Guns & Ammo: Bearly Enough Gun?

By Judd Brooks

shooting from a bench

I live in Montana, in grizzly country. I hunt in grizzly country. I camp, fish and hike in grizzly country. Every year there are stories from within a 100-mile radius of my home about sportsman or ranchers having unfavorable encounters with bears. Because of this, the topic of what makes a good “bear gun” is discussed ad nauseam in hunting camps, gun shops, small town cafés and at least 32% of the church potlucks I have attended recently.

For the record, Pastor Ken prefers to live by faith, but his wife Ethel packs a Taurus Raging Bull .454. I guess he figures he is covered either way. Conventional wisdom says Ethel is right. After all, bears are big, surprisingly fast and can be meaner than an irate mom at a school board meeting. Hold the 9mm and pass the .500 S&W?

What I am about to say is not intended to be offensive but probably is. I am comfortable with that, so here goes: You probably don’t shoot a handgun as well as you think you do, and some of you are downright terrible. Don’t feel alone. There are many of us out there.

Handgunning is a skill. A skill developed with repetition, time and patience. To get proficient enough to defend oneself effectively requires more than just touching a few off at a milk jug to make sure it shoots MOMB (Minute of Mamma Bear). If you don’t shoot your gun because it kicks too much, is too expensive to feed or too hard to find ammo/components for; should it even be considered a viable option?

There are plenty of folks who have been packing a big ‘ol hog leg in the woods for years. When purchased, they bought a box of ammo. Today there are 39 rounds remaining in the original 50-count box. Six rounds sit in the safe to be carefully loaded and unloaded before every trip to the woods, two were shot to test for function and one was shot by the owner’s nephew after the gun was handed to him with the promise it was loaded with “light loads” (wink, wink). What about the other two? They went through the washing machine.

In my mind, a good bear defense gun needs to have the three Ys (pronounced Yees): Familiarity, Proximity and Adequacy

Anything you need to defend your life with should be very familiar to you. There is a reason doctors and nurses receive training on every piece of equipment in the ER. Imagine coding out and hearing the words, “Sir, can you hold on a just minute? Hey nurse, do you know where the ON switch for this shocky thing is?”

Last season I was hunting with a friend and my hounds treed a bobcat. My buddy had never taken a bobcat and wanted to be the trigger man. I always keep a few fur-friendly .38 Special cast bullets in my pack for just such an occasion. That day I dug around and found three and loaded them up for him. He had never fired my handgun before, but I coached him through where to hold.
Bang. No response from Mr. Bob.

Bang. A repeat performance.

Given the value of the nice tom and only one decent fur bullet left, I took the gun back and apologized (kinda) for what was about to happen.

Bang. The tom folded and hit the ground

My buddy is not a poor pistol shot. I was simply much more familiar with that gun as I shoot it regularly. He is still convinced he was told the wrong place to aim. We are good enough friends that I still don’t care.

Shoot your bear gun. A lot.

The best bear gun in the world will do nothing for you back at camp or in your pack. If it’s not accessible, it’s worthless. Find a gun and holster that you are comfortable keeping with you at all times.

I used to carry Ruger Blackhawks of various flavors bowhunting and hound hunting. My holster has held .357s, .44 Magnums and stout-loaded .45 Colts. All have been excellent guns. Accurate, tough, foolproof and could serve double duty as a club if I ran out of bullets and had to beat something to death.

Why don’t I carry them anymore? Simple. They are heavy to the point where I don’t like carrying them on my person. Because I didn’t like carrying them on me, I started attaching them to my pack, where I wouldn’t notice the weight. Not much help when the incident occurs somewhere after you have dropped your pack.

I now carry a lighter revolver and keep it on me. Always.

This is the tricky one. What is adequate for a bear defense handgun? If your parameters include shooting through a cabin wall, the entire length of the bear and then continuing on to spray dirt in the cub’s face, your list of acceptable options is pretty short. If you simply want something that will penetrate far enough into a bear to have a chance of hitting the vitals, you might be surprised at how many options are out there.

I recently communicated with two gentleman who both had first-hand encounters defending others from bear attacks using handguns.

Phil Shoemaker is a legendary guide and outfitter who has operated on the Alaska Peninsula for many years. It is well-documented that in 2016 he defended himself and two fishing clients with a 9mm handgun from a boar brown bear at close range. He used a small Smith & Wesson semi-auto loaded with Buffalo Bore 147 grain Hard Cast +P ammo (

In Phil’s words, “At the time it was happening, my clients were under the bear, and I was hoping the bullets didn’t penetrate too far and hit either of them. I have a photo of the skinned bear with one of the BB (Buffalo Bore) bullets just exiting the body.”

Nearly full body penetration of a mature brown bear with a 9mm handgun? Chew on that for a while. Or, consider using one to keep from being chewed on for a while.

Guy Kempthorne is an avid outdoorsman from Missoula, Montana. In 2012 Guy and his friend were trying to bugle in a bull elk they heard on the ridge above them. Guy’s partner was 30 yards behind him doing the calling.

The caller was trying to coax the bull out of cover with a whiny cow call. After several minutes of cow calling, Guy heard branches breaking above him near the ridge top and then heard his partner yelling, “HEY BEAR… GET OUT OF HERE BEAR.”

There was 150 to 200 yards of deadfall between the hunters and a large sow with two nearly full-grown cubs that showed up on the ridge. Guy recalled how incredibly fast she covered the distance through those blowdowns when she zeroed in on his buddy (the caller). He had just enough time to drop his bow and unholster his .357 before the bear was already passing him at 30 yards. He shot three times while the bear was focused on his buddy. The first two missed but the third made contact in the bear’s shoulder. After being hit, the bear turned and came toward Guy. He fired again but missed. At 7 yards he touched off his fifth round, striking the bear beneath her chin, hitting her esophagus and doing damage to her neck and arteries. She dropped at the shot, stopping close enough he could have touched her.

She was still alive, so he tried to shoot her again. No luck. He had a five-shot six-gun. While standing over the bear, one of her two nearly full-grown cubs ran down to her, sniffed her where she lay and then retreated into the deadfall.

Guy was shooting 180 grain hard cast “Bear Loads” from HSM ( out of his 4-inch Ruger five-shot revolver. He still carries the same revolver today. He said, “It worked once, it just might work again.” He does carry extra ammo now.

Both gentlemen were able to deliver fatal wounds to mature bears using handguns generally considered too small or too weak for serious bear protection. It is noteworthy that neither gentleman ran out and bought a bigger gun because of those events. In both cases the shooters were familiar with their guns, had them on their person and were using appropriate bullets designed to penetrate deeply.

My personal .357 that I pack most frequently is also a five-shot Ruger, an SP101 with a 4.2-inch barrel. I decided to test for myself whether I thought it had the “stuff” needed to work as a reliable bear gun. I wanted to test with a realistic media. I figured the closest I could get was hair, muscle, bones and water – the same stuff found in most bears.

I took an Amazon box (yes, they do have uses other than taking up space in your garage near, but never in, the garbage cans). In the box, I put about 1 to 2 inches of elk trim, added a fresh elk shoulder blade, added another couple inches of trim, then a full water jug and then filled the rest of the 18-inch box with more trim. The box was placed in position at my range and a fresh, late season elk hide was placed over the whole works. I sprinkled a touch of rage over the whole thing to create a perfect angry bear casserole.

A bullet traveling through the hide (both sides) and the contents of the box would have to penetrate more than 20 inches. I showed my testing box to Mr. Shoemaker and he felt it was a valid testing media. Good enough for me….

The box was shot at ten steps using Choice Ammunition .357 “Bear Defense” loads that use a 180 grain WFN cast bullet with a gas check ( It is advertised at 1,216 feet per second (fps), very close to what my gun shoots them at. The stubby little Ruger had no trouble sending 180 grain bullets through the entire setup. When I checked both sides of the box the bullet had good straight-line penetration and struck where I was aiming.

To quote the great Farmer Hogget, “That’ll do pig. That’ll do.”