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#1498247 - 06/21/07 01:57 PM Re: Minimum caliber handgun for Black bear and Cougar [Re: teesh]
JJHACK Offline
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Registered: 01/30/01
Posts: 7386
Loc: Touchet Wa. & Ellisras South ...
A magazine article I wrote several years ago, no data has changed since then so it's still pretty accurate.

Hunting bears with handguns


I have had quite a few guys over the years ask about handgun cartridges for bear hunting. I really like hunting bears with handguns. I have likely taken more with a handgun then by any other means myself. Handguns have some limitations and some, even though referred to as handguns are more like little handheld rifles then handguns. The general term of handgun seems to stretch the definition quite a bit to include these single shot cannons!

When I think of a handgun I see a revolver or semi-auto pistol in my mind. However today the Thompson Contender and other single shot
handguns seem to have taken over as the handgun of choice for serious big game hunters. I have owned many contender barrels and several contender actions in my life so Iím quite familiar with them.

During my early years as a Professional Hunter I was using dogs to hunt lions and bears. I took out a number of guys from the mid-west and eastern states for bears during the spring Idaho hunts and the fall Washington hunts. It was not unusual to take 20 or 30 hunters out per year and shoot 30-40 bears per season. The Idaho regulation allowed 2 bears per hunter per year and the Washington regulations allowed only one fall bear per person.

We booked a hunter from Ohio early in our guiding business. He was a police officer that wanted to hunt using his on duty carry gun. In Idaho any gun .22 center-fire or larger was the minimum for big game. Washington State had muzzle energy minimum requirement at that time. We took the policeman out on the hunt with his 45 ACP shooting 250-grain soft point bullets. His first bear was treed and shot without much trouble. The bear was in the tree about 20 yards above us. We caught our breath, took a couple photos and then he prepared for the shot and fired. The impact was solid, smoke could easily be seen coming out of the hole in the bearís chest. The bear was angry and peeling bark from the tree after being hit! He began to climb further up the tree when I yelled hit him again. I did not want the bear coming down with the dogs tied up and unable to escape from this angry wounded bear. He was about 225-240 pounds. A nice brown colored typical Idaho spring bear. At the second shot which hit nearly the same place as the first the bear really started going up the tree fast and I yelled to shoot again. I think the third shot missed but the forth hit him solid sounding like a baseball bat hitting a homerun.

The bear was barely visible up in the branches of the tall fir tree when all of a sudden we heard him crashing down and falling to the ground. When he hit the ground he was up in a flash and rolling and running down the hill. He was dead when he came to a stop on the flat, about 100 yards below us.

This experience was really educational for me. I saw this bear shot quite a few times with little effect from that 45 ACP shooting good 240 grain soft point bullets. The hunters accuracy was great, the bullets were big and heavy, and the bear was close. Why would this combination not be a much better killer? The hunter was thrilled and excited to go shoot another bear! This time he loaded his 240-grain HPís for the hunt. We had a conversation regarding the lack of ďcrumple powerĒ his gun had shown. He was surprised I felt that his gun was weak, or exhibited a lack of power. He asked what I was expecting from a handgun. I said I expect a bear shot in the center of the chest with a bullet to die in seconds, not continue to climb a tree and growl or be in a fighting mood. I also said if the bear comes out of the tree alive next time, I would also have to shoot him to protect my dogs. The hunter, although he understood the issue with the dogs, was still surprised by my opinion of his guns performance. He also respected my need to guard the dogs should a problem occur with the next bear.

The second bear was bayed and running and bayed and running all day. Itís a trait big bears have so I was quite worried about the gun he had. Eventually this bear also treed and we were able to get to the base of the tree before he jumped out again. It was a big bear of at least 300 pounds. I also carried my .44 magnum revolver this time, as backup. At the shot, which the bear took in the center of his chest all he did was growl and slap the tree with his paw. I said keep shooting until he falls, if he comes down alive Iím going to have to shoot him too.

This bear started to come down the tree. At the next shot he stopped and began to climb further up the tree but fell dead when he hit the ground in a moment or two. The Ohio policeman was thrilled again and really excited to see that his carry gun was so good at killing a big animal like this bear. Far-be it from me to ruin his feelings on the hunt or his gun, but I thought the performance was pathetic! He returned home amongst the most satisfied of all the clients I have ever had. He must have done a great sales job too, because for the next several years the majority of my hunters were mid western police officers using their carry guns for hunting. During this time I relived many of these types of multiple shot hunts at close range with various types of handguns. I suppose itís where my opinionated feelings have come from regarding handguns for bears or other big game. I also have to laugh when I hear guys talking about ďback upĒ guns for hikes in bear country, or while fishing in Alaska. I also see this kind of chat on the Internet hunting forums. Many of the guys who really believe their handgun is the ďbe all-end allĒ choice for protection. They would likely be leaving the dead weight of their gun home if they saw itís pathetic performance on a 300 pound black bear, much less an angry 1000 pound brown bear or grizzly!

There have been a lot of handgun cartridges used over the years that I would consider worthless hunting guns for big game. The first is the 38
special. Itís lack of penetration and poor bullets are not meant for hunting. A human being is a very soft and mentally weak animal. A Human shot in the leg will go down for the count screaming for help. A deer or bear shot the same way will be a 100 yards away or more before you realize you made a bad shot. I have seen 30 pound coyotes shot with a 357 magnum run a long way before falling down. A man shot the same way would be praying for his life. There are so many drug induced mental problems with humans that those dopers who are shot might be as hard to stop as a bear or deer. The drugs would likely make them more worry free and likely to flee or fight with a serious wound. If I were a policeman watching how my carry gun performed on a bear that allowed him to climb a tree, after a perfectly centered chest shot I would certainly consider a bigger gun! It seems to me many criminals are on dope and they would be like shooting an adrenalin filled bear!

So what are the cartridges which are failures, and the cartridges which are gems in the handgun world according to my experience with hundreds of bears killed? The bad choices are the 38 caliber the 9mm, and the 40S&W. These three should be strictly police work, targets or plinkers. The 40 S&W, and 9mm need cleaning and attention daily. I have seen plenty of these semi-autos fail to cycle with pine needles jammed into them and leaf mulch or dirt in the action. They seemed to have the highest level of cleaning and maintenance needed by far. Revolvers on the other hand seem to be trouble free and made for hunting!

The next group of guns can kill bears but I would certainly not consider them hunting guns. The 357 magnum is able to kill a bear much better then the 9mm and the 38 special even though they actually shoot the same bullets. The 357 mag is much better then the 40S&W as well. The 357-magnum case is just a bigger capacity shell able to provide much better performance. If I were a cop itís likely what I would carry based on what I saw it do to bears of all sizes. Donít mistake me here, I donít like it as a hunting gun for big game especially bears. The 45ACP is another gun which worked but not what I would like in a bear, or big game crumpling handgun. I think soft point bullets with maximum loads would give you a false sense of security for bear backup as well. I donít see the hard cast bullets in 357 mag being enough better to trust 100 percent of the time. They are not what I would carry and I would never suggest anyone hunt even the smaller black bears or deer with one. The .44 special was a decent performer but again it fell short of the crumple effect I like to see in a bear hunting gun.

This next group is where I think the minimum line is drawn. The 41 magnum and the 10mm seem to have the power to really make an impression
on a bear. I have seen both these cartridges knock bears down and break leg bones. Something the others just donít seem to be able to manage
consistently. These guns shoot over 1000 fps with bullets well into the 200-grain weight category. They seem to have nearly equal power and
accuracy as well. This is where I would suggest a minimum bear hunting handgun for close range start. They are certainly less than 50 yard guns but a great tool for bait and hound hunting. I would not suggest this cartridge as a backup or self defense against bears, only for hunting.

Finally the best group of guns. These are cartridges, which have never failed to decide matters and have the ability to crumple a bear in his tracks most of the time. The .44 magnum, the 45 long colt, and the 454. I have killed dozens of bears with the .44 magnum in my life and I donít recall a single one running off after the first shot. I have recovered very few bullets and have broken the bones of the shoulder and legs countless times. These guns are more like rifles in performance then the typical police handguns Iíve seen so often. With a 240 grain hollow point going 1200 or more FPS the .44 magnum revolver is at the top of the heap as a commonly used hunting handgun. With Randy Garrett's hard cast ammo it will whistle though the shoulders of any bear in America. My .44 magnum was a Ruger Red hawk with a 7.5Ē barrel. It was an easy to shoot gun with plenty of crumple power. The same gun in 45 Long colt or 454 would be as good at getting the job done. I also have a 4Ē barrel Smith and Wesson Mountain gun that is as good but do to the lower Velocity of the short barrel it has a distance limitation of about 40-50 yards in my opinion. I consider these the proper size handguns for hunting the big game of the world.

The final ďsub-categoryĒ are the wildcats, the contenders, and the new big bore revolvers. There is now a whole host of big bore revolvers like the 480 Ruger, the 50 caliber S&W, and the 50 Linebaugh. There is even a 45/70 revolver available now! Clearly all these are excellent bear killers if you decide to pack the additional weight and handle the massive recoil forces.

Keep these three factors in mind when deciding on a handgun for big game or bears. Make certain it has 1000 fps impact velocity, not muzzle velocity. .40 caliber or greater diameter, and finally, heavy bullets in the mid 200-grain weight range or bigger. With handguns so long as the impact velocity is about 1000 fps the best way to improve power and visual effect is by increasing diameter and weight of the bullet.

Remember also there are ways of having an effective increase in bullet diameter without changing caliber. Make sure if you use hard cast bullets you have the largest flat nose on the bullet possible also known as the ďmeplatĒ. Randy Garrett loads a bullet in his ammo which has a large flat nose which is almost bore diameter! This has an enormous effect on bullet impact over a pointed or rounded nose bullet. Granted the over all diameter has not changed but the bullets impact diameter has improved by a whole bunch with such a big flat nose.

One other thing to consider, donít think that just because you load a heavy hard cast bullet you have the most powerful load for your gun. This is a very common mistake. Those big heavy bullets will often whistle clean through a big bear like a field tipped arrow. The bears will die but often show little bullet impact reaction. They also tend to run off and die a great distance away. In my experience a high velocity hollow point bullet will cause a significant impact reaction and almost always allow an additional shot while the bear is stunned. The bullets about 240-260 grains in weight as fast as you can drive them will always show a greater impact effect then the heavy hard cast bullets do. They donít penetrate as well or break big bones as well, but they donít need to on a black bear. I have shot clean through many many black bears broadside with a 240-grain hollow point bullet at 1200-1300fps muzzle velocity. Upon impact the bears will stop and spin around biting at the wound and struggle to move away. With the many I have shot using a 300 plus grain hard cast bullets, they have launched out of sight like a rocket. Showing little if any reaction to being hit.


Donít mistake those big heavy hard cast bullets for the most powerful ammunition your gun can use. They are when matched to the proper game, like buffalo, moose, elk, and many African species. However for the typical 250 to 500 pound soft skinned black bear they are a mistake to use.

Consider what works better on a deer shot through the lungs. A 375HH with a 300 grain solid having 4500 foot pounds of energy, or a 270 caliber rifle shooting a 130 grain soft point bullet with only 2400 foot pounds of energy? Clearly you see the energy is far greater and the bullet weight and diameter is bigger on the 375HH. Upon impact the 300-grain solid blows a hole right through and you cannot even tell if you hit the animal. With the explosive 130-grain bullet from the .270 the deer will launch into the air with a nerve reaction and fall within a few steps. Itís the projectile that decides the result much of the time, not the perceived, or calculated power your gun has.

Donít focus so much on muzzle energy, or the hype surrounding heavy hard cast bullets. The hard-cast bullets do have exceptional penetration, but at the cost of small diameter wounds which donít often have the same effect as the bigger diameter hollow point wounds which have much more of a shocking or stunning effect. The benefits an explosive soft point or hollow-point will provide you with is a certain visual reaction, and significant tissue trauma. The heavy hard cast bullets are designed for exceptional penetration only. Randy is a friend of mine we have sat and talked about this paradox of bullet choice many times. Black bears absolutely realize more trauma from higher velocity soft bullets, or hollow points. The super hard-cast heavy bullets pass through so quickly with so little transfer of bullet impact that the reaction is poor. Yes both designs will kill bears, but the faster pass through of the solids will make your effort to locate the bear much longer. Often I have seen hunters consider their shot a miss because the bear will show no reaction at all to being hit. If this kind of bullet is chosen the best solution is to break bones and hope the fragments of projected bone will assist in the penetration of important organs like the lungs and heart. If brown bears are the main target then the heavy hard cast bullets make sense. They can be 4-6 times the weight of a black bear and you will likely be shooting for shoulder bones on these big bears. Then the big hard cast bullets are the perfect choice.

I have not come to these conclusions by seeing one or two bears killed, but by seeing as many as several hundred killed. Anyone can see a bear shot with spectacular results once or twice and assume the cartridge bullet combination is perfect. However seeing the same combination twenty, thirty, or more times really starts to give you higher resolution repeatable results. The results that carry the most weight are the ones with the greatest resolution or highest numbers. I have heard countless hunters claiming that their XYZ caliber and bullet is the perfect choice. When asked why they think this, the reply is that they shot a bear with it one time and it worked perfectly. Well in my opinion one time does not make for a very scientific or credible set of facts! This works the other way as well. Plenty of people will make or see a bad shot on game and assume they need a bigger gun. When in fact they only needed to make a better shot!
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#1498677 - 06/21/07 06:20 PM Re: Minimum caliber handgun for Black bear and Cougar [Re: JJHACK]
teesh Offline
Member

Registered: 04/16/06
Posts: 245
Loc: Ogden, Utah
JJ,

Wow.......now that is what I call an informed response. And quite frankly nothing I would dare argue with. Thanks. Something I must confess and didn't clarify is that my question is more to do with possible confrontation with a lion or black bear vs. hunting one. Seems that most everyone else who posted would likely agree with your assessment. I've been leaning towards buying the new 4" Ruger Redhawk in .44 mag. for my hiking gun and for where I will be the only real threats I envision might come from lions or black bears. A 4" GP100 is also being considered but after this read, I'm more inclined to go the Redhawk route. Was hoping to cover both bases (personal protection at home and in the woods) but no gun is right for all things. Just another reason to buy both guns, right? Thanks again for taking the time.
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#1498866 - 06/21/07 08:09 PM Re: Minimum caliber handgun for Black bear and Cougar [Re: teesh]
pumpgun Offline
Campfire Tracker

Registered: 01/28/01
Posts: 5281
Loc: Parker, Co
As CH pointed out a 357 is not legal for big game in Colorado. You have to use at least a 44 mag. Of course if you wish to be sporting you could use a contender or an encore in a rifle caliber and be legal,like my 30-06 encore.tom
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#1499673 - 06/22/07 11:19 AM Re: Minimum caliber handgun for Black bear and Cougar [Re: teesh]
Flinch Offline
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Registered: 01/26/01
Posts: 5794
Loc: Utah, U.S.A.
I have shot a lot of critters with .45 ACP, 9mm, .357 and .44 mags. I LIVE in bear and cougar country and see both a lot. The pucker factor you experience with a bear or cougar staring you down at less than 20 yards is something everyone needs to experience when choosing a handgun for personal defense. I am not talking about the critter in a tree with dogs barking at it. I am talking about the critter than isn't backing down. Although they will work, a 9mm, 45 ACP, .40 Smith or .38 special seems pretty darn insignificant in such a situation. I have been there many times to say the least. They will get the job done, but they aren't going to "anchor" the critter....generally.

You have a millisecond to crumple a critter that means you harm. Basically you get one shot and it may not be perfectly placed due to adrenaline. Here is where the .357 with PROPER 158-180 grain HP bullets works pretty good, not great, but pretty good. As JJ stated, forget hard cast bullets. They are simply full metal jacket bullets in terms of performance.

The .44 magnum and .45 long Colt with 240 or 250 grain HP bullets really shine. The crumple factor is awesome and there is not doubt you made a leathal hit. The big .45's, 480's and 50's are just that, they are big, heavy, cause major flinching and are not for the faint of heart or the occasional hiker/plinker. They are for seasoned handgunners that know how to use them. The biggest badest gun in the world does you no good if you are afraid of it and can't hit a barn with it. Even the .44 is too big for most guys to shoot well. This is when I recommend a GOOD .357 of no less than 4 inches. Better to hit the critter with a decent round than to miss with a big round. It boils down to what gives you the warm fuzzy, within reason. Throw your ego away and be practical. Ask yourself how much your are honestly going to practice with a big gun to get good with it in an intense situation? I am not talking slow fire at the range, but pull that pistol and get it into action and make the shot in a couple of seconds. Shoot the biggest gun you can shoot well, leaving the ego home. My favorite is still the .44 magnum. It always decides the fight for me and I have never felt undergunned. Flinch
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#1505062 - 06/25/07 10:53 AM Re: Minimum caliber handgun for Black bear and Cougar [Re: Flinch]
Cariboujack Offline
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Registered: 02/13/04
Posts: 8188
Loc: Alaska/Idaho
flinch, Excellent reply and includes the realistic issue that most people can NOT handle even the 44 mag because they don't practise with it. The 357 with a good round is an excellent cartridge and at the upper end of what the casual shooter is going to realistically handle half way accurately PLUS give them a relatively accurate followup shot. Does my heart good to actually see people get away from the theoretical and into what the average Joe can do.
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#1506402 - 06/25/07 10:28 PM Re: Minimum caliber handgun for Black bear and Cougar [Re: Cariboujack]
dennisinaz Offline
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Registered: 12/08/02
Posts: 7333
Loc: AZ
I am going to disagree somewhat with JJ and Flinch. I haven't killed anywhere the number of bears that JJ has and he didn't say how many lion kills he's been on. This isn't my point. You can kill a lion with damn near anything in my experience. I have never had one give me a lick of trouble when hit.

A friend of mine worked as a damage control contractor for several reservations and killed more than 3000 lions in 50 years. I drew a lot of experience from him and chased a lot of them with him too. I think his bear kill was in the neighborhood of 700.

He prefered to kill them with a rifle. He had a 44 but said that a rifle was much better. My only real point is that there isn't much of a "crumple factor" with any reasonable handgun. As for the 9mm and 40s needing more maintenance that is pure ignorance. The chambering of the gun has little if anything to do with reliability of it. Most of my experience is with Glock handguns, but there are others that are also reliable. I have seen them thrown from helicopters, buried in dirt and about everything else and they still go bang just about every time. Some malfunctions are going to happen- that's why cops are trained extensively to perform malfunction drills.

If I were hunting over hounds, I wouldn't feel the least bit undergunned with my 40 S&W on a lion in a tree. It would work on a bear in a pinch but in my experience, you have to wait a while.

If you want instant results, a high velocity rifle round is the real answer. Some may question why all these mediocre rounds are used for this. The reason is simply weight. A houndsman doesn't want to pack a 7# rifle around on his mule all day when he can get by with a 2# handgun.

For the record, a 180 grain Speer Gold dot out of a 40 S&W does a fantastic job on bighorn sheep, lions and humans. I just may know someone who has personal experience in these matters.
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#1507673 - 06/26/07 03:32 PM Re: Minimum caliber handgun for Black bear and Cougar [Re: teesh]
WyoJoe Online   content
Campfire Guide

Registered: 06/14/05
Posts: 2820
Loc: Cheyenne, Wyoming
 Originally Posted By: teesh
Just wondering what most would consider the minimum size handgun for Black bear and Cougar? Or more directly, would a .357 suffice or would the .44 be more appropriate?......


For me the minimum would start at the .41 mag with a 6" barrel. I have tried this round with people that are not highly experienced hand gunners and have gotten very good results. Recoil is reasonable and it packs a good punch. One of the worst recoiling handguns that I have ever shot was a Colt Lawman .357 with 4" barrel shooting full power loads. It kicked the daylights out of me. And I can shoot a .44 mag (8-3/8" bbl.) rapid fire & enjoy it.

Like the Flinch mentioned practise until you can draw and fire in about 2 seconds. Until it is second nature with you.
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#1508533 - 06/26/07 11:02 PM Re: Minimum caliber handgun for Black bear and Cougar [Re: WyoJoe]
macrabbit Offline
Campfire Guide

Registered: 02/23/04
Posts: 4652
Loc: C. Calif
 Originally Posted By: WyoJoe
For me the minimum would start at the .41 mag with a 6" barrel. I have tried this round with people that are not highly experienced hand gunners and have gotten very good results.


Do you mean that the skill level of your foe influences your cartridge choice?
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#1509393 - 06/27/07 11:46 AM Re: Minimum caliber handgun for Black bear and Cougar [Re: macrabbit]
JJHACK Offline
Campfire Tracker

Registered: 01/30/01
Posts: 7386
Loc: Touchet Wa. & Ellisras South ...
Some of the comments regarding options are not as prudent as one would think.

Placing yourself in harms way with a false sense of security is not a very wise decision. It's like buying a pre-folded/packed parachute from Ebay and planning to use it in an emergency without checking it out first. Sure you think your safe flying that little plane now cause you have a parachute right?

If you think that buying a gun for bear/lion protection is so important that you must have one to venture into the areas your interested in traveling. Then why go with something that is not a decisive and proven performer. Going into a known problem area( your opinion) with less then the right choice is just silly!

I read and hear people all the time talking about handguns and shotguns for the river in AK or BC where bears frequent the salmon streams. If you really think that the risk is worth the reward you better have a dedicated guy with a gun handy guarding the people fishing. Take turns fishing but somebody better be at the ready if you really think it's a problem that justifes a gun to begin with.

This comes from a guy who has been pinned to the ground and chewed on. With a 44 mag and hot handloads, enough to kill any bear alive. Yet I could not unbutton my coat and get that gun out to use it. Each time I tried to move to get the gun I was shoved down and attacked with great vigor by that bear.

No matter what you choose it must be ready and available, not over your shoulder with a sling, not in a holster, not under your coat, but at the ready. Other then that it's simply a false sense of security. These ideas that having this gun in your backpack, under your coat, over your shoulder just invite trouble and will put you into places you should not be going with that false sense of security.

When I was hit and knocked down from behind the wind was knocked out of me and I could not breath for about 30 seconds. Getting my hands on the gun was not my first priority, getting air into my lungs was. After that blocking the back of my head from the biting was. Then after some time, I cannot measure under the stress of the moment, I was able to think about my revolver. However any movement by me just increased the intensity of the bears aggression. So regardless of the gun you choose, you better decide that it must be at your fingertips in an instant. You cannot fish, cannot daydream, cannot enjoy the moment.

If you seriously consider that the place you're traveling to dictates the use of a gun, then you better make that the priority and act with a military level of preparadness. If you don't think you can or want to use that mindset to enter into the place that worries you, then stay out of there. No firearm you carry will help you when a problem occurs if your not expecting it all the time. Lions don't attack from the front. You will not likely see it coming. They will run up and hit you from behind so fast and with such rage and intensity that you will never draw the gun anyway. With the wind knocked out of you and four 1" teeth stuck into your nack It's a little to late for pulling the gun out of the holster. Do you really trust your friends and or family to shoot at a moving lion or bear that is on top of you? You want a bullet impacting and penetrating clean through an animal on top of you? Hard cast and solids seem quite a bit less attractive in this situation. At least to me. Actually the skill set of the shooter in a huge panic seems a bit risky as well. Bears can do the same but usually provide better survival time lines, or in other words just a bit more notice. Still not with enough time to unshoulder and aim a rifle or shotgun, or dig out from under your buttoned or zipped coat to use a gun.

When you think that the area your traveling in is going to be a problem, then you better go with the intent that you better have the gun in your hands. Otherwise it's just a pound and a half of metal weighing you down. This is a fact, coming from a guy who has lived through it once, and seen the problems several times.

Far to many people have some kind of gun and feel invincible. This gets them into places they should never have gone anyway because they feel safe with a very misguided sense of security.
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#1509752 - 06/27/07 03:37 PM Re: Minimum caliber handgun for Black bear and Cougar [Re: JJHACK]
kutenay Offline
Campfire Outfitter

Registered: 03/15/04
Posts: 7739
That is absolutely correct, I have spent my entire 61 years in some of the most densely populated Grizzly country on Earth and carried various guns while working/recreating during this time.

I have a Ruger Redhawk 5.5"sts .44 Mag with 250 gr. warmish loads, but, never bother with it as it is too bulky, heavy to backpack and slow to get to. I also have a custom P-64 -.375 H&H with a 20"tube, good sights and 300 NPs which I carry IN MY HANDS anywhere that I consider a gun is needed.

I have has about 60 Grizzly encounters, have had colleagues mauled, but, never anyone under my supervision/protection and I think that JJHaack is totally righton. The BEST weapon is controlled fear, sharp awareness and a gun that you are utterly familiar with and CAN shoot.

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