By TL Jones
When people call us wanting to go on their first bear hunt, the #1 question is, “What kind of gun should I use”? In this article I’m going to share my answer to that question. Please understand that I’m not saying my way is the only way; I’m not a firearm or ammunition expert. Bears are killed all over the world with all kinds of firearm/ammo combinations. This article is written to encourage debate amongst experienced hunters and to explain my personal answer to those who are preparing to take their first hound hunting with us and our dogs.
The opinion I share is not based on technical ballistic studies. I do reload ammo and understand some of the things included in those types of literature. What I’m sharing in this article is based solely on my personal experience and observations over a lifetime of hunting with hounds. I’m not attempting to be the pharmacist who explains the chemical content of a medication to you; I’m attempting to be the buddy who took the pill and is telling you that it stopped my headache.
We Recommend Something Light
Hound hunting requires walking. A lot of this walking takes place in Hell Holes. You should plan on being afoot most of the day and sometimes way into the night. You’re going to be leading dogs, carrying a backpack, and possibly dragging out a bear. There is no reason to add unnecessary pounds to your trip with a heavyweight gun.
We Recommend Something Short
Rifles with barrels under 20” are handier than a 36” goose gun. Expect heavy brush and close quarters in shooting. Most of your shots will be under 20 yards. If the bear is on the ground, your shot will be under 10 yards with some shots being point blank. Extremely long guns are going to create problems for you all day long.
We Recommend Something Reliable
Please don’t go buy a gun the day before you hunt. Use a gun that you’ve shot a lot. Make sure that it cycles your chosen ammo over and over and over without fail. Some guns are picky about the type of ammo they prefer. Shoot it at five-yard increments from five yards to 75 yards. If you can accurately shoot it at short yardage and it cycles every single time, you’re cooking with bear grease. Generally speaking, we do not recommend semi-automatic firearms for practical and safety reasons for new hunters. We prefer a new hunter to have to consciously cycle a second round into the chamber. Single shot rifles are a great option, especially for youth hunters. Whatever action you choose, make sure it’s tested and reliable.
We Recommend Open Sights
Your shots will be short; a scoped rifle for hound hunting isn’t necessary and can be extremely detrimental. On a moving or bay-up bear, the dogs will be close. You’ll have a near impossible time getting just the bear in the scope. The safety of the dogs is paramount and you need your peripheral vision working. If you’ve never used open sights then practice, practice, and then practice some more.
We Recommend Moderate Calibers with Proper Ammunition
Anything from .30-30 and above will work just fine so long as the ammunition is wisely chosen. The most common calibers in our particular region are .30-30, .35 Remington, .30-06, and .44 mag. Bullet weights and construction are important, so avoid hollow point bullets. Stay with something solid and jacketed. Remember that it’s not the firearm that kills the bear, it’s the bullet. Having the right gun with the wrong ammo is a terrible mistake. Magnum rifle calibers like a .300 Winchester are obviously effective, but in close quarters can create pass through issues—bigger is not always better in hound hunting. When choosing ammo, consider using offerings in round nose bullets.
We Don’t Recommend Handguns
Handguns are effective in the right hands, but in the wrong hands they amount to wounded bears and injured dogs. Since we have no real way of testing a new hunter’s skill with one under stressful conditions, we prefer for them not to use them. We absolutely forbid anyone hunting with us to use a semi-auto pistol. If you absolutely must carry a sidearm, then I recommend a .44 mag revolver loaded with heavy solid jacketed ammo or cast ammo. Using hollow point ammo in a handgun is forbidden for those hunting with us. If you haven’t picked up on it by now, I absolutely detest hollow points for hunting bears. Most of us carry a revolver but limit our shots to extremely close range (point blank to 10 yards).
A Word About Shotguns
Tons of houndsmen use shotguns with slugs and they kill a lot of bears with them. The men who use them swear by them, and I’m not going to debate their success. If a shotgun is your chosen firearm make sure the slugs you use will penetrate hide, fat, and bone. Also, make sure you can shoot one like a rifle and not like someone who is accustomed to wing shooting—bears are not quail, and a slug doesn’t throw a 40” pattern. Practice enough to know how your shotgun shoots slugs out to 75 yards on five-yard increments.
A Word About Bows
A well-placed shot with a bow is extremely effective. If you’re strictly a bow hunter and want to kill a bear with a bow while using hounds, then your shots should be limited to treed bears. All the dogs should be tied back, and a backup shooter should be allowed to finish the bear off if it doesn’t fall out stone dead. We wouldn’t allow a bear to be bowshot on the ground for safety reasons. Still hunting is a different story, however.
Getting More Specific
Sometimes new hunters don’t want general information, they want to be told exactly what to get and use. So, let me make a few recommendations of firearms that I’d personally buy if I were starting from scratch. There are countless more worthy options, but these are legit in all criteria:
- Winchester 94 .30-30
- Marlin 336 .30-30 or .35 Remington
- Marlin 1895 .444 or .45/70
- Remington 760/7600 .35 Remington, .30-06, .308, .35 Whelen
- Ruger 77 .44 Magnum
- Ruger Redhawk .44 Magnum
- Smith & Wesson 629 .44 Magnum
Killing a bear over hounds is hair-raising. It also carries with it a great deal of responsibility to the game, the dogs, and your fellow hunters. Making sure your firearm and ammo combination is effective is the least any of us can do to make sure the hunt ends well. If the houndsman that you take your first hunt with has a different recommendation, then take his advice—he has the right to protect himself and his dogs his way.