A student of mine, Geoff, asked me “I am doing a one month long canoeing trip up in the Yukon, and I would like to get a bear defense gun. What would you suggest?“. Truth be told, I have no clue what kind of firearm or caliber of ammo is appropriate for bear defense. The only firearm related to a bear defense course that I have taken is my Wildness Survival course with the Canadian army, and all we use is Bird Shot. In general, the instructor told us the bears in this region are pretty well fed so you should be fine. We were issued a Reignmonton 870 shotgun with four rounds of bird shot and we were out in the wild for four days on our own.
I have to confess that I am slightly afraid of bears after seeing these great creatures in sanctuary, the zoo and the wild. I have also heard many stories about bears from seasonal hunters, park rangers, and army buddies, and I hope I will never run into a bear in the wild in this lifetime. Based upon my research, it might be better to use bear spray instead firearms to protect yourself in the wild. Overall, bear spray is still a better choice for people who do not wish to devote themselves to be proficient with firearms. A person without good training with a firearm can be more dangerous to others and him or herself in a fight or flight situation. The advantage of bear spray is it works, and the disadvantage of bear spray is it can be affected by the wind and therefore works both ways. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service research, almost 50 % of people using guns suffered injuries. However, a trustworthy firearm might give people an additional tool when they are in the wild especially dealing with persistent bears which think you are a meal.
Bears are smart, fast, and powerful. It is the top predator on earth. Bears are omnivorous but they still prefer a meat diet on most occasions and its prey such as moose are often much larger than humans. In North America, there are four species of bears: Black bear, grizzly bear, brown bear and polar bear.
A black bear on average weighs 300 pounds, and lives close to humans. The number of black bear attacks on humans is higher than other bears – due to its close range with humans.
A grizzly bear on average weighs 700 pounds, lives far away from humans, generally avoids humans, but once provoke will be extremely aggressive.
A brown bear on average weighs 1000 pounds, lives far away from humans, and in some cases associate humans with food. Brown bear attacks tend to result in serious injury and in some cases death.
A polar bear on average weighs 900 pounds, lives far away from humans, and it will associate humans as food.
In places like the remote wildness of the Yukon, men are at mercy of great bears if they are not careful, but in most cases bears will not attack unless they feel their young ones and themselves are being threatened. Only on some occasions have bears associated humans as food.
After some online research and consulting some hunting and firearm experts, here is the advice I came up for Geoff:
1. Shotgun – Slug
A 12 gauge shotgun is the most common firearm used by people who work in the wild. The ammo people use against a bear is generally a slug. A slug is basically a big chunk of heavy lead. A shotgun slug has enough kinetic energy to take down any big game that includes bears.
The disadvantage of a shotgun that is not rifle-sighted is that its kinetic energy will decrease significantly beyond 100 yards. A brown bear can run 30 miles per hour which means a bear can run 100 yards in 6 seconds, so you better be able to fire quickly with a shotgun or get a firearm that has better engagement distance than a shotgun with slug. My friend Andrew Clark, a hunter and firearm expert, also suggests adding buckshot in the end of tubular magazine in addition to the slug to increase hit probability; however, buck shot might not have enough penetration power.
The advantage of shotguns is its price. An average shotgun runs from $300- $800 and a box of slugs is cheaper than some rifle ammo. The action on pump guns is very reliable even in the worst environment. You also do not need a special tool to take care of complicated parts on firearms such as a gas regulator. Last but not least, a short shotgun also provide better maneuverability when you are inside your tent; just in case a big fuzzy head decide to sneak in in the middle of night.
2. Rifle :
The main purpose for my student’s trip is bear defense, not bear hunting. Compared to a shotgun a high caliber rifle seems to be the logical choice. It should be reliable, have a range beyond 100 yards, and be able to project rounds downrange as fast as possible with enough impact to stop a 1000 lb killing machine looking to have a quick meal. So we are looking for either a semi-automatic or lever action type of rifle. This rifle should be able to fit ammo large enough to take down a bear.
- 30-06 ith 180 grain to 220 grain
- .300 Magnums-180-220 grain bullets
- .300 Winchester Magnum
- .270 Winchester
- .308 Winchester
- 454 casull
30-06, .300 Magnum, . 300 …..a shooter needs to be able to place all his or her shots within an 8-inch circle out to 200 yards from a sitting or kneeling position. Anything that is .338s or .375s is more forgivable when comes to shot placement on a bear. Chuck Hawk describes best in his article Firearms for Defense against Bears: “the bullet need to have sufficient caliber (cross sectional area), penetration and deliver sufficient energy to get the job done. It is ideal if the bullet is of the controlled expands on type to maximize shock and tissue destruction, but it must not break-up on heavy bones.” We have to also consider logistics. Many experts all agree that it is best to pick a rifle that uses common rounds. Many of these remote places in the Yukon do not carry a lot of variation of ammo. Luckily, for Geoff’s case weight is not an issue since he is doing a canoeing trip so heavier rifles are also part of the consideration.
Semi- Automatic: The advantage of a semi-automatic rifle for bear defense is that it is able to project rounds downrange as fast as possible. However, the delicacy of a semi-automatic rifle might not be suitable for long travel in the wildness. After all, more parts mean more chance that something will break.
Browning BAR series
Anything made by Browning is a good choice. After all, the Canadian Army is still using Browning High Power as a standard issue side arm. BAR uses .30-06, 300 Win Mag, 270 Win
Benili R1 Big game rifle series
Benili R1 is Benili’s new line of semi- automatic hunting rifle. R1 runs 30-06 Springfield, .300 Win Mag, .338 Win Mag.
Lever action rifle : Marlin – Model 336C , Classical Model 1895, XLR. Browning – BLR, Henry – 45- 70. Lever action rifle has strong recoil but has fewer pieces inside compared to a semi-automatic rifle. In some way it is more reliable. The shooter has to really train to shoot a lever action rifle to compensate for the recoil and muzzle movement.
The disadvantage of using a rifle dealing with bear attacks is that if you shot a Alaska Brown bear that is charging at you from 300 yards you might be out of luck explaining that to a Conservation Officer. Very much like self defense against humans, you are not allowed to shoot someone out of distance because you feel threatened.
Handgun is a really good choice for people who travel in the wild. Handguns are easy to carry and can be readily used if needed. Calibers such as.357 Magnum bullet and .44 Magnum is sufficient enough to deal with bears. Sadly in Canada, it is hard to obtain an open carry permit for handguns. People can still obtain it if one can prove that one works in the field frequently, for example, a geologist.
Regardless of the type of firearms you are going to get, you should be able to place a well aimed shot with the first shot and the rest of the shots should immediately follow. You need to have nerves of steel facing a charging bear and strong enough to control the recoil of the rifle and muzzle. Immediate action such as reloading or changing the weapon should always be conducted after you empty the magazine.
We Canadians love our wildness. We take every chance we can get to immerse ourselves in the wild but we should not forget to be humble in front of Mother Nature. Once we step in the woods, we are part of the food chain and are no longer the top predator without our tools.