In a world awash to its gunwales in make-believe spandex-clad superheroes, sometimes it is cool to hear about the real thing. Alaskan brown bears are some of the most formidable predators on the planet, the apex hunters in their natural world. When an Alaskan youth named Elliot Clark faced one of these enormous beasts intent on eating him and his family, this young stud stood his ground, lifted his Remington 870 20-gauge, and put the monster down.
How Scary are Bears Really?
In August of 2012 Richard White, a 49-year-old pharmacologist from San Diego, California, was hiking alone through the vast expanse of Denali National Park. Denali is one of the most pristine tracts of unspoiled wilderness on the planet. It is also home to some legendarily huge Alaskan brown bears.
Richard was an experienced hiker who had hiked Denali solo before. However, he carried neither firearm nor bear spray. On his application for a backcountry permit, he listed his primary bear deterrent as a whistle.
Fellow hikers happened upon a bloody backpack near the Toklat River and notified park rangers. The rangers found a large boar grizzly standing guard over White’s remains. The big bear had partially eaten and buried the man. As they lost the light the rangers fired on the bear twice but missed.
The following day rangers found the bear still guarding White’s body and dispatched the animal from a helicopter. A necropsy of the 600-pound mature male proved that they had gotten the right bear. They found White’s undamaged digital camera nearby.
White had photographed the bear that killed him twenty-six times in less than eight minutes. He began shooting pictures at a range of approximately forty yards, but the bear was on him quickly. Richard White left behind a wife and young daughter. Brown bears are remarkably efficient killers.
A Most Extraordinary Young Man…
Five years later, 11-year-old Elliot Clark was walking along a trail headed to a familiar fishing spot on Game Creek just south of Hoonah, Alaska, on Chichagof Island. Elliot’s uncle and grandfather were in the lead. His cousin pulled up the rear. Three family dogs screened the flanks.
Young Elliot was already an experienced Alaskan and fully acclimated to firearms. His uncle slung a serious rifle on his back. Elliot carried his slide-action Remington 20-gauge at port arms. Elliot’s dad was away at the time but had planned on installing a sling on the shotgun when he returned. This becomes pertinent in a moment.
Elliot carried his shotgun with a round of birdshot in the chamber followed by slugs. The young man had asked his dad the week before for permission to remove the plug from his gun that limited the weapon to two rounds in the magazine. Elliot’s father agreed that he was ready for the upgrade, so his gun packed a full four slug rounds in the tube.
An enormous brown bear appeared without warning and charged the small party. The gigantic animal tossed the two adults clear with ease before focusing on Elliot and his young cousin. Any normal kid might have run or simply frozen in place. Elliot, by contrast, stood his ground between the charging grizzly and his unarmed relative, raised his shotgun, drew a bead, and fired.
That first charge of 20-gauge birdshot had no discernible effect on the enraged bruin, but young Elliot cycled the gun in an instant. His first slug struck the bear squarely in the nose and tracked down into its neck. Cycling the action again Elliot put his second slug into the animal’s shoulder at bad breath range. The muzzle blast from this third round was close enough to leave powder burns in the giant bear’s mouth. This third shot knocked the animal down, its momentum causing the creature to slide past the two kids. Elliot stepped over to the panting beast and killed it outright with a third slug delivered at contact range.
I lived for three years in the Alaskan interior. It is a beautiful though unforgiving place of frightening weather and simply breathtaking predators. Firearms are background clutter. Most everybody outside the immediate environs of Fairbanks was typically armed. At an age when most young men are trying to survive sixth-grade social studies, Elliot Clark used his pump-action 20-gauge to singlehandedly save his family from the jaws of Alaska’s apex predator. What a freaking stud.
The Alaskan brown bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) comes in a variety of flavors. The largest of the lot live in the coastal areas and can attain veritable prehistoric proportions. While I am sure to offend the purist, we shall heretofore refer to all brown bears as grizzlies. A fully-grown peninsular grizzly feeding on clams, salmon, and sedge grass can top out between 800 and 1,200 pounds. This makes the Alaskan brown bear one of the largest land predators on the planet.
Coastal grizzlies can become truly epic specimens. The world record example was killed in 1948 near Cold Bay. This monster was freshly out of hibernation and was therefore devoid of any extraneous fat. It nonetheless weighed in excess of 1,700 pounds and stood nearly ten feet tall. Biologists estimated that this particular bruin would have weighed 1,850 pounds by the end of the following summer.
Grizzlies are omnivores, meaning they will eat almost anything. These tremendous animals do actually consume a fair amount of grass. Additionally, it seems the entire state of Alaska is covered with a thin patina of berries. Bears devour these delectable morsels by the basketful. What really makes the animals enormous, however, is fish.
Fish-fed grizzlies have raised angling to an art form. They catch spawning salmon in mid-air or pin the slippery fish with their claws. When I worked and wandered deep in the Alaskan bush it was always unsettling to encounter the copious remains of bear-slaughtered salmon littering remote riverbanks.
The Remington 870 slide-action shotgun is the most popular shotgun ever made. Since its introduction in 1950 more than 11 million copies have been produced. Offered in 12, 16, 20, 28, and .410 gauges, the 870 has been sold around the world.
L. Ray Crittendon, Phillip Haskell, Ellis Hailston, and G.E. Pinckney designed the weapon. The gun features right-sided ejection, twin action bars, and a tubular magazine underneath the barrel. Depending upon the configuration this magazine can carry 4, 5, 6, or 7 rounds. Extended magazine tubes can make that number even larger.
Given the 870’s widespread distribution it is no surprise that the gun has been extensively accessorized. Sundry barrels, stocks, forearms, sights, widgets, and ditzels litter the landscape. Most any version you might want is readily available right here on GunsAmerica.
Early 20-gauge receivers accepted the same stocks as the larger 12-gauge versions. However, since the late 1970’s the 20-gauge guns have used a proprietary stock mounting architecture.
Adaptors that allow 12-gauge stocks to fit 20-gauge receivers are readily available and cheap.
The basic 870 design has been widely copied. The Chinese Norinco Company produces an unlicensed version titled the HP9. These foreign knockoff guns are typically quite inexpensive.
I packed a short-barreled 870 12-gauge for bear defense when I lived in Alaska. In fact, this gun formed the basis for my first gun magazine article back a quarter-century ago. This particular weapon began life as a standard 870 Express that was a birthday present from my precious wife.
I did a BATF Form 1 on the gun to legally shorten the barrel. Back then a Form 1 turned around in a couple of months as opposed to the better part of a year they require today. Once the paper came back approved I shortened the tube with a hacksaw and dressed the muzzle with a Dremel tool. Installing a new front sight bead was a simple chore with a drill press.
I tracked down an original Law Enforcement Only top-folding stock and mounted up a sling. That original stock is insanely uncomfortable, but it looks undeniably cool. Thusly configured I packed the gun with sabot slugs and kept it handy when I fished, flew, and explored out where the Wild Things roamed.
Elliot Clark is clearly one serious young American. One can only hope that he aspires to become a Navy SEAL or Army Ranger. Once he hits puberty we could just put him in a loincloth, give him a knife, and let him HALO into central Afghanistan. He would have the Taliban defeated within the week.
I once asked a lifelong Alaskan buddy his opinion of those 12-gauge Dragon’s Breath flamethrower rounds that launch copious flaming magnesium as a possible bear deterrent. He pondered my question and said, “Nope, son, I wouldn’t do that,” stroking his ample whiskers before proceeding. “The only thing I can think of worse than being charged by an angry grizzly bear would have to be being charged by an angry grizzly bear on fire.”
That seemed like sage advice to me.