Monday, May 07, 2018

BEAR MEDICINE II: HANDGUNS, OR, MAKE MY DAY





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.

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