Black Bear Cartridges

By Chuck Hawks

.308 Win.
.308 Win. Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

To start with, just how big is a North American black bear? One thing that seems evident is that they vary greatly in size. In the central provinces/states of Canada and the U.S., as well as most of the Eastern United States, they are reported to average 150-200 pounds. This is much smaller than the large black bears of coastal Alaska, British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest, which probably average 300 pounds and may go 500 pounds. Of course, individual animals vary in weight no matter where they live. Giant black bears weighing 600 pounds and more have been taken in diverse locations.

According to the information compiled by Edward A. Matunas, an average mature male weighs about 300 pounds. A very large male might weigh 500 pounds. In extreme cases black bear can weigh over 650 pounds. That is an enormous variation in weight for a single species of predator.

Black bear are generally shy and innocuous animals, but it is worth noting that in modern times far more humans in North America have been mauled by black bears than by grizzly, brown and polar bears combined. Black bear are generally regarded as CXP2 category game, although examples weighing over about 350 pounds would presumably be CXP3 category animals.

In all cases and for all of the black bear calibers listed below I am assuming that the hunter uses a properly constructed bullet of adequate diameter (.264 caliber minimum), sectional density (around .220 minimum for the small and medium bore calibers), and energy (1000 ft. lbs. minimum at impact). I realize that cartridges on the order of the .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington, .250 Savage and .257 Roberts have successfully been used on black bear, typically by deer hunters, but I don't like them for the purpose. It is far better to pass up a shot than to take a chance on wounding a bear with a rifle inadequate for following-up a potentially dangerous predator. As always, the responsible hunter uses enough gun.

Black bear have strong bones and heavy muscles, as befits a large predator. They require expanding bullets that will not come apart against substantial resistance. A fragile bullet ideal for shooting 100-150 pound antelope or deer at long range may not be tough enough to give adequate penetration on a larger, solidly built animal such as a black bear, particularly if a follow-up shot at an unfavorable angle is required. For that reason very quick opening, plastic tipped bullets such as the Nosler Ballistic Tip and Hornady SST might not be the best possible choice, particularly at high impact velocities and light weight for caliber.

Examples of adequate bullets for average 300 pound and smaller black bears would include the Hornady Interlock, Remington Core-Lokt, Sierra Pro-Hunter, Speer Hot-Cor and Winchester Silvertip. If I were hunting in trophy black bear country where animals often weigh in exceeded 300 pounds live weight, I'd probaby favor premium bullets such as the various Barnes TSX, Federal Trophy Bonded Bear Claw, Hornady InterBond, Nosler Partition and AccuBond, Remington Core-Lokt Ultra, Speer Grand Slam and Swift A-frame, but the standard bullets will still do the job if you put them in the right place.

The most important thing, as always, is for the hunter to get that bullet into a vital spot. It doesn't have to be a perfect shot that slips between two ribs and blows up the heart, but the caliber recommendations that follow assume a solid hit in the heart/lung area with an adequate bullet.

One of the real problems with cartridge recommendations is the vitality and state of mind of the individual animal when shot. Most hunters have noticed how relatively easy it is to kill a relaxed animal that is just standing around, and how difficult it can be to stop an animal fleeing for its life (or, heaven forbid, charging). These are variables that are hard to account for in any list. For the record, all of the cartridge suggestions below assume a reasonably undisturbed animal, not one high on adrenaline.

It would be too cumbersome to list every possible black bear cartridge and I would inadvertently leave out someone's favorite. Therefore, the cartridges mentioned below are just examples of typical satisfactory black bear cartridges. If a cartridge is not listed, it does not necessarily mean that it is no good. Look for a cartridge with similar ballistics. If you find one, then the cartridge in question is also probably adequate.

I think that it might be wise to divide black bear cartridges into three categories. The first category would be deer (CXP2 game) cartridges that are also adequate for incidental black bear shooting. These are cartridges for average size bears of 300 pounds or less. The second category would be the all-around, medium and long range cartridges suitable for hunting both CXP2 and CXP3 class game. These, of course, are entirely adequate black bear cartridges. The third category are cartridges specifically intended for hunting large animals (CXP3 game). If you are considering a new rifle for a trophy black bear hunt in, say, Alaska or British Columbia it is this third group of cartridges that you might particularly ponder.

Deer and black bear cartridges

Many deer and medium game cartridges have proven adequate for black bears of moderate size within their range limitations. Examples of such cartridges include the 6.5x55, .260 Remington, .30-30, .32 Winchester Special, .35 Remington, .375 Winchester and .38-55.

Some of these cartridges, in particular the .32 Special, .35 Remington and .375 Winchester, have long been considered excellent black bear cartridges at moderate range due to their bullets of larger than average diameter and weight. These are good choices for combination deer and black bear hunting in the woods.

All-around (CXP2/CXP3) big game cartridges

These include such stalwarts as the .264 Winchester Magnum, .270 Winchester, .270 Magnums, 7x64, .280 Remington, 7mm Magnums, .300 Savage, .308 Marlin Express, .308 Winchester, .30-06, .303 British and 8x57JS. Any of them will easily make black bears into black bear rugs, as long as the proper bullets are used. It is would be hard to find more useful black bear cartridges than the .308 Win. or .30-06 loaded with 180 grain bullets, even for trophy size bears.

Black bear and CXP3 game cartridges

Good calibers for large black bear in the 350-600 pound class, in addition to the previously mentioned .308 and .30-06, include the .338 Marlin Express, .338 Federal, .338-06, .348 Winchester, .356 Winchester, .358 Winchester, .35 Whelen, .350 Rem. Mag., 9.3x62, .444 Marlin and .45-70. These cartridges, used within their individual range limitations and with proper loads, are excellent calibers to consider when planning a trophy black bear hunt. Cartridges more powerful than these are unnecessary for even the largest black bears.


Black bears are usually not considered to be particularly dangerous game, but they have the potential to be. This is especially true of large bears. Any 300 pound predator is quite capable of quickly killing prey the size of Homo sapiens. Unfortunately, they can out run us and also climb trees, so it is wise to treat black bears with respect. This means that shots between 50 and 150 yards should be the goal, even with flat shooting, long range rifles.

This isn't a matter of power, since even a relatively small .300 Magnum, such as the .300 WSM, has plenty of power to take a 600 pound bear from the muzzle to around 370 yards. It is a matter of safety and precise bullet placement. Ideally, you want to be close enough to be absolutely sure of a killing shot, yet not so close that the bear can get to you before you have a chance to shoot again should it be required.

It is important to put a black bear down, and keep him down, with the first shot. No one wants to track a wounded bear into dense cover and the reality is that a wounded black bear almost always escapes, as they move fast, far and are very difficult to track. The black bear hunter must always work within his or her one shot, sure kill range.

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Copyright 2006, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.