Tyler Freel has spent more time around big, Alaskan brown bears than most outdoorsmen would ever hope to (or want to). Of course, he chooses his guns for bear hunting and defense very carefully. It all comes down to a matter of opinion, but you can’t go wrong with his nine picks. The gallery includes handguns, shotguns, and rifles.
1. Ruger Hawkeye Alaskan (.375 Ruger)
Ruger rifles are well known for dependability, and the Hawkeye and Hawkeye Alaskan, with their controlled-feed actions, are no exception. I have an Alaskan in .375 Ruger, and it is an ideal brown bear rifle. With a shorter case than a .375 H&H and the ballistics of a .375 Ackley, it packs a lot of punch into a standard long action. The Alaskan also has a set of iron express sights, which are a must–especially for defense.
2. Winchester Model 70 Alaskan (.375 H&H)
There’s hardly a more recognizable rifle than the Winchester M70, and the Alaskan model takes this legendary name to another level. With its controlled-feed action, you can depend on it not jamming up when the adrenaline starts pumping. The stainless finish, iron sights, and wide range of heavy-hitting calibers make it every bit as formidable as a guide’s backup rifle or as a hunting rifle.
2. Marlin 1895 (.450 Marlin)
One of my favorites, and a big favorite for many Alaskans, is the Marlin 1895 lever gun. The two most popular flavors are the .45-70 and .450 Marlin cartridges, both of which are devastating inside 100 yards. My uncle carried a .45-70 when he guided brown bear hunters, and several times stopped charging bears with it at close range. The shorter barreled versions are very quick and handy in tight spots, and the lever action is hard to beat for speed. All around, an excellent choice for close range, but it’s not ideal for most hunting situations.
3. Remington Model 700 (.375)
Although it does not feature a controlled-feed action, the time-tested Remington M700 is a great choice for brown bears. I have never had one fail to feed, and you can get them in nearly any shoulder-thumping cartridge that you desire. That being said, I prefer the controlled-feed actions for backup/defense guns (this is for my own comfort, if nothing else). I shot my brown bear this year with a 700 in .375 Ackley, and he sure couldn’t argue with it. It’s one of the best hunting rifles ever made!
4. Remington 870 (12 gauge)
A 12-gauge shotgun is one of the most effective close-range bear guns. There are quite a few semi-autos that are typically reliable, but in the field they can be very finnicky at the worst times. You can’t go wrong with a pump, though, and the 870 is my favorite. With a shorter barrel and either slugs or 00 buck, it will pack a huge punch if a bear is close and coming hard. The biggest advantage of the shotgun, especially with buckshot, is that it’s much faster and more forgiving than a rifle when you’re trying to get lead into a moving bear. This is probably the best bear defense gun you can have.
5. Taurus Tracker (.357)
You will get some funny looks if you tell people you use a .357 for bear protection, but for most outdoorsmen it’s actually a great option. The idea being that handgun bullets (even larger handguns’ bullets) carry very minimal ballistic energy, so they are more or less just punching holes. I think that it’s much better to use a handgun that you can shoot very quickly and accurately, but will still deliver fatal penetration. The .357 loaded with high-velocity solids will do the trick, and the Taurus Tracker I have fits all of my criteria. It is dependable and very ergonomically comfortable, and with a ported barrel the recoil is mild, so follow-up shots come quick. This makes it an ideal sidearm for bear country.
6. Glock 20 (10mm)
On the autoloader side of things, my favorite handgun is the Glock 20. The 10mm is one of the better auto cartridges in terms of velocity, and with a good mid-weight bullet, you’ll get better penetration than with cartridges such as the 9mm, 40 S&W, and .45 ACP. The Glock is a very shootable pistol, and with some practice it can be extremely fast on follow-up shots. It’s also one of the most dependable handguns on the market. Although it doesn’t pack the punch of a .454 Casull, it is much faster, and the average person can become very proficient with it without wrist braces. You’re much more likely to get bullets into a charging bear with a Glock than with a huge revolver.
7. Ruger Super Redhawk
Although I favor more shootable cartridges, the Ruger Super Redhawk is a great back-up gun if you can shoot it well. These revolvers are very dependable and rugged, and a hot-loaded .44 or .454 put in the right place will certainly make an angry charging bear change his mind. The Super Redhawk is one of the most popular sidearms in the Alaskan wilderness for good reason.
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8. Smith & Wesson 500
Although I consider it too big and bulky for normal bear defense purposes, the Smith & Wesson 500 would be probably the only handgun I would consider hunting brown bears with (if you have such a desire). The cartridge is HUGE and carries a lot of energy, and if you’re going to hunt bears with a handgun, bigger is better. Even this beast doesn’t carry the shock that a .375 does, so shot placement is critical, but it will still get the job done.
How to Modify a Handgun to Stop a Grizzly Bear
There’s nothing new about the quest for a good bear-country sidearm, and what we’re carrying is evolving. Giant revolvers, though still popular, are somewhat antiquated. The Glock 20 is rapidly becoming the preferred arm of choice, and for good reason. It is more streamlined, more shootable, and it carries more ammo than a revolver, yet it is still dependable and powerful. My pal Andrew Brady of Lone Star Armory showed me a few tricks to improve a stock Glock.
Replace the Sights
Chances are an encounter with a bear that requires using a pistol will happen very fast. You may not even have time to aim, but any edge you can give yourself helps. XS Sight Systems makes by far the fastest-acquiring sights that I have used. In particular, I recommend its Big Dot express sights ($125).
Swap the Barrel and Recoil Assembly
A quality aftermarket barrel ($140) will increase accuracy. The new barrel, along with a guide rod and recoil spring ($40), can be easily swapped out while your pistol is field stripped.
Modify the Grip
The grip angle on Glocks is a big turnoff to some shooters. Their relatively “steep” angle gives a shooter the feeling of awkwardly having to point the pistol down, compared to a 1911, in order to level the sights. We outlined the steps to change the grip angle below. Grinding on a new pistol might feel counterintuitive, but you end up with a better-shooting gun.
How to Modify the Grip Angle
- Strip the pistol down to the frame and use masking tape to cover all surfaces of the handle and magazine well.
- Scratch up the surfaces in the void in the handle behind the magazine well and fill it with Brownell’s Acraglas bedding compound. I prefer the runnier red-box mixture to fill this space.
- After letting the compound harden, carefully sand the bump on the back of the grip until it is flush with the rest of the grip or until it is most comfortable for you. A small vertical belt sander works best for this. Be careful how much plastic you take off. When the back is ground down to a straight, flush grip, there will be very little plastic left in the middle of the handle. (This is why you fill the space with the bedding compound—as reinforcement.)
- Deal with the finger grooves on the front of the grip. The grooves are more aesthetic than practical, as they actually inhibit a proper tight grip. Use the belt sander and/or a sanding drum on a Dremel to carefully grind the bumps down flush with the rest of the handle.
- The last bit of grinding you need to do is on the underside of the trigger guard. Use a sanding drum in a Dremel to slightly sand out some of the plastic where the trigger guard meets the handle. This allows your hand to ride up slightly higher on the gun, giving you a more stable shooting platform and faster recovery from recoil.
- For the final treatment, you need a hobby wood-burning iron with a chisel-type tip. With the iron heated, carefully press the tip into the plastic of the handle repeatedly to cover it with stipples. Be careful not to push too deep through the plastic. It helps to practice on a toy gun to get the feel of it, but the plastic of a toy gun is much softer, so if you get that down, you’re ready for the real thing. Stippling provides a superb grip on the pistol, even in wet conditions.