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Bear Rifles

A Big Game Rifle image Conversations about bear rifles, or any species-specific rifle, seem to start and end with cartridge selection. There is much more to a rifle however, than the chamber. For this conversation we’ll consider the whole gun: lock, stock, and barrel, with emphasis on the rifle’s sights, caliber of bore, and the ammunition it’s loaded with; and, we’ll only consider rifles specifically tailored for hunting black bear over bait.

Of prime consideration when putting together a specialized bear hunting rifle are the sights. Despite the close range at which bear are encountered over bait, they can be exceedingly difficult to see, as they live in dark forest, approach bait at last light, and of course, they are normally black in color. A bear’s long, exuberant hair and heavy layers of fat contribute to the difficulty in defining their muscle and bone structure, and make it difficult to determine which angle the bear is facing. A scope with a low power range that provides superior brightness and resolution not only aids you in picking-out the bear in the dark forest, but also aids you in determining which way the animal is facing and making out what you can of the bear’s shoulder. To compound the problem of seeing a black target against a dark background under dim light, scope reticles are also black. To enhance sight-acquisition against the black target, the reticle should be bold and sharply-defined, or be illuminated, or both. High-powered scopes with either very fine reticles or ballistic-type reticles are not optimal sights for this type of hunting. Gold-bead or illuminated open sights may be seen clearly at dusk, nevertheless a scope sight offers such superior target acquisition that open-sight rifles are best left for chasing bear with hounds.

Generally, black bear are not as tough to kill as reputation has it, even though a disproportionate number of bear do get away wounded after being shot. Contributing factors are many. As previously mentioned, bear are difficult to see and therefore difficult to hit properly. Lately, there has been wide use of premium bullets that don’t expand well. A bear can travel quite far with a neat, .30-caliber hole drilled through its lungs, especially if it’s headed downhill. Rapidly expanding bullets create more internal damage which bleeds better and kills quicker. If you need more penetration, increase bullet weight—not jacket thickness. Elmer Keith gives an example of a black bear that got away wounded in his book Big Game Hunting, after which he states, “This shows the fallacy of using too stiff and heavy bullet jackets for black bear.” Also, the bear’s long, exuberant hair soaks up blood and their layered fat plugs bullet holes, making blood trails faint and difficult to follow on the dark forest floor. This all leads to one of my primary considerations in selecting a specialized bear gun: the caliber of bore. Large-caliber bullets make larger wounds than small-caliber bullets do, and thus leave a more pronounced blood trail to follow, from both the entrance and exit wounds. For example, a soft-point bullet from a .358 Winchester leaves a noticeably heavier blood trail than a similarly-styled bullet from a .308 Winchester. I know this quite well, as I used these 2 cartridges, virtually side by side, for years in Northern Minnesota. When it comes to actually killing power, any standard big game cartridge from 6.5mm on up will kill a black bear, if the bear is hit squarely with a bullet of proper construction; though recovering the bear is always a consideration.

As far as the rifle’s action, stock, barrel, and the operation and location of the safety, I would suggest choosing a rifle for hunting bear that has as close to the same dimensions and operation controls as the rifle you use every year for hunting deer. Then all you have to do is select optimal sights and increase the bore diameter and you have an excellent bear gun; one that shoulders naturally, operates intuitively, and delivers hard-hitting bullets on-target under dark and adrenaline-charged conditions.

Good hunting,

Joe Cavanaugh

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