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Rifle Magazine
October - November 2001
Volume 36, Number 5
ISSN: 0017-7393
Number 213
On the cover...
This issue is only available on CD-ROM.The Rifles, Inc. custom .25-06 Remington is based on a Remington Model 700 action and topped off with a Burris 4-16x scope in Burris rings and mounts. Rifle photo by Stan Trzoniec. Pronghorn photo by John R. Ford. Purchase the CD-ROM here
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For the large number of bears that roam North America, there are relatively few attacks on humans. Nonetheless, bears seem to fascinate people, and rightfully so, as they are certainly one of God’s most magnificent creatures and, if nothing else, interesting to observe and study. They are not only very smart but possess instincts that civilized folks don’t generally understand. To top off this unique combination, these creatures possess incredible strength and speed, which when combined with great determination, make them a very formidable enemy. Even a very strong man will get thrown around and torn like a rag doll when a large bear attacks.

This brings us to one of the most often asked questions, something to the effect of: In the summer months I hike in the such-and-such mountains; what kind of handgun should I carry for protection against bears? However casual this question may sound, considerable thought and discussion should be given this subject before relying on any handgun to stop a bear attack!

To begin with, we must understand the nature of bears. Black bears have a reputation of being timid and shy, which is true. On the other hand, they have been known to attack unprovoked and often kill people. Many attacks occur when the victim inadvertently places himself or herself between a mother bear and her out-of-sight cubs - needless to say a deadly situation! Grizzlies (including the great Alaskan brown bear, which is a species of grizzly) are of a different nature, with fear of nothing except man, usually! When he is surprised, feels threatened or his food supply is infringed upon, an attack can happen at any moment and without warning. Bears are generally best described as unpredictable, especially since most humans don’t “read” or understand their body language well.

When a bear attacks, it will usually happen very quickly and at close range, so time is very limited to aim and place the bullet in a vital area. Defending one’s self against bears is actually very similar to gunfighting. The bear’s weapons are his fast reflexes, speed (they can easily outrun any human and will be upon you in a split second), size, claws, teeth and strong forearms. If its charge is not stopped or turned before reaching you, the bear will likely put you down and keep you there until he wants to let you go, or until he mauls you to death, which can be instantaneous but is usually prolonged several minutes.

If we actually knew we were going to fight a bear, we would come prepared with a proper large-caliber rifle, and a handgun would be brought as a backup. Most people will have a much better chance of properly placing a bullet with a rifle than with a handgun. And a large-caliber rifle offers considerable power, whereas most shooters have a hard time mastering the recoil of a handgun that kicks more than a .44 Magnum. On the other hand, packing a rifle out of hunting season in some public hiking areas will raise many eyebrows, while a handgun is much more discreet and certainly more convenient to carry.

There is still wisdom in carrying a handgun, even if one goes to the extra effort to carry a rifle in bear country. First, if a bear surprises us at close range and the rifle is slung over the shoulder or the frame of a packboard, it may be too slow getting it into action to do any good. Once the bear takes the victim down, the rifle will likely be knocked out of hand or be too long to use. The handgun can be effective, if the right caliber and load are used. The victim may take a serious mauling but will still be alive, if he acts quickly and places his shots.

A good example of this took place on June 24, 1987, when Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Officer Louis Kis was relocating a 400-pound male grizzly, a known aggressive bear. The cage containing the bear was in the back of a pickup, and upon releasing him, the mad grizzly turned and bit the cage, pulling it from the pickup bed along with Officer Kis, who was on top of the cage. The bear instantly pounced onto Kis and locked onto his leg, shattering bones.

Louis was carrying a Smith & Wesson Model 66 .357 Magnum loaded with department-issued 158-grain jacketed hollowpoint (JHP) ammunition. In discussing this attack, Louis told me things happened so quickly that one instant he was on top of the cage and the next instant the bear (with a head that appeared to be three feet wide) was on top of him! He was in a tough position to place a bullet in a vital spot, but with the bear biting and shaking him, he knew he must act instantly to survive. His first four shots were placed above the bear’s eye, but the soft bullets were turned by the thick   skull and angled over the zygomatic arches, rather than penetrating to the brain. In the ruckus his sixgun was knocked muzzle upwards and the fifth shot went into the air. His sixth shot was placed under the throat wherein the bullet managed to penetrate up to the axis joint (where the neck attaches to the skull) breaking it and the spine, killing the bear instantly. His gun continued to “click” several times after the bear fell dead!

It is difficult to say without examining the skull and recovered bullets, but I suspect that if Louis would have been using a heavy, hard cast bullet, the first shot would have likely killed the bear. Using the 173-grain Keith bullet (Lyman mould 358429) in .357 Magnums, I have killed many head of livestock, which have much thicker skulls, with a single shot to the brain. In fact Louis commented that he thought his .22 Magnum revolver, loaded with 40-grain solids would have had enough penetration to do the trick.

Master Guide Ken Schoonover of Hoonah, Alaska, has been guiding for grizzly bears for 46 years. When there are problem bears in the area, he is the one called in to track down and destroy them. Recently two government surveyors found themselves in the middle of an angry sow with two cubs. Their “required carry” .375 H&H Magnum rifle was leaning against a tree when the attack began. As the sow charged, the victim ran, and she bit him in the rear end, taking him down. Fortunately he had a 9mm pistol and shot her four times. She released him and disappeared.

Upon tracking her down, Ken observed her at close range and determined her wounds were only minor, and since she was acting in defense of her cubs was not destroyed. He also felt it was likely the noise of the shots that made her retreat, not the tiny 9mm wounds!

Ken also relates another story, wherein a man and his wife were sleeping in a small trailer house in logging camp. A bear broke into the house during the night and attacked the man, who managed to grab his .44 Magnum near the bed and shoot the bear three times as it mauled him and dragged him into the front room. His wife followed with her .357 Magnum revolver and managed to kill the bear, likely saving her husband’s life.

Ken states the problem with most factory loaded handgun ammunition is they use soft expanding bullets, which simply will not penetrate on heavy bone and muscle. He suggests the use of heavyweight hard cast bullets or a tough jacketed bullet that is designed for deep penetration. He also advises that if a bear attacks, just keep fighting, then fight some more. Don’t give up!

A fascinating bear story from Canada took 12 years to unfold and teaches a powerful lesson. In 1933 Jack and Bruce Johnson, residents of Ketchikan, Alaska, were prospecting near the headwaters of the Unuk River in Canada, where they were tormented, mostly at night, by spine-tingling groaning sounds of a bear in great pain. Mining was promising, and the Johnson brothers returned seasonally to the remote Canadian wilderness for the next two years.

As they camped, they frequently heard the distinctive sounds of “Old Groaner” as he coughed and groaned a most chilling sound, almost as if each grunt would be his last. In spite of efforts to see the bear, he stayed out of sight, but in time he began trailing the miners, and they soon realized he was indeed stalking them, and getting braver. Once, in extremely thick brush, Old Groaner coughed, growled and advanced on Bruce but was discouraged when Bruce fired a .410 pistol several times over the bear’s head. He even destroyed their riverboat. Judging by his tracks, they knew the bear was enormous, and because of his now-aggressive behavior, rifles were always kept within easy reach.

One night he circled close to their camp, groaning, coughing and growling but staying in the shadows and out of the light of the campfire. Their dog chased him into the brush several times, but Groaner would soon return. The next morning, after keeping the fire roaring all night, with rifles in hand and getting no sleep, the Johnson brothers worked furiously to complete their small cabin, designed specifically to keep the troublesome bear out!


Mining season was coming to a close, so before heading back to Ketchikan, Bruce headed for their site to stake claim with his trusty dog Slasher following. As always he carried his rifle, a Winchester Model 1895 .38-72 WCF. While Bruce was marking the properly squared wooden stake, Slasher growled and ran to meet Groaner as he charged Bruce from a thicket only 15 feet away! The bear momentarily stopped his charge to swat the big dog with a paw and send him sailing 20 feet. This gave Bruce just enough time to grab his rifle and fire from the hip, with the bullet striking the big bear in the shoulders. Bruce barely jumped out of the way as the bear’s momentum carried him past, where he hit the ground. Instantly Groaner was up again and coming, so Bruce fired another shot into his neck, putting him down again but only for a moment. As Groaner regained his feet, Bruce managed to put his third and last shot into the brain, low just behind the ear, killing him instantly. His rifle was now empty.

In examining the old beast, he had only one eye, the other having been lost with a terrible head wound - a wound that had broken a large chunk of skull out many years before. The jaws were twisted and warped and covered with thick skin and scar tissue. His teeth were broken and festering. His hair was short and very thin and in many places there was no hair whatsoever. He was a ghastly sight!

Since the hide was no good they removed his head and began skinning it out, which unfolded a 12-year mystery. The severe wound that removed his right eye and a large portion of his skull was from a bullet. There was another old bullet wound that had crossed through the skull above the right eye and was almost completely grown over. Yet another bullet had creased the base of the skull. The right jaw hinge had been shattered and never healed. Embedded in the back of the jaw were two .33-caliber bullets and found in the gristle under the jaw were three .38-caliber bullets. It was obvious the horrible position Groaner’s victim had been in when these last three shots were fired! It was apparent that Jess Sethington, a well-known miner who had disappeared mysteriously on the Unuk in 1923, was the one who fired these bullets, as he owned a Winchester Model 1886 .33 WCF and a .38 Special revolver, which he carried with him at all times.

It is unfortunate that Jess had not carried a more powerful revolver, one that was capable of penetrating from the chin through the brain, which would have killed the great bear with a single shot and saved his life.

I have personally observed instances where the .41 Magnum and .44 Magnum with 210- and 240-grain JHP bullets, respectively, have failed to penetrate enough to do any real damage to bears. Three years ago, Leo Zimmers shot a nice Idaho black bear, a boar, with a Smith & Wesson Model 58 .41 Magnum with a 210-grain JHP factory load. It took eight shots to kill the boar, most of them properly placed and all at less than 30 yards. Many of the bullets only penetrated one to 3 inches! If he had been using a hard cast bullet of proper design, penetration would have been something close to 3 feet.

Most of the bears I have taken have been with sixguns in a variety of calibers including .357 Magnum, .44 Special, .44 Magnum, .45 Colt and .454 Casull. Distances have varied from a few feet to beyond 100 yards. Some were taken over bait, while others were shot while still hunting, or just stumbled onto when working cattle from horseback or when kicking around in the hills.

It is important to understand that hunting bears with a handgun is considerably different than stopping or turning a charge from an angry bear! When a bear is being still-hunted or taken over bait, it is unlikely he will know of the hunter’s presence and a shot can be carefully and vitally placed. For example, if a bear is shot through the lungs at 50 yards with a .44 Magnum, he will typically make a dash to the nearest cover and die within a few minutes, never knowing who or what shot him. If such a shot is not presented, then the hunter shouldn’t shoot, and the bear will go on his merry way unharmed.

On the other hand, if a bear pinpoints a human and in a rare instance decides to make a real charge, not a bluff, it will be difficult for the average person to make a vital hit with a handgun. Head shots should be avoided, as it not only bobs up and down, but also moves unpredictably, making hits difficult. Even if you manage to hit the head, it is unlikely the bullet will actually reach the brain, as the bear will be coming straight for you and chances are the bullets will deflect from the thick skull, only causing minor damage. It is possible to hit the spine, but this is best attempted if they are really close and you are accustomed to hitting small moving targets with a handgun!

Generally it is best to put a bullet under the chin, going deep into the chest, reaching vitals. A shoulder shot is also a good possibility as it is large, and if we use a powerful enough gun to break structure, it will likely turn the bear, at least long enough to get another shot from a quartering angle or possibly from the side. If the caliber/bullet is up to the job, a shoulder can be broken and the bullet can still penetrate deep into the vitals. If the bear turns to any degree, take advantage of this quickly and put a slug through his lungs, which may not be instantly fatal, but death is not far away.

You will likely be on the ground instantly if the bear reaches you. Use your legs or offhand to keep him from biting your head and neck, until you can find the right moment to put a bullet into a vital spot. Needless to say, use ammunition carefully as reloading will likely be out of the question!

Suitable Calibers, Bullet Selection and Guns

I have carried a custom Linebaugh-built Ruger Bisley chambered in .500 Linebaugh in the close presence of brown and grizzly bears on several occasions. I have practiced and hunted with this extremely powerful revolver enough that the very heavy recoil doesn’t bother me, and having shot a variety of animals with it, confidence in its performance on big critters is high. Other favorite guns are chambered for the .475 Linebaugh, custom five-shot .45 Colts and .454 Casull.

I am first to admit (and I can’t stress this enough) the above hard-kicking, big-bore revolvers are not for everyone! In fact I seldom, if ever, recommend them for the average shooter as most are better served with something a bit less intimidating - a gun they can shoot in volume and develop confidence. For most handgunners, a .44 Magnum stoked with full-house loads (or another caliber that produces similar recoil) is about the maximum recoil level they can master with reasonable effort. If full-house .44 Magnum loads are producing too much recoil, reduce the velocity a couple hundred feet per second and this will usually take the edge off so it can be mastered.

Another great caliber, one that I prefer over the fine .44 Magnum (of which I am very fond) is the .45 Colt. If it is used in a heavy-frame revolver, such as the Ruger Blackhawk, Bisley or Vaquero, .45 Colt performance is actually better than a .44 Magnum with less chamber pressure and muzzle concussion. A 325-grain cast bullet can be driven to 1,300 fps and will penetrate like there is no tomorrow and cuts a larger wound channel than the .44 Magnum.

While it is suggested to carry as powerful a revolver as can be mastered, because of the need to reduce recoil, some will find favor with the .41 and .357 Magnums. If the right bullet is used and shot placement is correct, they will work. Another good choice, that is strictly a handloading proposition, is the .44 Special. In a heavy N-frame Smith & Wesson or a postwar Colt Single Action Army, a 250-grain Keith bullet can safely be driven to 1,200 fps, making it a more effective cartridge than either the .357 or .41 Magnums.

In selecting a bullet, make certain it is capable of deep penetration. I cannot emphasize this enough, particularly on the really large bears of the North. Most handgun jacketed bullets are designed for personal protection from humans, and penetration will only range between 8 to 12 inches in soft tissue and certainly less on the sinewy tissue of a bear. A hard cast bullet of proper design is always a good choice and penetration from a typical magnum revolver will be close to 3 feet. For even deeper penetration, choose a bullet that is a heavyweight for that caliber.

For example, if you are using a .44 Magnum, a 240- to 250-grain cast bullet is considered a standard weight. If a 300- to 320-grain bullet is used and the basic bullet shape and design are the same, then penetration and bone-breaking qualities will be increased. The true Keith cast bullet design (moulds are available from Lyman Corporation: 1-800-225-9626) is always a reliable performer, as it penetrates straight and never tumbles. The now-defunct Lead Bullet Technologies also had some excellent cast bullet designs, which are now available as a component through several commercial bullet casters such as Cast Performance Bullet Company.

For those who really want to shoot jacketed bullets, the Nosler Partition and Speer plated softpoint are good choices. The Partition will usually penetrate about half as deep as a cast bullet of similar weight; however, the faster it is driven, the deeper it penetrates. For example in a .454 Casull, the 260-grain Partition at 1,800 fps will typically penetrate 18 to 20 inches, whereas in a .44 Magnum, the 250-grain bullet at 1,250 fps will reach 15 inches. The Speer 300-grain plated softpoint in either .44 or .45 caliber at 1,200 to 1,400 fps will usually penetrate close to 20 inches.

Selecting the handgun make and model is a personal choice. I have omitted discussion of the semiautomatics simply because they are not the right tools for the job. The more reliable designs are generally chambered for cartridges that are either too small or fail to penetrate adequately. This basically leaves us with a double- or single-action revolver. Discussion as to the advantages of one over the other could be nearly endless. I use both and feel it is the skill of the person behind the gun that will make the difference.

A holster is much more than just a place to put a gun. Choose a rig that allows fast access yet holds the handgun securely. The sizes and shapes of people dictate that there are many good designs, and what works for one person may not be ideal for another. I am still very fond of a good hip holster for general use, but with some activities, including backpacking, a shoulder rig is also a good option.

Above all, practice accuracy and speed. Animals often sense fear or lack thereof, and a well-armed individual with the confidence and mindset to use a gun may turn a charge without firing a shot. In the rare instance that a bear does charge and gets you down, in the words of Master Guide Ken Schoonover, “Just keep fighting, then fight some more. Don’t give up!” In order to fight to the end, you must have a handgun.

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