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There’s an old saw that pokes fun at those who operate and theorize from ivory towers and their penchant for, at times, failing to see the forest for the trees as it were. It works in practice, but will it work in theory? An report touts the latest findings of “longtime bear biologist Tom Smith” whose theory is that during a bear attack, those with guns are statistically no safer than those without them. “…Smith and (his) colleagues analyzed 269 incidents of close-quarter bear-human conflict in Alaska between 1883 and 2009 in which a firearm was involved. They found the gun made no statistical difference in the outcome of these encounters, which resulted in 151 human injuries and 172 bear fatalities.” About those 172 dead bears, though . . .

They didn’t die of myocardial infarctions while chasing down the poor hapless hikers who stumbled upon Mrs. Yogi and her little Boo Boos. Yes, I understand that, assuming the good perfesser’s numbers are accurate, statistically you’re just as likely to end up hanging like a salmon from a grizzly’s mouth with or without that Super Redhawk on your hip but . . .

“It really isn’t about the kind of gun you carry. It’s about how you carry yourself,” said Smith, lead author of the study published online in the Journal of Wildlife Management.

“Guns are great, but for a gun to be great you have to be very, very good. No one ever practices on a 500-pound animal charging at you through the brush at 10 meters. They practice on paper targets,” he added. “That’s a big, big difference from being in the moment of stress.”

OK, I can live with that. If I know how to shoot – and shoot under pressure – my odds go up. Significantly. Pretty much as they do in just about any DGU. Prof. Smith’s number crunching also found some interesting output when it comes to handguns vs. long guns.

While Smith said his data set was not perfect, it did tease out some surprising findings. For instance, handguns slightly outperformed long guns, resulting in a positive outcome (meaning the gun stopped the bear’s aggression) 84 percent of the time versus 76 percent.

“That’s surprising because some believe that handguns have no place in bear safety,” Smith said. “But they are much more maneuverable and carried more accessibly. A majority of bears go to extreme lengths to avoid people. When an encounter occurs, it is in close quarters and poor visibility. They are on their back shooting the bear in the mouth.”

So forget that stuff about using your pistol to fight your way back to your rifle. It can be hard to kick a 900 lb. bear off your chest. What’s the professor’s weapon of choice, then? Capsaicin. Yep, he’s a pepper spray man. Or he is if he lives by what his numbers tell him.

“Out of 176 incidents (studied), there were only three injuries, just scratches,” Smith said of his pepper spray findings. And no bears died.

That’s nice to know. My weapon of choice: prevention. As in stay out of areas frequented by bears. But if I’m going to be there – because it’s, you know, beautiful and everything – I’m going to have a large caliber wheel gun on my belt. And probably a fire extinguisher-size pepper spray dispenser, too. Thanks to Disreali, there’s another old saw – there are lies, damned lies and statistics. I just don’t want to be one of them.

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  1. He also leaves out the fact that guns are very usefull for prevention of attacks. Having had a couple of friends who where guides in Alaska and Montana I have heard many of thier stories of firing off rounds in the ground to chase of bears that where too close for comfort or strayed into camp. None of them would ever want to kill a bear, but none of them will ever go near bear country with out a big wheel gun.

  2. The phrase “wheel gun” makes my teeth hurt. I want to find the guy who made it up and beat the sh!t out of him with a Colt Python while I scream “it’s a revolver, you b@st@rd! A revolver!”

    Thanks for letting me vent. Now as for those pesky bears: I spend little time in bear country, but when I do, I prefer to go there with a big revolver, grippy shoes and a very slow buddy.

  3. I hike in Yellowstone all summer with my father in law who has been doing it for the last 20 odd years. Bears are just a fact of life there and anybody who has any sense carries bear spray on their belt while in the backcountry. My father in law has had to deploy it twice, and twice it stopped a charging grizzly sow. While there’s no guarantee it will always work, its a hell of a lot easier to use than trying to sight in and accurately hit a 500 lb animal that’s rushing you.

    I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a gun with you; I don’t enter the park with anything less than a .357 on my hip either, but bear spray will always be my first line of defense. The pistol is more for two legged threats and any other pissed off animal I may encounter, also if the bear sprays fails then at least I have another option.

    • There is a lot of evidence that the spray works better than a gun. You don’t want to fight the bear, you want it to go away.

  4. A cheerful tune to whistle and some really serious OC spray is preferable.

    Noise, noise, noise!

    When I lived up in Alaska (Outside Soldoutna), the bears were real big. And they weren’t afraid of people.

    They pretty much just want to do bear stuff. Unless you screw with their food, surprise them, mess with their young ones, you’ll be okay.

    I actually fly fished for a good hour and a half across the river from an awfully large grizzly. He got more fish than I did.

    • I spent a little time in Churchill, MN, during polar bear season. Polar bears are the only completely carniverous bear. They look upon human beings with curiosity, as in they wonder if we taste better with white wine or red.

      Churchill’s best defenses are the large fences that Churchillians erect to keep the bears out of folks’ front yards.

        • I’ve seen polar bears on the other side of a fence, with their noses sniffing the air to determine whether I might be a useful prey item. Huge doesn’t describe them. They’re magnificent.

          I’ve never come across a polar bear in an uncontrolled situation, but I have stepped in a warm, steaming pile of brown bear scat while trekking in to fish for Arctic grayling. Trust me, it’s very disconcerting knowing that there’s a huge animal out there who just dropped a pile on the trail and is still around.

        • I am from Newfoundland, Canada. Sometimes we get bears that have been blown down on blizzards and whatnot. I’ve seen them plowing through icey water like nothing I can describe. Huge creatures. And yes, they eat just meat. Any meat.

    • No, but situational awareness in the sticks has to be learned. Walking down a nasty street is one thing, having a 900 lb hunting machine that can smell you further than you can see him is different.

  5. My BIL is fond of saying a handgun is about useless on a bear. Neither of us have had the pleasure of meeting one but I always felt 6 rounds from my Redhawk would do the trick better than one or two from his rifle. You really have to make that rifle shot count on a 800 lb animal and you can’t depend on blood pressure loss to stop the advance.
    Six holes are statistically better than one as long as they are big holes.

  6. I saw this study, or possibly a different survey with similar conclusions, last summer before I went hiking in Glacier NP with my kids. I decided to leave the hot-loaded .45 LC Ruger Blackhawk at home and strap on the fire-extinguisher size OC spray.

    I still wore a 9mm for two-legged predators, although OC usually does a bang-up job (without the bang) on them too.

  7. I’m pretty much a live and let live type. I would hate to have to kill an animal in it’s own home range. I do understand that it has to be done sometimes. It seems, though that the bear spray is way more effective as a deterrent. If the numbers are good, knowing how much better chance I have to break off an attack, I would probably reach for my bear spray first, and my gun with the wheel shaped thingy that revolves when I pull the trigger second. Any ethical issues aside, it just seems like the best tool. Plus we both live to fight another day. I’d hate to die with my empty gun in my hand as I wait for the bear to die and collapse on top of me.

    Anyone that admires pure power has to admire bears. To see one in real life, up close is just a glimpse of their superb construction. Tough hides, thick dense skulls shaped to deflect blows from competitors as well equipped to kill as they are. And how about the strength of a big Griz? Humans are so far less equipped as killers. It’s a good thing we be so smart. 😉

    • I would hate to have to kill an animal in it’s own home range.

      Copy that. I’d rather shoot a BG being bad than a bear being a bear.

        • I don’t get the coyote shooting. It actually, for the most part, increases the coyote population, because if you kill the alpha coyotes, the pack structure goes to hell, and they breed more. Generally, only the alpha female breeds, or sometimes allows other females to breed. I understand that if animals are damaging your crops, you might shoot them, but how often is that really the case? There are some racoons I’d like to pick a bone with, but I live in the city. I’m certainly a meat hunter. But a lot of “varmint” hunting seems pointless.

  8. Hmm, i wonder about this study. If a bear attacks and you survive without injury, would you really report it? What did he compare his 269 attacks involving guns to? I suspect that this study might have a lot of the same problems as a lot of the DGU studies. He might be miscounting bear attacks that involve firearms, but the firearm isnt discharged (perhaps even counting them as non-firearm encounters).

    One thing the arguing with the antis should teach us is dont trust statistics.

    • Here’s someone who gets it!

      A simple rule about “research” … read it carefully and watch how its done, not just what the results are.

      Problem 1: What is the author’s control group? He cannot be making determinations regarding effectiveness without a control group to compare against. Without this, how is “no statistical difference” determined? How about 269 incidents where the person is unarmed. Lets see what the results of that are.

      Problem 2: 76%-84%. The author notes “positives outcomes (meaning the gun stopped the bear’s aggression)” 76-84 percent of the time. Wait a minute… I thought he said there was no statistical difference with a gun?! What the heck percentage does he need to qualify as effective? 100%??

      Any research that is in any way critical of firearms must, unfortunately, be put under a microscope because of so-called activist scientists. The pattern is quite clear. Take nothing at face value and don’t be afraid to scrutinize. That doesn’t mean automatically refute it. Just don’t automatically accept it.

  9. How about pepper spray followed by a 500 S&W followed by a rifle of your choosing?

    Any large predator that has found itself in a state conducive to nibbling on humans is quite likely to go nibble on other humans should you manage to convince it that you’re not the snack it was looking for.

    Hence, if unarmed, spray it and become armed. Then shoot it until click and become more armed. Then shoot it some more. For safety.

  10. Come-on Dan,

    You don’t really need a gun in beer err bear country. Just imagine you’re the Jewish shepherd boy David who used a sling and a pebble to kill Goliath. Don’t forget a nice sharp blade, to cut yourself free, just in case the bear collapses dead on top of you pinning you to the ground.

      • Dan,

        Going out Masada style; that is glorious. I’ve heard that people have sometimes been able to save themselves — from a bear mauling and killing them — was by playing dead. Going on the premise that a bear wants to kill its food fresh (and not maul and eat a cadaver since there is no glory in that) if you kill yourself first then the bear won’t eat you. Brilliant. Now, if it must come down to it to save you from becoming bear breakfast, here are two knives to consider:

        Johnson Adventure “BACONMAKER”

        Filipino Pakal

    • This is why in bear country I carry my trusty Naginata and hope that my squat thrusts at the gym carry him from atop me. Also learning to eat ones feces may be beneficial in these bear attack cases. There will be a lot of it.

  11. How about a vote for carrying the proper ammunition in your Revolver or Semi-Auto? A few companies out there, such as Buffalo Boar, make hard cast loads that are marketed to be able to penetrate the skull of a bear. They make them in just about every hand gun caliber, including 9mm. I have tried them in my Glock 21 in .45ACP. Not on a live animal mind you, but they were very accurate and reliable in my gun. You see, you do not want to use self-defense hollowpoints on a bear. You need something that will penetrate and not deform on contact. Buffalo Boar also has a nice write on bear attacks if anyone is interested. Bear spray is fine. Better yet: carry bear spray, a handgun, the proper ammo, and a rifle – might as well.

    • Just dont fall in any body of water carrying all that…

      Barnes DPX would probably work pretty well, too.

  12. OK, here’s a (probably) dumb question about handguns in bear country.

    Why use a whee….er, revolver? Why not a 1911? More rounds than most big revolvers, plus a big cartridge.

    • It seems generally held that .45ACP is moving too slowly to expect it to penetrate well enough to do the job.
      At the low end, .357 Magnum, at a comparable bullet weight, is moving several hundred FPS more quickly, is creating more energy, and will penetrate more deeply.
      Conventional wisdom seems to be that if carrying an autoloader for bear defense, one should make it a 10mm. Properly loaded, it offers magnum-level performance.

      Now for my disclaimer- I have never shot a bear with any of the above. I’m basically just repeating what I’ve read.

    • I find that an question interesting. After researching the polar bear issue the Danes decided to equip their Greenland long-range sled-dog patrols with a .30-06 rifle and both light and heavy rounds (220 grain), and a Glock G20 10mm pistol with maximum powder and a gas-checked hard-cast bullet. They still do. I suppose penetration, 15 + 1 rounds, and reliability were the issues. The revolver guys think 6 is enough? There seems to be an issue of a bear in a blizzard that you didn’t see until it was ten feet away, or until it had crashed the electric wire’fence’ and was on top of your tent. So, the 1911: In Alaska, I’m told by a friend, lots of people carry a 1911 in their car or camp and have faith in it. I think the momentum and sectional density of bullets, the number of bullets, and reliability in very cold icy conditions are the issues. I also think the revolver is favored for hunting due to available loadings, but hasn’t really been a go-to war or bears-in-blizzards gun much lately. Could be wrong. What did they carry in Churchill, Walf? I carry Glocks, 10mm or 45ACP, but if I have to prove I can shoot paper adequately, I grab a 1911. Color me conflicted.

    • The hunting cartridges available in revolvers are far more powerful than any of the “powerful” cartridges available in semi-autos.

      Start with a hopped-up .44 Mag or .45 Colt in Ruger Redhawk and you can go up and up from there, through .454 Casull until you’re up to Linebaugh cartridges which are just short of cannon loads.

      For those who tout such things as the Desert Eagles and their cartridge loadings… you really need to pick up a modern single action hunting revolver with some of the new loads. After you’ve popped off a few rounds from these beasts, you’ll know that your Desert Eagle isn’t in the same league.

  13. I bet a flame thrower would work great against a bear.

    In looking up FTs, I came across this piece on fighting crime in South Africa:

    Flamethrower now an option on S. African cars

    “Firefighters, medical personnel and the police agree 100 percent “that it will never kill a person,” Fourie asserted. “This is definitely non-lethal…. A person is not going to stand there for a minute while you roast him. It will fend off the attacker, and that’s the end of it.”

    — I have confidence that the termination of the threat repeating itself in the future can be improved. Time for some American ingenuity.

  14. The old joke among guides I knew in Alaska went something like this:
    Old hand: “It’s best to carry a rifle in bear country, but make sure you file off the front sight first.”
    Greenhorn: “Why?”
    Old hand: “That way it hurts less when the bear shoves it up your a$$.”

  15. “…Smith and (his) colleagues analyzed 269 incidents of close-quarter bear-human conflict in Alaska between 1883 and 2009 in which a firearm was involved. They found the gun made no statistical difference in the outcome of these encounters, which resulted in 151 human injuries and 172 bear fatalities.”


    Humans: Still top of the food chain.

  16. I’ve only been in bear country once while visiting my buddy’s cabin, and I didn’t see a single bear. I had one of my 500’s with 700 grain T-REX ammo and all I got was tired from lugging that big heavy gun around the woods all F@@@ing day. I’d still rather lug this sucker around all day and never see a bear, because I’d rather be armed if I strolling in the woods and some pissed off bear tried to make a meal out of my skinny ass. I just ordered the heavyweight sample pack(10 each of 350,385,500,630,700) from Ballistic Supply, and their newest round is the 630 grain hollowpoint that looks just like my 700 grainer from the side. I’ve shot their 385 grain hollowpoint and it’s got just as much recoil as the 500 grain, so I’m dying to try out the 630 in a couple of weeks.

  17. There are several excellent books on Bears and attacks. I have four or five of them. They make a good case for a gun and or pepper spray. Nothing is a recipe for a horrible mauling. In Alaska many carry a short pump shotgun or a rifle or handgun or all the above. Many carry guns and spray both. Pepper spray is not effective against black bears.
    As for me, I would carry both spray and gun. There are lies, damn lies and statistics. I go with my own common sense.

  18. I heard enough bear hunt stories growing up that when I go into the woods, I carry a S&W 29 .44mag in a chest holster.

  19. I was looking at my local sporting goods store catalogue this week and saw they sold bear spray. They had regular strength and extra strength.

    WHO the HELL would NOT buy the extra strength?

  20. My only bear encounters have been with black bears in Oregon. We all ran away, so it was fine. I respect people who hunt bears and eat them, although I so far stick with deer. Bears are amazing animals, and they’re not likely to win the Republican Primary, so please leave them alone if they’re leaving you alone.

  21. Makes me think of this movie I saw years ago. Never knew the title but it was for all intents and purposes “Jaws” on land with a killer bear. And in the end they used the perfect weapon for self defense against a Bear. A Carl Gustav

    • Which Carl Gustav? (the submachine gun, M-40, rifle or what?) Seems over here the king’s name is put of a plethora of Swedish guns.

  22. Depending on what part of the country I’m in I’ll carry a gun to match the size of bear in the area (smaller black bear in Arkansas and larger in CO and Alaska).
    I’d probably carry some spray and a large wheel gun.
    If I REALLY had to go somewhere that bears frequented I’d carry less other gear and pack a gonzo rifle or a 12 gauge loaded with 3 inch hard cast slugs.
    Either way, I’m packing a firearm of some kind on me.

  23. I worked at the Iowa State Penitentiary, and have been through Pepper Spray Training . During which we had to rub pepper spray in our eye . Also I have been sprayed , accidently…..?? Let me just say , it is an “OH F–K Moment” !!!!! If you have not had the honor to do this, or have it done to you , you have ” NO IDEA ” what it is like .
    The bear spray is stronger, and you need to pay attention to” wind direction ” ! A 460 Ruger or 500 is not a bad idea either.


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