Among game animals, bears possess an aura unlike any others—especially when it comes to toughness. Hunters talk about them as if they are supernatural specters of the woods, and far more difficult to kill than a deer. Their phantom-like qualities (both real and exaggerated) stoke deep-rooted opinions about killing bears efficiently. These opinions seem to be especially prevalent among folks who have never killed one. The truth is that bears are easy to kill and knowing where to shoot a bear is more important than the weapon or caliber you use.
Distilling Myths About Bear Hunting
The internet is full of opinions about the best broadheads or rifle cartridges for bears, where to shoot a bear, and blood trailing. Many of those opinions are bunk.
If there’s any universal wisdom to heed when it comes to making clean, ethical shots on bears, it’s to take all that “advice” with a grain of salt and understand the context in which it’s given. Bears are incredibly tough and tenacious, and shots should always be taken with great care. But bears are easy to kill cleanly and quickly. Pretty much every tale of woe I’ve heard about hard-to-kill bears begins with a poor first shot. Screw up, and all bets are off. But if you shoot any reputable projectile through both lungs, the bear (no matter how big he is) will die—usually very quickly.
Shoot Bears Through the Lungs
As with any game animal, shot placement is critical for bears. A bear’s anatomy is relatively straightforward. The heart and lungs sit a little farther back compared to a deer. This is true of both black bears and grizzly bears.
A common mantra among seasoned bear hunters is to place your shot in the “middle of the middle.” This means halfway between the back of the shoulder and front of the hips, and halfway between the top of the back and bottom of the belly. When a bear is standing perfectly broadside, this is generally good advice, and your shot will go through the large rear portion of both lungs. However, I typically tend to favor just slightly forward of the middle.
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Aim for a double-lung shot rather than intentionally aiming for the heart. Heart shots are great, but I’ve found that a solid double-lung shot seems to kill bears more quickly than a heart shot. Often, double-lunged bears won’t death moan, but you can usually hear sounds of air coming through the wound.
Visualize the Vitals
The issue with a simple mantra like “middle of the middle,” is that bears will often present a variety of good shot angles, but with each angle, the optimal aiming point changes. For example, a bear that is quartering away at 45 degrees offers you a devastatingly effective shot, but that’s only if you aim farther back. If you hold for the same spot you would on a broadside bear, you may not even kill the bear with this shot angle. You need to visualize where to shoot a bear at different angles to hit both lungs.
Some folks advocate aiming for a bear’s front shoulder to “break them down.” When backup rifles are at the ready, this can work. However, this is generally a terrible idea, as only a small portion of the vital organs are directly between the shoulders and the chest cavity narrows quickly.
One of the most common shot-placement mistakes I’ve seen is aiming too far forward or aiming low behind the shoulder(I’ve done this myself). Sometimes a shot entry that would center-punch the heart on a deer won’t even kill a bear. In fact, last spring I shot a nice black bear boar six or eight inches behind the front shoulder, and the bear expired in about 15 seconds.
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When skinning him, I found a fresh broadhead wound, through the front shoulder and out through the brisket. My bear had clearly been wounded by another hunter, but it had behaved as if nothing were wrong. I’ve seen several bears over the years hit forward or just low in the armpit—which would mean a heart shot on a deer—and it doesn’t even kill them. There will be a heavy bloodtrail for a few hundred yards, then it dissipates into nothing.
The biggest key to aiming at the right place on bears is to understand where their vitals sit and to visualize those vitals at any given shot angle.
Where to Shoot a Bear: Watch Out for Fake News
For as straightforward as understanding black bear anatomy should be, even many of the hunter education diagrams get it wrong. In the popular projector-slide overlay diagrams that International Bowhunter Education Program uses, the vitals of the bear are shown slightly farther forward than they are in real life. One of the most accurate references that I’ve found is a widely-shared photo attributed to Woody Sanford of a necropsied black bear that’s frozen and propped up to show where the vitals actually are. This image has been posted on various forums and websites for nearly 20 years. Although its front leg is slightly back, it gives a good picture of where the heart and lungs sit.
This guide published by the Alaska Dept of Fish and Game also gives a pretty accurate representation of a bear’s anatomy. With the front leg back, you’d want to aim just behind it, but if the bear were standing flat-footed and broadside, the biggest portion of the vitals would be back farther from the shoulder.
Hunting Bears with Archery Equipment
Archery equipment is very effective on bears, and a hunter should be selective on shot angle, aiming for both lungs. From all the bears I’ve seen, double-lung archery shot bears seem to expire even more quickly than rifle-shot bears.
For sharp hardware, I personally prefer cut-on-contact, single-bevel broadheads like the RMS Gear Cutthroat; their three-blade Cutthroat works well, too. Other great options are the Iron Will wide-cut broadheads, and even Magnus Stingers or well-sharpened Zwickeys work wonderfully. Good-quality expandable broadheads work great most of the time too, just make sure to shoot the bear in the ribs and avoid heavy bone.
Hunting Bears with a Gun
A rifle can offer more forgiveness to a bear hunter, but don’t expect to anchor a bear on the spot. Many medium-sized deer calibers are excellent for black bears, and if you know where to shoot a bear, you won’t have any issues.
Bonded or monolithic bullets can penetrate bone and allow rifles to reach the vitals from more shot angles than an arrow might, but it’s always prudent to wait for a clean double-lung shot. If you’re hunting bears with a handgun, you should be as selective as you would be with archery equipment.
The Mental Game of Making a Good Shot on Bears
Most hunters are familiar with the term “buck fever,” and probably have experienced it at some point. Well, it certainly exists with bears—and can be even worse. Bears often invoke a surge of adrenaline like no other animal. I’ve been fortunate to kill many black bears over the years, but my heart still starts pounding when one appears out of the woods. It’s one of the things that draws me to bear hunting, but it can also be a huge obstacle for accurate shooting.
The bear shakes have gotten the best of many hunters. Many shots have been flubbed, and sometimes a hunter can’t even draw their bow. I’ve seen videos of hunters become emotional wrecks in the presence of a bear, sometimes shaking uncontrollably or even crying.
This video is a great example of nerves on the first shot producing a clean miss, then a perfectly-placed second shot.
If you’re a first-time bear hunter, don’t let this scare you. Just be aware that you will need to have a plan for controlling your motor functions during that surge of adrenaline. I find that deep, slow breathing helps. Patience is also key. Usually, I don’t have to be in a rush to push a shot at the first opportunity.
Have a specific process that you follow when executing each shot and focus on that process, not the bear’s presence. Your brain will be wanting to get rid of the arrow as quickly as possible, and sometimes simply getting your sight picture onto the bear will cause you to punch the trigger or let go of the string. This usually means poor results. If you develop a specific shot process and follow it when a bear is in front of you, you will shoot more accurately.
Recovering Your Bear
Bears have a reputation for being tough to recover for several reasons. Their blood trails tend to be minuscule, they tend to lie very flat to the ground, and without antlers or hooves, they can move through the underbrush more quietly than most ungulates.
Bears tend to leave significantly less-substantial blood trails than other game animals, mostly because of their physiology. Some bear hunters will tell you it’s their thick hair that absorbs the blood, or fat that clogs the wound. I’ve noticed that the subcutaneous tissues often move around and cover up the wound beneath the skin. Even when skinning, a big broadhead cut generally doesn’t create a gaping hole, and you have to dig around to find it.
The most important thing you can do after shooting a bear is simple: Take careful note of where your shot impacted and the angle. Resist the urge to do anything other than watch and listen. If it’s quiet and you’ve made a good double-lung shot, the bear will usually be lying dead in the last place you heard him. Sometimes you’ll be able to see the bear’s last movements before its loses its feet.
I never count on being able to find blood. Last year I shot three black bears, and only one left any blood trail at all. Using a wide-cutting, scary-sharp broadhead does often improve blood trails, but even with a three-blade broadhead and an exit, you might not get anything. I was able to quickly find all three bears based on where I last saw and heard them.
Bears can be particularly difficult to find—even when you’re right on top of them. If there’s thick underbrush or even tall grass in uneven terrain, they can practically disappear. When they die, bears tend to melt to the ground, and if they fall in a depression, you may have to walk right on top of them to find them. Keep this in mind and trust your gut and observations. If you made a good shot and a good estimate of where you last heard the bear, take your time and be thorough. If you heard a death moan, keep in mind that they often sound farther away than they really are.
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There’s no set time-limit for waiting to look for your bear, and if I hear lung sounds or a death moan, I’ll usually go look for them within 15 or 20 minutes of the shot. If your shot is less-than-ideal or you’re unsure, you may need to either wait or pursue them immediately. For questionable shots that are back further—think liver or guts—you absolutely need to wait. The bear usually won’t go far before bedding down, but it will take time to expire. I’ve encountered a couple bears over the years that I bumped because they were still alive a few hours after being shot. Waiting overnight, if possible, is usually a good call. If you hit a bear too far forward, however, or in the spine, your only chance of recovery is usually to pursue them immediately and either run them up a tree or get another shot.
Bears present their own unique challenges for archery hunters, but if you know where to shoot a bear, you can kill them quickly and ethically with a rifle, bow, or handgun.