In the Land of the Midnight Sun, those who traverse the Last Frontier must choose to carry or not carry, and they must choose wisely.Story and Photos by Larry Case
What are big bear guns that you would carry in Bear country? Here’s the short list with the full story below.
- Remington 870
- Mossberg Scorpion
- Winchester Defender SXP
- Benelli Nova
- .375 H&H
- .375 Ruger
- Mossberg Patriot
- CZ-USA .375 H&H
As I coast into what may be my sunset years, I have come to realize there are two kinds of people in this world. Some of us believe there are things out there that will hurt or kill you, and there are some who do not. A few of the things pretty high on my list include a summer lightning storm, a poisonous snake, a crazed terrorist and an 800-pound bear.
People on the other side of the aisle from me on this topic seem even more convinced that nothing in the animal kingdom would really cause them any harm. I beg to differ. A few summer’s ago, I spent a week with some folks from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (ADNR), United States Geological Survey (USGS), Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG), and others.
The purpose of this visit was to attend a class with those who work in that wild, beautiful part of our country known as Alaska to better protect themselves with firearms, primarily against bears. The class was held at the Grouse Ridge gun range near Wasilla, Alaska, outside Anchorage.
Alaska is popularly known as the Last Frontier, and deservedly so. It has a lot of wild country and, not coincidentally, a lot of bears. In all honesty, when people and bears meet up, it is not all sunshine and roses. The folks who created this class spend a good deal of time working in some of the most remote country on earth, and they know that a possible encounter with a black or brown bear is always part of the bargain.
As I see it, it all comes down to this. Hunters, hikers, fishermen and country has a decision to make, and it is much more important than “paper or plastic.” Are you going to carry a firearm, or not? Alternative “bear deterrent” in the form of pepper spray is also widely available, and the controversy of which is most effective – bear spray or firearms – remains alive and well.
The group of Alaskans that I spent time with a few summer ago landed decidedly on the side of firearms over bear spray. Some carry both, but they definitely want a gun available. As usually occurs in the gun world, if we decide we need a gun for some task, the question always arises. Which gun is best? Here are a few notes based on what I saw and learned on the firing line at the bear defense class in Wasilla.
“THE 12-GAUGE PUMP shotgun has been the choice of most people for bear defense in Alaska for some time,” said Steve Nelson of Anchorage. Nelson has been teaching bear defense classes since 1978, when a USGS coworker was severely mauled by a black bear. “There are many reasons for the shotgun’s popularity. Shotguns and shotgun ammo are widely available, are generally less expensive than rifles, have magazines capable of holding several rounds, and with slugs they will deliver a big, heavy projectile,” he said.
The Remington 870 outnumbered other shotguns in this bear defense class, specifically a tactical version with ghost ring-type sights. This is a quick handling shotgun that holds seven rounds and delivers the 870’s rock solid dependability.
The Mosseberg Scorpion, built on Mossberg’s tried-and-true Model 500 action was also present, and this weapon has a lot of goodies to turn heads. An ATI-brand adjustable stock, along with sidesaddle ammo carrier, heat shield, and rails to install sights and other accessories could make this a very handy bear defense gun.
Also seen on the firing line in this class were two shotguns in the Winchester Defender SXP line, one the Dark Earth model, the other the Marine Defender. A Benelli Nova pump gun was also used, and one thing is for sure: Benelli shooters are very loyal to this shotgun.
EVEN THOUGH SMOOTH BORES came out ahead numerically on the firing line, alternate methods of bullet delivery were also well represented. “Shotguns are very popular for bear defense, but I am more of a rifle guy,” said Nelson. He has hunted big game all over the world, and in Alaska for most of his adult life.
He prefers big calibers for bear work. “Although I recommend anything .30-06 and up, I sometimes carry a .375 H&H or something in that category” he said. The Ruger Guide Gun in .375 Ruger got high marks from those in this class, as well as the Mossberg Patriot in the same caliber.
The CZ-USA turned a lot of students’ heads too, as it is capable of holding six rounds of .375 H&H, a definite advantage if you are going to face a bad-tempered grizzer bear. Many Alaskans who live and work in bear country sometimes want a handgun for ease of carry.
There is always a trade-off, and the one involved with handguns is finding something powerful enough to take down big bears. Having said that, Alaskan guide Phil Shoemaker told us that he used a 9mm pistol to down a large brown bear in Alaska last summer.
The bear charged him and the fishing party he was guiding in dense brush. Some would say this makes a case for using smaller handgun calibers for bear protection, but I would argue that few of us have the experience with brown bears that Phil Shoemaker has. He’s been guiding in these parts for more than 30 years, so unless you are Phil Shoemaker or his equivalent, I would go bigger than the 9mm.
“Large” calibers usually means revolvers, and the most-carried weapon I saw was the Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan model in .454 Casull. Now, there is no doubt that the .454 is a brute, but the point is with this round is, if you are proficient enough to hit something with it, you may very well put it down. Some shooters may want to go down a notch to the .44 Magnum, and the Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan model also comes in this caliber.
The Taurus Raging Bull revolver in .454 was also on the firing line in this class. While the 6½-inch barrel model is a handful, it seemed to handle the .454 Casull rounds well.
THE BEST AMMO in the world may not bring down your aggressor, whether it is of the ursine family or human, but it will certainly help. For the shotgun, this class fired dozens of rounds of Federal Premium shotgun slugs, and I saw no problems with this ammo. They functioned every time. Some of the Alaskans in the class carry Brenneke slugs for confrontations with bears.
A new star on the horizon for slugs is the DDupleks-USA Steelhead solid-steel shotgun slug. This slug should allow for maximum penetration, and the testing done at this class showed the slugs shot through heavy brush with no deflection. You will be hearing more about DDupleks-USA slugs.
Hornady rifle ammo received major kudos at this class for the Dangerous Game Series ammunition in both .375 Ruger and .375 H&H. Federal Premium in the .454 Casull was used on the firing line, as well as a lot .45 Colt in the .454 guns.
So what is the bottom line? OK, I know what you are thinking: Which gun of each type, shotgun, rifle, and handgun came out on top? I prefer to avoid comparisons like these because there are so many variables involved (including shooter’s preference), but
since you are pressing me, here goes.
For the shotgun, the Remington 870 Tactical model came in first with the Mossberg Scorpion way up in the running. The Ruger Guide Gun was first in the rifle category and the Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan model got the blue ribbon for the handgun. So there it is. I hope you are happy.
In conclusion, I will tell you something that most of you already know. There is a world of advice out there about what is gun is best for you for everything from shooting bad guys to prairie dogs. And when it is all over, and the plump lady has sung her song, the best gun for bear defense for you personally is the one you shoot the best, period.
The people who believe in unicorns and Sasquatch – you know, the ones who think no bear would ever hurt you – may not agree with all this, but I certainly do.