Choose Your Black Bear Weapon Wisely

Black bears aren't impressed with theoretical energy levels or computed amounts of hydrostatic shock. But the right caliber, bullets and shot placement will stop them in their tracks.

West Coast hunters are truly blessed when it comes to hunting black bears.

Author Mike Dickerson brought down this black bear using Ruger's new Model 77 Hawkeye .338 Compact Magnum and Hornady's 225-grain SST bullet.
Photo courtesy of Mike Dickerson.

But these are tough animals.

Experienced bear-hunting guides could tell you about bears they've taken that had been previously shot in the shoulder with no long-term effect. They'll also tell you about bears that were hit solidly behind the shoulder, in the heart-lung area, only to run off and not be recovered.

What's going on here?

Black bears can be tough animals, to be certain, but they're far from invincible. That's backed by the fact that over the last century, more black bears probably have been killed by the lowly .30/30 Winchester than with any other caliber. It was, in fact, a lever-action .30/30 that accounted for my very first bear from the Sierra Nevada a couple of decades ago.

Most failed shots can be explained by poor decisions in one of three areas: caliber selection, bullet selection or shot placement.

This may come as a surprise to some hunters, but caliber selection is probably the least critical factor. Although most cartridges from .270 Win. on up will do the job if you use properly constructed bullets, knowledgeable bear hunters tend to prefer .30 caliber or heavier pushing heavy-for-caliber bullets out of the barrel.

When choosing your own bear-hunting medicine, don't be tempted to rely solely on charts specifying fpe, the Taylor Knockout formula and similar guides. The last time I checked, bears don't read those charts and aren't particularly impressed with theoretical energy levels or computed amounts of hydrostatic shock.

As a general guide, however, I'd be less likely to use a typical deer caliber and far more likely to use one of the heavier elk calibers with 2,000 foot-pounds of downrange energy as a minimum for bears.

An important consideration is the distance at which you expect to shoot bears. A lot of bear hunting occurs in thick cover and shots can be at halitosis range, where you'll be better off with large, medium-velocity rounds rather than some hotshot cartridge that may come unglued upon contact with bone.

In other areas, your best opportunity may arrive in the form of a 300-yard cross-canyon shot, dictating the need for a relatively fast-stepping round to achieve downrange accuracy. The important thing is to know what types of shot opportunities are normal for the area you will hunt and the style of hunting you'll employ, and to choose your firearm and ammunition accordingly.

On a recent bear hunt, I used Ruger's new Model 77 Hawkeye Compact Magnum in a new caliber, the .338 RCM (Ruger Compact Magnum). I also used new ammo in the form of Hornady's 225-grain SST (Super Shock Tipped) bullet, which combines the internal jacket belt of the Hornady Interlock with a heavier-than-usual jacket. Such offerings, accompanied by new developments in propellants, are fueling the current trend toward lighter, handier rifles.

Hornady's new .338 RCM loads, for example, use advanced proprietary powders to achieve .338 Win. Mag. performance out of the Ruger Compact Magnum's 20-inch barrel.

It's hard to think of a handier combination for black bears under a wide range of conditions. My guide and I encountered big bears at dis­tances ranging from practically tripping over them to the nearly 7-foot bear I eventually shot at 180 yards. The RCM delivered perform­ance at that range on a through-and-through, double-lung shot. At the impact, the bear whirled, leaped over an embankment and rolled to a dead stop 30 yards down a steep slope.

Lever-action rifles in the .45/70 and .444 Marlin family are popular choices. Such bullets don't have very flat trajectories, and they don't go anywhere particularly fast. But they pack a wallop when they get there.

At the upper extreme, some hunters opt for cannon-sized magnums that will take down any four-legged animal on the planet. That's fine, but even these rounds are no guarantee if you fail to properly place that all-important first shot.

If you can't handle magnum-level noise and recoil, you're better off slinging lead in standard calibers like the .30/06 loaded with quality 200- or 220-grain bullets. Recoil tolerance for many hunters tops out around .270 Win. or a .30/06. But if you can shoot the magnum calibers as accurately as you can shoot these standard rounds, you'll have a better chance of anchoring bears quickly.

This brings us to one of the great ongoing debates among hunters, with opinions split between equally vocal proponents of one side or the other. This argument boils down to whether a hunter should shoot for the shoulder or place the bullet behind the shoulder into the heart-lung area.

I come down in the heart-lung camp for a number of reasons. Shoulder shooters assert that a shoulder hit is more desirable because it helps break the bear down and, if properly executed, makes for an easier recovery of the animal. There's some merit in that argument, but you must use a bullet that's tough enough to do the job. Bears have large shoulder and upper leg bones. Many deer-weight bullets simply explode or fragment on impact and fail to reach the vitals.

On the other hand, even modest loads like the .30/30, placed accurately in the heart-lung area, will likely do the job. No black bear hit in the boiler room is going to travel far if it has been tagged with a proper expanding bullet that's moving with sufficient velocity and momentum to penetrate the vitals.

The vitals of a black bear sit higher in the body than on, say, a blacktail deer. Simply aim for the middle of the chest cavity, and you'll be on target.

Much of the criticism you'll hear of heart-lung shots comes from those who hunt bears from tree stands. They experience misplaced shots due to the severe downward angles. That style of bear hunting is not widely practiced along the Pacific states.

It's important to note that the vitals of a black bear sit higher in

the body than on, say, a blacktail deer. Simply aim for the middle of the chest cavity and you'll be on target.

Reliable bear-medicine is available in a wide variety of bullet styles ranging from bonded, belted and internal-lip to dual-core designs. These include such bullets as the Remington Premier Core-Lokt Ultra Bonded, Hornady InterBond and SST, Winchester Fail Safe, Speer Grand Slam and the Trophy Bonded Bear Claw.

In addition to these, you can choose between several proven "H-frame" or partition-style bullets, such as the Nosler Partition, the Swift A-Frame and Winchester Partition Gold. In proper calibers and bullet weights, all pack a punch, with through-and-through shots a common result.

That's a big plus in my book because, in bear hunting, two holes are infinitely preferable to one. Sporting both entry and exit wounds, they're more likely to bleed out faster and leave more of a blood trail to follow when they run into thick cover.

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