Which Firearm Is Best for Bear Defense?
July 11, 2018
Every big-game hunter worth his salt has read Use Enough Gun, Robert Ruark's classic book on hunting big game. The premise of this collection of safari stories is that you should "use enough gun" for the game you are hunting. When it comes to choosing a firearm for defense against a charging bear, what is enough gun?
Last summer, I spent a week taking a class with employees of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Geological Survey — people who routinely spend time in some very remote country. Found in this country are bears of three different varieties: black bears, brown bears (the grizzly and the coastal brown bear), and polar bears. Any of these bears are capable of having a bad day if you meet up with them.
In a well-documented attack in 1977, Cynthia Dusel-Bacon, a geologist working with the USGS was mauled by a predatory black bear. (Bear researchers classify most bear attacks as either predatory or defensive.) Cynthia lost both arms as a result of the attack but recovered and continued her career with USGS. This incident led Steve Nelson, a coworker, to develop and begin teaching a firearm-based class on bear awareness and defense. He has taught hundreds of students including many from government agencies and private corporations, as well as average citizens who want to be better prepared to deal with members of the Ursus family. Nelson has had occasion to deal with four bears (two black bears and two grizzlies) in DLP situations (shooting a bear in Defense of Life and Property). The class I
attended was near Wasilla, Alaska, and here is some insight into what I learned.
Shotguns in Bear Country
More than any other firearm, a pump-action shotgun loaded with slugs is what Alaskans carry to hedge their bets with bears. There are several reasons for this. A shotgun is usually less expensive than a rifle, as is the ammunition. Shotguns are readily available in most areas and offer the versatility of using different types of ammo. In the bush you can carry the shotgun loaded with heavy slugs for bear medicine and switch to bird shot if you need to take small game.
Reliability is the simple reason most of those who work in the backcountry choose the pump gun. Semiautomatics have not yet won over the populace for this work. Although any configuration of the shotgun will do when confronted with 800 or more pounds of teeth, claws, and muscle, the tactical versions are the most popular. Short barrels and long magazines are the keys here. The shorter barrel is handier in tight places, and extended magazines readily offer more ammunition. Rifle sights on these shotguns are popular, and several of the Alaskans I spoke with like a ghost ring rear sight. Remember, we are talking very close range in dealing with a charging bear — less than 50 yards and sometimes just a matter of feet.
Remington 870 DM Magpul
If you think that not much more can be said about the iconic 870 shotgun, you are right. The rock-solid twin action bars along with the one-piece solid steel receiver are the basis for this shotguns reputation of reliability. The 18.5-inch barrel, extended magazine holding six rounds, 3-inch chamber, and ghost ring rear sight make the 870 DM Magpul a good choice for bear and home-defense. $800; remington.com
Big Rifles for Big Bears
"The shotgun with slugs is great for bear defense, but I am admittedly a rifle guy," Nelson told me. Nelson is an avid hunter in Alaska, so it stands to reason he would often be carrying a rifle anyway. Although he recommends "anything .30-06 and up," like many Alaskans he is a fan of the big bore guns: .375 H&H, .375 Ruger, .338 Win. Mag., and sometimes he will pack a Marlin lever gun in .45-70. I noted that Nelson liked open sights for bear-defense situations — again, this is short-range work. Nelson admitted with the effects of age on eyesight he is looking more at using red dot sights on a rifle. He believes they are effective and allow quick target acquisition. What he has not decided on is if these sights will stand up to the pounding they may take while working in the Alaskan bush.
At the risk of raising the ire of lever gun fans I was a little surprised that some of those in the class carried Marlins chambered in .45-70. The .45-70 being a good choice for bears no doubt, but I was skeptical about working a lever gun under the stress of a bear charge. Nelson demonstrated he had no problem with rapid-fire drills on the range, and reiterated that practice and familiarity with the weapon are very important.
CZ-USA 550 Safari Magnum
This rifle has been known worldwide as the 602 Brno and is now made by CZ-USA. Alaskans like this full-sized magnum rifle, rather than a downsized action made to fit big-bore calibers. The Safari Magnum holds three rounds of .416 Rigby or five rounds of .458 Win. Mag. Features include a controlled-round-feed action, fixed ejector, single-set trigger, beautiful Turkish walnut stock, and three leaf sights. $1,215; cz-usa.com
Wheelguns Get the Nod
I found these Alaskans like big-bore handguns for the ease in carry as well as stopping power on a bear with malice in its heart. Carrying a long gun in the bush can become tiresome, as you are hiking through the brush, getting on and off ATVs, and in and out of boats and airplanes. The risk can be that when the scat hits the fan, the long gun may not be in your hands — it was left in the boat, on the ATV, or leaning against a convenient tree.
This is where a handgun strapped on your hip or in a shoulder or chest rig may save your bacon. The Alaskans I spent time with were not bashful about carrying big calibers. The .454 Casull rules the roost here, and there is no doubt this round is a beast and capable of bringing down the wrath of God if unleashed. The trick is that no matter how effective the .454 is you must be capa- ble of hitting something with it. Many in Nelson's class thought the .44 Magnum was an acceptable step down if the shooter did not want to deal with the recoil of the .454 Casull.
Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan Model
The Ruger Super Redhawk in .454 Casull is a beast. The Alaskan Model with a 2.5-inch barrel is even more so. Ruger's triple locking cylinder, along with a beefed-up frame in the topstrap, sidewalls, and barrel mounting area make the Super Redhawk a dependable revolver for shooting big-bore calibers like the .480 Ruger and the .454 Casull. The recoil-cushioning Hogue grips and adjustable rear sight are a nice touch. It's also available in .44 Magnum. $1,189; ruger.com