The first thing you need to know about bear defense handguns is that if you find yourself needing to use one, things have gone terribly wrong. You should never be comfortable with the idea that the only thing between you and an attacking bear might be a handgun. Even the behemoth .500 S&W Magnum has about half the energy of a .375 Ruger—which some consider to be on the lighter end of the spectrum for stopping a pissed-off brown bear.
A realistic way to look at bear defense handguns is that they are better than nothing. A big rifle or even slug gun is a proper tool for situations where a dangerous encounter is even remotely likely. But for the rest of the time, a bear defense handgun is a great choice if you can carry it and shoot it proficiently. They have been used successfully to thwart bear attacks each year.
Things to Consider in a Bear Defense Handgun
A Bear Defense Handgun Worked If the Attack is Stopped
The metric by which many people measure bear-stopping success is a bit fantastical when it comes to bear defense handguns. Most people imagine a bear charging, and the measure of success is whether the bear folds to the ground, sliding up to their feet or not. The truth is that it probably won’t happen like that. Hell, three months ago I shot a medium-sized interior grizzly running toward me at 15 paces with a hot-loaded .338 Win. Mag., and that solid shot to the chest didn’t even take her off her feet immediately. If you must defend yourself from a bear with a handgun, any situation in which you come out unscathed is a win, even if the bear runs off.
You’ll Have to Shoot a Bear More Than Once
Considering that many bear charges stopped by rifles involve more than one shot, you’re almost guaranteed to have you shoot a bear more than once with a pistol if you’re forced to defend yourself. Pick a bear defense handgun that’s nimble to handle, that you can practice with, and that you can shoot accurately under stress. Ammunition capacity can be important. Many keyboard experts will tell you that you’ll only get one shot off, so power is what matters. The truth is that the only bear claws most of these folks will ever encounter are kept under clear plexiglass and distributed with aluminum tongs. Sometimes you might get one shot, sometimes none. In the heat of the moment though, ammo goes quick.
Because of these facts, the 10mm Auto has seen a rise in popularity as a defensive cartridge in bear country. Some still favor large revolver cartridges, but with the best 10mm ammo, the cartridge has proven to be effective in stopping bear attacks.
In a recent range test, we shot the 10mm against a light .44 Mag. and proved what many hunters already know: The 10mm is much easier to shoot quickly and accurately.
The Gun You Have is Better Than the One You Don’t
To pick a bear defense handgun that will be effective for you, it’s important to pick one that you will carry all the time. Having a handgun that you can carry and use intuitively without impeding you in the woods is more valuable than having a specific caliber or researching ballistic energy tables. The 9mm loaded with Buffalo Bore hard-cast bullets that you have is always going to be better than the cannon you left at camp because it’s a pain in the ass to carry.
Caliber: 10mm Auto
There are two major camps when it comes to handguns for bear defense—big bore wheelguns and nimble semi-autos—and the Glock G20 is the poster child of the second. Over the past decade it has become the most popular backcountry carry pistol, likely by a wide margin. While some consider a .44 Magnum revolver to be the minimum for a bear protection handgun, the 10mm G20 has proven itself as not only a capable attack stopper, but a standard for backcountry carry.
Like other Glock Models, the G20’s beauty is in its simplicity. It’s a polymer-framed, semi-automatic pistol with a 15+1 round capacity. Until recent years, it was the only relatively common double stack 10mm on gun store shelves. It features a 4.61-inch barrel, is easy to shoot, and runs with utter reliability.
Early Glock 10mm barrels didn’t have great case head support and earned a reputation for catastrophic failures on high-pressure 10mm loads. In any new Glock G20, that’s not something you’ll have to worry about. You can safely fire factory ammo like Buffalo Bore, Underwood, and others. Glock barrels do tend to accumulate lead fouling with hard-cast bullets, just practice with copper-jacketed ammo and clean your bore well after shooting cast bullets.
Caliber: 10mm Auto
The popularity of the 10mm Auto as a backcountry and bear defense handgun cartridge has brought a lot of attention and diversity to the offerings in this particular category. One of the most versatile 10mm pistols in the pack is the XD-M Elite 3.8-inch Compact OSP. Its model name is a mouthful, but this compact 10mm brings the goods.
As the name indicates, it’s a compact 10mm pistol with a 3.8-inch barrel. It features a removable magwell and comes with 11-round magazines. It’s also compatible with Springfield’s sleeved 15-round magazines to match the capacity of the G20. In overall dimensions, it’s nearly identical in size to Glock’s compact 10mm, the G29. However, the Springfield is much more forgiving to shoot. It comes standard with an optics cut and removable plate, but is also available with Springfield’s Hex Dragonfly red dot sight. I’ve settled on a Leupold Delta Point Pro for mine.
After reviewing this pistol, I bought it. You can read the full review here. I’ve carried it since then and have around 2,000 rounds through the gun without so much as a hiccup. I removed the magwell and found that it improved the grip for me. The gun is very controllable with full-house 10mm loads, especially using a GoGun Gas Pedal takedown lever, and I found that I only lose about 75 feet per second of velocity compared to a 5-inch aftermarket G20 barrel with hot bear loads.
Caliber: 10mm Auto
A 10mm addition to the Smith & Wesson M&P line is a welcome sight for M&P fans looking for a bear defense handgun. Built on the M&P 2.0 .45 ACP frame, the M&P 2.0 10mm features a full-size grip, 15+1 round capacity, and a 4-inch barrel. It features excellent grip texture and ergonomics, an ambidextrous slide stop, and reversible magazine catch button, making it lefty friendly. This gun also comes optics-ready and includes several mounting adapter plates.
I tested and reviewed the M&P 2.0 10mm, then ran another one hard at our Best Handguns of 2022 test. It’s accurate, reliable, and has probably the best grip contour and texture of any factory polymer 10mm. For optimal fit, it includes the standard interchangeable M&P grip modules for a thinner or fatter grip. The stippling texture doesn’t slip easily, even with sweaty hands.
The M&P 2.0 10mm has a bit snappier recoil than the G20, but the secure, comfortable grip makes it manageable. A big advantage for a practical bear defense handgun is training and familiarity. If you’re already carrying or shooting an M&P pistol, this is a great option for the backcountry.
Caliber: 10mm Auto
Variety is a good thing when it comes to bear defense handguns, and Sig Sauer’s new P320 XTen is a welcome addition to the market of 10mm handguns. The P320 series features mostly 9mm models, and has become a big winner for Sig. This is partly because of its versatility. The XTen is an up-sized version that brings the P320 traits that many shooters like.
The XTen matches the capacity of most popular 10mm bear defense pistols and comes with two 15-round steel magazines. The polymer frame is slightly larger than the full-size 9mm X-frames but features the same comfortable ergonomics and grip texture. It has a flat trigger shoe and no trigger safety. Mounting a light on your bear defense handgun is a huge plus, and the XTen has a long 5-slot accessory rail. The 5-inch barrel gives a slight boost in velocity and a longer sight radius than most other polymer 10mm’s.
I’m in the process of testing and reviewing an XTen now, and I’m liking it. I’ve found it to be very comfortable and manageable to shoot. I currently carry a P320 9mm daily, and the identical ergonomics and grip angle translate very well across both guns. I haven’t encountered any reliability issues so far, and it’s reminding me why I like the P320 platform.
Caliber: .357 Magnum
Despite the contemporary popularity and perceived advantages of semi-autos as the best bear defense handguns, wheel guns still see plenty of use in the field. Many folks still consider them the only reliable option. Although not big by magnum revolver standards, the .357 Magnum has long been used here in Alaska as a bear defense cartridge and was championed by long-time Fairbanks bear defense class instructor Joe Nava. With heavy hard-cast loads, it penetrates deep and is comparable to the 10mm Auto. I once had to shoot a “dead” black bear with a .357 when he stood up less than 5 yards away, and I’ll say that the performance was plenty adequate.
There are many great options for .357 Magnum revolvers—the Ruger GP100 for example—but my pick would be the Colt Python in a 3- or 4-inch configuration. I reviewed the 3-inch model earlier this year and was smitten. You can read that review here. This six-shooter looks fantastic, but also performs. The new Colt Python models are built to be as close to the original designs as possible, with some added mass in the upper-rear portion of the frame for added strength.
The fit on the new Colt Python 3-inch is tight, and operation is butter-smooth. You’ll lose a touch of velocity on the 3-inch barrel model, but I believe the convenience of carry to be worth it. It rides nicely in a chest holster and is very controllable during double-action shooting.
Caliber: .44 Magnum
For big bear defense handguns, the Smith & Wesson 629 is hard to beat. Many laud the .44 Magnum as real bear medicine, and it’s got plenty of power for a bear defense handgun—as long as you remember that it’s still not a rifle.
The 629 is an excellent revolver. Its stainless-steel build is made to be subjected to the elements common in bear country. The 4-inch and 5-inch models are 9.5 and 10.5 inches in overall length respectively, and they have a good balance of barrel length and handling for a .44. It’s a reasonably comfortable revolver to shoot and holds 6 rounds of .44 Magnum or .44 Special. The rubberized grip is ideal for wet conditions and makes sharp recoil more tolerable.
If you’re willing to put in the practice, heavy .44 Magnum loads can give you an edge in penetration over less-powerful cartridges like the 10mm, but you’ve only got 6 shots, so make them count. The 4-inch Model 629 will weigh about 4 pounds loaded, so make sure you have a comfortable way to carry it. Although the Model 329 PD is much lighter (and an excellent revolver too), the recoil is absolutely punishing, and you’ll be hard pressed to get anything on-target after the first shot. The Model 629 is a better balance of ease-of-carry and recoil manageability.
Caliber: .44 Magnum, .454 Casull
If you’re looking for tough and dependable, Ruger’s Super Redhawk revolvers are a good place to start. These double-action big bore revolvers have long been popular in Alaska, and I carried one chambered in .480 Ruger with a 7.5-inch barrel until I got tired of lugging the thing around. The Super Redhawk Alaskan is essentially a chopped-down 2.5-inch barreled version. That makes it significantly more convenient to carry than the full-size model.
Although there are a few bigger revolver cartridges out there, I consider the .454 Casull to be a good top end choice for a bear defense handgun. With rare exception, anything bigger is simply a novelty. The .454 is challenging enough to shoot well, and even the bigger cartridges still aren’t up to the level of a rifle. Like .44 Mag/.44 Special, you can practice with .45 Colt cartridges, and save the hot (and expensive) stuff for the field. Just be sure to hang on when you touch it off.
Although you sacrifice significant velocity by blowing a good portion of your powder out the end of that short 2.5-inch barrel, the ease of carry is what makes this revolver practical. Revolvers that get left in the truck or in the cabin while you’re doing chores are no good. The Super Redhawk Alaskan is one of the most carry-friendly big-bore revolvers. Its rubbery grip makes it pretty damn tolerable to shoot too.
Final Thoughts on the Best Bear Defense Handguns
There is no single best bear defense handgun for everyone. It’s important to understand that even the best or most powerful handgun falls well short of a big rifle’s power. A bear attack is guaranteed to be a dynamic encounter with innumerable variables.
What’s certain is that if you want to have a real chance to stop a bear attack with a handgun, you need to be carrying it—even when you don’t expect an encounter. You need to carry it so that it can be drawn quickly and easily. Another certainty is that you need to be able to draw and shoot accurately. Choosing a handgun that you’re comfortable and proficient with is better than just chasing power. Finally, train with your bear defense handgun like your life depends on it, because it might.