Firearm Selection for Black Bear Hunting

By Randy Wakeman

There are lots of divergent opinions about what gun is suitable for black bear and some of the recommendations are really "out there." You’ll hear that a .30-06 or 7mm Remington Mag. is barely adequate (pun intended) and that .300 and .338 Magnums are the way to go. I’ve even read that revolvers are necessary for black bear, as “multiple shots are the norm.” Most of what I’ve seen out there is rubbish, devoid of common sense.

What is clear is an adult black bear is a well-muscled, strong-boned animal. Added to that, consider a very thick layer of fat beneath a black bear’s fur and hide. An adult black bear is a tough animal with thick muscles and bones you will likely be breaking on the way into the four inch hot spot behind the shoulder. Highly regarded Maine bear guide Wayne Bosowicz once had a riled black bear (riled because he was chased and treed) tear into his hounds. Wayne emptied his .357 Magnum into the chest of the bear, but it didn’t slow him down. As you might imagine, that was the end of Mr. Bosowicz’ use of the .357 Mag. He currently carries a .44 Magnum revolver.

Black bears are generally reclusive creatures. Unlike the grizzly, they climb trees very well. Their claws are designed primarily for climbing and digging, not fighting. The nature of the black bear is such that carrying handguns for protection in the field is just plain silly. The only appropriate “protection” piece in the field is the same caliber firearm you’d use to hunt them. Unfortunately, that means corresponding bulk and weight. For that reason, the most experienced bear hunters who are likely to surprise bears, those that bait bears for two solid months before seasons start, carry a hatchet and nothing more.

Pipsqueak “trail guns” may be good for those who sell them, but they are nearly worthless for black bear. Few people are fortunate enough to so much as see a black bear deep in the timber. The best thing to use for protection is what you have between your ears. If you are convinced you need protection, then you need a rifle. It is for this reason that back-up shooters for dangerous game use rifles, not trail pistols.

It is a combination of shot placement and a tough, sturdy bullet that gets the job done on an adult black bear. A bullet that fails to penetrate adequately is a lost bear. Bears do not bleed the way that deer-family animals do. They bleed heavily between their layer of fat and fur and their thick fur soaks up blood like a sponge. A small entry hole may quickly plug itself with fat, so the blood trail on a poorly hit bear may well be non-existent, or may quickly vanish. An injured bear does not lie down; they typically run until they die or are too weak to continue, which may well be 15 or 20 miles.

The “second shot” theory on a bear is tenuous at best, as they can instantly hit 35 mph and vanish in dense cover. You’ll note that Wayne Bosowicz’ failed .357 Magnum adventure did not involve still-hunting or stalking. It was a cornered, agitated bear, treed by a group of hounds and fighting in order to flee. Unless you have the proclivity to thoroughly menace black bears enough to tree them, you’ll not have the same experience.

What is required to cleanly take an adult black bear is not mysterious, nor is it in the realm of .338 Win. Mags., as some would have you believe. Precise shot placement is requisite; if we can’t place the bullet properly a lost animal is a certainty. Beyond that, we need adequate penetration. Expansion is fine, but never at the loss of proper penetration. No one I know can guess whether bones are smashed entering a black furry blob, so the bullet has to be durable enough to withstand that. Perhaps we might slip a bullet between ribs, but it is nothing we can count on.

In the case of short range black bear hunting, we have a lot of choices. For centerfire rifles, anything from a .270 Winchester or .30-30 with a heavy for caliber bullet on up is more than adequate. For handguns, a 300 grain arena bullet from a .44 Magnum punches the ticket. For muzzleloaders, a tough 250 – 300 grain .45 caliber bullet does the trick and accurate rifled-barrel shotguns shooting tough bullets also work well, like the newer 1900 – 2000 fps 20 gauge loads. The classic lever cartridges for black bear, the .32 Special, .35 Remington and .45-70, are better than ever with appropriate bullets.

This does illuminate a problem, if only to me: the “CXP” notion of classifying cartridges and specific loads. Often, in ammunition manufacturers catalogues, you see a sketch of Bambi and the “CXP2” moniker. Unfortunately, little distinction is made between a 90 pound swamp doe, a 250 pound hog, or a 300 pound black bear and no distinction is made as to range. A pronghorn, despite its light size, generally means far greater shooting ranges then whitetail in the timber and, pound for pound, I think there are heartier animals. Tough Russian boar with well-formed shields are far tougher than deer and an adult black bear may be stronger and tougher than both. Moose, elk and kudu might be labeled “CXP3” animals, but a kudu is a soft-bodied animal compared to a gemsbuck and not particularly tough to drop with a well-placed shot.

A light, fast-opening projectile that might be considered ideal for whitetail is unlikely to be ideal for black bear. Heavy for caliber, tougher bullets of the Barnes TSX, Hornady GMX and Nosler Partition variety would be more appropriate for adult black bears than whitetail bullets. Though stand hunting for black bear is a fairly short-range proposition, precise shot placement from a small tree-stand or perhaps a cramped ground-blind means that consideration should be given to a gun you can deploy quickly, smoothly, without hesitation or excessive noise and shoot accurately. There are a lot of suitable choices, to be sure, but shot placement and adequate penetration are two of the most important factors to consider.

Note: For a more comprehensive survey of appropriate black bear cartridges, see the "Game Animals and Rifle Cartridges" section of the Rifle Cartridges page.




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Copyright 2009, 2012 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.


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