Friday, March 29, 2024

Bear Defense: Aiming at the Wrong Spot

Carved polar bear skull shows position of the brain case.

One of the persistent myths about shooting bears in self defense is a bear's skull is nearly bullet proof.  Bears skulls are not bullet proof. However, bear heads are big. It is easy to miss the brain or spine if you aim at the wrong spot, or aim away from the brain because you are afraid the bullet will "bounce off".  This is exacerbated by trophy hunters' hesitancy to shoot a bear in the head. A powerful shot to the brain cavity will fracture the skull, making measurement for the record books impossible. 

It is difficult to hit the brain of a bear if you deliberately aim to miss the bear's brain. It is difficult to hit the brain if you are aiming at a place where the brain is not. Here are some examples where the myth and poor understanding of bear anatomy prevailed. 

The year appears to be about 1915 or later, as related by the writer, Calvin H. Barkdull on page 153 of Blood on the Arctic Snow, published in 1956.

"The bear stood directly facing me. I saw the long maine on is neck and shoulder hump rise and fall several times. I waited for him to raise his head so I could get a heart shot from the front.  I knew a head shot from the front would only irritate him." 

The narrator shot the bear several times with his .45-90 black powder cartridges from an 1886 Winchester rifle. He finally finished the bear with a head shot to the base of the ear.  

A .45-90 black powder cartridge is fully capable of smashing completely through a big bear's skull and brain with a frontal shot. The normal black powder load is a 400 grain bullet traveling at 1300 fps.  You have to know the right place to aim.  In this AmmoLand article the position of a bear's brain and how to aim for it are explained. Aiming between the eyes is not aiming at the brain if the bear's nose is pointed at you. Aiming for the bears eye is not aiming at the brain if the bear's nose is pointed at you. Below is a case where the shooter aimed for the eye and missed the brain.  November, 1986, Kodiak Island, Zachar bay, .454 Casull, Grizzly bear. From More Bear Tales, p. 104-107.

George Malekos was confronted with a large grizzly bear at 10 feet away on a gravel ridge, covered with snow. He had nowhere to turn. He aimed at the bear's eye, and shot. He fired two more times as the bear whirled around, and disappeared.

"So I aimed for the bear's eye and I squeezed the trigger".

His guide, Jack, confirmed his poor understanding of bear anatomy:

Jack asked me if I had hit the bear and I told him I had shot him in the eye. 

"Then you'd have a dead bear", he said.

 Later, he and his hunting companion shot the same bear with their rifles. They found the .454 round had creased the skull above the eye, then another shot from the .454 revolver had penetrated one foot of the bear as it was whirling around.

A Canadian game warden made a similar mistake with a large black bear when he aimed between the eyes of a black bear standing on its hind legs, looking direct at him. As the bear was large, the bears head would have been a little higher than his own. A line from eye to eye would be at the very top of the brain or just above it, with a thick skull at a slight angle just at that line.  Hitting just a half an inch high would mean the bullet would barely impact the skull, if at all, but would plow a bloody furrow in the hide and flesh along the skull above the brain. From December 23, 2020:

I decided try and take this bear down with a shot directly between the eyes as his head was clearly visible and I was gettng concerned since I was clearly annoying him and he began showing signs that he might make a charge.  I would only have seconds before he was on top of me at that range. I knew that the gun was dead on at that short range. This was clearly a bear that had absolutely no fear of man and had probably never seen one in his life other than the fire  fighters and now me.  I squeezed the trigger and the bullet hit the bear between the eyes. He didn’t drop but instead immediately  spun around and took off a run into the dense brush behind him.

When you aim where the brain is not, good shooting means you miss the brain. People who are hunting bears for trophies do not want to shoot bears in the brain because doing so ruins the skull as a trophy. I suspect such is what happened with Larry Kelly in his famous encounter with a brown bear coming into a hunting cabin in Alaska. From Hunting for Handgunners, p. 225, 1990:

 Bob was having trouble with his gun and had backed up into the table, knocking everything over. I had backed into the stove, knocking that over. I pointed the .44 at the bear's chest from three feet away and fired. I expected the mighty .44 to blow the bear right out of the doorway, or at least to do a little more than get his attention. He only turned his head and looked directly at me as if the muzzle blast had bothered him.

A big bear's brain is about the size of a pint jar. For an accomplished handgunner such as Larry Kelly, it would be hard to miss from three feet, if you knew where it was at. Yet Kelly shot the bear in the chest.  In an emergency, you do what you have trained to do. Many guides are careful to tell hunters: do not shoot the bear in the head. It will ruin the trophy and the ability to score it for the record books.  In this case, with clear shots at the bears head, Larry and his guide fired a total of seven shots at the bear's chest and shoulder. Those shots can knock a bear down, and slow it down. But only brain or spine shots would stop it right now. 

There is a particularly sad case of Michael and Darcy Staver in 1992, in Glennallen, Alaska.

 It [a black bear] broke a window to get into the cabin where they were staying and drove them out.

The couple sought safety on the roof. Michael fired several shots at the bear with a .22-caliber handgun to try to scare it away. It left. When it did, he jumped down from the roof and took off to get help. He took the gun to defend himself, thinking his wife would be safe on the roof. She wasn't. While he was gone, the bear climbed a spruce tree next to the cabin, got onto the roof and killed Darcy.

Larry Kanuit, the author of several bear books, reports Michael Staver was very careful *not* to hit the bear, for fear of enraging it. P.  251 "Some Bears Kill".

Many bears have been killed with .22 rimfire. It does not require a brain shot, although brain shots work well. Shots from a .22 to the lungs will kill a bear in minutes. Shots to the abdominal cavity will probably kill the bear in days. 

If you are afraid of shooting a bear because you believe it might make them mad, the potential effectiveness of your shots are greatly reduced. 

This correspondent has come to believe the myth of big bears' skulls being bullet proof comes from from a misunderstanding of where a bear's brain is positioned inside the bear's head and skull.  If you aim to put the bullet where the brain isn't, it is easy to miss the brain.

©2024 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice and link are included.

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