I do not know that I have had many interesting experiences, unless you include bear hunting on the list." --Theodore Roosevelt
It looked like a big black basketball gliding along the tops of the high goldenrod that grew in this abandoned log landing. But as it emerged into the edge of the woods, there formed like an apparition a large black body under the giant head. There was no clue to alert the bear that I was there and aiming a rifle at him, but when he turned to look at me, his eyes said he knew. I saw the muscles in his shoulder bunch to flee just as I pulled the trigger. Then, faster than I thought possible, he was gone.
I waited a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the dim light before starting to track him. The trail soon led to a sharp drop - off, and as I crept up to that bank, intent on the land beyond, I almost stepped on him. He was just over the lip, facing back, watching for me.
I have shot many bears since then, but none larger, and I often wonder if he was lying in ambush and simply died before I got there. There is no way to know, of course, but regardless, I was glad I was using enough gun that night. The shot was far from perfect, hitting his liver. I question, might he still have been alive when I found him if I had been using a lesser cartridge than that 7mm Mag.?
Deer Guns Are Not Bear Guns
It is often said that any gun that works for deer is fine for bears. Don't you believe it. It takes a lot more gun to reliably kill black bears than it does to kill white - tailed deer. Bears are a lot different from deer, with thicker hides, bigger bones, bulkier muscles and an inherent toughness that deer simply don't possess. When a deer is hurt, it's a sure bet that he will lie down before too long. A bear takes off with a destination in mind; he will either get to that place or die trying. I have tracked dozens of wounded bears, and those I have found have either been dead or in a damn good hiding place. I have never found one still alive that was bedded in the open.
Certainly, many calibers will kill bears, but that doesn't necessarily make them good bear guns. A bear gun should remove any doubt; it should not simply be adequate but should be as suited for the worst - case scenario as it is for the best. With bears, that can involve a lot of factors, not the least of which is the bear himself. I have weighed a lot of black bears, and most are a lot smaller than people think. The majority of the 500 - pound bears you hear about never get near a scale. If there is a critter that is harder to drag than a black bear, it has escaped my notice. They pull like they are extracting one last revenge, and a bear will make you earn every foot you gain toward the truck. At the end, they all are 500 pounds to the guys that pulled them out.
Sure, some places consistently produce larger averages, but the truth is that the majority of the black bears shot are less than 250 pounds after field dressing. Most are under 200 pounds. The wild card is the bear that can show up no matter where you are hunting that does weigh an honest 350 or even 500 pounds. Those are a completely different critter, and if you plan your cartridge choice around the mythical "average" bear, you might be in for a sad surprise if you run into one of these big bruins.
Consider How You'll Be Hunting
Another big factor is hunting style. Hunting over bait or with hounds will give you much closer shots than spot - and - stalk or hunting crop fields. This is a consideration in cartridge selection. For example, I favor a handloaded .45 - 70 Gov. for bait hunting. Its big, heavy bullet is a bear thumper that puts them down with authority. But it would be a poor choice for a spot - and - stalk hunt where the shots may be 200 yards or more; a .300 or .338 Win. Mag. might be a better choice.
But remember too that anything the .300 or .338 Win. Mag. can do at long range it can do even better up close. So there is no real downside from a ballistic standpoint to using these cartridges for any bear hunt; a 250 - grain bullet from a .338 Win. Mag. is even more deadly on close bears over bait than it is on those long shots.
The consideration may be in the rifles chambered. A 9 1/2 - pound magnum with a 26 - inch barrel is a gun you will hate personally after lugging it for a few grueling days spent chasing hounds. It would be far better to carry a slick little iron - sighted carbine chambered for .356 Win., .444 Marlin or .45 - 70 Gov. and weighing only 6 1/2 pounds.
In places where calling bears is a common hunting tactic it is said that the bears often come in very aggressively. This is a different bear than one that may be placidly feeding, and it sometimes takes a lot of killing with these pumped - up beasts. It's no place to fool with marginal calibers, and the people who hunt this way favor big guns with quality bullets.
The Question of Caliber
Any bear you shoot should have a hole on both sides. Forget that nonsense about leaving the bullet in the bear and expending all its energy. You need an exit hole for lots of reasons, but the primary one is because bears are notoriously hard to track. Their feet are wide, flat and soft, so they will leave few followable tracks on most ground. Their hair soaks up a lot of blood, and bullet holes are quick to plug up with fat and tissue. The best insurance is to use a large enough cartridge with a high - quality bullet that is on the heavy side for the caliber so that it will exit, leaving a large enough hole for a decent blood trail.
While I have killed several bears with handguns, we are talking rifle cartridges here and I see little reason to use a handgun cartridge in a rifle for hunting bears. Certainly, a .44 Rem. Mag. will do the job on a close - range bear, and I have a custom - chambered H&R single - shot in .445 Super Mag. that would be deadly, but it remains that there are far better choices in rifle cartridges. I would say the same about cartridges in the class of the .30 - 30 Win. That it has killed a lot of bears is undeniable, but I would not include it on a list of good bear guns.
The .243 Win. is too light, and in my experience, so is the 7mm - 08 Rem. In theory, these calibers should make decent bear guns, but the bears I have seen shot with them have left me less than impressed. The .260 Rem. is in the same class. The .308 Win. can do the job, but it's still a shadow of a .30 - 06 if they are loaded to equal pressures.
Long - action cartridges, starting with the .270 Win., using quality 150 - grain bullets, are decent bear guns. Moving up to the .280 Rem., a 160 - grain bullet does the trick, and for the .30 - 06, it's hard to beat the 180 - grainers. If there is one truly great bear cartridge in this family, it's the .35 Whelen.
Springfield rifles will blow up if idiots put ammo in them that they shouldn't. This may be a justifiable fear. In a modern gun, though, a good handload, or one of the semi - custom loads on the market, makes the .45 - 70 Gov. a bad - dude bear gun. My favorite handload uses a Speer 400 - grain flat - nosed bullet at almost 1,800 fps.
Any belted magnum, .270 or larger, will be bad news for bears. The best include the 7mms, Remington or Weatherby, with 160 - to 175 - grain bullets and any of the .300 magnums with 180 - or 200 - grain bullets. The .338 Win. Mag. and .340 Wthby Mag. shine with 225 - or 250 - grain bullets. Some hunters will argue that these are more gun than is really needed, but on the other hand, they are great insurance. That might also be said about the .375 H&H Mag.; it's more gun than needed, but rest assured, you can't kill a bear too dead.