Shedding light on handgun hunting

Bill Graves , Special to The County
8 years ago

With only 10 minutes of legal shooting time remaining, plenty of ambient light shown along the approach road, but under the leafy canopy of the thick forest surrounding the tree stand and bear bait site, it was gloomy. That’s why it took a few seconds for me to realize something had changed in the brushy backdrop behind the barrel, and then the big head and shoulders of a bruin took shape poking part way out of the brushes. He was staring right at my stand, so I froze and slowly dipped my head slightly to avert eye contact.

After a minute or so the bear stepped out fully and squatted on its haunches; sniffing, listening, and watching my location intently for two minutes that drug on like an hour. The least provocation would send the black ghost scrambling for cover and it was becoming darker by the second with any shooting opportunity slowly slipping away. Finally the wary bear turned, stood on his hind legs and eyed the hanging barrel of tasty treats, taking a step or two in that direction.

I’d passed up shots on 11 bear during my eight previous nights on stand and took lots of photos, but waited for a larger specimen. This black brute weighed 300 lbs. or better so I slowly and silently retrieved my hefty BFF 45-70 revolver from its holster hanging from my stand’s arm rest, and settled it onto the shooting rail. As I peeked through my red dot sight bringing the illuminated dot onto the target, the bear dropped to all fours, glanced my way and shuffled behind the barrel to the woodline where it once again sat down facing me.

This was not the shot I wanted, a broadside stance allowing me to shoot through both lungs is a handgunner’s bread and butter. On top of a suspicious bruin, the light continued to fade and I was down to perhaps three minutes of legal time. I tried adjusting the light intensity of the red dot higher and lower and opening both eyes to aim, then just one, each to no avail. Even when the bear rose and turned, I could not discern the black body shape silhouette against the dark background enough for a sure shot, and then the wary bruin had enough and faded into the brush.

As I collected gear, dismounted my tree stand and slowly followed my headlamp beam back to the truck, I was discouraged, frustrated and a bit confused. Over the last 15 years, I’ve tagged a dozen bear, each with a different make, caliber and style of handgun, most with open sights and a few with various red-dot units. The magnification of a true scope just isn’t needed at 25 to 40 yards, and is often a hindrance, not allowing a full view of the body — only a patch of black fur. Open sight would have been no better in this gloomy, dark animal against dark background scenario.

The compact, low profile red-dot topping my large revolver is arguably the finest point and aim technology on the market today. It’s the go-to sight for navy seal teams, Army Rangers and hundreds of special ops and SWAT team shooters, and in 98 percent of conditions it’s a premier choice. I just needed a bit more ambient light, an earlier bear, or at least one that came out in the open, away from the blending backdrop.

Two nights later, the final evening of bear baiting, I relived an almost identical replay with the same smart bear and once again left the woods unhappy. My black quarry again arrived very close to the end of legal light, appearing without a sound; both common traits of large, older, smart bruins. A lot of educated bear seldom approach a bait site until well after dark, and I have hundreds of trail camera photos to verify the visits. Had it been a whitetail deer or even a large, gangly moose, my red dot could have sealed the deal, but the jet black bear hair and husky, compact form that might be turned or twisted this way or that against the dense, dark backdrop left too much leeway at point of aim. I just could not force myself to take a “chance” shot and wound and lose an animal.

I fumed, fussed and replayed the two fouled-up opportunities for a couple of weeks and came to a couple of conclusions. On those rare but real occasions when ambient light, shadows and poor background combine, red dot or open sights just won’t provide the shot picture necessary, and I needed some way to legally produce more illumination.

A laser sight, which actually projects a dot onto the target, or an open target sight with fluorescent dots would only make the aim point clearer, not the target silhouette. I had to be able to sharpen and brighten the quarry to determine exact position and placement of shot for a quick, humane kill. After a lot of reading, research and soul searching it all came down to one choice, I had to purchase and mount a scope on my handgun. I certainly didn’t need the magnification at such close range, nor did I like the idea of extra weight and change of balance to the solid, symmetrical revolver. One of the major selling points of modern scopes is optical technology with great clarity and the added plus of increased light gathering capability in low light shooting situations.

I figured a scope might just make a great Christmas gift, so throughout bird, deer, and waterfowl seasons in October and November I began the search process. I checked catalogs, looked on-line, visited sporting goods stores statewide and garnered information and ideas from knowledgeable friends. Boy, did I ever get a surprise! While rifle scopes in every imaginable size, shape and shade were out there by the thousands, top rate handgun scopes were scarcer than hen’s teeth. This is especially true for models that might attach to and stand the recoil of my BFF 45-70 hand cannon. I’ll tell you all about the frustrating prolonged search and the final outcome in my next article and if there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel — or scope in this case!