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Shotguns Vs. Rifles for Bear Defense: Which is Best?

Alaskan hunting and law enforcement expert Rikk Rambo breaks down the best long guns for defense against bears in the tough Alaskan wilderness.

Shotguns Vs. Rifles for Bear Defense: Which is Best?

“The Look.” An Alaskan brown bear looking…unpredictable. 

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As twilight swiftly faded into inky darkness in the wild and remote mountains of the Alaska range, my situation could only be described as worrisome. From the bluff that was my vantage point for calling in bull moose, I silently watched a monstrous cinnamon-phase black bear sniff and snuff its way along the exact path I had taken earlier. In the failing light, the blocky, well-fed bear stopped, raised his snout into the air, gave a couple of dramatic snorts, then did something unexpected. He plopped down on his stomach with a thud and continued to aggressively sniff the ground I’d walked earlier in the day. I knew I had a finite amount of time before darkness closed in, so I stood up and yelled loudly “Get out of here bear.” It did not go as expected. From a distance of approximately 50 yards, the bear stood up, looked directly at me, and while maintaining eye contact, charged into the woods at the exact same point of ingress I utilized that morning to penetrate the spruce thicket on whose fringes I now occupied. The bear was on the stalk, and I was the target. If the weapon I carried wasn’t up to the task, my return trip to Anchorage could very well be in a medical examiner’s bag in the cargo hold of an Alaska State Wildlife Trooper helicopter instead of the back seat of my friend’s bush plane.

Know Your Adversary: Black and Brown Bear Behavior and Anatomy

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It's hard to picture just how massive a brown bear is without seeing one in person, but this picture give you a good idea.

During my 20 years in Alaska, I have found that both black and brown (grizzly) bear behavior exhibits many of the same attributes as humans. Unfortunately, just like humans, occasionally you run into the “wrong type” that is hell-bent on putting the hurt on you. While black and brown bear often reside in the same territory (albeit tenuously) and share the same dietary sources, their behavior around humans is often quite different. During most encounters with a black bear, it either makes a lightning fast, fear-fueled retreat or plods off grudgingly with an “I’m going to leave now, but not because you told me to” look on its puss. Black bears that remain in close proximity or temporarily disappear from view, only to return and shadow you are extremely dangerous. This type of behavior is indicative of a bear that is evaluating you as a food source and formulating the best and safest method of “harvesting” you.

Brown Bear typically aren’t as flighty or sneaky. Most of the encounters I’ve had with brown bears involved short to intermediate length standoffs, the exchange of judgmental stares, then all parties slowly backing down and getting back to whatever bear or human activities they had planned for the day. While all bear behavior should be considered “subject to change,” there are two types of brown bear encounters that often end in violence. The first involves encounters with sows with cubs. The second type is far worse: Accidentally trespassing in close proximity to a brown bear food cache. Brown bears like to save their leftover kills for later by covering them with dirt. This is the most likely type of encounter with a brown bear that will end with either the bear or the outdoorsman being killed.

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Early warning: Bears on the beach! Bear country in Alaska begins when you walk out of your front door.

When pitting shotguns against rifles and their efficacy in ending a violent bear encounter, it is important to understand the dramatic anatomical differences between the two species. The black bear’s musculature and skeletal structures (particularly their skull) are much less formidable than those of a brown bear. For comparative purposes, if a black bear was an up-armored Humvee, the brown would be a Bradley Fighting vehicle or, in the case of ginormous Alaskan coastal brown bear, an M-1 Abrams main battle tank. Because of these anatomical differences, the “shotgun versus rifle” debate will focus primarily on brown bear. Black bear are frighteningly tough, resilient, crafty and chock full of capabilities not to be taken lightly, but the standard representative samples of that species aren’t built to soak up the massive punishment brown bear are capable of. Bruins of the black variety should still be considered extremely dangerous while in “ornery” mode, but it doesn’t take a grizzly-capable .375 H&H Magnum or .416 Remington to put the kibosh on their intentions. For our good ‘ol Ursus Americanus, a reliable 12-gauge shotgun stoked with hardened slugs can prove to be effective medicine.

Brute Force: The Shotgun’s Role in Bear Defense

First things first, if you are a buckshot fan, be warned! You are about to go on a starvation diet while reading this article. While buckshot is an effective, tried-and-true option for home defense and close-quarter law enforcement/military applications, its efficacy in terminating the charge of an amped-up brown bear dedicated towards turning you into a “not-so-happy-meal” is marginal at best. A brown bear’s thick, sharply angled skull and hulk-like chest and shoulder musculature are the anatomical culprits that render buckshot as a “marginal at best” option. There’s no denying that a good peppering of double or triple-aught buck to an incoming brownie’s melon or chest may ring its bell or slow its charge. However, the “iffy” penetration and random patterning inherent to the round does not guarantee a definitive, fight-ending solution. Every shot you are afforded should have one goal: Killing the bear immediately.  

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Alaska “Grrrls” know what’s up: A DEA Student Aid shooting a near perfect score with a Remington 870 (left). Repeated rounds on target is imperative: The Benelli M4 excels in that regard. Brown bear, black bear, and Brennekes (bottom right). The difference in skull size is striking!

Based on personal experience and anecdotal accounts provided by trusted Alaskan outdoors-folk and fellow law enforcement brethren, I believe the only shotgun round that should be considered as a primary round for defense against a marauding brownie is a hardened, dangerous-game purposed 12-gauge slug. In that regard, Brenneke slugs are your huckleberry. Brenneke is the only brand of 12 gauge “dangerous game” shotgun ammunition I’m aware of that is considered by nearly every Alaskan law enforcement agencies as the “the gold standard” for bear defense. When choosing a shotgun as your primary bear defense weapon, remember these three necessary skillsets: weapon familiarity, handling, and marksmanship under duress. Shotguns can be finicky with their operators when used in stressful situations. Pump-action shotguns are especially susceptible to a troublesome failure to extract/feed error known as “short-shucking.” This failure occurs when the weapon is fired and the pump-action is not actuated fully rearward to its terminus before being brought forward to load the next shell. The next shell “up to bat” becomes lodged under the ‘lifter’ which mechanically positions the next shell into the chamber from the tubular magazine. If this issue occurs during a heart-attack-serious bear attack, it is a dealbreaker and cannot be rectified in time to save your bacon from a motivated bruin.

Practice like you play and train with your shotgun in as stressful of an environment as you can create. Before a course of fire, run several hundred yards to get your heartrate up. If feasible, have someone stand safely behind you and yell, scream, or even activate an airhorn or electronic game call to get you out of your comfort zone during a bear protection shooting drill. Trust me when I tell you this. When that bear comes, it sounds like a huffing, puffing, forest wrecking freight train. Even the largest and seemingly ungainly bear can run you down at speeds approaching 35 mph, and if your response isn’t adequate, the outcome may be catastrophically…wait for it…grisly. My go-to shotguns for bear defense are the Benelli M-1 Tactical and M-4. I’ve utilized these shotties (stoked with various iterations of Brenneke slugs) in multiple geographic and climatic environments for over two decades without a single failure to feed/function. They’re accurate, rugged, and capable of accepting a Trijicon SRO, RMR, or other brand of red dot sight.

Speed, Penetration, Kinetic Energy, and Accuracy are your Friends: Rifles

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The author and his trusted Kimber Talkeetna .375 H&H Magnum.

This is where my bias virtually oozes out of this article. When it comes to countering a charge from a Pleistocene era reminiscent brown bear, my long arm of preference is a rifle. Adequately powered rifles such as the .375 H&H magnum, .338 Winchester Magnum, and their brethren are built for taking on dangerous game head-on. Their efficacy is thanks to the physics behind the cartridges they are based on. A bear-capable rifle launches heavy, well-engineered bullets built for both penetration and weight retention at speeds adequate to achieve devastating terminal ballistics. Dangerous game rifle ballistics mete out the damage necessary to stop a juggernaut-like brown bear by inflicting deep wound channels through heavy bone, sinew, muscles, and organs, combined with devastating kinetic energy dispersal. Even magnum-powered rifles loaded with dangerous game loads or well-designed bonded hunting ammunition aren’t a guaranteed fight ender. They are, however, more suited than shotguns in penetrating the formidable skull and musculature of a brown bear to reach the brain, spine or heart.

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Rough duty: The Ultra-Light Ranger/Accupoint duo after a five day climb in the Tongass Rain Forest.

I emphasize brain, because brownies have a long track record of surviving heart-shots long enough to maul or kill their adversary before succumbing to their wounds. Rifles in magnum calibers or substantial 30-caliber or above chamberings, as well as the tried and true .45-70 Government, are all significant contenders when considering the purchase of a rifle for bear defense. Of equal importance is the sight or optic you equip your rifle with. If you use express or iron sights, make sure they are brightly colored “high-viz” style with a sight picture that can be easily acquired in low-light conditions. For dual-purpose hunting rifles you wish to equip with a powered optic like the Trijicon Accupoint family I often use. They are equally at home shooting a Dall sheep across a chasm at 400 yards or an agitated bear at 15 feet thanks to their dual illumination reticles (fiber optic/tritium). In low light close quarter battle, the front scope cap cover can be shut, and with both eyes open, serve as an extremely accurate and visible reflex sight. I carry two primary brown-bear capable rifles into the back country of Alaska. One is the Wilson Combat’s .358 Winchester Ultra-Light Ranger loaded with Hornady Interlock 200 grain ammunition, and the other is Kimber’s .375 H&H Talkeetna stoked with 300-grain Barnes handloaded X-Shock bullets.

Oh…and speaking of my beloved Talkeetna: The conclusion of “Danger Close.”

“Might Makes Right”

With my headlamp lighting the way and Kimber Talkeetna at low-ready, I walked a mere 25 feet before reaching a bend on the trail and immediately encountering my three-hundred-pound nemesis. This was unlike any bear encounter I’d ever experienced or heard tell of. He just stood in the middle of the trail staring at me. No huffing, grunting, or noticeable breathing or movement…just that dead stare. I brought the beautiful green glow of my Trijicon AccuPoint’s reticle to bear on an area just below his chin to account for hold-over, placed my finger on the trigger, and said in a low voice “Get out of here, bear…GIT.”

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Bear capable AR-10’s just get better and better: The Stag Arms Stag-10 Pursuit

Its response was to take a step forward without breaking eye contact. Mine was to press the trigger of the Talkeetna. The results of the center-mass strike from the Barnes X-Shock were instantaneous. The bear reared up on its back legs to full height, then tumbled backwards and out of sight, as if hit by a truck, down the bank to my right. I heard a loud splash as the bear made contact with a beaver pond just below the bluff and all was quiet. In the morning, my hunting partner and I returned to find the bear stone cold dead where it had fallen with an entrance wound to the chest and a generous exit wound out of its lower buttocks: A complete, fight-ending through and through wound that upon later inspection revealed a demolished heart and jellified internal organs. Would a hardened shotgun slug have killed that bear as expeditiously? Perhaps. Did a dangerous game-dedicated rifle kill it with cruel, pipe-hitting surety? Definitely.

In the end analysis, selecting a bear defense weapon comes down this. Choose a reliable shotgun or adequately powered rifle that you excel at shooting accurately under pressure. Then, figure out a comfortable carry configuration and get out there into the wilds with your friends and family and have fun. You’re not a wildebeest at a watering hole. You’re an apex predator capable of taking on any animal on four (or two) legs with a desire to rain on your parade!


If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.




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