There is no getting around the fact that hunting involves the infliction of pain and death on animals. There are many arguments over whether this is deplorable or not, but it's not my intention to get into that. I'm not a vegetarian—still less a vegan—I am proudly carnivorous. I accept that there is only one way to get meat, whether it comes from the supermarket neatly wrapped in plastic on a Styrofoam tray or whether it's from an animal whose life I have taken is irrelevant. Either way an animal has to die.
All ethical hunters strive to make the taking of a life as painless and quick as possible. Ideally every shot we fire will result in an instantaneous death, but we all know this isn't the case. Anyone who says he has never lost an animal in the field is either a liar or has not done much hunting. The second-best situation is that the animal is downed, is easily reached, and put out of its misery—make no mistake, it is misery—as quickly and humanely as possible. The French term for this process is coup de grâce: literally, the "blow of grace." In this essay I want to discuss not the why of this—I've already done that—but the how. How it is best done, how hunting laws can affect the process, and what the proper equipment and procedures might be in various situations.
Most of us are familiar with the concept of the coup de grâce from movie scenes of executions by firing squad. The officer in charge is expected to determine that the prisoner is dead; and to ensure it by firing a pistol into his head at point-blank range. This certainly works, but there are other ways, especially in a hunting scenario.
In some US states it's legal to carry a handgun while hunting with archery equipment. I've done little bow hunting (which wasn't very successful) but I've been in on one or two bow kills by friends in which a coup de grâce was needed. Based on what I've seen it's my impression that in bowhunting a coup de grâce is more often needed than when using a rifle or a shotgun. While a handgun of reasonable power is well suited to this situation, it may not be legal. In my own state of Virginia, when you're bow hunting carrying a firearm is prohibited most of the time. In that situation the hunter has two alternatives: use a second arrow (I've seen it done that way) and hope it works better than the first; or use a knife.
The knife can be very effective, if done right, but it has some risks when dealing with a wounded animal that has antlers. Not a few hunters have been injured, and some killed, when a downed beast decides he has nothing to lose, rises up, and strikes back. The knife being as close-quarter a weapon as can be, getting an antler in your belly while trying to stick the animal is a distinct—and distinctly uncomfortable—possibility.
Another objection to using a knife is that cutting the carotid artery or jugular vein will damage the hide, potentially ruining a trophy mount. This, to my mind, is not important if doing so will ease the animal's pain. Taxidermy be damned.
I once had to use a knife for a coup de grâce, on a downed springbok, the lovely little antelope shown above. I didn't cut its throat, however. I inserted the blade into the spine just behind where it joins the skull. That severed the spinal cord and finished the job my rifle started. I didn't enjoy that experience (and I'm sure the springbok enjoyed it even less) but it had to be done.
Most of us hunt with firearms; it's in this context that I'd like to continue the discussion. If you knock down a deer, it's certainly possible to use the rifle (or shotgun) you hunt with to finish it off. The principal objection to doing it that way is that a bullet at close range, unless fired into the head, is probably going to damage meat. Meat hunters (I am one) don't like the loss of edible parts, though again, the real consideration is how quickly and humanely the animal can be dispatched. Losing a pound or two of meat is irrelevant. And those hunting for trophy antlers (I don't) would object to a shot in the head with a high-powered bullet, for obvious reasons. So I return to the idea of carrying a handgun for use as needed. It needn't be a Super-Duper Mangle-Um, though. Almost anything bigger than a .22 will work when used properly.
If there is such a thing as an "ideal" gun for this purpose, my criteria would be that it must be small, powerful enough to do the job and meet whatever rules are in place, and when legal, concealable or at least easily kept at hand. A compact revolver or autoloader would meet this standard.
My habitual "Everyday Carry" pistol is a Kel-Tec .380, but in Virginia a .380 doesn't meet the minimum requirement for handgun hunting, because it has less than a specified level of muzzle energy. The regulations make no distinction between a handgun used for actual hunting and one used solely to finish off a wounded animal. Something that has 350 foot-pounds of energy and is larger than .23 caliber is required.
Most handguns that meet this requirement tend to be fairly sizable: for example, a Colt Single Action Army in .45 Long Colt would do so, but several pounds of handgun is a lot of weight to be lugging around in case a finishing shot is needed. Nevertheless, I've done it.
The first time I shot a deer I was so inexperienced that I failed to understand that the kicking of its legs after being hit in the spine was not evidence that it was still alive: it's a nervous system reflex. I was packing a Colt New Service in .45 Long Colt and shot the deer several times in the neck with it until the kicking stopped. I don't know how many shots it was, but it was certainly more than one. Enough to have turned the neck into deer-based mush. The processor commented on it and asked me, "What the heck did you shoot it with?" I know better now!
Sometimes the rules are more restrictive than I would like. Here in the muzzle-loading season hunters may not carry anything but a muzzle-loading firearm. Virginia includes in the definition of what's legal a "...muzzle-loading pistol or revolver of .45 caliber or greater." This requirement isn't hard to meet except that most of the guns "...45 caliber or larger" are fairly sizeable single-shot pistols, getting back to the weight/bulk issue. Long ago I owned a lovely .54 caliber Traditions "Buckhunter" pistol that would have served admirably, but that gun was almost 14" long and weighted close to 5 pounds.
I tried the .45 caliber muzzle loading derringer shown at left that technically met the requirements. It was such a piece of junk that even at powder-burn distance it was possible to miss the point of aim. From three feet away there was a very good chance I'd miss a deer's head entirely. I sold that gun without regret. All I can say about it is that if John Wilkes Booth used one of these on Abraham Lincoln, he must have pressed the gun to Honest Abe's head, or he was very, very lucky.
I do have another gun that meets the rules: a Ruger Old Army. The Old Army uses a .457" bullet, so theoretically it's a ".45," and legal. But it's a very large gun: weighs even more than my old Colt New Service and has a 7-1/2" barrel. Not easily carried with all the other impedimenta needed for hunting, so it stays home. In the muzzle-loader seasons the deer will just have to wait until I reload if a finishing shot is needed.
Nowadays my hunting is more or less exclusively for whitetails. In the main season, I've opted for a Charter Arms .44 Bulldog. It's small enough to be easily carried but meets the regulation's demands. CCI's "Blazer" ammunition is rated at 376 foot pounds. Since that Bulldog is very lightweight shooting it (especially with those skinny wooden grips) is actually painful; but when only one shot will be required it's bearable. It's equipped with a spurless, double-action-only hammer, making it easily stowed in the pocket of my hunting pants.
Of course, there are some situations in which a handgun just isn't up to the job. When I shot my elephant in 2013, I was advised to put an "insurance shot" into him, in the back of his skull. "Insurance" in this case was what you might call "life insurance": for me, not him. A wounded and pissed off bull elephant is about as dangerous as dangerous game gets.
He took a finishing/insurance shot from my .416 rifle. That bullet, shown here, went through several feet of elephant hide, muscle, brain, and bone, lodging in the tongue. It was recovered the next day when the animal was processed, and was essentially un-deformed except for the rifling marks. No worries about meat loss, either: six and a half tons of elephant is a lot of meat!