U.S.A. –-(AmmoLand.com)-– In 2016, this correspondent and others started searching for incidents in which a handgun was fired to defend against a bear or bears, and failed to stop the attack by driving off or killing the bear.
Access to a defensive tool, such as a shotgun, rifle, bear spray, handgun, hatchet, or knife all presents similar problems. Therefore we only considered cases where a handgun was actually fired. If we were looking at the effectiveness of bear spray, we would only look at cases where the bear spray was actually sprayed.
To prevent selection bias, all cases where a handgun was fired defensively against a bear or bears, which could be documented, were included.
People on the Internet claimed handguns were ineffective in defending against bears. Over years, we found 120 cases where handguns were effectively used in defense against bears.
We found three (3) failures of handguns against attacking bears.
The three failures included failures against the three bear species found in North America, one each of polar, grizzly, and black bears.
Here are the details of the three cases, presented in chronological order, followed by analysis and commentary:
August, 1995, Norway, Svalbard Archepelago, .22 rimfire, Failure, Polar Bear, From Spitsbergen: Svalbard, Franz Josef, Jan Mayen, 3rd Brant travel Guide, by Andres Umbreit
Kiepertoyo Hinlopen Strait, August, 1995
Another five people of the crew set out separately with only a .22 pistol and a flare gun. After an hour’s march, the second party were met by a bear, 75m away and openly aggressive. The bear was distracted neither by warning shot nor flare and attacked one of the party. As he did so, he was shot, from a range of only 15m and turned against the man who had fired at him. This man tossed the gun to the first, who shot again. The process was repeated, with first one man being attacked and then the other. By the time the pistol was emptied and a knife drawn, one man was dead and another badly injured. The survivors retreated to the ship.
On examination, three shots to the head were discovered, none of them piercing the cranium.
The victim had three years experience with the Origo, with many bear observations, and there were sufficient weapons on board to equip everybody.
Analysis: There have been several cases where large bears have been killed with .22 rimfire cartridges. One of the most famous is that of Bella Twin, who killed a world record grizzly bear with a .22 single-shot rifle, near the village of Slave Lake in Alberta, Canada.
A .22 can penetrate the vitals of a large bear. To kill a large bear quickly with a .22 caliber means the shot or shots have to be precise and to the brain. None of the shots from the .22, in this case, were to the vulnerable points in the bear’s head, where the brain would have been hit. It is very difficult to do this if the target is moving and 15 meters (50 feet) away. A more powerful cartridge could have made a difference. Shooting the bear from very close range, and knowing where the brain is located inside the bear’s head, might have made a difference.
Tossing the only firearm to another person, multiple times does not appear to be a good tactic.
But as we will see in the next case, merely having a more powerful firearm may not be enough.
Miller managed to pull out his .357 Magnum revolver and squeeze off a shot, possibly grazing the animal. Then he fell onto his stomach, dug his face into the dirt and covered his neck.
The bear went for his exposed right arm, gnawing and clawing it and chipping the bone off the tip of his elbow. The attack lasted 10 to 15 seconds, then the animal lumbered away.
As Miller rolled over and was getting to his knees, the bear, only about 40 yards away, came at him again.
He managed to fire two more shots, but with his right arm badly injured he thinks he missed the bear. Then he lay still as the animal gnawed and clawed at him.
After the second attack, Miller played dead again, lying still for three to five minutes. He tried to move and realized he couldn’t. He was too badly injured.
“I was just hoping my radio was still in my vest pocket and it was,” he said. “I got it out and started radioing mayday, which nobody answered.”
Analysis: The account shows Robert Miller did what he was trained to do. His training failed him. It seems likely he did not hit the bear with any of the three shots he fired.
Playing dead when you have the means to stop the attack, is a bad strategy. It may provoke an attack.
Miller seems to have been more concerned with playing dead than with actually hitting and killing the bear. He might have escaped injury if he had concentrated on stopping the attack by killing the bear. Many bears, even grizzly bears, stop the attack and leave if they are severely hurt, even if they are not mortally wounded.
The hunter received bite injuries to his foot through his boot as he climbed a tree to try to escape the bear. He was taken to Alta Vista Hospital in Las Vegas, N.M., where he was treated and released.
In Thursday’s attack, the hunter told officials he was eating lunch under a tree when he spotted the bear and her cub in a watering hole. He took photographs and started shooting video of the animals when the mother bear got angry and charged. The hunter, who officials did not identify, climbed the tree to escape.
At one point, the hunter fell 15 feet from the tree and then managed to climb back up. He fired his pistol into the air and at the female bear in attempt to scare it, but the animal didn’t leave. He then radioed for help. His guide told officers he found the hunter clinging to the tree nearly 50 feet from the ground.
Analysis: The hunter was particularly concerned with preventing injury to the bear rather than in protecting himself. It appears he never hit the bear while he emptied his .38 revolver. While climbing a tree to escape a bear appears reasonable, there is a good chance it will trigger an “escaping foe” or “escaping prey” reflex in a bear. It is similar to running away, another bad idea.
Black bears usually retreat if they are hurt. Standing your ground and concentrating on stopping and/or killing the threatening bear is a better tactic, especially for black bears.
The above three cases are rare exceptions to the use of handguns as a defense from bears.
In the 120 other documented cases, the firing of a handgun was effective in defense against the bear or multiple bears.
The number of conflicts between bears and humans is on the rise, partly because of increasing bear populations, and partly because of increasing human populations.
All three species of North American bears are thriving with increasing populations. Humans are the only species capable of managing bear populations. The number of conflicts between bears and people is small compared to bear populations. If all the threatening conflicts resulted in the death of the threatening bear, the numbers would not be a significant percentage of the species population.
The 123 self-defense cases found so far resulted in about 75-80 bears being killed, over more than a hundred years. The number is insignificant for bear populations. Boar bears kill many times that many bear cubs each year. Over a quarter of bear cubs are killed, each year, by other bears, mostly boars.
Bear cubs, each year, are about 1/3 of the population, before the end of hibernation. Roughly 8% of the bear population is killed each year by adult bears. For every thousand bears, about 80 are killed each year by other bears.
About as many bears are killed by bears, each year, for every thousand bears which exist, as have been recorded as killed by people defending themselves with handguns against bears, in the last hundred years.
Even if the number of unrecorded handgun defenses is ten times as high as the recorded defenses, the number is insignificant for bear population management. Ironically, the number of bear cubs killed by bears is likely to be reduced if adult bears are killed by humans during hunting or in defense of life and property.
In spite of adult bear predation, bear populations continue to outpace existing habitat carrying capacity. It is better to reduce the bear population by removing particularly aggressive or bold problem bears than it is to reduce the population by removing bears at random such as cubs.
The populations have to be reduced. Firearms have the advantage over bear spray as a defensive tool, because the bear is usually killed, rather than leaving a problem bear for the next human to deal with.
If the human is injured or killed, the bear is usually killed afterward.
If a person is carrying a handgun to protect against bears, they should be mentally prepared to use the handgun to kill a threatening bear.
As clearly demostrated in these three cases the reluctance to use the handgun in an effective way increases the danger of injury or death.
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.