I live in Alaska, and grizzly bears are simply part of the landscape. They walk through my yard, and during much of the summer, I share salmon streams with them in close quarters. In the winter, I stand guard for seismic and engineering crews on the Arctic Ocean pack ice as polar bears roam nearby.
So when it comes to a carry gun, I have to think about more than bad guys when it comes to self-defense.
I’ve experienced hundreds of grizzly contacts and dozens of charges, and those have refined my ideas when it comes to bear protection. First, let’s take a look at grizzly behavior when encountering humans.
When Grizzlies Attack
Grizzlies can be surprisingly predicable. If you can see them—which isn’t always the case—their intentions are usually clear and basic to read. There’s the charge at 50 yards on the salmon stream from the irritated three-year old bear that’s testing you. Unless they’ve had success intimidating others, they are pretty much all bark and probably no bite. By standing your ground, the bluff charge can be easily discouraged. However, when it’s over, the adrenalin rush will have you weak in the knees.
Big male grizzlies own the woods, and they know it. Give them ample room, and you’ll find they just don’t need to prove themselves. Older boar attacks are extremely rare and usually involve a perceived threat to the bear’s food cache. However, if there is an attack, it will almost always end in death to the human. (How strong are grizzlies? Biologists have observed Brooks Range males ambushing caribou by decapitating them with a single hand swipe.)
The source of human bear attacks largely comes from sows with cubs. During the summer, these moms are a complete nervous wreck. They are constantly worried about their cubs’ safety. These daily tensions are elevated to an extreme by marauding boars. The boars kill the cubs in order to send the sow into estrus, allowing the males to mate. Moms are rarely calm and should always be viewed with caution.
When a sow attacks, it’s almost always because a human surprised her in tight quarters, and the cubs are close. These attacks occur so quickly that many armed victims end up shooting the bear while being mauled. Click on this link from “The Revenant” and watch the most realistic Hollywood bear attack that’s ever been created.
(Note: It’s quite graphic.)
My first bear gun was a Remington 870 Express 12-gauge shotgun with a pistol grip and an eighteen-inch barrel. I kept it loaded with the standard Alaska bear medicine: an alternating mix of three buckshot loads and three slug loads. This gun-and-load combination is one of the most reliable bear deterrents on the planet. The problem is that the gun is relatively bulky and its weight is fatiguing. I carried that gun over my shoulder everywhere, and found it a constant source of irritation. Such detriments lead people to not carry a long gun for short periods—and that’s when you get into trouble.
It only took one bluff charge in western Alaska on the Moraine River for me to learn my lesson. When I reached over my shoulder, I found no gun because I’d left it in the raft. This was proof that either I was going to go back to carrying the 870 all the time, every day, or I was going to invest in a handgun.
My choice at the end of that summer was a classic Ruger Blackhawk .44 Magnum with an eight-inch barrel. I spent two years trying to find a holster that would keep the revolver from stabbing me in the ribs or thighs inside my waders. Next, I slimmed down to a four-inch version of the same revolver. Then I briefly tried carrying a 1911 in .45 ACP, just because I loved the gun. But the reality is that such handguns are just not powerful enough.
Go Big or You Might Not Go Home
Numerous discussions with grizzly bear guides, as well as with an emergency room plastic surgeon at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital who specializes in treating bear attack victims, revealed a consistent opinion: .44 Magnums and under are just too small and lack the put-down power.
Within the last decade, the availability of what used to be custom calibers like the .454 Casull, the .480 Ruger, and the .500 S&W Magnum have reset the bar when it comes to stopping dangerous game in close quarters.
The Perfect Alaska Carry Gun
My choice? The Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan .454 Casull with a two-inch barrel and Crimson Trace laser grip.
Being outside in the elements most of the summer necessitates a stainless steel finish. My choice of carry is a nylon chest holster made by Man Gear Alaska. (As much as I love leather holsters, they just don’t stand up to a four-day rain.)
The Super Redhawk Alaskan is surely one of the more miserable revolvers on the planet to discharge, and it’s also ridiculously loud. But I trust it to save my life.
In the last few years a trend has started with some fishing guides here to carry the Glock Gen4 Model 20 in 10mm. The rationale is often the impressive power these rounds can deliver. However, that power is scant compared to a Casull, the .480 or the .500. There is the benefit of the auto action, and the large capacity may give you a sense of security, but 14 additional rounds won’t help much if the first round doesn’t stop the bear.
While defense-style shotguns are dependable performers, they lack practical conveyance. Their best application is for a boat or truck, because if you don’t take it with you when you leave the boat or truck, it’s worthless.
My jet boat always has a shotgun stored for survival and for additional bear protection. My choice is the UTAS UTS-15 15-round pump-action shotgun, in Marine finish. Its extreme-capacity tube ensures that you won’t need to pack additional ammo. Read a review of the gun here.
If there will be some distance between you and the bear, a rifle is a good choice. But even a short rifle, such as a lever-action carbine, isn’t operable when the bear is on top of you. Curiously, bears have been known to knock rifles out of victims’ hands, as if they know what a rifle can do.
Rules of Engagement
The reality is that a bear 25 yards away should not be shot. Alaska law allows you to protect yourself if you believe there’s imminent danger, so if you do shoot a bear in self-defense, be prepared to spend a few days being interviewed, and expect the area to be treated as a crime scene.
After hundreds of close bear contacts, I have only come close to killing a sow once. She stopped at 15 feet. With so many encounters, it’s easy to become a little too comfortable in bear country, but conducting interviews with attack survivors has kept me on guard. After listening to victim’s stories, and learning about the intense PTSD they carry long after the bear mauling, I remain vigilantly armed everyday in the Alaskan bush.
His new book, “Tales of The Alaska State Troopers,” (Skyhorse Publishing) was released last year. Mathiesen’s work regularly appears in Field & Stream, Popular Science, American Rifleman, and other titles.