It’s an age-old question most hunters will never answer from personal experience: what’s the best gun for bear defense?
Selecting the right firearm requires careful consideration, but the question usually generates more uniform, strong opinions than helpful advice. Fortunately, the MeatEater crew has logged their fair share of miles in grizz country, so I caught up with a few of them to get their thoughts.
You’re unlikely to find yourself staring down the barrel of an angry grizzly, but as with most things in life, it’s best to follow the Boy Scouts and be prepared.
Jump to: The Bear Defense Guns We Use
Since carrying two long guns is cumbersome and impractical, the traditional bear defense gun is a handgun carried alongside a hunter’s bolt-action rifle. But there are many scenarios in which a person might want a firearm for bear defense. Hiking, camping, fishing, and scouting all allow a person to carry a rifle or shotgun, so our list includes those as well. If you don’t see anything you like, here are a few criteria to keep in mind before making your decision:
12 Gauge Shotgun, Slugs
Taurus G3, 9mm
Kimber 1911, 10mm
Sig Sauer P320, 10mm
Winchester 1886, .45-70 Gov’t
|Highlight||Best All-Around||Most Packable||Old School||New School||Most Powerful|
|Weight||6-7 pounds||1.5 pounds||2.4 pounds||2 pounds||8.3 pounds|
|Muzzle Velocity||1350 fps||1120 fps||1200 fps||1200 fps||1850 fps|
|Muzzle Energy||1772 ft.-lbs.||409 ft.-lbs.||639 ft.-lbs.||639 ft.-lbs.||2280 ft.-lbs.|
|Field Notes||Field Notes||Field Notes||Field Notes||Field Notes|
A life-saving firearm should be reliable above all else. In past decades, that’s why backcountry hunters have opted for revolvers, lever-action rifles, and pump-action shotguns. These days, semi-auto firearms rival the reliability of their analog predecessors, and most of the crew’s go-to firearms feature that type of action. Whatever you choose, it’s crucial that you test your gun’s reliability with the exact ammo you plan to use… and then test it again. It's also not a bad idea to clean and oil your gun before every trip. Moisture and dirt from a previous trip can gum up an action (whether semi-auto or otherwise), so it’s important to get that crap out before you pull the trigger.
When targeting game animals that aren’t trying to eat you, it’s easy to overestimate the importance of a cartridge’s power (i.e., the amount of energy a cartridge produces). You don’t need a whitetail to pile up on the spot. It’s enough to damage the lungs or heart and let nature take its course. A bear encounter is different. You want the bear to stop immediately, and you need a cartridge that can make that happen. There’s no specific number that guarantees success. Grizzlies have been killed with a .22 Long Rifle, and magnum cartridges have failed to do the same. But each of the cartridges on the crew’s list has the power to kill a bruin with a well-placed shot before it gets to its next lunch (i.e., you).
Rate of fire is another criterion that isn’t on most hunters’ radar. Statistics vary, but most police officers don’t exceed a 50% hit rate. Even if you train regularly, you might not hit a bear on your first, second, or third shots, especially if the bear is charging. “If you think you’re gonna go out and shoot a moving target with 100% accuracy, you’re one brick short of a full wheelbarrow,” said MeatEater’s Clay Newcomb.
A firearm with a high rate of fire will increase your odds of success by getting more rounds downrange in the space of time it takes for the bear to reach you.
Using a gun with a large magazine capacity can also increase your chances of surviving a bear attack. If you hit the bear on every third shot, a five-shot revolver gives you one hit while a semi-auto holding 16 rounds gets you at least three.
A high rate of fire and a large mag capacity won’t do you much good if you can’t keep the gun on target. The .500 Magnum would be a great bear-defense cartridge if it wasn’t painful to shoot and difficult to control. A 9mm you shoot every week is going to do more good than that .500 Magnum you shoot once a year, so your bear defense gun should have a recoil manageable enough to keep on target and painless enough to sustain extensive practice. The goal, as in every self-defense situation, is to get as many rounds on target as quickly as possible. If you have to step down to a smaller caliber, that’s the way to go.
A firearm isn’t your only means of protection in grizz country. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as they say, so your first strategy should be to avoid running into a bear in the first place.
“The best bear defense is reading the signs of bear country and avoiding situations that increase the potential for a negative encounter while hunting,” MeatEater’s Ryan Callaghan told me.
If you do find yourself in the middle of a “negative encounter,” bear spray is another effective self-defense tool. In fact, Callaghan said he prefers bear spray, especially on long backcountry hunts. When he’s out in the woods, his pack doesn’t contain anything that can only be used for one specific scenario that may or may not happen. It’s hard for him to justify a handgun’s weight, especially if he already has a hunting rifle.
“Bear spray is much lighter than any firearm, and I know I'll be able to hit a bear with it,” he said.
I won’t settle the bear spray vs. gun debate here, but it’s important to remember that both have been used effectively to prevent and end bear attacks. Whether you carry one or the other or both, you should carry something to fend off an attack when you’re in bear country.
For general backpacking in grizzly country, MeatEater Founder Steven Rinella has carried both bear spray and a .44 Magnum revolver. But whenever he’s in an area with a serious and credible grizzly threat, he likes his 12-gauge shotgun loaded with slugs.
"Besides the massive amount of knockdown power you get from a 12-gauge slug, I prefer shotguns for the simple reason that I’m really fast and good with them," he said. "I’ve got decades of real-world experience. With all honesty, I can’t say the same thing about revolvers."
For many years, Steve has carried an old pump-action with a barrel cut down to 20 inches and threaded to accept a thin wall choke. As a lefty, he likes the gun’s tang safety, which also allows anyone else to flip it off quickly and easily.
If you’re looking for something more cutting edge, Weatherby offers a variety of semi-auto shotguns that can throw tons of lead downrange in a hurry. You won’t have to worry about reliability with a Weatherby shotgun, and paired with Federal’s TruBall Deep Penetrator rifled slug, it makes a formidable bear-defense tool.
MeatEater’s Clay Newcomb usually carries a Glock 20 chambered in 10mm, but last year he had a chance to work on his bear defense proficiency with Taurus and firearms instructor Jake Jourdonnais. He shot a 9mm, a .45 ACP, and a .44 Magnum, and by the end of the day, he’d settled on the 9mm.
"The caliber of your sidearm matters, but less than you might think," he said. "I would choose the G3 9mm because of the carry-ability of it, the easy target acquisition, and I just think I’ll be more proficient with it in a real scenario."
He also spoke with a bear attack survivor and two state wildlife biologists to get their thoughts on the bear spray vs. pistol debate. By the end of his journey, he concluded that the firearm or caliber you carry matters less than your mindset and willingness to practice. A 9mm you’re confident you can shoot effectively is far more useful than a larger caliber you can’t.
Plus, ammo makers are making 9mm cartridges that can compete with much larger calibers in terms of penetration and stopping power. These 147-grain +P 9mm loads from Federal, for example, are loaded with the company’s patented Solid Core lead bullets for maximum penetration on large and dangerous animals. The higher +P pressures will produce more recoil than a standard 9mm, but with practice and a full-sized handgun, the cartridge is still eminently controllable. With good shot placement, the 9mm is more than capable of taking down a charging bear.
The 10mm is one of the most powerful cartridges chambered in semi-auto handguns, and MeatEater’s Brody Henderson prefers to carry it loaded in one of America’s most iconic handguns: a 1911.
"I carry a Kimber 1911 Stainless II because its size and weight is manageable to carry in the woods under my bino harness," he told me "It’s got a way better trigger pull and way less recoil than a lightweight, short-barreled .44 Magnum revolver. The 10mm cartridge packs plenty of punch, too."
While Brody says he’ll likely reach for his bear spray first in a grizzly encounter, the 1911 in 10mm is an excellent secondary option. The 1911’s weight makes controlling the 10mm a piece of cake, and these Solid Core lead bullets from Federal Pack a serious punch. The 200-grain bullets leave the muzzle at 1200 feet-per-second (fps) and produce about 50% more energy than the hottest 9mm.
Brody carries a sweet gun, but handgun technology has come a long way since 1911. MeatEater’s Garrett Long likes the 10mm cartridge, but he carries it in something a little more modern. He’s historically preferred the 9mm for the same reasons Clay likes it: it’s fast, easy to shoot, and boasts a high rate of fire.
But after taking the Sig Sauer P320-XTEN for a spin, he realized that the Sig offers the same benefits but in a much more powerful cartridge.
"The new Sig 10mm shoots like a dream and isn’t egregious in terms of recoil," he told me "My fire rate is pretty damn similar to my 9mm. Therefore, since I can maintain accuracy, nearly the same fire rate, and get the added bonus of deeper penetration, I like the Sig 10mm with a red dot."
The P320-XTEN also offers a very respectable 15+1 capacity while weighing less than an all-steel 1911. If you’re looking for an effective, easy-to-carry bear-defense firearm, it’s hard to beat Sig’s new offering with Federal’s 200-grain Solid Core bullets.
No bear gun roundup would be complete without a big-bore cartridge. The .45-70 Government has been used to stop more than a few attacking grizzlies, and lever guns have been a top choice among backcountry guides the world over. There’s no doubt that if you put a bullet or two in the right place, the .45-70 can save your life.
These 300-grain Trophy Bonded Bear Claw loads would be particularly effective. They produce nearly 1900 fps of velocity and 2,280 ft.-lbs. of energy at the muzzle, making the 45-70 the most powerful cartridge in our bear-gun lineup. Plus, the Trophy Bonded Bear Claw bullets are among the toughest in existence, and Federal says they retain more than 95% of their weight for deep penetration.
The .45-70’s downside, especially compared to the other cartridges on this list, is recoil and capacity. That’s why I prefer it in a lever gun. A lever gun may be marginally slower than a double-action revolver, but it’s easier to aim and control recoil. Most lever guns also feature a 6- to 8-round capacity, so you’re getting several extra rounds over a wheel gun.
MeatEater’s Cory Calkins also pointed out that in some environments, you’re not likely to get more than one or two shots, anyway. When he guided elk hunts in Montana, the country was so thick that he didn’t believe he’d ever need more shots than his revolver could carry.
"If a determined bear ever came at me, I was only going to get one shot (if lucky). Six 280-grain bullets loaded and accessible kept me comfortable in thick grizz country," he said.