Handgunning for Bushytails

Improved optics and guns put the fun back in squirrel hunting.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

If you're tired of lugging a shotgun or rifle through the woods each squirrel season, consider packing a handgun instead. Put one of today's exceptional scopes or red-dot sights on any of several manufacturers' finer small-caliber handguns, and you'll be good to go. Of course, using a handgun instead of a long gun magnifies the hunting challenge. But that's what you were really after all along, isn't it?

Guns and Gear
A well-made handgun, chambered for .22 Long Rifle and tailored for small-game hunting, is the best platform for a squirrel-hunting outfit. Revolvers with 6-inch barrels, such as the Smith & Wesson 617 and Ruger Single Six, are almost always more accurate than smaller kit-type guns and are usually easier to adapt for scope use.

Although revolvers are the traditional choice of squirrel plinkers, some autoloaders are well-suited for the task. A Smith & Wesson 22A is equipped with scope rails on the barrel, and its barrel can be quickly swapped for another. Last season, I alternated between two barrels, one with a Burris Signature Series 3-7x32 handgun scope and one with a Bushnell HOLOsight.

The nice thing about an auto pistol is its rapid follow-up shot capability. Misses are common in this sport, but a squirrel will often freeze at the crack of a .22. With an autoloader, there is no fumbling with a hammer. Just squeeze again. I haven't tried it yet, but the Ruger MK III Hunter autoloader is a promising newcomer.

Some .22 Magnum handguns can be pressed into service for bushytails, but that round is more powerful than necessary and I haven't found it to be as accurate as .22 LR in handguns.

The new .17 HMR is another story. I was skeptical when I took a new Ruger Single Six Hunter topped with a 2-8x32 Leupold Vari-X III pistol scope into the woods. I figured the hot little load would vaporize squirrels, but that wasn't the case. The .17 HMR was effective on squirrels out to 60 yards and didn't destroy much meat. In fact, the tiny bullets, both the hollowpoint and ballistic-tipped V-Max loads, didn't always exit the squirrels. The inherent accuracy of the round and the setup made head shots a cinch. The .17 HMR is better than the .22 LR in killing efficiency, though the latter wins hands down in cost (see sidebar below). The new .17 Mach 2 introduced earlier this year represents a middle ground of sorts, as a round of it costs about half as much as a typical .17 HMR, though still more than a typical .22 LR load bought from one of the big-box retail stores.

[pagebreak] Hunting Skills
Regardless of the quality of the gun or the ammo, it takes developed woods skills to get close enough for a reasonable shot at a bushytail.

Some shotgunners like to take a seat under a productive mast tree and wait the squirrels out. This can be a productive approach for handgunners, too, but more often you'll have to stalk squirrels, or at least move to a position where you have a tree trunk or log to use as a steady rest.

Learn to use terrain such as game trails and dry creek beds to move quietly. In early season, tennis shoes are the best footwear for slipping through the woods. Avoid shaking small saplings as you move, and always keep your eyes on the squirrel, or at least where you think it's sitting. Often, a squirrel will move during a stalk and present a better shot opportunity.

Resting a handgun to shoot a squirrel in the woods is an art in itself. A squirrel's head and heart/lung areas are only about the size of a silver dollar. You can use your knees as a rest if the squirrel is at eye level or on the ground, but you'll need something better when the squirrel is high above you.

Saplings make the best rests. Canting the gun to the side at about a 45-degree angle and bracing both the barrel and trigger guard against the tree will steady the reticle. Supporting your gun with a handd underneath will help even more.

The Best .22 Loads
.22 Long rifle ammo is available in a variety of bullet styles and speeds, but pick your hunting load wisely. A target load that is super accurate might not have enough stopping power. Also, your favorite rifle load might perform differently when fired from a 6-inch handgun barrel.

Hyper-Velocity Loads, such as the CCI Stinger and Remington Yellow Jacket, are excellent choices for most handguns. These rounds tend to damage more meat at rifle-barrel velocities but behave better at pistol-barrel speeds. Expect to pay about $2.50 for a box of 50.

High-Velocity Hollowpoints are more widely available than the hyper-velocity loads. They also tend to be a bit more accurate. My favorite load for squirrels is the 37-grain Winchester Super X hollowpoint. A box of 50 sells for about $1.50.

Suitable .17-Caliber Loads are fairly limited at present. Hollowpoint loads in the 17- to 20-grain range or 17-grain ballistic-tipped loadings, such as the Hornady V-Max, will work. Of the loads I tried for squirrels, the V-Max loads seemed to damage meat a bit less than the hollowpoint bullet. Prices range from about $7 per box of 50 for V-Max loads to more than $9 per box for premium .17 HMR.