Bowhunting in Bear Country: The Handgun Advantage

handguns while huntingAs thrilling as bowhunting is, there are added layers of risk when you pursue game in bear country. Stealth, patience, and prowess are necessary for bowhunters, but so is preparation for unexpected encounters with bears. In such encounters, the debate often centers around two primary defense tools: bear spray and handguns. While both have their proponents, I’ll make a case here for why a handgun may offer certain advantages over bear spray.

The Handgun Advantage

  • Reliability: While bear spray malfunctions are rare, they can happen, especially if the canister is old or the nozzle becomes clogged. A well-maintained firearm, on the other hand, has a higher likelihood of functioning as intended when required.
  • Range and Reusability: Bear sprays typically have an effective range of 15 to 30 feet, depending on conditions such as wind. Handguns provide a more extended range, allowing the user to address a threat from a safer distance. Moreover, if multiple threats present themselves or if a bear is particularly determined, a handgun can be reloaded, providing repeated use, unlike a single-use bear spray canister.

Preferred Handguns for Bear Defense

The debate surrounding the best bear-defense handguns is robust. However, some makes, models, and calibers stand out:

  • Smith & Wesson’s .44 Magnum Family: As one of the most potent handgun cartridges available, the .44 Magnum, especially in heavier bullet weights, provides both penetration and energy transfer necessary for stopping a charging bear.
  • Glock 20 (10mm Auto): The semi-auto Glock 20 chambered in 10mm Auto combines firepower with capacity. With proper ammunition, it offers a balance between energy, penetration, and multiple shots.
  • Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan .454 Casull: With massive energy, the .454 Casull delivers a punch well above many other handgun calibers. This Ruger model, with its shorter barrel, is designed with portability and quick draw in mind.

Semi-Auto vs. Revolver

While revolvers have historically been the go-to for bear defense due to their powerful cartridges, semi-autos have gained popularity. Why?

Capacity: Semi-autos typically offer greater ammunition capacity, meaning more shots available without reloading.

Ease of Reload: Magazine-fed semi-autos can be reloaded more quickly than most revolvers, potentially critical in a situation with multiple threats.

However, revolvers, with their straightforward design, are often seen as more reliable in extreme conditions, making them an equally valid choice.

Familiarity Over Caliber

There’s a saying: “Beware the man with one gun, for he probably knows how to use it.” There’s much truth to this. While higher calibers may offer more stopping power, it’s essential to consider the shooter’s experience with the firearm. An unfamiliar, high-recoil handgun can result in poor shot placement, flinching, or hesitancy to shoot.

On the other hand, a handgun you’ve trained with extensively—knowing its every nuance—can be deployed with confidence and precision. In a life-threatening encounter, familiarity and comfort with your firearm can make all the difference.

Bear country is a realm where power often equates to peace of mind. Traditionalists swear by the .44 Magnum, while a new wave of enthusiasts champions the 10mm Auto. However, amid discussions of “stopping power” and “energy transfer,” it’s pivotal to remember that the most effective round is the one you can deploy accurately and confidently.

The Allure of 10mm Auto

The 10mm Auto cartridge, often heralded as the “semi-auto magnum,” offers a balance of powerful ballistics and manageable recoil. As its popularity grows, major firearms manufacturers have expanded their offerings:

1. Smith & Wesson M&P 10mm:
The M&P series by Smith & Wesson is renowned for its ruggedness and ergonomic design. Their foray into 10mm combines the M&P’s reliability with the punch of the 10mm cartridge, making it a compelling choice for those wanting semi-auto firepower in bear country.

2. Springfield Armory’s 10mm Lineup:
Springfield Armory has embraced the 10mm, offering models like the TRP Operator and the XD-M in this caliber. Both bring Springfield’s reputation for quality and accuracy to the table, packaged with the power of the 10mm.

Venturing Beyond 10mm: .40 S&W and 9mm Luger

While the 10mm Auto has its champions, not everyone is looking for (or needs) its level of recoil and power. For those wanting solid performance with reduced recoil, the .40 S&W and 9mm Luger provide excellent alternatives.

1. The .40 S&W:
Bridging the gap between 9mm and 10mm, the .40 S&W offers a balance of power and controllability. Its snappy recoil is more manageable than the 10mm, yet it provides ballistics that outpace the 9mm. With myriad pistols chambered for it—from compact carry guns to full-size service pistols—there’s a .40 S&W to fit any hand and purpose.

2. 9mm Luger:
As one of the world’s most prevalent cartridges, the 9mm’s relatively mild recoil, combined with advanced bullet designs, makes it a contender even in challenging environments. While it may not have the raw energy of larger rounds, shot placement, high-capacity, and quick follow-up shots make the 9mm a practical choice for many.

Making the Right Choice: Familiarity First

With such a wide variety of powerful semi-automatic options available, it’s tempting to select a firearm based solely on its ballistic potential. Yet, the most effective tool in a crisis is the one you’re intimately familiar with.

Training & Experience:
An individual who has logged countless hours with a .40 S&W or 9mm might be far more effective with their familiar firearm than they would be with a brand-new 10mm they’ve just acquired. This principle, rooted in muscle memory and confidence, can be the difference between a successful defense and tragic outcomes.

The Case for 9mm in Bear Country: Familiarity Over Caliber

In the rugged terrains and unpredictable landscapes of bear country, it’s often believed that bigger is always better when it comes to stopping power. The mighty .44 Magnum and the potent 10mm Auto have traditionally been favorites among those venturing into bear territory. But, in the shadow of these powerhouses, there lies the humble 9mm – a cartridge which, surprisingly to some, may offer distinct advantages when considering the critical balance between firepower and familiarity.

The 9mm Appeal

1. Ubiquity and Experience:
The 9mm cartridge is one of the most popular handgun calibers worldwide. Whether for police service, military duty, or civilian use, its prevalence means that many shooters have had extensive experience with it. For someone who has trained rigorously with a 9mm handgun, transitioning to a higher-recoil caliber just before a hunt or expedition might introduce variables that could negatively impact their performance in a high-stress bear encounter.

2. Manageable Recoil:
One of the 9mm’s most significant advantages is its relatively mild recoil, especially when compared to the more substantial .44 Magnum or 10mm Auto. This manageability allows for quicker follow-up shots, which can be crucial in a situation where a bear is closing the distance rapidly.

3. Ammunition Choices:
The modern ammunition industry has made leaps and bounds in bullet design and performance. Premium 9mm ammunition, with bullets designed for deep penetration, can be surprisingly effective. While they might not offer the raw energy of larger calibers, a well-placed shot with a quality 9mm round can still be a formidable defense.

4. Increased Capacity:
Given the smaller size of the 9mm cartridge, handguns chambered in this caliber often have a higher capacity than their larger-caliber counterparts. This can provide the shooter with more opportunities to stop a threat without needing to reload.

Familiarity: The Key to Effective Defense

When milliseconds matter, the shooter’s comfort and proficiency with their firearm become paramount. In the chaos of a bear charge, with adrenaline pumping and fear setting in, the shooter will default to their training. If they’ve spent countless hours and thousands of rounds mastering a 9mm, they will likely perform better with that familiar firearm than with a more potent but unfamiliar handgun.

Training Over Tool:
While tools are essential, skills are paramount. A well-trained shooter with a 9mm they know inside out might very well be more effective than an occasional shooter with a high-power .44 Magnum they’ve barely used.

Traveling with Handguns

Legal considerations are paramount when traveling with a handgun. It’s essential to familiarize oneself with federal, state, and local regulations regarding transportation, storage, and carrying of firearms in bear country. Proper storage in locked containers and understanding where and when you can legally carry are critical to remaining compliant with the law.


While both bear spray and handguns offer a means of defense against bear encounters, each comes with its unique advantages. When it comes to sheer stopping power and versatility, a handgun stands out. But remember, the best tool is the one you’re proficient with, and that requires practice and training. Stay safe out there, and may your adventures in bear country be both thrilling and safe.

While it’s undeniable that higher calibers offer more energy and stopping power, it’s essential to weigh those benefits against the shooter’s skill and experience. The best caliber is the one you shoot best. If that happens to be the 9mm, and you’ve trained extensively with it, it’s a choice that should not be underestimated, even in the demanding conditions of bear country. Safety first, and remember that proficiency can sometimes trump sheer power.

Bear country demands respect, preparation, and the right equipment. However, the “right equipment” isn’t always the most powerful gun or the largest caliber. Often, it’s the firearm you’ve trained with, the one that feels like an extension of your hand. Whether that’s the venerable .44 Magnum, the potent 10mm Auto, the balanced .40 S&W, or the reliable 9mm Luger, the best choice is the one you can wield with confidence and precision. Remember, in the wilderness as in life, knowledge, and experience often outweigh raw power.


Originally posted 2023-09-27 11:24:10.

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