Bears And Guns — In The Land Of The Midnight Sun

While standing in a light rain on a shooting range in Wasilla, Alaska, Sam Naramore says, “Hey Larry, did you hear we had another bear incident last night?” Sam works for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR), is hopelessly in love with the state of Alaska, and has an energy level equivalent to a field trial pointer. Me, I’m still trying to wake up — a few cups of coffee later and I’m still groggy — trying to adjust to jet lag and a place where evidently, it never gets dark.

I met Sam in a shotgun class at the Gunsite Academy and he soon began enticing me to make a trip to the land of the midnight sun. This guy is a one-man dynamo for promoting Alaska — I don’t know why Alaska Tourism hasn’t hired him yet. Sam begins to tell me about yet another bear related incident that has happened during my visit.

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Alaska is a state of vast proportions, twice the size of Texas with most of it wilderness. Alaska has a lot of wildlife including a healthy population of bears in three different flavors. The black bear, much like we have in the lower 48, brown bears, grizzlies and the coastal brown bear (opinions vary about this being the same bear), and the polar bear. Most of the time these bears work and play well with the humans they encounter, sometimes they don’t.

Armed In Bear Country

Hunters, hikers, fishermen and anyone who works or plays in bear country have to decide if they are going carry a firearm? Last year there were 64 incidents of bears being shot in defense of life and property (DLP) in Alaska. This includes episodes handled by agencies like Alaska Fish and Game as well as the public. Could there be other incidents not reported? Probably, Alaska is a big, wild place. While this many bear events in a year may not be common, it’s certainly not rare.

Alaska DNR, Fish and Game, United States Geological Society (USGS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and others commonly send people into some very remote places to work. When you are 10 miles from the middle of nowhere and 800 lbs. of muscle, teeth, and claws decides he really doesn’t like you it would be nice to be proficient with your chosen firearm.

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Steve Nelson, Bear Defense instructor with Taurus Raging Bull .454 Casull revolver.

Enter Steve Nelson — Nelson is a geologist (you can put a “Dr.” in front of his name but he doesn’t want me to) and a coworker Cynthia Dusel-Bacon were working in a remote Alaskan range back in 1977, Cynthia was attacked by a predatory black bear, severely mauled and lost both of her arms as a result of the incident. This prompted Nelson to create and begin teaching classes on bear awareness and self-defense. He has taught hundreds of students from state and federal agencies, private companies as well as the public. Nelson has hunted big game over much of the planet but mostly in Alaska, he has had the occasion to shoot four bears, three blacks and one brown, in DLP situations.

Types Of Bear Attacks

Nelson’s class is heavy on bear awareness and bear behavior. Most bear attacks fall into two categories, defensive or predatory. A defensive bear attack most often occurs when the bear is surprised and/or is defending something. The bear may be defending a food source such as a fresh kill — it could be a sow bear with cubs, (very dangerous with brown bears and Grizzlies), or you may simply surprise a bear at close range. This may happen most often with hunters or hikers in dense brush, the bear did not know you were there, you barge into his personal space, and now you have a problem.

A defensive bear may show several types of posturing and body language when confronted. Like many animals, bears have several forms of behavior they may show when stressed. This behavior may escalate if the bear becomes increasingly stressed or the bear may calm down and simply exit stage right. If the bear doesn’t leave, there are several ways a bear can exhibit he is not happy.

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A stressed bear may start to salivate, he may actually yawn, then do a stiff- legged hop and paw or swat at the ground, and at the same time, you may see him slinging the head back and forth. Usually with all of this show comes a strange form of teeth popping or chomping, some bear experts refer to this as “clacking.” (I have watched bears making this sound and still can’t figure out exactly how they do it) Teeth’s clacking is loud and can be intimidating.

Regardless of the reason you are taking the class — make sure you bring your rain gear.

There are bear biologists and other scientists who will say clacking is an expression of fear and some believe a bear who is clacking will not attack you, leading to the saying “bears that clack won’t attack.”  I wouldn’t write anything in stone when it comes to what a bear might do.

After this display, if the bear thinks you are still a problem he may try one of three different charges, a bluff charge, a false charge, or the real thing. A bear that wants you out of his life may do a “bluff” charge which is usually characterized by a short bark or “woof” like sound (much like a dog), then a short lunge toward you followed by the bear turning and going back to his original position. Bears that bluff charge will usually have erect ears and the nose will be pointed up, directed to you. Bluff charges are thought to be almost never associated with an actual attack.

Many bear biologists make a distinction between a real charge and a false charge in that a false charge a bear shows all of the characteristics of a real charge but the charge is broken off at the last minute at a very short distance. So right now you are asking “How do you tell a false charge from a real one?” Well, in my opinion, you can’t. All you can do is use your best judgment and whatever bear deterrent you have on hand.

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A bear making a real charge is not fooling around and will have raised hackles (the hair on the back of the neck), his nose will be pointed downward, (researchers think this is to protect the sensitive nose area), and the ears will be flattened on the head. Now is the time to use bear deterrent and personally I vote for a large caliber firearm.

A predatory bear attack is entirely different from a defensive attack as a predatory bear is stalking you as prey. There is no bluff or false charging, the bear may follow a person for some time and may attempt to hide from them. When visible, the bear will appear intensely focused on the victim with none of the signs of a stressed bear. It’s worth noting in Alaska at least, predatory bear attacks often come from black bears.

The Bear Spray vs. Firearms Debate

The controversy on whether to use a pepper-based spray or a firearm for bear protection is alive and well, and like the 9mm vs. .45ACP argument, it’s not going away any time soon. Proponents of the spray claim the spray is more effective in deterring bears, easier to use, and is obviously not lethal to the bear. Gun advocates will tell you bear spray is in fact not more effective, and wind, rain, and other weather aspects can affect the spray. The Alaskans I spent time with who work in the bush were in favor of guns over the spray. Steve Nelson recommends carrying both spray and a firearm, but if you have to deal with a bear that wants to punch your ticket, he will tell you to have a firearm in your hands.

Bear Guns

The 12-gauge pump action shotgun loaded with slugs is the firearm most Alaskans carry for bear protection and there are several reasons for this. The shotgun is widely available, is usually less expensive than a rifle and is very versatile — lot’s of ammo options. Short barreled, tactical type shotguns with high capacity magazines get the nod, as they are capable of throwing a lot of lead quickly in tight situations. Large caliber rifles are also popular and while bear protection instructor Steve Nelson recommends carrying “anything .30/06 and up”, he will most often be seen with a .375 H&H in a bolt gun or a .45/70 in a lever gun like the Marlin model 1895 or similar. Nelson is a fan of the big bores. Large caliber handguns are also popular among those who work in the wilderness and I saw several of them packing the .454 Casull.

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A few of the Shotguns used in the class: L to R Remington 870 Tactical, 870 Marine Magnum, Winchester SXP Defender Dark Earth model, Winchester SXP defender Marine, Remington VersaMax.

The Remington 870 was by far the shotgun I saw carried most in Alaska. A tactical version of the 870 with a short barrel, large magazine, and ghost ring sights was the most popular. The Mossberg 500 and 590 versions were next in line as well as the Mossberg ATI Scorpion shotgun, which is the 500 action with several tactical features, attached. Winchester shotguns in the SXP Defender series (12-gauge pump guns) were also seen in the class, and the Benelli Nova had some loyal followers here.

Carrying a big handgun requires a proper holster: Left- Ruger SuperRedhawk Alaskan model .454 Casull with Diamond D. Holster. Right, Taurus Raging Bull .454 Casull with Galco Holster

While Steve Nelson acknowledges the 12-gauge loaded with adequate slugs is good medicine for bears, he is admittedly a “rifle guy.” The .375 H&H and the .375 Ruger are popular bear cartridges in Alaska as well as the .338 Win Mag. and the .348 Winchester. One thing to remember is that in a remote area of the Alaskan bush availability of ammo is as important as stopping power, some of the more exotic cartridges may be hard to find. The Ruger Guide Gun in .375 Ruger was very popular in the class I attended — the rifle is light and compact and has a stainless matte finish to stand up the rigors of Alaskan weather. The CZ-USA Safari Magnum chambered in .375 H&H drew much more attention in this crowd than I thought it would. The reason is this rifle will hold six rounds of ammo, a big consideration if you happen to meet a brown bear with a bad attitude.

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Big Bore Handguns

Large caliber handguns mean revolvers and the Ruger Super RedHawk Alaskan model was the most carried handgun I saw in Alaska with the .454 Casull being the most prevalent cartridge. Now there is no doubt the .454 is a beast of a cartridge and with proper shot placement and the right ammo you should be able to flatten anything shy of a medium tyrannosaurus. The fact remains some of us may not be able to effectively handle the .454 and you may want to step down to a .44 Magnum and the Ruger Alaskan is available in this caliber as well. The Taurus Raging Bull revolver in .454 Casull was also used in this class and while the gun we tested had a 6 ½” barrel I believe I would look at the 2 ½” barrel model for more ease of handling and carry.

Big bore bear defense handguns: Top- Taurus Raging Bull .454 Casull, Bottom- Ruger SuperRedhawk Alaskan also .454 Casull

The best firearm in the world is pretty much useless without proper ammunition. For the shotgun, this class fired dozens of rounds of Federal Premium shotgun slugs and I saw no problems, they functioned every time. Some of the Alaskans in the class carry Brenneke slugs for confrontations with bears.

A new star on the horizon for shotgun slugs is the DDupleks-USA SteelHead, solid steel shotgun slug. This slug should allow for maximum penetration and the testing done during the class showed the slugs shot through heavy brush with no deflection. You will surely be hearing more about the DDupleks-USA slugs.

Hornady rifle ammo received major kudos at this class for the Dangerous Game Series ammunition in both .375 Ruger and .375 H&H. Federal Premium in .45 Colt was used for training in this class and performed very well, those who carried the .454 in the field seemed partial to Buffalo Bore ammo.

At the end of the day when all the smoke has cleared the best firearm to be used for your personal protection is the one you can shoot and handle the most effectively. Training with your firearm is essential, simply buying a gun and going for a walk in bear country with no training is a recipe for disaster.

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