Until I arrived in Alaska, everything I knew about bears came from reading the magazines and books I found in my local northeastern Ohio library.
Unfortunately, most of what I had read was fiction, or at best dramatized for the reading public.
Upon my arrival in Alaska, and armed with a healthy fear of bears, I purchased the biggest, heaviest revolver I could find, a cheap nylon holster, and a box of ammo. I loaded up my backpack with 50 pounds of stuff I didn’t need, laced up my new boots, and went wandering. I turned back after a mile, exhausted, with a bruise on my hip and blisters.
After that experience, I was still afraid of bears, but I left the giant stainless steel revolver at home and thought I’d just take my chances.
I was lucky for several years, never even seeing a bear.
Then one night on the Russian River I found myself in a difficult spot with a sow and her cubs. In hindsight, the bear really didn’t care about me, and I was likely not in any real danger, but it got me thinking about a bear gun again and got me to do some real research on what firearms work best for bear protection in Alaska.
What I learned is that if you are unable to shoot the gun accurately, because it is too big, too heavy, or you are afraid of it, then the gun is nothing more than a noise making talisman.
No matter what firearm you choose, a pistol, rifle or shotgun you must practice regularly. It is not enough to just be familiar with your gun; you must become competent. You must be able to hit a target the size of a pie plate that is moving as fast as a racehorse. This level of competence takes time, and far too many people want to spend their time hiking, not shooting.
Assessing your skill level is essential when purchasing a gun. Buying a gun that is too big or heavy for you makes it hard to learn to shoot.
Consider starting with a .22 to learn the fundamentals of marksmanship before rushing out to buy the latest 500 Magnum with the power to take down a T-Rex.
Big guns, rifles, and shotguns come with another handicap when it comes to Alaskan adventures – they are bulky and heavy. It’s hard to go fishing with a shotgun. Toting a 10lb rifle all day while you have a pack on your back is tiring. Even the big revolvers can weigh 4 or 5 lbs, and you have to put them somewhere. In my early Alaskan days, the extra weight and poor holster selection meant I ended up leaving my revolver (and protection) at home.
So you’ve committed to purchasing, practicing, and carrying the extra weight on your adventures. As time goes on, situation and experience will dictate what firearm you choose to carry. But if you are in the market for a pistol, here are some things to think about.
Semi-automatic or revolver?
Revolvers really have only one advantage; they can shoot really big bullets. Beyond that, they are more challenging to shoot accurately, have limited capacity, and take longer to reload than semi-automatic pistols. Semi-automatic pistols are easier to learn to shoot, can hold more rounds per magazine, and are faster and easier to reload. Unless you are willing to dedicate a significant amount of time to learn to shoot a revolver, I would recommend a semi-automatic.
For bear protection, I almost always recommend a 10mm. If what you have is a .45 or a 9mm and you shoot extremely accurately in high-pressure situations, that may be the right gun for you, but if you are going to buy a new gun specifically for bear protection, please consider a 10mm.
You want to look for heavy, hard cast lead bullets. They will have the deepest penetration, which is what will give you the best bear stopping power. You do not want to use an expanding, hollow point round. Hollow point rounds are not designed for bear protection.
How will you carry your gear and your gun?
Regardless of the gun you purchase, invest in a good holster. Floppy nylon holsters or cheaply made leather holsters are simply not safe. The last thing you want is for the gun to fall out of the holster while you are kayaking down the Kenai. Look for a high-quality leather holster or better yet, a Kydex holster made specifically for your firearm. For ease of use, look at one of the chest holsters that places the gun over your sternum. This keeps it out of the water while wading, and allows you to wear a backpack with a hip belt while hiking.
Don’t forget, education and instruction, either through a class or private lessons, can be a lifesaving investment.
So, what is the best bear gun?
Ok, so while that may seem like a bit of a joke, it’s not. Pepper spray is extremely reliable, requires minimal training or practice to use, and should be everyone’s first line of defense against a bear.
Beyond pepper spray, the best bear gun is the gun you shoot well and will actually take with you.