One of the topics that came up when I was first moving to Alaska was what type of firearm I could carry around for safety’s sake. Especially what type of “bear gun” I needed to be carrying for that worst case scenario. At the end I went with two (not to mention the bear spray) when I was really out in the wild: a .44 magnum revolver and a reliable 12 gauge shotgun.
Many people from the Lower 48 were surprised and asked me: “Can you really take down a bear with a shotgun?”
The short answer is yes, that the right shotgun and proper ammunition is a solid defense against bears. For those who have to spend a lot of time in deep bear country a pump action shotgun with slugs is promoted as the best firearm for defense against an attacking bear.
While shotguns in Iowa (where I grew up most of my teenage years) are most commonly used for hunting pheasants and deer, that doesn’t change the fact that different types of shot can radically change the damage and effect a shotgun can have. Slugs are a far cry from bird shot, and when saying a shotgun is excellent bear defense this is going under the assumptions that:
- You’re using the right type of shotgun
- You’re using the right type of ammunition
- You are trained and experienced at firing shotguns
These are all crucial points to answering this question because bear attacks don’t happen often and when they do they don’t happen in a hypothetical vacuum. They involve a bear and a potential human victim, and how that person/potential victim is trained and reacts will make a huge difference when it comes to getting a truly accurate answer to whether or not a shotgun is good bear defense.
Let’s break into each of these assumptions more thoroughly.
The Right Shotgun for Bear Defense
Not every shotgun is the same, and it’s important to make sure you have the right shotgun if this is going to be your firearm of choice when defending yourself in bear country you want to make sure you have the the one that gives you the best option.
Assuming that a shotgun is the best option for you as opposed to bear spray, a high caliber handgun, or best a high powered rifle, then there are still some important things you should know.
Mandatory Information: The Alaska Department of Fish and Game recommends bear spray because when properly used, it’s the best defense in most bear encounters. It’s effectiveness has been tested in labs but also when used in real life incidents there was a lower percentage of injuries versus those who used a firearm. This is due in part to the massive proficiency of shooting a high power firearm needed to use it as effective self-defense against a bear – and the fact that a fatal shot on a bear can take several seconds to do its work. Consider taking bear spray as your first line of defense – I often carried both bear spray and a firearm with me.
First: This should go without saying, but never EVER use bird shot.
You need slugs to have any prayer of taking down a charging bear, especially a big grizzly. Buckshot isn’t effective, either. It can do damage within 30 years and depending on the material used in the buckshot this could cause metal poisoning that eventually kills the bear – but “eventually” is not something you want to hear when a bear is charging because that means you’re lunch.
You need to use shotgun slugs to have any chance of success when defending yourself, and you will have much more luck with a shotgun versus a black bear than you will a brown bear or, god forbid, a polar bear.
Second: Use a shotgun with multiple shots.
A charging bear is not the time when you want to fire a double barrel shotgun and then have to stop, reload, and re-aim hoping the second time is a charm…assuming you’re still up to get a second chance. You want a pump action or semi-automatic, something that will let you fire multiple shots at a charging bear to give yourself the best chance of survival.
Third: Have the right shotgun type and ammunition.
Pellet size, type, and material all affect how powerful a shotgun blast is, and generally speaking a lower gauge of shotgun will pack more of a punch than a higher gauge. Make sure to have a combination that can put down a large charging animal, and not something that even a normal person would have a chance to shake off.
Semi Automatic Vs Double Barrel
This should go without saying, but you want a semi automatic shotgun versus a double barrel. Shooting two shells at once might pack a punch but good luck keeping the nerves if you don’t put down a charging bear and then need to reload two shells while being charged.
Many semi-automatic shotguns only hold three shells, which means those weapons are used for bird hunting. This is because there are rules and regulations on the number of shells shotguns used for bird hunting can hold.
These are not ideal. While three shots are better than two, especially two that fire at the same time, for bear country you want one of the options that offers 5+ shots. Five is going to be fairly common, though there are models of shotguns that go up to 9 shots. Anything above that is likely a riot shotgun or heavily regulated/regarded to law enforcement.
I will also suggest that a pump action is likely the best choice because of the simple mechanical reliability. You want to make sure there’s no jam or delay in shooting when a bear is rapidly closing the distance.
What Gauge Shotgun Should You Use for Bear Defense?
The next question comes to what gauge is necessary. Legally a shotgun used for bear hunting must be 10, 12, 16, or 20 gauge and shoots slugs. This doesn’t restrict most people as that covers the overwhelming majority of options.
Generally the answer is a lower gauge is better. If you’re using slugs and have good aim and ammo, a 20 gauge can work just fine but most experts I talked to agree that a 12 gauge is the option of choice. This gives more than enough stopping power in most situations assuming the aim is good, not to mention that for most hunters or shooters this is a bit more manageable on the kickback than a 10 gauge for most shooters.
However, if you’re smaller in stature or really used to shooting a 16 gauge and are simply better with that type of shotgun, then that’s the one that you should use. Being able to shoot accurately is hands down the most important aspect of firearms self-defense against a bear, and that also involves taking the kickback from multiple shots without losing accuracy.
As this story shows, often times it’s all about the accuracy and being able to place the shot. You need high caliber shots to take a bear down, a .22 rifle isn’t going to do anything except make you lunch no matter how good a shot you are, however on the other extreme end when you have a very high powered firearm but no expertise (or even worse) no experience using it then chances are in a high pressure situation that isn’t going to do you much good either.
The Right Shotgun Slugs for Bear Defense
Generally speaking, a lower gauge is better than a higher one, and you want slugs. Not bird shot, not buckshot, slugs. The biggest pellets you can get that are most likely to punch through.
While this isn’t always ideal for hunting, that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about self-defense against one of the most dangerous land mammals in North America, and not one you want to be under prepared to deal with.
The video below is from an experienced back country individual giving good advice on how they carry their shotgun for protection in bear country, and gives some guidance on one point of view on the best way to do this.
Sound warning: The microphone gets loud for a few seconds mid-video, but the bit of audio irritation is worth it for the quality that this video brings to the table.
Are You Experienced in Shotgun Shooting?
The idea that anyone who has never shot before can point a shotgun in a direction and “The problem’s gone,” has seen a few too many movies or Bill Burr comedy specials. While shotguns are a great firearm for home defense, as with any firearm it takes experience to build up the skills to use it effectively.
When an angry grizzly is charging down on you definitely isn’t the time to find out if you can fire a shotgun effectively or not. And if you haven’t practiced, and hadn’t practiced firing under pressure, chances are almost 100% that you will be in serious trouble and will have less than optimal placement.
There are two types of experience shooting that you need to make a shotgun a viable potential defense in bear country:
- Experience shooting a shotgun accurately
- Experience shooting a shotgun accurately in high pressure and high stress simulations
That second one is far too often overlooked, and it is crucial to have in order to defend yourself in an emergency situation. Shooting on a target range is one thing, while shooting under pressure with a giant rushing ball of fur with teeth and claws heading straight for you is another completely.
No matter how good the weapon and how perfect the ammunition, if you don’t have these two types of thorough shooting experience, you’re going to be in bad shape.
How Do Shotguns Stack Versus Other Firearms for Bear Defense?
The firearm most experts agree is best is a high caliber rifle. This allows shooting from a distance and can use ammunition that delivers a higher killing shot from a distance, and when a grizzly bear is angry you really would prefer a self-defense scenario that wasn’t up close and personal but even then a high power rifle shot is still going to do a lot of work when properly aimed.
Professional bear hunting guides in Alaska all recommend rifles, but point out that the ability to properly aim a conventional .30-.06 makes that a better rifle than a higher caliber that you are not a great shot with. Take a look at this article from the ADFG for more on that information.
Generally speaking the order of operations for best bear defense firearms are:
- High-powered rifle
- High powered hangun
Accuracy and experience is a major reason why “bear guns” like the .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum are actually rarely a good idea. They are hard to control, hard to aim, and take a lot of experience to handle…not to mention appropriate arm and upper body strength.
Especially for repeated shots, because unless it’s a high-powered rifle with the perfect angle, you’re very unlikely to see a one shot, one kill scenario with any of these weapons, so being able to fire off several shots in a row with good accuracy is crucial.
It’s also worth noting the type of bear makes a difference. If you’re in black bear country, a good shotgun with slugs is going to be very effective in the hands of an accurate shooter since even a big adult black bear will tend to be much, much smaller than your average brown bear or “grizzly” which is much harder to take down as a result.
As for polar bears…well there’s an old poem that I learned in Alaska about bear survival that was meant for the unarmed, but it brings a particular point about polar bears home:
If it’s brown, get down,
If it’s black, fight back,
If it’s white, good night.A not-inaccurate old poem to remember how to react to each bear’s aggression
Yeah, with polar bears it’s always go armed with a high powered rifle, with an experienced guide with a high powered rifle. In some northern villages and settlements in Alaska it’s actually illegal to go outside of town unarmed and without a guide (if you’re a visitor) for these very reasons.
So while I went around with bear spray and a .44 Magnum, which I practiced with under many conditions (but still would have preferred a high powered rifle or shotgun had that been available to me up there), and I always recommend having a can of bear spray on hand as against “common sense” intuition, it is stunningly effective when used correctly, you will always want to carry a decent power firearm that you are proficient and experienced with.
Can a Shotgun Kill a Bear: The Verdict
A shotgun can be an effective self-defense option against a bear attack. This is an A grade for defending yourself against black bears, a C/B grade depending on a variety of factors against brown bears, and in fairness a high powered rifle shot from well over 100 yards is the only decent defense option against a polar bear, so that’s not what we’re really a fair standard to use.
Since most bear attacks are black bear first and brown bear second, a shotgun will be somewhere between functional-good to excellent option for self-defense against potential bear attacks in the hands of an experienced shooter who knows how to aim, fire, and keep calm in high pressure situations.
So the main answer is yes, in general a shotgun can 100% kill a bear.
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