Handgun Defense Against Bears, Caliber NOT Critical as Thought

Man Survives Bear Attack Using a Folding Knife, iStock-177529416
Handgun Defense Against Bears, Caliber Not Critical as Thought, iStock-177529416

A continual debate in the firearms and hunting community is about caliber wars. 9mm v .45.  What is the minimum caliber for whitetail deer?  What calibers are good for elk? Moose? Grizzly bears?  In the research of handguns fired in defense against bears, a surprising conclusion springs forth: Caliber is not as important as we thought. Having a firearm is more important than caliber.  There are several reasons why this is so.

First, a firearm builds confidence. A person with a firearms has more confidence they can do something instead of nothing. Call it the psychological factor.   A firearm gives a person the confidence to stand their ground. Even bear spray proponent Tom Smith acknowledges the importance of this. From byu.edu/news, 2008:

Smith believes one of the primary reasons bear spray works is that it gives users a reason to stand their ground. Running is the worst response to an aggressive bear, he said, “but it’s hard not to.

Having a firearm gives a psychological lift to a person’s confidence. People who are armed walk differently, stand differently and act differently. The confidence labels them as potentially dangerous. This makes bears and other predators hesitate to attack and assess humans more carefully. Most bears wisely avoid humans. For bears on the edge, this can make a difference.

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Second, there is noise. Firearms, even small caliber handguns, are loud, much louder than nearly anything in nature except for a thunderclap. Warning shots work primarily though noise.  Warning shots are seriously underrated because most successful warning shots are not reported. Of the documented incidents where handguns were fired in defense against bears, warning shots worked 21 of  29 times or 69%.  Bears that are indifferent to the presence of a human and to warning shots are very dangerous bears.  Warning shots help to reveal a bear’s attitude. Reports from the Svalbard Archipelago show they have very good success in deterring polar bears with warning shots. From kho.unis.no:

If the bear is already moving toward you, aim to one side or above its head to avoid hitting it accidentally. Continue shooting rifle shots or flares until it retreats. In nearly all cases this will be sufficient to scare curious or even aggressive bears away.

An advantage of handguns over most rifles is handguns have a greater magazine capacity, allowing for more warning shots while keeping enough rounds in reserve for defensive purposes. Most handguns are designed to be reloaded more rapidly than most rifles.

Tom Smith, who loves bears, acknowledges the viability of noise as a defense, as well. From Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska:

On 10 occasions (14%, 10 of 71) the sight and sound associated with spray release were reported as key factors in changing bear behavior.

Third, there is pain. The theory of bear spray is to deliver pain to the bear, causing it to stop its attack. Even small-caliber handguns deliver intense pain. One hit from a small caliber handgun to the body is likely to deliver more pain and damage than a paw strike or bite from another bear. A single shot delivered from a small caliber handgun, if it enters the thoracic cavity or abdominal cavity, will likely kill the bear over time.  Bears are not impervious to pain. Enough pain and/or damage will cause them to break off the attack. Of 130 incidents in our documented cases where it could be determined a hit was made, bears were driven off before they were killed in 113 cases, or 87% of the time.  Many of those hits were from powerful firearms, but the principle is pain works. Only 13 of the 151 recorded successful uses of firearms (including some combination cases) where sufficient information was available, were fast central nervous system hits which stopped the attack nearly instantaneously. Other mechanisms stopped the attack in over 91% of the cases. In research to determine deterrent effect, rocks/slingshots or rubber slugs were more effective than bear spray in motivating a black bear to leave. It is difficult  to believe hits from small caliber handguns would be less effective than slingshots or rubber slugs.

These three mechanisms explain how caliber is less important than commonly thought. They explain how magazine or cylinder capacity may be more important than thought. Confidence, noise, and pain may be greater with more powerful handguns, much of the time. However, a person who is well practiced and capable with a 9mm may be more confident and effective than a person who has not practiced and is afraid of the recoil of a .500 S&W Magnum. Smaller calibers often have greater capacity for warning shots.  A .22 magnum with a 2 inch barrel may be louder than a .38 special with a six inch barrel.

Raw power is not the only consideration. A .22 you have is better than a shotgun where you cannot access it. A major advantage of handguns is they and their carry systems have undergone a hundred and fifty years of evolution and refinement. They have been refined, with many decades of real life and death experience, with the purpose of fast and accurate access, presentation, and delivery of fire.

Caliber, or power, can be important. It is not as important as once thought.

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.

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