January 04, 2011
When it comes to bear hunting, having the right equipment is not only important--it is vital.
I am a very fortunate bear hunter. My lucky streak began back in the early 1960s when I took my first bruin in the mountainous Horse Pasture region of South Carolina. In those days I was young and energetic enough to follow hounds through some of the roughest terrain you can imagine, and it paid off. I bagged the biggest bear taken by our group, a huge male that weighed 411 pounds on a local farmer's cotton scale. I used an iron-sighted Marlin Model 336 in .35 Remington, and if I were to hunt black bear with dogs tomorrow, I cannot think of a rifle I would rather take along.
Choosing the proper medicine for black bear depends on the type of hunting on the agenda. When following hounds, I prefer a powerful handgun, one favorite being a Freedom Arms revolver in .454 Casull. The other is a Predator conversion of the Ruger Super Blackhawk in .44 Magnum by Mag-Na-Port.
The .460 S&W Magnum and .500 S&W Magnum calibers would certainly get the job done, as would the .45 Colt if it was handloaded to .44 Mag. performance for a strong revolver like the Ruger Blackhawk.
A friend of mine hunts exclusively with hounds and has taken all of his bears with a Ruger Blackhawk in .41 Magnum; he considers it perfect. Another carried a 1960s-vintage Ruger autoloading carbine in .44 Mag. with practically no finish left on its wood and metal--there's no telling how many bears he killed with it. Another houndsman I knew favored a Remington Model 742 with an 18.5-inch barrel in .30-06.
One thing all those firearms have in common is that they wear open sights for quick, close-range shooting. They are lightweight and compact enough to be slung across the back while using both hands to climb and part brush in extremely steep and rugged country.
Other excellent candidates that spring to mind are the Marlin Model 1894 carbine in .44 Mag., the Marlin 1895 Guide Gun in .45-70 and .450 Marlin, the Ruger Model 96/44 in .44 Mag., and the Puma Model 92 in .44 Mag. or .454 Casull. Although I have yet to get my hands on one, the new Model 89 lever-action carbine from Big Horn Armory in .500 S&W Mag. should also be a great up-close-and-personal bear gun. Actually, a short-barreled 12-gauge pump gun loaded with slugs would not be a bad choice for this type of shooting.
Hunting over bait is for those who enjoy sitting more than walking. Shots seldom exceed much over 25 yards, and while immature bears may show up at any time during the day, the big boys often wait until very little light is left before coming in. For this reason, a scope capable of transmitting lots of light to the eye is much better than open sights.
One of my favorite rigs for this type of hunting is a custom Remington Model Seven with a medium-heavy, 21-inch barrel in .308 Winchester. The 1.5-6X Schmidt & Bender scope it has worn for many years continues to suck up plenty of shooting light long after other hunters have gone home.
Actually, the type of handgun or rifle used for hunting over a barrel full of fish heads and stale donuts is not important, so long as it is chambered for a cartridge powerful enough to drop a bruin on the spot. I have taken two bears over bait with a long-discontinued TCR 83 single-shot rifle wearing a custom barrel from SSK Industries in .45-70 Government. Not once have I experienced a need for more firepower. But a lever-action rifle does offer a quicker follow-up shot, and in that type of rifle the .45-70, .444 Marlin, .308 Marlin Express, .338 Marlin Express, and .450 Marlin are quite good. In bolt guns and autoloaders, the .308 Win. is a good place to start, and for a short-action bolt gun the .338 Federal and the .358 Winchester are fine choices.
Tough bullets like the Hornady
XTP MAG and Swift A-Frame are best for revolver cartridges, shown here with a factory Ruger Blackhawk in .45 Colt and a Predator conversion of the .44 Magnum Ruger Super Blackhawk by Mag-Na-Port.
In handguns, I consider the .44 Mag. to be a good minimum. The .454 Casull is much better, and the .500 S&W Mag. may be a tad better still.
Also, don't overlook a good shotgun with its magazine filled with either the old Foster-style slug loads or one of the more modern sabot slug loads.
Hunting black bear in open country where shots can be long often calls for cartridges with more reach. Best bets in the Marlin lever action are the .308 Marlin Express and .338 Marlin Express; either is plenty of medicine out to 250 yards or so. In bolt actions, autoloaders, pump guns, and the Browning BLR, the .270 Winchester and .280 Remington will kill a black bear as dead as it needs to be killed, but I believe the .30-06 is a bit better than either. From there the sky is the limit on cartridge choice, although I consider the 6.5mm, 7mm, and .300 Magnums to be more than enough for collecting a furry rug as far away as any of us should be shooting. I shot one of my best Vancouver Island bruins at fairly long range with the 6.5mm STW, which was spitting out a Nosler 140-grain Partition at 3,300 fps, and it dropped in its tracks. A friend on that same hunt later used my rifle to bag an equally fine bear, also with a single shot.
But you don't have to have a flat-shooting rifle, especially if you enjoy the challenge of getting close more than shooting from afar. For my most recent hunt on Vancouver Island, I chose a Marlin 3
36 wearing a Marble's tang sight and chambered for the old .38-55 Winchester. I cannot remember having more fun on a bear hunt. The handload I used pushed the Barnes 255-grain Original along at 1,800 fps, and a single shot ended that particular adventure.
Grizzly & Brown Bears
Then we have the grizzly of North America. It lives in the interior, where life can be extremely hard and meals come few and far between. Due to an often-meager diet, its size is usually comparable to that of a very large black bear. But the commonality stops there. Wound a black bear and it will likely run away, but wound a grizzly--and fail to stop it with follow-up shots--and chances are good it will leave unsightly tooth and claw marks all over your body.
Then we have a larger version of the same animal known as the brown bear. From the same family as a grizzly, a brown bear spends its life on the coast where life is easier and salmon are abundant during spring. For this reason, it grows to be much larger than the interior grizzly.
Since I have taken only two brown bears I am no expert, but common sense suggests that the .30-06 is a sensible minimum for interior grizzly, while one of the .300 Magnums is a better choice for its coastal cousin. I took one of my brown bears with a custom rifle in .358 Shooting Times Alaskan, the other with a Remington Model 700 in .300 Ultra Mag. Since the .358 STA is my baby, I would like to say it is more effective on big bears than a .300 Magnum, but truth of the matter is, one killed a bear just as dead and just as quickly as the other.
Due to its heavier bullet, the .358 STA would be my choice for shooting a bear in an alder thicket where the range is measured in feet, but in more open country I had just as soon have one as the other.
This custom Remington Model Seven with a Schmidt & Bender 1.5-6X scope is one of the author's favorite rifles for shooting a black bear over bait.
Soft rifle bullets work okay on small bears, but strongly constructed bullets like these are best for use on the big boys.
The .338 Winchester Magnum and .340 Weatherby Magnum are excellent big bear cartridges, but when all is said and done, the old .375 H&H Magnum may be our best bet for the job. It shoots flat enough, hits extremely hard, generates about all the recoil most hunters can comfortably handle, and if your ammo goes astray before getting there, you are likely to find a few cartridges in about any bear-hunting camp in Alaska. I like the .338 and am even fonder of the .340, but on the really big stuff, I do believe the .375 H&H is a more effective cartridge than either. I have not taken game with the .375 Weatherby Magnum, .375 Ruger, or .375 Remington Ultra Mag. While all should be equally fine brown bear cartridges, the ammo is not as easily found.
Since I believe two brown bears are one more than enough for any hunter, I seriously doubt if I will ever hunt them again, but should I someday change my mind, I will likely use my Weatherby Mark V in .416 Weatherby Magnum loaded with a 400-grain bullet at 2,700 fps. It shoots as flat as the .375 H&H, punches a much bigger hole, and delivers far more energy to boot. I have experienced what it is capable of on African game ranging in size from lion to Cape buffalo, and I am convinced it would leave nothing to be desired on brown bear. That is if you can handle the recoil.
Regardless of whether the species of bear is black or brown, or what cartridge is used, the bullet should be on the heavy side for its caliber and of tough construction. My picks in rifle bullets are the Swift A-Frame, the Partition and E-Tip from Nosler, the Hornady GMX and DGX, the Federal Trophy Bonded Bear Claw and Trophy Bonded Tip, and the TSX and MRX bullets from Barnes. Softer bullets can be used successfully on small bears, but these are better choices for bears exceeding 300 pounds or so in weight. When using revolvers on black bear, I especially like the Swift A-Frame.
Due to the extremely high cost of a hunt for interior grizzly or coastal brown bear today, only a few hunters are fortunate enough to go after them, but the greater numbers and wider distribution of the black bear make it a different story. Each year hundreds are taken on public land by hunters who cannot afford to venture beyond the boundaries of their home state. It is said that we will always have black bear to hunt, just as we will always have whitetail deer. I certainly hope so, because just knowing they are in the woods adds a tremendous amount of excitement to being there. Serious confrontations between humans and black bears are quite rare, but knowing that it has happened and could happen again adds a level of excitement and adventure that would not exist without them.
This Marlin Model 336 in .38-55 Winchester was plenty of gun for one of the most enjoyable hunts the author has taken on Vancouver Island.