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While I was hunting elk in the Madison Range of Montana last October, a brief snow storm rushed over the mountains and dropped about an inch of fresh powder. The sudden burst limited visibility and made crossing the boulders on the base of the mountain a slippery challenge, so my hunting partner and I sat out the storm under a clump of trees overlooking a river valley. When the brief storm ebbed and the first streaks of sunlight filtered through the firs and pines of the Madison Forest, we started down into the valley below to pick up the trail of the elk herd. That’s when we came upon the grizzly tracks.
The prints were unmistakably large, round and very fresh. The bear had crossed the trail no more than 10 minutes before we arrived. Being a born and bred Midwesterner, I was caught totally unawares; no one had mentioned the word “grizzly,” and this late in the season I imagined all the bears would be in dens. The crisp prints on the fresh snow were a clear indicator that I was wrong.
Every close encounter I’ve had with grizzlies has been a hackle-raising experience similar to that one. In Alberta in 2014, I had to abandon a productive black bear bait because a large male grizzly decided to claim the food for himself. While hiking the Russian River in Alaska in 2012, two terrified tourists broke out of the timber ahead of me in a hurry to get back to their rental car because they’d stumbled upon a pair of grizzly cubs at the water’s edge and knew the sow was close by. Thankfully, though, that’s been the extent of my encounters with bears, and even though they were a bit frightening at the time, each of those experiences has made my time in the wilderness richer. Still, if that unlikely moment arrives when I must defend myself from North America’s greatest land predator, I fully understand that my only hope of survival might be resting in my holster or on my shoulder.
The shotguns, rifles and handguns listed here come recommended by people who live alongside bears, from fishing and hunting guides to scientists, hikers and helicopter pilots. Before you head into grizzly country, it’s essential to be prepared; having the right defensive firearm should be a top priority.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the April 2016 Issue of Gun Digest the Magazine
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I have a few different guns that I prefer for bear defense. I live in an area now that doesn’t have any bears, but I lived in Idaho for years (wish I still did!), and there we had both black bears & grizzlies. My most commonly carried bear gun was my Ruger Redhawk .44 Magnum. It was cut down to a 4″ barrel, Magna-ported, setup for moon clips (more reliable & faster reloads) and fitted with a set of custom Jordan Trooper stocks from Herrett’s. Right behind the Redhawk was a Kimber TLE/RL II 1911 converted to .460 Rowland. It’s not quite as powerful as the Ruger, but it has a 9-11 round capacity, depending upon the magazine used, night sights, Crimson Trace Lasergrips & a 630 lumen Streamlight TLR-1 HL weaponlight mounted on it. It’s not exactly a lightweight (neither of them are), but it’s definitely what you want to have if Yogi gets upset when you catch him stealing your picnic basket at 3:00am! When I was horseback riding I would often carry a Ruger Bisley in .44 Magnum, but generally I prefer either a double action or a semi-auto.
My long guns were similar. I have 3 that I would typically use depending upon what I was doing. The first was an 8-shot Mossberg 590 with a Vang-Comp Systems barrel mounted with XS 24/7 Big Dot tritium sights, a Knoxx Compstock & a Surefire forend light. I often kept it loaded with ‘Pitbull’ rounds.
Next up was a Marlin 1895 .45-70 with a 20″ Magna-ported barrel & XS ghost ring sights. I also put a short Picatinny rail on the bottom of the magazine tube so that I could mount my Streamlight TLR-2 light/laser on there at night. If I was on horseback this was the one I had with me.
After it became available I also started carrying an AR15 in .458 Socom, and it was setup the same as I would setup most any other AR15 carbine. It had an Aimpoint Comp M3 RDS, flip-up BUIS, a Lasermax Uni-Green laser (mounted via a barrel-mounted rail in the 12:00 position just forward of the handguard) & a Surefire X300 weaponlight mounted all the way forward on the hanfguard tube in the 12:00 position, just forward of the front BUIS. Essentially it was setup identically to my home defense AR with which I was very well practiced, just with a heck of a lot more stopping power! Paired up with the Kimber it made a just about perfect 24/7 bear defense combo for those times when I was travelling by 4×4, ATV or motorcycle.
Happily I was never forced to use any of them, but having them nearby sure made it easier to sleep at night when I was camping in grizzly country!