What Caliber for Bear?

Interesting study done, looks like by someone who is not reflexively anti-gun, that shows having a firearm won’t do you much good as protection against an attack by a brown bear. Interestingly enough, his study shows if you’re going to employ a gun, handguns are more effective than long guns, it’s believed because a handgun can be brought into action faster, and employed against an attacking bear in close quarters easier. The best defense against the brown bear is avoidance, much like it is with people.

47 thoughts on “What Caliber for Bear?”

  1. A different recap of the article appeared in our SLC media a couple of days ago, and got a lot of laughter.

    It’s pretty hard to support the conclusion that guns are not useful for self-protection when the article states that handguns stop bear aggression 84% of the time. And that’s an average of all calibers and all levels of shooter skill.

    A bear that is full of adrenaline is hard to stop. A proficient shooter with a firearm whose name starts with 4 may not be a 100% solution, but I like my odds better with that than a pointed stick.

    1. Note how far back the data goes. My guess is that even as late 1920, a lot of those gun defenses involved black powder firearms, sometimes single shot. Even as late as 1950, these are probably mostly lever action or bolt action rifles, where not getting to the second or third shot before the bear reaches you probably matters.

      I read of an Alaskan native who killed an attacking polar/grizzly hybrid with an M-16. Is .223 an adequate caliber? Of course not. But emptying most of a 30 round magazine seemed to work.

      The first grizzly killing by a civilian with a firearm in Denali after the law was changed involved 9 shots of .45 ACP, which apparently reminded the bear of an urgent appointment elsewhere. It did eventually kill the bear.

      I suspect that much like gunfights with goblins, luck is at least part of what determines the outcome.

      1. Indeed – speaking specifically to the Denali incident, they were damned lucky that the bear decided that it had an urgent appointment elsewhere rather than deciding to take them with it.

  2. For instance, handguns slightly outperformed long guns, resulting in a positive outcome — meaning the gun stopped the bear’s aggression — 84 percent of the time versus 76 percent.

    I notice they don’t mention what percentage of the attacks on unarmed people resulted in a “positive outcome.” I would guess that it’s at most 76%, otherwise they’d be trumpeting from the rooftops that guns make things worse.

    There appears to be just a slight inconsistency between the data made available to us and the conclusions of the report.~

  3. That’s not an argument against guns; that’s an argument for producing more powerful guns and allowing people to carry them.

    Indirectly, it’s also an argument against letting people have exotic pets. Have you heard about the way pythons have taken over the Everglades? It’s only a matter of time before some idiot brings over a pregnant black mamba, and then gets cold feet and sets it free in the wild. Sooner or later, there will be all kinds of horrifying animals in the American wilderness.

  4. According to wiki these bears range in size from 500 to 1400 pounds! No duh a pistol isn’t going to be that effective, but it’s better than nothing if one is coming for you. I’d not trust myself to outrunning one, they’re faster than they look.

    1. Notes: Don’t know much about this since I’ve never spent any time as an adult in bear country (and I’m happy to keep it that way, having retired to a bear free location).

      It would seem the article is rather anti-gun in the way it presents data; the closing about avoiding paperwork was … beyond priceless.

      Anyway, like in self-defense, your objective is not to kill the bear but to stop or at least slow it down (was it grizzlies I read can outrun a horse for a short distance)? So I’ve read a disabling shot to a shoulder is one preferred method. As the article notes, though, you may not be able to be picky.

  5. The statistics are based on actual encounters with bears. I’d guess the difference in effectiveness is because most of the handgun encounters are with people carrying powerful semiauto and double action handguns specifically for bear defense, while a majority of longarm toters will be hunters carrying bolt actions and pump shotguns, neither of which is as easy to empty into megafauna as the handguns. Some number of the shotgun carriers will also be loaded for birds.-

  6. How about a rifle that has taken quite a few elephants, the FN/FAL.
    Most of these kills were not done in a sporting manner, but the animal is still dead.

  7. As someone who goes walking about in bear country every year, I can say that I’ve never had an opportunity to use a gun or the pepper spray that is recommended. I’ve looked at hanging my gun on my backpacking rig, it sucks. Chest carry seems about the best and it’s not very comfortable.

    I carry a gun while backpacking, but it’s not for the bears. It’s a small pistol that is ideal for personal defense and it lives concealed in an easy to access pouch.

    1. Chest carry can be quite comfortable with a lever action rifle, and is my preferred way to sling my hunting rifle. Bolt actions can be a bit annoying tho…..

  8. Forgive my tone but please show me where, exactly and by quote, in the study it says a firearm “won’t do you much good.”

    All the idiots up here are pointing at the study and being offended in the newspaper comments, not because it says anything actually -negative- about guns being used as protection from bears, but because it doesn’t scream “gunzaregreat!!!!eleventy!”

    If I read it correctly the study notes the holes in the dataset and merely says that, based on the data they used, there is no statistically significant advantage to -having- (note, not “using”) a firearm and surviving a “bear attack.”

    The key there is most “bear attacks” aren’t attacks at all, the bear is bluff charging, or scared and running the wrong way, or any other number of factors. Heck, you can most often “survive” a scary encounter with a bear by simply standing still and letting the bear run away. You might as well have a refreshing cocktail in hand as a gun or spray to get equally good results. Alternately, if a bear really wants to get you, at the ranges bear encounters occur at, you’re at best rolling the dice with -any- portable weapon (astonishingly, the same goes for mere human predators too).

    It does acknowledge that if you actually have to shoot the damn thing firearms can work, handguns being better than rifles due to handiness. But that the key, regardless of technique, is to be bear aware, to have a plan, and to practice it, rather than relying on any weapon as a talisman.

    Now where else do we hear that in studies?

    Anyway, just like concealed carry and crime rates, saying firearms don’t show a statistically significant advantage =/= “they won’t do you much good” nor that in particular individual situations (like stopping a bear that actually means to harm you once it’s chewing on you) they aren’t the best option available.

    Again, a bit frustrated by the folks up here who never saw a bear that didn’t need shootin’ and who respond to even absolute neutrality on the utility of guns like it’s an attack on their rights.

    Not trying to poke sticks in eyes here.

    1. When you do “Teasing” with data in a study, and when your “study” has “policy implications”, my gun rights radar goes off. Particularly when academics start to use the fifty cent words. Call me a redneck Neanderthal, but after all these years of having gun control advocates hide behind academics spewing outright lies about gun ownership and about the Second Amendment, I tend to not trust any of them. If I were to venture to bear country, I would bring a sidearm of sufficient caliber and power to deal with the potential threat, and I would actually practice shooting under the conditions that those threats might occur. And trusting that the bear is only bluffing is kind of like driving without insurance, isn’t it? You really don’t need car insurance until you get into an accident, and then you really need it but it’s too late. You may be willing to bet your life that the bear is only bluffing, but don’t bet using mine. That the people massaging the study acknowledged that the study data was incomplete is more likely their “cover their rear ends academically speaking” ploy, if they were really intellectually honest, they would have emphasized that the data collected was limited in scope and that more research needed to be done, and that the conclusions are limited only to the study done.

      1. matt,

        I appreciate your position but Steve Herrero and Larry Kanuit (not cited) are the definitive sources on this stuff. The key factor with grizzly/brown bear is the intent of the bear. This study simply reiterates this point. If a bear wants you, your firearm, regardless of caliber, merely offers you a chance, not a certainty.

        This study has zero implicit policy recommendations.

      2. My point is, the study has -zero- policy implications except those invented by ignorant journalists mis-reporting it, which are easily countered prior to decisions being made by politicians.

        The way to think about bear attacks is the way to think about people attacks, except people most likely won’t attack due to innocent approaches to their food or children.

        Basically, a bear decides, like a human, at the moment of encounter what they want to do to you and what damage they are willing to endure to achieve their goal.

        The only thing a firearm does, in that moment, is give you the “ultima ratio” of physically preventing their brain from driving their body to achieve their objective.

        Exactly like humans who have initiated an attack; they are either dissuadeable by noise and “minor” damage/pain (which is where air horns, pepper spray, and warning shots come in with bears), or they are committed: in which case you have to either inflict a “ragdoll” CNS shot so they are DRT, break down their skeletal structure (break a shoulder in a bear) which interrupts their attack and forces them to reconsider their options, or you punch enough holes in them to bleed them out and run them out of gas, hopefully before they finish ruining your day/life.

        Note that the presence of a gun is only “effective” in a successful outcome in the case of a bear, OR person, that has really decided to commit (if they are tentative for any reason, as in the majority of encounters, you didn’t statistically “need” the gun in the first place, any number of deterrents would do) if you have the ability to DRT it/break it down -prior- to it achieving it’s goal of seriously hurting/killing you, even if it subsequentially dies.

        Since individual griz/brown bears have been -repeatedly- documented to kill multiple armed people in a party, prior to succumbing to any number of individually lethal wounds, it is not “bad science” to note that having a firearm does nothing more than give you a fighting chance in the few occasions it is actually necessary, versus those where one is used when a non-lethal alternative would work equally well, based on the intent and determination of the individual bear.

        Just like CC/OC and determined (hopped up, psycho, etc.) human predators, “having a gun” only means you have a bit more than the standard 50/50 chance to stop them prior to your being harmed should they so choose.

  9. Where in North America is a “bear free zone”?


    I live near State College, you know, where Penn State University is? I was in a church parking lot a few years ago when I came within spitting distance of a big black bear, I was carrying a 380 pistol at the time, in the few seconds that the bear was making up his mind whether to go straight, turn right, (my way) or to turn left, I had several thoughts go thru my mind.
    First, will 7 rnds of 380ACP stop that bear or just piss him off? Where to aim if I do fire? Should I just shoot myself and avoid alot of pain? (I remember those thoughts Very clearly)

    I decided that yes, a 380 will more than likely just piss him off, and that if I do fire to aim for the eyes, if I can blind him I might have a chance. I also ruled out shooting myself, I have kids, and wasn’t about to leave them without a dad without a damn good fight, I had a gun, a spare mag, and 2 knives on me to use.

    I thank God he decided to turn left and head away from me!
    That was also the day I decided that no matter how bulky or heavy it was I was going to carry a 45 ACP or bigger gun as close to 24/7 as possible. With 2 extra mags…….

    1. Where in North America is a “bear free zone”?

      Ummm, SW Missouri? According to Wikipedia the grizzly bear’s range used to include the Great Plains but no more (bison wiped out? Hunted out?). For a start in fully answering your question overlap this black bear map with e.g. the grizzly’s.

      You’ll note that the black bear’s range extends into south-west central Missouri and right below SW Missouri (although I’m 3 counties north of the state line), but my corner and e.g Kansas and almost all of Oklahoma is not included. And I’ve never heard of a bear sighting in our area, or the areas to the north where my father has taken me upland game hunting.

      Now, when he took us to Colorado we were “bear aware”, but it’s just not an issue here.

    2. Addendum: Asked my father this morning, and in his near 80 years mostly in the area he said there have been “a few” black bear sightings 20-30 miles south of Joplin, Missouri. But none here or to the north.

  10. Zermoid, the thing is that most of the lower 48 is black bear territory. And there is a stark difference in aggressiveness between black bears and grizzly/brown bears.

    1. And size. A mature black bear looks like a one year old puppy compared to a fully grown brown/grizzly.

      Were I to expect such an encounter, I think I’d feel safest with an open-sighted, lever-action .45/70 carbine.

    2. I don’t know about the aggressiveness, but I read something a while back that said there may be more actual attacks and injuries from the black bear than grizzlies/browns. Possibly due to the “passive” reputation of the black bear and people thinking they are more of a big dog than a wild bear and doing things they wouldn’t around a grizzly.

      And between the different bear species I didn’t think there was anywhere in N America that was ‘bear free’!

      1. I would believe more attacks from black bears but probably just because they are more commonly found near people.

        1. Apparently black bears will eat you, though they say a grizzly won’t. Playing dead if a black bear attacks is a bad idea.

  11. I spend 1-2 weeks every year in either grizzly or Alaka Brown bear habitat.

    Since I normally fly to Wyoming, Montana or Alaska, I can not take bear spray on the plane. Nor do I buy bear spray at my destination, just so I can throw it out at the end of my trip.

    I can however travel by airplane with guns and ammunition in my checked baggage.

    With that said I take a Ruger Alaskan chambered in .44 Magnum and the Garrett Cartridge .44 Magnum Hammerheads. Super hard cast, 310 grain with enough power to penetrate an Alaskan brown bear’s skull and continue on all the way to the bear’s rear hips.

    Defensive Shooting of Bears With a Revolver: http://www.garrettcartridges.com/defensive.html

    Garrett Cartridges .44 Magnum Hammerheads: http://www.garrettcartridges.com/44hammerhead.html

    About Garrett Cartridges’ .44 Magnum ammunition: http://www.garrettcartridges.com/garrett44mag.html

  12. I tend to agree with Matthew.

    Still, we always carry bear spray in Alaska. The spray is convenient, easy to carry, light, generally non-restricted as to where it can be carried, and pretty effective. Plus, if I spray a bear I don’t have to skin it and turn if over to the state.

  13. Matthew, I don’t think that the criticism of article springs from the source you identify. At least in my case, it doesn’t.

    My criticism of the article is the logical errors in the sample selection, and the misapplication/lack of application of sound statistical testing. Well, that plus it leads to an absurd conclusion: If you just act right, it is as effective as acting right plus carrying a large firearm and being proficient with it.

    A firearm is heavy. Sometimes it’s worth the hassle, and sometimes not.

  14. When a black bear showed up while I was mowing my lawn in NW Florida two years ago, I was very happy to have my little 380 on me. This (smallish) bear was looking for interesting trash from the neighborhood’s garbage cans, and had no interest in me, fortunately. Still, I felt like I had something productive to offer besides “nice puppy…” if it took an interest…

  15. I’ve defended myself from polar bears on several occasions with a 12-gauge pump firing–in this order–seal bombs (big fire cracker), #6, and slugs. I used to see nanuk on a regular basis while working in the arctic, so the idea was to drive them off without killing them (they have no fear of people and are very smart–if everyone who got stalked by a polar bear shot it, they’d have been extinct long ago.) I would definitely not want to go up against a 10-12 foot tall male polar bear with anything smaller than a .44 mag. Forest service staff in Alaska used to have to qualify with either a 12-gauge or a .375, I’m not sure if that’s still the case. A .375 requires more practice to use well than I ever felt like shooting one–their kick is very unpleasant.

    I’ve seen accounts of people saving themselves from brown bears with pistols. Sometimes a large caliber pistol works, but usually the bear gets a bite or smack or two in before it goes down. I read one story of a guy who emptied his pistol into a bear while he head was being crushed in its mouth. The bear finally dropped, but the guy was obviously messed up. Certainly a pistol is better than nothing, but as much fun as it is to buy big pistols and pretend it’s a brown bear defense weapon, brown bear attacks are very rare and the best “defense” is to wear bells when hiking in grizz country and hang your food far from your campsite. (Also, in Alaska in the spring if you see birds hovering over winter-kill carrion–walk the other way!) That said, I sleep better in a tent with a pistol next to me. Black bears are rarely a threat to an adult–most black bear attacks happen quickly when the bear gets surprised, but even a stout walking stick or axe is enough to drive most black bears off–most run if you just yell at them. Of course, if you stumble onto a female with cubs just a few steps in front of you, you better be PDQ on the draw or you’re going to have a very bad day.

          1. That’s really interesting. I wonder if that’s a result of the grizzly bears in those areas not having been hunted for 50+ years. Wolves also lose their “natural” fear of man if they go unhunted for a couple generations. I’d be interested to hear whether the wolves in Montana have relearned that rifles shots are something they should run from, not toward, now that the state has opened hunting on them again. Scared wolves will be better for everybody, wolves included. Pity that there aren’t enough grizzly left to have a season on in the lower 48, but if there were, hunting them in moderation might help keep the rest of them from getting so bold. That said, I know a guy who lost his mountain goat in Alaska to a brown bear, so maybe hunting brown bears doesn’t really modify their behavior any more than it does polar bears.

            1. You aren’t supposed to “Defense of Life and Property” kill bears to defend game you’ve taken; unless you are lost in the wilderness and its a survival situation and then all sorts of stuff is on the table.

              Bears live decades and learn pretty quick when bear season is and when deer season is and, once they figure out even armed people will back off if they decide to “peaceably” walk up on a shot deer, they can get pretty cocky. From what I hear at that point all even hitting them with pepper spray does is give your deer a little more Cajun flavor as they eat it.

      1. I have read about this. A little more common problem here in Idaho involves wolves. A friend of mine was out elk hunting last year, and suddenly realized that there were TEN wolves in a circle around him. I was too polite to ask what he did about them, since he survived the experience.

        1. Another reason to always carry a rifle and handgun in deer season. You may lay the rifle down to gut a deer, but the handgun is still on you just in case TSHTF. We don’t have Wolves around here that I’ve ever seen or heard about, but we do have coyotes, black bears, bobcats and the rare (even though the game commission says otherwise) mountain lion.

  16. http://www.amazon.com/Bear-Attacks-Their-Causes-Avoidance/dp/0941130827



    Female black bears have been known to abandon cubs, they are pretty skittish animals for their size. What the studies show is that when blackie’s don’t run from you, and exhibit stalking behavior, you fight to the death because they have decided you are prey and they are -going- to kill and eat you.

    With griz/brown’s they actually seem to see us as “peers” and respond to us like we were bears. So when we scare or annoy them they treat us like they would another bear, beat us up to teach us a lesson, or establish dominance, or clear a path of escape, and leave. Bears among bears seldom fight to the death, there are few situations that make taking the risk of being seriously injured worth engaging an opponent in all-out combat; things like threats to cubs, defense of a kill, extreme hunger.

    The problem with griz/browns isn’t that they want to eat us most of the time, it’s that they “respect” us enough to beat us like they would another bear and we aren’t built to take it.

  17. In a discussion about bear spray, I opined (being a fan of hot sauces) “Pepper spray = condiment”.

    Another guy replied “An old time Alaskan friend of mine who happens to be over 70 and is taking me out bear hunting this year told me the problem with bear spray is after a time or two they learn to like it. They will actually come up to you and give you threat displays to get you to spray them.”

    1. I’d actually believe that.

      I’ve read of testing using bear spray as an area-denial type weapon by spraying it on gear and leaving.

      Didn’t work. Apparently it is the immediate shock and burn that dissuades the bear. Gear that is sprayed with it does apparently become “tastier” to some bears.


      When to use bear spray
      •Bear pepper spray should be used as a deterrent only in an aggressive or attacking confrontation with a bear.
      •Bear pepper spray is only effective when used as an airborne deterrent sprayed as a cloud at an aggressive animal. It should not be applied to people, tents, packs, other equipment or surrounding area as a repellent.
      •Do not apply the bear spray to their camping gear, tents and backpacks. It does NOT repel bears when sprayed on such items.

    2. I can’t remember where I read this, but someone once pointed out that a similar issue occurs with criminals: pepper spray is a popular “restraint device” in prisons, and so criminals learn how to continue fighting, even when sprayed in the face.

      So, while pepper spray may work to deter someone who’s attacking for his first time, it might not work so well against a hardened criminal.

      (Yet another reason for me to be against the prison system as it currently exists!)

  18. Now that I’ve thought about the right caliber for a moment, I have the answer. 65mm, without question–particularly a 65mm 90-round handgun that can be hid in the palm of my hand. (and I don’t have particularly large hands…)

    Ever since I tried to read a book by CSGV (“Every Handgun is Pointed at You”), and I learned that gun manufacturers were building smaller guns with more rounds and higher calibers, I’ve been waiting for the gun industry to make me a gun like that. Come on, Kimber, Glock, or S&W! Where’s that handgun?!?

    (Never mind that, while technically true, all handguns are built with those constraints…but because they are conflicting constraints, every handgun represents a compromise between the three!)

Comments are closed.