Bear Defense | Problems with Empty Chamber Carry

Grizzly bear roaring in forest iStock-Byrdyak 914770576

Carrying a gun for defensive purposes, with an empty chamber, is a controversial measure which proponents claim enhances safety. It is one of the reasons handguns appear to work better for self defense against bears than long guns. Long guns are more commonly carried with an empty chamber than are handguns. Handguns are more commonly carried for self defense than long guns. A recent bear attack illustrates the problem of carrying a long gun with an empty chamber. From 2021:

“I remember looking over my shoulder, and I was saying something to them when I kind of heard the bushes crashing, and that’s when I looked up and looked over toward [where] the sound was coming from,” he said. “I couldn’t even really see it all at first because the brush was pretty thick, but about 20 feet away … this bear comes charging out of the brush at full speed.”

The victim had warning. He heard the bushes crashing. He had time to look in the direction the noise was coming from. It was almost certainly a large animal, a bear or a moose. If he had a loaded shotgun in his hands, he could have covered the area the sound was coming from, at the ready. The victim had a pre-concieved notion of how an attack might happen.  The most common way in which bear maulings occur is with a surprise attack from short distances.

Coltharp said it happened so fast.

“And without any, you know, warning at all. Normally, when they’re defensive over their territory, they let you know,” he said. “They get all huffy and puffy and they start popping their jaw and making a lot of noise, and there was there was absolutely none of that going on. So it was kind of a unique situation.”

The shotgun was slung on his back with an empty chamber. The action release probably had to be activated to chamber the first round. If the release is triggered while the shotgun is carried slung, weight of the forend tends to pull the action open, gradually opening the ejection port and exposing it to the introduction of twigs, dirt and debris.

Coltharp grabbed his gun from a sling on his back and tried to load the chamber, but the bear was faster than he was. So he jumped to the side to get his upper body and head out of the way in the hopes that Walloch, who was also armed, could get in a shot.

“And that’s when that’s when the bear reached down and just kind of chomped me right above my kneecap,” Coltharp said. “And [the bear] was just shaking me around by my leg. I was just laying there as it’s got me, just yelling, ‘Shoot it, shoot it, shoot it, shoot it!’ as fast as I could say it.”

There were three Fish and Game workers only a few yards apart along the trail when the bear attacked Coltharp. Coltharp, the victim, was the point man in the lead. This is a more vulnerable position, and requires extra diligence. The man behind Coltharp, Walloch, also carried a shotgun. As Coltharp was being mauled, he accessed the shotgun and shot the bear off of Coltharp, then shot two more shots into the bear to make sure it was out of the fight.

We are not told if Walloch carried his shotgun slung with an empty chamber. It is common for large bureaucracies to impose “safety” measures which place burdens on the people in the field in order to add a small amount of “cover” for the bureaucrats in charge.

Empty chambers have played roles in several bear mauling incidents.

On September 7, 1990, Brian Kelly was hunting caribou in British Columbia. He surprised a sow grizzly with three cubs. He waved his arms and shouted as the bears closed in. After the ineffective waving, he reached for the rifle. From Bear Attacks the Deadly Truth, by Sheldon, p. 122:

Instinctively, I reached for my rifle; waving and shouting wasn’t going to work this time. My rifle was on the right side of my pack in a break-away mount. The magazine was full but there wasn’t a round in the chamber.

The sow stopped three feet from Kelly. Instead of having a rifle ready and shooting the bear, Kelly punched the sow on the side of the head. He was severely mauled and took six months to recover. He never fired the rifle.

Ralph Borders was hunting Dall mountain sheep with his brother-in-law, Bill. As an Alaskan resident he had purchased a bear tag just in case they encountered one he wanted to take. On September 11, 1992, they encountered a sow with two cubs. The bears started running at them. From Some Bears Kill by Kanuit, p. 42, Ralph Borders recounts:

Bill carried a bullet in the chamber of his .06 and he was shooting, handloaded 180 grain Nosler seconds. I was trying to get my gloves off so I could chamber a round. (My .338 Ruger has always had a problem getting a shell from the clip to the chamber). 

Ralph Borders was hunting with an empty chamber. He estimated the bears were on them in four seconds. He was severely mauled by a sow grizzly. His brother in law, Bill, carried his rifle with a round in the chamber and was able to shoot the bear off of Ralph, but first had shot one of the nearly grown cubs. It ran off with the other cub. Ralph was unable to get a shot off.

There is a cultural set which claims carrying a firearm with a round chambered is unsafe. It may make sense to have empty chambers in camp, in vehicles or on horseback. A guide may insist clients who are behind him have empty chambers.

An empty chamber imposes a severe disadvantage in many hunting situations or when carrying for self defense.

Carrying a long gun slung over one’s back, with an empty chamber, means a delay of several seconds before the gun may be fired. The delay is probably 5-7 seconds at minimum, and possibly several seconds longer. One of the reasons surprise bear attacks result in more injuries is, if the person being attacked has a few more seconds to react, they have time to unsling a long gun, chamber a round, and get ready.  It makes no sense to hunt game which may require a quick reaction, alone, with an empty chamber.

Conversely, when a long gun is held with a loaded chamber at the ready, many shooters can fire a sufficiently accurate shot at close range, in under a second.  It is not a difficult skill to acquire. Good practice can be jump shooting upland birds or ducks. If you are not quick, you miss many opportunities to harvest birds. Jump shooting doves can be nearly as fast as jump shooting woodcock or ruffed grouse. Several people have successfully defended themselves against surprise, close range bear attacks with shotguns and bird shot.


Much depends on a person’s mind set. If a person knows the danger is there and an attack is possible, they are far ahead of the person who believes “It will never happen to me!”  Some practice with quick reaction drills and/or jump shooting game birds will strengthen the ability to engage the threat quickly and decisively.

About Dean Weingarten:

Dean Weingarten has been a peace officer, a military officer, was on the University of Wisconsin Pistol Team for four years, and was first certified to teach firearms safety in 1973. He taught the Arizona concealed carry course for fifteen years until the goal of Constitutional Carry was attained. He has degrees in meteorology and mining engineering, and retired from the Department of Defense after a 30 year career in Army Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation.

Dean Weingarten

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