Handguns For Hogs

June 12, 2013

Not all that long ago, I think it was Neil, one of the elite… a “regular reader”… suggested that I take a run at back-up handguns for hog hunting.  So I will, but with a video caveat…


I’m not an expert handgunner. 

I’m not even very good (compared to many handgun marksmen I’ve known).  But I do like to shoot anything that goes, “bang,” so while I may not know a ton about the latest and greatest in pistols and revolvers, I’ve got enough knowledge to be dangerous.

But first off, let me say this.  A “back-up” handgun really isn’t something most hog hunters require.  If you need a finishing shot, your rifle is usually perfectly adequate for the job.  I know a lot of guys (including me) who started out carrying some sort of  small ordnance as “insurance” or to administer that “coup de grace”.  After a while, the majority of us stopped.  For hunting the back country in places like CA, every extra ounce of weight counts.  And truth be told, I can’t think of anyone who has had the need to switch from their primary weapon to a handgun on a hunt. I know we all have theoretical scenarios, but trust me… they just don’t happen very often.

As a guide, on the other hand, I almost always carried a handgun.  In fact, while working at Native Hunt we were required to carry.  It made no sense not to be prepared for the worst, since guides are responsible for the clients’ safety.  Even then, the only time we generally had to use our sidearms was during dog hunts, and then it was usually at powderburn range (exchange your handgun for the hunter’s rifle and let him do the “honors”).  Despite the potential and mythical power of a wild boar’s charge, it simply doesn’t happen all that often… and when it does, it is very seldom life threatening. 

On the other hand, hogs are tough… even the little ones… and if you want to go handgunning for them, I recommend that you follow the oft-abused-but-generally-faithful aphorism… Use Enough Gun.

What is “enough gun” for hogs?  That’s a question guaranteed to spark a lively debate among hog hunters, but I’d also argue that it’s a good way to weed out the guys with experience vs. the guys who have read too many ballistics tables or magazine articles.  In almost every circle, there’s going to be some guy who swears you can kill them with something like a .22magnum.  “It’s all about shot placement,” this person will say.  And I’d say that person has probably never killed a hog with a handgun, unless he was standing in a pen.

Right here, let me make a relatively brief aside and bring up the subject of action types.  For the most part, you’ve got semi-automatics and you’ve got revolvers.  While I tend to side with old-school thinking and believe that  you can’t beat a revolver for reliability and simplicity, I have to concede that there’s really nothing wrong with a quality semi-automatic.  A lot of guys are intimately familiar with their semi-autos, and that means they’re going to shoot them better. 


For the most part, semi-automatic handguns are not chambered in suitable hunting rounds.  To the layman, it may seem like the .45acp, the .40S&W, or the 10mm is a cannon and should be good for anything short of T-Rex.  But it’s just not so.  They just don’t deliver the penetration and energy to reliably drop a large hog (unless you’re hunting with dogs, and shooting bayed or caught pigs).

“But you get multiple follow-up shots,” you might argue.  True, but unless you’re an expert handgunner, the odds of sinking a kill shot in a panicked, running hog are slim.  Spray and pray is great in video games, but not so much in real life… especially if you plan to eat what you just shot full of holes.  That said, some guys do still choose to hunt with their .40s or even their .45s, and they will probably kill some hogs under the right conditions.    Nevertheless, I keep hearing tales from these same guys about having to shoot four or five times to drop a hog.  That tells me that there are better options.  And most of those better options come in the form of revolvers.

In my limited experience, and in the wider experience of fellow guides and hunters, the .357 magnum is a bare minimum for hog hunting.  Truthfully, it lacks much in the way of outright killing power, but it is a round that most people can manage fairly well.  There’s a tradeoff there, but it’s worth consideration.  A well-placed .357 with a good bullet (e.g. Barnes XPB) will bring down most hogs reasonably quickly.  However, a poorly placed shot will likely result in an extended, and often fruitless, trailing job.  Not to mention that I’ve seen head shots from the .357 bounce right off. 

If you follow incrementally, the next caliber to look at would be the .41 Remington Magnum.  It’s unfortunate that I just don’t know many people who use this caliber, and those I do know use it on deer.  Ballistics suggest that this would be a reasonable caliber for hogs, at an appropriate range and with a good bullet.  However, when you look closely, it doesn’t offer a whole lot more than the .357 at close ranges.  The real benefit of this round comes at longer ranges, however; it doesn’t carry a lot of energy when it gets out there. 

Next up is the .44 Remington Magnum.  Now we’re getting somewhere.  If someone asked me to recommend a hog hunting handgun, this is probably where I’d point them.  A full-powered .44mag has enough oomph to put the hurt on almost any hog at ranges inside 50 yards or so (although you shouldn’t expect dramatic, instant knock-downs).  My go-to handgun for hogs has always been my Ruger Super Blackhawk, a sweet, single-action revolver with a 7 1/2″ stainless barrel.  While I am personally partial to my choice, there are a variety of quality handcannons chambered for this load, and available in single or double action conformations.  

I think it’s critical to mention here, however, that even though the .44mag is a powerful round and well-suited for hogs, it’s still a handgun round.  It loses energy quickly at longer ranges, and while a skilled marksman can shoot this thing accurately at 100 yards, it’s not going to do a lot of damage way out there.  On something like a hog that doesn’t usually leave a good blood trail, you still need to consider keeping your shots in close. 

Once you get past the .44magnum, you’re into the realm of serious hog killing handguns.  However, I do want to make a note about the .45 Colt.  This round is widely used by antique firearms shooters, and as a result, most factory loads are relatively meek so they don’t blow those old guns to pieces.  Modern .45s are much stronger and able to handle much heavier charges.  I recommend doing the research and selecting a more powerful factory load (such as those produced by Cor-Bon) for hog hunting.  Another good option is handloading.  The .45 is a very capable hog gun, but it needs a stout load to realize that capability. 

After this, you start to get into the real cannons… the .454 Casull, the .460 S&W, .480 Ruger, and a slew of .50 calibers.  Any of these will certainly be “enough gun” for hogs.  However, you really need to understand that some of these are simply too much gun for hog hunters.  It’s a common mistake, often driven by testosterone and machismo, to get the biggest-baddest thing you can find.  The problem is, unless you’re an experienced handgunner, all these monsters are going to do is generate bad habits (flinching, closing your eyes), and possibly hurt you.  They’re not for everybody.

Most handgun instructors strongly recommend starting out with something small.  A .22lr revolver is an excellent trainer, and you can learn the mechanics of handgun shooting, hone your accuracy, and perfect your form without concern about recoil or muzzle blast.  And even after you move up to the bigger guns, you should practice often with lighter loads.  For example, the .357mag can be used with .38 Special amm for less expensive, lower recoil practice.  The .44mag handles .44 Special ammo perfectly well, or for even lighter loads you can use some of the “Cowboy” loads which have extremely low recoil and muzzle flash.  Same goes for the .45 Colt. 

In my personal experience with handgunning, I have found that it more closely resembles archery than rifle shooting.  You have to practice until you establish muscle memory.  You want to work on perfecting your shooting form, and then be conscious of it all the time.  A slight lean, a twist, torquing the grips… any of these minor flaws will cause your accuracy to suffer.  Even if you decide to put a scope on your handgun, all of these things apply.  There’s just much less gun there to forgive your minor mistakes. 

So no matter what gun you choose, or whether it’s a primary or a back-up weapon, there’s one word that will mean more than anything else… and that’s practice.


14 Responses to “Handguns For Hogs”

  1. Dave B on June 12th, 2013 15:59

    Here are my experiences with handgun rounds on big game.

    My daughter has been hunting since she was 12 with a Marlin Lever Action Chambered in .44 Magnum. It was a good rifle for her that was versatile and allowed her to take down mule deer within 100 yards. Since this was a hand gun round there was less recoil and good for a kid. She hunted with this rifle until recently when we bought her a Ruger .270.

    The .44 magnum proved highly effective on deer out to 100 yards. All of her shots were placed well which helped also. All deer shot fell in their tracks except for one small black tail buck (her first) which ran about 30 yards before expiring.

    The first pig she shot was a large sow (pushing 200 pounds). She was about 85 yards out. She hit it in the vitals with the first shot. While the pig ran off she hit it again a little further back toward the gut.

    The pig ran 50 yards into thick brush. When bayed up by dogs with two shots in it and bleeding heavily it still charged the guide twice. It took two additional shots from a .357 to the head and neck to put it down.

    From that point on, she switched to my high powered rifle for pigs (until she got her new .270).

    I also have experience shooting a small black tailed buck (100 pounds soaking wet) at less than 15 yards with my .45acp. I shot it square in the lungs. That deer bucked up, ran 100 yards down a draw, walked up a very, very steep incline another 100 yards, down a steep hill and over to a neighboring property where it jumped over a 6 foot chain link fence. I chased that deer for 2 days but could never catch it on our property.

    The only thing I can figure is that I hit a rib bone and the bullet (a 230 grain Federal Hydra Shok hit a rib and shattered to pieces). I saw that deer again the following season on our property seemingly healthy. I felt so bad after shooting that deer, I vowed to never use a gun designed for combat with humans again on a game animal. I learned the hardway about having “enough” gun.

  2. Dave B on June 12th, 2013 16:02

    I forgot to mention. In the Marlin we use Hornady’s Leverevolution Rounds in 180 to 225 grain depending on availability. They have been quite effective on deer. If I ever used it on a hog again, I would do it within 50 yards to ensure there was enough energy to penetrate through the animal. In the case of the hog that my daughter shot, both rounds mushroomed nicely and punched through the body doing a lot of internal organ damage but neither punched through the hide on the other side.

  3. Phillip on June 12th, 2013 16:53

    Good stuff, Dave, thanks.

    Although this is almost all my personal opinion, I’ve never liked handgun cartridges for a rifle… or at least not for hunting. One reason is that folks want to treat them like rifle rounds, and they’re not. It’s true, you can often get a little more velocity out of a longer barrel, and there’s no doubt you increase accuracy, but it’s still a handgun round designed for handgun ranges.

    The energy these bullets are carrying when they get out to 75 or 100 yards is relatively feeble. On a deer, it’s still plenty because you have thin skin and a relatively vulnerable nervous system. On something like a hog, with thick skin and the constitution of a railroad tie… it’s another thing altogether. I think your daughter’s experience with the big sow illustrates this pretty well.

    Many of the experienced handgun hunters prefer heavy-for-caliber bullets for penetration and energy. A friend of mine who knows “a bit” about shooting hand cannons recently reminded me about using hard-cast, semi-wadcutter bullets on tough critters like hogs. I know that’s not so much of an option in the condor zone (and probably not an option much longer anywhere in CA), but what that does indicate is that those hard, deep penetrating bullets are the way to go. So, for example, in that Marlin you might stick with something in the 215gr to 220gr range… and keep those shots in close.

  4. Neil H on June 12th, 2013 23:28

    Thanks for the “elite” status Phillip, though it’s true; I am a regular reader. This is one of my favorite blogs, actually.

    Like you and others, I have gone back and forth on the whole backup gun idea. First, where do you carry it? The right side hits a rifle carried on a sling. Cross draw? Still a lot of extra weight and mass on the belt. Being in California, I carry a liter of water, plus a snack, and if I’m on anyplace other than our small ranch, a simple survival kit, rubber gloves for pigs, headlamp, etc. so extra stuff starts getting old. I have a small messenger style sling bag that has a concealed carry compartment, so that would do it. Incidentally, California allows concealed carry if you are hunting or traveling to go hunting (not loaded where otherwise illegal, of course). So that works for me but yes, it’s more weight in the thing.

    The article you wrote addressed my biggest conflict, power vs. ease of shooting accurately. I figured a .357 as bare minimum, but something a lot easier to handle than the .44 and easier for ammo that the .41. Bigger than these are dedicated hand cannons for actual handgun hunting, too big a frame for a “backup”.

    Other than me running frantically up a tree, yes, I feel a whole lot more confidant with a rifle. You could also physically fend off a pig a bit with a rifle, but not a handgun. The last pig I got, last month, was finished with a quick shot behind the ear, and I don’t think I would have set down my rifle and drawn a revolver if I had one.

    So I’m still debating. But since I don’t own a handgun, and my spouse is totally supportive of anything related to food acquisition, if I get one it will still be the “backup for pig hunting”.

  5. Phillip on June 13th, 2013 07:12

    Neil, you are certainly in the elite… inasmuch as you’re part of the small group that consistently reads and comments on this site. I appreciate you guys and gals a lot.

    As we’ve found, carrying a backup handgun that’s suitable for hogs is a challenge and not particularly useful… especially when you’re rifle hunting. There’s not much a handgun can do that a rifle can’t do better in normal hunting conditions. The only realistic exception I’ve found is crawling through pig tunnels. That’s when I’m glad to have a hand cannon… although truthfully, I’ve never needed it in that situation.

    But I can say this, as you ponder the larger framed guns. Handgun hunting is, in itself a real kick in the pants. Like bowhunting, it’s a game of getting close. It requires real hunter skills, stalking, marksmanship, and discipline. Your odds of success go down, but the rewards go way up. So you may consider a handgun, not so much for backup but for the hunt itself.

  6. Mike C on June 13th, 2013 17:12

    I was advised to always carry a handgun for backup since I use Ruger #1 single shot rifles from time to time. So I went out and bought a Ruger .454 Casull. I spent some time out at the range with it, firing .45LC to get the hang of it and then bought a large box of Buffalo Bore .454 Casull ammo.

    The recoil with the BB ammo is enormous but manageable. I decided to take it along with my next pig hunt stashed in a tanker holster. Although it was very heavy, it was easily accessible “in case.”

    What a bad idea. The darn thing grew heavier and heavier with every step. It now lives in my safe at home. I consider the ROI to be very small indeed, preferring instead to fend off any charges with the rifle itself. As for the coup-de-grace, it’ll just come as another round from the rifle.

    I recognize that there may be a need for a backup gun, but I’m no longer as spry as I used to be and would prefer to carry more water instead.

  7. Neil on June 13th, 2013 19:22

    I think Mike has a good point in general about using a single, muzzleloader, or bow.

    One of the things I’d thought of in my general back and forth is getting something like a Ruger SP101 .357 with a 4″ barrel. It’s a small frame revolver so it might be a bit of handful compared to an L frame or something, but since you’d pack it way more than shoot it, it would probably be fine.

    Passing that point when it feels like you’re carting around too much junk, between water, binoculars, whatever kit you have… plus a revolver, is a real issue. A pig stalk can be anything from a sneak, to a crawl, to a full-bore sprint up the backside of a ridge, and feeling like you’re invading Normandy isn’t ideal for any of those situations.

  8. Jean on June 13th, 2013 22:59

    I carried a back up gun for a while when I started hunting but quit doing so for some of those reasons listed above. Don’t laugh, but I was one of those folks who carried a 45acp. I never did use it. The 30’06 was just too good at its job.
    However, I still fancy the notion of taking taking my 460 Rowland (on a Kimber 1911 frame) as primary weapon for piggies one of these days.

  9. Phillip on June 14th, 2013 05:02

    Thanks, Mike! It is something to consider when your primary weapon only gives you one shot. I carried my .44 a few times as backup while bowhunting for hogs at Tejon, but of course I never needed it. The bow gives me about the same range, and honestly, a little better accuracy. The only time I needed a coup de grace on a bowhunt (I found someone else’s wounded boar), I had no handgun, but was able to do the job with my Buck knife. The old boy was on his last legs anyway, but I felt like I needed to hurry him along.

    I know this should probably go without saying, by the way, but be sure it’s legal to carry a handgun while hunting with bow or muzzleloader… and be sure it’s legal to use it on game. In some states you can carry during archery season, but only for self defense. If you use that pistol, even as a coup de grace, you’re at risk of a citation. Many states prohibit the possession of a modern firearm during archery or muzzleloader hunts, and some properties that are archery-only also prohibit handguns.

    Jean, that .460 Rowland should make for an interesting primary gun, indeed. Are you handy with it at hunting distances?

  10. Jean on June 15th, 2013 22:13

    Last time I shot it, I would have dead pig at 50 yards for sure. I figure I would need to be much better than that before I really take it as a primary

  11. Phillip on June 17th, 2013 08:33

    I dunno, Jean. 50 yards is a good range for handgun hunting if you’re consistent. You just have to recognize your limitations, right? I try to work with my .44 at 40-50 yards, and I can keep it in the kill zone consistently at 40 (until my arm gets tired). Funny how much difference another 10 yards makes, though. But I figure I’m good at archery range. Anything longer, I try to close the distance or I let it walk.

    I’ve done some shooting with this revolver at 100 yards, but I think I managed to hit two shots out of a box of ammo in the black. Definitely not the level of expertise I need for long-range handgun hunting.

  12. Clarence B. Parker on June 26th, 2013 02:58

    Which .223 round have ya’ll had good luck with on hogs? I’m about to do my first hunt and will be using a AR15 carbine w/ aimpoint redot and surefire tac light and have a glock 27 .40s&w w/180gr FMJ for backup.

  13. Phillip on June 26th, 2013 15:27

    If you absolutely have to use a .223 (not my recommendation), select a bullet that is specifically designed for big game hunting. There are several options, and you should try them until you find one that is consistently accurate from your rifle. Shooting hogs with a small caliber demands precision shot placement.

    Barnes makes a good, all-copper bullet for the .223. Winchester also makes the RazorBack XT, which is custom-made for hog hunting with the .223. There are other options, but as I said, you really need to run them through your rifle to ensure that they shoot well.

    By the way, if you think you might be shooting hogs with that Glock, I recommend using a hollow-point or a semi-wadcutter bullet instead of the FMJ. FMJ is not made to be a quick stopper, and is actually illegal for use on game in some states.

  14. Neil H on June 26th, 2013 23:14

    Hi Clarence,

    Congratulations on the first hog hunt. It can be addictive.

    I’m not a big caliber guy. I’m a big believer in shot placement. My family has hunted deer with some pretty light rounds back in the day, and I hunt now with a moderate round, a 7mm-08 that I’ve had really good results with. So as a representative example of someone who isn’t quite as conservative as Phillip, with his .325 WSM, I’ll chime in. I’ve hit several pigs directly through the heart with a 140 grain bullet at 2900fps, about 2 1/2 times a .223 typical weight, and had them run 30 to 50 yards. And that shot is as good as it gets. It can go downhill from there.

    I understand transitioning to hunting and having one rifle you own. I also have friends that have taken some pigs with ARs. But they were experts, great shots and/or professional guides who could get close and tuck a shot right where it counts. (See also Hog Blog treatise about head shots.) Now first hog hunt doesn’t automatically translate into neophyte shooter, nor do I know if you’ve had lot of other shooting experience at other big game. Maybe you have some military service (thank you), and have your nerves sorted while shooting. Aside from that though, a first big game shot can be pretty adrenaline charged. Translation: you’ll work hard to keep from shaking. Yep, really. So throwing a pretty solid round at a pig isn’t a bad idea. If you just love the AR platform and can afford it, consider getting an upper in 6.8 spc. or similar. If the AR is what you have and can’t spend a bunch of cash, keep it close and don’t overestimate the round.

    Phillip has some good advice for bullets. FMJ is for the Geneva convention, but don’t even think of using it for hunting. In California, for example, it’s illegal, but that not the main reason. It’s just not a good bullet if you want a quick kill. Read up on the comments where much debate is made about whether a .357 magnum is an adequate but marginal handgun caliber.

    Best of luck to you, and welcome.