Monday, October 28, 2013

Hunting Big-game With a Contender Pistol

This October, I went on my third handgun safari for exotic game down in the great State of Tennessee. This year’s quest took me to the Wilderness Hunting Lodge which is located just outside of the quaint hamlet of Monterey, Tennessee. My ...goal for this trip was to take a couple heads of game with my newly acquired Thompson-Center (T/C) Contender pistols. The two Contender frames I purchased were the later Easy-open models which can be differentiated by the Cougar’s head engraved on both sides of the receivers as opposed to the Cougar standing on top of a rock ledge.

The first stainless-steel Contender frame was fitted with a blued, Super 14” barrel that came equipped with an integral muzzle break and chambered for the 7-30 Waters cartridge. For those of you unfamiliar with this excellent round it is essentially the .30-30 Winchester case necked down to 7 Millimeter (.28 caliber). Author Ken Waters developed this cartridge in 1976. In this barrel length, the Federal factory loading supposedly pushes the 120 grain Sierra Game King bullet at approximately 2,400 feet per second. I sighted this T/C in at 100 yards. I was using a small swinging steel disc as a target. It became almost boring to shoot, as I repeatedly hit it. I then moved to the 150 yard plate. I was now striking just below this plate at the six O’clock position. As far as I was concerned, the 7-30 Waters was ready to go.

The second Contender was wearing a stainless-steel, 10” barrel. This barrel was originally chambered for the .357 Magnum cartridge. I had Mike Bellm of Olathe, Colorado re-chamber it for the excellent .357 Maximum round. The .357 Maximum cartridge has fascinated me since its introduction back in the early 1980’s. The cartridge was originally designed in the 1970’s by the late Elgin Gates for the Handgun Metallic Silhouette crowd, and originally dubbed the .357 Super-Mag, but it soon proved to be a great hunting round as well. The “Big-Max” is a stellar performer on Deer-sized game when hand loaded with 180 grain bullets. For this trip, I chose the Hornady 180 grain XTP bullet, pushed by a heaping helping of IMR-4227 propellant, resting on top of a CCI 450 Small-Rifle Magnum primer. Yes, I said small-rifle magnum primer! Because of the pressures the Big Max generates, it requires the use of Small-Rifle Magnum primers. This load shot one very small hole at 25 yards. I didn’t have access to the 100 yard range right before the trip so I sighted the Maximum in to strike 6” high at 25 yards. Now both of my Contender pistols were ready to go.

Day-one of our three-day journey found me climbing the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains. Whoever named these the foothills was probably related to a Mountain Goat because the terrain was very steep and rock strewn. Anyone who believes that hunting on a game preserve is akin to shooting fish in a barrel has never been to the Wilderness Lodge. They have a total of 4,000 acres of land, some of which is darn near vertical. After lunch, my guide took me to another parcel of land that had a decent herd of Fallow Deer on it. After stalking and chasing these fleet-footed ghosts, we finally found a loner, high up on a ridge that was totally unaware of our presence. I used my Bushnell Scout 1000 DX Laser rangefinder to figure out the distance and ranged him right at 100 yards. I used a good-sized tree for a shooting rest and placed the crosshairs of my Burris 2 x 7 variable-powered pistol scope directly behind his shoulder and carefully squeezed the trigger. The Nosler soft point bullet round found its mark and the Fallow buck dropped like a stone. I was very impressed with the round’s performance and I do believe the guide was very impressed with mine.

Day-two found us hunting in a steady downpour of rain. The hillsides became extremely slick, and walking them became a most treacherous proposition. I was now using the 10” Contender chambered for the Big Max! As my guide and I were descending from one of the parcels of land; we spotted two large Bull Elk by a waterhole. The two Bull’s were totally unaware of our presence at first, so I quickly got out the Bushnell rangefinder and ranged them at 155 yards. I stealthily closed the distance to a large tree from which I could again use as a solid rest. At 125 yards, I now had the Bull’s full attention. They were both truly magnificent animals. The leading Bull’s rack was a bit wider, but his tines were not as thick nor were they as long as the second Bull’s rack. I had already shot a very nice 6 x 6 Bull Elk in Wyoming during the 2000 hunting season but he was nowhere as majestic as this regal beast. The leading Bull decided he had enough of my intrusion so he quickly cantered off for parts unknown. As the second Bull turned to leave my first 180 grain Hornady XTP bullet struck him behind the shoulder. He stopped and stared at me as I reloaded the Contender. I quickly lined up and gave him another dose of Elk medicine from the Maximum. He did a little shimmy, and sat sown on his hindquarters like a dog wanting a treat. He then fell over onto his right side. I ran up and gave him one more for good measure. The big Bull was now mine.

As I looked him over, I couldn’t believe how truly majestic he really was. His main beams were extremely thick and his tines were long and heavy. He had seven points on one side and six on the other. The guide came up and was amazed as well. He believed the Bull would probably score 360 or better when an official scorer finally measures him for possible entry into the Safari Club International’s record book.

So now I had a trophy Bull Elk and an excellent Fallow Deer buck to add to the other nine head of game that I have already harvested with a handgun. I had accomplished everything I wanted to prove on this particular trip. I proved that the Contenders are extremely accurate, long range pistols, and that one chambered for the .357 Maximum cartridge in the right hands can be a viable big-game hunting tool. I contacted Mike Bellm to thank him for the re-chamber job on my barrel and advised him of my Elk kill. He wrote back and told me that of the tens of thousands of conversations he has had with Contender shooters that mine may be the first Elk ever taken with the .357 Maximum cartridge. You can see a picture of the Bull on Mike’s website at:

I will not hesitate to add that this type of performance requires a lot of trigger-time and dedication to the sport of handgunning. You must spend a lot of time at the shooting range and pay your dues to become proficient enough to ethically hunt big-game with a handgun. You can’t drag a shooting bench equipped with a sand bag rest with you everywhere you intend to hunt. You must learn how to shoot your hunting handguns from the various positions you’ll encounter in the field such as prone, kneeling, sitting, and standing offhand, both with, and without support.

I personally like to hunt with a handgun for a variety of reasons. Being a tactical pistol instructor, it kind of goes along with what I do for a living. I guess it’s a sort of practice what you preach kind of thing for me. Hunting with a handgun is also quite challenging, as it allows me to keep both of my hands free to grab onto things as I’m climbing, or walking on rough terrain. You can also maneuver through thick underbrush a lot quicker when you’re not toting a rifle with you. It may also be an ego thing for me too because I’m considered a pretty darned good pistol shot by many who know me.

To assist me on my handgun hunts, I’ll also carry the following items with me. First and foremost, is a top quality rangefinder. The Bushnell Scout 1000 DX that I currently use not only calculates the actual yardage, but it will also figure out the holdover required at that particular distance I’m shooting at, for my caliber of choice. This tool is an absolute must for taking game quickly and cleanly. You’ve got to know your range limitations and a rangefinder will help you do that.

A good set of compact binoculars is also a must. Binoculars not only help you judge the game you’re planning on taking, they will also assist you in locating animals hiding in heavy cover. Mine are a set of the 8 x 42 power Wind River Cascades made by Leupold. They have an armored, Advantage camouflage finish on them. Your pistol scope should also be purchased from one of the top quality scope manufacturers. I use either Burris or Leupold pistol scopes exclusively. They are rugged, have extremely clear lenses, hold their zero, and gather a lot of light.

You will also need a good holster to carry your large, scoped hunting handgun in. Mine is a ballistic nylon shoulder rig made by Luggage Systems. It has a fairly large outside pocket with a flap and a Velcro closure on it. This pocket is where I’ll keep my spare ammunition carrier, or my speedloaders, depending on the handgun I’m hunting with at the time. I also wear a tight-fitting, padded leather glove on my Support hand. A glove helps me steady the pistol against an upright support such as a tree or fencepost, while protecting my Support hand from being torn up when the pistol is in full recoil. A small pocket flashlight will help you when you’re tracking your game at dusk, and finding your way out of the woods. A sharp knife is an essential part of any hunter’s field kit and has a variety of uses, most notably to field-dress your game. Last but not least I carry a good digital camera to record my hunting memories for posterity.

So if you feel you’re up to the challenge and you’ve put a significant number of rounds down range from various shooting positions with your favorite Smoke-wagon, why not give handgun hunting a try? I promise you that once you take a game animal with a pistol you’ll be hooked for life. I know I am.