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"The Best Bear Caliber"
By J.D. Duncan
It was a normal Sunday afternoon but it was going to go from normal to
abnormal in just seconds. Danny took a hike down a familiar trail not far from his house. As normal, the neighbor’s dog joined him for the short hike. The trail is not known for bear attacks but it is known for bear activities. Many residential brown bears are leaving the Kenai and Funny River fishing banks in August-September and headed to the berry patches. We don’t know all the details or why the bear attacked Danny and what part the dog played in the attack. Danny was rolled up, chewed on and then left alone. The dog ran like Lassie back to it’s owner who could tell that something wasn’t right. Danny was able to crawl away from the mauling sight and use his cell phone to call for help. Danny was medevac’d out of Alaska to Seattle and at the time of this writing, is slowly recovering.
Two weeks later, Greg came from Texas to join his brother Roger who lived on the Kenai Peninsula. Greg and Roger went into the woods walking about 40 yards apart looking for Moose. Greg was working his way through the brush when the bear charged from about 25 yards. Roger came to his brother’s aid and got off two shots with his .300 Win. Mag. The bear retreated about 100 yards and expired. Roger was able to call Alaska State Troopers and they medevac’d Greg to the nearest hospital. At last report, Greg is listed in good condition.
Both of these maulings happened within 20 miles of my house. Troopers put out a bulletin recommending using caution and carrying bear protection while participating in outdoor activities.
Many a camp has had this tumultuous debate and every hunter has an opinion. Sometimes that means a big caliber, muzzle energy, magazine full of led or simple bear spray. Let’s enter into the fray. At the end of this article maybe we can give you better ammo for your fire-side chat.
The first thing to decide is what kind of bear is charging. In Alaska, I have had 900 lb coastal Bears in the backyard. Kodiak Browns can go over 1,200 lbs. Polar bears weigh in at about 800 lbs. Very few reading this will ever get to bag a Polar Bear. Rare is the Black Bear that weighs 400 lbs. Many hunters use light calibers or even bows for Black Bears.
We are going to concentrate on a coastal Brown Bear or Grizzle at about 800-1000 lbs. and the difference between hunting verses other recreational activities in bear country. I have had the experience of two charging Grizzle bears and both bluffed before the slack was out of the trigger. Other bears have been bagged intentionally with both the .338 and .300 Win. Mag. depending on what other game we were targeting at the time. I also have three close friends who have experience bear maulings and can speak as one voice to say, “Bear breath stinks!” All three can show the scars without discarding clothing.
Let’s start by determining the activity. Are we hunting or some other outdoor recreational activity such as fishing, hiking or berry picking? You might be asking “What is the difference?” The difference is your response time. My three friends who have been mauled all concur, “Time is not on your side.” And for the record, all three were moose or deer hunting. If you’re intentionally going to bag a bruin you probably want to make a choice that will reach out further than 100 yds. If you’re going to be distracted by other activities, you need something that can be employed quickly and with proficiency at close range.
The biggest bear I have ever encountered on the Kenai Peninsula was while fly fishing for Silvers on the Swanson River. I didn’t see him till he slithered in and stood straight across the small river just a short cast away. Fortunately for me there was enough fish for both of us. My concern is that if he was a bad fishing bear, he could close the gap in about 2 seconds and have himself some Scottish goulash for dinner. The choice of weapon becomes critical when time is not your ally. Let’s start with hunting.
If we are hunting big bruins, I choose my Winchester XTR Model 70, .338 Win. Mag. with a 250 grain bullet. This is the most popular bear guide caliber. It is not my normal sheep, moose or caribou gun. That choice is a Sako Finnbear Sporter .300 Win. Mag., with a 180 gr. bullet. If I am targeting 900 lbs. of fur the .338 Win. Mag. jumps to attention first giving considerably more knock down power with the 250 gr. bullet at 2650 fps, (slower than the .300 Win Mag). Others might like any of the .45-70, .375 H&H, and the .375 Ruger which is becoming very popular among Alaskan guides. There are other choices but these are a few of my favorites.
I recommend shooting a friend’s before you drop a hand full of C-notes. If you have never shot a larger caliber, your shoulder is in for a bit of bulling. Many of the high powered flat shooting calibers that dispense of exit energy can travel with pin-point accuracy and miss small. You still need some size and expansion. High velocities can deflect off the skull of a charging bear. I grew up with a .270 and some members of the family love the .308, 7mm Rem. Mag. and the .300 Weatherby Mag. I notice that when we hunt in bear country the hot shot packers are right on the heels of big bore packers.
My grandmother Hazel “Machete-Haze” Clark had a bruin come into our camp. My grandfather was across the bay working in the woods but keeping an eye on the menacing bruin strutting around the camp. As grandpa watched via binoculars, probably 2 miles away, he saw my grandmother come out of the cabin with a broom stick. Grandpa said out loud, “What are you going to do with a broomstick?” Suddenly the broomstick spit fire and led. The broom was a 7mm Rem. Mag. One shot and the bruin was dispatched and no longer a threat to children in the camp. I have seen well placed shots from hot rounds do the job but some hot rounds poke holes in bears without expansion. One guide waited on a client shooting his high velocity expensive safari grade fire stick to no avail. The guide stopped it with a well-placed .338 Win. Mag. Be assured that there is no substitute for good slug placement. All bruin led needs to have a chance to hit hard and expand appropriately.
Let me touch on some lighter loads and the “more shots” argument. My dad always hunted with his Mannlicher Schonauer 30.06. It holds five in the magazine giving him plenty of fire power. He loaded hot rounds with a 220 grain Hornady and always hit what he aimed at with this extremely smooth rifle. The 30.06 is a good starting point for bear hunters especially if you reload. Someone might start the age old argument of which is better, .06 or 7mm RM? You could flip a coin and save time wrestling with specs. One thing that is nice about the .06 is that if your floating down the Yukon River light on ammo, you could probably find a donor. Ammo for the .06 is cheaper and comes in plenty of options. The 7mm will naturally reach out further, faster (+200 fps) which makes it a good Dall Sheep cartridge when looking at a 400 yard shot.
What is the best protection for recreational activities? If you’re looking for great bear protection while fishing or hiking, I highly recommend a 12 gauge shotgun. The versatile and affordability of a 12 gauge pump with slugs is a great choice. The pump makes it fast and a 18.5” barrel makes it a bit more forgiving. My son-in-law uses the Mossberg Bull-Pup with 12 ga. slugs. I appreciate the protection he affords my daughter. The Bull-Pup gives you 8 shots and can be dispensed very quickly.
"If you are in fish country it is important to remember that bears love fish. You are not their target unless you are covered with scales. The rule to remember is give them space and if necessary your fishing hole."
The Remington 870 Express pump is a good entry level 18.5” 12 ga. for less than $400. Benelli’s M2 Tactical 12 ga. pump with 18.5” barrel, ghost ring open sights and many other options is a nice selection. Retail starts at less than $700 and climbs. The new tactical shotguns are easy to pack and can be employed quickly. Slugs are my choice but many people choose buckshot or stagger the shells. The theory of some is “buckshot to blind and slug to break-down”.
What about handguns? I can recommend handguns for light duty protection. Again, if you’re hunting, stocking and going to be picky, you’re going to bag the bruin at a distance. I would not wait till the bear is 25 paces before deciding on if it is the nine foot bear you’re looking for. My Ruger Super Blackhawk 44 Mag. with a 7.5 inch barrel has been on my side for 35 years. I have never had to draw it on a bear but have killed a very large Woodland Caribou with it. I have friends who have had to pull their .44 Mag. and in some cases even lighter calibers. One thing that puts pistol protection in perspective, the 44 Mag has less velocity than a 30-30.
I bought my single action Ruger just weeks before getting married and stated to my bride, “we are a packaged deal.” If money is not an issue I would consider carrying the Desert Eagle .50 caliber, S&W 460 or a 454 Casull in a chest holster. Some people pack a .40, .41, 10mm or even a 357 Mag. I am not overly confident with less than a .44 Mag with at least a 240 gr. bullet in bear country and the S&W 460 is looking better all the time. The advantage a handgun has is that it can be strapped to your body. Hard to wade into a river and pack your tactical 12 ga.
I can’t overstate the rule of thumb for all weapons, be proficient. If you grimace every time you think about going to the range with any gun, it is not your bear protection. You have to develop confidence and muscle memory with any weapon you choose to carry.
• If you’re looking to go on an Alaskan Brown Bear, Kodiak or Interior Grizzle hunt, my recommendation is the guide gun of choice, .338 Win. Mag. If your employing a guide, they will be confident with your choice.
• If your hiking on a fishing trip and sharing the stream with carnivores, choose to pack a short barreled (possible tactical) shotgun with 12 ga. slugs and/or buckshot.
• If you are limited to a handgun, start with the Eastwood choice, 44 Mag and work your way up from there. Put the S&W 460 in your hand and feel it’s balance and weight. Don’t skimp on size. The heavier you go, the more comfortable you will feel when packing fresh Sockeye along a well “padded” trail late at night.
• If you weigh less than 180 lbs. you might not like a .338 Win. Mag. at the range unless it has been modified. You need to find this out before your purchase. Shoot a friend’s and consider modifications. Give consideration to the recoil of different brands. No two dogs are alike, they all bark a little differently.
Hope that gives you a little more ammo for your next fire-side chat.
JD Duncan serves as a CSF Master Sportsman and Contributing Writer for The Christian Sportsman magazine. An avid outdoorsman who has hunting Alaska extensively for a variety of game animals, the Alaskan Yukon Bull Moose is probably his favorite game of choice. As the Alaskan Statewide Chaplain for the thirteen prisons, JD oversees and coordinates the volunteer efforts of ministry leaders from churches across the state in providing spiritual counseling and encouragement to the burgeoning population of inmates. firstname.lastname@example.org