March 18, 2022
The blind straddled a big cottonwood grove, cedar-choked creek bottom on the left, harvested corn off to the right, and mature cottonwoods stretching ahead farther than I could see. Sundown was approaching when I picked up a hint of movement at the limit of my vision, far off among the trees. I focused my binocular on the spot and in a few seconds a buck stepped from behind a big, gray cottonwood.
It was too far to count points, but the rack appeared tall enough, wide enough and heavy enough; even at first glance I was pretty sure this was a “keeper.” It was also much too far to consider a shot, but the buck was headed straight toward me down the center of the grove. All I could do was wait him out and hope the light held.
I kept losing him between thick trees and tall grass, but he held his course and made his way slowly toward me. The first sighting was probably 400 yards, but as minutes ticked past, he closed to 300, 200, and then angled to my left into the first cedars. By now, I was certain he was a clean 10-point. He was no monster but a solid, mature buck, and it was almost time to do something about him.
I had two excellent tools beside me: A Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum Hunter with Trijicon reflex sight, and a Marlin 1894 with 1.5-6X Swarovski. Both were loaded with Hornady’s first Handgun Hunter load, a .44 Remington Magnum with a 200-grain MonoFlex bullet. It was a cloudy evening and the light was going fast. The buck had turned toward the creek and was working his way through open cedars. He wasn’t going to come close, but my mission was clear. While he was out of sight, I reached down and brought up the Marlin carbine.
The buck was getting into thicker cedars, but there was still one opening, maybe 125 yards. I checked the crossbolt safety and eared back the hammer. The buck stepped into the opening and then stopped, quartering to me.
At the shot, he ran hard to my left and vanished into dark cedars. I wanted to wait a bit, but the light was failing. I was sure of the shot. Carefully marking the spot, I made safe and climbed down. In the gathering dark, I couldn’t see any blood and the cedars beyond were dense and close. Before switching on my headlamp, I followed his line into the cedars. I almost stumbled over him, down in 30 yards.
The Handgun Hunter
We were in western Nebraska, hunting with the first, still-prototype, offering in a brand-new ammo line. Hornady is no stranger to handgun ammo, nor to loads that are excellent for hunting. Handgun Hunter, however, is Hornady’s first factory ammunition line designed specifically for hunting with handgun cartridges. That’s a proper choice of words because “handgun cartridges” may be used in short-barreled pistols and revolvers, as well as in long guns of various action types and barrel lengths.
I wasn’t exactly hedging my bet by having both an 83⁄8-inch revolver and a carbine with 16-inch barrel in the blind. Velocity variance between the two would be significant, so I was curious to see how the new bullet would perform from both platforms. Although I could only take one buck, we could also take multiple does, so I was set up for whatever came along first, which just happened to be a very nice buck.
Bullet performance was important, because Handgun Hunter features a brand-new Hornady projectile, a homogenous-alloy MonoFlex bullet that’s engineered for handgun cartridges. It’s a blunt-nosed hollow point, the nose skived to peel back in multiple cutting edges, and the cavity filled with elastomer.
The Handgun Hunter bullet calls upon Hornady’s experience with GMX and MonoFlex rifle bullets, but there are significant differences. Obviously of a hollow point design, noses are flat and broad, allowing safe use in tubular-magazine firearms such as lever actions. As with MonoFlex bullets, the elastomer compresses upon impact. However, unlike MonoFlex, the elastomer is not exposed; it is driven deep into the cavity, initiating expansion. Because of the larger diameter (relative to length) and lower velocity of handgun bullets, the noses of Handgun Hunter bullets are deeply skived, allowing the bullet to expand to large diameters. The 200-grain .44 Magnum opens in eight petals, creating a devastating wound channel.
Handgun Hunter is a line that will undoubtedly grow. The .44 Magnum load was first, but initial Handgun Hunter offerings for 2021 also include: 115-grain 9mm; 130-grain .357 Magnum; 135-grain for .40 S&W and 10mm Auto; and 200-grainers for .454 Casull and .460 S&W Magnum.
A 200-Grain Monoflex?
That list includes some non-standard bullet weights, including the 200-grain .429-inch bullet for the .44 Rem. Mag. That weight isn’t unheard of for the .44, but it’s considerably lighter than the most common 240-grain slugs. As a comment, since 1873 the most common bullet weight for the .44-40 Winchester (.427-inch) has been 200 grains. Although velocity and energy don’t compare with the .44 Magnum, this .44-40 load has probably accounted for more deer-sized game than any other cartridge, except possibly the .30-30 Win.
Although the line is called “Handgun Hunter,” it will obviously be used in carbines as well as handguns. Copper-alloy bullets are longer than lead-core bullets of the same weight. Tubular-magazine rifles and carbines have finite Cartridge Overall Length (COAL) restrictions in order to ensure functioning. So, the lighter, shorter 200-grain bullet allows cycling in short-action lever guns such as the Marlin Model 1894 and Winchester Model 1892.
Dropping the bullet weight a bit also reduces recoil and increases velocity, both to the good, provided the bullet works. My experience: It works wonderfully! I shot two does and the buck with one bullet each. During the course of Nebraska’s short nine-day firearm season, I think another three or four bucks plus a half-dozen does were taken with the same load. Most were taken with a single bullet, using an eclectic mix of handguns and carbines.
Very few bullets were recovered. My two does were taken with the S&W revolver, both at about 50 yards, one was a behind-the-shoulder lung shot, the other passed through both shoulders. The shoulder-shot deer dropped in 25 yards. The lung-shot deer ran a short distance and cartwheeled. On my buck, the bullet entered near the point of the on-shoulder, and we found it against the hide behind the off-shoulder. It had expanded to .785-inch (from .429), with all eight razor-sharp petals intact. It had an astonishing retained weight of 198 grains; 99 percent!
So, why homogenous alloy? Well, the copper (copper-alloy) bullet has long since been perfected. Not everyone likes them, nor does everyone have to, but they work extremely well. They retain more weight than most lead-core bullets, thus providing deep penetration. The .44 Magnum is an extremely versatile hunting cartridge. I would not go so far as to say that the light 200-grain bullet is ideal for the largest game that might sensibly be hunted with a .44, but it proved itself plenty of bullet for deer-sized game. I’m confident the same applies to the 200-grain MonoFlex in .454 Casull and .460 S&W, and probably to the .357 and .40-caliber (10mm) loads. For the record, Hornady is not advocating using the 115-grain 9mm load for big-game hunting! However, 9mm pistols (and carbines) are used for smaller game, and the Hornady folks felt it essential to include this most popular cartridge in the line with the new handgun bullet.
There are two important reasons for centering Handgun Hunter around the MonoFlex copper-alloy bullet. First, some people like to shoot copper alloy bullets for the attributes stated above. Second, some hunters must use them. Much of the year, I hang my hat on California’s Central Coast, epicenter of the Golden State’s feral hog hunting, and not bad for coastal blacktails with some Tule elk (if you can get a permit). Since 2007, we’ve been in the “Condor Zone,” which means that I’m required to hunt big game there with unleaded bullets. As of July 2019, all projectiles containing lead were banned for all hunting statewide. There are other choices in lead-free bullets, but unleaded pistol bullets have been scarce, with limited choices in factory ammo. So, in California, Handgun Hunter is a most welcome option for those of us who must use copper-alloy bullets. I suspect many hunters who aren’t required to use unleaded ammo will find they like Handgun Hunter, too.
Accuracy and Velocity
Honestly, I don’t have enough experience with .44 Magnum carbines to know what accuracy I should expect. As for revolvers, and the way I can’t see iron sights anymore, I know my Smith & Wesson Model 29 shoots a lot better than I can; I’m sure that applies across the board.
I’ve been messing with a Marlin 1894 for several months. In stainless and laminate, it happens to be the slickest and smoothest lever-action I’ve ever used. With a scope, it is also exceptionally accurate; it prints ragged holes at 50 yards and holds about 1 1/2 inches at 100 yards. When the first Handgun Hunter loads arrived, I had the carbine zeroed with 240-grain loads. Point of impact with the lighter bullet was about an inch higher, so I made a quick adjustment. Ringing steel at 200 yards took just a wee bit of Kentucky elevation, but the accuracy was still there, and I figured I’d be dead-on for deer and wild hogs to 150 yards. (This later proved correct.)
Handgun accuracy is a different story, but that’s just me and my increasingly uncooperative eyesight. Over a solid rest, and with a lot of squinting, I was able to hold 2-inch groups at 50 yards with my 61/2-inch M29. I can’t do any better with irons sights today, regardless of how accurate the firearm. In Nebraska, I was able to use a Performance Center S&W with a Trijicon SRO. We didn’t have time to group it, but it was perfectly zeroed and I had no problem when a couple of tasty does wandered by.
The stated velocity for the 200-grain Handgun Hunter .44 load is 1,450 fps when shot through an 8-inch barrel, which is SAAMI specification for the .44 Remington Magnum. Compared with other .44 Magnum factory loads, this is neither the fastest nor the slowest, but it’s important to remember that .44 Magnum barrels run the gamut, from very short revolver barrels to long-barreled pistols, and on up to carbine and full-length rifle barrels. So, your velocities will vary accordingly.
In my 6 1/2-inch M29 Classic, I got 1,372 fps with tremendous consistency, barely a handful of fps from shot to shot. Velocity bleeds off quickly with shorter handgun barrels, and there’s also some loss with revolvers compared to fixed-breech firearms such as the T/C Contender or a laboratory test barrel. Individual guns also vary, so I’d put this Handgun Hunter load almost exactly in sync with Hornady’s stated velocity.
Obviously, it can also be used in .44 Magnum long guns, but that wasn’t the platform it was specially designed for. The Hornady folks weren’t quite certain what velocity to expect in rifle barrels, and quite a wide range is known to occur among the numerous .44 factory loads. In the Marlin with 16-inch barrel, I got just shy of 1,600 fps, which pleased me tremendously.
As I said, accuracy was superb, certainly for the purposes I have for a .44 Magnum carbine. With 20-inch or longer barrel, I’m sure speed will continue to go up. Although I couldn’t see it in my groups, velocity variance was much greater in the longer barrel — nearly 40 fps. This reinforces Hornady’s stated goal: This is “Handgun” Hunter ammo; the propellant is optimized for performance in pistols and revolvers.
There is another partial parallel with the great old .44-40, which was introduced in the 1873 Winchester rifle, but soon and commonly chambered to both revolvers and long guns. For some years heavier .44-40 loads were marketed “for use in rifles only,” and they caused problems in some handguns. The .44 Remington Magnum was designed and specified as a handgun cartridge. There are plenty of handload recipes “for use in rifles,” using rifle propellants, but .44 Magnum factory loads, like Handgun Hunter, are engineered for optimum performance in pistols and revolvers. It’s thus a huge bonus, and a tribute to Hornady’s engineers, that this first Handgun Hunter load — and the MonoFlex bullet — performs so well in both handguns and long guns.
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