Kelly Bear Attack and the Myth: Combination Defense Against Grizzly Bear

Grizzly bear by Troy Nemitz, with permission

U.S.A.-(AmmoLand.com)- While searching for events where pistols were fired to defend against bears, I came across several references to an event that happened to Larry Kelly of Magnaport fame, in Alaska. The event was described by him in full, first-person detail.

There were several variations online. Some claimed the event showed how ineffective pistols were for defense against bears. Several claimed the ammunition was at fault. Here is an example from thefiringline.com:

Several years ago I read a story about Larry Kelly, owner of Magna-Port and hundgun hunter Hall of Famer, has told a story about having to share a hunting cabin with his guide and temporarily with a not overly-large grizzly near an Alaskan river. The bear apparently decided to get out of the rain and like the hunters choose to use the 10′ by 12′ cabin. When it entered, Kelly shot it 6 times with a .44 Mag loaded with Remington’s 240 SJHP’s as he back pedalled onto the stove. All six shots flattened out on the breast-bone, since the bear was on its hind legs at the time. Not one of his shots made it into the body cavity much less damaged the vital organs. While Kelly was doing this his guide was busy with his .375 H&H mag. The guide short stroked his rifle and it jammed. I always thought that scene was from a nightmare. A big brownie stuck in the doorway, men hollering, a .44 Mag going off six times in the dark with no ear protection, muzzle flash, the bear popping his teeth and growling. Well in the long run the bear decided he did not want to come inside and lumbered off before they got the rifle un-jammed. Later one the guides killed the bear nearby as he attempted yet another break in.

Kelly reported that it taught him the value of penetration and that HP’s are way over touted for hunting heavy game. I might add that Larry has since killed coastal brown bears with the same revolver using hard cast solids over 300 grains.

Human memory is fallible. The author of the above account relied on memory. The story was published 20 years before the writer wrote the above account. The story involved the use of a handgun to defend against bears. One of the policies of our project to accurately describe how effective handguns are to defend against bears is to include all of the events we can document.  It was necessary to investigate the Larry Kelly event and include it in the database. The writer at thefiringline was not involved personally. He worked from his memory of a story he read several years previously.

This correspondent located the original article. It is a first-person account by Larry Kelly, as part of Chapter 14 “Big Bores for Big Game”, in the book “Hunting for Handgunners”, published in 1990, by DBI books. The hunt happened in late October of 1981, from the dates and days accounted for in Chapter 14.

The book is out of print. This researcher was able to obtain a used copy.

To put the account in context, at the time of the attack, the hunters had been holed up in “visqueen and driftwood shack” on the beach of the ocean near Cold Bay, on the Alaska Peninsula, because of strong winds prevented their pickup by bush plane.

Larry had already killed a trophy bear with one shot from a .44 magnum Ruger revolver. He had filled his tag and was not legally able to kill another bear, except in defense of self or others. The hunters had been in the camp for four days.

Larry stepped out of the shack for a bathroom break. He sees the bear coming down a nearby creek toward the beach. The guide, Bob Gerlack, gets a camera, puts a telephoto lens on it, and starts taking pictures. A 40 mph wind is blowing from the bear toward Larry and Bob.

When the bear reaches the beach, it turns toward the shack and starts running at them.

The shack is on an embankment above the beach. Larry is armed with a holstered Smith & Wesson .44 magnum. Bob has a .375 H&H rifle. As the bear gets closer, it starts running up the embankment, directly at the shack. Larry draws his pistol. Bob fires two warning shots from the .375 H&H rifle.

Here is the original, first-person account in the words of Larry Kelly, from Hunting for Handgunners by Larry Kelly and J.D. Jones, p. 225, 1990.

At the shot, the brown bear then came full-bore right at us. Bob fired a second shot in the sand in front of him as we backed into the shack. He kept telling me not to shoot.

We backed into the shack and when the bear was in the doorway, head and shoulders inside the shack, I shot. 

Bob was having trouble with his gun and had backed up into the table, knocking everything over. I had backed into the stove, knocking that over. I pointed the .44 at the bear’s chest from three feet away and fired. I expected the mighty .44 to blow the bear right out of the doorway, or at least to do a little more than get his attention. He only turned his head and looked directly at me as if the muzzle blast had bothered him. 

Bob fired, then I fired again. The bear turned and I fired two more shots in his shoulder.  Bob fired at his shoulder again. I put my last two in his rear as he turned around and started running. Bob stepped out of the door and fired as the bear went bellowing down the beach. 

My Model 29 was empty and so was Bob’s .375 H&H. I ran to my cot and quickly grabbed my T/C .375 JDJ and fired my last shot into the bear. He went down.

The original differs from what has become the myth in several important ways.

The bear never fully entered the shack but was stopped in the doorway by gunfire.  The gunfire was obviously effective. There is no information indicating the bullets did not penetrate or have deadly effect.

What happened is what often happens when bears or other big game are shot in the chest cavity. It takes many seconds to minutes for the mortal wounds to kill the animal. This is a common occurrence for everything from deer-sized animals on up. Caliber does not seem to make much difference, especially if the animal has been running or has other reasons to have high adrenaline and oxygenation levels in its bloodstream.

Both Larry Kelly and the guide, Bob Gerlack, appeared to be in the “Trophy Hunter” mindset. Even though the bear is extremely close at “three feet”, Larry Kelly does not go for the obvious instant kill shot to the bear’s brain.

The kill shot should be an easy shot at a stopped, pint-sized object, from three feet away.  Instead, Larry fires at the bear’s chest. Bob Gerlack, the guide, makes the same choice. From just a few feet away, with a rifle, he shoots at the shoulder. He has likely programmed himself to do so. To shoot the brain of a bear with a high-powered rifle is to destroy the trophy.

After being shot, the bear quickly turns and retreats. More shots are fired at the retreating bear. At the last shot, the bear goes down and expires. Very likely, from the first shot when the bear’s head and shoulders intruded into the shack until it went down for the last time, was less than 30 seconds. 30 seconds is reasonably quick for chest shots to take effect on a large animal. Perhaps the last shot broke the spine or other bone. It is not mentioned in the account. In the account, six .44 magnum shots were fired at the bear, three .375 H&H shots, and one .375 JDJ (pistol) shot. The brass picked up afterward does not match that number; so it is possible there were more shots fired than were counted in the write-up.

This is a combined rifle and pistol stop of a bear attack.  When shot, the bear left and then died. Neither hunter was injured by the bear.


About 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 retired from the Department of Defense after a 30 year career in Army Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation.

Dean Weingarten

Subscribe
Notify of
8 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Bill
Bill
2 months ago

Good sluthing!

Mike the Limey
Mike the Limey
2 months ago

Here’s another one to look into: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-57939501

“According to the New York Times, the man had almost run out of ammunition for his gun and the door of the shack where he was staying had been ripped off.
“At some point, a bear had dragged him down to the river,” Lieutenant Commander Jared Carbajal told the newspaper. “He had a pistol. He said that the bear kept coming back every night and he hadn’t slept in a few days.” “

Deconflictor
Deconflictor
2 months ago

I always enjoy articles by Mr. Weingarten. I spent several years hunting black bear while dodging grizzlies in BC, Canada, with bear defense expert and author James “Gary” Shelton before he died (the grizzly hunt lottery gods never smiled upon me). He explained, after 45+ years of experience of living among them, while hunting and defending against grizzlies, that the bear’s brain is too small and too well protected to be the primary target during a defense situation. The grizzly’s brain is only about the size of a human thumb (Systems – https://grizzlybears.com (google.com) and all about wildlife . .… Read more »

JSNMGC
JSNMGC
2 months ago

[Nevermind]

TStheDeplorable
TStheDeplorable
2 months ago

“It takes many seconds to minutes for the mortal [chest] wounds to kill the animal.” The same is often true of humans. Back in the 1980s there were few options for backup pistols for cops, and I had selected a Walther PPK/S .380. After a few years of carrying it we saw a video in briefing of an off-duty cop armed with that same weapon who intervened in a bank robbery, shooting the suspect in the black ring of the chest, just as he was trained. But his pistol jammed and he did not get off a second shot. The… Read more »

Knute
Knute
2 months ago

Kelly reported that it taught him the value of penetration and that HP’s are way over touted for hunting heavy game.”
Hmmm. That’s the same song I’ve been singing for 40 years. That penetration is more important than expansion, except for creatures with thin skin compared to whatever caliber is chosen.
I wonder if there’s a lesson in there somewhere…. 🙂

Deplorable Bill
Deplorable Bill
2 months ago

Elmer Keith is credited with the invention of the 44 mag. He did penetration tests into something he called bear meat with a 3006 and his 44 mag, a 4″ Smith & Wesson. Using 250g semi wad cutter and a steep load of 22 grains of 2400 the 44 his ammo out paced the 3006. He explained the 3006 bullet expanded while the 44 bullet did not. I have never killed a bear nor do I want to be in a situation where I have to but I believe the old 44, with the right bullets, would get the job… Read more »