Throughout all of recorded human history, man has feared snakes. And for the most part, rightfully so. Silent, deadly, and occasionally prone to aggressive unprovoked attacks, vipers and various other venomous snakes have a more or less permanent place on many people’s list of varmints to be killed on sight. Traditionally, a short break action shotgun chambered in .20 gauge or .410 bore was the standard for dispatching serpents. Prior to that, a well-placed blow from a garden hoe or a shovel might be used to quickly end a viper. Now however there are many options for quickly and safely dealing with snakes, with choices ranging from a traditional short-barreled shotgun to various derringers along with the new modern shotshell-firing revolvers available.
Image Courtesy of SoulSurvivor08, Creative Commons Licensed
With the invention of the Derringer, people had the option of a small easily portable handgun platform capable of inflicting devastating damage at close range. Normally found tucked away in a ladies garter, or hidden in a gamblers boot, these small hold-out guns were not known for their use as a snake gun. Early models were mostly rimfire affairs, with larger calibers coming initially in blackpowder .38 special and .45 Colt loads. Soon, smokeless powder was developed and allowed an even larger variety of Derringer offerings. As designers introduced more and more calibers to various Derringer designs, specifically with the advent of pistol caliber shot shells (namely the .410, developed around 1900), it was discovered that these little shooters made excellent snake guns.
While the origin of the .410 shot shell is not very well known, a good indication of its heritage is the fact that it shares the same chamber size as the .45 Colt. This interchangeability drove the popularity of the .410 shell and soon every major revolver and Derringer manufacturer offered pistols advertised as firing .45 Colt along with the .410. This persists to the modern day and has in fact seen a resurgence in popularity with the new Judge line of revolvers made by Taurus.
The Taurus Judge has pretty much set the standard over the past couple of years as the snake gun of choice. It is chambered in either .45 Colt and .410, or as with the Raging Judge, .454 Casull, .45 Colt, or .410. Advertised as the perfect trail gun, the Taurus Judge is indeed versatile enough to take small game, snakes and varmints when firing a .410 load, or to take medium game with a .45 Colt or .454 Casull in the case of the Raging Judge. Available with a 3″ barrel, it’s small enough to tuck into a backpack or fanny pack, or carry comfortably in a holster.
While hunting early-season white tailed deer, summer feral hog, or late spring turkey here in the woods and fields of North Texas, nothing causes me to freeze in my tracks faster than the tell-tale rattle of a western diamondback rattlesnake. Most snakes hibernate in the winter time, making them less of a threat to most deer hunters, but early archery and muzzleloader season hunters can still run afoul of not only the rattlesnake, but also cottonmouths, copperheads, and a number of other North American pit vipers. Cottonmouth snakes, also referred to as water moccasins, are particularly aggressive vipers and have been said to actually chase after individuals unlucky enough to cross paths with them.
I remember one time I had a too-close-for-comfort encounter with a cottonmouth. I was a young boy out hunting frogs and turtles along the bayous of South East Texas, forging my way through the tall summer grass along the bank and, true to form, was not really paying attention to where I was going. I stepped on what I though was a rock, except this rock was a little squishy and squirmed out from under my foot. As you might have guessed, this rock turned out to be a 6 foot long cottonmouth sunning itself along the banks of its favorite bayou. Luckily, this particular water moccasin was more concerned with escape than biting me and quickly slithered off with a mean hiss. But that large snake put the fear of god into me, and ever since I have been particularly careful about watching for snakes when out and about in the woods and fields.
Bond Arms Snake Slayer IV
Nowadays, I carry a small Bond Arms Snake Slayer IV chambered in .45 Colt and .410 tucked in my hip pocket whenever I head out in the warmer months. It’s smaller than the Taurus Judge, carrying only two rounds, but for snake defense that is usually enough. Snakes are ambush predators adept at camouflage and hiding, and when you encounter one it will generally be at a very close range: what I call “Oh my, that’s a SNAKE!” distance. This generally puts you anywhere from 3 to 10 feet away from the serpent, close enough to do serious damage with a .410 blast, but generally far enough away to keep you safe from a sudden strike. Past about 12 feet, the pattern from a .410 shotgun load in most handguns opens up too much to make it effective for eliminating venomous snakes.
Loads for snake run the spectrum from .22 LR CCI shot shells, to full shotgun rounds such as 3″ .410 shells filled with #4 shot. What load you choose to carry depends on your firearm and what types of serpents you anticipate that you might encounter. .22 LR shot shells are generally going to be inadequate for all but the smallest snakes. Stepping up to the larger, but still mild recoiling, .38 special shot shells we find a much more effective cartridge for dealing with unwanted critters. Firing #9 shot at over 1,000 FPS, the CCI .38 Special shotshell is perfectly capable of dispatching most snakes with a single well-placed shot. It patterns well, and while the #9 shot size is a bit on the small size, it still does the job well.
When it comes to snakes however my favorite load, as you might have guessed, is the .410 shotshell. 3″ Remington .410 shells loaded with #6 or #7.5 shot seem to have the best performance from my observations. They are big enough to have adequate penetration, but small enough to give a good pattern at 3 – 12 feet. CCI shotshells loaded with #9 shot are also available in .45 Colt. They provide better patterns than #6 or #7.5 shot, but at the expense of slightly less penetration.
So, what gun for snakes? I’ve seen fellows use a .22 LR to great effect on snakes while my late great-grandmother insisted on a 12 gauge loaded with #6 lead. Both did the job equally well in the right hands, but in my opinion neither are ideal. A .410/.45 Colt revolver or derringer is small and portable while still packing a wallop. In addition, they are cheap, abundant, and easy to find. Ammunition is fairly inexpensive for these little snake killers, making them affordable to feed and practice with. The Taurus and Snake Slayer IV are not the only choices for a snake gun, but they are some of the least expensive and most commonly available and it would be hard to go wrong by them.