As an outdoorsman, I enjoy being afield in all sorts of capacities. While hunting is one of my favorite pastimes, fishing and hiking are a wonderful means of spending time with friends and family and living in close proximity to both the Catskill and Adirondack mountains, there is ample opportunity for both of those activities. I am also, by trade, a Professional Land Surveyor, so my work hours are often spent in the remote wilderness areas. Here in Upstate New York we have a very healthy black bear population, and highway sightings are quickly becoming a regular occurrence, as are the classic raids on bird feeders and garbage cans alike. When I head afield, I nearly always carry one form of sidearm or another, and while the truly dangerous encounters are definitely a rarity, I feel better knowing I can protect my loved ones and coworkers should the event unfold.
Now, the black bear is – generally speaking – a rather docile creature, and most of the time it will make every attempt to run away from man. However, should you have the misfortune of getting between a sow and her cubs, or perhaps meet a cantankerous old boar, the black bear certainly has the equipment to rearrange your anatomy, and even possibly render your birth certificate null and void. I’ve been privileged enough to take a couple of black bears – in both Quebec and New York – and have seen many more while at work and play.
His cousin, the brown bear, is an entirely different story; when a brown bear means business you need to stop the threat and stop it fast, by any means necessary. Personally, I’ve only seen a grizzly bear from the comfortable confines of a vehicle, but that boar in Yellowstone Park made a lasting impression. I have yet to set foot in Alaska, but I have many friends and colleagues who either live there, or have significant hunting experience in the 49th state, where encounters with brown bears can honestly represent the hunter becoming the hunted. With respect to the brownies, I have reached out to the bear guides, residents and hunters for their wisdom and experience on the matter, to find out exactly which sidearms they favor and why.
Now before we take a look at particular models and calibers, let’s get one basic premise out of the way: when the excrement hits the oscillator, any gun is better than no gun. Personally, I do my best to avoid any encounter that could turn ugly, but that’s not always the case. I remember clearly, back in 2002, while surveying in the foothills of the Berkshires a young employee came running up from the point he was supposed to locate, toward the survey instrument I was running. His eyes were as wide as saucers, and he was taking strides twice as long as his normal gait would produce. “Phil, I can’t locate that corner; there’s a ****** bear down there!” Now, as surveyors, we carry machetes to cut the brush in between our survey stations, and we are rather proficient with them. However, the realization that you might have to use one to defend against a couple-hundred pounds of teeth and fangs doesn’t exactly make one feel like Zorro; in fact, I looked down at it and said to myself: This is gonna hurt. I’d have gladly traded it for a snub-nose .38 Special. This was a glaring example of surprise; this area, while remote, rugged and wooded, wasn’t known for its bear population, very few had ever been seen there, but that one bear had my employee’s undivided attention. So the point is simple; a wonderful collection of pistols at home won’t do you any good, you’ll have to make do with what you have, Like the Boy Scout motto says, Be Prepared.
Ursus americanus – the black bear.
Let’s get my own choices out of the way first. If I know ahead of time that I’m heading into black bear country, I like to carry my big handgun: a Ruger Blackhawk, chambered in .45 Colt, stainless finish with a 7 ½-inch barrel. It was the first handgun I ever purchased, and I put a considerable amount of thought into it. That long pipe makes for a heavier gun, but I’m OK with that because the additional sighting distance and small velocity gain are both appreciated. The Blackhawk is tough as nails, and while it may not have the prestige of a Colt Single Action Army, it is utterly dependable. Equipped with piano wire springs, the wisely designed transfer bar and adjustable sights, I am very confident with this pistol in hand. The .45 Colt makes a formidable handgun cartridge, especially in a pistol as strong as the Blackhawk, where the pressures and velocities can be ramped up a bit. My gun will push the strong 300-grain hollowpoints to just under 1,200 fps, and that’s a formula that can end a confrontation. My gun likes the Hornady XTPs best, and I feel confident making vital hits out to 40 yards or so with this combination. It’s certainly not the lightest sidearm – weighing in at just over 3 pounds, fully loaded in its holster – but when I’m forced to enter bear country, I have absolutely no worries.
My other handgun, my day-to-day gun, is a well-worn Smith & Wesson Model 36, in .38 Special. It has a 1 7/8-inch barrel and a five-shot cylinder – in the classic snub-nosed configuration – and wears a set of Pachmayr grips, which feel better than the standard J-Frame grips in my hands. Is it a powerhouse, as a bear cartridge? No, probably not, but I would feel much better with this gun – it’s easily concealable, doesn’t weigh a whole lot, nor take up a lot of room – than with no gun at all. With 158-grain bullets moving at nearly 800 fps, this probably represents – along with the 9mm Luger – the lower end of the spectrum, as far as a defensive bear gun goes.
A good .357 Magnum – and I really like the Kimber K6s – will definitely come in handy. The cartridge will push a 180-grain bullet to a respectable 1,300 fps, and that little Kimber has a lot to offer. Lightweight and well-balanced, I had a chance to spend a bit of time with this wheelgun at the SHOT Show in Las Vegas. Its lack of weight had me cringing at first, expecting some wrist-wrenching recoil, but I was pleasantly surprised with the manageability of the K6s. With a 3-inch barrel and a six-shot cylinder combining for a weight of just 25 ounces, this gun was made to be both carried and shot.
My buddy Marty Groppi – who enjoys the famous trout streams of Upstate New York – carries a Smith & Wesson Model 29 in the classic .44 Magnum, a combination that will most definitely save your bacon. For those not familiar with this gun, think ‘Dirty Harry.’ The .44 Magnum is definite bear medicine.
Again, please keep in mind that we only have black bears to contend with here in New York. The grizzly and brown bears are a completely different story.
Ursus Arctos – the grizzly bear
A grizzly bear is a formidable foe, having no issue whatsoever proving its dominance over human beings. In Alaska, meat is often removed from a kill site via a frame pack and two strong legs, and all that blood creates a scent trail like a flashing All-you-can-eat buffet advertisement. In the springtime, when the streams are populated with fishermen, the bears are coming out of hibernation and are ravenous. Young cubs are emerging for the first time, and mothers are ultra-protective. A sidearm is a very smart idea. I’ve reached out for three gentlemen – all of whom I call a friend – for advice and a few experiences regarding their encounters.
I’m sure that by now you’ve all heard about famous Alaskan bear guide Phil Shoemaker (grizzlyskinsofalaska.com) , who thwarted a grizzly attack with a Smith & Wesson 9mm automatic, loaded with Buffalo Bore hard cast ammunition. Phil has over three decades of experience guiding hunters and fishermen, and understands their habits as well as anyone else alive. To recap quickly, Phil and his husband and wife fishing clients were walking through some thick brush to approach the stream they wanted to fish, when they heard a deep ‘woof’ and realized they had a bear close and angry. Long story short, Phil was forced to put the grizzly down.
He normally carries a .44 Magnum but opted for the 9mm that day. When I asked him for his thoughts on carry guns for bear country, Phil related the following: “Phil, I have always said that carrying any handgun for bear protection is similar to wearing a life jacket in a boat, or parachute in a plane. They only work if you have them with you. In that vein, and considering the real vs. imaginary threat posed by bears, a familiar 9mm loaded with non-expanding bullets is a lot better than a heavy .44 or .500 you left at home or are not completely proficient with.” From one Phil to another, sage advice.
Just as with dangerous game rifles, using a cartridge that is too big to allow for proper shot placement isn’t a wise idea; shot placement is everything.
Cork Graham (corkgraham.com) , a fellow writer, hunter, and Alaska resident – not to mention an actor on the Discovery Channel – had a bit of a different perspective.
“In Alaska, we not only have to deal with the common two-legged variety of vermin found in every place in the world, but also the large, four-legged beasts that can either kill and trample you with their hooves, or rip you apart with their claws and teeth; it’s the latter which draw hunters to the Last Frontier with high-power, large caliber rifles. Now, my colleague and fellow Alaskan Phil Shoemaker has effectively defended himself with a 9mm against a charging brown bear, but I prefer to carry a .45 ACP with me as my round. It doesn’t kick as much as my .44 Rem Mag in a JP Sauer six-shooter that I used to carry on remote gold mining operations, and in a M&P Shield and Glock 21, it also serves as my concealed carry. Regarding my loads, I’m partial to a 230 grain Federal Hydra-Shok jacketed hollowpoint staggered with 230-grain lead cast bullet, one following the other, the first round out of the magazine a Hydra-Shok. I carry both in a Blackhawk Alaska Guide Holster in the field, and in a Galco leather CCW holster under my belt in town: since being on TV, I learned that stalkers can be just as dangerous a charging bear. As a retired, longtime USMC colonel buddy of mine reminded me a few weeks ago, “you should be carrying, always.”
My colleague and friend Bryce Towsley (brycetowsley.com) is a veteran gun writer who has considerable experience with bears of all sorts. He has spent more than a bit of time in pursuit of bears, hogs, and other game animals with a handgun, in addition to time spent in the Alaskan game fields. When I asked him for his insight, he was kind enough to respond in detail.
“There is a lot of nonsense out on the internet from people who have never seen a bear and have probably never cut up a dead critter to see what a bullet will do. I have been involved in stopping several black bears intent on doing us damage and have stood two brown bear charges without shooting; although in one of them I probably should have pulled the trigger. The black bears have been stopped with pistols, rifles, shotguns and once with an ax. (I have killed or watched others kill several with an ax when I was guiding. This one took exception.) I have skinned three browns, two grizzlies and more black bears than I care to remember. Any bear is a big, tough critter and to stop them you will need to penetrate and break stuff like big bones or skulls.
“A powerful handgun with a tough, deep penetrating bullet is the key. It’s also probably a one or two shot deal, so firepower is irrelevant. Those who think they can empty their Glock into a charging bear are fools. No matter what anybody says, Shoemaker got lucky with that 9mm on the bear. I have seen that cartridge fail horribly on black bears and hogs. The result was a dead dog with one of the bears and almost a dead friend with one of the hogs. If I had not shot the hog with a .44 Magnum I think it would have ended very badly. I know Phil has seen more bears killed than I ever will, but he got lucky. My rule of thumb is the minimum is 4-3-1. At least .40 caliber, 300 grains and 1,000 fps. More is always better and the bullet is the key. No semi-auto makes the grade except perhaps the .50 AE, but most ammo for that fails due to bullets. I have a buddy who guided a hunter with a .50 AE to a brown in the late eighties when it came out and it was a disaster. He saved them both, barely, with his .338 rifle.
“The 12-year-old in Alaska who just shot the brown with the shotgun is the son of a good friend. His dad stopped a charging brown with a .500 S&W pistol a few years ago. They live off the grid and have lots of bear trouble with their livestock. He lives every day with brown bears and has guided to dozens if not hundreds of them. He is a hard-core gun guy and he agrees with me on cartridges, guns and bullets.
“That said, here are my picks. The .454 Casull is my usual choice as it provides a good balance of power with manageability. I own several Casulls, but my favorite handgun is a 5-inch, custom Freedom Arms Model 83 that Ken Kelly tricked out for me. My handloads push a 300-grain hard-cast bullet to 1,614 fps. I usually carry it in a cross-draw holster that allows me to ride a horse or ATV. If I am packing meat, I carry it in a shoulder holster. Both holsters always pack into camp with me. Before any bear country hunt I practice with it a lot. It is the gun I used in the American Hunter Challenge Video where I make five hits at seven yards in under three seconds. The group was less than four inches and the ammo was full-power Winchester factory loads so it was full recoil. I have used the Casull to take a lot of game including several black bears so I understand the terminal ballistics of this cartridge pretty well. Sometimes I carry a .44 Magnum with 300-grain cast bullets, but never anything smaller for bear protection. I have a short barrel S&W 629 that Ken Kelly modified. Handloads push a 300-grain to just over 1,000 fps, so it just cracks the code. It’s very light and handy to carry. I also have a small Freedom Arms in .500 Wyoming Express. It can push a 400-grain bullet to more than 1,500 fps, but I can’t control it. I load them to just over 1,200 fps. It’s often with me in bear country and has made several trips to Alaska. My Ruger Blackhawk in .45 Colt with handloads, 300-grains, 1,200 fps (1,192 to be exact) goes with me on a lot of black bear hunts with hounds. It’s light and easy to carry.”
Put three or four gun writers in the same room, and you’ll usually get four different answers, but I think you’re seeing a common thread here. With the exception of Mr. Shoemaker – who has more experience than I will ever even hope to have – bigger seems to be better. Let’s hope that we can all avoid the threat of mauling, but if you’re unfortunate enough to have it happen to you, be prepared.
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