June 20, 2018
In 1988 I came home from Alaska after a close encounter with a brown bear on Montague Island. It ended badly for the bear, but it could well have ended badly for me. A month later, in an almost identical situation, a big bear killed a hunter on Baranof Island, and I decided a suitable sidearm might be appropriate for future wanderings in coastal Alaska.
I was discussing this with the proprietor of my favorite gunshop, who was a pal of mine, when another customer chimed in from down the counter.
"What you need," he loudly opined, "is a Desert Eagle! Get a couple of spare mags and a chest holster. Handle anything that walks."
He turned back to perusing the shop's stock of ammunition while his girlfriend (there's always a girlfriend) gazed in admiration. Pat and I returned to discussing my problem, which our uninvited interlocutor had somehow not solved for us.
The Desert Eagle is a massive semiautomatic pistol that's been chambered for the .44 Magnum, the .41 Magnum, the .357 Magnum, and the .50 AE. It is the size of a small carbine and weighs 4.5 pounds. As for carrying one in a chest holster, the very suggestion showed that this guy had probably never been outside the city limits, much less carried a gun in the bush on a day-to-day basis.
The world is full of well-meaning advice, but a lot of it is grounded in what somebody dreamt up in theory or saw on the Internet. Meaning it is worse than worthless — and may even be dangerous.
Here's the problem as I saw it. In Alaska, I would always be carrying a rifle if I was in bear country, but there are occasions when a rifle is not in your hands. Even when it is, it is not always the best tool in a really close, unexpected encounter. For one thing, it takes two hands to operate and you may not have both hands free.
What's needed is a handgun that will be on your belt every waking moment, no matter what you're doing. Walking down to the creek for a bucket of water, going off behind a bush for some philosophical reflection - whatever you do, it will be within reach. Deer hunting one time, I leaned my rifle against a tree and stepped a few yards away for a quiet moment, when out burst a deer running at full speed. Where was my rifle? Ten feet away. I can still hear those drumming hooves.
In the end, for Alaska, I bought a Smith & Wesson Model 29 Mountain Gun (the original) in brushed stainless with a 4.0-inch barrel, got a Bianchi hip holster, shot two seasons of IPSC with it to get used to drawing and firing quickly at close range, and even took to wearing it around my office while I worked, just to accustom myself to the weight.
A few years after that, I spent some months in South Africa, where I wore a handgun on my belt from dawn to dusk. That was a different type of dangerous game, but the principles were the same.
The problem with the Desert Eagle in a chest holster is that it is obtrusive, awkward, gets in the way, and, worst of all, might not be in place when you need it. All that harness, all those straps, combined with the clothes you need in Alaska, with jackets and rain gear and what not, putting it on, taking it off. To say nothing of a backpack. Give me a nice six-shot .44 revolver, riding quietly on my hip.