Grizzly bear (courtesy csmonitor.com)

If you’ve been reading about defensive uses of firearms against bears, you’ve likely read that bear spray is more effective than firearms. That a large percentage of people faced with bear attacks failed to disengage the safety. Both are based on a highly flawed study.

A TTAG commentator reckoned that maybe 20 percent of defenders against ursine assault failed to switch off their pistol’s safety. The commenter found the study by Tom Smith and Stephen Herroro and others, and corrected the number to “8 percent of people who faced a bear failed to disengage the safety.”

I read the paper. It’s easy to misunderstand the numbers. The number of people who failed to disengage the safety are much, much smaller, less than two percent. The total number of firearm users in the study were 215. That means four people out of 215 failed to disengage the safety on their firearm. Roughly the same number (5) shot and missed the bear.

If you read the study carefully the reason for the misunderstanding is clear. The eight percent of failed safety disengagers is eight percent of the people with guns who failed to stop the bear or bears, not eight percent of people who tried to stop the bear or bears.

The overall percentage of people who successfully stopped the bear with a gun was a bit over 76 percent. When only handguns were considered, the percentage was just short of 84 percent!  In fact, the study found handguns to be more effective than long guns.

The study has numerous flaws, the most glaring being that incidents where injuries to humans occurred were highly oversampled. There was a strong selection bias toward incidents where firearms failed. From the study:

Finally, additional records would have likely improved firearm success rates from those reported here, but to what extent is unknown.

This study is widely reported in the media to claim that firearms are not as effective as bear spray for protection against bear attack.

The study is not persuasive science. A previous study, Human Injuries from Bears in Alaska, shows completely different results.

That study examined over a thousand Defense of Life and Property reports in Alaska from 1986 to 1996. Only two percent of these incidents resulted in any injury to the people involved. That study was not mentioned in the bear attack study done by Mr. Smith and Mr. Herrero.

©2016 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice is included.
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75 Responses to Debunking the “875 forgot to take off the safety” in Bear Attacks Myth

  1. You have to remember a safety on a revolver?

    I can sorta understand handguns being more effective than rifles in a bear attack. If you’re in thick cover and not aware the bear is there until the attack is underway deploying a handgun as opposed to a traditionally slung hunting rifle is likely faster and more instinctive. It’s a bad breath range thing, at which a handgun shines.

    • I seem to recall Elmer Keith opining that a heavy revolver was more useful for bear attacks.

      Being accessible and quick to deploy as opposed to being in a scabbard or slung is what gives the nod to a heavy handgun. Better a somewhat adequate tool now than the best tool you have to unlimber.

      • I read a lot of Keith and Cooper in my younger days. The older I get the wiser they seem. From my own experience as an aging hunter there are frequent times, on steep grades or thick brush, when I sling up my rifle or shotgun and go hands free. I use the traditional across the shoulder or back sling.

        Getting that long gun unslung in the thick stuff and in a hurry is, at best, problematic. A holstered magnum revolver would serve me well in that case.

      • Quite so; the one time I faced down a mountain lion the only reason I did so with a rifle was that I had it in hand already due to passing through some dense vine maple (not something to do with a slung rifle).

    • Many years ago in Montana a friend of mine leaned his Winchester against a tree while he answered the call of nature. While in this exposed condition he was alarmed by the rapid approach of a very large black bear. He managed to multi-task, drawing his Ruger Redhawk and putting a .44 magnum round in the bear’s forehead at about 25 feet. It turned out the bear had been wounded earlier in the paw and was an a bit of a rampage.

      Craig later commented on how lucky it was he was already unlimbered at a time when he would have undoubtedly relieved himself anyway.

    • Really. In bear country the handgun caliber(s) of choice is .44 magnum and up. That leaves re volvers and Desert Eagles. And morons that think a 9mm is a good brown bear caliber.

      • Guvnor, you’ve been here since before me- what say you on the 10mm crowd?

        I actually thought (and still do, though without experience) that 10mm was a GTG caliber for semis vs bear, though generally something about hardball handloads seems to be relevant.

        • 10mm is roughly equivalent to .357 magnum, although it’s available in higher capacity pistols. Probably fine for black bear but I’d want a little more for browns.

        • Bull$#it Guv, full load 10mm is ballistically comparable to the 41 magnum, which is why the potent yet affordable and easier to tote Glock 20 has become a popular go to bear country handgun for many Alaskans. The semi auto round that approximates 357 mag is the 357 Sig.

      • Dream on Ted. Stop comparing Buffalo Bore 10mm loads to downloaded .357 loads. If you compare full load to full load they’re about the same with lighter bullets and the .357 has the edge with high SD bullets due to it’s longer case. Probably gains more from a longer barrel as well. Sure you can get a 15 round magazine in 10mm, but the revolver has the same advantages on bear as it does on humans – reliability, simplicity of operation, the ability to make contact shots, etc. Odds of having enough time to get off more than 6 shots during an attack are fairly low, but the higher capacity is certainly an advantage. But .41 magnum the 10 is not.

  2. Either way, unless your daily carry is a .50 BMG, bear spray was much more effective than a firearm and much safer.
    Few carriable firearms have stopping power against a bear and the few that do require great shot placement.
    Spray is effective and doesn’t resumiré great accuracy to work.

    • No. I have personally seen bear spray be ineffective against a black bear. I have also seen a .357 magnum be effective in a single shot kill (3 shots were fired, only one hit) of a black bear (same bear the spray didn’t work on). I was not the one doing the spraying or shooting, but was only 30 yards away. Unless you have first hand experience, don’t talk about things you have no clue about.

      • I personally have been in 3 black bear encounters in the Sierras. Shining a flashlight or banging pots was enough to scare them away.
        Have friends who did Search & Rescue and they always carry bear spray.
        One of the rescue people I know worked in Colorado where the bears are bigger. He carries bear spray be looks at people who carry handguns as wishful thinkers with Rambo daydreams.
        Firearms are effective when they are hard hitting rifles. If I was hunting elk with a .338, I would rather use the elk rifle on a bear than spray, but definitely not an innacurate and underpowered handgun.

        • Right, making lots of noise and/or having bear spray work great until they don’t. Then what?

          I’m all for not killing the bear as the first line of defense, but when that line fails, you need a backup.

        • SurfGW,

          You are welcome to use bear spray and stake your life on it.

          I am welcome to use a .44 Magnum revolver with a 6+ inch barrel and stake my life on it.

          Note that either bear spray or a firearm (even a large caliber firearm) could fail to stop a bear before the bear inflicts serious injuries.

        • I assume these search and rescue folks are either volunteers working with a government agency or are employees of a government agency. After spending 7 years in the Navy, I have come to the conclusion that one should never use the protocols, standards, and actions of government entities as a bench mark for what you should or should not use. Frankly, it matters not to me what your Search and Rescue associates carry and what they think of others’s decisions to carry a firearm. After all, how many of those Search and Rescue focus you reference have actually used their bear spray? If they haven’t used it then their choice is irrelevant as support for the argument for or against firearm carry. I do carry bear spray, because I would rather not kill a bear when I don’t have to you. But I always have an gun on me too. If the bear spray comes out in one hand, the gun is in the other. And while I agree that rifle rounds are superior to hand gun rounds, that does not mean that a magnum pistol cartridge with a properly designed bullet is not going to be adequate.

        • If loud noise is all it takes, why doesn’t the discharge of a pistol turn the bear away, even if they are not hit?

          I would like to believe that bear spray is the ideal choice, BUT by the time the bear is close enough to use the spray he is much too close to deploy an alternative if the spray isn’t doing the job. Also, using a handgun you don’t have to consider which way and how hard the wind is blowing. Make a mistake in that and you may just be garnishing yourself for the bear’s dining pleasure.

        • Thankfully, I have other sources for opinions. My son and his step-father carry a slug-loaded 12 gauge and a Glock 20 with 200 or 220 gr HC lead between them for hiking in the Rockies, which jibes with what I’ve been reading about actual employment of firearms against bears in Alaska. Then again, some desperate soul used a semi-auto version of an AK-74 on a grizzly bear, mag-dumping at Yogi until the bear lost interest, then died. Keep your bear repellant, but plain common sense should notify you that you should have a ballistic back-up plan.

        • Cliff, I was taught that shooting the bear only makes it more aggressive; the first shot from your handgun should be in the ground between you and the bear. The loud noise, and the accompanying unexplained motion in front of it, serve to make the bear likely to go to flight mode, while the experience of pain triggers a fight response.

        • .454 Casull or .460 are underpowered handguns? I know damn well a .44 Magnum will put one down too, but there’s no doubt you’d need to be composed to pull off a good shot.

      • So you have 1 (one) anecdote of the gun working, and 1 (one) anecdote of spray not working.

        And you claim to derive some meaningful conclusions from a sample size that small, contradicting a much larger study?

        • Do you mean the flawed study where the authors themselves admit there is selection bias? Do you believe every “study” out there simply because it is a study?

    • Ignorant! Come hang out with us and the bears and see which one works best. You go first always with your bear spray and I promise not to draw my gun until you cry uncle.

      • Search and Rescue people deal with bears regularly. None that I know carry pistols. All carry bear spray. Ask the pros before you assume it doesn’t work because of campfire fairytales

        • If none of them do it I wouldn’t be surprised that they are disallowed the option of carrying a gun. I’d have both.

        • Search and rescue personal, like all employees, carry exactly what they are told to, and in the way they are told to. That doesn’t mean it is best way, just the protocol way. You should know this stuff if you desire to be taken at all seriously.

        • There is (often) more than just bears that can hurt you in the woods. I do not see the problem w/ carrying bear spray and a firearm.

        • Your answer is a bit disingenuous. Many of our SAR groups are strongly discouraged or prohibited from carrying firearms on a mission (unless they are LEO’s). When I am in the back-country I carry both a firearm and spray. If a bear is behaving with curiosity, not aggression, I ready the spray. Anything other than a placid bear I unlimber my firearm…examples: a bear with cubs, one who bluff charges, alarmed “whoofs”, persistent swaying and / or rising up, continued interest after I make noise identifying myself as human…it is in these instances where I cannot safely retreat or create more distance between me and the bear where the presence of an adequate firearm and training are more comforting than pepper spray.

          To date, after a number of bear encounters over the last ten years, I have yet to use a defensive firearm and spray was deployed only once with a positive result.

        • I know I seem to jumping into the middle of some kind of Pissing contest (pun intended), but why does one preclude the other.

          Shoot the spray, spray works, hooray for the home team.
          Spray comes up short, .44 (.357 or whatever floats your boat) in the bear’s face.
          Should that fail too…well, maybe you shouldn’t have decided the bear cub was too cute not to pet.

        • Heed your own advise. Search and Rescue folks are pros at search and rescue. They are not necessarily pros at managing big game encounters.

        • @ OldGuy

          “I make noise identifying myself as human….”

          I LOLed at this because I was once backpacking with a guy who literally did that to a bear. In the lead when we came out of some crowded timber onto a meadowed stream bench, he saw a bear and movement beyond which we later judged might have been cubs; his response when the bear looked at him was to proclaim that he was a human being and it a mere bear. He added that therefore in the hierarchy of things the bear was bound to heed his authority and remove itself from the vicinity.

          The bear looked at him for what seemed a long time but was probably just a couple of seconds, and then turned and headed off into the timber on the other side of the stream.

          And yes, we laughed about it for the rest of the week.

    • That’s bullshit. Actual news stories from alaska show grizzly bear killings with 10mm, .357 magnum, and 45acp.

      There are also 2 videos on youtube of black bears killed with 9mm handguns, and one of a cop dispatching a black bear in NC with a .357 sig glock, and a news story from Alaska of a black bear killed with .40 s&w.

      Caliber religion has been going on for far too long, and there is way too much pro-bear-spray bias from anti-gun pussies who think guns magically fire themselves at innocent people, and deliberately malfunction or fire wide of a bad guy or dangerous animal when used by a law-abiding citizen.

      I’ll take a gun over bear spray any day of the week.

      • I’ve seen people hunt bears with 44 mag pistols and do one shot kills. I can’t imagine that one wouldn’t put one down.

      • People die from .22s, but if you need a person to stop their aggression quickly a larger caliber may be needed. It might not, too. Personally is want to as close to guaranteed as I can get.

    • Yeah, SurfGW, unless the wind is in your face, and you get a face full of bear spray, making you easy pepper spiced prey for the bear.

      You know you’re in liberal/progressive bear country when you find pepper smelling bear scat with bells mixed in.

      As for me, I’ll carry both. Either a 10mm, .454 Casull, or 1911 converted to .460 Rowland.

    • Not every bear encounter involves Grizzlies, Kodiaks or Polar bears. Most involve common black bears. Anything more powerful than a 9mm will stop a black bear and except for males coming out of hibernation so will bear spray.

    • Yeah and pray you aren’t spraying in the wind… Please do tell me more about how nobody has ever killed a bear with a 9mm or something like that.

      • People have killed black bears with 22 rimfire. So does this mean that I should carry a 22? I prefer to go with a higher Pk than a 9mm will give you.

    • Even if 80% forgot to disengage their safety. The idea anyone would deny lawful self protection from a wild animal is cruel. Handguns, arrows and spears are effective in killing animals.

      Surf this GW

    • I took my 45-70 Government guide gun in to the local gunsmithing school to have the sights replaced. I commented that they probably don’t see that many.

      The counter man responded that they see them quite frequently. They have a contract with the USGS, which equips its back country survey teams with them for bear defense.

    • Or a DA revolver. They’re the best, by far, IMO, for daily carry. More intuitive, far easier for a newbie to understand, more reliable, chambered for bigger and more effective calibres, and no controls at all to worry about, at not until it’s reload time.
      As I’ve said many times before, the ONE area they cannot compete with autoloaders in is capacity. But in a bear attack, who really thinks they will have time to shoot a gun dry and not either have the problem solved, or have a bear on top of them making it extremely difficult to reload, even if it is in a semiauto pistol??

    • Or, you know, a Glock, Springfield XD, M&P, Kahr(do they make a 10mm/.45?), revolver from anyone….etc.

      Or were you being sarcastic?

  3. Okay, so 2% of people forget the safety during a bear encounter. But how many forget to change their underwear immediately thereafter?

    • The “Bear” in the room in this study is selection bias. They chose 269 incidents from 1883 to 2009. They should have a list of those incidents for us to see. It must be out there. If they are credible researchers, then the data would be available. They admit that they have a selection bias problem, simply because cases where injury to humans does not occur are not reported nearly as often.

      That could explain the bizarre results, where people who fire guns at bears are as likely to be injured or killed as those that do not. If you have a selection bias toward incidents where people are injured, those are the stories that you get.

  4. Many questions regarding statistics. Like, what percentage of the firearms had a safety to disengage? What mix of long guns were there (semi-auto/bolt/lever/pump). What was distance of engagement (did handguns have a significant advantage due to bad breath engagement)? How would stats vary in regards to black vs. brown vs. polar? Was bear spray a factor in engagements (was bear spray deployed in advance of firearm use, particularly unsuccessful firearm use)?

    A takeaway from the polarbearsinternational.org study linked to in the story indicates that firearms should be used by those proficient in their use. I would suggest that the same would be true for bear spray. In both cases, though, lack of proficiency would not translate to zero effectiveness overall.

    • Excellent questions!

      I would add a question whether the gun was used first as a noisemaker or immediately to shoot the bear. I’ve met a number of hikers who’ve fired for the noise and that was sufficient to deter the beast, and would be interested to know if that truly is the best strategy.

  5. Steven Rinella (of Meat Eater) did a write up wherein he cited the Alaska study. Apparently, bear spray is way more effective than thought.
    I’ll still carry my G40. Goin bear hunting in t-minus 10 days… Super stoked!

      • When backpacking in bear/mountain lion country I carry a G20 in a Kenai chest holster. Doesn’t interfere with a heavy pack, always accessible, and OC in the backcountry is a visible “stay away, hippie” sign.

        • FWIW, there are areas of backcountry where an openly carried firearm is an invitation to get shot by drug-crop guards you never even see.

          I met a guy who backpacked through one such territory. He’d researched it, so he knew when he was nearing the risk zone; a rough mile before, he stripped to hiking boots and straw hat, stuffing everything else into his pack, and hiked that way until he was past the risk zone. He never encountered anyone, but swears he heard laughter off in the forest.

  6. Right now, I expect bear spray’s most useful application is for crowd control. Carry it in your car as a possible response when your car is blocked, THEN threatened by protestors of BLM or that ilk.

  7. For those that advocate using noise to chase off bears, one has to wonder why then several shots fired in rapid succession, even if missing the bear, might create enough noise and confusion to scare it off. Firearms are loud. Much louder than clanking pots and pans, and hollering. Firearms provide two types of deterrence: pain and intimidation through loud noise.

    Bear spray seems to have its uses, but it also has its drawbacks. For example, if it’s raining or the wind is blowing in your direction, or a strong crosswind that blows it away from the bear. All bear spray would accomplish is to possibly incapacitate you and leave the bear unaffected, making it harder to take steps to preserve yourself. Bear spray is not an all weather/all situation tool, but firearms don’t typically present those problems.

    There seem to be zero reasons why a person can’t be armed with both, and use what force seems necessary to protect his/herself.

  8. If you are in bear country and your primary defensive firearm has a safety, disengage it if you detect a bear in your immediate vicinity. I would say that a bear within 50 yards of you is an proximate threat and you better be ready because a bear at that distance can be on top of you in 3-5 seconds. Just because you are ready doesn’t mean you will need to shoot. You should be ready whether you are using a firearm or bear spray. You are more likely to use whatever your defensive means you choose more effectively if you are ready before things get ugly.

    • Many people practice taking the safety off a long gun as they bring it to the shoulder. Bear sprays also have safeties, so they can be forgotten as easily as a firearms.

      You are perceptive to note that many bear attacks are signaled or have some warning in advance. Those situations give people plenty of time to get ready.

    • tdiinva,

      I would consider any bear within 100 yards to be a threat if they can definitely identify you (whether via scent or otherwise).

      And by a “threat” I mean worthy of unholstering, disengaging any safeties, and holding at “low ready” — but NOT shooting.

  9. People have killed bears with 22 rimfire. So what’s your point? Carry a 22 pistol? I don’t know about you but I prefer something with a higher kill probability.

  10. Suppose someone is attacking your children. Would bear spray convince you to run away and abandon your children, or would you fight until you absolutely couldn’t fight anymore?

    Well, momma bear would do the same thing.

  11. SurfGW:

    I have been personally confronted by black bears on two separate occasions. Both times I was able to escape by hollering and banging on a metal camp table. Both times the bear was within ten feet of me.

    I was very very very lucky. So was the bear.

    If I would have had a gun I would have used it. If it ever happens again I won’t be unarmed.

  12. While there are stories about people using 45s and 357s on grizzlies, locals have debunked some of them. In one well known story, the guy actually shot the griz because it was raiding his salmon smoker. ..8 rounds broadside with a 45 and it was still after the salmon and then him…..

    Just because it was in the news, doesn’t make it so.

    The guides I know on Kodiak generally carry 45-70s or 12 gauges. Not as handy as a handgun, but grizzlies are freaking big

    • I still get a shudder from the day on the Pacific Crest Trail when we ate lunch atop a boulder with vertical sides: it became a long lunch because a grizzly came along and didn’t leave until he’d made a thorough investigation of the possibility of joining us up there.

      Yeah, they’re freaking big.

  13. Don’t about the Kodiak and Grizzly but if a black near does not run when it sees you, it considers you either a threat or a meal. Most bear attacks are black bear.

    Anything that pokes a good hole will kill one but may not do it fast enough. I’ll stick with a cast swc or lbt in 44 or larger caliber.

    10mm is the most powerful glock round but pales in comparison to a true magnum big bore.

    I’ll leave the bear spray for the search and rescue folks. They need it more.

  14. Seems to me Loonberg is paying fruit lick anti gunner types to post on this website stupid opinions like just because i work in the woods and carry a Ruger Blackhawk, i just shoot any bear i cross paths with. No, i love nature as much and probably more then those GreenPeaced people, and believe Ducks Unlimited and other hunting groups have done far more good for the environment then those lazy living in their mothers basement dope smoking dolts ever could.

  15. Shoot the bears with a Glock 22 15 times. Then grab your AR and dump 30 more rds into the carcass. Just to be sure.

    The only good bear is a dead bear. And what the world needs now is more good bears.

  16. I think there is a little ignorance going on with all the posters who keep bringing up wind as a major consideration in using bear spray. Have any of you ever used hornet spray? It would take a mighty wind to blow it back in your face.

  17. If you carry a wheel gun for personal defense, because you think they are more reliable in a desperate situation, wouldn’t you also want to carry one if your in bear country?

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