Loaded For Black Bears: The Best New Guns & Ammo

There are three scenarios to consider when looking for the ultimate firearm and ammunition for black bears. Will you be using it for self-defense, long-range hunting, or hunting over bait and in tight quarters?

by Mark Melotik

HuntStand Pro Contributor MORE FROM Mark

Whether your goal is gearing up for close-range encounters, long-range sniping or general “all-around” performance, these guns and loads will bring home the bruins.

BearLoad LEAD 600The thought of hunting black bears can seriously scare some hunters. For many, just the concept of going after a critter that can fight back changes the hunting game entirely. Luckily, the majority of black bears—especially the magnum-sized bruins—tend to avoid people at all costs, which makes them a tough creature to match wits with in the spring woods.

There are three scenarios to consider when looking for the ultimate firearm and ammunition for black bears. Will you be using it for self-defense, long-range hunting, or hunting over bait and in tight quarters? Each would have a different standard for optimal performance, so knowing your goals makes it easier to narrow down the best choices for these decidedly different objectives.

Factors like managed recoil, fast target acquisition, dependability, reliability, and stopping power all need to be examined, for any firearm and load considering the situations mentioned above.

BearScope 600

For self-defense and close encounters I can’t help but remember reading Peter Hathaway Capstick’s recounts of tracking wounded leopards in Africa. He wore a football helmet and catcher’s chest protector with groin extension, and most importantly carried a pump shotgun. The old smoothbore packs a tremendous punch at close range, allows you to acquire the target quickly with a single bead on the end of the barrel, and operates without failure when it counts the most.

MossbearBear 600Looking at modern firearms, the versatile Mossberg Flex 500 (pictured above) offers many choices for a hunter to quickly change the shotgun configuration for a multitude of situations. The standard camouflaged butt stock and foregrip are ideal for hunting from a stand. The pistol grip can quickly be swapped for the butt stock for tracking/defense situations. The tactical components could be used for tracking, where you could even attach a flashlight to the Picatinny rail. The real beauty of the shotgun is the reliability in tense situations, and its incredible knockdown power.

300gr MonoFlex 600I’ve shot many bears with a shotgun/slug combo and never had one take more than a couple steps. A good quality slug is critical, and the Hornady Superformance shotgun slugs (12-gauge, 300-grain slugs pictured above) feature the accurate and deep-penetrating MonoFlex projectile, in your choice of either 12- or 20-gauge loads. The 20 gauge is often overlooked but has less recoil, allowing you to stay on target after each shot, while providing more than sufficient knockdown power.

The Superformance shotgun slug is a monolithic solid projectile made from copper alloy (95 percent copper/5 percent zinc) and topped with the Hornady exclusive Flex Tip that ensures uniform expansion. The MonoFlex won’t separate, and retains 95 percent of its original weight. This is important in close-range situations where you must have perfect bullet performance.

FensonBear 600Two years ago I harvested two big black bears in northern Alberta (one pictured above) with a Mossberg 20 gauge, shooting Hornady Custom Lite slugs. Both bears were dead on impact. Shotguns are one of the most-overlooked firearm options for spring bear hunts, but offer lots of benefits for close-range situations, including most baited hunts.

Legendary gun writer Jack O’Connor shot 18 black bears in his hunting career. The first bear he ever shot was taken with a .30-06 Springfield in the White Mountains of Arizona. Some may feel the caliber is too small for bears, but O’Connor shot black bears with his .270 caliber on many occasions. Spot-and-stalk was his favorite method of hunting, allowing him to shoot bears at a variety of distances.

O’Connor wrote extensively on techniques for finding and stalking game. His tips included watching the wind, stalking from above and paying attention to every detail. Today, hunters have the advantage of using the free HuntStand app, which offers all the current and forecasted environmental conditions at your fingertips, right in your smartphone. You can even look at detailed terrain features via satellite imagery, to ensure you plan the perfect stalk; you can also create helpful waypoints for getting back out in the dark.

I like the .30-06 for black bears, as it has plenty of knockdown power backed by more than 100 years of reliable history. Today, if I was to add a gun in this caliber I’d choose the Browning Hell’s Canyon Speed bolt-action rifle.

BrowningRifle600The X-Bolt Hell’s Canyon Speed bolt-action rifle (pictured above) is ideal for rough terrain, spring weather, and dependable accuracy when needed. With everything from Cerakote on metal parts, Burnt Bronze finish on the barrel and action, and glass bedding, this rifle should be the answer for most any extreme-conditions hunt. Savvy bear hunters will also appreciate the target crown, adjustable trigger, 60-degree bolt lift, and detachable rotary magazine. And, it weighs only 6 lbs. 5 oz.

Browning’s BXC Controlled Expansion Terminal Tip 185-grain cartridge would be a natural match to the rifle. The bonded bullet design would provide deep penetration through thick hide and bone, no matter how big the bear. The brass tip and boat-tail design offer impressive accuracy and downrange performance.

I talked with bear-hunting legend Larry Weishuhn (pictured above) recently, and he was busy preparing for a trip to Alaska for black bears. We discussed rifles and ammunition at length. Weishuhn’s choice in bear rifles and rounds is the .375 Ruger shooting Hornady 300-grain DGX (Dangerous Game Expandable) bullets. With this combo Weishuhn feels comfortable at ranges near and far, although he strives to get as close as possible. For his upcoming Alaska hunt, Weishuhn was preparing to depend on Ruger’s new Model 77 FTW Hunter, again in .375 Ruger, and Hornady 300-grain DGX ammo.

Weishuhn prefers the .375 Ruger caliber on potentially dangerous game because of its terminal performance with the Hornady loads. With this load he knows he can put a bear down quickly and humanely. “[With this load] I never feel under-gunned and I don’t think there is such a thing as ‘over-gunned,’” Weishuhn said, offering some very good advice for black bear hunters everywhere.

LarryBear2 600Over the years Weishuhn (pictured above with an impressive Canadian bruin) has taken two Alaskan brown bears, three interior grizzlies in Alaska, and 30 black bears with a wide variety of rifles, shotguns, pistols and muzzleloaders. His choice of firearms, caliber and ammo is based on his wide-ranging wealth of experiences.

I’m also preparing for a 2016 spring black bear hunt, and have recently mounted a new scope on a Savage 111, in .30-06 Springfield. The Savage 116 Bear Hunter (pictured above) is also an obvious choice for aspiring bear hunters. Over the years I’ve found Savage rifles to be extremely accurate and durable. There are three hallmarks of Savage accuracy; the first is the two-piece bolt design, which interfaces perfectly flat with the cartridge and bolt face. The

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second feature is the barrel lug, or lock nut, which is not exactly pretty, but allows the manufacturer to perfectly set the headspace on every gun before it leaves the factory. The third feature is the AccuTrigger, and anyone who has tried it knows it definitely provides an advantage for accuracy. I’ve used the Savage with great results on everything from plains game in Africa to large North American game.

Federal 600

On my 2016 spring bear hunt I’ll be using Federal Power-Shok Copper loads (see above) which feature a hollow-point copper projectile that creates large wound channels, with consistent expansion. The all-new Catalyst lead-free primer is designed to provide the most-efficient and reliable ignition possible.

BearLoad 600

Another great bear load is the Winchester Dual Bond Sabot Slug. The Dual Bond (pictured above) offers incredible knockdown power with the 375-grain slug, which is designed like two different bullets bonded together for maximum performance and expansion. This isn’t the slug your grandpa used to shoot, with a muzzy velocity of 1,850 fps and 2,849 ft/lbs. of energy at the muzzle. It shoots flat to 100 yards and only drops 1.8 inches at 150 yards. The 3-inch shotshell packs a wallop and would be great option for bear hunters who don’t want to be trailing dangerous game through dense forest.

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There are typically a lot of “extras” in a premium cartridge, and the Winchester Expedition Big Game has proven it is hard-hitting, with dependable accuracy and performance. The bullet features a bonded alloyed lead core that opens on impact, with the polymer tip providing controlled expansion. The .300 WSM cartridge comes out of the muzzle at 3,010 fps and is still traveling at 2,822 at 100 yards. The bullet hits like a truck with 3,622 ft/lbs. at the muzzle and an impressive 3,185 ft/lbs. at 100 yards. This would be a good cartridge choice for the spot-and-stalk black bear hunter, as well as for those planning a bait-site ambush.



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