An Essential Companion: The Kit Gun

As a kid, I remember hearing the story of a man who hiked a great distance through a remote section of the Canadian wilderness in the early 20th century. The gentleman carried a very minimalist kit of a knife, hatchet, cookpot, wool blanket, and a .22 revolver. Supposedly, he never missed a meal (back in the days before game laws).

The revolver carried by this intrepid soul was what was called a kit gun. It wasn’t carried for the fun of it. The weapon was as much an integral part of his gear as his knife or blanket was.

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What is a Kit Gun?

A kit gun was/is a handgun, typically a small caliber revolver, used to obtain meat for the dinner pot or deal with camp pests. It had to be light and small enough for prolonged holster carry without causing hip pain, and accurate enough to take small game/targets of opportunity out to 25 yards or so.

Long guns were not preferred by outdoorsmen for this role. To keep the hands free, long guns either need to be carried all the time, or taken apart and stored in or lashed to a pack. A rifle or shotgun is either in the way if carried or not quick enough to get to for rabbits found along the trail if in the pack. (An exception to this is the Marbles Game-Getter gun, but that is a whole different topic)

Historical examples

Outdoorsman of yesteryear would have had their choice of many fine handguns. Iver Johnson, High Standard, and Harrington & Richardson all made budget-friendly revolvers in .22 or .32 caliber. Colt and Smith & Wesson also made excellent and accurate small-bore revolvers that were expensive. Colt also had the Woodsman pistol. The Woodsman was possibly the first reliable and commercially successful .22 semi-automatic handgun sold in North America.

My first handgun was a top-break Iver Johnson Supershot .22 revolver with a six-inch barrel. The pistol was possibly 70-plus years old when I got it. However, despite its age and crude sights, it would still put seven .22 subsonic rounds into a squirrels-head-sized group at 10 yards. The Supershot was a very trim weapon. Whoever designed it must have viewed excess metal as a sin since anything that could be scalloped to remove steel was. I carried it for years during trips up to the family cabin until I replaced it with a Ruger Single-Six that I discovered was much heavier and far less comfortable to carry all day.

Modern Kit Guns

There are still many outdoorsmen and women who take to the woods for extended trips, and they have a tremendous variety of pistols to choose from as kit guns. For the sake of space, we will be looking mostly at the lighter and more budget-friendly options on the market today.

Heritage Rough Rider

The Rough Rider is the undisputed king of kit guns these days. They are an inexpensive single-action revolver with an alloy frame, chambered in .22 Long Rifle. A mind-boggling array of grips, barrel lengths, and finishes are available. Rough Riders retail for less than 150 dollars in many cases, and some versions come with an extra cylinder for the .22 Magnum cartridge. I have never heard anyone complain about the accuracy of these pistols and would not hesitate to carry one in the woods myself.

Ruger Wrangler

With the robust Single-Six becoming too expensive an option for many woodsmen, Ruger brought out their single-action Wrangler as a direct competitor to the Rough Rider. While slightly more expensive than the Heritage at around $210 for the standard model, the Wrangler makes up for it with more attention to detail and cleaner lines. A new model called the Super Wrangler is now available with adjustable sights and is compatible with holsters for the Single-Six. The street price for the Super is $289 in my area. (Note: we are an Amazon Affiliate and may get a small commission off purchases made)

Browning Buckmark

In production since 1985, the Browning Buckmark is an improved version of the classic Colt Woodsman pistol. Weight-wise, the Buckmark is similar to the Ruger MK series pistols and no less accurate. My standard model will shoot CCI Mini-Mags into 3” at 25 yards with little effort on my part. My Dad’s long-barreled Buckmark Bullseye would do even better, throwing a magazine full of CCI Green Tag into an inch-and-a-half at the same distance. I have owned both the Browning and the Ruger, and I prefer the Buckmark because I found it easier to clean without disassembly, and the ones owned by my father and I would reliably cycle a wider variety of ammunition than my Ruger MKII.

Diamondback Sidekick

In keeping with the phrase “what is old is new again,” we have the Diamondback Sidekick. The Sidekick is a double-action .22 revolver is a reincarnation of the old High Standard Double Nine. Styling is reminiscent of a single-action like the Wrangler, but you won’t have to cock the hammer if you don’t want to. The Sidekick is equipped with fixed sights and comes with a .22 Magnum cylinder that can be quickly swapped with the .22 LR cylinder.

Buffalo Outdoors does a great range review in this pistol.

Ruger Single-Seven .327 Federal

I hesitate to include this pistol because it is much heavier (6-12 ounces more) than the other models discussed and more expensive. Chambered in the underrated .327 Federal, the Single-Seven is a powerhouse in a rimfire-sized package. And if you are aiming to put a pig in the pot, it will do it. The Single-Seven can also shoot .32 S&W, .32 S&W Long, and .32 H&R Magnum. None of these rounds are super common but usually can still found on the shelf after people have panic-bought the more common calibers.

Other Thoughts

I did not mention “tactical plinkers” like the Walther P22 or its twin, the Ruger SR22, But I probably should have. These compact .22 semiautos are reliable, lightweight pistols and a joy to carry on the hip. The sights did not work well for me at 25 yards. However, at closer range (10-15 yards), I achieved groups with mine where I felt ethical shooting at game. Your results may vary. Practice and know your limitations.

Final Thoughts

Carrying a gun as part of your outdoor kit can allow one to stay out in the woods or on the trail as long as game and ammo are available. The kit gun is not as commonplace a concept as it used to be, but it can add a layer of practicality and nostalgia to an extended hike or camping trip. Have fun!

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