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Bear spray is a useful tool that can help protect humans and bears in limited circumstances. If a bear isn’t serious about mauling, killing, and/or eating the human, the spray can convince it to stop investigating the human and leave them alone. But the ability of spray to stop bears bent on attack is far less certain. Here are two more cases where bear spray failed and bullets were necessary. From . . .

A lone female grizzly bear reportedly surprised a man hunting elk at Big Creek north of Gardiner on Oct. 28. The hunter reported to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks that he came upon the bear feeding on a carcass in the brush and that the bear charged him. The hunter said he first used bear spray to deter the attack then shot the bear in self defense.

The second incident was reported on Oct. 31 by a group of elk hunters who said they came upon and surprised a female grizzly bear with two young bears at Johnson Lake near West Yellowstone. The hunters said they first used bear spray on the charging bear but, as the bear continued to approach, they reportedly shot the bear in self defense.

I have a friend who is a mail carrier. We had a conversation about the effectiveness of pepper spray on preventing attacks by dogs. (“Dogs and bears, which diverged some 50 million years ago, are 92 percent similar on the sequence level,” reports.) My postal carrier friend said that the stereotype of dogs attacking postmen is dead on accurate. It’s a challenge he faces everyday. Then he gave this assessment of the effectiveness of pepper spray.

If a dog has made up his mind to bite you, the spray does not work.  If the dog is ambivalent about actually attacking you, the spray can have a deterrent effect.

FWIW, several peace officers have said the same thing about men.The fact is that firearms are much more effective at stopping aggressive bears than is bear spray. The reputation of bear spray is built on its use on non-aggressive bears that are merely curious, and/or far too habituated to the presence of humans.

The conundrum here: bears that are that habituated to humans are a serious threat that should be eliminated. They may be dissuaded by bear spray now, but in the future, when they are hungrier, larding up for hibernation or are being more territorial, they will likely cause a serious problem for another human. So bear spray just puts the problem off on someone else in the future, perhaps someone who does not have bear spray or a firearm.

The responsible thing to do: put down bears that are habituated to humans before they become a deadly problem for someone else.  Transporting them does not work.

This leaves the rare wilderness circumstance where a bear has never seen a human before and needs to be taught that they are best left alone. Bear spray might serve in that circumstance.

Bear spray also serves as something of a defense for those who have a psychological fear of firearms, those who are willing to transport a holstered bear spray container but not a holstered pistol, or who are forbidden by various governments from having a dependable means of defense. Which is a dangerous practice, but better than nothing. Maybe.

©2015 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice is included.

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  1. “A wiser fellow than myself once said, ‘Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometime the bear, why…he eats you.'”

  2. Have not had any first hand experience with this, but would think that bear spray is very dangerous!
    Why? Because some non hunter types are going to believe what the travel agent, or somebody that’s never been close to a mean Grizzly, say’s about how effective it is, and they wont have any need for a firearm, and they should leave them home.

    • Recently had this exact experience with my Sister-In-Law. My brother had taken his family (himself, his wife, and 2 children, 6 and 8) on a camping trip in the mountains for a few days. When they returned, the kiddos were regaling me with stories of all the adventures they went on, the highlight of which was their bear encounter. Nothing dramatic, they woke up in the AM to an ursine friend sniffing around their camp site. The kids were equally excited and terrified. I asked my brother if he’d been carrying, and if not if he wanted some advice on appropriate gear for his next trip (he’s familiar with guns, but not a “gun guy” by any means). His wife immediately jumped in “no, but we had our pepper spray so we didn’t a gun” with the condescending know-it-all tone. I made a few polite points, made here in the article (that MAY work on a curious bear, but a very hungry one or one determined to attack may not be so easily deterred). She sneered “well, the Ranger told us the bear spray is the BEST option, and there’s no need for guns. so no, we won’t be taking a gun next time”. I normally wouldn’t give a shit. It’s her funeral and all that. But I love my niece/nephew. I am planning on having a talk with my brother when she isn’t around and see if I can talk some sense into him. We spent our youth together in the outdoors, so he has a good awareness of the power/danger inside these beautiful critters. She has been camping twice in her life, and think the bears are “cute” and “furry” (she posted a picture of the bear in the campsite to Facebook with the caption “Paddington wants to play!”).

      • “(she posted a picture of the bear in the campsite to Facebook with the caption “Paddington wants to play!”).”

        Oh good God….. People like this scare me. Especially when they have Children.

      • 1) Make sure she is the one to sacrifice her Life in the Defense of the Children
        2) Have her ask the Park Rangers why do they carry a gun and/or a backup shotgun.
        THE END.

    • If you are in Grizzly country I would upgrade to 10mm.

      There are other threats out there. Dean reported on a wolf attack 50 miles from Madison. I am surprised that TTAG didn’t cover it. Maybe because wolves won’t generate a caliber discussion. 9mm, FMJ or JHP, is good enough.

        • Buffalo Bore HEAVY 10MM OUTDOORSMAN – 220 gr. Hard Cast – FN
          (1200 fps/ME 703 ft. lbs.)

        • Yep, that’s what I was going to say, Buffalo Bore Hard Case and the longest barrel you’re comfortable handling.

      • If I wanted grizzly deterrent I’d have a minimum of .44 Mag. Better yet, a .454 or .460 with a .45-70 +P or 12 gauge with Brenneke slugs on the shoulder.

    • With bear charging a 10 mm would be the smallest round I would want….I am thinking of 454 casull…but would really rather have a stout 45-70 in a rifle…

      • I think it all depends if you live/hike/camp near the West Coast (At least a 44 mag with Buffalo Bore +P+ or the 454) or East Coast (the 10mm or a 40S&W +P)

    • That aggressive grip texture is going to feel awesome when the bear jams it up where the sun don’t shine after you tickle it with 15rounds of 45.

  3. My biggest hesitation with Bear Spray is it’s ineffectiveness in the most dangerous encounter, surprising a bear in an up wind situation. If it’s a stiff wind you could have to fight off more bear spray than the bear. OTOH having been to Katmai NP flyfishing twice and spending a lot of time around lots of bears, the park service has done a great job educating the local Grizzly population than human doesn’t equal food. But the fact is in Katmai they have plenty of food (Salmon) and it’s pretty rare for a Bear to encounter a person while hungry. I must admit that I while I carry the .44 in both places I’m much more concerned about Bears out west than the AK variety.

  4. Park rangers say you should wear little bells and carry pepper spray when in bear territory. THe bells are to keep you from accidentally surprising the bear napping off after stuffing itself with berries, nuts, or whatever. They also say you can identify what kind of bear is in the area by looking at bear scat (aka turds – yes, they DO sh*t in the woods!). Black bear scat will be full of seeds, insect parts, stems from berries, etc. Grizzly bear scat will be full of little bells and smell like cayenne pepper…

    • Climb up a tree. If it climbs up after you and eats you, it’s a black bear. If it knocks the tree down and eats you, it’s a grizzly.

    • LOL, yeah only black bears near me so I’m content with bells, bear spray and .38 +P Hardcast as a last resort.

    • Since the Park Ranger is giving you this advice, ask him/her to give you his weapons in exchange for your bear spray and bells. I mean, practice what you preach, no?

  5. Serious question:

    Is a .44 Magnum revolver with a long (6+ inch) barrel a reliable grizzly bear stopper if you place a center mass shot (not necessarily a brain shot) with either of these full power loads:
    — 240 grain jacketed soft point with a muzzle velocity of 1475 fps
    — 300 grain hardcast bullet with a muzzle velocity of 1300 fps

    Inquiring minds want to know.

    • I live in the middle of grizzly country and encounters are not uncommon in this area. So far I haven’t had to deal with any browns or blacks, but when I walk my property I usually have a shotgun loaded with Brenneke slugs or a carbine with me. If I’m carrying tools to fix the fence line then I tote either a 4″ .44 loaded with heavy solids, or a Glock 10mm loaded with flat tipped 200 or 220 grain solids or FMJs. I prefer Buffalo Bore ammo because they are very heavy loads, and the guy who makes them used to live about 100 miles away. As to power level, I don’t much care. Penetration and a well placed head shot are what do the job best, which is why I don’t mess with HP or SP loads. Solids are the way to go. Putting the round anyplace else, no matter how large or powerful, will just tick the critter off. If you want to put your faith in energy levels, then I suggest you carry a 30-30. If you think that’s too little gun, please recall that it has twice the energy level of a .44 magnum, which many folks seem to think is quite suitable.

      • Good point on the solids. JHPs are optimized for humans. If you are dealing with an animal with denser muscles and/or heavy layers of fat they won’t penetrate. FMJ or hardcase will give you the best results for an animal like a bear. Wild canines and north American big cats can be handled with 9mm JHP or FMJ. I will carry my 10mm until the bears go to sleep for the winter and then I will switch to my Browning Hi Power until spring. When I am out hunting it won’t matter much because you can take down an average black bear with a 100 grain 243 round.

      • What is the difference between Brenneke slugs and a slug from a different manufacurer (better quality slug, personal preference..etc)?

    • I found a study on calibers as it related to brown bear defense. 30-06 was the minimum recommend, with a 12 ga. As an alternative.

      I’ll try to find it. You can hit me up on Google plus, I’ll see if I can’t post it there.

    • uncommon_sense, to answer your question as simply as possible, that single 300 grain round would certainly kill the bear if shot within 35 yards and striking center mass.
      It would not, unfortunately, be sure to kill a large brown bear quickly. You will need all six of those rounds, and they all need to land in the brain or in or near the heart, to kill the bear quickly and ensure your safety. They are incredibly powerful animals.
      I have a .475 Linebaugh. I would not consider it overkill by any measure.

      • Ah, yes, “quickly” is key. A fatal shot on a charging grizzly isn’t much good if the grizzly can kill you before it expires.

        In terms of a center mass shot, I imagine nothing short of .50 BMG is virtually guaranteed to instantly stop a seriously committed grizzly charging at you. I always figured full power .45-70 Government with hardcast lead bullets would be guaranteed to do the trick but those are only marginally larger than .44 Magum rounds which are .43 inch diameter. Of course the .45-70 Government round has something like an extra 700 to 1000 fps … I don’t know if that matters.

  6. Used to be here that you could not carry a firearm while archery hunting. Fortunately that’s changed.
    Even now during chanterelle prime time, the G-20 is in the chest rig stoked with home brewed hard cast.

  7. I agree with your message but you should probably leave out the part about dogs and bears being 92% similar at the DNA sequence level.
    That means that they are very very different if you have even a basic understanding of how genome sequencing works. It ruins the credibility of an otherwise reasonable opinion.

  8. A bear has no idea what that spray’s for. Same as a rifle round, they will attempt to charge through / past it.

    Ask any bear, they’ll all say the same thing “NOM, NOM NOM NOM”

  9. Recently talked to a friend who ran into bears while hunting. He said shooting them center mass with a handgun can just piss them off and make them want to kill you more if you don’t place your shot right, which may be hard to do in a stressful situation.

    I carry my Remington M887 12 gauge with 00 buck 3in shells (the load many people use to hunt black bear; the only bear we have in Vermont). In a stressful situation I won’t have to worry as much about a more precision shot I would need with a handgun, plus I can get off multiple shells faster than a 44 mag.

    BTW I’d worry about a bull moose too if I were you; they can get real nasty, plus they’re huge…

    • Bull moose can be pretty mean looking. I wouldn’t want to tangle with one. But the ones I worry about are the cows with young calves. They’re downright mean. Here in Anchorage it seems like we’re hearing about some idiot being kicked to death every year or so. Those are city moose that are used to people. Out in the boonies, they’re probably worse.

  10. When engaging in the debate over gun vs. Bear spray I always bring up the fact that I have 5 years and 5000 rounds of quality practice with my .45. Though I carry bear spray, I have yet to have a chance to practice discharging it. Pistol is my go to in a life or death situation.

  11. I would like to know what and how many it took to stop the Grizzly bear. Why don’t they include that?

    I had a run in with a black bear at very close range while turkey hunting with a bow a few years back. We scared the hell out of each other but nothing came of it except that I switched from 9mm (G19/26) to 10mm (G29) while in the woods. If I was in grizzly country I’d be carrying a 12 gauge too.

  12. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: pepper spray is not 100% effective. When I went through the academy in ’01, we got pepper sprayed in the face and had to cuff and un-cuff a partner. It was very sunny and around 105 degrees at the time. Those were ideal conditions for incapacitation and everyone who had made it to that point in our cadet class managed to do it.

    Pepper spray is also highly limited by wind and temperature.

    • The equation is rather different between animals and humans. For an animal, every such encounter is a purely utilitarian computation – on one hand, they want to eat the delicious you, but on the other hand, they don’t want to spend too much effort and have too much inconvenience doing so. The spray adds that inconvenience, in a very immediate and easy to feel package, and at such an extreme level that animals merely looking for food will be reliably deterred. The same strategy works quite well for skunks, after all…

      Naturally, this does not help if you’re dealing with a rabid animal, or with the one that has a very good reason to stand up to you other than hunger (e.g. protecting lair and/or offspring).

      But bullets are less reliable unless they kill (which, with a large animal, is not that easy to pull off, especially when you’re using a handgun rather than a rifle or a shotgun, and it was a surprise attack). They obviously deal more damage, but the unpleasant effects associated with it are easier to shrug off immediately – and they only need to do so for long enough to charge you to make the long-term consequences, like death from blood loss, irrelevant as far as your safety concerned.

      • I do not see any reliable evidence that hungry bears are deterred by bear spray any better than bullets.

        The situation that you postulate, of a surprise attack, applies to bear spray as well as bullets, but bear spray is far less effective in wind, rain, and foliage, and bear spray has a much more limited range.

        If the attack is determined, the chances of bear spray stopping it seems small; if it is hesitant and cautious, as most black bear predatory attacks are, a handgun will work quite well to kill the bear.

        As was reported in these two situations, if bear spray does not provide sufficient deterrence, then it is good to have a firearm as a backup.

      • Let me know when they make a 3,000 plus foot pound bear spray that can punch a .45 cal slug through a 1/4″ boiler plate.

        • Accur81,
          I’m interested in stopping bears. I don’t worry so much about punching holes in boiler plate. However, when I want to do that, I’ll keep your advice in mind.

    • Bear spray and pepper spray meant for people may be made from the same basic ingredients, but the bear spray is far more powerful and concentrated.

      • Exactly. There’s a big difference between the stuff that makes your lips numb when you eat hot Buffalo wings, and the stuff that is fatal if you put too many drops in a pot of chili. Real bear spray is scarey stuff.

      • Marot,

        so that is the only difference between bear spray and pepper spray is the intensity, or are they two very different substances?



        • Those people don’t know what they’re talking about. American bear spray is WEAKER than pepper spray intended for humans. The reason why is because the USA’s EPA mandates it. The reason the EPA mandates it is because bears, like dogs, have very sensitive noses, so it is in the best interest of the bear to not use more potent pepper spray than is necessary.

          As many people who DO know what they’re talking about have already stated, either the bear pepper spray works, or it doesn’t. Either the bear wants to kill you, or it doesn’t. Making the pepper spray excessively potent doesn’t change that. Take a look at UDAP pepper sprays. UDAP publishes their potency data, and you can see for yourself that the human spray is stronger than the bear spray.

          The next question is, why is the human spray stronger than the bear spray? Well, the bear doesn’t know the spray is harmless. The human does know it is harmless. So, to make that knowledge useless, the best UDAP human pepper spray (the Mugger Fogger) is strong enough to cause so much swelling around the eyes that vision is severely impair or even eliminated. The experience is so awful, that knowledge of exactly how awful it is makes it more effective on humans. So you see, the human’s ability to know the pepper spray is harmless is used against them by simply conditioning humans to fear the spray.

          Might makes right, the strong rule over the weak, and strong pepper spray rules over the weak humans, while the EPA rules over the bear spray manufacturers.

  13. A charging Grizz is no joke. I would not trust my life to any pistol in that situation, rather a 300 Win Mag or stronger rifle or 12 gauge with heavy buckshot/slugs. Anything less is tempting fate.

  14. They say the hills around here have plenty of bears (blacks, no grizzlies) and although they wander into town on occasion (cubs, usually), in 28 years I have never seen one in the wild, nor have I heard of any bear attacks.

  15. Or they shot the bear and then used the old Southpark “It’s coming right for me!” line plus bear spray.

  16. Like anywhere else, in bear country, you should be employing a layered defense strategy. Mine starts with good situational awareness, and ends with HSM 45-70 +P 430gr RNFP.

  17. I have never seen a grizzly in the wild, which I am happy about but I have watched several bear charge videos on you tube

    I am surprised both were able to draw and deploy bear spray and then draw and fire and hit in so little time

    Wonder if the spray got anywhere near the bear with all that Rush either

    Not that I am judging, it would be terrifying

  18. The problem with shooting a bear using a handgun is that you have to hit him at better than 50 yds or he will still get to you and do some damage. Most bear charges don’t start that far away – unless you have induced him to charge by banging away at him. Most bear charges are bluffs, but you won’t know if it is just a bluff until about 15 yds. At that distance, no handgun will stop him, bear spray often will.

  19. It’s really tragic that both Griz were shot – I have it on good authority that they were both turning their lives around.

  20. Won’t argue pro-con about spray vs lead effectiveness, but once inside spray reach range, a charging bear is about a second or two from being on you. How the heck did these guys have time to determine that the spray was ineffective, so they had to pull out their gun, aim properly and score a hit good enough to stop the bear?

    Either these guys truly are the fastest guns in the West, or this whole experiment was pretty sloppily reported. Enough so that it clouds the “conclusion” with quite a bit of doubt. For all that’s good and safe, If you’ve made up your mind that you are going to shoot a charging bear, and equipped yourself properly for that, please do so ASAC (…..Charged). Don’t fiddle around trying to figure out if some spray works first! And conversely, if you’ve decided to rely on spray, don’t assume you have time to go for your BUG.

  21. Take a really good look at the picture of the bear! Do you think there’s anything in a can short of a short fused hand grenade that”s gonna stop that son of a bitch, if he’s decided to do you in!

  22. 10mm out of a 6″ is enough to cause massive trauma, specially if you use good bullets. Lehigh makes a mean 10mm in their extreme penetration line.

  23. Different experience as a letter carrier. I’ve used the weak pepper spray that carriers are issued to STOP dogs that were in full on charge/attack mode. In 25 years I never had any issues with the spray not being effective to stop dogs.

    That dogs and bears are 92% similar means that they’re 8% different. As between humans and bonobos it’s the differences that are relevant for behavior.

    • Fascinating. Thanks for providing the information. I wonder what is the reason for the different experiences? Life is complex. My friend delivers here in Yuma, Arizona. Can you say what part of the country you work/worked in? Do you think it might make a difference?

  24. Well, it’s a common story told around here in WY.

    In Grizzly country, folks are often advised to wear little bells to let bears know you’re there and carry pepper spray.

    And the follow on is held as well, ‘You know how you can tell Grizzly scat from Black/Brown bear scat? Grizzly has little bells in it and smells of peppers.’

  25. I’m not sure I see the point of these articles. If somebody else wants to carry bear spray instead of a gun, that’s none of my business.

    If the point is to publicize anecdotes to get governments to loosen carry restrictions in bear country, I don’t think it’s going to do it. Armed people get killed by bears, even after they shoot the bear, just like sprayers. Anti-gunners will just point to those anecdotes as a legitimate counter.

    Now what I don’t understand at all is how somebody being charged by a grizzly has enough time to draw bear spray, spray it, then draw and shoot their gun. They’re either superhuman fast, were not really charged, or sprayed the bear after they shot it to set up a good story.

  26. “The fact is that firearms are much more effective at stopping aggressive bears than is bear spray.”

    Why lie?

    As a longtime and very experienced backpacker, who has had dozens of encounters with bears, I understand why some people have fear on the trail. They’re typically inexperienced. And some other people just get off on fear. Why else would anyone feel the need to carry a gun on the trail other than fear?

    But do you want to know a REAL fact?

    There isn’t ONE documented case of a hiker being killed or seriously injured when bear spray is used.
    Obviously, the same can’t be said when guns are involved.

    My point? When you use the word “fact” to promote your point…make sure it is.

    No need to reply to my post. I couldn’t care less what people who feel unsafe in the wilderness think.

  27. “The fact is that firearms are much more effective at stopping aggressive bears than is bear spray.”

    Why lie?

    As a longtime and very experienced backpacker, who has had dozens of encounters with bears, I understand why some people have fear on the trail. They’re typically inexperienced. And some other people just get off on fear. They’re the type who thinks that everything and everyone is out to get them.

    But do you want to know a REAL fact?

    There isn’t ONE documented case of a hiker being killed or seriously injured when bear spray is used.

    Obviously, the same can’t be said when guns are involved.

    My point? When you use the word “fact” to promote your point…make sure it is.

    No need to reply to my post. I couldn’t care less what people who feel unsafe in the wilderness think.

  28. Black bear droppings have berries in them. Grizzly bear droppings have bells in them and smell like pepper.

  29. My next door neighbor has a Kodiak Bear in his den.

    The Kodiak bear is over 8-feet tall and is quite a nice specimen. The bear took five hits from two .375 H&H rifles before it dropped – literally at his feet.

    He also has a bunch of other trophies from all over the planet – several are near the top of the record books. Of the African Big-5 he is missing only the Rhino, since they are essentially non-obtainium these days. In his opinion, there is nothing tougher and more dangerous than a big brown bear.

    Bear spray is a joke.

  30. If I am hiking/camping/fishing/hunting on the West Coast or Alaska, the fastest and most effective shot comes from 12 gauge bear spray, hard to miss when compared to ANY handgun…..I would rather carry the semi-auto variety if possible but for the budget friendly a pump will do. Obviously you must carry this ready to shoot meaning slung across the front of your body or hand carry it…..Meaning it is not practical.
    However, there are choices that ARE NOT ILLEGAL SAWED OFF SHOTGUNS like these, just for Emergency purposes ONLY and somehow can be holstered…..obviously I would angle it away a little bit from my leg/foot….Note: This is Blackpowder, which makes it legal, so it may be an issue for some.

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