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Best Grizzly Defense: Bear Spray or Gun?

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October 13, 2010
Best Grizzly Defense: Bear Spray or Gun? - 15

Last week a Wyoming elk hunter was attacked by a grizzly bear. The hunter, whose name has not been released, was able to shoot and kill the bear, but not before it sank its teeth into his arm. Luckily, the hunter was fine. He walked three miles out of the backcountry, drove himself to the hospital and was released the next day. The bear on the other hand, died from its injuries.

As grizzly bear attacks in the Yellowstone area continue to make headlines, many outdoorsmen are faced with a question that their lives could depend on: what's the best defense against a charging bear, a gun or bear spray?

Mark Bruscino, a Wyoming Game and Fish bear management supervisor, says his department recommends bear spray, unless you're a polished marksman.

"We  think bear spray is a good deterrent for the average person who isn't really good with  a firearm," he told the Powell Tribune.

Bruscino's quote hints at the crux of the problem: every bear attack is different and there are countless variables that go into each scenario.

For example on an extremely windy day, bear spray could be useless. As far as firearms go, the caliber of the gun will make a huge difference in how effective it will be in stopping a charging bear. Also, a person's ability to use their tool of choice will have a large impact on the outcome. I once hunted with an elk guide whose only grizzly deterrent was an axe that he kept tethered to his saddle. After a few demonstrations, I could see that the guide was so incredibly good with his axe that I felt sorry for any bear that even thought about charging him (although I do not recommend an axe as bear defense for most hunters).

With this in mind, what do you think Newshound readers? What's more effective against a charging grizzly bear, a gun, bear spray or something else altogether?

Comments (15)

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from River Rover wrote 46 weeks 3 days ago

August 17th I gained first-hand insight on this question. On a solo expedition in Alaska's Gates of the Arctic National Park, I had crossed the Brooks Range from the Noatak River by Angiaak Pass with a folding canoe and gear and accessed navigable water on the Reed River headed to the Kobuk. The Reed is rarely traveled, especially the upper Reed since it is not accessible by plane (and most people are smart enough not to carry a canoe across the mountains).

Coming off a curve where I had been following the main current along the cut bank near shore river left, I was just headed back midstream along a shoal when I heard a snort and crash behind. Turning I saw a Grizzly charging down from the bank and immediately launch into the shallows straight at me. I had thought about Grizzly attacks as much as anyone on this forum, especially traveling alone and about what I would do in various scenarios. I had not imagined this one. He started his charge at very close range and I had no time to think about options. My reaction was immediate and bear spray never occurred to me. I neatly stowed my paddle (no recollection of doing so), cleared my 45-70 Marlin Guide Gun from its restraint (being careful that the front sight hood didn't snag)and wisely or not, decided I could risk a warning shot (though charging hard, he was slowed by the water and I was still moving downstream). Wanting him to feel it, I put it just past his left ear. I was squeezing the second round when I realized he was braking hard and I held fire. He stopped about 20 - 25 ft from the bow of my canoe. He glared then bounded back about 10 ft as I continued downstream and as I relaxed slightly, I grabbed my point-n-shoot video and got good footage of his sudden and hasty retreat. He swam the narrow river, hit the right bank and ran for parts far away.

I don't doubt bear spray can and does work if properly deployed under the right conditions. However, I believe it is more important to use whatever you are reflexive with. After this trip I do very much want to add a sidearm since there were many instances when my rifle was not on me, or would have been difficult to use. I will practice with it extensively before going into Grizzly Country with it though.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from swb35 wrote 48 weeks 3 days ago

7- years ago just outside of Yellow stone I was charged by a big brown. I was bow hunting and decided to carry the pepper spray. From the time I saw the bear through the charge and the bear banking off and going past me was in my estimate about 7 seconds. I got the bear spray can up and pointed at the bear but in those few seconds of time and realization a bear was charging me even though I am an avid hunter I forgot to pull the safety pin on the bear spray can. The bear with her cub charged about 8-feet in front of me but spooked and banked off the side when my hunting partner who was about 50 feet from me yelled. My point is I think we should actually practice simulated charges so you know what to do --- It should be repetition so that once the situation happens you do not mess up. Hunting in pairs is not always possible but I think my partner saved me that day.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Shawnjez wrote 1 year 38 weeks ago

I carry both a 44 mag and bear spry. I haven't had to use either. FYI dropjhook.com I'm a gun owner and hunter that is voting for Obama.

-1 Good Comment? | | Report
from rjmlakota wrote 1 year 42 weeks ago

Carrying a large caliber weapon is a good idea. However, I live in NYS and cannot carry a side arm while archery hunting. In circumstances like this, I think reverting to bear spray is a good idea.

RJ

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Dick Cox wrote 1 year 50 weeks ago

What if the bear spray canister is empty, or not working properly? What if the wind blows the spray towards the user and away from the bear? There are a slew of other unsavory uncertainties and tragic scenarios where bear spray is concerned.

Frankly, I think that going into any wilderness area that is teeming with wild, potentially deadly creatures believing that a spray is the best defense against them is the height of naivete, foolishness, and yes, sheer irresponsibility. Lethal force -- such as that provided by a firearm -- is the only sensible protection in such circumstances. And, the lame excuse that some people lack training with firearms, or are uncomfortable around them, is simply irrational and unavailing. If you lack training, obtain training. If you're uncomfortable using such tools, become comfortable. In the wild, self-sufficiency is paramount and every creature fights to survive with the tools at its disposal. Why should humans any different?

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from hanshi wrote 3 years 39 weeks ago

Outside of canceling his credit card, I think it does matter if the person is familiar with firearms or not. A heavy handgun is good and a lot more portable than a rifle. A rifle is best but not as portable as a handgun so would be the hands-down choice for the hunter. For "Muffy" and her fellow PETA member "Dexter" (or whatever) pepper spray is the only option though they would be more likely to flavor themselves with it rather than spray the bear. Good way to purge the gene pool, though.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from chasclifton wrote 3 years 40 weeks ago

Most commenters seem to assume that they would be armed and alert in the hypothetical grizzly bear attack happened.

That might be true in a hunting situation. However, what if you are not hunting, or in a place where open-carry is not allowed (such as Yellowstone), or busy with your work? One bear-attack survivor whom I met was a surveyor in Alaska.

What about if you live in a place like Cooke City, Montana, and you are just out mowing the grass?

I have never used bear spray on a bear, but I did have to use it once on a large, aggressive dog who had bitten one person and was coming after me next. It changed his mind in a hurry!

Bear spray, carried on your belt or the side pocket of lumbar pack, can be deployed quickly. You do not have to worry about accurate bullet placement -- just aim for the face. If you are a little shaky, that's all right.

(@oldmausers: All you need is one hand. It's not that heavy!)

Plus you have conditioned that bear to leave people alone without having to kill it. Although I hunt, I don't go out just to kill critters that are not my quarry in the first place.

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from tpbesone wrote 3 years 40 weeks ago

I'd go with a rifle if the caliber is large enough. Any .300 used for elk would work fine. Again though it depends on the situation. If you see a bear from a distance and it charges I'd use the gun. If a bear surprises you from a closer distance then bear spray is easier to point and shoot. My recommendation is if you do shoot one pepper spray it afterwards and walk away. Even though you were defending your life, if the authorities find the bear they'll try everything to investigate the kill.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from X2DKkiller wrote 3 years 40 weeks ago

If back packing 12 gauge full of slugs if huntin well then I would have my rifle never did like the idea of peeper spray I think it was invented for the bunny huggers.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from Johnnie wrote 3 years 40 weeks ago

I would choose a gun. As bigjake stated, if there is a breeze in the air that could put a monkey wrench in the works. Or if the can of spray didn't work for some reason you can't reload it like a gun.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from www.dropjhook.com wrote 3 years 40 weeks ago

Only if they would make a stink bomb that would let out the smell of a BLT long enuff to keep the curiosity of the bear or bears & long enuff to exit away from harm. Just pull the pin & throw!

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Bo wrote 3 years 40 weeks ago

For me, if I was going to be tramping around in Bear country, I think that I would prefer a sidearm as a backup. The .460 S&W appears to me to have all of the oomph that would be needed against any ursine menace. It even comes in a 2 1/2 inch barrel for those who want the man points, as the Captain likes to say. I would go with a longer barrel. I am too old to jockey around for man points. When I was jockeying for man points in my youth, I broke too many parts of me.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from seadog wrote 3 years 40 weeks ago

I'm no bear expert but i'm not a fan of chemical spray for self defense for exactly the reason bigjake mentioned--you end up spraying yourself.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from bigjake wrote 3 years 40 weeks ago

My vote is for a large caliber rifle.If the breeze is in your face or swirling,let loose a spray and it can come straight back at you and quickly blind you instead of the bear.

+5 Good Comment? | | Report
from oldmausers wrote 3 years 40 weeks ago

Rifle. Bear spray is not an option unless you have three arms. Standard technique for using bear spray takes two hands. A hunter carrying a rifle does not have two hands free. It's possible to use bear spray one-handed, but using bear spray one-handed while facing a charging grizzly would be like Tiger Woods playing the Masters one-handed, or Derek Jeter batting one-handed during the World Series. Trust you instincts. Point your rifle at the bear and shoot.

+4 Good Comment? | | Report

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from bigjake wrote 3 years 40 weeks ago

My vote is for a large caliber rifle.If the breeze is in your face or swirling,let loose a spray and it can come straight back at you and quickly blind you instead of the bear.

+5 Good Comment? | | Report
from oldmausers wrote 3 years 40 weeks ago

Rifle. Bear spray is not an option unless you have three arms. Standard technique for using bear spray takes two hands. A hunter carrying a rifle does not have two hands free. It's possible to use bear spray one-handed, but using bear spray one-handed while facing a charging grizzly would be like Tiger Woods playing the Masters one-handed, or Derek Jeter batting one-handed during the World Series. Trust you instincts. Point your rifle at the bear and shoot.

+4 Good Comment? | | Report
from seadog wrote 3 years 40 weeks ago

I'm no bear expert but i'm not a fan of chemical spray for self defense for exactly the reason bigjake mentioned--you end up spraying yourself.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from Bo wrote 3 years 40 weeks ago

For me, if I was going to be tramping around in Bear country, I think that I would prefer a sidearm as a backup. The .460 S&W appears to me to have all of the oomph that would be needed against any ursine menace. It even comes in a 2 1/2 inch barrel for those who want the man points, as the Captain likes to say. I would go with a longer barrel. I am too old to jockey around for man points. When I was jockeying for man points in my youth, I broke too many parts of me.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from Johnnie wrote 3 years 40 weeks ago

I would choose a gun. As bigjake stated, if there is a breeze in the air that could put a monkey wrench in the works. Or if the can of spray didn't work for some reason you can't reload it like a gun.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from X2DKkiller wrote 3 years 40 weeks ago

If back packing 12 gauge full of slugs if huntin well then I would have my rifle never did like the idea of peeper spray I think it was invented for the bunny huggers.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from hanshi wrote 3 years 39 weeks ago

Outside of canceling his credit card, I think it does matter if the person is familiar with firearms or not. A heavy handgun is good and a lot more portable than a rifle. A rifle is best but not as portable as a handgun so would be the hands-down choice for the hunter. For "Muffy" and her fellow PETA member "Dexter" (or whatever) pepper spray is the only option though they would be more likely to flavor themselves with it rather than spray the bear. Good way to purge the gene pool, though.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from www.dropjhook.com wrote 3 years 40 weeks ago

Only if they would make a stink bomb that would let out the smell of a BLT long enuff to keep the curiosity of the bear or bears & long enuff to exit away from harm. Just pull the pin & throw!

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from rjmlakota wrote 1 year 42 weeks ago

Carrying a large caliber weapon is a good idea. However, I live in NYS and cannot carry a side arm while archery hunting. In circumstances like this, I think reverting to bear spray is a good idea.

RJ

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from swb35 wrote 48 weeks 3 days ago

7- years ago just outside of Yellow stone I was charged by a big brown. I was bow hunting and decided to carry the pepper spray. From the time I saw the bear through the charge and the bear banking off and going past me was in my estimate about 7 seconds. I got the bear spray can up and pointed at the bear but in those few seconds of time and realization a bear was charging me even though I am an avid hunter I forgot to pull the safety pin on the bear spray can. The bear with her cub charged about 8-feet in front of me but spooked and banked off the side when my hunting partner who was about 50 feet from me yelled. My point is I think we should actually practice simulated charges so you know what to do --- It should be repetition so that once the situation happens you do not mess up. Hunting in pairs is not always possible but I think my partner saved me that day.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from River Rover wrote 46 weeks 3 days ago

August 17th I gained first-hand insight on this question. On a solo expedition in Alaska's Gates of the Arctic National Park, I had crossed the Brooks Range from the Noatak River by Angiaak Pass with a folding canoe and gear and accessed navigable water on the Reed River headed to the Kobuk. The Reed is rarely traveled, especially the upper Reed since it is not accessible by plane (and most people are smart enough not to carry a canoe across the mountains).

Coming off a curve where I had been following the main current along the cut bank near shore river left, I was just headed back midstream along a shoal when I heard a snort and crash behind. Turning I saw a Grizzly charging down from the bank and immediately launch into the shallows straight at me. I had thought about Grizzly attacks as much as anyone on this forum, especially traveling alone and about what I would do in various scenarios. I had not imagined this one. He started his charge at very close range and I had no time to think about options. My reaction was immediate and bear spray never occurred to me. I neatly stowed my paddle (no recollection of doing so), cleared my 45-70 Marlin Guide Gun from its restraint (being careful that the front sight hood didn't snag)and wisely or not, decided I could risk a warning shot (though charging hard, he was slowed by the water and I was still moving downstream). Wanting him to feel it, I put it just past his left ear. I was squeezing the second round when I realized he was braking hard and I held fire. He stopped about 20 - 25 ft from the bow of my canoe. He glared then bounded back about 10 ft as I continued downstream and as I relaxed slightly, I grabbed my point-n-shoot video and got good footage of his sudden and hasty retreat. He swam the narrow river, hit the right bank and ran for parts far away.

I don't doubt bear spray can and does work if properly deployed under the right conditions. However, I believe it is more important to use whatever you are reflexive with. After this trip I do very much want to add a sidearm since there were many instances when my rifle was not on me, or would have been difficult to use. I will practice with it extensively before going into Grizzly Country with it though.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from tpbesone wrote 3 years 40 weeks ago

I'd go with a rifle if the caliber is large enough. Any .300 used for elk would work fine. Again though it depends on the situation. If you see a bear from a distance and it charges I'd use the gun. If a bear surprises you from a closer distance then bear spray is easier to point and shoot. My recommendation is if you do shoot one pepper spray it afterwards and walk away. Even though you were defending your life, if the authorities find the bear they'll try everything to investigate the kill.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from chasclifton wrote 3 years 40 weeks ago

Most commenters seem to assume that they would be armed and alert in the hypothetical grizzly bear attack happened.

That might be true in a hunting situation. However, what if you are not hunting, or in a place where open-carry is not allowed (such as Yellowstone), or busy with your work? One bear-attack survivor whom I met was a surveyor in Alaska.

What about if you live in a place like Cooke City, Montana, and you are just out mowing the grass?

I have never used bear spray on a bear, but I did have to use it once on a large, aggressive dog who had bitten one person and was coming after me next. It changed his mind in a hurry!

Bear spray, carried on your belt or the side pocket of lumbar pack, can be deployed quickly. You do not have to worry about accurate bullet placement -- just aim for the face. If you are a little shaky, that's all right.

(@oldmausers: All you need is one hand. It's not that heavy!)

Plus you have conditioned that bear to leave people alone without having to kill it. Although I hunt, I don't go out just to kill critters that are not my quarry in the first place.

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

What if the bear spray canister is empty, or not working properly? What if the wind blows the spray towards the user and away from the bear? There are a slew of other unsavory uncertainties and tragic scenarios where bear spray is concerned.

Frankly, I think that going into any wilderness area that is teeming with wild, potentially deadly creatures believing that a spray is the best defense against them is the height of naivete, foolishness, and yes, sheer irresponsibility. Lethal force -- such as that provided by a firearm -- is the only sensible protection in such circumstances. And, the lame excuse that some people lack training with firearms, or are uncomfortable around them, is simply irrational and unavailing. If you lack training, obtain training. If you're uncomfortable using such tools, become comfortable. In the wild, self-sufficiency is paramount and every creature fights to survive with the tools at its disposal. Why should humans any different?

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Shawnjez wrote 1 year 38 weeks ago

I carry both a 44 mag and bear spry. I haven't had to use either. FYI dropjhook.com I'm a gun owner and hunter that is voting for Obama.

-1 Good Comment? | | Report

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