Loaded for Bear: Handgun Self-Defense for Bears

There has always been a lot of discussion about which is the best handgun to pack along when out on the trail as a bear repellant. Most discussions degenerate into feuds over this caliber being better than the rest and so on and so forth. The real issue isn’t about picking a certain cartridge, but being able to perform on the animal in question.

Here in the eastern part of the country we have black bears, but in a snit they can be a tough customer and have attacked people in the past, albeit rarely. While they are not the brown or grizzly bears from the west, they have amazing strength for their size and are not to be taken lightly. Treat them as you would any other bear, despite how cute and cuddly they look.

As for the choice of handgun, you are better off picking a gun that you can shoot consistently versus the most powerful you can find. The most common mistake made is that someone will buy the biggest handcannon in the store but won’t be able to hit a darn thing with it.

The very minimum caliber that I would pick for bears would be the .357 Magnum. While some might decry it as being too small, it will do the job. In 1987 Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Officer Lou Kis was relocating a 400 pound grizzly when the bear pulled the cage down off of the truck and Kis with it. The bear then turned on Kis and grabbed his leg. Kis drew his Smith & Wesson Model 66 and emptied the cylinder in short order. Loaded with 158 grain JHP’s, the first four rounds struck the bear about the eye but didn’t penetrate through into the brain, the fifth missed but the last shot went into the bruin’s throat and broke his neck and spine killing it instantly. One has to wonder if the revolver had been loaded with hard cast bullets would the fight have been over quicker.

Many people would argue that a .44 Magnum or larger would have been better suited for the task, but few can shoot a heavy recoiling revolver like that quickly. Unlike a close up fight between people, the last thing you want to do is let a large and aggressive bear get in close. If you have ever seen a bear on a dead run you will know what I mean.

Practicing for an encounter with a bear is different than shooting at a silhouette target. I place my targets no closer than 25 yards, because anything closer than that is the danger zone. Take a paper plate no bigger than eight or ten inches around and try to put as many rounds into it as quickly as possible. This will give you an idea of where you need to work on your game so to speak.

Bullet selection is also critical. For bears I would not use anything other than a hard cast bullet. Bears no matter what kind have a tough skull and you need something just as tough to punch through it. Hollow points are more likely to stop short of the brain or into the vitals and since time will be of the essence, you don’t want to waste your shots when you stand a chance of becoming a meal.

Picking the right gun for self defense in the back woods for bears is no different than on the street. You need to be able to shoot the gun accurately and consistently and pick the right bullets for the job. With practice you won’t have anything to fear when you come across a set of bear tracks on the trail.

Article updated Aug. 22, 2017 at 9:22 am EST