Dr. Dabbs – Bella Twin: The Tiny Little Woman and the Really Big Bear

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

Dr. Dabbs - Bella Twin: The Tiny Little Woman and the Really Big Bear
What sort of gun would you want to be packing if you came face to face with this guy out in the middle of no place? I’m thinking a Mk19 40mm automatic grenade launcher mounted atop an armored MRAP vehicle.

May 10, 1953, was a Sunday. 63-year-old Bella Twin was a petite Native American widow woman who stood less than five feet tall. She and a friend named Dave Auger were walking down a cutline cleared through the forest for oil exploration in central Canada. They were hunting near a tiny village called Slave Lake in Alberta. Bella was a Cree Indian and an experienced trapper.

Much ink has been spilled over the proper firearm to use for personal defense in bear country. Brown bears in northern Canada and Alaska can grow to truly astronomical size. I have seen these things up close, and they are indeed pretty amazing.

Back when I lived in Alaska I was chatting with an elderly gentleman in my church who had been born and raised near Fairbanks. I had newly arrived in the state and was getting my arsenal squared away in anticipation of many a day to be spent exploring the backcountry. I innocently asked this man his thoughts on a handgun for bear protection.

Man in leather jacket shooting the S&W Model 29.44 Magnum handgun in the woods
A friend in Alaska once told me this S&W Model 29 .44 Magnum would be a fine bear gun…so long as I ground off the front sight before carrying it.

He thought for a moment and explained that the particulars really didn’t matter. He said autoloader versus wheel gun or even caliber selection were essentially immaterial. He told me that the only thing I needed to do was to take my new bear pistol to a gunsmith and have him grind the front sight down flat with the muzzle. When I asked him why on earth I’d want to do that he explained it was so that when the bear takes your pistol away from you and shoves it up your backside the experience is no more unpleasant than is necessary. Apparently, that guy never met Bella Twin.

The Encounter

Bella and her buddy were hunting small game. If I had to guess I’d suspect ptarmigan, rabbits, or squirrels. As a result, she had armed herself with her high-mileage Cooey Ace 1. The Cooey Ace 1 was an inexpensive single-shot .22 utility rifle. She had the old gun charged with a single .22 Long round.

Dr. Dabbs - Bella Twin: The Tiny Little Woman and the Really Big Bear
The .22 Long is really kind of a gallery rifle round. Based on pure ballistic numbers one might be forgiven for thinking it had very little real-world utility.

The .22 Long is not really a thing anymore. For those who might not be rimfire aficionados, the .22 Long falls midway between the diminutive .22 Short and the ubiquitous .22 Long Rifle. Legend has it that on this fateful day, Bella was running .22 Longs simply because they were cheaper than the Long Rifle sort.

Bella and her friend looked up in time to see an absolute monster of a brown bear ambling along the cutline though in the opposite direction. At his current pace, the animal would be upon them in moments. There was no time to run. On this day the temperature was around 50 degrees F with a 12-24 mph wind blowing from the northeast. When confronted with such an enormous predator at such close range, Bella and her buddy wisely chose to disappear into the wood line and hide in hopes that the big animal might just pass them by. 

Poor Chances

Given these circumstances, hiding simply represented good tactics. They were as good as unarmed, and nobody wants to get sideways with a big grizzly bear no matter the circumstances. Unfortunately, however, the bear had other plans.

It’s legit cold in these latitudes in the winter, and these big bears hibernate. When they emerge from their dens they are thin, ravenous, and grouchy. Their every thought after the onset of spring is to fill their stomachs and regain some of the fat lost through the long hard winter. This basic fact drove this particular bear to take an unnatural interest in Bella and Dave.

Bears have lousy eyesight, particularly the old ones, but their senses of smell and hearing compensate to a great degree. If he can smell you, he can find you. Once the big guy took an interest, there was no way that Bella and Dave were walking away from this.

The gusty wind likely masked whatever noise that Bella and Dave were making, and that same stiff breeze very probably muddled the olfactory milieu as well. That meant the beast was upon them so quickly they had few options. Once the inquisitive bruin closed to within a few yards, Bella had a decision to make. 

Dr. Dabbs - Bella Twin: The Tiny Little Woman and the Really Big Bear
Bella Twin was a tiny little woman.

What She Did

Bella had been a subsistence hunter for decades. Her background as a Cree Indian lent her a legacy of fieldcraft. She had ample experience shooting, skinning, and preserving meat in the Arctic. With this massive grizzly bear now mere feet away, Bella drew a bead on the back of the hulking animal’s skull and squeezed the trigger on her ancient .22 rifle.

Dr. Dabbs - Bella Twin: The Tiny Little Woman and the Really Big Bear
Bella shot this thing seven times because she had seven rounds on her.

Legend goes that the big bear was standing on its hind legs when Bella first shot it. Post-mortem estimates have put the beast at nearly ten feet tall. Bella was roughly half that and was armed with the sort of rifle we grizzled gun geezers might eschew as being inadequately powerful for squirrels. Regardless, the enormous bear dropped immediately when struck at close range by one of these tiny little 29-grain bullets. As soon as the bear hit the ground, Bella moved to its side and pumped another half dozen rounds into its head. One of the zippy little bullets actually exited the opposite side, while the rest were retained. Bella would have shot it some more, but that was all the ammo she had brought with her.

Bella’s bear was indeed a remarkable specimen. The skull measured out at 16 and 9/16 long by 9 and 7/8 inches wide for a total score of 26 and 7/16 inches. Bella’s bear set a Boone and Crockett record as the largest grizzly ever killed in North America at that time. And she took it with a beat-up old single-shot .22 rifle.

The bear’s skull and Bella’s rifle are both preserved in museums. Bella was smart enough to have sold the skull, the rifle, and the hide separately to maximize her return. The enormous bear’s skull, replete with bullet holes, went in the 1950s for $15. That’s about $160 today.

The Gun That Saved Her

Cooey Ace 1
The Cooey Ace 1 was as basic a .22 rifle as ever there was.

The Cooey Ace 1 rifle was in production from 1929 through 1934 by the Cooey Machine and Ammo Company Limited of Ontario, Canada. The Cooey Company was later sold to Olin/Winchester in 1961. Cooey made the same rifle for the T. Eaton Company marketed as the “Eatonia.” It has also been sold as the “Rabbit.” 

The Cooey Ace 1 was as simple as a .22 rifle could get. Think of it as the 1930s-era version of the modern Cricket rifle. The Ace 1 was marketed as a boy’s first rifle and utility gun. There just wasn’t much to it.

Cooey Ace 1 lever action close-up
We might think of the Ace 1 as a plinking rifle. Bella Twin had other uses in mind.

The Ace 1 was a single-shot, bolt-action design. The sights were fixed, and rounds had to be loaded by hand one at a time. A built-in extractor ideally removed the empties when the bolt was cycled. The striker knob had to be manually cocked each time you worked the bolt. The trigger guard was pressed out of a strip of sheet steel and secured with screws.

Heavily worn Cooey Ace 1 used to shoot a bear
Bella’s remarkable rimfire bear rifle was just beaten to pieces.

The Gun Wasn’t In Good Shape

Bella’s example was all the more remarkable. Her stock had cracked badly at some point along the way and had been repaired with a standard flat-head wood screw. The finish was gone, and the gun was liberally covered in rust. Given the broken buttstock, the action was actually secured in place with hockey tape. This was the most craptastic little single-shot .22 imaginable, yet this tiny woman killed a 1,000-pound grizzly with it.

Developed in 1871, the .22 Long round is the world’s second-oldest rimfire cartridge. Early loads pushed a 29-grain solid lead bullet over a 5-grain charge of black powder. This gave the .22 Long roughly 25% more power than the diminutive .22 Short. The .22 Long was originally designed for use in revolvers, though it was soon employed in rifles as well. The .22 Long does not typically produce enough recoil energy to cycle autoloading weapons. Out of a rifle-length barrel the .22 Long will typically just barely break 1,000 feet per second at the muzzle.

The Bear

Dr. Dabbs - Bella Twin: The Tiny Little Woman and the Really Big Bear
I’m pleased to report that there are apparently plenty of these guys still wandering about in the wild. The North American population is doing just fine.

The brown bear ranges across much of North America and Eurasia. It is the second-largest terrestrial carnivore right behind the polar bear. North American examples are called grizzlies, while the subspecies unique to Kodiak Island in Alaska is known as the Kodiak bear.

While the brown bear was hunted to extinction across much of its range in the late 19th and early 20thcenturies, the animal is listed as a least concern species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature today. Worldwide the total population is estimated to be around 200,000 animals. About a quarter of those live in Alaska.

Dr. Dabbs - Bella Twin: The Tiny Little Woman and the Really Big Bear
Ummm, nope. This 10-foot, 1,400-pound specimen lives at the Orphaned Wildlife Center in Otisville, NY, and is actually somebody’s pet. Holy snap, look at the thing. My momma didn’t raise me to be bear poop.

Actually Quite Dangerous

The brown bear eats anything it can catch. Berries, fish, or mammals both large and small make up most of its diet. Those who should know told me while we lived in Alaska that what typically determines whether you live or die in the opening moments of a brown bear attack is the relative dimensions of your skull and the bear’s jaws. If the animal can get its teeth around your head it will crush your skull like a grape. If not you might just get scalped. I’d sooner not empirically test that out myself.

Dr. Dabbs - Bella Twin: The Tiny Little Woman and the Really Big Bear
There is actually great truth to be found in the tale of the tiny little woman and the big old bear. Shot placement overshadows everything else.

We fret about caliber, weapon, and bullet selection for personal defense as nauseam. However, Bella Twin’s performance with her world record bruin illustrates a truly timeless truism. When it comes to a life-or-death encounter with a predator whether they walk on two legs or four, caliber selection plays a part but shot placement is everything.

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  • Frank September 22, 2023, 9:51 am

    Shot placement is always paramount… but I’m thinking God wasn’t quite ready to call Ms. Twin or her companion. Excellent tale, Will. Once again you’ve made me miss my time in the Great North.

  • Jerry September 19, 2023, 8:02 am

    Elsewhere, it has been reported as, that particular rifle was chambered in 22 long, not lr, and that it happenned as far back as 1915, and that she stuck the gun in his earhole as it snuffled on by her, and pulled the trigger, the wind being all wrong for him to smell her, but you know how reportage is affected by the reporter. How does one shoot a tenfoot bear in the back if the head? The story as related here says they hid in the treeline, not behind the same tree. I see the bear facing her friend, turning his back on her…brer bear aint skeert o’ nuthin, and turning his back on you says you are no threat…
    i once knew a gal who as a girl shot at a squirrel with “a .22” and the mountainside behind it fell down. Dont recall if she got the squirrel, but she put that .22 thru the earhole of the elk standing behind mr bushytail. the guys all backed up the story…and wouldnt let her forget it…great tasting elk, too, or so the story went.

  • Burton Handfield September 19, 2023, 7:55 am

    We’ll done Major Dabbs! I’ve never read anything so breathlessly exciting and amazing as this tiny, brave, Cree woman’s “David and Goliath experience.” Your own record of achievement is exemplary and makes me proud to be a fellow-American.

  • Rattlerjake September 18, 2023, 10:45 pm

    It is actually the side of the head right where the ear is. There were two people, maybe they were hiding in two different spots and the bear headed for the other person giving this woman a good broadside shot.

    The best place to shoot any large animal is in the ear, which is where the skull is thinnest.

  • LBear65 September 18, 2023, 3:13 pm

    I’ve been told to shoot them in the nose. Only soft spot to reach the brain. I’m 76 now and don’t think I’ll be encountering such a beast myself. Good story. Your report stated she sold her rifle. Did she purchase another one?

  • Bob W September 18, 2023, 2:02 pm

    Hey Dabbs. When are you going to write a book? I love your stories. I’m sure you can come up with something about you military or medical experiences. I’m thinking best seller.

  • Irish-7 September 18, 2023, 1:25 pm

    I recall Marty on a survival show saying he killed bears with a .22 Magnum! This particular show had teams of participants racing from point to point. Marty was carrying a .22 WMR revolver. Another contestant had a rifle chambered for .357 Magnum and a 3rd participant had the M6 Scout .22 WMR or .22 LR over a .410 GA/.45 LC. There were 2 military guys that had M4s (5.56mm). I was intrigued that Marty was carrying such a small caliber in that he was from Alaska! Most reviews that I’ve read about hand guns in Alaska recommended calibers .44 Magnum and larger. I think the preferred weapon for brown bears is a .12 Gauge shotgun with slugs. The Cree woman in the article made a very difficult shot!

  • Donn Atanasoff September 18, 2023, 12:59 pm

    Great article Will, we experienced this situation a few years back. Went to an Admiralty Island salmon fishing camp, my son was 10 yrs old. He and I got dropped off by boat at a small river mouth, instructed to walk up a few hundred yards and fish. They left with the other fishermen, to be back in 2-3 hrs. We caught fish for sure, had beautiful reds on a stringer, then a small brown bear starts wandering toward us from a few hundred yards, in an open field area upstream. This little guy suddenly bolts, and then the big boy shows up, slowly walking toward us. Our little pool was just above the tidal water fall, his fishing spot and no one else’s.

    We abandoned the fish stringer and our pack with snickers and P-butter sandwich lunch within. The bear kept working toward us. We scurried to a spot 100 yds out on the tidal flats, right by the mouth, and climbed up on a large RV size rock to wait him out. An hour goes by, and I’m thinking he’s gone. At that very moment I spot a huge bear head looking at us from the thick brush line 100 yds away. He walks right out to us, to about 30 feet and simply stops for a look. My smith model 29 44 mag is in hand. I do everything wrong… make eye contact and woof at him, in bear language I guess. He simply looks us over, and walks away. Most beautiful long haired cinnamon colored animal I have ever seen. All 800+ or so pounds of him. My son and I reminisce about this one still (he’s 35 now). The boat driving guide got a piece of mind for sure, as they were giggling because they knew this would likely happen. The bear took the fish, but only sniffed our snickers pack and never touched it.

  • DAVID CONNOLLY September 18, 2023, 11:37 am

    I’m puzzled as to how she managed to shoot the approaching bear in the back of the head.

  • Tip Tover September 18, 2023, 9:35 am

    Truly amazing… I have heard the go to weapon for bears is a shotgun using slugs and that handguns won’t cut it (maybe 454 Casull or 500 S&W). These bears are very scarce here in S. Florida…

  • Tony G Elam September 18, 2023, 9:21 am

    “Craptastic”, I’m rolling on the floor!! Keep ‘‘em coming Dr D.

  • Sixgunner September 18, 2023, 9:20 am

    One of the best Dabbs tales yet! I gave my son a Cricket for his 7th Xmas.

  • Mark N. September 16, 2023, 1:17 am

    Nope, nope nope, not something I want to meet up with in the wild or even hunt for that matter. That is one big, dangerous animal. I remember this story well, and my only comment is that that tiny Cree woman had bigger balls than most anyone I know.

    • GIJOOOE September 18, 2023, 10:52 am

      Yeah I’m with you- nope. Nyet. Nein. No way. Not gonna happen. People say that you need at least .357 magnum hard cast to defend yourself against a bear, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable with anything less than 3” magnum 12 gauge slugs or something like 45-70 or .338 Win Mag, and I want as much ammo capacity as I can get.

      • W September 19, 2023, 11:33 am

        and distance!

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