Friday, June 28, 2019

Geologist Describes several uses of Revolvers to Defend against Bear over six Decades

Alex Burton, September 1977, Stewart B.C. Model 29 S&W .44 magnum on right hip

Alexander Burton is a well known Registered Professional Geologist and Professional Engineer. He has been active in the field since obtaining his degree in Geology in 1954. He has worked professionally in Australia, numerous African countries, Canada, a number of Central and South American countries, China, Vietnam, Myanmar, Russia, and the United States. 

During his more than six decade long career, he worked  in several remote locations in British Columbia and the Yukon.

He obtained his first pistol, a Colt 357, with a six inch barrel, in 1955. He holds an Authority to Carry (ATC) and an Authority to Transport (ATT) from the Canadian government, to openly carry a revolver while working in the field. The revolver must be carried openly and is to be used only to "save human life".

During his career, he used revolvers in defense against bears on several occasions. I interviewed him in June of 2019. During the interviews, he recalled those incidents and explained the circumstances.

What follows are synopsis of the defensive uses, from my notes. Alex was kind enough to check my work as a precaution against inaccuracies.

The first defensive shooting occurred in the Highland Valley camp of the Noranda mines in British Columbia. Alex was working for their exploration subsidiary in September of 1956 or 1957. In spite of instructions, the people at the camp had created a garbage dump much too close to the camp, only a couple of hundred yards away from the dwellings. Some bears had been feeding on the garbage, and had become acclimated to humans. After students left at the end of summer, the amount of garbage decreased substantially. One of the bears had chased the cook, who had summoned Alex for assistance.

When Alex arrived at the scene, the Cook had gone back to the dump. Alex had to retrieve his 357 Colt revolver, unlock the box it was in, retrieve ammunition from another box, and load it. While he was doing this, the Cook came running back from the dump, with the bear chasing him. Alex shot the bear from about 100 feet away. The bear ran into the dense woods. Alex was obligated to follow it up, and, fortunately, found it dead a short ways into the woods.

In the early 1970's Alex switched from the Colt 357 to a Smith & Wesson model 29 .44 magnum, whose trigger had been smoothed by a gunsmith.

The next two incidents occurred within 20 minutes of each other, involving two bears, a grizzly bear and a black bear. These incidents happened about 1978 or 1979, in the Kootenays mountains in British Columbia, north of Kootenay lake, near the great divide, during the summer.

Alex rounded a turn in the trail he was on to see a grizzly bear only 25 feet away. Alex drew his revolver as the bear stood up and roared. The bear dropped down and started running toward him. Alex fired a shot into the ground in front of it. The bear stopped, turned around, and walked away.  Alex reloaded his revolver to insure he had a full six rounds available, and gave the bear a chance to put some distance between them.  After a few minutes, Alex continued on down the path.

About 15 minutes later, Alex heard crashing in the brush and woods above the path. He thought he had crowded the grizzly bear by following too closely, and wished he had waited a longer period. It wasn't the grizzly. It was a black bear sow with cubs. The cubs were some distance off and above the trail. The bear ran between the cubs and a bank above the trail. Alex fired a shot in front of the sow as it approached the bank. That was sufficient. The sow turned around and took off with her cubs.

Over the course of his career, Alex fired several shots near bears to dissuade bears from coming closer, or to add incentive for them to continue to move away from him. He did this when the bears were closer than about forty feet away. Alex recalls shooting a bear along with these incidents, but does not remember the precise details. The bear was in heavy timber, and kept getting closer. He shot at it, and it ran off, but he was unable to find a body.

In the early 1990s, he switched to  a stainless S&W 629 .44 magnum with a six inch barrel, to better resist rusting from rainfall.

Two more defensive uses occurred in July-August,  2000 . Alex was working in the Yukon, out of Dawson City. At the end of a trail accessible to regular 4 wheel drive vehicles, Alex was setting up a tent to be used in the exploration. Other members of the team were sent ahead to clear a trail for smaller vehicles.  While encumbered with the tent and ropes, in the process of finishing setting up the tent, he saw a black bear stalking him, low to the ground, about 20 feet away.  Alex was in the tent. He said if he had been armed with a rifle or shotgun, he would have left it hanging at the entrance to the tent.  He drew his pistol and shot the bear when it was only 5-6 feet from him. The bear was knocked down, then jumped up and climbed a large aspen tree, where it died.

Upon examination, the bear was old and in poor condition.  It was thin, its teeth were black and broken.
A month later, in another tent erected a short distance away. Alex found himself spending the night alone close to the location of the first shooting. He had disrobed and was in his sleeping bag next to the tent wall. His revolver and a light were laid nearby, easily available.  In the middle of the night, he heard heavy breathing and felt a body press against him from the outside of the tent.  He exited the sleeping bag, naked, accessed his revolver and light, and crept to the tent entrance. Upon exiting, he saw a black bear at the corner of the tent, less than 10 feet away.  The bear sat down, as a dog sits, facing Alex. Alex admonished the bear not to disturb his sleep. The bear started to move toward Alex, and he shot it with the S&W 629 .44 magnum. The bear was knocked down, then ran off. It was found, dead, the next morning.

Alex is a well practiced marksman with pistol and rifle. He held a Black Badge certification from the International Practical Shooting Confederation until he had to choose between being paid customer's consulting fees and attending additional qualification events.

As his eyes have aged, he has switched from metallic sights to an Leupold DeltaPoint reflex sight. He prefers the triangle shaped aiming point to a circular dot.  When he has to shoot, he repeats a mantra ...placement....  On bears, he aims for the aortic arch on top of the heart.

I count Alex's defensive use of his pistols against bears as five. Five have places, times, and details. Alex has not clearly recalled the bear in heavy timber which was shot at, ran off, but was not found. There is no clear place or year, so it is not included as a documented defensive case.

Alex was able to use his diaries to supplement his memory.

None of  Alex's defensive shootings of bears made the papers. You will not find them if you search the Internet. No person was injured. Alex, or the companies he was working for, would not have wanted the publicity.

This suggests that defensive shootings of bears is far more common than is shown in press reports. Even in the most highly publicized cases, that of protected grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, defensive shootings of bears are often not reported in the media. This can be verified by comparing the data base of bear mortality for the GYE to press coverage of bear shootings.

In defensive shooting of bears in a wilderness setting, there are significant motivations to not report the shooting, especially if no human was injured. Alex told me of two shootings of bears that had been told, in confidence, to him. I suspect there are many such incidents.
Bears used to be considered varmints, to be shot on sight. The attitude changed as bears became less common, as more people grew up in urban areas without significant personal experience with wild animals, and as the anthropomophic transformation of animals into furry humans, also known as Disneyfication, occurred.

Alex's five defensive shooting incidents will be added to the pistol defenses against bears database.

©2019 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice and link are included.

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