Starting Small


A T/C in .17 HMR makes an accurate varmint rig with non-existent recoil.
This single-shot handgun wears a Burris scope.

During and immediately after deer season, I noticed a considerable amount of traffic on social media platforms regarding handgun hunting. Surprisingly, there were quite a number of handgunners pursuing whitetail with their favorite handgun. Many posted hero shots of their success with a broad array of handguns. Lots of questions — and even more answers — popped up from individuals looking to get their feet wet with handgun hunting, hoping to fill their freezer with venison. Some answers contained solid information, others not so much.

I’m not an expert on anything. You can ask my wife and she’ll testify to this fact, under oath. But after 40 years involved with some mighty serious handgun hunting, I have learned a few things. Before we get to meat and potatoes of starting off right, let’s address how not to begin your journey in handgun hunting.

Small game handguns vary, and this Ruger semi-auto topped with an
UltraDot optic provides an accurate set-up for squirrels or rabbits.

Caliber Wisdom

Just because you’ve seen one on social media or held a conversation in the local bar involving a big bore handgun like the .454 Casull or .500 S&W Magnum doesn’t mean you need to start with one. Over the years, I’ve witnessed a lot of individuals purchase a big bore revolver, those generating teeth-shattering recoil, just because a buddy has one. For an inexperienced shooter, this is not a good way to start your handgun hunting career. Don’t misinterpret, there is nothing wrong with big bore handguns, if you can handle the recoil. It’s just not a good place to start.

Whether novice or highly experienced shooter, a good .22 LR pistol is a great way to learn the fundamentals and keep in tune. It’s also much less expensive than practicing with centerfire ammunition. For me, I can’t think of a better way to get started in handgun hunting than pursuing small game like rabbits or squirrels.

To this day, I enjoy an early morning squirrel hunt with a .22 LR handgun of some description. You find yourself shooting from all sorts of positions when squirrels are in the top of the tree or feeding on the ground. Some shots have to be taken off-hand, while others can involve a rest of some kind. It can be very challenging and even humbling at times. After all, a squirrel’s head presents a very small target so precise shooting is essential.

Handguns for small game do not have to be expensive. Whether you prefer single shots like T/C’s, semi-autos, or revolvers, they all have a place if they’re accurate. At my advanced age, optics is necessary for proper shot placement. Younger eyes may not need them.

This T/C in .223 with Hornady ammo is deadly on varmints.
The T/C is topped with a Bushnell 2-6x scope.

Varmint Time?

Another great way to spend quality time behind the trigger is varmint shooting. This may entail groundhogs, prairie dogs, or other vermin. I’ve spent a lot of time shooting prairie dogs in target-rich environments and this offers valuable trigger time — plus you will learn a lot about wind and bullet trajectory. You’ll also be doing the rancher a favor by helping eliminate critters destroying his property.

Some of my favorite handguns for varmints include .17 HMR and .223. Neither of these produces a lot of recoil so you can shoot for extended periods without fatigue. A good quality scope is necessary, as prairie dogs do not offer much room for error. By shooting small targets from various ranges with light-recoiling handguns, you will gain confidence in your ability while honing your shooting skills. This is a big step toward tipping the odds in your favor when big game seasons roll around.

Whether you hunt small game or live near heavily populated prairie dog towns, either prospect is a great way to improve your shooting ability. These opportunities don’t cost a lot of money compared to a guided big game hunt. You may be finding a place close to home that will provide a quality outdoor experience without costly tags or license fees. Neither requires expensive handguns and gear.
Even if you’re an experienced handgun hunter with years of success under your belt, small game hunting or varmint shooting can better prepare you for the upcoming big game hunting seasons. I enjoy most of my squirrel hunting during the off-season when most all big game seasons are closed — same as varmint shooting in the summer months. These opportunities are much more productive, keeping me tuned-up for hunting season, than going to the range and punching paper.

If you want to hunt deer or any other big game with a handgun, there’s no better way to start preparing than hunting small game or varmints.

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