Recorded Defensive Uses of Pistols Against Bears Has Grown Exponentially

Recorded Defensive Uses of Pistols Against Bears Has Grown Exponentially iStock-1281962973
Recorded Defensive Uses of Pistols Against Bears Has Grown Exponentially, iStock-1281962973

As the research into how effective pistols are when used as a defense against bears has progressed, a startling progression has been observed. The recorded use of pistols in defense against bears has grown by two orders of magnitude in recent decades.

As pistols came into common use, they were almost certainly used in defense against animal attacks. Portable, reasonably reliable pistols, which could be used as a defensive weapon against an unexpected attack, were unavailable until about 1534 when wheellock pistols became available.  They were relatively expensive.  Arms of the period were commonly privately owned. Some were likely used in defense against animals. Europe, at the time, had much wild land. Bears, except for those in captivity, had been eliminated from England. Wild bears still existed in the mainland of Europe. While the use of wheellock pistols against bears probably happened, this correspondent has not seen any records documenting it.

The development of the flintlock, then the percussion pistol and revolver, made the use of a pistol in defense against a bear much more likely. Pistols became less expensive and more common. Bears were becoming uncommon in much of Europe by 1820. I can recall an account where flintlock or percussion pistols were used as secondary weapons on bear hunts in North America.  Starting in 1836 (effectively the 1840’s), revolvers added the potential for more firepower. Records are sparse and difficult to document from the era.

The database is limited to handguns that use self-contained cartridges.

Link to previous article listing where pistols were fired in defense against bears.

As a defense against bears, handguns came into their own with the development of the self-contained cartridge.  The .44 Russian (1870), .45 Colt (1872), 10.55×25 Reich Revolver (1879), and .455 Webley (1880) cartridges are all sufficiently powerful to be used in defense against men and bears. All were developed as state-of-the-art military black powder cartridges of their day.  All of them were traditionally fired in revolvers with six-round cylinders.

The earliest documented case in our database of pistol defenses against bears occurred near the California/Oregon border in the 1890s. The caliber was .44, in a Colt revolver. It was almost certainly a .44-40, introduced in 1873 as the .44 Winchester Center Fire. It was first chambered in the Colt Single Action revolver in about 1878. It became immensely popular, as it could be shot in both the revolver and a companion Winchester rifle. There were a few other .44 caliber cartridges chambered in Colt revolvers, such as the .44 American and .44 Russian, so we cannot be absolutely certain it was a .44-40. The .44-40 was the second most popular cartridge for the Colt. The others are rarely encountered.

From the 1890s to 1960, the recorded events of pistol defenses against bears are flat. The average is one per decade.

Seven decades, seven recorded defense events. None were recorded and found during the decade from 1910 to 1919. Two were recorded and found from 1930 to 1939. The other five decades had one each.

Many important advances occurred during those seven decades in both firearm and information technology. Handguns became relatively cheaper and more powerful. At the same time, ammunition became cheaper, cleaner, and more effective. The 9×19 (9mm Luger) was developed in 1900, the .45 ACP in 1909, the .357 magnum in 1935, and the .44 magnum in 1956. The availability of print media exploded. Radio networks, then television became common. Populations of both people and bears expanded.

From 1960 to 1969, six defensive uses of pistols against bears were recorded, only one less than the total during the previous 70 years.

From 1970 to 1979, there were eight. From 1980 to 1989, there were eight. From 1990 to 1999, there were a dozen recorded. During the 1990s, the information age dawned. The invention of the World Wide Web in 1989, and the release to the public, of the first web browser in 1991, combined with the rapidly expanding Internet, made access to enormous quantities of information by most people easy, cheap, and fast.

From 2000 to 2009, there were 40 cases recorded where pistols were used in defense against bears. From 2010 to 2019, there were 67 cases.

Almost certainly, from 1870 to 1960, there were many cases where handguns were used effectively against bears, which were not recorded and published, or if published, have not been found. They were not published if they were recorded in a trapper’s diary. If they were published in an obscure local paper, they are not available on the Internet. A man using a .22 rimfire, a .38 special,  a .45 ACP, or a .455 to defend against a bear in 1930 while trapping in Alaska or Canada might not talk to more than a few people for months. They probably would not consider the incident extraordinary or newsworthy if they were not injured.  If they were in the Soviet Union, access to a pistol meant they were probably a member of the Communist Party, and bear attack information would be a state secret, as was information on wolf attacks.

This correspondent believes there are many defensive uses of pistols against bears that are not recorded or reported.  If a resident of remote Alaska pops an aggressive black bear, there is little incentive to fill out a Defense of Life and Property form. Even if they do, it would not be considered newsworthy and would be unlikely to be published. The Defense of Life and Property forms are protected by privacy concerns. Grizzly bears are another matter. Because of the severe penalties for killing grizzly bears, people are more careful when they are shot. Many are categorized as licensed hunting kills. Such kills seldom make the news. Two such incidents have come to the attention of this correspondent. One made the news. The other did not and came to light only because the person involved had to shoot another grizzly in self-defense.

Pistols have become far less expensive, in more powerful calibers. Less expensive ammunition has made the effective practice more affordable. Bear populations and human populations have grown. All these things contribute to more incidents where pistols are fired in defense against bears.

The most important thing is the extraordinary speed of information flow today compared to 150 years ago. This correspondent believes the speed of information is the most significant component, as more and more of existing bear defensive uses are recorded and published.

If readers know of an incident where a pistol was fired in defense against a bear, please contact AmmoLand so the incident may be considered as an addition to the database.

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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Another great article Dean. Your assumptions are probably correct about the reporting aspect of Bears being shot. People used to be very private about every aspect of their lives, like you reported, unless something was extraordinary, and even then most folks wouldn’t want to be thought of as a braggadocio or drama queen unlike folks grown up in the “information age.” As usual, I learned several things in your article. I had no idea that England had pretty much eradicated Bears before America existed. I also believe in certain states in America we are going to see more pistol/Bear encounters.… Read more »


Last week (8 Sep 2023) Rudy Noorlander was attacked by a very large grizzly in Montana. His revolver misfired (no details yet reported). The bear ripped off his lower jaw, and also removed part of his trachea. He’s in intensive care in SLC, and faced with a long!!! recovery period.


His revolver misfired??? ….Revolver? I don’t know about that and it sure needs to be investigated. I sure hope Mr. Noorlander makes it!


Hmm… Several of the news reports dated soon to a few days after the attack said he drew his pistol when he saw a smaller. Then the larger bear appeared quite close to him. The reports consistently said he had a “misfire”. Will you post the MT preliminary report? I’m very interested in reading it.


Dean: US News online reports that Katelynn Davis, the injured man’s daughter, posted on Facebook that her father initially spotted a smaller grizzly, and that he was pulling out his gun to try to scare it away when a larger bear attacked him. Katelynn said [Noorlander’s] gun misfired and he didn’t have time to grab his bear spray from his backpack… I found the Montana FWP “report” which failed to mention that Rudy Noorlander had a pistol. Do you have confirmation that Kateland’s Facebook post was incorrect?


Show early reporting is wrong many times


Recently acquired a S&W M329PD 6-shot wheelgun in .44Mag for a chest carried bear gun when in toothed/clawed critter country. Scaling 25oz unloaded with Scandium/titanium construction, full house .44s are a mite snappy, but that round is effective, and at 25oz unloaded, it is an easy all day carry. Also carry a Glock 40 with Luppy DeltaPro on hip…..extra rounds in reliable format goes bang every time.



Several of the news reports dated soon to a few days after the attack said he drew his pistol when he saw a smaller bear. Then the larger bear ‘appeared’ quite close to him on the attack. The several of those reports said he had a “misfire”. Will you post the MT preliminary report? or link it? I’m very interested in reading it.


I grew up in South Florida, on the water. There were alligators everywhere, but they were rarely seen and almost never a problem, but people didn’t feed them. Now, however, people lose pets to gators almost daily, and there are plenty of cases of people being attacked and even killed by them. I now have a home in NE Georgia and we’re seeing a similar problem with black bears. I didn’t in the 1960s, but I now carry a pistol. More people use pistols because there are more problem bears.


I had to fire a warning shot to get an extremely ”curious” black bear to move along several years ago… Not reported… Fired into a tree stump well away from the bear… He lumbered off… I’ve had numerous close encounters with black bears while hiking, fishing and hunting in the rockies where i live, some of them nerve wracking, but that was the only one i ever had to fire a shot to get it to leave… I scared him off initially by yelling at it but he came back and was stalking me from tree to tree as i… Read more »


Wipe your prints, put his paw prints on the gun, drop next to his body……call in a gun take-away by sadly depressed suicide bear……




No, just tell them that the bear was a Biden and throw the gun in the trash can.


Three S’s, shoot, shovel and shut up.


On the streets it’s my 1911-.45 acp , in the woods it’s my Ruger Blackhawk .44 Rem mag or my Taurus Ragingbull 454 Casull and a can of bear spray on my belt where it can be deployed immediatly . Big bears in Montana are nothing to take lightly .


We don’t have a grizzley bear problem in Montana . We have a people problem . Too many transplanted idiots moving here .

Matt in Oklahoma

Following the 3 Ss on bear encounters will save you major life headaches so I’m ok with having less information. There is enough out there to make educated decisions on what caliber and ammo type to carry without ruining anyone’s lives with government. If it’s a situation that must be reported then yes please all the details possible including ammo type and bullet placement but if not remain silent.


Many myths concerning self-defense against bears with handguns have died.

There is no more reason to file ones front sight off. It has proven far better just to shoot the bear.


link to FWP report Bear specialists with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks have concluded a field investigation into a grizzly bear encounter that injured a man south of Big Sky last week. The attack happened Friday, Sept. 8, in the Yellow Mule area of the Madison Range. During the encounter, one of the victim’s companions fired a pistol at the bear before the bear left. The victim suffered serious injuries from the bear and was flown to a hospital. FWP staff flew over the area Saturday to look for a bear that may have been wounded. No bears were… Read more »


I think also, fewer people outside of hunters, carry rifles when in the wild.