Choosing a trail gun is proving more challenging than I would like.

What handgun calibres are powerful enough to provide some protection against aggressive bears?

I want something manageable enough for a smaller framed shooter ( whether that be a younger shooter, a female shooter or like me a shorter guy... 5'7" ).

  • 8
    I'm no expert by I think I've heard the rangers here in Montana (male and female both) carry .357's. Having said that, they say the best defense is pepper spray or very slow friends. – paperstreet Oct 21 '14 at 3:41
  • 3
    Related: outdoors.stackexchange.com/questions/6845/… – Wills Oct 21 '14 at 4:07
  • 2
    Also see How safe is sleeping in bear country? Carrying a gun for this scenario seems overkill to me. Unless you're in Polar Bear country? – Liam Oct 21 '14 at 8:08
  • 6
    What kind of bears are we talking about? Polar bears? Grizzlies? Black bears? AFAICT the answer is completely different for the different types of bears. In general, this is the bear's natural environment, so if you feel like going there requires you to shoot bears, you're not doing it right. With the possible exception of polar bears, the main solution is food storage, not firearms. For grizzlies, bear spray may be a secondary measure worth considering. – Ben Crowell Oct 21 '14 at 20:20
  • 5
    There are basically no handguns suitable for bear defense: anything with enough stopping power will have enough recoil that you can't get a second shot off, and in a real-world situation, your first shot will miss. – Mark Oct 23 '14 at 22:09
up vote 33 down vote accepted

The short answer is "bear spray"; a firearm is really not the most effective option. That said...

I will assume you are looking for grizzly protection, since you didn't specify the bear and black bears are relatively shy. Again, using spray is a far more effective way of improving your odds; a review of its use in Alaska found a 98% success rate, with no fatalities. On the other hand, bringing or using a firearm does not appear to do anything to improve your odds in a bear encounter.

This is likely due to a number of factors, one being that most people's aim goes totally to pieces under stress, another being that the animal is, well, a bear. On all fours it's nearly as tall as you are, it outweighs you by several hundred pounds, it's faster than most residential speed limits, and unlike many humans it doesn't freeze up or faint when shot in a non-vital area.

However, since you ask, a .44 Magnum with 240 grain bullets is considered sufficient, assuming you can place your shots on target and learn to handle the recoil. (Ok, yes, this does fall into the "hand cannon" category.)

Given your question, I assume you are not qualified as "expert" in terms of shooting ability. This means that if you want to be effective you will need to put in a great deal of time at the range, hopefully with a good instructor so you develop proper habits. (A good goal is 3" groups at 25 yards.)

I would also strongly recommend the Herrero book below, to better understand bear behavior.

Source: Herrero, Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance

Also: http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/nature/Shoot-or-Spray.html

  • 8
    What happened to the other 2%? – TGnat Oct 21 '14 at 13:58
  • 11
    Got scratched up, needed stitches. The relevant paper is at bearsmart.com/paper/1098 – requiem Oct 21 '14 at 16:11
  • I've always felt there are too many factors to bear spray as well - such as wind or etc. That said, guns are unpredictable as well - those in serious bear country would do well to carry a rifle. Handguns are all over the map, and like many said, the recoil is much harder to manage. – studiohack Oct 24 '14 at 19:32
  • I would like to add that I recall seeing a documentary on TV where the bear handlers at zoos (or maybe research parks?) carry bear spray while they're working. – Michael Martinez Nov 4 '14 at 23:12
  • 1
    @JoErNanO it always depends on what you're doing. In one National Forest near home, there are so many grizzlies, that two men will fish together - trading off fly fishing, and the other standing guard with a rifle. Just depends on how you want to approach it. – studiohack Nov 6 '14 at 21:12

Anyone that says you shouldn't carry a handgun in bear country is misinformed about a lot of things. Better would be a .12 gauge shotgun with slugs, but let's deal with the handgun issue. Sure, bear spray is good to have, and we all like to have recourse to non-lethal measures, but if it comes to playing dead or shooting a bear in self-defense, I'll shoot every time. I've camped, backpacked, and provided services as a guide in grizzly country...and I grew up in the Ouachita Mountains of Southeast Oklahoma where black bears are common and you run into them all the time. I like bears, and I'm not scared of them, but I respect them. Still, let's not let Disney or Nat Geo inspired sympathies and fantasies cloud good judgement--a firearm is a tool, and a useful one when used properly.

It's nonsense that a handgun can't kill a bear. There are plenty of handgun hunters that do just that. And let's dispel the nonsense about you not being able to hit a bear because you're nervous--as if you'll be any less nervous and better able to direct bear spray, which is both less ergonomic, harder to hold onto, harder to aim, and harder to deploy. It's much easier to bring a handgun to bear than bear spray when waking from sleep, whether in a tent or out on open ground. As a former Infantryman, and having worked in the firearms industry and trained others in the use of firearms, emergency preparedness, survival, and being the sort of guy who likes to camp under the stars on the ground or in a hammock rather than in a tent, I've had not only the experience but situations arise to convince me the 'bear spray-only' crowd are essentially bait-in-training. Are you sure you aren't going to have that bear spray splashing back in your face inside your tent when a bear is coming through that thin netting that was previously your entrance? I wonder how many people have actually discharged their bear spray, or any bear spray, and know the best way to bring it into action or what to expect from the spray pattern and range?

Additionally, a handgun discharged will generally frighten away a bear that is outside your bear spray range, but is displaying an unwelcome interest or appears like it might be weighing the prospect of further aggression, when a shout or stick or rock tossed its way did not have the intended effect.

A handgun is handy not just for bears, but for providing you with food, and for defense against other critters that your bear spray was not designed for, including but not limited to the two legged variety that conduct criminal activity in every park, forest, or range frequented by outdoors enthusiasts, hunters, campers, backpackers, and so forth. It also is handy for signalling, and three shots fired has long been one recognized signal for help. Faced with a moose or bison intent on doing you harm, you may regret having only bear spray at hand.

That said, let's look at the appropriate round(s) you're looking for. Given your specific requirements for small framed shooters. Look at the .45 Long Colt. It has a larger diameter than the .44 Magnum, can take heavy loads that will penetrate deeply, has been long proven for hunting large game, and most importantly for your considerations--will have a lower recoil impulse than a .44 Magnum. You can fire similar loads of similar bullet weights and muzzle energy, but the smaller case diameter of the .44 Magnum means a higher impulse than the .45 LC, which means a sharper recoil. The .45 LC will feel like a heavy push, where the .44 Magnum will feel snappy, jerky. The .41 Magnum is a good round, but it too has a high recoil impulse. A .357 Magnum loaded with heavy 180 grain hard cast, flat nose rounds will give deep penetration and make it through thick gristle and help smash bone better than the common 158 grain hollow points. Check out Buffalo Bore ammunition for appropriate, heavy loads. For higher capacity, if you must go with a .357, check out Coonan Arms' semi-auto pistol, which will also lessen felt recoil.

There are other suitable handgun rounds, but the recoil makes them unpleasant to practice with, especially for smaller shooters. That said, a handgun like a Freedom Arms revolver in .454 Casull will kill bears, moose or just about anything else you care to shoot. A revolver that takes .45 LC/.410 shotgun shells is a good utility handgun as well, and makes your handgun even more versatile should you want to add small game to your pot or need something quick and easy in rattlesnake country or paddling low overhang areas where cottonmouths can drop from branches. Bear spray isn't so handy for snakes, criminals, crazies, dope growers, meth labs, cowboys looking for someone who just stole tack or cattle, jihadist or Aryan Brotherhood compounds you stumble across from time to time.

It happens, folks. I'm not alone in having those kinds of encounters. Don't be a victim, not even for bears. We're creative animals--it's what makes us human. Without tools like blades and firearms, whose creation and use are part of what it means to be human, you go from apex predator to weak link in the chain.

  • 3
    If you're shooting a bear with any round police typically carry, especially a sub-machine gun caliber, which are typically semi-auto pistol rounds, that's an expected result. Which is why no one would suggest carrying those rounds in bear country. It's no harder to hit a bear with a handgun than to hit any other dangerous/moving target/attacker with a handgun--or hitting it with bear spray. Hitting vitals, is hard on any moving target. It's a matter of training and nerve. If a bear is intent on killing, bear spray is no more a guarantee of prevention than tear gas is in shutting down a human. – Sean Wilson Aug 13 '15 at 12:08
  • 4
    I carry bear spray. But there are times when 'awe, cute' and 'be nice' aren't appropriate responses to situations. Bear country extends into arctic climes where its effective range is significantly degraded, if it will function at all. Arguing against a handgun in bear country is like saying only carry pepper spray in dangerous environs for fear you might not shoot well enough, or inflame an already violent criminal. Any bear will have to contend w/spray, firearm, and a blade to kill me. Possessing a firearm does not somehow preclude a reasoned escalation of force, as many seem to think. – Sean Wilson Aug 13 '15 at 12:42
  • 3
    The issues you bring up are issues of personal responsibility and have nothing to do with effectiveness of the tool. We don't expect people who've never used a hammer or saw to build us a home, do we? If a pound of weight makes or breaks one's ability to be in bear country, one shouldn't probably be there to begin with. The 2011 NOLS bear attack in Alaska, 7 people had bear spray, and none were capable of deploying it. You're no better off having bear spray if you don't bother to train to use it, or use it. For the same reason, common sense and putting effort into firearms use is expected. – Sean Wilson Aug 13 '15 at 13:43
  • 3
    I operate on the assumption someone asking about firearms has every intention of learning to use them, is strong enough to carry one, and is smart enough to realize familiarization and training are important. Being smart, they will carry bear spray as well, and likewise train in its use. I do assume they are capable of educating themselves about threats, escalation, and survivability. They are here asking questions after all. Dumbing down advice to cover lowest common denominators (those people who won't bother to make smart decisions in any case) does a disservice to all. – Sean Wilson Aug 13 '15 at 14:21
  • 4
    I again point to the 2011 NOLS bear attack in Alaska, where seven people armed with bear spray all failed or were unable to bring their bear spray into action. Seven people. Your claim that bear spray is somehow easier to use is not borne out by the results of an actual attack. In at least 2% of attacks vs those with spray when it is brought into play, bear spray fails to work altogether. Firearms also provide protection not just against bears, but other wildlife and criminals. The OP stated carrying a trail gun was already a made decision, and asked about a suitable type, which I answered. – Sean Wilson Aug 15 '15 at 19:42

A .357 for any type of bear that is not a grizzly. For a grizzly there is no handgun that will help you - all you will end up doing is upsetting it and making it more aggressive.

11/4: Additional info. Quick internet search reveals the following thread, which is reasonable due to the amount of participants (and accordingly various levels of experience) chiming in. The following post caught my eye as well-written and reasonable:

The one by ArchAngelCD December 28 2012 11:02AM

11/4. More additional info: Extract from the following link: http://mausersandmuffins.blogspot.com/2010/06/dont-take-bear-to-gun-fight.html

The Alaskan guide Phil Shoemaker used a Smith .357 for a while, and reported it killed bears fine with heavy solid bullet loads in head shots

Also I want to add about why I said handguns won't work with grizzlies. There's a lot of information about it, perhaps the most compelling is the Lewis and Clark journal (I can't remember the title of the book, it's available through Amazon). If you haven't read it, I suggest you do so. Early on in the book, they start documenting their encounters with grizzlies and how incredibly difficult it is to kill them.

But overall, you need to evaluate whether you need to carry anything at all. Yes, off topic, but still worthy of thought. Statistically incredibly low chances of encounters. I've got a friend who grew up in northern Alaska, very gun savvy (and a firearm collector), as well as an avid outdoorsmen. A few years ago he went with his wife backpacking in Glacier. I asked him what kind of firearm he took and he said he didn't take anything, the chances of a grizzly encounter were so remote that it wasn't worth it.

  • 1
    No, for black bears a gun is not even an appropriate precaution. – Ben Crowell Oct 30 '14 at 22:28
  • 2
    I agree it's not appropriate, but the question is not whether it's appropriate: the question is which handgun is sufficient and a .357 with hunting ammunition is sufficient – Michael Martinez Oct 30 '14 at 22:32
  • @MichaelMartinez Thank you for responding, but do you have any documentation you can point me to, or is this based on first hand experience or intuition? – 1_am_Jack Nov 1 '14 at 0:16
  • 1
    @adogden : editing my answer to include a couple links – Michael Martinez Nov 4 '14 at 22:47
  • @MichaelMartinez Thanks for the clarification, I really enjoyed that blog post, you're right it is really well written :) – 1_am_Jack Nov 6 '14 at 0:48

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.