Wednesday, June 20, 2018


 Jack Bean in the early 1880s.

Of Scotch descent, John “Jack” Barker Bean was born in 1844 in Maine. His family moved to Wisconsin and then Minnesota, where he grew up. As soon as he was big enough to keep both ends of a gun off the ground, he became an insatiable hunter, so much so that sometimes his schooling took a back seat to roaming the Northwoods. While still in his teens, this young man “went West” and never looked back. His mother expected him to be gone for a few short months, but it was 29 years before she saw him again. During his life in the West he was a trapper, buffalo hunter, meat hunter, Indian fighter, Army scout, horse packer and hunting guide.
In January of 1874, the 30-year-old Bean and a partner were trapping the foothills of South-Central Montana’s Crazy Mountains where, according to Bean, they might see as many as five thousand elk in a day. They sometimes took a pack string carrying frozen deer and elk carcasses to Bozeman, where raw meat was selling for a handsome 15 cents per pound. Bean had already earned a reputation as an expert hunter who could bring home meat even when no one else seemed able to find game.
In Bozeman that winter, a group of local businessmen were organizing an expedition they were grandly calling the Yellowstone Wagon Road & Prospecting Company. As the name implied, the purpose of this expedition was supposedly to find a shorter, easier wagon route to provide access to Bozeman from the east and do a little prospecting for new gold strikes in the name of “economic development”. With such a long and cumbersome official title, folks around Bozeman began referring to the expedition as simply “the Boys.”

A great many people, then and now, believed the real purpose of the expedition was to quite literally stir a full-blown Indian war. The land along the Yellowstone River in what is today eastern Montana was a game-rich traditional Native American hunting ground, and large portions of the area had been ceded to the Crow, Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne tribes by government treaty. While the Crow were friendly to the whites, the Sioux and Cheyenne could be expected to react violently to an invasion of their territory. Quite a few citizens of Montana believed that once such a war got started, the US government would be forced to send in the Army to “pacify” the tribes via military force, after which the now depopulated Indian lands would become wide open to white settlement, development and exploitation.

With much local fanfare, the expedition departed Bozeman on February 13, 1874. It certainly looked more like a military invasion than a simple route-finding party, for it had grown in size to a total of 149 men. The Boys consisted in large part of seasoned outdoorsmen like Jack Bean; trappers, hunters, prospectors, scouts, and frontiersmen who were woods savvy, at home on a horse, and generally superior marksmen. Every man had been armed with a modern breech-loading or repeating rifle and at least one revolver.
Two hundred horses and mules wore pack saddles or, along with 28 yokes of oxen, were hitched to pull the expedition’s 22 wagons. The supplies carried included 40,000 rounds of extra small arms ammunition. The company even brought along two pieces of artillery, a US Army 12-pounder mountain howitzer “borrowed” from the troops at Fort Ellis at the insistence of the territorial governor, and an elderly locally-owned cannon known as the Big Horn Gun, with 150 rounds of explosive shells and canister ammunition.
Captain Frank Grounds, a Union veteran of the War Between the States, was elected to take overall command of the expedition. Under his leadership, the Boys traveled with the wagons in two columns so that they could more quickly form a defensive circle, with the pack stock between the wagons and experienced scouts, well armed and mounted, forging ahead, behind, and to the flanks. Each night’s camp was chosen with defensive terrain in mind. The wagons were circled tightly and joined by chains in the middle of the laager to corral and protect the horses and mules. Rifle pits or foxholes were dug around the perimeter, and the cannon were placed to cover the most likely avenues of approach.

By March 26th, 1874 Native American scouts had detected this private army marching brazenly through the heart of their wintering grounds. As a warrior society of superb horsemen, the Sioux in particular were not intimidated by the size of the company. With canny leaders like Red Cloud, Hump, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, the Northern Plains Tribes had already successfully fought larger parties of whites, including units of the US Army. Red Cloud’s War of 1866-1868 had forced the US government to abandon its three forts in the Powder River country and close the Bozeman Trail. Just two years earlier, a surveying party for the Northern Pacific Railroad escorted by three companies of US Army regulars had been so harried by the Sioux and Cheyenne along the Yellowstone River that they had turned back.
With budgets cut to the bare bones after the Civil War, the US Army of the era was badly under-strength and poorly trained, with a reputation for mediocre-at-best horsemanship and even worse marksmanship. It had gotten to the point where Native American warriors taunted soldiers into shooting at them so they could demonstrate their bravery by engaging in “bravo” runs. An individual warrior would ride, run, or even walk within range of the soldiers’ rifles and carbines and when he emerged unscathed from the hail of bullets his reputation and his medicine would be made. Some others waved or wore red blankets in battle to attract the soldiers’ eyes and bullets.
Some notable, almost legendary, examples occurred in 1872. In that year, a Northern Pacific railroad survey crew attempted to make its way up the Yellowstone River drainage through what is now the state of Montana to the town of Bozeman. The survey party was heavily escorted by US Army infantry companies and cavalry troops, but they were so heavily harassed by Sioux and Cheyenne attacks that the surveyors eventually insisted on turning around and going home.
The following year, another heavily escorted railroad survey team set off up the Yellowstone River… under the command of none other than George Armstrong Custer. Always prone to embellishment, upon the column’s early return Custer later claimed the Indians were better armed than the soldiers, equipped with, “…the latest improved patterns of breech-loading repeating rifles, and their supply of metallic rifle-cartridges seemed unlimited…Neither bow nor arrows were employed against us.”
A year later, the Boys’ assessment was likely more accurate. Although they noted finding a small number of cartridge cases for .50-70 Springfield breach-loaders and Spencer and Winchester repeaters, they recorded that by far the majority of Indian firearms encountered were single-shot muzzle-loaders and pistols and that most still carried bows and arrows. Even three years later at the Battle of the Little Bighorn perhaps only half of the warriors involved had firearms, and again the majority of these guns were again old and out-dated.
In spite of Custer’s claim of “unlimited” cartridges and despite some extremely creative and occasionally dangerous expedients for reloading spent cartridge cases, the Plains tribes in reality always suffered from a chronic shortage of sufficient ammunition and faced great difficulties in obtaining more.
In large part because they lacked enough ammunition of their own for more than a single battle, the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors instead harassed the soldiers escorting the 1872 survey party to get them to waste their ammunition. Crazy Horse himself reportedly made no less than twenty unhurried bravo rides back and forth in full view of the infantrymen and cavalry troopers and emerged unharmed despite the fusillades of bullets directed at him. Shortly thereafter, Hunkpapa Chief Sitting Bull had laid down his own arms and walked across the open prairie to within “about a quarter mile” (440 yards, well within range of a good rifleman) of the soldiers, where he calmly seated himself and had a leisurely smoke on his pipe while Army bullets kicked up dirt harmlessly all around him.
 Against the experienced marksmen of the Yellowstone Wagon Road & Prospecting Company, however, such bravo rides and even some conventional tactics proved unexpectedly costly. During their three-month trip, the Boys fought numerous minor skirmishes and three major full-blown battles with the Sioux and Cheyenne.
  An 1883 account of the expedition in the book The Chronicles of the Yellowstone by E. S. Topping, who interviewed several of the Boys, gave two examples of their superior marksmanship making the usual bravo rides a hazardous undertaking.
    Soon after this, an Indian, mounted on a handsome horse, and wearing a fine war bonnet, came out to make a bravo ride. His course lay across the bench and he was about five hundred yards away when thirteen of the boys fired a volley at him. The horse dropped dead and the warrior staggered to a coulie and out of sight. When examined later the horse was found to have been struck by nine bullets.”
    On another occasion: “As the party fled, one brave tarried a little behind his party, and was making his horse caracole and show off. Jack Bean took a good aim and fired. In three jumps the horse went into a sag. Just as the Indian went out of sight, he threw one hand high over his head, and in a moment more the horse came out riderless, and turning, came straight to the band.” A different account of this incident said the estimated range was, “about six hundred yards away.”
Bearing in mind that white sources of the era tend to inflate both the strength as well as the casualties of the Indians, an 1876 account by one of the participants claimed the boys had killed “about” fifty Indians and wounded nearly one hundred, while an 1883 source says “nearly a hundred” warriors were killed. The Boys suffered only one man killed and two men wounded by enemy fire. While we will never know the actual numbers involved, two major battles and numerous small skirmishes occurred between the opposing parties, and during these the range and accuracy of the boys’ rifle fire did come as a rude surprise to warriors used to facing the Army’s ineffectual musketry. One white account reported that Sitting Bull later declared that he “… had never seen such men …” and that the Lakota could “get nowhere near” the Boys without losing warriors and horses to their accurate and long-ranged shooting.
  Even in the company of quite a few other crack shots, Jack Bean is mentioned often in accounts of the expedition for his particularly well-honed sharp shooting skills. On one occasion, one of the boys on picket duty had been, quite literally, caught with his pants down. He was squatted down in the sagebrush taking a shit when surprised by approaching Indians and had departed so hastily for the shelter of the wagon laager…holding his britches up with one hand as he ran…that he left his pistol belt and holstered revolver lying on the ground.
    To keep the Indians from finding the valuable weapon and ammunition, Frank Grounds tasked Jack Bean to defend it from afar with his Sharps. The picket pointed out his former location and Bean attempted to pick off any warriors who came close enough to the area that they might find the pistol. He was successful in this endeavor.
     At one of the expedition’s lagers, they had posted mounted picket guards to stand lookout on nearby ridgetops to give advance warning of approaching war parties. Posted on the opposite end of the same ridge Jack Bean was on, a man named Bostwich saw a lone Indian signaling for a parley and foolishly rode down towards him, at which point eight more mounted warriors came racing out of the cover of a draw. Bostwich wheeled his horse around and fled for camp at top speed, but the fleet Indian ponies ridden by some of the world’s best horsemen easily overtook him. Despite wounds from four pistol bullets, Bostwich managed to stay on his mount as the warriors closed in to “count coup” by striking him with their riding quirts, their traditions making it a testament to a warrior’s skill and bravery to physically touch an enemy in battle before killing him.
    Seeing all this transpire from down the ridge, Jack Bean had galloped his horse up the spine of the ridge, trying to come to Bostwich’s aid. When one of the pursuing braves nocked an arrow in his bow to finish Bostwich off, Jack Bean yanked his horse to a halt and rolled off, raising his Sharps rifle and taking aim. A hurried shot at fairly long range at a fast-moving target, Jack’s first heavy lead bullet shattered one of the bowman’s arms and, by some accounts, unhorsed him. His continued fire made the remainder of the party to turn back and seek cover; examining their route the next morning, the white men discovered where two wounded warriors had been dragged to a lingering snowdrift in a gully to have their wounds treated with packed snow. Thanks to Bean’s covering fire, Bostwich was able to make it to the camp, where he fell from his horse gravely wounded. Amazingly, after a long struggle, the man recovered and went on to live a long life even though two pistol balls remained buried in his body for the rest of his days.
     The Sioux and Cheyenne surrounded the white intruders’ camp that night. Jack Bean later wrote, “As daylight commenced to come it give us fellows who were pretty good shots a show to do some long shooting.  There was a point up the stream about 400 yards & indians kept popping up there frequently when there was any excitement in camp…A little clay bank on the top of this ridge was covered with black sage brush & I trained my gun on this brush so I could knock the dust up at every shot.  Then I waited for more indians to appear.  Only waited a short time, fired about eight or ten shots at appearing objects and when we broke camp & moved we taken a look at this camp it was a mighty bloody looking place – all the dead & wounded having been packed away.”
     Jack Bean also fired the last and longest hostile shot of the expedition, and it was his most remarkable one. The two battles and sheer numbers of warriors had convinced Frank Grounds it was past time for the expedition to return to the safety of Bozeman. On April 16th, as the Boys departed from their campsite on Lodge Grass Creek in their usual pair of columns, movement was seen on a bald point that gave an unimpeded view of the valley floor the white men were traveling on.
     Atop the hill were two Lakota warriors, one named Shell Necklace and another warrior whose name has been lost to history, the latter armed with a big-bore Sharps buffalo rifle of his own. The unknown rifleman dismounted from his pony and lay down prone, took aim at the expedition below and fired a long-range Parthian shot at the departing intruders. Afterward, he apparently stood up again to observe the effects of his shot. The big chunk of lead from his Sharps landed within the wagon column, admittedly a large target, and kicked up a geyser of dirt just under one of the white men’s horses. Jack Bean was the only sharpshooter amongst the Boys who believed he could return the favor.
     One account of what occurred next comes from Topping: “Jack Bean returned the compliment, and when it was time for the bullet to get there, [depending on the actual range, the bullet may have been in the air as long as six seconds] the Indian who had fired the shot dropped. Several who were looking at the Indian with glasses, declared that the ball had hit him. The distance between the parties must have been nearly a mile. Jack used a long range rifle (one hundred and twenty grain, Sharp's), and had made several very effective shots during the trip.”
     In Jack Bean’s own words, recorded many years later, “…I made the remark that if they could shoot here I could shoot there.  So I gave the peep sight of my old sharps a pull – took a rest off of a wagon wheel and used my best judgement (sic) in allowing the wind to drift the ball & shot.  As fate would have it the indian fell.  There was no one in our party who judged the distance less than (1700) yards.”
     On the receiving end, Shell Necklace believed the range to be too long for return fire to be dangerous. Still mounted himself, Shell Necklace saw the puff of black powder smoke from the wagon train as Bean fired and, at about the same time he heard the report of the shot, his friend “jerked violently” and fell to the ground, mortally wounded. 

 The Shiloh Sharps Company of Big Timber, MT continues to manufacture modern replicas of the famous Model 1874 Sharps.

     Jack’s Sharps appears to have been a Model 1874, which, despite its nomenclature, the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company had actually begun producing in January of 1871. This single-shot breech-loader had a falling block action with an exposed hammer and had become a favorite among buffalo hunters since it was offered in a variety of powerful calibers ranging from .40-70 to .50-100; the first number indicated the caliber of the bore and the second listed the grains of black powder in the cartridge. Individual rifles could vary greatly from one another since the buyer could choose from many options to include octagon, round or half-round barrels ranging in length from 21-1/2 to 36 inches, double set triggers, and various sights and stocks. Buffalo hunters and frontiersmen came to call the Model 1874 Sharps “Old Reliable” and, keen to the marketing value of this, the Sharps Company stamped that moniker onto the barrels beginning in 1876. As famous as the Sharps was, less than 13,000 Model 1874s were made from 1871 to 1880.
We do not even know for sure the caliber of Jack’s “old sharps” since Jack himself failed to mention it in his memoirs and family members later could not recall what he had told them. Topping claimed “120-grain”, but the .45-120 Sharps cartridge did not become available until late 1878 or early 1879. Other sources say it was a .44-90. Sharps’ records say that this cartridge was not introduced until June of 1873 so it would have been highly unlikely for one to have found its way to Bozeman, Montana before Jack and his trapping partner Stewart Buchanan departed from that locale for their trapline in the isolated Crazy Mountains in “late summer” of 1873.
The .44-77 Sharps is one likely candidate. Introduced in 1869, factory loads included bullets up to 405-grains, although one of the most widely produced loads used was a 365-grain projectile with a muzzle velocity of 1,460 feet per second. It was Sharps’ most popular caliber until 1877, and was used by the American rifle team that bested the British and Irish teams in the early Creedmore Matches.
It could also have been a “Big Fifty”. The .50-90 was a mainstay of buffalo hunters since it could hurl a 473-grain bullet with a muzzle velocity of 1,350 fps. Lighter bullets backed by larger powder charges in this same caliber were known as the .50-100 and .50-110.
    Lastly there was the .50-70 Government cartridge, which had been developed for and used in the early models of the Trapdoor Springfield prior to the introduction of the .45-70 in 1873. The standard military load produced by Frankford Arsenal used 70 grains of black powder to launch a 450-grain bullet at 1,275 fps. The US Army having switched over to the newer Model 1873 Trapdoor in .45-70, the older surplus .50-70 Springfields were sold or given away outright to both settlers and reservation Indians. The vast majority of “the Boys” were in fact toting these older Springfields. Since they were actually muzzle-loaders that had been converted to breech-loaders, a long firing pin was required, leading the weapons to be commonly referred to in the American West as “Needle Guns”. This caused some confusion to later historians since the Prussian Model 1841 Dreyse light percussion rifle, the first military bolt-action breach-loader, was also nicknamed in Europe as the Z├╝ndnadelgewehr or needle-gun. The 40,000 rounds of small arms ammo provided to the expedition by Governor Potts was government-issue .50-70 ammunition.
    Whatever the diameter of the bullet Jack Bean fired, it was one hell of a shot. All of the old black powder cartridges, with their relatively low muzzle velocities and heavy, blunt lead bullets that were poorly stream-lined for their journey through the air, had a trajectory like a rainbow. This made accurate range estimation crucial in order to achieve hits at long range. Considering a .50-70 Springfield Needle Gun with its sights set for their maximum range of 1,050 yards, the bullet’s trajectory would take it 87 feet above line of sight at 700 yards, and the projectile required approximately 3-1/2 seconds to travel that far. Put another way, with the sights set for 300 yards, if a man with a Needle Gun had to take a shot at 150 yards instead, the bullet would impact just a hair away from 36 inches or three feet high at the shorter distance, more than enough error to shoot over a man’s head.

 Sharps rifle long-range aperture tang sight.

    Although a few accounts inferred that Bean’s Sharps had a long brass telescopic sight, from Jack’s own description a tang sight seems more likely. Its base attached to a mount screwed into the small of the stock wrist, a tang sight folded down flush to the stock when not in use. When used, it was raised to the vertical position and could be adjusted precisely for windage and elevation. A coin-sized metal disc with a small hole in the center made it an aperture or “peep” sight. When aiming through such an aperture, the human eye automatically centers itself to look through the middle of the peep, where the most light is available. Thus, the rifleman’s eye needs only focus in two planes, on the front sight and the target. At the time, however, most long-range tang sights were only graduated to 1,200 yards or 1,500 at the longest, meaning that Bean may have had to use some “hold-over”.
Topping, who had interviewed some of the Boys, claims the range to have been “nearly a mile”, a mile converting to 1,760 yards. Bean’s account says, “…no one in our party who judged the distance less than (1700) yards.” Two other accounts of the expedition give ranges of 1,350 yards and “about” 1500 yards. At any of the ranges mentioned, it was still an extraordinary shot.
In the annals of the West, nothing stands out like Billy Dixon’s legendary One Mile Shot. Dixon was one of just 29 hunters and traders besieged by hundreds of warriors from the Southern Plains tribes at an adobe-walled trading post in the Texas Panhandle. Their three-day siege in June of 1874 was known as the Second Battle of Adobe Walls. On what became the final day, June 28th, Dixon spotted several chiefs conferring on horseback on a ridge about a mile away. With a borrowed Model 1874 Sharps “Big Fifty” buffalo rifle, Dixon managed to knock one of the war leaders off his horse at a range Army surveyors claimed to have later measured as 1,538 yards or 9/10ths of a mile. His feat became legendary as the Shot of the Century.
Dixon’s shot was also a remarkable feat. It should be noted, however, that Dixon fired his famous shot at a mounted group of perhaps fifteen men and hit one of them. Jack Bean, on the other hand, singled out one man and hit him.
For whatever vagrancies of history, Billy Dixon’s shot has long been celebrated far and wide while Jack Bean’s equally if not more impressive feat only a few weeks earlier remains virtually unknown to this day.

          The best and most comprehensive account of the 1874 Yellowstone Wagon Road and Prospecting Expedition can be found in the 2016 book SittingBull, Crazy Horse, Gold and Guns by Col. French L Maclean.

Monday, May 07, 2018


Does anyone really think this is a good idea?


I had to chuckle when I came across this Remington advertisement in an old pre-WWI era sportsman's magazine, advertising the newly-introduced .380 ACP. The .380 ACP, aka 9-mm Short, would not be my first choice for a 150-pound junkie let alone a 400-pound grizzly sow.

“Da Bears.” In particular, da grizzly bear. Even its Latin classification, given it by the naturalist George Ord in 1815, conjures up fear…Ursus horribilis (“terrifying bear”)…and the mountain men would come to call the grizz “Old Ephraim”. Native American tribes afforded these fierce bears the utmost respect; there was greater honor in slaying a grizzly bear than a human foe.
          Initially, Corps of Discovery Captains Lewis and Clark regarded the Indians’ fear and awe of grizzly bears as rather quaint and actually looked forward to their initial encounters with the grizzly. After all, the Indians had only bows and arrows and inferior smoothbore trade muskets while the Corps of Discovery was armed with the latest greatest military technology in the form of .49-caliber Pennsylvania-style flintlock Model 1792 Contract Rifles. They opined that the grizzly would be no match for skilled riflemen.
          After the first few encounters, they changed their minds, with Lewis noting that grizzlies were “extreemly hard to kill” and Clark describing the grizz as a “verry large and a turrible looking animal.” Clark and one of the men required a total of ten shots from their rifles to finally kill a 600-pound grizzly encountered on May 5, 1805. On May 14th six hunters tried to tackle a grizzly; all six hit the bear with their rifles on the first go-round, after which the bear chased some of the men into the river and some into the bushes as they desperately tried to reload their single-shot front-stuffers. It took a total of eight hits, the last one a headshot, to kill the bear.
          The explorers of the Corps of Discovery would hardly be the last white men to underestimate the strength of the grizzly or over-estimate their own firepower.
           As previously noted, I find the “fact” that pepper spray has been statistically “proven” to be 97% effective in stopping bear charges dubious to say the least. On the other hand, I don’t believe that simple acquisition of a .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum instantly makes you magically bear-proof either.

          Joe Blow can’t just waltz into any sporting goods store, purchase some cannon-sized hogleg revolver with a half-inch bore, and instantly transform himself from mild-mannered Clark Kent into Dirty Harry Callahan. You have to be familiar, proficient and well-practiced with your firearm. I remember an article in an outdoor magazine (Fur-Fish-Game, IIRC) many, many years ago where the author encountered a trout fisherman who was packing a Smith & Wesson Model 29 for protection against bears. When asked how well the Magnum shot, the fisherman replied he did not know because he’d never actually fired the gun.
          Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but it really does not matter how purely “American” your family tree is, your highest score playing Call of Duty, or how many asinine Quentin Tarantino movies you’ve watched…you were not born with some innate ability to handle a pistol like the Sundance Kid.
As a pistolero, I consider myself no more than slightly above average although I started shooting a single-action Colt .22 revolver in my early teens, was later trained on and qualified expert with both military and police sidearms over the years, and still get in routine range practice to this day. In my youth I hunted raccoon with a .22 revolver and I’ve harvested a great many more mountain grouse on the ground with a .22 pistol than I have on the wing with a shotgun. Living where we do, I can do a little plinking whenever I get the urge to. My wife doesn’t do quite as much shooting as I do, but she also practices regularly and has ten years worth of law enforcement training, practice and qualification with handguns.

Elmer and Clint: I bought my .44 Magnum because I watched the guy on the right. I kept it because I learned a great deal from the writings of the guy on the left.

Having seen too many Clint Eastwood movies, I had to purchase a 6-1/2-inch Model 29 on my 21st birthday. I have no idea how many thousands of rounds I’ve put through it in the three decades since, but feeding that .44 was the reason I bought my first reloading kit and I took a whitetail and a mule deer with it while hunting weapons restricted areas back when I still had two fully functional eyes and 20/15 vision in the important one. Nowadays, since I just carry it for protection rather than hunting, I wear a handier 4-inch Model 629, but the principles remain the same.  
From a sheer usability standpoint, one of the first things I did was to install a soft black rubber Hogue Monogrip on my Model 29 to replace the original S&W Goncalo Alves checkered walnut target-style grips. I’m an average guy, not quite 5’10” anymore, and apparently my hands and fingers must be kinda short and stubby compared to Dirty Harry’s, because my hands never did fit around those wood grips very well. When firing pull-patch Magnum loads, in fact, the recoil usually required me to readjust my own grip on said walnut grips after just about every shot. The Hogue grips on the old Model 29 and the black synthetic S&W grips that came on my 629 fit our hands much better, offer more positive control, and seem to help a great deal with at least perceived recoil. I was pleased to later learn that Major John Hatcher had similar problems with the S&W wood grips way back in 1956, so at least I know it’s not just me. a
The point of certain military and police training is to become so familiar with particular tasks that muscle memory and “instinct” take over in a crisis when the brain might temporarily draw a blank or you’re distracted by shit filling your britches. The nice thing about revolvers especially is that you can teach yourself much of what you need to know through dry-fire drills (with Snap-Caps) before honing your technique with live fire. Dry firing (a whole lot of it, anyway) also helps wear in and smooth out the double action on a new revolver. No, I don’t stand in front of the mirror practicing my John Wayne quick draw. I do still occasionally practice, sometimes at home with dry-firing and sometimes at the range with live fire, a smooth draw and transition into a firing stance followed by an accurate double-tap. If you practice smooth, fast will come on its own. 
Thankfully I’ve never had to actually butt heads with a bear, but I have had a few surprise encounters, mostly with black bears, at close quarters out in the woods. None of these encounters required any shooting. The one grizzly bluff charge I witnessed fairly close up was delivered so half-heartedly I knew it was a bluff charge. More often than not, you really can’t tell if it’s a bluff or not until they’re still coming at you full bore inside of twenty yards. When it comes to black bears, every single one of them I’ve personally bumped into immediately swapped ends and headed for the nearest horizon as fast as they could go as soon as they figured out what I was. A couple have risen up on their hind legs initially, but that was just o get a better look at what I was; afterward figuring it out, they also took off running. I’m glad I never had to shoot but nonetheless was quite pleased to note that in each and every encounter my revolver just seemed to appear in my hands, aimed and ready, before I gave the action any deliberate conscious thought. That’s what muscle memory is for.
          Even if you personally happen to be some kind of uberpistolero whose gun play makes Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name in A Fistful of Dollars look like a lame sloth on Quaaludes, not all handguns are created equal and when it comes to grizzlies heeding Robert Ruark’s advice to Use Enough Gun is critical.

 Use as much gun as you can effectively manage.

          I carry a compact .45 ACP for social occasions and wouldn’t want anything but an automatic against two-legged threats. I honestly never understood why American law enforcement agencies clung to the revolver as long as they did. As nice as it might be to have a semi-auto, common defensive handgun calibers like the 9x19mm Parabellum, .40 S&W, .45 ACP and even the much-touted 10mm aren’t really enough gun against a big bruin in a situation in which you are quite literally betting your life.
          There’s an incredible true instance (Bella Twin of Slave Lake, Alberta in 1953) of a Canadian woman killing an extremely large grizzly bear with a .22 Long Rifle. While this proves that it can be done, it’s not something any sane person would set out to do deliberately and/or on a regular basis.
          No matter how big your bore, however, bullet selection is still extremely important. The most commonly available defensive pistol loads are some form of hollowpoint bullet. A hollowpoint is designed to expand quickly upon contact with the target, transferring its energy into the target itself and creating a larger wound cavity. In the grand scheme of things, and especially against two-legged predators, this is greatly desirable, but it is not necessarily universally so. Against a big bear’s thick skull, tough hide, large and dense bones, and multiple stout layers of ropy muscle and watery fat, you need enough penetration for the bullet to reach something vital.
          Case in point, the first time I hunted deer with a .44 Mag, I connected on a rather long (75-80 yards) shot on a forkhorn mulie standing broadside. I was later to find out that the 240-grain JHP did indeed expand well and transfer energy rapidly. Unfortunately, my shot was a bit too far forward on the body and hit the shoulder itself instead of landing right behind it. The JHP hit the shoulder blade and essentially exploded that entire front quarter, leaving the leg literally hanging by a thread. Not a single bullet fragment, however, even came close to penetrating the rib cage beneath and nothing touched the vitals. The result was a long, slow three quarter mile (away from the truck) stern chase across the section before the deer ducked down into an arroyo and I was able to get close enough to administer the coupe de grace.
          I also remember when the Remington Yellow Jacket truncated cone hollowpoint ammo for the .22 Long Rifle came out. When we used those bullets raccoon hunting, where the shot was directed right between the eyes, on more than one occasion this caused the coon to drop from the tree but then hit the ground fighting mad and tangling with the dogs. Later examination revealed that sometimes the hollowpoint would mushroom flat against the exterior of the coon skull inside the hide but not penetrate it. Once upon a time we also needed to put down an injured feeder pig weighing perhaps 125-150 pounds. At a range of only about three or four feet, I drilled him neatly between the eyes with an 85-grain .32 S&W Long jacketed hollowpoint. He just ran off squealing and was later dispatched with a .22 Long Rifle behind the ear.
For handguns, the heaviest available jacketed soft point (JSP) is greatly superior to the jacketed hollow point in this respect, but a heavy hardcast flat-nosed semi wadcutter is even better. Hardcast refers to a bullet constructed with a much harder heat-treated lead alloy which will not easily fragment and/or lose its penetrative power even if it hits solid bone. Expansion isn’t near as important as penetration with a handgun slug that cuts a wound channel damn near a half an inch in diameter the whole way. As Elmer Keith once put it, “A large entrance hole is just as important as a large exit hole; both let blood out of an animal and cold air in.
Avoid cowboy action shooting loads like the plague as bear medicine. Even though some are advertised as “hardcast”, this sport calls for low recoil which comes hand in hand with low velocity as well as lead projectiles soft enough to flatten and fall safely to the dirt after they hit steel targets.
I personally consider the .44 Magnum a good choice since it is about as powerful a package as the average Joe (or Joan) can master. Although it never really caught on as a popular cartridge, the .41 Magnum also comes very close to .44 Mag performance. It’s personally all the smaller I would go and I still know three guys right around my area who carry N-frame Smith & Wesson revolvers in this caliber. What may have been in 1971 Dirty Harry’s “most powerful handgun in the world” has long since been eclipsed in that title by the likes of the .454 Casull, .460 S&W, .475 Linebaugh, .500, etc. Any of these cannonesque calibers would certainly fill the bill when it comes to bear defense if you can handle the weapon effectively and, I might add, if it’s not so big and heavy and cumbersome that you tend not to carry it and thus wind up at the moment of truth armed only with a pocket knife and a nearby rock.
          Beyond a certain point, bigger does not always necessarily equate to better. My wife and I once watched a guy at the range playing with his brand-new X-Frame .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum. It had a 10-1/2-inch barrel, a variable power Burris 2-7x32mm scope mounted atop it, and sling swivels fore and aft for a leather cobra strap. IMHO, when a handgun is too big to be carried in a holster and has to be slung over the shoulder like a rifle, it’s not really a handgun anymore. One really would be better off just toting a decent rifle-caliber carbine at that point.

 Is it still a handgun when it requires a sling rather than a holster, and will you always have the big cumbersome thing on your person?


          I forget where I originally read the phrase, perhaps it was Jack O'Connor, but the words themselves stuck with me. “A handgun without a holster is like a rifle without a sling.” A handgun’s whole reason for being is portability; it is carried in a holster on your person, secure, out of the way, and hands free until it is actually needed and used. That’s why I went to the 4-inch 629 from the 6-3/8-inch Model 29. It’s small and handy and easy to pack, yet I can still get it into action at a moment’s notice. You can also use a pistol in conjunction with a flashlight or headlamp as well.
          Back to the handgun itself, more than a few people really like the good old .357 Magnum but, even hot-loaded with the heaviest 180-grain bullets, the .357 remains essentially just a fast-stepping .38 Special.
Case in point was “Old Number One”, the first sow grizzly bear to be radio-collared in Yellowstone National Park. When she finally died of old age, the US Fish & Wildlife Service did a necropsy on her. When they did, they were surprised to find six .38-caliber bullets which were well healed over and seemed to have been embedded in her skull for many years with no apparent ill effects. It could not determined if the slugs had been launched at .38 Special or .357 Magnum velocities, but either way they failed to get the job done.
A 1983 US Forest Service study verbosely entitled Safety in BearCountry: Protective Measures and Bullet Performance at Short Range tested a variety of rifles, shotguns and handguns for penetration at the range of 15 yards to determine their effectiveness against bears in short-range self defense encounters. Granted there are plenty of considerably improved projectiles available these days, but these particular showed that the .44 Magnum with the Winchester 240-grain JSP at 1,383 feet per second penetrated 14-1/2 inches (I was surprised to see that even the relatively slow 230-grain FMJ .45 ACP managed 14.2 inches) while the CCI .357 magnum 158-grain JSP at 1,226 fps only penetrated 9-1/2 inches. To be fair I have to note that the testers fired only this one .357 load (and out of a 4-inch barrel at that) but a quick peek at HSM’s Bear Loads still shows the 180-grain .357 Mag delivering 576 foot-pounds of energy while the 305-grain .44 Mag delivers 1,075. The old USFS study’s handgun summary also noted, “The .357 S&W Magnum was the best of the other handgun cartridges, but it was much less effective in all categories than the .44 Remington Magnum.”
Taking into account we’re talking about big ass Alaskan browns and 1983-vintage 240-grain factory loads, the authors also cautioned, “The superiority of the .44 Remington Magum makes it the cartridge choice for a backup [original emphasis] weapon. A revolver using this cartridge should not be considered a primary weapon for protection against bears.”
          For a long time, you had to reload your own ammo to get a good heavy hardcast Keith-style bear load. Eventually, thankfully, the commercial ammunition manufacturers started providing genuine bear loads ready to carry in the woods right out of the box. For the .44 Mag examples include the Federal 300-grain Castcore LFP, the Buffalo Bore 305-grain Heavies, Garrett Cartridge Company’s 310-grain Hammerheads, or the HSM “Bear Loads”. If you’re shooting a Ruger Blackhawk or Redhawk, Buffalo Bore and Garrett have even heavier and more potent +P and +P+ loads up to 340-grains. The wife and I have both gone to the HSM-brand “Bear Loads” made right here in Montana. In our neck of the woods, a box of 50 of these can be had for not much more than what you’d pay for a box of 20 Federals or Buffalo Bores. The HSM .44 Magnum Bear Load launches a flat-nosed 305-grain hardcast SWC at around 1,260 feet per second.

 Leave the hollowpoints at home in bear country; you need penetration rather than rapid expansion.

           There are now some ammunition companies making hardcast "bear loads" for the common defensive handgun calibers but I personally wouldn't want to try to stop a grizzly with a sore tooth with a 9mm Parabellum, or even a 10mm for that matter. For non-hunting purposes I also prefer the semi-auto pistol, but most of its advantages over the revolver...larger ammo capacity, faster firing, and rapid reloads...are more important in a gun fight with two-legged predators rather than when it comes to stopping a big bruin.
          In defense against a bear attack, if you don’t settle things with the first couple of shots the party’s probably over anyway. It can very often be extremely hard to tell an actual grizzly attack from one of their frequent bluff charges, so a defensive shooting could occur at distances of fifty feet or even less, with the bear itself covering better than forty feet per second in a flat-out run. That gives you only a second and some small change in which to stop the charge, a purpose most likely better served by getting in one or two well-delivered hits with large, heavy slugs with deep penetration rather than a half a dozen small pills pumped quickly into center mass.
As noted earlier, grizzly bears have a considerable amount of hide, muscle, meat and fat to go through in addition to heavy and dense bone structure. They also have very low heart rates and can continue to wreck havoc for a good ten seconds even if hit right through that particular vital organ. If all that’s available is a head shot, although the brain is directly between the eyes sockets, it is not directly behind them, and is located at the very rear of the skull. The brain is about 3 inches behind the front of the skull plate, which, during a charge, is angled at about 30-degrees, increasing the effective thickness (just as with sloped armor plate on tanks) as well as the chances of deflection. Especially in the old days of blackpowder rifles with their low velocities and soft lead projectiles, a bullet could quite literally bounce right off a bear skull.
          Having recently reread some of Elmer Keith’s books for the umpteenth time, I’ll leave you with his advice in his own words:

“When a grizzly is coming your way, however, a shot to the shoulder on the downhill side of the bear will practically always roll him over and give you time for another hit. It will stop a turn a big bear quicker than a center chest shot as a rule.”
          “In a charge the head is carried low enough to almost cover the base of the neck and upper chest…Bear move fast and a frontal head shot on a fast moving bear is very apt to strike the teeth or the top of the skull, when it may deflect upward. If the bear is still, and the head held low, a shot between the eyes with a powerful rifle will range back into the brain. If the head is carried level with the hunter, the bullet should be aimed into the orifice of the nose. A bullet entering here will drive back through the thin nasal membranes of the skull proper over the brain and penetrate it easily. A sixgun bullet or even a .22 L.R. High Speed solid bullet will usually penetrate to the brain on a big bear when thus directed as there is relatively little to penetrate but nasal membranes and the brain itself has a thin bone covering at the back of the nasal passage.”
          “The brain of a bear…lies in the extreme rear end of the skull and unless the head is low, so the bullet will penetrate the heavy frontal bone squarely, or the head is held high enough for the bullet to go back through the nasal passages to the brain, it may and often does deflect the slug.”
          Lastly, bear in mind (pun intended) once again that the handgun is still essentially the weapon of last resort and even the most powerful Magnum pistol delivers considerably less stopping power than a 12-gauge shotgun, which, in turn, delivers only a fraction of the power of a good centerfire rifle caliber.
Even if I had a Jesse Ventura Predator backpack Mini-Gun, we would still religiously follow the Bear Aware precautions to avoid a confrontation in the first place. I have no desire to ever have to kill a grizzly in self defense but neither do I believe an animal’s life is worth more than a person’s if and when it comes down to a difference of opinion as to who’s actually at the top of the food chain.
And after forty odd years of Federal protection, too many griz have come to think that they are indeed at the top and have, in large part, completely lost their fear of man. Everyone from Teddy Roosevelt through Jack O'Connor to some Montana old-timers I've met all commented on how shy and well-behaved grizzlies in the Lower 48 were back in the days when they got hunted regularly.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018


When it comes to protecting myself against bears, I personally prefer firearms. I’m not against pepper spray, mind you, which has indeed proven effective on a great many occasions. For people completely unfamiliar with firearms, pepper spray is a sound and effective choice. It certainly offers a great deal more safety and security recreating in grizzly country than waltzing around completely unarmed.
          I do believe, however, that all of the supposedly empirical “proof” of its effectiveness has been grossly distorted and highly over-rated to the point that it gives people a very dangerously false sense of security.
            Just the other day, I ran across a gun article which said, “Alternatively, 97% of bears are stopped with a 9oz. can of bear spray. Yep I said it, bear spray. Comparing the percentages, a firearm should actually be carried as a second line of defense should the bear spray prove ineffective…I am a believer in math, so ‘I know’ that statistically the odds or survival will favor me should I choose the Bear Spray.”
Similarly, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service…you know, the people who spend American taxpayer dollars to help fund African and Asian elephant habitats at zoos in Europe…puts out a “Fact Sheet” entitled Bear Spray vs. Bullets. It makes such claims as, “…persons encountering grizzlies and defending themselves with firearms suffer injury about 50% of the time.” And, “…a person’s chance of incurring serious injury from a charging grizzly doubles when bullets are fired versus when bear spray is used.”
          Well, the advocates cannot possibly be wrong, since they have math to prove it, right? As the old saying goes, “Statistics don’t lie.” That rather depends on the statistics and how they were garnered. There’s another old adage, generally attributed to Mark Twain, “Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.” Yet another old saying, again apropos, notes, “Torture numbers and they will confess to anything.”
          Although the advocates always say studies (plural) or even numerous studies prove the effectiveness of bear spray, when you seek out this plethora of studies (plural) they pretty much boil down into a single study (singular) that has appeared in a couple of different forms. The 2012 study was researched primarily by BYU professor Tom Smith and author Stephen Herrero and published in the Journal of Wildlife Management under the title of “Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska.”
          Mankind has been taking out bears with “modern” firearms (loosely defined as ones using self-contained cartridge ammunition) for about a hundred and fifty years, but pepper spray is a comparatively new invention. In wide-spread use for only a couple of decades, it is naturally more difficult to find and compile incidents in which bear spray has been used.
The authors found 72 cases to include in the study. It is interesting to note that out of these 72 cases, 30% involved government personnel engaged in “bear management activities”, only 25 of the bears were considered aggressive, and just 10 cases involved actual bear charges and/or attacks. The majority dealt with curious or non-aggressive bears. On the other hand, 100% of the 197 bear vs. gun incidents chosen for the study involved aggressive bears and bear attacks.
          There seemed to be the scent of cherries being picked in the air when I considered the researchers found fewer than 200 incidents of bear attacks involving guns in Alaska over a 126 year period, especially when you take into account that when it comes to true “bush” Alaskans many minor children and even some household pets are routinely armed with large caliber firearms. Kodiak Island all by its lonesome averages about a dozen Defense of Life/Property incidents (these are common enough in Alaska that they even have their own acronym…DLPs) involving bears and guns every year.
A little digging found a 1999 study conducted by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game (Miller & Tutterrow) entitled Characteristics of Nonsport Mortalities to Brown and Black Bears and Human Injuries From Bears in Alaska. This study documented 2,289 cases within the State of Alaska of people using firearms to defend themselves and/or their property against bears during the period from 1970 to 1996. In this study, fewer than 2% of the incidents involved injuries to humans. One summary noted, “Most of the people shooting brown or black bears in DLP circumstances indicated that no human injury occurred (98.5% for brown bears and 99.2% for black bears).”
Percentage-wise, that comes to only 1.15% of those who used firearms against bears being injured. That’s a helluva long way from the Federale’s “Fact Sheet” claim that you stand a 50-50 chance of injury or death by shooting a bear in self-defense.
It is also interesting to note that the Alaskan state researchers uncovered well over two thousand documented cases over a period of just 26 years; that averages out to 88 attacks per year. Apply that average over a 126-year period and you could potentially have as many as 11,088 bear attacks to study. Examining 72 of those cases amounts to a statistical sampling of 0.65% which, no matter how I try to stretch it, seems to fall a tad bit short of proving anything with 97% certainty.
It was, however, personal experience that led to my own loss of faith in pepper spray. In the US Forest Circus, Department of Aggravation, we used to be required to take a yearly 4-hour block of instruction on the use of pepper spray in order to be “qualified” to carry it for protection in bear country. I recall most clearly the training session taught by a lady biologist. Pepper spray was much more effective than a firearm, she began, because an ex-boyfriend had taken her out shooting once and she wasn’t able to hit anything, thus proving that guns are ineffective. Since this was undoubtedly true from her personal perspective, I was willing to let that slide.
Other information during the training also made me go hhhmmmm. While the instructor claimed that pepper spray was indeed “proven” effective against bears, she admitted that it might not necessarily work against large felines or canines, and legally could not be used as protection against two-legged varmints.
          When we went outside for the practical demonstration of pepper spray, the class became truly enlightening. The instructor unlimbered the canister of pepper spray which she personally carried on duty in the woods and let fly. Only a small bit of liquid substance oozed rather sluggishly out of the nozzle and dribbled down her fingers. She washed her hands thoroughly, broke out a brand new can of pepper spray still in the plastic wrapper, and took another poke at it. This can sprayed for somewhere close to a good three quarters of a second before it also just up and quit entirely. But the THIRD can, also brand-new in the wrap, worked as advertised, “proving” its superiority over a firearm by streaming out in a fan-shaped pattern.
          I, of course, had a huge problem with the whole one-in-three success rate. That did not inspire much confidence. I sure as hell wouldn’t advocate carrying a revolver if I could only count on two out of the six cartridges actually going off when I dropped the hammer.
There was no wind that particular day, either. Knowing my luck, I always kind of figured that if I ever had to use pepper spray it would be at the exact moment I was facing into a 40 mph headwind. Dispersion and blow-back due to wind is certainly possible, although IIRC it was only listed as a factor in 7% of the cases studied. Consider also that while you may be able to defend yourself against a bear with spray, you may very well be SOL when it comes to protecting a partner or friend standing only five or ten yards away.
Lastly, I personally used pepper spray in an attempt to run a problem black bear out of a campground. I can’t recall the brand name, but the stuff I used was the USFS approved, recommended and issued capsaicin-based spray. On my first attempt, I sprayed the bear in the face out the truck window at a distance of 20-25 feet. This failed to impress the bear in question, a 2 or 3 year-old blackie that probably wouldn’t have weighed more than 150 pounds soaking wet. After being sprayed in the face, he snorted, shook his head vigorously, and ambled away in a leisurely fashion further into the campground. I headed him off at the pass and gave him another dose of pepper spray at similar range. This time he made a couple of sneezing noises, rubbed at his face and eyes irritatedly with a paw, then looked straight at me and growled. With a final snort he continued on his way, back into the campground, in no big hurry. A third application was mostly scattered by the wind, but the bear finally felt harassed enough to stroll unhurriedly off into the woods for the moment. He was back raiding the campground within the hour.
          Between all these incidents, I eventually became completely underwhelmed by the effectiveness of pepper spray. If I were an academic, I could cherry pick my own personal “statistics” and author a study substantiating that pepper spray has a 66% failure-to-fire rate and has been proven in the field to be 100% ineffective against black bears.
          I am making no such ludicrous claims. Even I readily admit that such a small sampling is essentially worthless for the purposes of statistical proof. It would be as ridiculous as, say, specifically singling out a mere 0.65% of bear attacks spread out over a century and a quarter.
          I’m not saying, nor do I believe, that pepper spray is worthless or ineffective. It is a viable and valuable option that can greatly increase your personal safety in case of a bear attack. It can work quite effectively and has most certainly been used successfully on a great many occasions over the past couple of decades. It has saved lives, both human and ursine. Especially for people who don’t know anything about guns, it is an obvious choice. Pepper spray certainly beats the hell out of walking around the woods completely defenseless.
          I am saying that, mainly for political reasons, the powers-that-be have intentionally over-stated the true effectiveness of pepper spray while deliberately denigrating the use of firearms. It is not omnipotent and infallible; simply buying a can does not instantly render you 97% invulnerable in bear country. It’s more a last line of defense for when all else goes wrong and the bear shit hits the fan and you have no other options. Ironically, I can say exactly the same thing when it comes to the big-bore handguns I prefer.
          If you chose to carry pepper spray, I would offer a few words of advice. Not all pepper sprays are equal; you don’t want the personal defense or law enforcement sprays designed for use against people. What you need should contain capsicum and be clearly labeled, “For deterring attacks by bears.” Minimum size of the canister should be 7.9 ounces and it should have a minimum spray distance of 25 feet and a spray duration of at least 6 seconds. A larger size is obviously valuable in case more than one application is required to deter a bear.
          As with even the most powerful weapon available, pepper spray is worthless if, at the moment of truth, it is buried in your pack and inaccessible. Even worse is to carry it attached to the exterior of the pack, where it’s both difficult to reach quickly as well as susceptible to getting snagged in the brush where it could accidentally triggered, depleting your defenses while potentially giving you a nice incapacitating dose to boot.
Carry pepper spray on your person and easily accessible at all times; the good brands come with a holster that can be attached to a belt. Practice drawing the can from its holster and removing the plastic safety clip until you can do so smoothly and easily with no fumbling around. Pay close attention to the expiration date and test fire the canister at least once at the beginning of each season. Since I spend a great deal of time in the mountains every year, doing activities that involve my gear getting occasionally jostled, bumped or dropped, if I relied entirely upon pepper spray, I would simply purchase a brand new canister at least every other year regardless of the expiration date. Even though pepper spray is not our primary means of defense, we still carry it, and replace it with a new can every third year.
Lastly, in an attack you need to concentrate the spray cloud directly in the bear’s face or just in front of it. There is somewhat of a “recoil” type of effect when holding down the button on the spray can that can tend to lift your hand a bit and thus disperse the spray pattern upwards. Be sure to keep the cloud down and concentrated where it will do the most good.
          Although my wife and I both carry .44 Magnum revolvers and pepper spray in the woods, neither one is our primary defense against bear attacks. Our primary defense is avoiding bear attacks in the first place by maintaining good situational awareness and practicing all of the “Bear Aware” methods of avoiding a confrontation altogether.
          Of course, sometimes shit happens no matter what precautions you take. I’ve cleaned up some unbelievable messes people have left in the woods. You and your party may be scrupulously following all of the best practices only to discover that the previous campers dumped fifty pounds of garbage a stone’s throw away from your present campsite. Or it could just be one of those times when Murphy’s Law decides to kick in.
          While we do carry pepper spray as a non-lethal alternative if the situation allows, for us it is Plan B. Plan A remains the revolver because I know it will go “bang” each and every time I pull the trigger, the ammunition won’t “go bad” over time, it can be used with equal effectiveness against multiple threats and species, and not even the stiffest of headwinds will blow a 300-grain bullet back in my face.