Even here in Alaska, where you’d think we would have the “bear sidearm” thing figured out, all you have to do is mention bear protection in a crowded place or online forum, and you will no doubt hear from numerous people who swear on their mother’s grave that their .44 mag, .454, .500, or other monster caliber is the ideal bear protection. I have however, only heard one claim myself of someone stopping a grizzly with one shot from a .460. The bigger-is-better idea is rapidly going the way of the buffalo, and here’s why.
I’ll say this very clearly. No handgun has the energy to drop a bear in its tracks (barring a perfect, or extremely lucky shot). Even the .500 S&W has little more energy than a .30-30. If you read John Snow’s blog last week, you saw a scientific comparison of several autoloading cartridges and the conclusions that the FBI drew from it. Yes, the bigger cartridges do slightly more damage than a .45 ACP, but we are talking about animals that can sometimes soak up .375 H&H rounds like they are BB’s. I’ve personally witnessed a brown bear take 13 solid shots from less than 20 yards with a .375 Ackley before it expired. I have seen black bears shot at under 15 yards with .338’s and 7mm Mag’s and not even lose their footing. The handgun is a last resort, slightly better than nothing. Never, EVER rely on a handgun as your primary defense if you know you are going to be in a risky situation. Take a large rifle you are comfortable with, or a shotgun.
In my opinion, the issue with packing large-caliber revolvers for bear protection is that they are difficult to draw and shoot quickly — one or two handed. Bear attacks scenarios are highly variable, and can range from giving you a chance to prepare and aim, to being on the ground with a bear on top of you before you realize anything is wrong. It’s easy for us to imagine “how it will happen to us” and how we will pull off the perfect shot, or use our hunting knife to cut his throat, but frankly, you will probably not be prepared, and things will happen extremely fast.
From what I have seen, I would much rather have a handgun that I am very comfortable with, and is very controllable. The Glock 20 10mm auto has become a popular choice recently, and although I have yet to own one, I can attest to their utility. Recently, I have been carrying either my Ruger .357 Mag or Glock 17 9mm. I had to shoot one black bear with my .357 last year that was wounded and we stumbled on it in thick brush. He was probably 15 feet away. Two quick shots put the bear down. I am also liking the 9mm recently as it is even more controllable and penetration isn’t that much less than the .357. I remember several years back now, a brown bear on the Kenai peninsula was killed with 3 shots from a 9mm when it charged a fisherman. It is my firm belief that in a bear attack situation, the more hits you can get on the bear in the shortest amount of time possible, the better your chances of survival.
I think that with a heavy wheelgun, you will get one shot off if you are lucky. If you’re wondering how you would do, next time you are at the range, see how many hits you can get on a 15” x 20” target at 15 feet in 3 seconds (including drawing from your carry holster). You probably won’t have much more time than that in the field, and possibly less.
Select your backcountry sidearm wisely, and be safe out there!