Government View of Bear Spray vs Firearms for Defense Against Bears

Details of .22 Pistol Defense Failure against Polar Bear in Norway; AndreAnita, iStock-940461304
Details of .22 Pistol Defense Failure against Polar Bear in Norway; iStock-940461304

U.S.A.-( In the United States, some governmental authorities are strongly pushing the use of bear spray over other methods of protection against bear attacks. From the Montana Hunter Ed Course:

In sudden encounters, bear spray has proven to work. Bears sprayed with bear spray often stop attacking and, as such, are less likely to inflict serious injury. Use a firearm only as a last resort and only if bear spray is unavailable. Always use your bear spray to help a hunting partner who is being attacked. Misdirected bear spray is survivable; bullets are not. Bears wounded with an arrow, knife, or firearm may intensify the attack, and killing a bear charging at full speed is difficult at best. If you shoot a bear in self-defense, leave the scene as soon as it is safe, and report the incident to Fish, Wildlife & Parks immediately.

The implication seems, if you are armed with a firearm, put it down and use bear spray instead! This is problematic advice at best. The advice ignores the possibility that bear spray will intensify an attack. It ignores the possibility a person attacked will only have 2-3 seconds to react.

Bear spray has NOT been shown to be more effective than firearms in stopping bear attacks.

The studies on bear spray were never done against aggressive bears. In this interview with Tom Smith, one of the principle authors of the most cited bear spray and firearms studies, Tom clarifies the issue. He says the methods are not comparable. He says bear spray has not been shown to be effective against aggressive bears. From

I asked Tom Smith if it was valid to conclude that the studied effectiveness of bear spray in brown bear charges is just 33 percent. “That’s what you would conclude from that data,” he says, before going on to point out that the sample size is very small. “Importantly, protracted mauling did not occur,” he says. “Whether that’s due to the spray or simply due to the vagaries of bear attacks is an open question.” 

The Trouble with Numbers

Thirty-three percent is very far from that 98 percent efficacy rate so widely cited. And it’s an especially problematic number if we accept that firearms can be demonstrated to have a success rate of between a 76 percent (in a worst-case scenario, as presented in “Efficacy of Firearms”) and 96 percent (as is the case in Alaska’s DLP data or that compiled by firearms writer Dean Weingarten).

The Government of Svalbard, Norway,  has strict requirements for protection against bears. People are not allowed to leave the town without adequate protection, because of the large number of polar bears in the vicinity, and the constant potential for attack. The governor of Svalbard does not recommend bear spray. The governor of Svalbard prohibits the use of bear spray as a protection against polar bears. The Governor requires people to have appropriate firearms in their group. From Svalbard, Norway;

Regulations on firearms and other devices to protect against polar bears:

3.2.Bear repellent spray/ pepper-balls The use, trade and import of bear repellent spray and pepper-balls for protection against polar bears in Svalbard is prohibited. The Governor of Svalbard is currently looking into the regulation of bear repellent spray and pepper-balls for protection against polar bears.

The governor of Svalbard requires firearms of adequate power to protect against polar bears. Here are the requirements:

2.Types of firearms 

2.1. Rifles

The acquisition, use, trade and import of rifles for use as protection against polar bears is permitted in Svalbard, pursuant to the Firearms Act and Firearms Regulations.

2.1 Rifles used for protection against polar bears shall have a minimum calibre of .308W or 30-06 (7.62 mm). Rifle bullets shall be expanding, with a minimum bullet weight of 11.5 g. The required impact energy shall be 2,700 J, measured at a distance of 100 m.

For reasons of precision, range, functionality in cold conditions and stopping power, the Governor of Svalbard recommends the use of rifles as the primary means of protection against polar bears, rather than other types of firearms.

Hiring out rifles is permitted. For more detailed conditions regarding this, please refer to Section 4.2.2. Shotguns

The acquisition, use, trade and import of shotguns for use as protection against polar bears is permitted in Svalbard, pursuant to the Firearms Act and Firearms Regulations.

2.2 Shotguns used for protection against polar bears shall have a minimum calibre of 12, and should have a magazine permitting a minimum of four shots (automatic or pump-action shotgun). The use of slugs (shotgun ammunition comprised of one projectile) is recommended for protection against polar bears.

However, the Governor of Svalbard warns that most magazine-fed shotguns tend to have problems with icing and condensation, and require more preventive maintenance work if they are to function in difficult conditions. Because of this, combined with the fact that shotguns have less precise sights and a limited range, the Governor of Svalbard recommends the use of rifles as the primary means of protection against polar bears.

The Governor of Svalbard advises against the use of double-barrelled shotguns for protection against polar bears, because of the number of available shots.

It is prohibited to hire out shotguns for protection against polar bears.

2.3. Handguns/revolversHandguns for competition and practice can legally be used in the field for protection against polar bears, provided that the Governor of Svalbard has granted a special permit for this.

This combination of usage purposes shall be stated explicitly on the firearm permit and may only be granted upon application to the Governor of Svalbard. This permit may only be granted if the applicant meets the requirements for documented activity in an approved shooting association.

Handguns for which an applicant is seeking a permit for use as protection against polar bears shall have a minimum calibre of 44. Ammunition to be used for protection against polar bears shall have a minimum weight of 15.5 g and a minimum muzzle energy of 1,200 J.

In English measurement, that is 885 ft-lbs, with a minimum bullet weight of 239 grains. Full power .44 magnum loads, .480 Ruger, .454 Casull, .500 Smith & Wesson and .460 Smith & Wesson would qualify.  Some .41 magnum loads would qualify.

Those who would carry a pistol for protection in Svalbard need to show they have participated in organized pistol training four times in the last year, before they can be approved.

The Governor also reserves the power to grant handgun permits for bear protection to trappers who are Svalbard residents, and in special cases. It is not permitted to rent handguns for protection against polar bears.

Another writer about protection from polar bears in Svalbard has something to say about bear spray. From Spitsbergen: Svalbard, Franz Josef, Jan Mayen, 3rd Brant travel Guide, by Andres Umbreit

Be properly armed

.. ; and then there’s the hiker with the pepper spray (ask the bear to attack against wind direction, please, or serve yourself nicely peppered with the wind blowing in the same direction from which the bear attacks). I am grateful for all these ‘alternatives’ as good entertainment stories and some of these ideas may even be useful in addition to a firearm. But there is no substitute for a big-bore firearm (see pages 132-7).

The same source says that in the previous 50 years, no properly armed person was injured or killed by a polar bear. They specifically exclude the case where a group armed with a .22 pistol and a flare gun were attacked. One person was killed, another seriously wounded.

Statistics support this: no properly armed person has been injured or killed by a polar bear in the last 50 years in Spitsbergen. There have been casualties, indeed, but all victims were unarmed or inadequately armed – here are some of these stories.

In 1998, an academic study of bear attacks was done in Svalbard. The study found, from 1971-1995, 77 bears had been killed in serious confrontations with people. Three bears escaped. 10 people were injured. Of those, four died from their injuries. None of those who were injured or killed had an appropriate firearm. From Man and Polar Bear in Svalbard: a solvable ecological conflict?

From 1971 to 1995, approximately 80 bears were involved in serious bear-human interactions. Of these, 77 bears were killed and 3 escaped after having injured people. During the same period, 10 people were injured, 4 of them fatally, in 7 separate interactions, each involving a single bear. None of the victims carried an appropriate firearm.

The attitude of Svalbard authorities is clear: being armed with an appropriate firearm, knowledge of how to use it, (and an understanding of bear behavior) is the best protection against polar bear attacks.

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.

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How about putting those stupid people who do these studies in the wild with their canned irritants and get back to us.

Wild Bill

@Mike J, Because they won’t get back at all?! :-0


Precisely. That is the ultimate feature, certainly not a bug

Deplorable Bill

Just as it is advisable to be armed and properly armed at that in order to deal with four legged predators the same is true with urban varmints. First, have your properly loaded firearm on your person. Second, be sure you know how and when to use it. Third, if your sidearm was used in defense of self, loved ones or strangers, report it to the proper authorities. In short; carry your firearm, carry enough firearm and know when and when not to use your firearm. I submit that there are many more urban varmints than polar bears, griz, brown… Read more »


@DB – I particularly enjoyed the specifications for ‘adequate firearms’. Note those “scary hi-power ARs and AK” are quite specifically excluded. As are all my handguns. Even my Mosin and K11 are excluded as all my ammo has bullets well under 180 grains. Only firearm I have which meets the specs is a 12 gauge – and that is acceptable but not recommended. All my shooting is at steel or paper. However were I to need a firearm it would be in defense against skunks, coyote, bobcat, dog or two-legged predators – none of which are in any way comparable… Read more »

Deplorable Bill

A good 12 gage with slugs is nothing to sneeze at. That is one big hole it makes and within it’s limits of range, it should prove to be more than adequate for the tasks at hand. Most urban varmints don’t require so much knock down power. Even a lowly 22lr can and has worked as long as shot placement is correct. The three most qualifying ideals are; Have your firearm on your person. Know when and how to use it. Be willing to use it. I would also add carry the biggest thing you can hit well with. Arm… Read more »


Bottom line: Brown bears are the largest land predator IN THE World. We, as residents to the “New World” have only been dealing with Brown Bears since the 1700s, but the rest of the world has been dealing with smaller predators (lions, tigers, leopards, etc.) for much much longer. The preferred and most effective method in the rest of the world, since the invention of firearms, of SUCCESSFULLY dealing with these smaller predators as has been proven time and again is with a firearm. There is no such thing as tiger spray, lion spray or leopard spray for a very… Read more »


Hahaha that’s hilarious, think they missed that guy who went to live with Grizzlies and got ate.


As one firearms writer said,” he went to live with the grizzlies, he became their lunch”. Girlfriend too I believe. Thanks Dean, great post.

Wild Bill

@ras, Yes, mother nature at her finest!


Well,m dummie wanted to become one with the bears, didn’t he? Well, he did.

Wild Bill

@M, It is hard not to like wild bears, when they keep eating libtards!


In the USA our guidelines/regulations are dictated by people in a large office building overlooking the Washington DC skyline. In Svalbard, Norway theirs are dictated by residents who live there. People who live there recommend a firearm then intelligent people go with the firearm.


Dean — What a great article! (If you haven’t been following them, the UW Women’s Hockey Team is currently ranked 1 in the country, and the Women’s Volleyball Team is ranked number 4. This year, they are doing much better than their male counterparts in any sport.) ACTUAL STORY: I was stationed in Galena, Alaska during a remote tour above the Arctic Circle for a year, 1981 – 1982, right on the banks of the Yukon River. Lot’s and lots of very large Browns there, no Polars. No one was allowed off-site unless in groups of three, with every person… Read more »

Deplorable Bill

You will be able to find a large, stuffed polar bear in the N C O club on an Air Force base a bit further north. The story that goes with it is like this; A group of G.I’s were out off base in a jeep when the bear attacked them, they tried to get away from it but were forced to empty a Thompson sub machine gun into it. As far as I know, it’s still to be found at the N.C.O. club to this day. Bears or urban varmints, if you choose to go unarmed you do so… Read more »


Those who advocate the use of bear spray have never been outside the perimeter of their heavily armed body guards.


I would never think of going in bear country without my 300 wm, or at least my 10mm by my side, but I wonder… has there ever been a study on repelling bears with loud sound, such as a portable boat horn or such?
I agree that bear spray is a useless toy that will probably get the person carrying it killed in any serious bear encounter, but I hope something may be developed to repel a charging bear without killing it.


Yes. They have tried everything under actual bear attacks, to include loud poppers and other noises like air horns, but as soon as the bear realized that it wasn’t injured, it resumed the attack. Once in kill mode, you’re only real option is a firearm rated to take it down, as bear spray just seems to irritate it further. There’s a big difference in the bear’s mentality when it’s in threat mode, verses kill mode. I know it’s sad to have to put an animal down like this, but sometimes, nature leaves you no choice in the matter.


I am reminded that bear scat often smells like bear spray. If I was in “bear country” I’d carry a 44 Magnum revolver, I’d have a rifle if proper caliber, such as a 375 H&H or if weight and handiness was a factor I’d look for a 7.26×51 AR. I’d use Nosler partition bullets. If I were attacked by predators, either 2 or 4 legged, I’d shoot since if you use bear spray and the bear doesn’t stop you are mangled, torn, folded and spindled. I’m aware of the government. They lie firstly. Then they lie again and put you… Read more »


As to someone’s comment about AKs and ARs, I suspect .450 Bushmaster or .458 SOCOM — the latter has a 600 grain load– would be more than adequate. Both have a 300 grain plus loading.