Sunday, September 11, 2022

Update: FOIA Details on Polar Bear .22 Pistol Defense Failure in Svalbard


Image from wikimedia naturepics online, 2010

Detailed, official information has surfaced about the defensive use of a pistol failure involving a .22 pistol and polar bear in the Svalbard archipelago of Norway.

One of the three documented cases where a pistol was fired to defend from a bear, and failed, was the sad tale of crew passengers from the tour/expedition ship Origo, in the summer of 1995.  The event, as related in a travel guide, was documented on AmmoLand. There were several other sources which corroborated the event; the details were from the travel guide.

As part of ongoing research to discover documented cases where pistols were fired in defense against bears, AmmoLand was filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for polar bear incidents for this correspondent.

The released data contained a redacted, English translation of the narrative of the official Svalbard report on the Origo incident.

The official version is far more detailed, and considerably more believable than the skeleton version in the travel guide book. They overlap closely; the details in the official version explain a great deal which seemed almost farcical in the travel guide version.

Travel Guide version 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.

The official version offers depth, and details render the story credible. The idea of tossing a pistol back and forth, from some distance, while being attacked by a polar bear, seemed bizarre; yet people are known to do bizarre things under stress.

The official version shows both complacency and  heroic action. If only the shooter had a little more experience with pistols and knew a little more about bear anatomy!

The official version was received as a translation from Norwegian to English, with redacted names. It has been edited to make it more readable, with false names inserted to aid in understanding the action.

First, to set the stage, and make some corrections. The ship was the Origo. In 1995, on August 31, a party went ashore sight seeing.

The shore party started with 13 people and had a high powered rifle as well as the .22 pistol. They split into two groups. One group of eight contained the Captain and the high powered rifle.

The five who were attacked by the bear were not all staff; there were two tourists, who will be referred to as Sue and Joan.

There were three crew. The tour leader had a .22 pistol, a radio, and a flare gun; other crew members had signal pen flares.  The crew leader will be referred to as Harold.   The other two crew members will be called Bill and Olaf.

The Official version from Governor of Svalbard records

Harold did not answer his radio when the captain of
the ship, who was guiding the other group, called him up to tell him not
to go far.

After 1-2km they saw bear tracks in the snow. Joan and
some others had seen the tracks already from the boat. Joan asked Harold if his pistol was enough against a bear.  Harold said he
trusted it.

Right after they saw the tracks, they saw the bear. It was big but
skinny, according to Olaf. It was at about 75m, standing still and
looking at them.

People in the other group then heard 2 shots and called Harold on the radio. He informs them there is a bear.

The first shot was from the flare gun and the bear didn't react at

He stood still for a while, then started loping towards them.

Harold fired 2 more shots from the flare gun (crackers) but the bear only came closer. At the last cracker shot from the flare gun, the bear was about 20-30m away.

Harold then grabbed his .22 pistol and fired 2 shots at the bear. When the bear was 10-15m away it accelerated to full charge and hit Harold, knocking him down. As he went down, he threw the pistol toward Olaf.

Bill had run off at the first sign of the bear.

Sue and Joan had been watching. When Harold was attacked, they ran.

The bear was now lying on top of Harold and biting his neck. Olaf ran to the pistol, and retrieved it.

Olaf fired four shots at the bear's head from three to four feet away. Some of the shots hit the bear. Blood showed on the white bear's head. The bear then attacked Olaf, who threw himself down on the ground on his belly and put his hands over his head to protect it.

The bear bit his arm, neck and almost bit off his left ear. The pistol fell to the ground.

Harold was now back on his feet and the bear switched attention to him.

Olaf knew Harold had a knife and shouted at him to use it, but Harold was unable to draw it.

The bear bit Harold in the neck and threw him in the air a few times.

Olaf found the pistol.

Harold, earlier, had yelled that there were 7 or 8 rounds in it.  Olaf fired one more shot at the bears head, but the bear did not react.

Olaf realized he was severely injured. Harold appeared to be dead. Olaf had nothing left to fight with. He retreated toward the boat.

Two members of the other group, one armed with a rifle, met the retreating survivors.  They were informed a polar bear took Harold.

Olaf was taken to the ship for treatment; two crew attempted a rescue mission for Harold.

They see the very bloody bear at 55 yards. The rifle man is afraid to shoot because the bear is walking among rocks, and he might miss.

He fires four shots from a flare gun instead.  The bear walks slowly away. The follow the bear, in visual contact. The bear slowly walks past Harold's body, and disappears.  Harold is clearly dead. They turn over the body and put a jacket over it.

Later, police track the bear and kill it.

End of official version


After the first two pistol shots, at about 50 feet, Harold, the owner of the pistol, never fired it again. The two shots may have hit the head or elsewhere on the bear. They may have missed.

It appears the bear broke into a flat out charge just as or after the first two shots were fired, from about 40 to 50 feet. The bear was already moving. The time to cover the distance was probably less than a second.

No mention was made of any other wounds from a .22, than the three head wounds.

It appears Olaf had never fired the pistol before. He had no idea how many cartridges it held before Harold yelled out the information.

Olaf may not have fired any pistol before the polar bear attack.

While it seems difficult to miss a bear's brain from 4 feet away, he may not have known where the brain was located in the polar bear's head. Stress makes everything more difficult.

The brain is about the size of a pint jar. It sits inside a head of about 2.5 gallon volume. Firing an unfamiliar pistol, at a possibly moving head of a bear at close range, Olaf managed to completely miss at least two of five shots. It is likely none of the other three shots which hit the head, hit in direct line with the bears brain. If they had, they likely would have killed it. One of the problems with a soft lead .22 bullet, is they can be deflected by heavy bone, especially it they strike at an angle less than about 30 degrees from the bone's surface. If they strike a bear's cranium at close to 90 degrees, they are likely to penetrate it.

A .22 can kill large animals, such as polar bears, quickly, but there is little room for error.  No one recommends a .22 for self defense against bears if there is a more powerful choice.

As it was, the four .22 shots fired by Olaf seem to have got the bear's attention. When the bear was hit, he stopped mauling Harold and turned on Olaf.

We do not know if he was hit with the last shot fired, as Olaf had been seriously wounded by that time.

The bear was probably very hungry. This was a predatory attack.

©2022 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice and link are included.

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