Firearms for Defense against Bears

By Chuck Hawks

Marlin 1895GS
Model 1895GS Guide Gun. Illustration courtesy of Marlin Firearms Co.

Let me start by saying that, for defense against bears, practically any firearm is better than none at all. Marauding bears have been killed by .22 rimfire pocket pistols; not very often, but it has been done by an Eskimo woman I happen to know about. However, the purpose of this article is to suggest better and more reliable firearm choices for protection in bear country.

In North America, we have four species of bears. These are the black bear, grizzly bear, brown bear (a sub-species of grizzly) and polar bear. All bears are intelligent animals and should be respected.

Based on the rather extensive research conducted by Edward A. Matunas, the average adult male black bear is estimated to weigh about 300 pounds. The average adult male grizzly bear is estimated to weigh about 700 pounds, with large Alaskan Brown bears scaling 1,000 pounds or more. The average adult male polar bear weighs around 900 pounds.

In many areas, including most of the lower 48 US states, the black bear is the top of the food chain predator. Black bears attack more humans than the other species combined, undoubtedly because they live in areas where they are much more likely to encounter people. They cannot be taken lightly, especially around campgrounds and other areas where they forage for human food and trash. Although they are omnivorous, black bears are still predators, well equipped to kill animals our size.

In the areas they inhabit, grizzly, brown and polar bears are the apex predators. They will, in fact, kill and eat black bears, as well as moose, elk, deer, marmots, fish and, in the case of polar bears, aquatic mammals.

For our purposes, grizzly, brown and polar bears can be taken as a group ("great bears"), as their sizes overlap considerably and all three must be taken seriously by anyone trespassing in their domain. They are used to having their way and they naturally prey on animals that are often much larger than human beings.

It can be taken as a given that firearms providing adequate protection from the great bears will also provide adequate protection from black bears of any size. That being the case, the firearms that concern us here can be judged adequate for protection from all four North American bear species.

The ideal bear defense gun needs to be 100% reliable, shoot accurately out to at least 50 yards (protection from bears does not involve long range shooting) and be capable of a fast repeat shot with loads that have adequate stopping power.

Adequate stopping power requires that the projectile have sufficient caliber (cross sectional area), penetration and deliver sufficient energy to get the job done. It is ideal if the bullet is of the controlled expansion type to maximize shock and tissue destruction, but it must not break-up on heavy bones.

An exception to the desirability of controlled expansion bullets might be the projeciles sometimes used in big bore handguns, shotguns and low velocity rifle cartridges, such as the standard pressure .45-70. These are sometimes used with "solid" (non-expanding) bullets to maximize penetration. When push comes to shove, adequate penetration is more important than expansion, although both are desirable to maximize stopping power. Note that there is no need to use solid bullets in high-pressure .45-70 loads, as these essentially equal .450 Marlin ballistics.

Men have been shooting bears with cartridge firearms in North America for about 150 years now, so it is no secret what kind of firearms and loads work well. Some researchers get lost in arcane theoretical models, when there is no need for a theoretical approach. Remember, human beings have killed a great many bears with firearms and we know, empirically, what works.

The reality is that several approaches work satisfactorily. A medium or big bore rifle (.33+ caliber) offers good protection against the great bears. So does a 12 gauge slug gun. Ditto for the ubiquitous .30-06 and the various .300 Magnums shooting ammunition loaded with 180-220 grain bullets.

A family I know fishes commercially on a river on the remotest part of Kodiak Island. They regularly encounter brown bears at close range and always carry a bolt action .30-06 rifle for protection. They carry it with them at all times, including to the outhouse.

Jack O'Connor once wrote about watching a hunting companion shoot a coastal Alaskan grizzly bear with a .30-06 rifle using Remington 180 grain Core-Lokt factory loads. The bullet went through both shoulders of the bear and kicked-up dirt on the far side.

Another interesting fact from a survey conducted some years ago is that rifles shooting the common .338 Winchester Magnum cartridge are the number one choice of professional Alaskan grizzly and brown bear guides for stopping charging bears. Rifles shooting the .300 Winchester Magnum cartridge are the second most popular choice. The point is that exotic rifles, cartridges and bullets are not required.

Keep in mind that in much of Alaska and Canada, exotic ammo and bullets are often not available. People living in such places are usually limited to Remington, Winchester, Federal or (sometimes) Hornady factory loads, and then only in the most popular calibers and bullet weights. Many stores in such areas only sell one brand of ammunition. The same often applies to rural areas in the lower 48 states.

While powerful rifles are probably the best bear medicine, other firearm choices are possible. The usual alternatives are 12 gauge shotguns shooting slug loads or powerful handguns, usually in the form of magnum revolvers. In a pinch, either can get the job done.

Let's consider shotguns first. A shotgun is approximately as heavy as a carbine rifle and similar in length, so it has no particular advantage in either size or weight over a rifle. A shotgun shooting slugs is typically less accurate than a rifle, although adequate for close range bear protection. The common 12 gauge/437 grain (one ounce) rifled slug has a SD of .117, which is low. However, a 12 gauge slug is heavy and measures about .72 caliber, which is certainly impressive. Most manufacturers of repeating shotguns offer carbine length slug guns.

A correspondent who has been a big game guide in the far north for 30 years and who has far more experience with bears than I wrote to inform me that a 12 gauge shotgun with slugs is an effective weapon for protection against bears, popular with both guides and fish and wildlife officers. To quote from his e-mail, "The 12 gauge with slugs is ideal for crawling through the puckerbush after a big bear, but it's not the best tool for a 150-yard shot at a fleeing bear heading for the thick stuff." He also mentioned in the same e-mail that his favorite guide rifle is a .45-70.

Another correspondent with over 30 years of grizzly bear experience in Alaska expressed this opinion: "They are gentleman bears, but can be dangerous. I carried either a .41 or .44 pistol everywhere I went, but if I HAD to be in thick brush along a noisy salmon stream, where the bears couldn't hear me singing and talking to them, I would carry a shotgun loaded with 00 buck. You have 15 round lead balls of about .32 caliber in a 12 gauge, three inch magnum shell. You would have to have steady nerves to hit a charging grizzly in the head with a single bullet and if you miss the head, you are done for. With 00 buck, maybe one pellet will hit the brain."

Magnum revolvers have one major advantage over rifles and shotguns: they can be carried in a holster, leaving both hands free for other purposes. In some cases, such as for those who work in the wilds, that may be a deciding factor.

Heavy for caliber handgun bullets are inferior to most rifle bullets in sectional density. The SD of a 180 grain .357 Magnum bullet is .202, the SD of a 200 grain 10mm (.40 caliber) bullet is .179, the SD of a 210 grain .41 Magnum bullet is .178, the SD of a 275 grain .44 Magnum bullet is .210, the SD of a 300 grain .454 Magnum or .45 Long Colt bullet is .210, the SD of a 325 grain .475 bullet is .206 and the SD of a 350 grain .500 Magnum bullet is .200.

For comparison, the SD of a .30 caliber, 180 grain rifle bullet is .271. Keep in mind that no handgun has the stopping power of a high power rifle or a 12 gauge slug gun and a handgun cannot provide the same level of security.

If you must rely on a handgun for bear protection, go with a magnum revolver with at least a 4" barrel. (Ballistically, a 6" barrel is better.) This magnum revolver should be at least .357 caliber (.44 or larger caliber is preferred) shooting a heavy, deep penetrating bullet.

You should aim for the central nervous system (usually the brain). You have to be able to hit the central nervous system 100% of the time under stress, which not many people can do. If you are not an experienced handgunner and/or are not willing to practice regularly with your bear gun, I suggest that you forego choosing a handgun. Remember that accurate bullet placement is the key to stopping power.

If you choose a rifle for bear protection, go with a repeating or double-barreled rifle in a recognized bear stopping caliber. Mainstream caliber/bullet weight choices range from .30/180 grain up to .45/500 grain.

For stopping an aggressive bear, a projectile with a high SD is generally recommended. Examples of common rifle calibers and bullets that are recommended for shooting the great bears include the .30/200 (SD .301), .338/250 (SD .313), .35/250 (SD .279), .375/270 (SD .274) and .45/400 (SD .272).

I prefer a compact, medium or big bore carbine for bear protection. There are a number of good choices on the market, the most widely available of these probably being the Marlin, Browning and Henry lever action carbines in .45-70 or .450 Marlin calibers. They kick very hard with heavy loads, but if you can shoot them well despite their recoil and muzzle blast, they will do the job.

In addition to the lever action guide rifles, examples of other appropriate rifles include the Merkel 141 Petite Frame double in 9.3x74R, bolt action Remington Model Seven in .350 Rem. Magnum and autoloading Remington Model 750 Carbine in .35 Whelen. Remember that these are just examples, pick the action and type of rifle that best fits your wants and needs. A large magazine capacity is not a requirement, since bears do not hunt in packs. In the event of a bear charge, you will probably have time for only one shot, or two at the most.

Controlled expansion bullets are preferable to other types, as long as the rifle/cartridge combination achieves adequate velocity and energy to power bullet expansion. That usually means an impact velocity in excess of 1800 fps.

A controlled expansion bullet will deliver deeper penetration than a bullet designed for rapid expansion and more stopping power than a solid. Partitioned, homogeneous expanding and bonded core bullets are very popular for shooting heavy animals.

Here are some examples of good controlled expansion bullets that are proven bear medicine in appropriate calibers and bullet weights: Nosler Partition, Remington Core-Lokt Ultra, Barnes TSX, Hornady InnerBond, Speer Trophy Bonded, Swift A-Frame and Woodleigh Weldcore. Again, these are just examples; there are other suitable bullets. Whatever cartridge and bullet you choose, remember that accurate bullet placement saves lives.

Please note the emphasis on accurate bullet placement throughout this article. ANYONE is better off with a .30-30/170 they can shoot accurately and with confidence than with a .458 Magnum they cannot. Scandinavian explorers and wilderness adventurers, for example, have successfully used 6.5x55 rifles to protect themselves from polar bears in the far north for well over a hundred years, because they penetrate deeply and don't kick much.

The lesson is that what matters most in stopping a bear attack is to put a bullet into the animal's brain with the first shot. As long as the gun/cartridge/bullet combination is reasonably adequate and offers sufficient penetration, the odds are on your side.

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Copyright 2009, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.