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Handguns for Bear Defense? Yep!

Well, the verdict is apparently in, and I for one am pleased to hear it. 

I have enjoyed a lifelong and mostly happy relationship with wild bears. I have watched them, studied them, and (occasionally) hunted them. For many years I held the belief that handguns were poorly suited tools for defense against bear attacks, based on the experience and advice of woodsmen and bear biologists who I considered more authoritative sources than I was myself. However, as early as the late 1970’s I began collecting anecdotes of hunters, campers, and other outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen who had successfully defended against bear attacks with handguns. By the time Stephen Herrero et al. came out with their report in 2012 supporting bear spray over firearms, however, my compilation of bear attack stories stood in stark opposition to Herrero’s findings. My studies and critical experience told me while Herrero’s findings confirmed that bear spray was and is effective in stopping some bear attacks, firearms were and are more effective than his study showed. 

I was still leaning toward preference for long guns as opposed to handguns for such purposes, but the lean had become a lot less acute over the years. Over the years, I had become enough of a convert that I had begun carrying a handgun while hunting in all places and at all times where legal to do so. I had in fact tested my own handguns on wild game, including small game as well as deer and hogs, and was satisfied that handguns are effective hunting tools.

In this article by journalist Dean Weingarten (https://www.ammoland.com/2019/08/handgun-or-pistol-defense-against-bear-attack-73-cases-96-effective/#axzz5wdJB1jXk ) he and his colleagues have compiled a list of 73 bear attacks defended against by handguns. They found that 96% of these attacks were successfully defended, and in many cases the handguns/calibers were what I and many others would consider suboptimal. So at this point I must concede that I am convinced of the soundness of carrying a handgun for defense against attacks by bears and other North American predator species including wolves, coyotes, and mountain lions.

So, the question of if it is practical  to carry a handgun for bear defense has been answered, but this leaves other questions wide open. These questions should include: 1) what type and caliber of handgun is truly appropriate for such purposes, 2) what type of ammunition is best suited for this purpose, 3) how should the handgun be optimally carried, and 4) how should it actually be used if and when the bear scat hits the fan?

The following answers are only my opinion, and your views may vary. But keep in mind that my answers are based on a lifetime’s experience in hunting and shooting wild animals (including bears and other Dangerous Game), on almost 30 years of critical care medicine (which involves a lot of scientific study of anatomy and physiology), on nearly 30 years of study of the effectiveness of handguns in stopping violent human offenders by police, and on a strong basic education in mammalian anatomy and physiology.

1. Caliber Choice for Bear Defense

Bears are big animals. Using a little gun (or a small caliber) just doesn’t make sense. Your bullet(s) have to reach vital anatomic structures: the same principles that we espouse in Shooting With Xray Vision for human-on-human defensive situations. Which you will recall mean either the cardiovascular bundle (CVB) in the chest, or the central nervous system (CNS).

The CVB in quadrupeds, including bears, is a lot farther inside the body than it is in humans, who walk upright with our CVB’s front and center. Unlike humans, your bear bullet(s) have to get through a thick fur coat, through much thicker and tougher skin than human skin, and tunnel through the muscle, bone and connective tissues of the chest to get to the bear’s considerably bigger- and tougher-than-human heart and great vessels. Yes, you can kill a bear with a .22 bullet to the heart… but it might take several hours, and an aggressive bear can kill you in an attack lasting seconds to minutes. So if you do that math, you might want to select a firearm of sufficient caliber to get to the CVB with a tad more energy and destructive capability than a .22

Likewise, the brain of a bear is encased in a thicker bony cranium than the human brain is… and while a light handgun caliber might get in there with enough power to end the attack, it might not.

As such, I lean strongly toward a caliber heavy enough to be used for hunting of big game. These calibers start with the 357 Magnum and larger. To be specific, this would include the 40 S&W, 41 Magnum, 44 Special, 44 Magnum, 45 ACP, 45 Colt, and any of the big magnums from 454 Casull up to 500 Linebaugh. I do not endorse the 9mm cartridge for bear defense, even though the estimable Phil Shoemaker killed a brown bear with one a few years ago. You and I ain’t Phil, with his intimate knowledge of grizzly/brown bear anatomy, and his extensive experience stopping charges by wounded bears, and we shouldn’t pretend to be. Oh, and btw, Phil habitually carries a 458 Winchester Magnum rifle and a 44 Magnum revolver when guiding bear hunters, not a 9mm.

  

1A. Handgun Type

As you can see, I’m not one of those guys who thinks you need a huge thumper of a caliber to defend against bears/predators. I am a bit more picky on handgun type, however. 

Anyone who knows me from IDPA and USPSA competition knows that I am a revolver guy. No surprise, this holds true for my hunting and predator-defense choices, as well.  Specifically, a double-action (DA) revolver is in my considered opinion the best handgun platform for bear defense. 

Semiauto pistols are not a good option, for a couple of reasons. First, they tend to be designed to shoot light-for-caliber bullets. Second, semiauto pistols have a glaring deficiency in CQB situations (and if being mauled by a bear isn’t a CQB situation, I don’t know what is!): if the muzzle is pressed against the body of the intended target, the slide and barrel may be pushed out of battery, and the weapon will not fire. Folks often discount this issue, but I have numerous reports of exactly this happening in cop-on-felon CQB gunfights.

Single Action (SA) revolvers are often cited as a good choice for bear defense, and while I own and enjoy shooting and hunting with my SA revolvers, I disagree with this option. The SA handgun can only be fired if the hammer is manually cocked. Normally this is done with the thumb of the support hand, but it can also be done with the thumb of the dominant hand. Again, if you’re in a CQB situation with an angry bruin, your support hand is very likely going to be engaged in other activities (like keeping the bear’s jaws off your skull), so you can’t count on using it to cock the hammer. And if you use your firing hand thumb to cock the hammer, you’re relinquishing more than 50% of your grip strength to do so… which doesn’t sound to me like a good firearm-retention technique in the midst of a ground fight. 

Soooo… it comes down to the double-action (DA) revolver. The DA revolver does not have the shortfalls of the semiauto pistol or the SA revolver. You can press the muzzle against your adversary and fire without fear of coming out of battery and you can fire it one-handed with your fully functional grip strength. More than one successful bear-attack survivor has noted that it took several rounds to end the attack, and a DA revolver will reliably give you 6 rounds (or more, in the case of large capacity revolvers like the S&W 696). And DA revolvers are readily found chambered for big calibers such as the 44 Magnum and 45 Colt. If you step into the custom revolver venue, Ruger Redhawks have been chambered in powerhouse rounds like the 50 AE, 460 Rowland, and even the big 475 and 500 Linebaugh. Bowen Custom Handguns in particular makes beautiful and very functional big-bore DA revolvers using the Ruger Redhawk and Super Redhawk as the base gun, and I really need one… But Ruger’s Redhawk Alaskan model is a fine factory revolver in its own right, so you don’t need to fork out the big bucks for a custom revolver unless you really want to. 

Regardless of your choice of DA revolver, make sure you can use it effectively. Take into consideration the size, grip frame, and weight of your bear-defense wheelgun, because the variations possible are enormous. A Ruger Alaskan weighs 45 ounces empty, which means you’re toting nearly 4 pounds of metal once it’s loaded. That can weigh heavy on a small-framed person. Conversely, I’ve seen folks tout the ultralight S&W M329, a Scandium frame revolver chambered in 44 Magnum; while it’s a breeze to carry at 2 pounds fully loaded, I have found it painful to shoot due to the stout recoil impulse. If it’s too painful to shoot and practice with at the range, you’re not really going to be properly prepared to use it in a life-or-death situation.

Personally, I routinely carry a S&W M625 Mountain Gun chambered in 45 Colt or a M29 chambered in 44 Magnum when I’m hunting or backpacking in bear country. These are steel guns, with 4″ barrels, and even with heavy-recoiling loads they are very manageable in my hands. I am very confident that anyone who chooses something along these lines for bear defense is about as well-armed as can be.

2. Ammunition

The bullets you load in your handgun are also important.  You want deep penetration, which is best accomplished with a flat meplat FMJ bullet or a moderately hard cast bullet of heavy weight for caliber. In a 357 Magnum, this would anything from 148 to 180 grains. In a 44 Magnum, 240 gr or up. And so on. Bullet type? A Keith-style SWC bullet or a LBT profile bullet will suit: anything with a wide, flat meplat, to cause maximum tissue destruction. Roundnose bullets may penetrate well, but are less likely to do the necessary tissue damage to stop an actively attacking predator. 

Factory ammo versus handloads? Not much to argue about there, I’m afraid. They can all work. Buffalo Bore makes some great loads for virtually all major handgun calibers. I like my own handloads in my revolvers. I use LBT-type bullets for the most part, cast to a hardness of BHN 11-14, which is plenty hard enough for bear medicine, and loaded hot. My favorite 45 Colt loads for DA revolvers employ 265 gr LBT WFN bullets, with muzzle velocities in the 1000-1100 fps range. These loads will shoot crosswise through a deer’s chest or pelvis, will penetrate 14+ inches of ballistic gelatin, and will smash through 10+ 1″ pine boards. They are plenty for bear, but not so stout that they can’t be fired fast and accurately with one hand. In the 44 Magnum, a 240 gr bullet loaded to 1100-1200 fps serves the same purpose. In my 357 Magnums, a 158 gr WFN bullet at 1300 fps or 180 gr WFN at 1100 fps will get the job done. You get the idea.  Don’t discount good JHP bullets, either. A friend of mine who was responsible for “bear control” on paper company land for a number of years culled a large number of black bears with his 44 Magnum revolver and 240 gr Hornady XTP bullets. This bullet, among others, has a great reputation for deep penetration and reliable expansion.

 

As a final observation on caliber, let me be clear: you are not doing yourself any favors by carrying a handgun that is too powerful for you to shoot effectively. Your choice of caliber and handgun needs to be based on your ability to use it. If you can’t hit the vital organs of the CVB or CNS, your handgun is pretty much a useless noisemaker. Practice with your chosen gun and ammunition. You should be able to hit a 4-6″ circle 6 times out of 6 with one hand at a range of 4 yards, and an 8″ circle with a 2-hand hold 6/6 times at 10 yards, rapid fire. If you can’t do that reliably, you need to practice more.

 3. Optimal Carry Methods

Here’s the deal, kids: a gun in your backpack or at home is not going to help you in a bear attack. In my life’s experience backpacking and camping in the mountain west, I’ve learned that close bear encounters can usually be avoided. But when they do happen, they are almost always a surprise. In most cases you won’t have time to go back to your car to fetch your rifle, or shrug off your pack and dig into it to find your handgun. You’ll either have it right there, or you won’t have it at all. Carrying your handgun in an accessible location is of paramount importance.

I tend to carry my handguns most of the time on my belt, strongside hip. This works fine if all I’m toting is a rifle or a day pack. But if I’ve got a full pack on, or I’m weaing a longer coat in cold weather,  this doesn’t work very well. Under those conditions, I prefer a holster across my chest, such as the El Paso Saddlery Tanker holster. A chest rig allows rapid one-handed access almost as quickly as a belt holster. But keep in mind that your draw and even your firing cycle will be different if you’re wearing gloves. Some DA revolvers will bind up when the trigger comes forward, trapping glove material in the action. You don’t want that to happen in a bear attack. If you must wear gloves, wear tight gloves that will not bind, and for goodness sake practice with them at the range to be sure they don’t interfere with your gun’s functionality.

When you bed down at night, you might want to consider having a lanyard loop installed on the butt of your revolver, with a lanyard around your neck and shoulder so you can pull the gun to you in a hurry if it’s needed in the middle of the night. Same thing with your flashlight. If you can’t see it, it’s real hard to shoot it. 

4. Deploying the Defensive Handgun

So when it all comes down to it, how should you use your handgun in defense against a bear attack? Well, I can’t speak from experience: even though I’ve had a lot of encounters with bears in the mountain parks of Alberta and British Columbia, none have turned violent. However, I spent a lot of time learning about bears and bear behavior in my undergraduate years, and continued in those studies so that I could avoid the circumstances that would lead to a violent bear encounter… and I’m pretty sure that a number of my bear encounters could have been nasty if I had not used my knowledge of bear behavior to reduce the risks.

So my first advice to bear-naive persons is this: learn about bears and how to avoid pissing them off. There are a number of very good books in print that you can learn from, including Stephen Herrero’s Bear Attacks, and the very good bear attack series of books by Canadian bear expert Gary Shelton. 

My second set of recommendations is based on training I received as a young biology student, and on advice from Professional Hunters of dangerous game in Africa with whom I’ve hunted dangerous game.  Basically, it comes down to this: don’t shoot until you have to. Most bear charges are “bluff” charges, and if you stand your ground the animal will break off well before contact. By waiting to fire, you will reduce the odds that you will badly injure or kill an animal that is only trying to scare you off. By waiting, you also increase your odds of hitting the animal in its CVB or CNS (depending on your point of aim). If you wait until the charging animal is very close, your odds of making a lethal/stopping hit increase immensely. Once you’ve fired, follow it up: fire as rapidly as you can hit, aiming into the vitals, and keep firing until the bear is down for good. 

Is there a place or time for a warning shot? Well, according to some experts, there is. Firing a round into the dirt at the bear’s feet while he is still posturing or even walking toward you (but not yet charging) may discourage a curious or mildly pissed-off bear enough to end the encounter.  But once the bear has started to run at you, wasting a potentially life-saving bullet makes no sense. Put your sights on the bear’s heart or brain and track him in until you know you can hit his vitals, then hit him hard and repeatedly.

Bottom Line

 In the course of my 65 years on this rock called Earth, I have spent hundrds and hundreds of days and nights in wild country occupied by bears, including many nights under canvas or sleeping under the stars. I have cooked thousands of meals, gutted game and fish, and otherwise done things that most city folks have no knoledge of, and which put me and my companions at some degree of risk of bear attack. But I have never been actually attacked by a bear in all those years. I think this is important to consider when one considers the risks any outdoorsman faces in spending time in similar country. In reality, the risk is very, very small.

I have personally killed only 3 bears in my life, and in all 3 cases, I hunted those bears with the intention of killing them. All 3 were killed with a rifle. I don’t know that I will ever care to hunt a bear again, but if I do, it will likely be with a handgun. I have that degree of confidence in my ability with my revolvers, and in their effectiveness as bear-killing machines.

And in the meantime, I will continue to carry a handgun in bear country whenever I go there, confident that such tools–along with bear spray, and my knowledge of bear behavior–will keep me and mine from serious injury. Dean Weingarten’s study underlines the sensibility of this approach.

Thanks a bunch, Dean.  

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