Letter Re: Advice on Bear Protection?

Mr. Rawles,
I may soon have the chance to take a job with the USGS in coastal Alaska. It will involve some field work, mostly in summer months. What should I carry for defense against bears? Pepper spray? A magnum revolver? For guns, if it makes any difference: I am in my late 30s, I’m 5’11” and weigh 220. I have fairly large hands. Thanks, – Future Cheechako

JWR Replies: We live in bear country here at the Rawles Ranch. (Brown and black bears.) It is also mountain lion, moose, and wolf country, but bears are our biggest concern. By SOP, we have our children trained to carry 9 ounce canisters of Guard Alaska brand pepper spray in belt pouches whenever they walk more than 20 yards away from the house. That is our standing “20 yard rule”: always carry bear spray. Meanwhile, the Memsahib and I carry lead spray. At the minimum, we carry .45 automatics and two spare magazines for each. (I usually carry four spares, but then I’m the over-prepared type.) Here at the ranch, we carry our pistols loaded with 230 grain full metal jacket (“ball”) ammunition, because of its superior penetration. (Ball is less than ideal for defense against two-legged predators, but reportedly better for stopping bears than hollow points.) Yes, I realize that any .45 ACP load is just a marginal stopper for bears. However, most of our training has been with Colt Model 1911s, so under extreme stress shooting situations I expect to rely on that ingrained training rather than cope with an unfamiliar pistol or revolver. They say “A man has got to know his limitations.” Well one of mine is having 30+ years of experience with M1911 pistols. I know that under stress I can use a M1911 “on autopilot.” With anything else, I know that I’d be Mr. Fumblefingers. That would be a Very Bad ThingTM, when a 500+ pound bear is approaching in a ferocious blur. Our eldest son is about ready to train and start carrying a handgun. Since he doesn’t share my training limitations, he will probably carry a S&W Model 629 .44 Magnum revolver. When you select a handgun, do not emulate me. If you don’t already have a lot of training/muscle memory invested in a particular breed of pistol, then I recommend that you buy the biggest revolver that you can comfortably carry on a daily basis, at least a .44 Magnum and possibly something as heavy as a .454 Casull or one of the new S&W .500s. You are already used to carrying around 220 pounds. If you diet and you lose five or ten pounds then you should be able to comfortably carry a four pound revolver, holster, belt, and a couple of speed loaders.

If we know for a fact that a bear is in the area, I also carry our 12 gauge Remington Model 870 riotgun, loaded with #00 Buckshot shells alternating with Brenneke rifled slugs. The Memsahib has a Remington 1100 “Youth” variant, with a Choate extension magazine. It is kept loaded with all Brenneke rifled slugs. Both shotguns hold eight shells, and both are equipped with a spare five shells in stock-mounted pouches. I recommend that you get a pump action 12 gauge shotgun, preferably a Remington, Mossberg, or the often-overlooked Smith and Wesson.

Carry your holstered revolver at all times when you are in the field. Keep your riotgun handy in your jeep or helicopter. Depending on what sort of surveying gear that you have to carry, you might also be able to carry the riotgun when walking trails. Practice with both your handgun and riotgun a lot. OBTW, Front Sight has a training center on the Kenai Peninsula, called Front Sight Alaska. (It is just 20 miles out of the town of Kenai.) Taking the (shotgun and handgun courses there would be money very well spent. Yes, they are expensive, but what is your life worth? Don’t skip taking the shotgun course. Under stress, many inexperienced shooters have a tendency to short-cycle a pump action shotgun, causing jams. So training and regular practice are crucial!

In closing, when I’m armed with just a handgun I don’t necessarily expect to win a fight with a brown bear, but I will still do my utmost to do so. I never go unarmed in the woods. There is the chance that I’ll get surprised and chomped before I ever get my pistol out of its holster, or that even if I do, that I won’t kill the bear before it kills me. But at least when the deputies come to collect what is left of me, they’ll see all the empty brass scattered around, so they can vouch that I put up a good fight.