There was a young married man, with a wife and baby, who chased a black bear out of his kitchen at 3 a.m. It went through the screen door without opening it, across the deck taking out spokes from the railing before landing in a flower bed with the garbage bag firmly clenched in its teeth, while being pounded by the broom in the hands of a very angry twenty-something year old. Most professional sportsmen writing on this topic would suggest his tactics were inappropriate at the very least! Others have opined on bear defence that didn’t include a broom, and without doubt many have much more experience than I have. I wrote that story several years ago shortly after it happened. I knew the young man who operated a deli on the side of the highway that I travelled to and from my bear hunting sites. Yet, there are still questions being asked on Internet forums with a great variety of opinions expressed. While I have previously given my thoughts and shared some experiences, this is the first blog I’ve written uniquely on this theme.
Many like to debate this topic from a “what if” encounter with a bear, and it’s a natural concern for those who may spend some recreational or vacation time in bear country, as well as for sportsmen and women whose lifestyles may involve hunting, fishing, camping, ATV-ing, hiking, or other outdoor activities such as making trails, logging, or involved in some research project or educational studies.
And there are differences in the laws of various jurisdictions related to such activities. For example: In Canada we’re not allowed to carry a handgun for self protection (only under special permit) or hunting purposes. And this essay isn’t uniquely related to hunting bears, though bear defence should not be an afterthought while doing so. Hunters too have been killed or seriously mauled by bears.
What bears do we have in mind? Any bear is omnivorous and a potential predator, so ALWAYS a potential threat. Grizzly and Brown bear are often singled out by writers of this theme as being the greatest danger, but that’s obviously not so based on statistics. Then, a lot of harm has come to humans and livestock that doesn’t always make official records. Of course, grizzly are on average larger than black bears, so any encounter with a large grizzly may impose a greater sense of danger than with a black bruin 1/2 its size. But a black bear of 300 – 350 lbs that has become predatory can take down a mature moose of 1/2 ton! And black bears are much more numerous and wide spread than grizzly/brown bears. They also may become more familiar with humans and their activities to the point of showing up in their corn fields, orchards or even driveways and garages!
< This 400 plus pound bruin was on private property less than 200 yards from the family residence!
Let me say it one more time: I NEVER go into “bear country” without a means of self-protection! And where we live there’s a conservation area within a 10 minute drive with resident black bears! I used to walk there about once a week, but no more since they’ve posted warning signs of the presence of black bears – and I can only carry a big stick or “bear spray” as a defensive weapon!
For those readers who may be unaware of who I am and what I do, here is a brief sketch: I’ve now 85 years plus a few months and have been a pastor for 64 of those years as a professional. For approximately the same period I’ve been a hunter of game from small to big, including groundhogs on the one end and moose on the other. But for the past 31 years I’ve focused largely on black bears, mostly hunting them over bait, but not exclusively. During those three decades I’ve missed a couple of years but when we had both spring and fall seasons, I often hunted them during both seasons.
But it hasn’t been in just hunting them. Scouting, finding best sites, setting up blinds or stands, locating suitable baits and transportation of bait to sites have all been part of the adventure. In brief, it has involved hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of observation, hard work and experience.
So what I have to say about defensive weapons for bears has not eliminated those experiences. Otherwise it would simply be what others have already said or written, and that’s not to downplay the experience and advice of those “others”… far from it! But it’s also clear (to me at least) that theory has often dominated some of that advise. Theory is good if sound and proven. For example: To recommend a 12ga with 00 buck shot in the magazine exclusively is not wise in my view. 00 buck shot may not penetrate adequately at ten yards to reach the vitals. It may deter a bear bent on mayhem, and seriously wound enough to get in more shots, but is it a stopper? Bird shot in the bears face will certainly have a discouraging effect if charged by a bear while grouse hunting, but I’d have a DG slug in there somewhere if in known (or unknown) bear territory. That’s’ just one example regarding the use of shotguns, but more on that coming up shortly.
At issue then is the question of defensive weapons for bears, not necessarily all offensive weapons that might be used in hunting them under particular conditions as in bait hunting. A bow or crossbow in the hands of a hunter experienced with such a weapon is legal and appropriate within a limited range, but would be a very poor choice at ranges beyond about forty yards, or in self defence in close quarters. In recreational or work activities within thick timber or brush country where bears make their living, I’d recommend what others have: a pump 12-gauge with an 18″ to 22″ barrel, a lever action or bolt action rifle in a Big Bore with barrel shorter than 24″, or a big-bore handgun where legal. And, I’d have an in-season bear license in my wallet when and where possible. In Ontario we just can’t tote a big rifle or shotgun around in forests without a sound reason or game license of some sort.
Let’s examine the suitability of those three: a 12-gauge, a big-bore lever gun or a suitable rifle with a big hole in the barrel – with some details added — and a handgun with “big-bore” attributes.
The 12-gauge pump with an 18″ to 22″ barrel: There are many makes and models, but it would be wise, I think, to choose a security or home defence type with a 3″ chamber and a magazine that will take at least two + one in the chamber. Mine is a Savage 320 with an 18.5″ barrel, smooth bore with cylinder choke at seven pounds without ammo. It also has a peep rear sight (“Ghost Ring”) that’s adjustable and a green-glowing blade front sight that’s protected by “wings”. A police or military style pistol grip with button-type safety stands rear of the trigger guard. The ammo I’ve chosen has yet to be sighted-in for 50 yards. The magazine holds 5+1. The Challenger brand of 12ga slugs out of Quebec is 492 grains at 2.75″ and referred to as “Magnum”. From my former bolt action Mossberg, they left the barrel at a recorded 1620 fps at 15′ from the muzzle. I expect somewhat less from the 18.5″. The slug itself is made in Italy and known as the DGS (Dangerous Game Slug) and used internationally by several military and police forces. I’ve yet to use it on game, but it shot very accurately from my 24″ Mossberg with the Polychoke set at Improved cylinder. In the interim, I owned a 535 Mossberg with three interchangeable barrels, one being a rifled slug barrel. I tried various sabot slugs in it with disappointing results as to accuracy, so it “went down the road”.
< The Savage 320
My purpose for this 12-ga is in scouting, backup for bear hunting and followup on any wounded bears. It’s short (39″), light and handy, but the physical recoil will be about 32 – 33 ft-lbs shooting those Challengers. The stock shape with the pistol grip fits perfectly for alignment of sights and should assist in the management of recoil. The pump forearm is also ideally suited for my relatively short arms. I’m hopeful of getting it to the range soon, and I purchased my bear tag a few days ago to be ready for some scouting sometime by mid May.
Obviously, range is more limited than my former 1895 Marlins in .45-70 due to not having a scope and slugs with relatively poor ballistic coefficients (BC) compared to 350 to 450gr bullets from a .45-70 or .458 Win. So it will not likely be used over bait hunting bears beyond 50 yards. Most of my bear baits have averaged 65 yards with some exceeding 100 yards, with a couple at 35 to 40 yards. It all depends on location, prevailing wind and where the sun sets. But too close is too close — making it too easy for a smart bear to discover your presence. If I’ve learned anything about bears that stands out above all other features, it’s how smart they are!
Having such a firearm at the ready would suite the bill perfectly as a defence weapon for any bear — black, brown or white — in particular circumstances such as in woods hunting of any game, or marking logs as a Log Scaler, or beaver trapper in thick brush that often forms a border between a stream or lake and forest — while interest and thoughts are focused on what they’re doing instead of needing to be aware of the presence of bears. I know of a least one trapper who never returned home from checking his traps. A search was made and his body was discovered partially consumed and covered by leaves and other debris from the forest. He lived in Sudbury, Ontario, about a 3 – 4 hr drive from here. No mention was made of a firearm, and his ATV was still idling on the trail. Apparently he was getting ready to leave or stopped for the bear when it got him! Ontario bears have ambushed mature moose and killed them. A Quebec man was killed by a black bear while hunting!
< This was my Ruger 96/44 chambered in .44 Rem Mag. It had an 18″ barrel, a rotary clip that held four, and was used while I was baiting bears and scouting. The load was a 300gr Speer or Hornady at over 1600 fps. I had no doubts as to it’s ability to deal with an agressive bear. It also was the fastest handling centerfire rifle I’ve ever owned for multiple shots. The lever throw was only about 45*. Recoil was modest, yet the load was much more powerful than a .44 mag handgun and was my companion for many walking miles in the Haliburton Highlands.
A short-‘n-handy BIG BORE lever gun: I’ve owned four 1895 Marlins in .45-70, one of which had the 18.5″ barrel with the ports — due to which it stayed about a year and was traded for a 22″ Classic Marlin in .45-70, which I firmly believe is ideal in dealing with truculent bruins when given appropriate handloads. And several short-barrelled bolt action big-bore repeaters have appeared at the hands of custom gun makers as well as hobbyists. To get in on the action, some major gun manufacturers have followed suite with their own versions as in Savages short-barrelled .338 Win Mags and .375 Rugers; and Ruger’s own Alaskans in .375 Ruger and .416. Then Browning followed Marlin’s popular Big Bores with their own version of Big Bore in their .450 Marlin BLR with its short barrel. It’s all good!
The only possible fault with my current Ruger #1 in .458 is in being a single shot for follow-up of a wounded bruin, which always goes into the thickest tangles possible. But even then a single well-placed shot would settle any possible disputes. It could also lose a pound, but at 40″ in length it nearly qualifies as a carbine. I’ve written previously on the advantages of single-shot rifles that includes the discipline of the mind and emotions to make the first shot all that’s needed. There’s usually ample time for paying the insurance.
The goal in all this is a handy, fast and powerful weapon at relatively close range. Of course, the chosen bullet and load must withstand the forces imposed at spitting distance when bullet collides with a big harry beast that wants a taste of your flesh! Most of this genre of firepower came from Alaskans who had to deal with big, nasty bears on a too-frequent basis.
< This was my first 1895 Marlin Classic in .45-70 that took my first black bear. The load was a 400gr Speer at an MV of 1865 fps. Range was 100 yards.
A big-bore handgun: Note the emphasis on “big bore”in all of this dealings with mean bruins! There’s logic involved. A “big-bore” any firearm makes a BIG hole followed by BIG trauma! In handguns we’re thinking +.40-caliber. Again, bullet weight and construction is the key, plus velocity, especially in a handgun!
I have little experience with handguns having only owned one, but before it was fired it got traded on a shotgun or rifle. I did fire my son’s .357 revolver a few times, and a friend’s .22 semi-auto a million years ago! But… if Canadian laws permitted, I’d own a big-bore revolver for hunting particular species under certain conditions. They’ve been used on everything from rabbit to elephant! I’d forego the eles… But for bear defensive purposes in a holster across the chest, they might be the best deal as long as you can adequately handle them and practice, practice, practice! A .454 Casull isn’t necessarily the best choice but simply to illustrate what some use or recommend. There are several others that may work best for you of course. Phil Shoemaker has used a 9mm semi-auto pistol with a clip in the grip, holding multiple rounds of custom ammo specifically designed for penetration as a defence against brown bears while guiding fisherman. And having used it on one occasion that has become somewhat famous, he killed a charging bear at close range from several shots into the chest of the animal that was apparently coming for his clients, a husband and wife team. But that’s definitely NOT recommended unless you are Phil Shoemaker who has won many awards as a marksman with both rifles and handguns — and lacks no courage in facing off with big bad bears!
< Freedom Arms 454 Casull
But for my purposes a rifle or shotgun would suffice. Truth be told, though, I’ve much more experience with rifles than shotguns using slugs.
In bear encounters, and where I’ve felt the need for a big-bore rifle, has been while scouting in bear territory and while hunting other species in those same areas. The other more real aspect of needing a defensive weapon has been in exiting a bear blind or stand when darkness was settling in, knowing either a bear was approaching the bait setup or already in hiding nearby awaiting my departure. Then, of course, the followup of a wounded bruin has its own forebodings. And while bear hunting in a very remote area I was confronted by what could have been a more fearsome creature while also being aware that an aggressive bruin was in the area. All of that I’ve experienced and will share in P2.
“Our help is from the LORD who made the heavens and the earth” – Psalm 124, vs 8