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Live Hunt Alaska: Bullets or Bear Spray?

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May 02, 2012
Live Hunt Alaska: Bullets or Bear Spray? - 8

With summer just around the corner, many of us will soon be taking to the mountains and trails in bear country. Those of us who fish, hunt, and hike in the grizzly and black bears’ stomping grounds need to give them respect, but also be prepared for a potential violent encounter. So what is the best option for stopping a bear that’s hellbent on tearing you to pieces?

It depends on who you ask, but the two most common answers are guns (where permissible to carry them) and pepper-based bear repellent spray. (For obvious reasons, we are going to eliminate bear bells from the equation right off the bat.) Let’s take a look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of both.

Bear Spray
Whether you love or hate the idea of trusting Tabasco sauce on steroids to stop a charging bear, bear spray is proven to work. It gives a good coverage area and I have never heard of a bear that refused to break off when hit in the face with spray. Bear spray is easy to use and pretty safe when other people are in the area. With a little practice, and a bit of familiarization, nearly anyone can effectively carry and use bear spray. One of the downfalls however, is that bear spray’s effectiveness is largely dependent on the weather, especially wind conditions.

In strong winds, the range of the spray diminishes, as it disperses much more quickly. Another problem is that if you have to spray into the wind, you’re liable to get more of a dose than the bear. My buddy’s brother was practicing with a can of spray, and happened to do just that. He got a face full of pepper spray, and luckily a bear wasn’t charging because it put him out of commission. I haven’t had a lot of experience with using bear spray in the rain, but precipitation is also known to diminish its effectiveness.

Bullets
A common saying in Alaska: “The bears you really have to watch out for are the ones that smell spicy and jingle when they walk.” Many people here in Alaska prefer to pack a little more punch when they venture into the woods. Guns have been used as effective bear protection since the days of mountain men. A modern rifle, shotgun, or handgun—in well-trained hands—is more effective than spray: A good shot on a charging bear can kill it outright.

However, in the wrong hands, guns can be ineffective at best, and more dangerous than the bear at the worst. There are a handful of stories about hunters accidentally shooting their buddy who was being attacked by a bear.

Whether you choose bear spray or a firearm for protection is up to you, and there is no clear answer as to which one is better. I choose to use a firearm (find a post about my bear backup gun choice here). I am experienced and practice often, so I feel comfortable in bear country with a gun. Many people are very safe and capable of effectively using a firearm to defend themselves, but just as many people are much better off using spray. Neither guns nor bear spray are perfect, and both should be treated as last-ditch options. The best defense is being conscious of your surroundings and understanding bear behavior.

Comments (8)

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from Ruger wrote 1 year 49 weeks ago

I carry both when I go into bear country.

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from hornd wrote 1 year 50 weeks ago

Elkboy, you should have written the article. "Liars can figure, but figures never lie". I think anytime this subject is brought up, Actual over theoretical every time. I understand that a shotgun with buck at close range can kill anything on earth, but shot placement is crucial. Pepper spray has a little more margin of error. One nice thing about a firearm is sometimes the sound will deter (One Mans Wilderness) with no harm done to either party. One thing to take into consideration is that bear spray is not be be taken on a plane. That means if your traveling you have no way to get it home. I think fly shops and outfitters should have a deposit of price of can, if you don't use you get your $ back. Everyone would benefit including the bears. I also carry the spray in the middle of my fly vest exposed, not in a pocket.

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from Blue Ox wrote 1 year 50 weeks ago

No reason you can't have both. Hit 'em with the spray first- go to the firearm if the bruin needs further convincing.

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from huntfishtrap wrote 1 year 50 weeks ago

I agree pretty much completely with Bob Hansen, my first choice would be high-quality pepper spray, but if for some reason that wasn't an option, the optimal firearm in my opinion would be a 12 gauge with the barrel cut down to 18 inches, and loaded with either 00 or 000 buckshot, or with slugs.
I guess a couple of hand grenades (pull the pin and run!) would probably be flat-out the most effective bear "deterrent", but I think the authorities might frown on it!

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from Bob Hansen wrote 1 year 50 weeks ago

Hi...

To each his own...as long as you are extremely knowlegible about your choice.

My first choice would be DEC registered bear spray. It works.

My second choice would be a 12-guage with 00 or 000 buckshot. It also works.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from cjohnsrud wrote 1 year 50 weeks ago

Tread lightly. You've already stated that you will have a .357 on your hip. Maybe take a can of spray as a first line of defense, but keep the .357 close.

I know. Easy to say, but not so easy to do in the split second you have to make a decision.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from elkboy wrote 1 year 50 weeks ago

To each his own, yet the science suggests bear spray is more effective. Those bears tend to have a lot more blood and adrenaline than we give them credit for. A few rounds from a hand cannon may kill them, but not before they nibble on you a little--or a lot. And Lord help you if you shoot a grizzly in the Lower 48 in self-defense. The feds will investigate you up, down and sideways. Below are some snippets from a recent conference in Missoula on the efficacy of spray versus bullets. Here is a snippet:

University of Calgary's Steve Herrero tells the Missoulian that 98 percent of those who used bear spray walked away unharmed, and no people or bears died.

He says 56 percent of those who used firearms were injured, and 61 percent of the bears died.

The firearms study involved 269 incidents with 444 hunters. The bear spray study had 72 incidents with 175 people, though some of those might have been less dangerous encounters.

+3 Good Comment? | | Report
from JM wrote 1 year 50 weeks ago

I say take whichever you are most confident/comfortable with and hope that you never need to use it.
-My choice on a brown bear hunt would be a firearm(and preferably 1 or 2 more people with a firearm next to me).

+2 Good Comment? | | Report

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from elkboy wrote 1 year 50 weeks ago

To each his own, yet the science suggests bear spray is more effective. Those bears tend to have a lot more blood and adrenaline than we give them credit for. A few rounds from a hand cannon may kill them, but not before they nibble on you a little--or a lot. And Lord help you if you shoot a grizzly in the Lower 48 in self-defense. The feds will investigate you up, down and sideways. Below are some snippets from a recent conference in Missoula on the efficacy of spray versus bullets. Here is a snippet:

University of Calgary's Steve Herrero tells the Missoulian that 98 percent of those who used bear spray walked away unharmed, and no people or bears died.

He says 56 percent of those who used firearms were injured, and 61 percent of the bears died.

The firearms study involved 269 incidents with 444 hunters. The bear spray study had 72 incidents with 175 people, though some of those might have been less dangerous encounters.

+3 Good Comment? | | Report
from JM wrote 1 year 50 weeks ago

I say take whichever you are most confident/comfortable with and hope that you never need to use it.
-My choice on a brown bear hunt would be a firearm(and preferably 1 or 2 more people with a firearm next to me).

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from cjohnsrud wrote 1 year 50 weeks ago

Tread lightly. You've already stated that you will have a .357 on your hip. Maybe take a can of spray as a first line of defense, but keep the .357 close.

I know. Easy to say, but not so easy to do in the split second you have to make a decision.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from Bob Hansen wrote 1 year 50 weeks ago

Hi...

To each his own...as long as you are extremely knowlegible about your choice.

My first choice would be DEC registered bear spray. It works.

My second choice would be a 12-guage with 00 or 000 buckshot. It also works.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from huntfishtrap wrote 1 year 50 weeks ago

I agree pretty much completely with Bob Hansen, my first choice would be high-quality pepper spray, but if for some reason that wasn't an option, the optimal firearm in my opinion would be a 12 gauge with the barrel cut down to 18 inches, and loaded with either 00 or 000 buckshot, or with slugs.
I guess a couple of hand grenades (pull the pin and run!) would probably be flat-out the most effective bear "deterrent", but I think the authorities might frown on it!

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Blue Ox wrote 1 year 50 weeks ago

No reason you can't have both. Hit 'em with the spray first- go to the firearm if the bruin needs further convincing.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from hornd wrote 1 year 50 weeks ago

Elkboy, you should have written the article. "Liars can figure, but figures never lie". I think anytime this subject is brought up, Actual over theoretical every time. I understand that a shotgun with buck at close range can kill anything on earth, but shot placement is crucial. Pepper spray has a little more margin of error. One nice thing about a firearm is sometimes the sound will deter (One Mans Wilderness) with no harm done to either party. One thing to take into consideration is that bear spray is not be be taken on a plane. That means if your traveling you have no way to get it home. I think fly shops and outfitters should have a deposit of price of can, if you don't use you get your $ back. Everyone would benefit including the bears. I also carry the spray in the middle of my fly vest exposed, not in a pocket.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Ruger wrote 1 year 49 weeks ago

I carry both when I go into bear country.

0 Good Comment? | | Report

Post a Comment (200 characters or less)