Lessons From Handgun Defense Failures Against Bears

Black Bear iStock-482557323
Lessons From Handgun Defense Failures Against Bears IMG iStock-482557323

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.

June 20, 2010, Alaska: Geologist Pistol Defense failure Grizzly Bear, .357 Magnum

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. 

September 6, 2015, Ocate, New Mexico: Failure, .38 revolver black bear

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.

Dean Weingarten

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Now that was an excellent apolitical article… Dean does it right.


Dean has written top notch articles the entire nines years I’ve been here.

Henry Bowman

I never thought of bears, or bear attacks, as political. Some things just…aren’t.


Not much surprises me anymore.


I think comment was referring to majority of articles being political.

Discussing bear violence could easily become political when anyone brings up obstacles to self defense or dissemination of fact based strategy. Start talking about who erects legal obstacles and it’s instantly political. Dean does none of that. I suspect he understands that offending any in the audience only hardens their position.


Yes thank you, you are correct. Thus the definition of “apolitical”, that some seem to be missing in their replies (you got it though!):

not interested or involved in politics.

Last edited 2 years ago by GeniusJoe

Sorry if I munderstood your point, but that is why used the word ‘apolitical’ not ‘political’:

not interested or involved in politics”

Last edited 2 years ago by GeniusJoe
Henry Bowman

There’s always two perspectives to every coin, and I’m willing to examine both. I agree with you, but I was insinuating that it’s only reasonable to presume that animals and their behavior are apolitical, both in the sense that animals are not political and in the sense that there’s nothing political to be said about animals just being animals… Then there’s the essential truth between the two: It’s unreasonable to take a non-political topic and inject politics into it. Sadly, much about 2A defense is inherently political even if many 2A-protected activities aren’t – such as target practice, hunting, competition,… Read more »


My Virginia big game hunting license has always included deer, bear and turkeys. Until last year, when the Democrats controlled everything. Now, bears have become cash cows for them by making bear hunting a separate license, even though the bear population here has increased dramatically. Bears were always treated as “ targets of opportunity “ by deer hunters, however, bears are the primary quarry for the bear hound guys in south western region of Virginia.
Democrats never met a tax they didn’t like!

Matt in Oklahoma

These are good case studies. Thx

Henry Bowman

Since moving from Indiana farmland to deep woods just spitting distance from the Canadian border, I’ve taken to toting my AR-10 because I don’t have a 10MM, something I really wanted to remedy even before I moved.


in the woods or on the battle field there is always someone that does not get the kill or be killed part of nature.


Very good article…Thank You!


Carry enough gun.


and, as this piece clearly reveals, USE it, accurately, to kill.


thanks Dean


The analysis is sound. Unfortunately, many who are in charge of wildlife management today tend to anthropomorphize and romanticize animals, especially those that were portrayed in cartoons they watched as children. Oddly, the only creature they don’t anthropomorphize is the human being. But secretly I bet a lot of those arguing that only bear spray should be allowed when hiking in bear country do themselves carry a pistol, though probably somewhere foolish like in the bottom of their backpack, right next to their weed.


GMTA! Out here on the left coast the amount of people that anthropomorphize animals is off the charts. Go into the dysfunctional City States like the Godless Seattle where people have more pet licenses than live births each and every year and it’s been that way for decades, and you’ll see these fools and their tricked out pets with tattoos, dyed fur to match the Seahawks colors , you’ll see just about every crazy pet idea on display. I think the obnoxious term “Pet Parents” was invented in Seattle. Out in the rural area where I live, it’s not much… Read more »


I’ve got no problem anthropomorphism and fictional talking beasts. It’s idiots who cannot distinguish fantasy from reality who get my goat. If they are adults and remove themselves from the gene, it’s all good.


Yup. Seems the general trend in Seattle and surrounds closely mimicks what we just learned abouthow mamy cubs are killed by their boars. Of all the new human children conceived in/around Seattle a VERY high percentage of them re sacrificed on the altar of convenience. But those same twisted individuals would go to war over the killing of “nature’s pets”, such as bears. I remember when the near-sacred salmon were observed to be eaten in very large numbers by the seals hanging out at the locks on the Shio Canal. They were stupid enough to think they could just “humanely”… Read more »


“Mr. Ranger, I’ve learned two things from stealing pic-a-nic baskets. One: Light mayonnaise is not nearly as good as regular mayonnaise. And two: You can’t fail if you never stop trying.”
– Yogi Bear.


Thanks! Good to know!

NC Marine

I also read that the stuffed bear in the Alaskan airport was killed with rifle rounds and .38sp ammo inside it.

Last edited 2 years ago by NC Marine