By Ed Hall
Whether archer, bearhoundsman, or just around camp in bear country, a potent handgun on the hip is so much handier than a nine-pound rifle over your shoulder.
The handgun you strap to your hip must not be overly burdensome, but weight can bring a confidence factor, and it also tames recoil. What caliber do you want for an angry bear at ten feet? The answer is quite simple, get a handgun chambered in .458 Winchester Magnum. (Yes, I actually do have one, but wouldn’t dare shoot it quickly or with wet hands, and it’s also a single shot, so we’ll rule that out.) How about a .357 Magnum? While perhaps barely adequate, it would be my recommendation only if one is totally intolerant of any amount of recoil. The answer lies with a four-inch barreled, double action revolver somewhere between. The other assumption is that we’re talking about black bear, as a Kodiak at close range warrants Ma Deuce.
You’ve read in this magazine over the years of a couple of instances where I have shot bear at extremely close range when I really had no intention of shooting the bear that day; I was just backup. Over the past 40 years of hunting bears with hounds, whether or shooter or backup, I have only carried a handgun. Once in a great while I was actually the shooter, mostly because I was the only one at the tree having a firearm, and I have found a .44 Magnum very sufficient. Just for variety, however, I have carried other handguns, and have fired as backup with a .454 Casull and a .460 Smith & Wesson.
Popular handgun “bear” cartridges are the .500 and .460 Smith & Wesson Magnum’s, .480 Ruger, .454 Casull, .44 Magnum, .41 Magnum and .357 Magnum. More potent cartridges are surely better, but only if you shoot them well. Most importantly, these potent cartridges can be totally ineffective if using the wrong bullet.
Two kinds of bullets kill bear - - or deer or elk or elephant. One is a high velocity quickly expanding bullet which explodes blood vessels and destroys nerves. If the bullet matches the game, the game falls in its tracks. The other method we’ve been using since the Civil War days, a fat, heavy, blunt bullet, that by virtue of its freight train momentum punches with its bluntness through tough bone and tissue, doing quickly lethal damage. A truly flat portion of the nose, called a meplat, multiplies the punch considerably, while a more pointed nose merely slips through tissue. This flat nose causes a damage path considerably wider than the bullet itself.
For example, in Africa, elephant are not allowed to be hunted with .300 Remington Ultra Magnums. Instead the required cartridges have a fat, heavy, hard bullet, and even though penetration must be assured, all the proper bullets have blunt round noses to punch rather than slip their way through the vitals or brain.
I phrased it this way to say that even handguns’ lower velocities can deliver fat, flat nosed, heavy bullets with enough momentum for surprisingly deep penetration, and surprisingly, exceptionally good ‘stopping’ power. With bear handguns, it’s all about the bullet. Many years ago, houndsman friend and neighbor Ernie Blake of Pownal, Vermont, watched another houndsman shoot a black bear six times in the head with a .357 Magnum at close range, and the bear was then killed with a rifle. Upon skinning, they found that none of the six soft point handgun bullets had penetrated the bear’s skull.
The heavy, hardcast bullet, having a considerable meplat, is ideal for handgunning bear, whether a side shoulder/lung shot taken over bait or a forehead shot at ten feet. The bullet is already ideally shaped to balance punch and penetration without any mushrooming. In fact it is especially hard so that it cannot worsen its shape by expanding and lessen or ruin penetration. In other words it’s a bullet that cannot, will not, fail. It doesn’t matter the cartridge, and at 1,000 ft/s or more, as long as it is heavy for the caliber and hard and has as suitable meplat, it will be effective.
I’ve personally shot at least six bear (that I can recall) in the head at close range with handguns while running bearhounds, and not one of them even twitched afterwards. Two were with a Freedom Arms .454 Casull, two with .44 Magnum, and two with a .460 Smith. All were shot with handloads. All were the heaviest bullets. The .454 and .44 were bullets that I had cast from linotype, and the .460 was handloaded with 395-grain hardcasts from Cast Performance Bullet Company. Again, it’s all about the bullet!
DoubleTap, CorBon and Cast Performance’s Grizzly Ammunition all specialize in handgun ammo using heavy, hardcast bullets in wide varieties of handgun hunting cartridges. All three manufacturers have ammunition available through Midway.
Maybe not quite as important as choosing the right bullet, but right up there close, is recoil. I don’t want so much recoil that I cannot get two, three or four shots off very quickly. Folks say I’m a pretty good shot with a pistol, but ‘one good shot’ wouldn’t be on my mind in an emergency situation.
I don’t want so much recoil that I’d fear grabbing it quickly and shooting very quickly, perhaps even with wet hands. I’ve shot the .500 S&W with heavy bullets (heavy bullets have more recoil), and I would not care to protect myself with one.
Top on my list for backup bear guns is Smith & Wesson’s monstrously big X-Frame revolver in .460, but not necessarily with .460 ammunition. A full load would be a good option even for brown bear. I shot a 400-pound bear (the one in the picture above) with that load from a distance of 2 feet from the muzzle as he hit the ground beside me, sliding/dropping down the tree I was running to. The taxidermist could not save the skull because of the damage.
Instead, I’d feed that same X-Frame .460 a lighter, but fully effective ammo. Just as a .357 Magnum will shoot shorter and lighter .38 special ammo, the .460 will shoot potent .454 Casull and even .45 Long Colt ammunition with correspondingly much lighter recoil. Again looking to DoubleTap, they offer .454 ammo driving a 400-grain hardcast bullet at 1,400 ft/s from a 7/2-inch barrel and 1,125 ft/s from Ruger’s Alaskan having a 2 1/2-inch barrel. This.454, 400-grain ammo ammo, is certainly bear medicine, but is tamed very nicely by the .460’s 72 ounces of weight.
If you really have no tolerance for recoil, or you just want to get five shots of bear medicine off rapidfire, consider the big .460 shooting DoubleTap’s 45 Colt+P ammunition driving a 360-grain hardcast at 1,200 ft/s, just about the equivalent of a .44 Magnum. Rapid fire bear loads are not a bad idea. Don’t shoot this ammo in a vintage or even a replica cowboy Colt .45 revolver!
The .41 Magnum is an option for less recoil. While 250 grains is the heaviest bullet I can find, it is a narrower bullet than a .44 so should penetrate well.
The .480 Ruger is an interesting cartridge developed by Ruger and Hornady in 2001 as a milder cartridge than the .475 Linebaugh. This is typically a softer shooting revolver than a .454 Casull, and as such a good option if a .44 Magnum isn’t enough gun and a .454 is too much gun, except that Ruger no longer lists a .480 in their catalog, but Grizzly offers ammo with two hardcast options, 375 and 425 grains.
I have a love affair with Smith & Wesson’s Scandium frame Model 329PD, a truly ultralightweight 25-ounce .44 Magnum revolver. It is a delight to carry all day chasing hounds up and over mountain thickets. It’s such a handful to shoot that I’ve reduced the handloads for it. No, I would never switch to a lighter bullet than 320 grains, but I dropped the powder charge enough to have a slower 1,200 ft/s over my Oehler 35P chronograph, about 90% power.
It’s the belief of most experts that a bullet of, say, .44 diameter (actually .430), weighing 300 or so grains, driven at 1,000 ft/s, will penetrate very sufficiently on a black bear. DoubleTap states on their ammo box that their 320-grain wide, flat nose, hardcast bullet has a muzzle velocity of 1,305 ft/s from a 6 ½ inch barrel. Federal has a .44 Magnum load delivering their 300-grain Castcore bullet at an advertised muzzle velocity of 1,090 ft/s. I’ve fired this Federal load, and it has quite mild recoil as compared to the same bullet weight by DoubleTap. Take your choice of recoil level.
Ah, the .357 Magnum, noted as the killer of great engine blocks, as it was once advertised, back when it was our most potent handgun cartridge. It’s immensely popular today, even as a deer cartridge. With a broadside lung shot out to, say, fifty or so yards, it is adequate for a deer, and likely the average bear as well. While 158 grains has long been the standard bullet weight for big game, there are some jacketed 180’s which are better for deer.
We’re considering mostly the idea that our bear will be approaching, likely very quickly, and I wouldn’t consider trusting even a 180-grain jacketed .357 on a bear’s forehead. The 180’s typically have some kind of a hollow point expected to quickly provide good mushrooming in the lungs of a small whitetail, and just might expand a great deal on a bear’s forehead - - and not penetrate. Grizzly offers a .357 using a 180-grain hardcast at 1,350 ft/s, and DoubleTap a 200 at 1,300 from a 6” and 1,200 from a 4” barrel. An advantage to a .357 is the broad selection of revolver weights, barrel lengths and price points, but use 200-grain hardcast bullets.
Personally, I believe that a 320-grain hardcast in a .44 is ideal black bear medicine. Since top velocity is not essential, four-inch barrels are fine, and offer enough sight radius for the close range shooting which is our subject. Longer barrels are in the way in vehicles unless you use a crossdraw holster.
I’m not fond of autoloaders for our use. The .45 ACP or .40 can be had with hardcast bullets, but they have less penetration than a .357. If shooting in an emergency and not held tightly, they often jam, called limp-wristing. It takes hundreds of rounds without jamming to trust an autoloader to one’s life.
Fiber optic sights are ideal for low light. Scopes and even open red dots spoil any instinctive pointing, fine if you are in a treestand, but a detriment if you are up close and personal with a bear. One dandy option is Ruger’s Super Redhawk, which has the capability to carry a scope in your pack and in a half minute or less, clamp the scope onto the revolver’s two grooved acceptors and it is still sighted in, ready to go for a planned shot.
When you put a handgun on your hip, keep it ready for quick access. Carry as much weight as you are comfortable with. Practice with it extensively because your emergency shooting will be mostly instinctive, and that takes a great deal of practice, from .22’s on up to bearloads. One of the most important points about a ‘back-up’ beargun is that issues arise very, very quickly.
The only handgun bullet to use is heavy, hardcast lead or one of the new equivalents such as solid brass or Barnes Busters, which are heavily jacked and perform the same as hardcast lead. Note that cast bullets have the potential for slightly higher muzzle velocities than jacketed bullets, but the Barnes Busters are the best option for those who can’t bring themselves to trust cast bullets. Whatever your musculature happens to be, whatever your recoil tolerances, your choice must be a cartridge and load that you are somewhat comfortable shooting, because you should shoot it often. Perhaps, begin a practice session with a box of .22’s (if you can find them these days), progress to a bunch of really light practice loads, and end with a half dozen actual bear loads. (Don’t shoot the heavy recoiling loads at the beginning of the practice session!) Shoot, shoot, shoot. After all, shooting is fun.
If you aren’t permitted or choose not to carry a handgun, a lightweight, short barreled pump shotgun, though a bit more cumbersome, is an excellent alternative. Shotguns with the proper slugs are potentially even more effective at stopping an oncoming bear.
Shotguns are more positively pointed when you have only time for instinctive shooting, and that is more the rule than the exception with advancing bears, bringing me to recommend a traditional buttstock over the handier to carry pistol grip.
Buckshot, in my mind, just does not have the whallop a slug. But, not just any slug will do. Most are designed for significant expansion, but some are built to penetrate. Namely, Lightfield’s IDS Commander series. Its Impact Discarding Sabot works in smooth or rifles bores and is available in 12, 16 and 20 gaugues. The 3 1/2-inch load drives a 1 3/8 ounce slug with 4759 foot pounds of muzzle energy, and the 3” has 3,850. It is designed for controlled expansion and deep penetration.
Federal lists a 1 ounce “TruBall” slug at 1,775 foot pounds which the list specifically as a deep penetrator for smoothbore barrels.
Brenneke has always had a good reputation for shotgun slugs. Interestingly, of their twelve varieties listed in their catalog’s recommendation chart, only two, Gold Magnum and Black Magic magnum are specifically recommend for bear.
I’ve always been fond of Mossberg’s economy, variety, and their thumb safety A lightweight, short barreled, extended magazine model at seven pounds on a sling isn’t much heavier than an S&W X-Frame on your hip, and much easier on the wallet as well.