since he was 10 years old. He was a member of the faculty of Texas A&M University for 25 years. There he taught orienteering, marksmanship, self-defense, fencing, scuba diving and boxing. He was among the first DPS-certified Texas Concealed Handgun Instructors. He can be contacted at