Many hunters think of a defensive firearm as an afterthought, especially if they’re already carrying a shotgun or rifle. They might carry a handgun to hunt camp, but often as not, it lands in a pack on a back where, if it's needed fast, it can't be accessed.
The truth is, your rifle, shotgun, bow or muzzleloader may be of limited use in a defensive situation. But more and more states are allowing hunters, including bowhunters, to legally carry a handgun for personal defense. If you are comfortable and have trained with a defensive gun, then you should carry one while hunting, same as you would any other time. And while the title of this article says "concealed carry," hunting is one activity where the right style of open carry can make a lot of sense. If you are going to carry a defensive handgun while hunting, whether openly or concealed, here are a few good things to know.
Use a Retention Holster
Mike Barham, who works for Galco Gunleather, highly recommends some type of retention system for a hunting holster. “We always recommend some type of positive retention, such as a thumb break, hammer thong, or simple retention strap," he says. "Hunting can obviously be a bit rough-and-tumble, so some type of retention device will help keep the firearm secured and there when you need it.”
Barham also stressed the importance of matching a holster with a sturdy gun belt if you choose an around-the-waist option.
“Too many folks think retention holsters are only for cops and people who risk having their gun taken away during tussles in the dirt. My view is that anyone who mucks around outdoors – hunting, four-wheeling, fishing or playing Frisbee golf – should use a retention holster to keep that gun in place during vigorous activity,” said Tom McHale, author of The Insanely Practical Guide to Gun Holsters. “I always use either a Blackhawk Serpa or leather holster with a top strap when doing outdoor stuff of any kind. I often carry a Ruger Super Blackhawk .44 Magnum, and for that, I love my Galco Kodiak Hunter.”
Use Leather When it's Cold
Mia Anstine, a hunting guide for Wolf Creek Outfitters in Colorado and New Mexico, carries either a .45 ACP Kimber 1911 or a Taurus Judge (.45 Colt / .410) revolver. “I carry a .45-caliber guns because they are legal for big-game hunting," she says. "I can use them for bear or lion hunting as well as personal protection.” She carries the 1911 in a leather Bianchi 5 Colt Government 45 belt holster, but confessed that she doesn't actually carry the Taurus very often. Her horse does. “He uses a custom-made leather holster on the saddle, made by Ronald Bengston of Mannford, Okla.”
Regardless of whether her gun is on her hip or saddle, Anstine prefers leather because it stays warm against her body, even in the West's frigid winter conditions.
“Plastic tends to cause a chill, even through clothes, in cold winter months. I've also tried some holsters that have metal clips that attached to my belt," she says. "The metal clips also are cold in the winter months, and they dig into my hips or buttocks. And they don't seem to hold as well."
Barb Baird's 3 Favorites
I’m a certified NRA pistol instructor, and as Will Brantley says, “A certified Mall Ninja.” I like to carry a personal defense gun in one of three ways while I’m out hunting:
Mall Ninja Style A Blackhawk Serpa Level 2 Tactical thigh rig for my .40-caliber Glock 22. I can get to 15+1 rounds really fast.
Grandpa Style Sometimes, especially if I'm bowhunting, I carry my sidearm like my dad carries his pipe, tobacco and mints: in a waistpack like the Escort. I believe it saved my life in a carwash last year, but that’s another story.
Dual-Purpose Carry and Hunting Guns
My hunting partner and husband, Jason, better known as Dr. Bomb (he's an explosives technician), is a wheel-gun guy. He prefers to carry a handgun that will work in self-defense emergencies but is also up to the task of killing big game with one shot if needed.
“One time my rifle malfunctioned at the precise time an 8-point whitetail showed-up at my stand," he says. "I killed that buck with one shot from my .357 instead."
His two preferred guns are both Smith and Wesson N-Frame revolvers with 5-inch barrels, so he can carry either of them in the same holster. One is a Performance Center Model 327 JM 8-shot .357 magnum, and the other is a 629 .44 magnum. His primary holster is a Galco Dual Position Phoenix PHX124 belt holster. It can be worn on the strong side or as a cross-draw holster.
“That versatility is important because at times I may hunt with or without a pack that has a waist belt, or with a turkey vest," he says. "The flexibility of being able to position my sidearm where it is most accessible, depending on what I am carrying on my back and around my waist, is important.”
Dr. Bomb also frequently carries his revolvers in a Bianchi #111 Cyclone strong-side belt holster. Regardless of the holster or revolver, he carries HKS double speed-loader pouches, stashed with two 6-round speed loaders for the .44, or two 8-round full-moon clips for the .357.
Realtree.com's editor, Will Brantley, always carries a handgun when he’s outdoors. “Usually I just carry openly on my hip if I'm running trail cameras or on the tractor to work on food plots, but when I'm bowhunting, I want my gun to stay concealed, accessible and out of the way. I can't take a chance on a bowstring snagging a holster, and four hours in a tree is less comfortable with a pound of metal stuck in the small of my back,” he says. So he found an alternative to a holster in the waist pocket of his Badlands Stealth pack.
“I like that pack because it's roomy enough for some western hunting, but not so heavy that it's in the way up in a treestand. But it's also perfect for carrying my Glock 26. I just slip it into the right-hand waist pocket of my pack," he says. "The pack has identical pockets on both sides, and they're really meant for rapid access to a rangefinder (which, I still carry in the left-hand pocket). But they are also the perfect size for a subcompact Glock, snub-nosed revolver, or any similar-sized handgun. I can get to my gun fast, but it's completely out of the way and protected from the elements."
Realtree gun blogger Jeff Johnston also prefers to pack heat in a pouch. He is looking forward to carrying his Glock 29 in his new Alps Outdoorz Crossfire pack. “The pack carries a bow or rifle, my necessary gear, and keeps my handgun in its strong-side place, so I can access it immediately if duty calls,” Jeff says.
After you choose your method of carry, it’s time to practice. And good defensive handgun practice is really no different than good bowhunting or shotgun practice. You should put everything on that you intend to carry while hunting to make your practice session realistic. If that means wearing your camo and hauling a climbing stand on your back with a bow in one hand, then so be it. You may be surprised at just how difficult accessing and shooting a handgun can be when you're actually dressed up and ready to go do something else.
If live-fire practice isn't an option, spend some time on dry-fire drills. Obviously, it goes without saying that any shooting practice, whether you're dry-firing or not, needs to be controlled and in a safe direction.
Hope for the best, they say. And usually, when you have the chance to go hunting, the best is exactly what you get. But dealing with the worst is always better when you're prepared.
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