Gear We Use: Best Bear-Defense Guns and Cartridges

Gear We Use: Best Bear-Defense Guns and Cartridges

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.

What We Look for in a Bear Defense Gun

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:

  1. Reliability
  2. Power and Penetration
  3. Rate of Fire
  4. Capacity
  5. Shootability

The Bear-Defense Guns We Use

What Makes a Good Bear-Defense Firearm

1. Reliability

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.

2. Power and Penetration

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).

3. Rate of Fire

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.

4. Capacity

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.

5. Shootability

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.

Field notes from the MeatEater Crew

Shop

Element Shotgun
Save this product
Weatherby

The Weatherby Element Synthetic is an inertia driven shotgun, that is tough enough to endure whatever you throw at it. 

G3 9mm Pistol
Save this product
Taurus
1911 Stainless II, 10mm
Save this product
Kimber
P320-XTEN, 10mm
Save this product
Sig Sauer
Model 1886, .45-70 Gov’t
Save this product
Winchester
Get the latest in your inbox
Subscribe to our newsletters to receive regular emails with hand-picked content, gear recommendations, and special deals.
Our picks for the week's best content and gear
For the whitetail obsessed, with Mark Kenyon
Redefining our connection to food, with Danielle Prewett
Your one-stop for everything waterfowl, with Sean Weaver
Get out on the water with the MeatEater Fishing crew
Technical hunting apparel
Purpose-built accessories for hunting and fishing
Quality elk, turkey, waterfowl, and deer calls
Save this article