By: Spencer Durrant
Bear encounters are thrilling. I’ve had two, neither of which turned into anything life-threatening. My positive bear experiences were mostly due to luck, but were also a result of a lifetime living in the Rockies and a general knowledge of bear behavior.
After the first encounter, I started religiously carrying a firearm with me whenever I went into the backcountry. I usually have my sidearm at hand, but I haven’t ventured off the beaten path at all without a gun on one hip.
I recently wrote for GPM that guns aren’t very helpful in stopping a bear attack – especially compared to bear spray. I still believe that; however, I also believe in redundancy, and if your bear spray doesn’t work, a gun is the next best option. Mostly, though, I carry a “bear defense” gun – not to shoot the bear, but to scare it off.
Most bear attacks are a result of bears acting on natural instincts, responding to perceived threats on their home turf. Usually, the crack of a gunshot is enough to dissuade the bear from attacking.
That’s what the fishing guides I recently spoke to in Alaska use their guns for. Most of the guides I met carried either a Smith & Wesson .44 mag or a .454 Casull/.45 Long Colt. And most of them said when bears get a bit too close for comfort, a warning shot fired in their direction usually sets the bear on a run in the opposite direction.
But those guides carried other guns as well – their "Oh, s***" guns. These are the weapons they use when a bear has no fear of humans and is clearly charging in the direction of said human. If your bear spray hasn’t worked, or won’t fire, these guns are the next best option for defending against a bear attack.
Let’s look at both the guns I’d pick as my “dissuasion” pieces – those meant to scare off a bear – and the ones I’d carry as a last-resort, life-flashing-before-my-eyes kind of situation.
The 1911 is the world’s most enduring pistol because it’s nearly impervious to bad conditions, heavy use, and always seems to work well under pressure. There’s a reason these guns were standard service issue for the U.S. military for so long.
I prefer the Springfield Armory 1911 Mil-Spec or the Smith & Wesson 1911 E-Series. Both guns are priced well, built as good as you’d expect, and function pretty flawlessly. For a gun that’ll be riding on your hip or in a chest holster while in the rugged backcountry, it doesn’t make sense to spend more than $1,000 on this gun. Obviously, the .45 ACP is the recommended cartridge here, but the 10mm isn’t a bad option either. Ammo is usually more expensive and harder to find for 10mm, but it gets the job done.
.454 Casull/.45 Long Colt
The .454 Casull is the souped-up always-ready-to-party uncle to the .45 Long Colt. The .45 was developed for the Colt Peacemaker single-action revolver, and its age shows only by the fact that other, similar cartridges fire faster and hit harder.
A .45 Long Colt is a perfectly good option for a dissuasion gun in a bear situation. A 185-grain FTX Critical Defense .45 Long Colt round from Hornady has the following ballistics:
Nothing crazy, but enough to make a bear jump a bit. Now, the .454 Casull is a different story. This is a cartridge you can count on to scare bears and potentially put them down. A .454 is only a bit longer than the .45 Long Colt, and as such, you can fire a .45 Long Colt out of a gun chambered for the .454 Casull. It doesn’t work both ways, though, as the .454 Casull is pressurized exponentially higher than the .45 Long Colt.
Ballistics on a .454 Casull 240-grain XTP Mag cartridge from Hornady are:
Quite the difference in power, but about three times the recoil. Make sure you shoot a .454 before you buy one.
The Last Resort
Shotguns are arguably the best all-purpose defense/hunting gun around. I know a guy who hunts elk in Wyoming every year with 3-inch 12-gauge slugs. He rarely comes home without some meat for the freezer.
The other benefit to shotguns is that you don’t need to be a great aim to hit what you’re shooting. In a bear attack, where you have seconds to make a decision, that kind of surety is calming.
After speaking with a lot of guides in Alaska, I came to the consensus that something like the Mossberg 590 Shockwave is your best bet. It’s a compact pistol-grip shotgun that measures just over 26 inches long and holds six rounds. Carry six spares in your pocket and you’ll be in good shape.
The next question is which shotgun shells to use. Some people swear that slugs are all you need, but that’s a flawed line of thinking. Slugs present some of the best stopping power you’ll get out of any gun, but the point of guns for bear defense isn’t necessarily to kill the bear. One slug usually won’t do it either, so you’d have to bank on two or three slugs putting a halt on a charging bear.
Instead, chamber three rounds of double-aught buckshot and three slugs. Alternate the shells, starting with buckshot. This give you the best of both worlds a 12-gauge shotgun offers, while minimizing potential bear fatalities when they’re not needed.
At the end of the day, I’ll still reach for my bear spray first, in any bear situation. It’s so much more effective and, importantly, doesn’t kill the bear. As I said earlier, most bear attacks are a result of bears acting on instinct. We’re the ones in tir home, and we have to expect a certain level of retaliation for that.
If spray doesn’t work, though, or you can’t get to it in time, the guns listed here are your next best choice, in my opinion.
Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer and outdoors columnist from Utah. He’s the Managing Editor of The Modern Trout Bum and Owner/CEO of Cutthroat Creative Media. Spencer’s work has been published in multiple national magazines, including Field & Stream, Sporting Classics Daily, American Angler, and more. Connect with him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.