Monday, May 13, 2024

Update: Bear Defense with Handguns, Third Update. 20 more cases, total of 190 , 98% Effective

Grizzly bear shot in self defense at 10 feet by Jimmy Cox with a 10mm, Sept. 18, 2018, AK


The use of handguns as a defense against bears has been shown to be effective 98% of the time. In this study, all cases which can be documented, where a handgun was fired in defense against a bear, are included. This is done by design to guard against selection bias.  All cases cite the source for the case information. Unlike other attempts to put a number on how effective handguns, long guns, or bear spray is in defending against bears, every case is described to readers so they can come to their own conclusions.  Readers may disregard any incidents at their discretion. They may evaluate the cases themselves. One of the keys to a convincing inquiry is the availability of the data used. If a researcher will not show you the data, it is a matter for concern. Research cannot be duplicated unless the base data is understood.

Cases where a handgun was not fired are not included. Access problems for defensive weapons, such as handguns, long guns, bear spray, and edged weapons are very similar.  If the handgun or bear spray is left in a pack, it is much less likely to be used. If the victim is unwilling to practice with their defensive tool so they are reasonably proficient, the result is the same. Extreme accuracy and speed with handguns are seldom necessary. Spray which is not sprayed, or firearms which are not fired, do not reflect on the ability of the device to stop bears.

As the number of documented incidents where pistols were fired as a defense against bears has increased, the entire list became awkward.  This is a link to the last full list of 104 incidents, published on June 21, 2021. One case of the 104 was found to be duplicative and was removed. Included are additional 9 cases where handguns and other lethal instruments were used. They are not included in the handgun statistics. One indeterminate case is recorded in this report, it is a case where both bear spray was sprayed and a handgun fired. It could not be determined if the handgun had an effect.

Here is the link to the first update. The update increased the number of incidents to 123, published on April 11, 2022. 

Here is the link to eleven additional combination cases, bringing the total of handguns and combinations with handguns to 144.

Here is the link to the second update published on November 21, 2023. This update brings to total documented incidents to 145 handgun only incidents, of which three are indeterminate. There are four more combination cases, where handguns and rifles or shotguns are used. The total number of documented bear defense incidents where a handgun was fired increased to 170. 

In this third update in 2024, 19 more handgun only cases are added. One of them is a handgun failure case. The other three handgun failure cases are at this link. The total number of handgun only cases where success or failure is determined, is 162 cases, of which four are failures, for a 98% rate of success. A combination case is included for completeness. The total number of cases is now 190. 

Here are the 20 additional cases in this update, in chronological order.

Early 1960's, Montreal River, Keweenaw County Michigan, black bear, .22 magnum, spring. 

This event happened to James Maierle, a well know educator, principle, and sportsman who lived in Calumet, Michigan. The Montreal river is fairly wild today, and was even more wild in the early 1960s. Keweenaw county is the largest county in Michigan, and it has the lowest population.  The drive from the Montreal River to Calumet would be about a hour more or less. From Jim Maierle, James Maierle's son:

 This was somewhere on the Montreal river up in Keweenaw county where he was stream fishing alone.  I believe it was in the spring.  He said he was walking along the river when he noticed a small cub.  He stopped and looked around and immediately realized he had inadvertently ended up between the cub and the sow.  He started backing away from both of them and the sow started advancing on him.  He put some distance from them but she wouldn’t stop despite him yelling and waving his arms to warn her off.  When he realized she wasn’t backing down he drew the Ruger and waited until it was quite close before he fired.  He was a very good shot so I have no doubt he wanted to make sure he could hit where he was aiming.  The bear went down as I described.  He then took the cub and wrapped it up in his jacket and put it in the trunk of his car.  Not sure what to do with it and not wanting to just leave it to die out there, he brought it to a local bar where some of his friends were to show them (it was the 60s..).  

 2  Spring of 1977, Byers Lake Campground milepost 147 of Parks Highway, Alaska, grizzly bear, .357 magnum.  Alaskan Bear Tales, Larry Kanuit, p. 156. 

Lori Meade was camping with her parents. She and her sister were in a tent and her parents were in a camper. Here father's .357 revolver was in the cab of the pickup. A grizzly bear came into camp, knocked over trash cans and swatted the cooler with about 80 lbs of meat in it. The cooler landed a few feet from the tent. Her father tried to scare the bear off, but it calmly continued to eat from the cooler. Her father then accessed his .357 magnum. From Lori: 

"Dad then got his .357 and fired three rounds into the air. The bear dropped the package of sausage and looked at Dad. He shot another round, and the bear reared."

Dad then started shouting: "Don't say anything! Go out the back of the tent, fast! We have a bear!  

"Being awakened at 5:30 a.m. anytime is a shocker, but with gunfire and a bear in camp!"  

"Well, Lynn couldn't get out of her sleeping bag, so she took it with her - hippity hop, hippity hop. Instead of going out the back of the tent, which Lynn had to crawl under, I went out the front. Off to my right, about three feet, was the bear. Boy, did I ever boogie to the pickup!"

"The bear stood their looking at Dad straight in the eyes, not moving. So Dad had one heck of a decision - He knew he only had one round left.  He was close enough he could kill the bear if he got the bear either between the eyes or in the throat. He wasn't that sure of himself so he started walking toward the bear and shot his last shot in the air. Finally the bear lumbered for the trees. He picked up a steak on his way out!"

 Lori's father only had five rounds in his .357 revolver. 


3.  October 19-26, 1986 Churchill, Canada .44 Magnum. From PBHIMS incident 41.  Handgun failure.

 Oct 19-26, 1986, PII,t Churchill. Tourists In temporary camp were observed hand feeding bears for several weeks. Sardines and lard had been put in the willows surrounding camp. During the 6 days researchers were in the camp, 9 bears approached. At the sound of movement within the camp, one bear repeatedly charged the structures and pounded the walls. In the 6 days, 7 charges were initiated by 2 bears. The charges appeared to be directed at the people in the camp. One bear almost entered the stationary vehicles. It was deterred with a broom and bear spray in the face. Fours days later and 4 km SW, a bear with a red stain on its forehead, which may have been the bear spray, charged a group of 12 people. The bear ignored both "cracker shells" and shots from a .44 calibre handgun. The people involved were forced to climb a nearby tower or enter an adjacent building. This is probably the first account of bear spray being non-experimentally used under field conditions on a polar bear.

4.  September 6, 1990, .44 magnum, Desert Eagle, 250 gr. Sierra full profile jacketed silhoette bullets; Wrangle-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Chitina River, Grizzly bear.

Bruce Brown had successfully harvested a brown bear with a bow. Another bear attacked him, his companion fired a shot from a shotgun, but missed. As the bear mauled him, he was able to draw the his Desert Eagle. From Some Bears Kill p. 145.

In that brief moment, Bruce freed his .44 Magnum pistol from its holster. He clicked off the safety and fired when the bear was at arm's reach, hitting the bear in the front leg. He instantly fired a second shot, hitting the bear in the neck and breaking it. As the animal collapsed to the ground, mortally wounded, Bruce shot it once more for good measure, striking the animal in the shoulder area. The entire attack took less than fifteen seconds.  

5.  1993 August 17, Polar Bear Defense in Canada Coberg Island unknown Caliber 

On August 17, 1993, Stephen Smith had crawled into his sleeping bag a little before midnight, exhausted from a long day of research hanging in a harness, high above ground, banding sea birds. Only 15 minutes later, a polar bear emerged from the sea and was attempting to enter the tent. From Up Here magazine Jan/Feb 2013:

Things were shaking, rumbling, vibrating – a space encapsulated, tumbling uncontrollably, like a car rolling off a highway. A roar beyond the edges closing in; unrelenting confusion; craziness. And then the instant where my stifled scream broke free and the dream was gone. Sitting bolt upright in my sleeping bag, gun in my hand, my world was defined by a domed envelope of yellow nylon.

“BEAR!” I bellowed, grabbing the zipper on the doorway. The stillness of that moment was broken by the ripping of the zipper teeth. The tent door fell away, revealing a very black and moist nose, straddled by two wide and startled eyes. In the space of three pulls on the trigger, two things became certain: A bear had died in the High Arctic, and I was fully awake, bent forward in my sleeping bag.

6. 11 September, 1999, Chichagof Island, Ern Hegglun, Keith Coulter, unknown Pistol, Grizzly Bear p. 177-178, Bear Attacks II Myth & Reality

As close as I can recall, it was about 8:40 a.m. when we went through the trees. Keith shouted, "There's a bear," and he was right. She, (big, tawny, beautiful, and really upset with me) was at the full gallop about 35 meters away, with two cubs close behind. I was in front and knew I was going to wear her, so the only option was to choose the place. That was behind a small tree, on a hummock of moss, with my legs presented to the bear. She took the bait, letting Keith get his handgun out. All I can remember is being bit and being lifted/shook twice on the left leg, the bear going away, coming back, Keith shouting and shooting, and then the bear leaving.

Ern spent a few days in the hospital but recovered from the damage to his left leg. The account implies the sow was not hit, but it is not certain. Ern comments include "a shotgun in a pack is no use at all".  The account was written within nine days of the attack.


7. 20 September, 2005 Washington State Bear Attack .45 Long Cold Revolver (black bear)

In 2005, Travis Newman was archery hunting in Washington state. He had drawn an archery elk tag for the Blue Mountains near Walla Walla. Late in the evening of the 20th of September, he was on a familiar elk trail. As he approached a corner, he thought: “I don’t remember seeing that stump before.”  The “stump” was close, about 10 yards.  The “stump” transformed itself into a big bear coming at him full bore, furiously chomping its jaws. Travis thought the bear would bluff, took a step back, and speed drew his Taurus Tracker .45 Colt from a cross-body holster made by Uncle Mike. The revolver was loaded with Remington 250-grain jacketed hollow points.

8. September 28 Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) Rose Cr, GNF  Table 11 IGBST grizzly bear mortalities 2005.

Human-caused, hunting related, self defense. Bow hunter shot at charging female with pistol. Small amount of blood found. Female was accompanied by 1 yearling.

Human injuries are generally listed in these tables.  

From previous paragraph: 

In addition, we documented 2 possible mortalities during 2005 (Table 11). Both of these instances were hunting related. One involved a conflict at a hunter-killed deer that was left unattended over night. Human injuries were incurred and shots were fired at the bear, but no evidence of wounding of the bear was found. The second possible mortality involved a female with a yearling that was shot at when she charged a bow hunter. This females (sic) was wounded, but evidence at the site indicted the wound was minor. She was observed moving away from the encounter with her yearling.

9.   September 19, 2008  Castle Creek SNF  GYE p. 24 Table 13 Continued IGBST Grizzly mortality table.

This is an incident similar to the one in 2005, which occurred three years later, at a different location, with a different number of bears involved.  Two bears were shot at with a pistol, as described below, in the same incident.

Human-caused, hunting related, female with 2-3 yearlings charged archery hunters calling elk, 1 pistol shot at female at close range, small blood trail for short distance, no carcass found.

Human-caused, hunting related, yearling with mother and 1–2 siblings charged archery hunters calling elk, 2 shots at yearling at close range, small blood trail for short distance, no carcass found. 

10.  March 24, 2013, Svalbard Spitsbergen,hytte at Hornsund, Polar bear

Lyssand said the man and woman in their 40s were staying at the hytte at Hornsund on Svalbard’s island of Spitsbergen when the bear tried to break in through a window. Like most people on Svalbard, they were armed, and the couple told officials that the bear was halfway through the window when one of them inside finally felt compelled to grab their revolver and fire one shot into the eye of the bear, killing it.

Polar bears are a strictly protected species and this one was the first to be shot on Svalbard in nearly two years. Shooting is only allowed in self-defense and the drama on Sunday will be investigated, but Lars Erik Alfheim of the local sheriff’s office told website that there were no signs to suggest Sunday’s incident was not a case of self-defense. 

This case was not included in Norway data in the PBHIMS database.

11. September 20, 2020, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, AK,  Pistol defense. 

 Park spokesperson Janice Maslan says the hunters had killed a moose Saturday, and were butchering and packing the meat out to camp Sunday, when they split up.

“The partner returned to camp with a load while Pfeiffer prepared the next load, and when Pfeiffer’s partner returned to within about 50 yards of the harvest site, he was charged by a bear. And in self-defense, he did shoot in the direction of the bear several times with his sidearm, and when the bear came within about 20 feet of him, it did flinch as if shot and it then veered and ran off,” said Maslan.

Maslan says the partner went to the moose kill site and found Pfeiffer dead from what appeared to have been a surprise attack.

“There was no evidence that he was carrying a firearm or deterrence with him at the time, so he was unable to defend himself,” she said.

12. 2022 September 27 Bell Flats Alaska .45 Colt from Taurus Judge three hits, killed by neighbor with shotgun

On Sept. 27, 2022, a massive Kodiak bear made a bad decision to break into Aaron Olsen’s house; he lives just five doors down from Heilman in the small Bells Flats community.


Despite Olsen’s immediate decisiveness, he knew he had to take his shot carefully. He had to shoot around the corner of a bedroom where his two youngest children were sleeping. 

As he pulled the trigger to send a .45 Colt round through the bear’s shoulder, his inner voice reminded him, “Don’t hit the kids.” 

“When I pulled the trigger, I couldn’t see its head. I hope the first shot hit him in the shoulder,” Olsen said. 

Whether from pain or fear, the bear managed to turn its mammoth body around inside the confines of the home’s tiny hallway, likely in an attempt to get back out the way he’d come in. Olsen followed the bear through his house. 

“I was pulling the trigger while shouting ‘Get out of my house!’ along with a lot of logger and fisherman words that I’ve learned over the years,” he said. “There was not an ounce of fear in me in that moment. It was all business. It was just rage, the maddest I have ever been. I could not believe this thing was in my house. I was furious.”


13. 2022 October 4, New Castle Colorado  9mm pistol Black Bear

A New Castle resident survived an early Sunday morning bear attack in his backyard, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials are searching for the bear, who escaped after the resident shot at it.

The resident heard noises outside around 1 a.m. Sunday and went outside to investigate, and the bear knocked him to the ground, according to a news release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife. As the bear attacked the resident, the man pulled a gun and fired three shots, making the bear run away. The resident was unable to identify whether or not he hit the bear.


“While outside, the victim startled a bear in his backyard, immediately knocking him down to the ground,” part of a news Release from CPW reads. “During the attack, the victim used one arm to protect his face while grabbing his gun with the other free hand, firing three shots and scaring the bear away. The victim was taken to the hospital by a family member with minor injuries to his hand, arm, and chest.”  

Confirmed: a 9mm handgun was used.

14. August 4, 2023 Luther Montana Handgun   (GYE)

When Bolkcom, a commercial painter and elk hunter, went to investigate and tried to coax the Labrador-pit bull mix downstairs, he found a "black bear standing in the living room five feet away," Oblander said.

 Wearing just a T-shirt and underwear, Bolkcom ran back downstairs, got a handgun and returned to the living room where he shot the bear. It ran into the couple's sunroom, so he shot the bear several more times.


Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesperson Chrissy Webb said that the warden determined the shooting was justified in self-defense. The large beast had snuck through the couple's screened window and made himself comfortable, the warden concluded.

15.  21 August, 2023 Florida Sanford,  Seminole County Unknown firearm or circumstance black bear   Black bear shot, killed in Sanford, Florida with pistol to protect man and dog. 9mm handgun Glock 43x

The FWC concluded that the man shot the bear to protect his family and his dog. Therefore, no charges or violations were found. Because of that, FOX 35 has decided not to name the man involved.

What happened?

According to the report, the man told FWC detectives that was sitting on his porch with his dog drinking coffee when his bear alarm when off and began flashing. He told detectives he had a pistol with him "due to recent crime in the area," specifically break-ins. 

He got up and looked around the corner to see a bear within 8-10 feet of him, the report said. He yelled at the bear to try and scare it off, and his dog started barking, the report said.

The bear then charged toward him and his dog. "To protect himself and his dog, he fired his pistol at the bear and unloaded a magazine," the report said.

Contact with the Seminole County Sheriff's department revealed the pistol used was a Glock 43X 9mm.


16. 25 August, 2023 Massachusetts Black Bear attacked, Goat, threatened Goats owner, Shot at with .38 revolver  Revolver information from Kingston Police PIO via email.

A Massachusetts man shot a black bear after it attacked his goat and appeared like it was going to strike him as well Friday afternoon, according to authorities.

Police received a report of the bear attacking the resident’s livestock, the goat, on Hawthorne Road in Kingston around 3 p.m. Friday, the Kingston Police Department said in a Facebook post. .


17. September 6, 2023 Idaho Archery Hunters Grizzly, handguns(GYE)

A large grizzly bear charged at two hunters in thick brush and was shot dead, officials in Idaho said. 

The two were hunting for elk on Sept. 1 when a male grizzly appeared from a close distance and charged at them near Island Park Reservoir, Idaho Fish and Game said. 

They both shot the animal with their handguns, killing it before it injured them, officials said in the Sept. 5 news release

18. Grizzly, Montana, September 8, 2023, pistol fired. Official Montana FWP report (GYE):

BIG SKY – Bear specialists with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks have concluded a field investigation into a grizzly bear encounter that injured a man south of Big Sky last week.

The attack happened Friday, Sept. 8, in the Yellow Mule area of the Madison Range. During the encounter, one of the victim’s companions fired a pistol at the bear before the bear left. The victim suffered serious injuries from the bear and was flown to a hospital.

FWP staff flew over the area Saturday to look for a bear that may have been wounded. No bears were found during the aerial search, and no collared bears were nearby.


19. Black Bear AK, Blake Getty's hunting camp, 17 September, 2023, personal interview, Combination.

 On September 17, 2023, Blake Gettys had been successful in harvesting a moose for meat. This is a common method of getting a supply of meat for the winter in Alaska. The moose meat had been hung on a meat pole at their hunting camp.  The camp is far from other human habitation. To prevent the meat from being stolen, they had hung bells on it. In the middle of the night, Blake and his hunting partner heard the bells. They stepped outside of the cabin. Black had a S&W Airweight .44 Magnum revolver. His partner had a Remington rifle in .338 Magnum.. A black bear was attempting to steal the meat. This is uncommon, but in this part of Alaska, the bear may not have encountered humans before. It was an average black bear, for the area, about 250 lbs. The bear was facing them. Blake fired a warning shot close to the bears front paws. Instead of running off, the bear took a step forward. Blake signaled his partner who shot and killed the bear with his rifle. This was not the first time they had seen this bear in the area. This incident is not counted in the statistics as the use of a handgun in defense against bears because both a handgun and a rifle were used. Black says he could have killed the bear with his .44 Magnum, but chose not to do so when his partner with the rifle was at hand and ready.


20. September 30,  2023 Grizzly Bear, handgun North of Henry's Lake, Idaho (GYE)

On the evening of Sept. 30, a hunter shot and killed a large adult female grizzly bear in self-defense after it charged the man while hunting for elk, northwest of Henrys Lake. 

The hunter was moving through heavy timber when the large grizzly came out of the brush a short distance away from him. After yelling to warn his hunting partner of the bear’s presence, the bear charged directly towards him. The hunter was able to draw his sidearm and fire several times, killing the bear only a short distance away, before it was able to make contact. No human injuries have been reported. 

The hunter immediately called the Citizens Against Poaching hotline to report the incident. Idaho Department of Fish and Game responded to the call and conducted a thorough investigation. It was determined that the hunter acted in self-defense during a surprise encounter with the bear from a very close distance. 

This update brings the total to 161 handgun only incidents not counting the three indeterminate cases. There are over a dozen incidents under investigation.  Four failures out of the 161 incidents calculates to a 98% rate of success.  Total cases where a handgun was fired in defense against a bear or bears is 190. Combinations of lethal instruments are not included in the handgun statistics, because it is impossible separate out the effects.

Calibers used vary from .22 LR to .500 S&W Magnum. The most common caliber used has been the .44 Magnum with 46 incidents. One incident with a .44 Magnum is defined as a failure, although no one was injured and the bear does not appear to have been wounded.  The rate of success for the .44 magnum is 98%.  Caliber specific articles are expected to be published in the future.

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

Gun Watch


ScienceABC123 said...

I'd like to see a comparison between hand guns and bear spray. Is there a percentage on how effective bear spray is?

Dean Weingarten said...

It is very difficult to do a serious comparison, because of the problem of collecting representative samples.

The best comparison is probably to look at fatalities. From 1890 to 2024, 1 person was killed when a pistol was fired in defense against a bear.

From 1986 to 2024, 8-9 people have been killed when bear spray has been sprayed in defense against a bear. The Pogo mine case is somewhat disputed. Both women had bear spray. It appears Erin, the woman who was killed, did not spray the bear. Clearly, Ellen did spray at the bear with bear spray, and the bear still killed Erin. It appears both women kept their bear spray in their packs.