Most hunters, hikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts are well aware of how difficult it can be to defend yourself against a bear. They are massive, strong, and notoriously aggressive. So, when you’re out in the field and a bear is bearing down on you, can a handgun really stop it?
Yes, a handgun can stop a bear under the right circumstances. You’ll need an exceptionally powerful firearm paired with hard cast bullets for maximum penetration. This task will also require perfect accuracy under duress and no small amount of luck.
In this article, we are going to discuss the ideal combination of handgun and cartridges to stop a bear as quickly and humanely as possible. As you read, you’ll also learn how, statistically, you might want to reach for your handgun as a last resort, not a first line of defense.
Which Handguns and Cartridges Will Stop a Bear?
Halting a bear in its tracks with a handgun is no small feat. If you’re going to rely on this weapon as a source of defense, or even attack if you’re a bear hunter, then you’re going to want to make sure you’ve chosen the right tools for the job.
Stopping a bear with a handgun really comes down to the caliber you’re using. You need something that is going to generate enough penetration to punch through a significant amount of muscle and bone to reach the bear’s vital organs. This is almost guaranteed with hard cast bullets.
There is a great deal of debate on which cartridge is best here. Some hunters and gun enthusiasts claim that a .357 magnum and 10mm will be sufficient, while others refuse to recommend anything lower than .454 or .500.
Ultimately, most seem to agree that a .44 magnum is the minimum power you want to be packing against a bear, but we fully support going beyond the “minimum” in a situation like this.
As far as handgun models are concerned, some favored options for bear defense include:
- Glock G20
- Springfield XD-M Elite 3.8-inch Compact OSP
- Smith & Wesson M&P 2.0
- Sig Sauer P320 XTen
- Colt Python 3-inch
- Smith & Wesson Model 629
- Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan
Probably the most important tip we can provide is that you need to train regularly with whatever combination you intend to use to ensure you’re going to be as accurate as possible when the time comes.
Here’s a good video from someone with real life experience:
Can You Stop a Bear With a 9mm?
We understand how much gun enthusiasts love the reduced recoil and increase accuracy of the classic 9mm round. This is an exceptional bang-for-you-buck option to use on range or for self-defense at home…as long as you aren’t defending yourself from a bear.
A 9mm round isn’t going to cut it against a bear. This cartridge simply isn’t powerful enough to recommend over the options previously listed.
Many hunters and gun enthusiasts like to argue that it’s enough to put down a black bear and might stop a grizzly bear, but in an instance like this, we don’t think it’s wise to take your chances and use an underpowered cartridge.
Will a Handgun Scare a Bear?
What if your intentions aren’t to kill the bear, but rather, use your handgun as a method to scare it off?
Afterall, a common method for deterring bears is to make plenty of noise while you’re on the trail, and a gunshot will be significantly louder than any shouting.
Firing a warning shot with your handgun will most likely be ineffective against a bear. This is largely because you never want to intentionally scare them.
The point of making noise while in bear territory is to give the animal plenty of time to register your presence and move away. Firing a warning round once you see a bear is only going to frighten it an increase the odds if it reacting to you aggressively.
Furthermore, once a bear starts to charge at you, a warning shot will do nothing. When these animals lock on to you, very little is going to deter it.
Even if you manage to shoot the bear while it charges, the more likely result is that you’re going to make it more aggressive rather than scare it off (unless you’ve managed to take it down with that shot).
Is a Handgun a Good Form of Bear Defense?
We’ve now tackled the question of if you can stop a bear with a handgun and how. We’re now going to move into the question of should you stop a bear with a handgun, or any firearm for that reason.
Firearms are not the ideal first choice of defense against a bear. Research has shown that statistically, bear spray is a more effective method to stop bears and reduces the odds and severity of injuries.
A 20-year study published by the Journal of Wildlife Management analyzed the Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska (source: wildlife society) and compared their findings to those of firearms.
They concluded that bear spray was effective in deterring bears at least 90-98% of the time and only 3 individuals of the 175 involved were injured, and this was due to wind affecting the accuracy of the spray.
Comparatively, those who opted for firearms only deterred a bear 2/3rds of the time and this required an average of four shots to achieve.
Why Bear Spray Should Be Your Initial Method of Bear Defense
There are several reasons why bear spray is more efficient at stopping bears and should be your ideal method over firearms.
The first is that individuals who carry bear spray in a chest holder are able to access and engage the tool faster than those attempting to remove a firearm from a hip holster.
Additionally, bear sprays have a much larger radius of influence than a single bullet and require significantly less accuracy to be effective.
When a bear is charging at you at 25-35 miles per hour (source: treehugger.com), every second counts, and it takes a lot less time to aim and pull the trigger on a bear spray canister than a pistol.
There’s also the fact that bear spray is the safer line of defense for you, the bear, and anyone else in the area.
If you’re using a firearm to defend yourself against a bear attack, you’re only option if you want to avoid injury is to shoot to kill. You also need to be extremely accurate, not only to stop the bear, but to ensure you don’t fire a stray bullet that might injure another human or animal nearby.
Handguns are certainly a tempting choice to defend against a bear. They’re much easier to carry than a rifle or shotgun and can provide a sense of comfort that you have a weapon if you’re ever threatened.
As long as you have exceptional aim and are using hard cast bullets in the range of a .44 magnum, .450, or .500, you’ll have a chance. But remember that according to research and statistics, you’re better off whipping out a can of bear spray first.