The stuffed teddy bears you snuggled with during childhood might have led you to believe bears are cute and cuddly. However, bears are actually dangerous apex predators.
That means when you traipse into bear country, you no longer sit at the top of the food chain.
If you plan to hike, hunt, fish, or live in bear country, you should have a solid defensive plan for dangerous bear encounters. Getting mangled by an angry bruin is a good way to ruin an otherwise enjoyable outing.
To stay safe, you’ll need to pack some good old-fashioned common sense and an effective bear-stopping weapon.
Not sure what firearm you should tote into the backcountry? Don’t worry; we’ve got you covered.
Summary of Our Top Picks
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Thankfully, most bears go out of their way to avoid humans. If you’ve ever wandered into bear country, there’s a good chance you’ve been within sniffing distance of a bear without even realizing it.
Despite the reclusive nature of most bruins, there has been an increase in human encounters with wild bears over the past decade.
That increase isn’t just for stereotypically wild places like Montana and Alaska. You may be more likely to bump into a bruin in New Jersey, which surprisingly has one of the densest bear populations in the lower 48.
The best way to survive a bear encounter is to not end up in a bad situation in the first place. And the best bear defense gun is no substitute for plain old common sense.
When possible, travel with a group of buddies and make plenty of noise as you go. You don’t have to mimic your raucous fraternity days. Casual conversation is usually enough to keep from stumbling into an unsuspecting bear.
If you do spot a bear, give him a wide berth. If you need to retreat, do it slowly and keep your eyes on the bear. Never turn your back. You want to be ready just in case the bear becomes aggressive.
It’s also a good idea to talk calmly to the bear. A mild “Hey, Bear” is often enough. You want him to identify you as a human so he doesn’t mistake you for a tasty between-meal snack.
Bears are highly food driven. Yogi and his picnic basket fetish aren’t too far off the mark. Keep your campsite clean and store food in airtight, bear-resistant containers.
Bears are tough creatures. They have tough hides, muscles, bones, and attitudes. Since even the fastest human would be hard-pressed to outrun the clumsiest bear, if you do find yourself facing an angry bear, you’ll need an effective way to stand your ground without getting mauled.
When a bear encounter makes a turn for the worst, you’ll want a weapon you can use confidently and effectively.
For a fair number of people, that weapon is a firearm.
Not everyone who travels through or lives in bear country relies on the same type of weapon. In fact, what makes the “best” bear defense weapon has been the subject of some pretty heated debates.
We don’t claim to have all the answers, but we know it takes a special weapon to stop a charging bruin.
From shotguns to hand cannons to rifles, we’ll dive into the pros and cons of the most popular bear defense weapons.
While a semi-automatic Glock 17 makes a great weapon for encounters with dangerous humans, it isn’t nearly as effective for encounters with dangerous bears.
Bears are strong runners, and even a beefy 700-pound grizzly can cover 50 yards in under 3 seconds. With that kind of speed, you’ll be lucky to pull off two haphazard shots before that angry bear is rolling you up and using your head as his new favorite chew toy.
To make those shots count, you’ll need a big bullet with enough horsepower behind it to smash through all that toughness. You’ll definitely want something with a hard cast or monolithic bullet in the chamber.
We’re big fans of Buffalo Bore Outdoorsman hard-cast bruin punchers.
These bullets don’t deliver the massive wound channel you get with an expanding bullet, but you’ll need that solid construction to get adequate penetration.
That said, a handgun is just a handgun. Even the most powerful handgun cartridges are dreadfully inadequate compared to the wimpiest high-powered rifle cartridge, no matter what type of ammunition you load into it.
However, a high-powered rifle won’t do any good if you leave it in the cabin. A handgun is lighter and much easier to carry, and if that’s what you need to tote through bear country, that’s what you should tote.
Strapping on a sidearm isn’t a bad idea, even if you have a high-caliber rifle.
Rifles are easy to put down. You might even have it strapped to your pack. But a sidearm in a quality OWB holster is always on your person. It will probably be easier to access than your long gun.
Also, if you regularly train with your EDC handgun, you might be more confident and accurate with it than with a rifle you only pull out once a year.
Semi-automatic pistols can jam, which is not what you want when a 600-pound grizzly is bearing down on you fast. Since revolvers rarely malfunction, many backcountry hunters and residents trust their safety to a wheel gun.
The major drawback to using a revolver for bear defense is ammo capacity. Big revolvers only hold five or six rounds. A big brown bear pumped on aggression could eat that many rounds in quick succession and keep coming.
And I promise you won’t have time to reload.
As with any defensive shooting situation, proficiency with your weapon is essential. Having a handgun you can shoot well and carry comfortably is important.
If that’s a 10mm Auto, so be it. It will serve you better in a crisis than a monstrous revolver you rarely shoot and are tempted to leave in the truck.
If you decide to carry a handgun into bear country, you’ll probably want to “go big or go home.”
Some monster handguns can be brutal to shoot and an absolute pain to practice with. As a general rule, go as big as possible without sacrificing your ability to put lead on target.
And because bears are so tough and move quickly, you’ll need to make every round count. You’ll want to burn through some practice ammo before you head into the backcountry.
No matter how big you go with a handgun, they all lack the damage-wrecking velocity of a heavy rifle.
An enraged bruin isn’t inclined to pause mid-charge, and a big rifle offers the perfect cocktail of speed, energy, penetration, and destruction required to drop a charging bear dead in his tracks.
So, what do we consider “big?”
While most rifles in the .30 caliber range are fine for bear hunting, you may want something bigger and heavier for bear defense.
There’s a reason you’ll find hefty rifles chambered in .375 H&H, and .454 Casull (usually loaded with cartridges from Buffalo Bore or Hornady’s Dangerous Game Series) slung over the shoulders of experienced bear-country guides.
A rifle you can shoot well is a major asset, so you’ll want to become well-acquainted with your gun before stepping a single toe into bear country.
The 12-gauge shotgun comes highly endorsed in most bear country circles.
Many government agencies issue shotguns to their officers as bear defense weapons, and officers regularly use them successfully in dangerous bear encounters. However, the weapon’s capabilities are largely affected by the type of ammunition you have in the chamber.
If you plan to carry a 12-gauge through bear country, you might want to ditch the birdshot and 00 Buck. Premium magnum slugs are probably your best bet for stopping a charging bear.
A shotgun with a short barrel and a long magazine works best for bear defense. The popular Remington 870 and Mossberg 500 pump-actions are perfect for the job.
Best Bear Defense Guns
1. Glock 20
If you’re used to toting around a 9mm Glock 19, you might be more comfortable with that.
However, an upgrade to a Glock 20 chambered in 10mm and loaded with hard-cast FNs will provide far more stopping power than the relatively paltry 9mm.
Plus, the learning curve won’t be as high since you’re already familiar with the Glock platform.
While 10mm doesn’t pack the same punch as other magnum calibers, it still packs a lot of heat behind a relatively hefty round. And best of all – you get a whole lot more ammo in every mag.
15+1, polymer frame, unbeatable reliability, and the ability to mount red dot optics make the Glock 20 a serious contender for a bear defense gun.
What do you think of the Glock 20? Rate it below!
2. Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan
The Ruger Superhawk Alaskan is a relatively small wheel gun, but it’s chambered in .44 Rem Mag, which offers some real stopping power.
Any gun with “Alaskan” in its name — even if it is a revolver — deserves some serious consideration for backcountry defensive shooting. Few locations in the U.S. have more bears (or human/bear encounters) than the Last Frontier State.
Ruger offers the Alaskan in a stubby 2.5-inch barrel. However, shooting .44 Rem Mag from a squat barrel produces recoil as difficult to tame as Alaska.
If you have trouble with recoil, you might be better off with the Ruger Super Redhawk. The Super Redhawk is available in 6-, 7-, and 9-inch barrels. The extra weight and barrel length make the recoil a smidge easier to handle.
The Super Redhawk comes chambered for .44 Rem Mag, .454 Casull, 10mm, and .458 Ruger. When loaded with the right ammo, all are capable of bear-stopping cartridges.
3. Marlin 1895 SBL
Lever guns are common options for bear defense. The action is more reliable than most semi-autos. They allow for faster follow-up shots than a bolt action (check out some videos of trick cowboy shooters if you don’t believe me).
Plus, the shorter barrel length of most lever guns makes them easy to maneuver, which is an asset when facing an unpredictable bear.
We almost cried when Marlin stopped production of their legendary lever guns in 2020 thanks to its parent company, Remington’s major financial troubles. Someone certainly heard our prayers because Ruger picked up the company and restarted production in late 2021. Hallelujah!
Chambered for .45-70 Government, the Marlin Model 1895 has a tubular magazine and a 6-plus-one capacity.
While .45-70 Gvt isn’t known for speed or flat trajectories, it is bone-crushingly powerful at short range. This gem is perfect for backcountry bear defense.
4. CZ 550 American Safari Magnum
More Alaskan guides rely on the .375 Holland & Holland Magnum than any other cartridge. Since these guys regularly come face to face with injured and irritated brown bears, I think they know what’s up.
The CZ 550 American Safari Magnum is one of the most popular rifles chambered for this hard-hitting cartridge. And unlike the prom queen from your hometown high school, this rifle earned its popularity fair and square.
This thing is virtually bombproof and features a highly reliable controlled-feed Mauser action.
That .375 H&H has some buck, but that should be expected from a rifle capable of handling the biggest bears on Planet Earth. Heck, this thing could easily dispense a freakin’ T-rex if one happens to cross your path.
Thankfully, CZ had the forethought to add a thick recoil pad. Your shoulder should probably send them a nice thank you card.
Prices accurate at time of writing
Prices accurate at time of writing
With a fully loaded 5-round magazine, the CZ 550 tips the scale at right around 10 pounds. That’s a bit of heft to be lugging around the backcountry, so you might want to squeeze in a few extra sets at the gym.
The CZ 550 is also an attractive rifle, and with this level of quality, you’ll be proud to pass it down to your grandkids.
5. Remington 870 SPS SuperSlug
Asking us to pick our favorite version of the iconic Remington 870 is like asking a mother to pick her favorite child. It’s impossible. We love them all for different reasons.
However, when it comes to bruin defense, we’re partial to the SPS SuperSlug.
Out of the box, this one doesn’t look much like the 870 we’ve come to know and love. That’s because it’s the perfect slug gun built on top of the 870’s steadfast, low-maintenance receiver.
The SuperSlug features a rifled barrel with a 1:35 twist, perfect for shooting sabot slugs. Plus, it has an ultra-cool ShurShot pistol-grip.
Not only does this thing look slick, but it also has internal shock absorption to help soak up some of that hefty slug recoil.
6. Mossberg 500
We can’t in good conscience recommend the Remington 870 without mentioning the Mossberg 500.
This classic pump-action shotgun is just as reliable, affordable, and iconic as the Model 870.
Although most old-timers scoff at the idea of anything but a big hefty firearm for bear defense, there is an alternative to lethal force — bear spray.
Like the key chain pepper spray carried by college co-eds for decades, bear spray uses capsicum (a red pepper extract) to deter bears at close range.
Prices accurate at time of writing
Prices accurate at time of writing
Although bear spray and pepper spray use similar active ingredients, they are not the same.
Bear spray is significantly stronger than regular pepper spray. It also expands into a cone-shaped cloud. Personal defense pepper spray is milder and deploys a more targeted stream.
While reaching for your .30-06 to stop a charging bruin may seem like a no-brainer, a growing body of research supports the superiority of bear spray over a firearm during a bear attack.
One notable study found that rifle and handgun users suffered the same injury rates during aggressive bear encounters, whether they fired their weapons or not.
In 2008, the same researchers examined the effectiveness of pepper spray in Alaskan bear encounters. Of all the bear spray incidents in the study, only three out of 156 resulted in injuries, none of which were fatal. That is an astonishing 98% success rate.
While the data seems to support bear spray over firearms, many backcountry travelers still prefer a firearm. Bear spray is a relatively new invention, and many hunters, hikers, and outdoorsmen aren’t particularly comfortable using it. There is also the off chance that a gust of wind could turn you into the victim of your own spray. Not good.
If you carry bear spray, don’t let it give you a false sense of security. You still need the skills to use it effectively. Before heading into bear country, practice drawing, aiming, and shooting your spray. You’ll need to hit your target quickly and accurately.
Also, you won’t have time to dig through your pack when an angry brown bear is breathing in your face. Accessibility is just as important as proficiency with your weapon, even if your weapon of choice is a can of bear spray.
Firearms are the only deterrent that can lethally stop an aggressive bear. However, you should only rely on your gun if you can use it confidently and proficiently.
The average shooter doesn’t have the skills to remain calm, draw, fire, and fatally wound a charging bear.
Imagine hitting a grapefruit-size target rushing toward you at 30 miles per hour while bobbing up and down and side to side.
It takes either serious luck or serious skill to accomplish such a feat. If you aren’t the type to rely on luck, you’ll want to spend plenty of time practicing with your bear gun.
You want your shooting to be as fast and smooth as possible when the proverbial bear poo hits the fan.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter how careful you are or what weapon you carry. When you wander into bear country, you could still find yourself face-to-face with a bruin.
Like people, bears have their own personalities. This makes predicting the behavior of any individual bear virtually impossible.
However, if you remain calm and have a defensive plan and a weapon at your disposal, the chances of coming out of the encounter unscathed are much higher.
What do you carry for bear defense? Let us know in the comments! Need more awesome wilderness information? Take a look at our Introduction to Deer Hunting!