Friday, October 25, 2019

Details of .22 Pistol Defense Failure against Polar Bear near Svalbard, Norway

Image by Ansgar Walk, 16 November, 2004, Wapusk National Park, Manitoba, Canada wikicommons

While searching for cases where pistols were used to defend against bears, three failures have been found. In the last published results, of 73 cases, that was a 4% failure rate. The very small sample size means a few cases can change the percentages of success or failure significantly.  It is useful to know what happened in each case to determine how the failures and successes occurred.

The three failures involved the three species of North American bears. One case involving a polar bear and a .22 pistol in 1995, one case involving a grizzly bear and a .357 magnum in 2010, and one case involving a black bear and a .38 revolver in 2015.

Reasonably detailed accounts of the failures for the 2010 and 2015 attacks have been given in the last update, where 73 cases were examined.

The failure of the .22 pistol defense against a polar bear had little information.
3.  1 September, 1995, Norway, Svalbard Island, .22 rimfire, Failure Polar Bears:  Proceedings of the Twelfth Working Group
On 1 September, 1995, two male tourists were attacked by an adult male bear on a remote island in eastern Svalbard. The two tourists defended themselves with a .22 calibre pistol which proved ineffective. One man was killed, the other injured. Police later shot the bear.
After considerable research, a more detailed account of the incident was found. The incident involved crew members of the tour/expedition ship Origo, a traditional ship refurbished and used for arctic tours since the beginning of the 1990s.  In the summer of 1995, the ship was cruising in the arctic waters near Svalbard. The ship anchored in the Hinlopen Strait. A tourist party left the ship to explore. The party had an armed guard. Five members of the crew left to explore, separately. They brought a .22 pistol and a flare gun. From Spitsbergen: Svalbard, Franz Josef, Jan Mayen, 3rd Brant travel Guide, by Andres Umbreit:

Kiepertoyo Hinlopen Strait, August, 1995
Another five people of the crew set out separately with only a .22 pistol and a flare gun. After an hour's march, the second party were met by a bear, 75m away and openly aggressive. The bear was distracted neither by warning shot nor flare and attacked one of the party. As he did so, he was shot, from a range of only 15m and turned against the man who had fired at him. This man tossed the gun to the first, who shot again. The process was repeated, with first one man being attacked and then the other. By the time the pistol was emptied and a knife drawn, one man was dead and another badly injured. The survivors retreated to the ship. 
On examination, three shots to the head were discovered, none of them piercing the cranium.  
The victim had three years experience with the Origo, with many bear observations, and there were sufficient weapons on board to equip everybody.
Fatal polar bear attacks in Svalbard are rare. They are well documented. This is the same attack as mentioned earlier, with better details.

The author of the account mentions a small caliber pistol must hit a very small target at close range. The range is not that important, as a .22 does not lose much energy in the first 50 yards.

Hitting a small target is important, and not easy from 15 meters (50 feet) away, when the target is moving. Most successful defenses against bear attacks with pistols occur at much shorter distances, often 20 feet or less.

This is the second case encountered where the person attacked threw the pistol to someone else. Both attempts resulted in failure.  In the Mark Uptain tragedy, the 10mm Glock did not have any ammunition in it when thrown; in this case the capacity of the pistol is unknown. In 1995, it would almost certainly have been 10 rounds or less. We do not know how many rounds were expended in warning shots. 

Three .22 rounds hit the polar bear in the head. None entered the cranium. This is not unexpected. The brain of a polar bear may be slightly larger than a grizzly. A grizzly bear brain is about the size of a pint jar (29 cubic inches). The head of a large Kodiak bear has a volume of approximately 808 cubic inches, based on measurements supplied by Tom Smith of Brigham Young University. The Kodiak bear measured by Dr. Smith was exceptionally large, estimated at 1,400 pounds. If we assume a 1,000 pound polar bear, and proportional measurements, the head volume would be about 577 cubic inches or 2.5 gallons.

If you have a pint jar in a 2.5 gallon container, you have to know where the jar is located to be able to hit it. It is easy to miss. There is a lot of muscle and bone in a bear head that can absorb or deflect a .22 LR bullet if they hit at a poor angle or in the wrong place.  A .22 is powerful enough to reach a bear's brain if it hits the correct place at a reasonable angle.

According to the more detailed account, the captain of the Origo ordered the bear shot with a high powered rifle, (instead of police) as it had been hit with the .22 pistol. The attack occurred in August, while the first account stated 1 September. Those are minor variations but not unreasonable.

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

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would think the flare gun would have been more effective to use on the bear.