Here in Alaska, where you’d think we would have figured out by now what constitutes the perfect bear sidearm, mentioning the words “bear protection” in a group or online forum brings comments from numerous people who insist that their .44 mag, or .454, or .500, or some other big gun is the ideal bear protection. I have however, only heard one claim myself of someone stopping a grizzly with one shot from a .460. Actually, the bigger-is-better idea is losing support, and here’s why:
Barring a perfect or an extremely lucky shot, no handgun has the energy to drop a bear in its tracks. Even the .big 500 S&W has little more energy than a .30-30. Yes, the bigger cartridges do slightly more damage than a .45 ACP, but we are talking about animals that can sometimes soak up .375 H&H rounds as if they are BBs. I’ve seen a brown bear take 13 solid shots from less than 20 yards with a .375 Ackley before it expired. I have seen black bears shot at less than 15 yards with .338s and 7mm Mags and not even lose their footing. The handgun is a last resort, slightly better than nothing. Never rely on a handgun as your primary defense if you know you are going to be in a risky situation. Take a large rifle you are comfortable with, or a shotgun.
In my opinion, the issue with packing large-caliber revolvers for bear protection is that they are difficult to draw and shoot quickly—one or two handed. Bear attack scenarios are highly variable, and can range from giving you a chance to prepare and aim, to being on the ground with a bear on top of you before you realize anything is wrong. It’s easy for us to imagine “how it will happen to us” and how we will pull off the perfect shot, or use our hunting knife to cut the bear’s throat, but frankly, you will probably not be prepared, and things will happen extremely fast.
Based on what I have seen, I would much rather carry a handgun that I am very comfortable with and can easily control. The Glock 20 10mm auto has become a popular carry choice. Recently, I have been carrying either my Ruger .357 Mag or Glock 17 9mm. I had to shoot one wounded black bear with my .357 last year that we stumbled upon in thick brush. He was probably 15 feet away. Two quick shots put the bear down. The 9mm is even more controllable than the .357, and penetration isn’t that much less. Several years ago a brown bear on the Kenai Peninsula was killed with three shots from a 9mm when it charged a fisherman.
It is my firm belief that in a bear attack situation, the more hits you can get on the bear in the shortest amount of time possible, the better your chances of survival. With a heavy wheelgun, you will get one shot off if you are lucky. If you’re wondering how you would do in such a situation, next time you are at the range, see how many hits you can get on a 15x 20-inch target at 15 feet in three seconds, including the time it takes to draw from your carry holster. You probably won’t have much more time than that in the field…and possibly less.