A quandary for many “wanna be” Alaska sheep, goat, and caribou hunters is what to do about stopping grizzly and brown bear attacks. Can a light, flat-shooting mountain game rifle also be an effective bear stopping rifle?
I’m probably not the best to ask about this because, during dozens of hunts in grizzly country, I’ve never had to stop a charge. Except for my first moose/caribou hunt back in the 1980s when a S&W 44 Magnum rode my hip, I’ve never carried a bear protection gun. Sometimes my guides were backing me up with nothing more powerful than loud voices and running shoes. On my last trip to AK, with hunting partner Tom Claycomb stalking bears every day, I was armed with two cameras. Master Guide Charles Allen of Diamond Blade Knives backed us up with his 411 KDF. That’s the big wildcat cartridge/rifle with which he once stopped a charging brownie at 12 feet.
The moral of that story is, when you need one, you need one! A gun capable of stopping a 400-to 1,000-pound mountain of teeth, claws and bad attitude could play a huge role in the subsequent enjoyment of your sheep hunt.
But here’s the thing: that sexy, snazzy, sleek, sub-six-pound, laser-flat, sub-30-caliber, extreme-range sheep rifle of yours isn’t going to be chambered in 411 KDF. A sheep hunter doesn’t want to give up his ultralight sheep rifle on the outside chance a bear might decide to eat him. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to if he forgets about the cartridge and concentrates on the bullet.
Bear Stopping Rifle or Bullet?
It’s not a bear stopping rifle so much as bear stopping bullet we’re after. Of course the rifle launches the bullet, but it’s the bullet that stops the bear. If we forget our bear stopping rifle fixation and concentrate on bear stopping bullets, our pet mountain rifles have a fighting chance.
What must a bullet do to stop a bear? If your answer is “hit it like a Mac Truck hauling a load of steel at highway speed,” go to the back of the class. You can’t carry a Mac truck in the Alaska Range. At best you can carry a rifle capable of throwing a bullet just hard enough to scare you into flinching while making your shoulder a bit sore. If the recoiling gun can’t knock you over, it can’t knock the bear over. Basic physics.
Power isn’t your answer. Penetration is.
Penetrating the Mystique of the Bear Stopping Rifle
The way to a bear’s heart is through its massive chest. But a better destination is it’s brain or spinal column. The best route is plowed by a bullet engineered to penetrate hide, hair, muscle and bones. It doesn’t require a truckload of energy for a tiny projectile to do that, but it does require a tough bullet designed to stay in one piece and travel in a straight line. If it expands a bit, say 1.5X, maybe even as much as 2X, that’s ok. But it must retain enough mass in its shank to keep driving forward. It needs, in a word, momentum, and “heavy-for-caliber” bullets can carry that.
Heavy-for-caliber bullets used to be popular in the early 20th century when hunters weren’t convinced speed could make up for mass. Their old guns used heavy bullets. They wanted the new ones to, too. Most ammo makers offered at least one bullet in each popular big game cartridge that was unusually heavy for its caliber. In most 308-calibers it was 220-grains. In 7mms — from 7×57 Mauser through 7mm Wby. Mag. — it was 175-grains. The 270 Winchester rolled with a 160-grain. For a time even 170-grain and 180-grain bullets were offered in the 270 Winchester. As for those skinny little 6.5mms — from the Swede and Mausers to the 264 Win. Mag. — were usually offered with a 160-grain round nose on the heavy end.
You can imagine what those bullets looked like: long. Really long and quite blunt. And that meant they had high Sectional densities. Sectional density (S.D.) is the ratio of bullet weight to the square of its diameter. The heavier a bullet for its caliber, the higher its S.D. The higher its SD, the more likely it is to penetrate well. Hornady’s 120-grain .264” GMX has an S.D. of .246. The Woodleigh 160-grain Protected Point in .264 has an S.D. of .328.
Once a heavy bullet gets rolling, it doesn’t want to stop until an external force acts upon it. That’s usually friction. Air friction as it flies, tissue friction after it starts burrowing. The wider it frontal surface area, the higher the friction and lower the penetration. A tough, high S.D. bullet with minimum expansion and a long shank penetrates like a stake, burrowing through the frontal mass of a 1,000-pound brown bear to reach his brain or spine.
A bear’s skull is one thick, tough, well-protected shell for Mr. Bear’s hard drive. I once knew a game warden who tried to euthanize a bull bison by applying a 180-grain 30-06 hunting bullet to its forehead from a few yards out. The bullet skipped off. So did the bison, la tee da. A bear’s forehead is something like that. That’s why you want a hard, long, blunt-faced slug engineered to take a pounding and keep on boring. Deep, deep, and deeper still through all the mass a brownie shoves in your face when he comes hard. That’s how you’ll engage him. Mere feet away, head first, coming. You don’t care what your bullet might do inside lungs and heart and guts. You want to reach the command and control center.
Comparing a Classic Bear Stopping Rifle to Small Caliber Options
If you’re with me so far and you see in your mind’s eye the benefit of these high S.D., long-shank bullets, you understand how you can make your sheep rifle a bear stopping rifle. You’ll probably need handloads or custom loaded ammo to achieve this, but it’s worth the effort. Find those flat-nose or round-nose, heavy-for-caliber bullets for your favorite game rifle and load a few. Don’t worry about muzzle velocity. It will be fairly low, but so what? The kinetic energy and momentum potential will be high. The little 6.5 Creedmoor, for instance, should push a 160-grain bullet 2,500 fps. That’s more than enough power to reach the biggest bear’s control center. Load it with less powder and recoil will be lower, giving you better control for faster follow-up shots.
But is such a small bullet, such a narrow bullet, really sufficient? A lot of Alaskan’s swear by the 45-70 Govt. with a 300- to 350-grain bullet for bear protection. In a Marlin 1895 lever-action Guide Gun this is handy, reliable, fast fire power. At 1,800 fps M.V., Hornady’s 350-grain flat-point 45-70 Govt. load is hauling 2,518 f-p energy. The short bullet’s S.D. is .238. That suggests its going to smack hard, but not necessarily penetrate all that far.
In comparison, a 6.5×55 Swede tossing a 160-grain Woodleigh at 2,300 fps puts out 2,220 f-p energy. A 270 Win. spitting a 180-grain Woodleigh (S.D. .334) 2,600 fps churns up 2,700 f-p at the muzzle. That’s more energy than the 45-70. And the 270 bullet has a heck of a lot higher S.D. At 100 yards that 270 bullet is still carrying 2,527 f-p (more than the 45-70 at the muzzle.) Of course, you’re not going to be engaging any charging bears at 100 yards. This is close-up, last-resort, self-defense work for which you’ll likely unleash only one to three rounds from a bolt action. Any more than that and you’ll be engaged in hand-to-claw combat.
Straight Line Penetration Critical in a Bear Stopping Rifle
There’s a chance that extra long bullets won’t stabilize perfectly with your barrel’s twist rate. Not a big problem. Again, shot distance is going to be so close that accuracy shouldn’t matter. This bullet is like an extension of your arm, but one with a lot more punch, a lot more reach. Shoot some targets with your bear stopping loads at 10, 20, 30 and 40 yards to get a firm picture of brain punching accuracy. And then realize that you probably won’t start shooting until 20 yards. Or less if your nerves hold.
More important than downrange accuracy or energy may be straight-line penetration. Elephant hunters proved long, long ago that flat-nose and round-nose bullets track straighter than any spire point bullet. A round or flat-nose is what you want. Equally important are ingredients and construction. Thick jacket, hardened lead or bonded core, maybe an internal wall. Monolithic bullets like Barnes TSX, Nosler E-Tip, and Hornady GMX famously retain mass and long shanks, but all feature long, sloping noses, suggesting they could curve off line while penetrating. Still, I would put one of these up against a massive, charging bear sooner than most lead core bullets of similar weight and shape.
Solid bullets like Hornady DGS, Barnes Solids, Nosler Solids, etc. are properly shaped and sure penetrators, but good luck finding one in a caliber narrower than 35. Cutting Edge bullets has a nice option in its ESP Raptor line. These brass bullets come with polymer tips that can be removed to create a flat-nose hollow point. Alternatively, Raptors can be loaded base first. The .264 Raptor weighs just 100 grains because it is brass, but I suspect it would penetrate extremely well because it’s so hard. Another option is a Cutting Edge 155-grain Copper Safari Solid in .264, an incredibly long bullet. There are similar options in .277, .284 and .308. Woodleigh builds its Hydrostatic solid in a 140-grain 7mm, 150-grain .308 and 180-grain .308, so that could be your solution for any rifles in those calibers. In loaded ammo, Doubletap Ammo has some good, heavy for caliber loads for smaller calibers, including a Woodleigh 180-grain in 270 Winchester. Custom loaders like Superior Ammunition and Massaro Ballistic Labs can advise you as to suitable heavy-for-caliber bullets and create custom ammo for your rifles.
If you cannot find an extra-heavy-for-caliber, flat-nose or round-nose bullet in your caliber, at least get the heaviest and toughest you can find. Norma’s bonded Orxy isn’t a bad option. Neither are Swift A-Frames or Federal Trophy Bonded Bear Claws. Winchester’s old Fail Safes were a great penetrating bullet. Maybe you can find an old stash. I wouldn’t feel under-gunned if I were taking on a grizzly with a 270 Winchester stuffed with 150-grain Barnes TSX loads.
Carrying Your Dual Purpose Bear Stopping Rifle and Mountain Rifle
So, if you like the idea of packing a good bear stopping rifle without giving up your lightweight mountain dream rifle, investigate heavy-for-caliber, high S.D. bullets and loads. Carry five or six during your hunts in bear country, and keep two or three ready at the top of your magazine stack. You can always replace them when you’re closing for a shot at a goat, caribou or sheep. If you have had experience with small calibers, heavy-for-caliber bullets, and charging bears, please let us know about it in the comment section.
If you do start carrying heavy-bullet bear stoppers during your north country hunts, I’m betting the will grow dark with age and you’ll retire them at the end of a long and successful hunting career. But if one or two are missing and you’re not, you’ll know a long, heavy, high S.D. bullet in your pet mountain rifle made it the perfect bear stopping rifle.
The author has never had to stop a charging bear, but he likes to think he could if the challenge arose. Carrying a few heavy-for-caliber bullets in his game rifles keeps his confidence up. Hunting smart and avoiding bears keeps encounters down.