Evolution of a Handgun Hunter


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Evolution of Handgun Hunter

By Glen E. Fryxell

An interesting thought occurred to me last night. I started hunting with handguns back in the 1980s, and very quickly fell in love with the Thompson-Center Contender. My first Contender was a used 14” barreled .22 Long Rifle that was on sale in the local gun shop. It came with an old, tired Bushnell Phantom 1.5x scope, and the crosshairs were a little crooked. The price was very friendly, so I bought the Contender, some ammo, and promptly took it out varmint hunting. A 14” .22 is kind of big and bulky, but it was very accurate, and it helped get me used to handling a big hunting handgun in the field (field positions, impromptu field rests, etc.).

Once I had gained some familiarity with the 14” TC, I bought a 14” .35 Remington Contender barrel mail order, and mounted a Leupold 2x scope on it. Winchester Silvertip factory ammo produced reasonable accuracy and gave me the tools needed to hunt here in the Pacific northwest. The ability to shoot 2” groups at 100 yards with a handgun was new territory for me; doing it with a .35 caliber handgun shooting a 200 grain bullet at 2000 fps, was truly exciting as this meant I could legitimately hunt elk with this combination.

That winter, I bought a 14” .223 Remington barrel in preparation for some serious long-range varmint hunting. Black Hills factory ammo delivered very good accuracy and excellent varmint performance. It was about this time that I started handloading, so I started working up loads with a wide variety of different bullets to see what worked and what didn’t. Over the ensuing years, these handloads in the .223 Contender would be used to take thousands of varmints across the western United States (Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Arizona, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, etc.). To this day, H335 remains a personal favorite for loading the .223. I also went to work with the .35 Remington barrel and worked up some serious hunting loads with H322. While other bullets also worked well, the Hornady 180 grain Single Shot Pistol (SSP) bullet at 2100 fps was found to be particularly effective on mule deer. I was beginning to fully understand the value in tailoring one’s loads to the gun, and to the game pursued.

After I gained some experience handloading, I got adventurous and I started working with wildcat cartridges. I have long been a fan of 6.5mm cartridges due to the excellent bullets available, so it’s little surprise that my first wildcat was the 6.5 TCU (and it remains a personal favorite to this day). The 6.5 TCU is formed by necking up the .223 case to 6.5mm, then fireforming to blow the shoulder out to 40 degrees. For deer sized game, the 6.5 TCU is at its best with 120 grain bullets (I like the Nosler 120 BT and the Speer 120 SP), the 140s just can’t be pushed fast enough from this little case to expand reliably. The 120s can be driven to more than 2200 fps from a 14” barrel, and a little over 2000 fps from a 10”. This combination has proven highly effective for mule deer. For varmints, I have gotten outstanding performance from the 100 grain Hornady and 100 grain Nosler BT. As for powders, the 6.5 TCU remarkably egalitarian – I have gotten good results with everything from 4198 to H380 (I generally turn to medium burners like 4895 or Acc. Arms 2460).

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The 6.5 TCU is an excellent deer gun when loaded with the 120 Nosler BT.

A few years later, I got into what might be called my "high performance phase", looking to flatten trajectories, and extend the range of my hunting handguns as much as possible with cartridges like the 6.5 JDJ, the 7-30 Waters, and the .308 Winchester (in the OT-SSP). I even went and designed my own wildcat cartridge (the .338 GEF). The flat-shooting 6.5 JDJ is a superb deer/antelope cartridge when loaded with the 120 Nosler BT or the Speer 120 SP (I generally load these bullets over Re 15 or 2520 for ~2300 fps from my 12” Contender). Both of these bullets are excellent antelope and mule deer bullets, and I have hunted with both. The .338 GEF is at its best with the shapely 200 grain Nosler Ballistic Tip, over 48.0 grains of H380, delivering 2110 fps and excellent accuracy (this load is also particularly accurate with the 200 grain Hornady FP, which expands beautifully at this speed, as does the 200 grain Speer SP). Heavier bullets, like the 250 Nosler Partition (at 1900+ fps) can be used for larger game like elk. The 200 Nosler BT also expands very well at a muzzle velocity of 2100, and I have used it to take pronghorn antelope at ranges varying from 50 to over 275 yards, with superb bullet performance every time. All in all, these high performance handguns have served me extremely well, and accompanied me on a wide variety of hunts -- for pronghorn antelope in Wyoming, elk in the high country of central Utah, javelina in dry, dusty border-country of southern Arizona, and prairie dogs in central Montana.

The .338 GEF Contender (based on the .356 Winchester case).

I have long been a bullet caster, but in the early days my casting supported my practice sessions and bullseye competition, not so much the hunting side of the equation. Then I started doing some of my varmint shooting with revolvers and cast bullets. Then I took a couple of mule deer with handguns loaded with cast bullets – one of the first was a mulie doe taken with a S&W 657 .41 Magnum loaded with a Lyman 410459 HP at 1400 fps. This was fun! There was an extra level of satisfaction obtained from using a bullet I had cast myself, in a round I had loaded myself, using a load I had developed myself, to put meat in the freezer. An iron-sighted revolver (Freedom Arms 454 Casull) forced me to get up close and personal to take a young bison bull. A number of feral hogs gave me an outlet to test various bullet designs (and then sit down to a feast of barbequed pork when I was through with the testing!). My hunting style was starting to evolve.

410459 HP dummy round.jpg
.41 Magnum loaded with the Lyman 410459 cast HP.

I was no longer interested in making 300 yard shots. Now, I was getting more interested in hunting heavy timber or stalking in for a close-range shot. Hence I have gotten more interested in compact handguns that can be brought on target quickly and shot offhand easily and precisely. And (of course), I am more interested in hunting with cast bullets. This has led me to all but forget about my 14" Contender barrels, and focus more attention on the more compact 10" barrels with low power scopes (my middle-aged eyes with bifocals just don't work very well with open sights under low-light conditions in the black timber of the northwest). I didn't set out to do anything systematic here, but recently I realized that my last 3 Contender projects were all 10" barrels, chambered for rimmed 2” cases, in .30, .35, and .40 caliber, specifically set up for hunting with cast hollow points at moderate velocities. “Systematic, by accident” I guess you could say.

10 inchTC cartridges.jpg
My cast bullet cartridges for a 10" Contender.

I had had the 10” .30-30 barrel for a number of years, but hadn’t really done much with it because it didn’t shoot any of the bullets I was interested in shooting anywhere near where the iron sights were pointed. Once I got around to scoping this barrel however, the story quickly changed. Now it would group quite well with cast bullets weighing 150-200 grains, and shoot them to point of aim. While the moderate velocities of the 10” barrel meant that jacketed bullets might not expand all that well (except for bullet like the Nosler 125 BT), these moderate velocities are ideally suited to cast HPs, which work very well at impact velocities around 1600 fps (and below). Working up loads with this gun, I found very good accuracy using Varget with the 173 grain Lyman 311041 HP and the 187 grain NOE 311 190 GCHP, both at about 1700 fps muzzle velocity. I have taken both of these loads hunting, but have yet to drop the hammer on one in the hunting fields. I would expect both of these loads to work very well on deer-sized game out to 150 yards or so. I keep this gun sighted in 1.5” high at 50 yards, which puts it pretty much dead on at 100, and about 5” low at 150 (where they should be doing 1350-1400 fps and will expand very nicely).

30-30 TC and 311041 HP target 3.jpg
The 10” .30-30 Contender.

Cliff LaBounty is responsible for me learning about and developing an affection for the .357 Hartley cartridge. One weekend, back in the late 90s, while my wife and I were up enjoying the bed-n-breakfast that Cliff and his wife ran for a number of years in their lovely home just outside of Maple Falls, Washington, Cliff and I were out in his shop and I was describing some of my ideas for gun projects. I told him about a 10” .357 Magnum barrel that I had, and that I wanted to rechamber it to something more powerful, so I could shoot heavier cast bullets in serious hunting loads. I told him that I was considering the .357 Maximum, the .357 Herrett, and others, but that I didn’t want to go so far as the .358 JDJ because this was only a 10” barrel. Cliff looked at me and wrinkled up his nose and made a sour face, “You don’t want the .357 Herrett where you have to do all that case trimming.” He walked over to his reamer cabinet and dug around for a minute. “What you want is the .357 Hartley.” Huh? (I had never heard of it, at that point) “It’s basically the same thing as the .357 Herrett, except on the full length .30-30 case.” Perfect! Cliff was kind enough to rent me the reamer for a nominal fee, and I did the re-chambering job as soon as I got home. The 10” .357 Hartley has proven itself to be very cast bullet friendly, shooting cast bullets weighing from 200 grains up to 280 grains (and it would undoubtedly work well with lighter bullets, I just haven’t tried them…..yet). My preferred deer load for this gun is the 200 grain Lyman 358315 HP (I couldn’t find the HP mould, so I converted this mould to drop HPs myself) over 35.0 grains of 4895 for right at 1600 fps. This is a mild load in terms of pressure, but it gives me just exactly the velocity I was looking for, it is very accurate, and my brass lasts forever. I neck size using a .35 Remington die, flare with a .38/.357 flaring die, and seat using a .35 Remington seater die. Works like a charm. Trajectory and range comments are virtually identical to those made in the .30-30 discussion above.

357 Hartley TC.jpg
The .357 Hartley Contender.

If I were to take the .357 Hartley out after heavier animals (like hogs), I would prefer solid cast bullets like the new Lee 35-200-GC (or similar bullets made by RCBS or SAECO), and I can push the velocities up by moving to a faster powder (e.g. 3031). Also heavier cast bullets, like the SAECO 245, NEI 250, and Lyman 358009 shoot very well out of this gun and should make interesting hunting loads in the .357 Hartley. These would be more limited (in terms of range), but effective moderate range hunting loads nonetheless, delivering deep penetration.

It was on that same visit to Cliff LaBounty that I mentioned I was interested in doing a .40-50 Sharps Straight project (on a 10” 10mm Contender barrel), and did he by any chance know anybody who might have a .40-50 Sharps Straight reamer? He walked over to his reamer cabinet and dug around for a few seconds, then pulled one out and said, “What? You mean like this?” After I picked up my jaw off the floor, I asked him if it was for .403” or .408” diameter bullets, because they were made both ways. He pulled out a pair of dial calipers from his pocket and made a measurement, and reported that it was for .403”. Yippee! Talk about a blind hog stumbling across an acorn! He kindly rented me the reamer, and I was on Cloud 9 for the whole drive home. The rechambering job was straightforward, and while I had the reamer, I made a trim die out of some round stock I had on hand. Dies were available from RCBS. Initially, I focused on 245-265 grain cast bullets at about 1400 fps, essentially reproducing the original black powder rifle ballistics from my 10” Contender. While the lighter bullets shot well enough, I eventually settled on a lovely old 315 grain cast HP, from an old Ideal 403149 mould (converted to drop HPs by my friend Erik Ohlen). I size this 315 grain HP to .405”, and load it over 35.0 grains of 4895 for 1320 fps. I keep this gun sighted in about 2 ¼” high at 50 yards, which puts it pretty much dead on at 100, and about 8” low at 150. This is my preferred hunting load for this gun, and it shoots quite well and it just flat hammers hogs.

40-50 Sharps Straight Contender.jpg
The .40-50 Sharps Straight Contender (before it got a scope).

These guns are all designed to be 100-150 yard sledgehammers that can be called upon in heavy timber to make a fast, precise shot, and drop the game animal quickly and humanely, with a bullet that I cast myself. All in all, a very interesting, and useful, combination of old cartridges and new guns, made useful through the use of cast hollow points. It’s been an interesting journey. I wonder what’s next?
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