I sometimes work in a gun store, and one of the more common stories I hear from people is that they are buying a gun to protect themselves against bears.
Usually, they are buying a handgun rather than a rifle or shotgun, and it is sometimes of a dismayingly low caliber/cartridge power. The store also has bear spray for sale, but we sell very little of it (even though I recommend it to everyone who says they are buying a gun for bear protection).
Now here’s the thing. Bears are very difficult to kill at the best of times, and if a bear attacks, you’re going to be massively behind the curve in terms of how much time you have to react and respond.
Don’t plan on running away. Bears can run at 30 mph. How fast is that? To put it in a more meaningful measure, it is 45 ft per second.
In other words, if a bear that is what seems to be a ‘safe’ 100 ft away decides to charge at you, it could be on you in just over 2 seconds. And there’s the reality to consider : If you have less than two seconds from sighting a bear to having it on top of you, what can you do in those two seconds?
How long would it take you to access your rifle/shotgun/pistol, possibly chamber a round and/or remove the safety, sight on the bear (which will be a moving target of course), and get a few rounds accurately downrange? You’re going to have the better part of a second of reaction time, then another second or longer to deploy and make ready your weapon, and only now, with your finger reaching for the trigger at the far end of two seconds are you ready to participate in whatever the bear has in mind. Meanwhile, the bear has gone from far away to right there in your face.
That’s not to say you could reach a can of bear spray any faster. And although you’ve probably practiced hundreds (hopefully many thousands) of times at drawing a pistol or pointing your rifle – sometimes as a dry fire exercise and sometimes actually shooting at the end of the presentation; how many times have you practiced taking a can of bear spray off your belt, opening its lid, de-activating its safety, and readying it to spray, and how many times have you actually then gone the rest of the way and sent a stream of spray out there?
One more thing to think about up front. So you’ve a bear charging towards you. Let’s say you get lucky and you are reading to start shooting or spraying while the bear is still 50 ft away. But think about this : That 50 ft distance takes the bear only about a second to cross. So within that second, your pistol/rifle/shotgun/spray has to do whatever it can to turn the bear around and change its mind. That’s a fairly tall order, for sure.
Bears can weigh 500lbs or more (the heaviest black bear weighed in at 900lbs, grizzlies have been recorded at weights of up to 1500lbs). That’s a lot of momentum barreling towards you – and don’t think about climbing up a tree. Black bears can easily climb trees, as can young grizzlies, but adult grizzlies generally can’t/don’t. On the other hand, a full size grizzly can simply reach up 10′ or so – it doesn’t even need to climb the tree to get you if you’ve haven’t reached the upper branches yet.
The good news is that bears seldom attack humans. On average there are only two fatal bear attacks a year in the US and Canada combined. Furthermore, the outcome of a bear encounter is largely dependent on your behavior, rather than that of the bear.
Another piece of good news is that not all ‘attacks’ are actually attacks. A bear can charge at you out of curiosity to see what you do in return, or as a bluff, to try and bully you away. In such cases the beer may veer off at the last minute and not actually run into you. However, this really belongs in the category of ‘really useless information’ – what are you going to do if a bear charges at you? Cross your fingers and hope it is a bluff charge rather than the real thing?
Bears charge at people for a number of different reasons. According to the Alaska Science Center, the most common reasons are (from most common and then to successively less common reasons) :
- Invaded personal space (this includes a mother bear protecting her young)
- Predatory intent
- Hunting wounded
- Carcass defense
- Provoked charge
Wearing some sort of noise-maker can help reduce the element of surprise (on the part of the bear) and being very aware of your surroundings might help reduce the element of surprise (on your part).
But, what should you do if you do encounter a bear, and in particular, what should you do if it does charge you? This helpful page from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources talks mainly about passive defenses against bears. Its advice about what to do if you encounter a bear seems sensible, however; it is only when they start to talk about what to do if the bear charges that our disagreement arises.
If you encounter a bear, they say :
- If you see a bear that is far away or doesn’t see you turn around and go back, or circle far around. Don’t disturb it.
- If you see a bear that is close or it does see you STAY CALM. Attacks are rare. Bears may approach or stand on their hind legs to get a better look at you. These are curious, not aggressive, bears. BE HUMAN. Stand tall, wave your arms, and speak in a loud and low voice. DO NOT RUN! Stand your ground or back away slowly and diagonally. If the bear follows, STOP.
- If a bear approaches your campsite aggressively chase it away. Make noise with pots and pans, throw rocks, and if needed, hit the bear. Do not let the bear get any food.
So far, so good. But what if a bear does charge you?
First, let’s see what the AK DNR website says :
- If a bear is charging almost all charges are “bluff charges”. DO NOT RUN! Olympic sprinters cannot outrun a bear and running may trigger an instinctive reaction to “chase”. Do not try to climb a tree unless it is literally right next to you and you can quickly get at least 30 feet up. STAND YOUR GROUND. Wave your arms and speak in a loud low voice. Many times charging bears have come within a few feet of a person and then veered off at the last second.
- If you have surprised a bear and are contacted or attacked and making noise or struggling has not discouraged an attack, play dead. Curl up in a ball with your hands laced behind your neck. The fetal position protects your vital organs. Lie still and be silent. Surprised bears usually stop attacking once you are no longer a threat (i.e. “dead”).
- If you have been stalked by a bear, a bear is approaching your campsite, or an attack is continuing long after you have ceased struggling, fight back! Predatory bears are often young bears that can be successfully intimidated or chased away. Use a stick, rocks or your hands and feet.
Now for our advice. If a bear charges you, we don’t think you can risk the small chance that this is merely a bluff charge unless you are a bear expert and are willing to bet your life on your understanding.
We do agree you shouldn’t try running away, for both the reasons the DNR puts forward. This is correct.
But we suggest you do something more than passively wave your arms and speak in a loud low voice. Urgently start fighting back – start protecting yourself against what could be a lethal bear attack.
Which is Better – Bear Spray or Bullets?
And now we’re at the key part of this article. Should you spray the bear or shoot the bear?
That depends a little bit on what you’re carrying and how quickly you can deploy it. If you’ve a large-bore high-powered rifle that is good to go and which you’re sure you could use to land a couple of accurate shots on the bear, that is probably going to do the job, albeit in a very permanent way.
But if you’ve got bear spray dangling from one side of your belt and a pistol of pretty much any ‘normal’ caliber on the other side, we’d recommend reaching for the bear spray first.
There is a sort of study that claims to show that bear spray is a better choice. Here’s a recent write-up of it with a link within the article to more information on the study. In summary, it says that 98% of people who used bear spray to defend themselves against a bear attack walked away unharmed, as did the bears, too. On the other hand, 56% of people who used firearms suffered some degree of injury themselves, and 61% of the attacking bears were killed as part of the encounter.
This is not a scientific study per se. It is a collation of two different sets of reports and records; with lots of limitations on the data it collected, lots of subjective elements (starting from such fundamental things as ‘is this really a bear attack or not’) and the interpretation that can be placed on it. It has also been suggested that some of the people who promulgated their conclusions are predisposed towards disliking guns (and wanting to protect bears).
However, even if one makes large allowances for these points, the results, such as they are, seem to be startling and overwhelmingly in favor of making bear spray your usual best choice. Bear spray seems to work, and seems to work very well, if used in a situation where it is capable of working well. The US Fish & Wildlife Service seems to agree.
The problems with bear spray are limited range, susceptibility to wind and rain (the spray doesn’t work nearly as well or far in the rain, wind is a problem too, and on hot days it will disperse more quickly), and possible ‘collateral damage’ on you or other bystanders (if the spray blows back on you).
If you get even the slightest whiff of the spray yourself, you might lose your own capacity to fight and even suffer severely compromised vision. On the other hand, with a rifle or shotgun, there’s much less chance of doing something that takes you out of the fight; you’re there and fully fighting all the way to the point where the bear is on top of you.
Some Do’s and Don’ts For Bear Spray
Do practice with the bear spray. Be prepared to use up an entire canister with a series of trial squirts, each of 0.5 – 1.0 seconds in duration. Try it in cold and hot weather, still and windy weather, rain, in obstructed bush and open plain. Get familiar and comfortable with the product and how it works. After all, you spend much more in training with your firearms – a can of bear spray costs not much more than a box or two of ammo.
Do spray slightly lower than the bear when it is some distance away. The spray tends to rise; but if you spray high, it won’t appreciably fall back down again. When the bear gets closer, spray straight for the head.
Do spray from side to side as well as directly at the bear. Sometimes bears might zig zag a bit on their way to you, and by putting up a cloud of spray you get the bear even if he goes a bit off path; plus maybe a bit of wind will shift the cloud one way or the other as well.
Do standby for the bear returning. Just because it gave up the attack doesn’t mean it won’t come back a minute or three later. You might need to spray a second time. Which leads to –
Do buy the biggest canister of bear spray you can, and consider packing at least two of them with you. No – that’s not excessive; after all, how many full magazines and rounds of ammo do you carry with you?
Do make sure that every member of your party has their own bear spray.
Do make sure that your bear spray shows an official EPA certification (here’s their current list of approved bear spray products).
Do buy some bear spray ‘antidote’ that will help alleviate the effects if you accidentally get some spray on yourself or other people in your group.
Do remember to shake before use.
Do keep an eye on the expiry dates of your bear spray. When the bear spray has expired, don’t just throw it away. This is your opportunity to use the canister for more practice.
Don’t defensively spray bear spray around your camp perimeter or on your tents. The very strong pepper agents are volatile and evaporate over time, but the carrier chemicals they are in (which make up about 98% of the total contents of the spray) are things that bears actually like, or at least are curious to know more about. You’ll find that laying down a field of spray may actually attract bears a few hours later, rather than repel them.
Don’t use too little spray. Know how many seconds of spray your canister holds and what its range is, and start spraying shortly before the bear reaches the point of maximum range and keep spraying/spraying/spraying until the bear has turned around and run away.
What to Shoot a Bear With
If our comments on bear spray haven’t been persuasive, or if you want a backup, here’s what you should keep in mind about using firearms for protection against bears.
Although we’ve read stories of people successfully deterring bear attacks with 10mm and heavier calibers of pistols, we’re far from comfortable suggesting you rely on any caliber of handgun at all. Well, maybe a .454 Casull or a .500 S&W Magnum, but nothing much else.
Our feeling is that the people who have successfully fought off a bear attack with most ‘normal’ calibers of pistols have been very lucky on a basis you can’t be sure of recreating; sort of like people who tell of successfully fighting off a person’s attack with a .22 pistol. For sure, sometimes .22 pistols ‘work’ and they have even been known to kill people, but do you really want to rely on such a weak underpowered pistol? The same applies to your choice of firearm for protection against bears, only more so.
Remember also that, the same as with people, most bears are going to die by bleeding out rather than by instant incapacitation. And, sort of the same as a drug crazed felon who is too ‘out of it’ to realize he has been fatally wounded, and who keeps fighting effectively until his body finally expires, a bear is not necessarily going to pay much attention to the minor stings it might experience from pistol wounds. By the time it decides to lie down and die, it could well have thoroughly finished you off. Remember the bear is probably only a couple of seconds away from you at the start of your encounter. You don’t have the luxury of being able to safely wait a minute or two for the bear to lose interest in the fight.
If you want to be able to seriously change a bear’s attitude, you need either a 12 gauge shotgun loaded with solid rifled slugs, or a heavy-duty sporting rifle – the AK DNR recommends a .300 Mag rifle (as a minimum).
Note that if you do shoot and kill a bear, you probably have some obligations to report the kill and possibly even to ‘salvage’ the bear in some form or another. You should check with your state’s Hunting/Fishing department, whatever it is called, to understand your obligations, and be ready for the lecture on how you’re not allowed to shoot bears to start with unless your life is in danger, etc.
Some Final Thoughts
Neither bear spray nor bullets, of any size, will guarantee you triumphing in an encounter with a bear. Luck and other random factors always plays a part.
Just the same as you behave on the street, observing and anticipating and preparing for problems, it is essential that you act so that you have plenty of reaction time, plenty of distance, and plenty of options when coming across a bear.
And, the same as with bad guys on the street, always adopt a defensive posture and do anything/everything you can to avoid the situation escalating to one where your life becomes at risk.