Dave Smith on Bear Spray or Firearms for Defense against Bears

Wyoming Bear Attack Glock had No Round in Chamber, Magazine & Pistol Separated
Dave Smith on Bear Spray or Firearms for Defense against Bears

Arizona -(Ammoland.com)- Dave Smith has studied bear behavior and bear attacks extensively. He has written books on how to survive bear encounters and animal attacks.  I have corresponded with Dave Smith. I find Dave to be the most knowledgeable, well read, and capable critic of the current literature.  Dave has worked prodigiously to understand the studies about the effectiveness of bear spray and firearms in stopping bear attacks.

In November of 2017, Dave put a great deal of thought into an exchange of comments at a Wyoming public media site. I contacted Dave, and he agreed to allow me to edit and publish the exchange. I summarized the replies to Dave, as I do not have those authors permissions. You can read the entire exchange at wyoming public media.com.  Here is the edited exchange, with my observations.

First, Dave sets the scene by stating that it is not really about bear spray vs. firearms. Dave says for a surprise attack, it is a choice. You should choose bear spray or a firearm.

Dave Smith:

Instead of pitting bear spray vs firearms, try bear spray or a firearm.

Archers have a choice between bear spray or a handgun.

As the recent incident with a game warden shows, people hunting with a long gun–a rifle or shotgun–must be prepared to use their firearm during a classic surprise encounter with a grizzly.

When field dressing game, a hunter has a choice between bear spray or a handgun.

Hunters should be advised that the 2 studies on bear spray are about non-hunters using bear spray. And bear spray research is primarily about people using bear spray against curious bears, or bears seeking food and garbage. Of 72 incidents in Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska, just 9 involved charging grizzlies, and 3 of 9 people who sprayed charging grizzlies were injured. The injury rate against charging grizzlies is no doubt higher, but the study did not include data on incidents when people who were carrying bear spray did not have time to use it.

There have been 2 studies on guns vs. bears in Alaska. A 1999 study of over 1,000 bears killed in “defense of life or property” from 1987 to 1996 showed that less than 2% of the people who used firearms were injured. A 2012 study of 263 incidents from 1883-2006 showed that 56% of people who used guns were injured.

Bear spray advocates compare the results of the 2012 gun study to the results of the 2008 study and declare bear spray the winner. The authors of the 2012 gun study claimed there were no previous studies on guns vs. bears. If there were more that 1,000 bears killed in defense of life or property by people with guns between 1987 and 1996, how come the 2012 gun study only included 263 incidents between 1883 and 2006?

Did the authors of the 2012 gun study omit hundreds of firearms successes? Did they cherry pick their data? These are questions that need to be asked and answered by biologists with Wyoming Game & Fish, wildlife professionals, and the media.

Commenter #1 notes that the studies and Dave’s numbers are only about Alaska.

Dave Smith replies:

Given that hunters have a rifle in hand (or hands), how can they use bear spray 1st? Some field carries for rifles require 2 hands. Some one-handed field carries for rifles would require a right-handed hunter to reach across the front of his body with his left hand, and attempt to deploy bear spray with one hand–his left hand. I would tell hunters not to try a stunt like that.

Commenter #1 says that technology can overcome the problem with chest holders or similar devices.

Dave Smith replies:

Maybe technology can provide hunters with an extra arm or two. The game warden who recently shot a charging grizzly in self defense noted that he was using a two-handed carry for his rifle.What’s he supposed to do with his rifle if he wants to use bear spray? What basis do you have for saying bear spray works 90% of the time? Does bear spray work 90% of the time against charging grizzlies?

Commenter #2 claims that bear spray is the best deterrent, after a long-winded comment saying we must protect the bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE).

Dave Smith:

What basis do you have for saying bear spray is the best deterrent? To the best of my knowledge, there are no studies that compare bear spray to other deterrents such as air horns or bear bangers. There’s only one study that compares the success rate of guns loaded with non-lethal deterrent rounds to bear spray, and guns proved far more effective.

Commenter #1 asks Dave to consider a link to Yellowstone Park’s bear spray campaign.

Dave Smith:

This isn’t a study, it’s advertising from Yellowstone’s Park’s bear spray campaign. The NPS does claim bear spray is the “best deterrent,” however, the NPS does not provide any data or references to substantiate that claim.

Commenter #1 provides Dave with a link to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee video.

Dave Smith:

Thank you for posting one of the most dishonest, and comical, videos of all time.

There are 6 field carries for rifles, and Boddington is using the “sling” carry. In a 1983 Forest Service paper (Safety in Bear Country: Protective Measures and Bullet Performance at Short Range) Meehan and Thilenius wrote, “Because there is almost no possibility of a slung rifle being brought into action during a short-distance confrontation, rifles carried in bear country should not be permanently equipped with slings. The sling should be mounted on detachable swivels, and should be removed when conditions exist for a possible confrontation.”

So for openers, Boddington is showing hunters the wrong way to carry your rifle while hunting in grizzly country–carrying your rifle on a sling is the same as carrying your bear spray buried in the bottom of your pack.

If you’re stupid enough to carry your rifle on a sling, the standard safety practice is to keep one hand one the sling for control so the rifle does not slip off your shoulder. Boddington lets go of the sling so he has 2 hands free to get the bear spray out of its holster. That’s an incredibly dangerous stunt.

Boddington uses 2 hands when spraying, and tells hunters to use 2 hands when spraying. So Boddington is violating standard firearms safety protocol–twice–in order to use bear spray.

Boddington is a lefty, so he has his rifle slung on his right shoulder and bear spray on his left shoulder strap–which means that when he tries to shoulder his rifle and shoot, the bear spray will be in his way. Is there any possibility this video is a con job?

But wait, it gets better. The 5 other field carries require at least one hand to hold your rifle, and in some cases, 2 hands. Boddington needed 2 hands to get the can of bear spray out of its holster, so that’s not going to work for hunters with a rifle in hand. And Boddington said use 2 hands when spraying, so that’s not going to work for a hunter with a rifle in hand. Is it any wonder bear spray research is about non-hunters using bear spray?

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee’s Bear Spray Video for Hunters featuring Boddington backfired; it is really a perfect demonstration of why it’s not safe or practical for hunters to use bear spray.

Commenter #1 writes that Dave Smith has a closed mind.

Dave Smith replies:

Just for fun, let’s assume we both share a common goal: reducing the number of hunters and hikers injured as a result of surprise encounters at close range with grizzly bears.

My advice to hikers would be:

1) carry bear spray in hand.

2) if a bear is close enough to spray, spray it!!

3) never assume a charging grizzly is making a “bluff charge,” whatever that means.

4) do not use hiking poles because you’ll be dragging them around by the wrist straps when you try to use bear spray after a sudden encounter at close range.

My advice to hunters would be:

a) carry an adequate weapon–a minimum of a .30 caliber rifle loaded with heavy, stout bullets

b) do not carry your rifle on a sling over your shoulder. It takes too long to bring a slung gun into action–you’ll miss shots at deer and elk and you’ll have no time to bring your rifle into action against a charging grizzly.

c.) if you get charged by a grizzly, keep both eyes open and do not “aim” at the bear like you’re shooting at for the x ring at a target range. Focus on the bear. Your eyes are your rear sight, center of mass on the bear is your front sight.

d) In biologist Steve Herrero’s classic book Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, Herrero said you should shoot a charging bear when it gets within 100 feet (33 yards). Given Herrero’s authority, there’s no way you could be charged with needlessly killing a charging bear if you follow his guidelines.

It’s been said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. For decades, hikers who follow agency recommendations–carry bear spray in a quickly accessible hip or chest holster–have been getting nailed by grizzlies because they did not have time to use their spray during a surprise encounter with a bear. For decades, hunters who have surprise encounters with grizzlies have been getting mauled because agencies offer no advice on how to use their rifle quickly and effectively. It’s insane to keep telling hunters to carry bear spray and know how to use it. It’s insane to keep telling hikers to carry bear spray in a quickly accessible hip holster or chest harness. What do you recommend?

Commenter #1 replies that Dave Smith’s arguments end with dead grizzly bears, therefore he must change his mind.

Commenter #3 writes that Dave Smith is using logic and facts.

Dave Smith sums up:

To the best of my knowledge, there’s never been an honest debate or discussion about the use of bear spray and firearms for self-defense in grizzly country. Here are a few questions that need answers:

1) Is “Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska” a misleading title given that the study does not include data about firearms loaded with non-lethal deterrent rounds: rubber slugs, bean bags, shellcrackers, etc? Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska concludes, “We encourage all persons, with or without firearms, to consider carrying a non-lethal deterrent, such as bear spray because its success rate under a variety of situations has been greater for all 3 North American species of bear than those we observed for firearms.”

2) Is it reasonable to compare the results of the 2008 BYU bear spray study to the results of the 2012 BYU gun study? For almost 2 decades, Wyoming Game & Fish and bear spray advocates have told hunters to “carry bear spray and know how to use it.”

3) Can bear spray advocates show hunters how to use bear spray safely and quickly while carrying a rifle with each of the 6 commonly used field carries for long guns?

4) What’s the best way to provide the safety of people with firearms hunting in grizzly country: Tell them to carry bear spray and know how to use it, or show them how to use their rifles quickly and effectively?

In the exchange, there is a difference in priorities. Dave Smith states his is “reducing the number of hunters and hikers injured as a result of surprise encounters at close range with grizzly bears.” 

The implied priority of commenters #1 and #2 is to keep grizzly bears safe and to increase the population of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

If you start with different priorities, you will often arrive at different conclusions.

Bear spray advocates have stated a high priority for them is to prevent bear deaths. If preventing bear deaths is a high priority, the promotion of bear spray over firearms makes perfect sense.

Bear spray is useful, especially for people who do not wish to carry firearms, or in areas (such as much of the world outside the United States) where the carry of firearms is severely restricted by law.  But, as Dave Smith states, there has not been any serious academic work that compares the effectiveness of bear spray to firearms.

In the “Efficacy” studies, the data has not been released. Dave Smith dug deeply to find the little we know. We know different criteria were used to pick the incidents used in the studies. We know the firearms study focused on aggressive bears, while the bear spray study did not.

Dave Smith’s critiques of the Efficacy studies have been ignored by the same media that uncritically promote the use of bear spray over firearms as a defensive tool.

About Dean Weingarten:Dean Weingarten

Dean Weingarten has been a peace officer, a military officer, was on the University of Wisconsin Pistol Team for four years, and was first certified to teach firearms safety in 1973. He taught the Arizona concealed carry course for fifteen years until the goal of constitutional carry was attained. He has degrees in meteorology and mining engineering, and recently retired from the Department of Defense after a 30 year career in Army Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation.

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Chuck Bartlbaugh / Be Bear Aware Campaign

I would like to compliment both of you for the in depth review you have done about bear spray and some of the controversies surrounding whether it does or doesn’t work. It’s not a question of whether you should use bear spray or a firearm for protection in bear country: the question is whether if you are qualified to use a firearm, carry both bear spray and a firearm. If you’re not trained in the use of a firearm, PLEASE do not think that just buying a high caliber firearm will protect you from a bear. One of the reasons… Read more »

Jac Bakke

Boy the experts come out of the wood work don’t they?

Steven, Wasilla, Alaska

Bear attacks are rare. The bear that kills or malls you are the ones you never see or hear. The issue of bear spray. Spray is not going to stop the bear from attacking or killing you. It’s better than nothing, but a very poor system for your continued survival in a bear encounter. The reason I say this is from my experience in Law Enforcement (LE), and from living here in Alaska since 1999. The LE training they give you at academy with people spray is they get within a few feet of your face and spray you in… Read more »


I find your comments flawed. As one example – it is actually guns that give a hyped sense of security in a bear encounter. Also, related to the wind in your face scenario, a gun can jam or misfire and you can miss- so there are no perfect solutions. By the way, bear spray has been proven to be effective on mountain lions and other creatures (such as Trump supporters) – few trail runners or bike riders are going to carry a gun , or at least shouldn’t.


An air horn for boating over spray.of course ,appropriate firearm,and knife or machete last resort.


I’ve had the opportunity to test an air horn in a close encounter with a large black bear. It did absolutely nothing to deter the bear. I’ll stick to spray.


Without the gun, you’re not on the top of the food chain. If I was in the bush, I’ll take the gun thanks. There will always be people who think animals are more precious than their own/others lives. Those people will be the food.

Retired Surfer

I do not hunt, but I do fish for trout. Fishing for trout requires stealth, quietness, stalking and keeping a close-to-ground low profile to not spook the fish, even making sure my footfalls don’t raise awareness of my presence nearing the water’s edge. Unfortunately this also puts me in close and uptight in the same proximal scare zone with bears. I carry two fishing poles in my left hand and wear a backpack with additional fishing gear (spare line, spools, lures, dry socks, toilet paper, snacks, Gatorade, etc.) strapped on, tupically over a goosedown camo vest. On my left hip… Read more »


I didn’t know about the Alaska State Troopers, but the Danish Sled Patrol, which patrols the wilds of Greenland in pairs, traveling by dog sled, far from any outside support for weeks at a time, has also been carrying 10mm Glocks for years. They chose them as secondary weapons largely because of the Polar Bear threat. They have recorded only 1 or 2 kills with them, but they have not yet failed to stop a bear attack.

BillyBob Texas

I’ve always wondered how you have to be really accurate to get off your ONE shot at a charging griz, while you, yourself, is in hyper-survival mode with adrenalin gushing into your bloodstream and your feet wanting to go FAST in the opposite direction. I’d guess within 50 feet or so, you won’t get another chance with your bolt action rifle….? I’d think dropping the rifle and grabbing Clint Eastwood’s Most Powerful Handgun In The World might be a better choice for getting multiple rounds off?


So the solution to violent criminals is a can of spray because they need to be protected?


I spent 13 months in the highest concentration of brown bears in the world. In the borough there were 2,200 people and 23,000 brown bears, yes that’s 23k. The brown bears are technically a Grizzly that is 1.5 times the size of a normal Grizzly in the lower 48. We had a joke because all the tourists wore bells and carried 1 to 2 % pepper. You could always find the missing tourist because of the bear poop smelled like pepper and it had bells in it. It is a good idea to make noise if you are in the… Read more »

Wild Bill

, Hmmm … maybe you should have … cleaned the fish!




Having extensive experience and training with spray and firearms. I have always said that spray is was a poor 2nd choice for stopping serious attacks on ones person. doesn’t matter if it is a two legged predator or a 4 legged predator. When it comes to a deadly force situation spray is a poor choice. Does it have it uses yes it is a good harassment tool when backed up by lethal force. When I am camping in bear country we have both in camp. Why because killing a bear in self-defense can be a hassle in the legal arena.… Read more »

Scott High

Most knowledgeable outdoorsmen will probably carry whatever deterrent they feel capable of using that they are confident will provide the desired results. Situational awareness is still critical whether you are on a city street or deep in the woods. Mother Nature can serve up any number of life-threatening surprises at a moment’s notice. For me it was a mother moose with two calves that appeared out of nowhere (and with no sound) just 15 feet in front of me. Freezing was the best immediate solution quickly followed up by drawing a Ruger Redhawk .44 from my shoulder holster. Those were… Read more »


Interesing article but I am not sure why it was written. My take away is that Dave Smith is a bear knowledgeable guy. He might be the best prepared person on the planet if attacked by a grizzly. At the least he could argue gas versus gun statistics with it. The advice to the common person who is going to be in a possible bear situation is to carry both gas and a gun. Always be prepared to act fast. In the event of an actual attack, throw the gas can at the bear and shoot yoursslf with the gun.… Read more »

dana knox

There are too many variables to say one thing is better than the next. It just depends on the circumstances and the users ability to handle firearms. Certainly during hunting season a firearm is the better choice but it’s no guaranty of your safety. Grizzly or Brown Bears have been mortally wounded by high powered rifles many times but have gone on to seriously maul or kill the hunter if not hit directly in the CNS or weight bearing bone. Hikers, runners, mountain bikers all have a choice and most would not want to lug around a high powered rifle… Read more »


You don’t know any women who can handle a .44?

I know a few. Granted, one farm girl, another was awarded the Bronze Star as an Apache pilot in Iraq, and another is a competitive shooter, but still…

Whether rifle, shotgun, or handgun, choosing the tight type of bullet / slug matters. Needs to be able to penetrate and break heavy bone.

George Murphy

I know a few who can outshoot Most of the experienced guys. I’ve been in Alaska 50 years and there are a few women that I would trust totally to back me up without a second thought. There are a lot of women in Alaska who are highly trained with rifles, shotguns and pistols!