Sunday, August 9, 2020

Best Handguns for Bear Country

Best 6 Handguns for Bear Country

Another great article from Cheaper than Dirt, a great source for your shooting needs.

Before I get into what guns are great for bear country, we really need to discuss the competing ideas of what is important in that arena. There are two main camps.

  • The first is, carry a huge cannon that will do massive damage. Those who are in this camp believe that a bear encounter usually happens at very short range. This means you get one, maybe two shots and they need to count. For these people, a large-bore revolver is usually the “best” option.
  • The other camp believes the best choice is to carry a bear gun that you can get off many rounds with quickly and accurately. Their theory is that you should use a gun you are comfortable with and that many entry wounds do more damage than any single massive wound. This mindset tends to come from the idea that many people freeze up when they utilize a firearm with a non-practiced manual of arms.

Both groups have anecdotal “evidence” to support their concepts and they also have some truth in each argument.

I will state categorically there are choices that are not the way to bet. I am not limiting that to very under powered rounds like .22 LR and .25 ACP.

Even the ubiquitous 9mm Luger is not a good choice, especially when using hollow-point rounds.

What works and penetrates well in a thin-skinned human will not do nearly the job on a much thicker-hided bear, with much thicker bones and a much deeper vital zone.

If you do choose to run a 9mm in bear country, at least choose heavy for caliber, truncated cone/wide meplat hard-cast projectiles.

However, these projectiles are still too narrow for massive damage and still unlikely to penetrate the 18+ inches to reach the vitals of a bear.

They do have much more potential to shatter bone and they will retain their entire weight while tumbling. This creates more damage potential than a JHP, JSP or FMJ projectile.

Underwood .460 S&W Ammo
Underwood makes extremely powerful .460 S&W ammunition that is great for use in your bear gun.

Large-Bore Revolvers:

1. Smith And Wesson 460V

Smith and Wesson call this pistol the most versatile large-bore revolver, and there is a lot of truth in that statement. The five-inch gain-twist barrel provides for an excellent trade-off between velocity and handiness.

The cylinder can be used for .460 S&W, .454 Casull or .45 Colt rounds. By having these three options available, the cost to practice is much lower, which translates to a much more refined manual of arms for the shooter.

The .45 Colt rounds are much (over 50%) lower in recoil, which also aids in practice. Running 100 rounds of .45 Colt in a day is a very doable and fun thing, as well as being perfectly serviceable for lesser threats.

The .454 Casull is a marked step up and is vastly superior in stopping power to the older choice, .44 Magnum. For the ultimate in stopping power from this platform, the .460 is yet another quantitative step up.

It does, however, come with significant recoil and muzzle blast penalty, even in comparison to the .454 Casull.

The standard-pressure .45 Colt recoil will feel like a .380 ACP from a full-sized gun due to the size and weight of this revolver.

Ported barrel for recoil reduction, 61 oz. weight unloaded, five-round capacity, stainless frame and cylinder.

JR Note:  S&W is top quality, and this is a versatile gun that is on my wish list.


2. Ruger Super Redhawk – .454 Casull

This Ruger revolver is a tank of a firearm, so much so that there are higher-pressure loads that are only safe to shoot in it. I also like this revolver in the five-inch variant for the same reason as with the Smith.

It is a good mix of utilizing the gunpowder and being handy. This also has the option of using .45 Colt rounds and even the high-pressure option listed in the chart below.

Although, not up to .454 Casull statistics, it is a significant uptick from standard .45 Colt loadings.

The standard-pressure .45 Colt loading will recoil like a soft to moderate 9mm from a full-sized GLOCK.

Non-ported, 47 oz. weight unloaded, six-round capacity, stainless frame and cylinder.

Ruger Super Redhawk bear gun
The Ruger Super Redhawk is an incredibly powerful bear country gun.

3. Taurus Raging Judge – .454 Casull

The Taurus is usually a significantly lower-priced option for similar capability. The Raging Judge is capable of running standard .45 Colt rounds, as well as .454 Casull.

They offer five-inch and 6.5-inch options, which are fairly handy for anti-bear usage. Both have top relief porting to help fight muzzle rise and mitigate recoil.

Similarly to the Ruger, .45 Colt rounds will feel like a moderate loading of 9mm from a full-sized GLOCK or M&P.

Ported, 51 oz. (five-inch) or 53 oz. (6.5-inch) unloaded, five-round capacity, stainless frame and cylinder.


JR Note:  I personally don't care for Taurus brand guns but S&W, Ruger & Glock are some of my favorite brands.

4. Smith And Wesson Model 29 – .44 Magnum

This Smith comes in tons of variations as it has a 50+ year production history. My choices for barrel length would be five, six or 6.5 inches.

These lengths use up a significant percentage of the powder and are still fairly quick to access with the correct holster.

By dropping down to a .44 magnum, you are certainly giving up some power, but you are gaining a fair amount of controllability and (in most cases) an extra round.

Like the more powerful rounds mentioned above, bullet construction is very important. Using a JHP or a JSP very much defeats the purpose of deep penetration and the ability to crush thick bones.

This is a classic bear gun and is sure to get the job done.

Ported or non-ported, depending on the barrel +/- 45 oz, six-round capacity, stainless frame and cylinder.

CaliberProjectile WeightVelocityMuzzle Energy
.45 Colt225-Grain HC960 fps460 ft/lbs
.45 Colt255-Grain HC860 fps410 ft/lbs
.45 Colt300-Grain HCGC1250 fps1090 ft/lbs
.44 Magnum270-Grain LFNGC1475 fps1160 ft/lbs
.44 Magnum340-Grain HC-FN1425 fps1530 ft/lbs
.454 Casull300-Grain WFNGC1650 fps1820 ft/lbs
.454 Casull335-Grain WFNGC1600 fps1920 ft/lbs
.454 Casull360-Grain WFNGC1500 fps1800 ft/lbs
.454 Casull400-Grain WFNGC1400 fps1740 ft/lbs
.460 S&W260-Grain FNHC2000 fps2300 ft/lbs
.460 S&W300-Grain FNHC2060 fps2820 ft/lbs
.460 S&W360-Grain FNHC1900 fps2860 ft/lbs

Semi-Auto Pistols:

Please note there is a huge step down in power when you chose to carry a semi-auto for your bear gun. There is also a huge step up in capacity.

I live solidly in the camp that you will (at best) get off two to three rounds in a bear encounter, but there is something to be said for not having to buy a bear gun that costs +$1200.

A gun, that (if we are honest) doesn’t have a lot of use outside of bear country or bragging rights. With that in mind, here are the two best (common) choices.

Also note there are a lot more options and I am picking ones to highlight that are fairly common.

5. GLOCK 20/40 MOS

These are very similar guns. The GLOCK 40 is the long-slide 10mm Auto option and an optic option, where the 20 is the full/duty-sized firearm.

I greatly prefer the longer slide of the 40. The 6.02-inch barrel provides a bit more velocity as well as helping to mitigate recoil slightly better.

That extra 1.41 inches of barrel does make it a tad slower to draw, but let’s face it, I like almost anything in a long slide. Having an optic on the 40 is also a great thing.

Most people are much faster acquiring the dot compared to aligning sights, especially in a panic situation.

That might mean the difference between two and three shots, or proper placement of the first shot. This is a great choice for a semi-auto bear gun.

Yes, GLOCK also offers a 29 (subcompact 10mm). It is a tough gun for most people to shoot and that just isn’t an additional handicap you want when facing an angry bear.

Non-ported, 30.69 oz. (G20) or 35.45 oz. (G40) mag out, 15 + 1 capacity, polymer frame and steel slide.

GLOCK 20 and 1911 Bear Gun Pistols - bear country
The GLOCK 20 and 1911 both make for a great semi-automatic option for bear country.

6. .460 Rowland Conversions

GLOCK 21, 1911 with a Five-Inch or Six-Inch Slide, or a Springfield XDM – All with a .460 Rowland Conversion

These conversions are for a round that ups the pressure of .45 ACP from under 20k PSI, to roughly 40k psi. Using the 255-grain hard-cast bullet, it generates roughly 50% more velocity and double the energy of the venerable .45 ACP.

With just under 1000 ft/lbs of energy from five-inch barrels, you are closely approaching .44 magnum energy. Running a six-inch barrel will get you about 50-100 more ft/lbs of energy.

The GLOCK and Springfield offer more than double the capacity (13+1 and 14+1) of any .44 Magnum revolver, and the 1911 with an aftermarket mag offers 50% more capacity.

CaliberProjectile WeightVelocityMuzzle Energy
10mm Auto200-Grain WFNGC1300 fps735 ft/lbs
10mm Auto230-Grain WFNGC1120 fps641 ft/lbs
.460 Rowland255-Grain HC-FN1300 fps960 ft/lbs

Not 9mm, but If You Do…

If you are going to insist on carrying your GLOCK, Smith, H&K… 9mm Luger in bear country, please do so with heavy for caliber projectiles, perhaps Seismic Ammunition.

Seismic offers a 185-grain 9mm round. This has a lot more mass behind it and will have a much better chance of shattering tough bear bones and continuing to penetrate.

CaliberProjectile WeightVelocityMuzzle Energy
9mm Luger124-Grain HC1125 fps330 ft/lbs
9mm Luger147-Grain HC975 fps310 ft/lbs
9mm Luger185-Grain Seismic950 fps380 ft/lbs

Remember although the 124-grain bullet’s velocity gives it higher energy than the 147-grain bullet, that advantage dissipates quickly when pushing through dense tissue.

In most cases, the 147-grain bullet will shatter bones better and penetrate deeper. The 185-grain bullet should penetrate almost as well a 147-grain HC despite being designed to expand.

The extra 38 grains of weight will tend to balance the inertia vs. the expansion drag and provide a wider wound path. The 380 ft./lbs. does not even equate to .45 Colt loadings, but this might be the best choice if you choose to be under-gunned.

Conclusion: Best Bear Country Guns

Bear country encounters are much like concealed carry encounters. The need for your firearm is exceedingly rare, but when you need it, you need it RIGHT NOW and you need it to stop the threat.

In my opinion, carrying a 9mm in the bear woods is pretty close to carrying a .22 LR for self-defense. Yes, it is better than nothing, but it really is more about feeling good than being properly prepared.

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