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Handguns for Bear Country

Carrying a handgun in bear country I’ve been carrying handguns on outdoor adventures since I was a teenager and consider them essential tools of the trade. Handguns are easy to carry, so you have them within reach at all times, and they handle well inside small tents compared to long guns. A great deal of my outdoor activities in North America have taken place in country where black bear are common, and I have happened upon bear countless times where a gun on my hip provided great comfort. The handguns discussed here are specifically for personal protection against black bear—not to purposely hunt bear with.

There has always been some discussion to weather or not black bears are much of a threat to humans. All I can say is, black bears have the power to hurt humans gravely, and because they eat the same food that we do and are scavengers as well as omnivores and predators, they have a bad habit of coming around campsites and human dwellings. Therefore, the potential of confronting black bear at close quarters is high if you spend much time in the woods. For the record, black bears do occasionally attack and kill humans.

During the backpacking/canoeing days of my youth I carried a Colt Huntsman .22 pistol most everywhere I went. It provided me with small game for the pot, as well as some level of personal protection from aggressive animals, including bear and humans. Admittedly, a .22 pistol does not offer much protection against bear, although I’ve encountered bear while armed with a .22 handgun more times than with any other firearm, and I’d rather have a .22 pistol in my hand with a bear staring me down than a rock or a can of bear spray. Usually a couple of shots fired into the air from a firearm will quickly send a black bear spinning his wheels and headed in the opposite direction. Not always, though. I’ve had a black bear calmly stand on its hind feet at 20 yards and totally ignore the shots fired from my .22 pistol; and I’ve had a pack of wolves howling close to my tent at night and they also ignored shots fired from a .22 handgun. A better choice is a gun that makes more noise and delivers more lethal power.

When traveling through serious bear country, or when packing meat my go-to bear gun is a Blackhawk revolver loaded in .45 Colt or .45 ACP. I’ve carried this gun for years now and have taken 1 black bear with it by chance encounter, and several Arkansas hogs that I also stumbled upon by chance. It hits with authority, and makes plenty of noise without rupturing my eardrums. Other good handgun choices for bear protection are revolvers chambered in .357 or .41 magnums, or any .44-caliber revolver or larger; semi-auto pistols chambered in .357 Sig, 10mm, or .45 ACP are also good choices. In vogue lately has been the Glock pistol in 10mm. A .38 special revolver or 9mm pistol should be considered the minimum power to deter a bear at close range, though they do not have adequate power to hunt bear with.

If you’re hunting deer or elk in bear country and already have a rifle in your hands, carrying a handgun for bear protection could be viewed as excessive. If you’re in bear country and are field dressing game, packing meat, baiting bear, scouting, fishing, camping, or partaking in any outdoor activity that makes it difficult to carry a rifle, carrying a handgun is a valid consideration.

Good hunting,

Joe Cavanaugh

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