Bear Spray or Handgun in a Pack, are not Bear Spray or Handgun Failures

Bear Attack: How to Survive
Grizzly Bear

U.S.A.-( One of the issues in determining the efficacy of guns and bear spray in stopping bear attacks is how to decide if an incident should be included in the database.

One of my selection criteria is: an incident should only be included if the bear spray was actually sprayed or if a shot were actually fired.  Here are two examples of incidents that should not be included in the statistics for the efficacy of either bear spray or firearms. The first is an example of when the bear spray was available, but not used.

On 23 July 2011, a group of seven young men were attacked by a grizzly bear. They carried bear spray, but in the speed and chaos of the attack, no one used it. Three of the young men, two aged 17, one 16, were seriously injured. One was injured but was released from the hospital the same day. That was Victor Martin, who kicked the bear in the face when it grabbed his leg.  From

The attack Saturday night in the Talkeetna Mountains north of Anchorage came as the group was nearing the end of a 30-day course to learn how to survive in the backcountry. The teens were at the stage of the course where they could try out their skills without adults around.

Authorities believe the bear was aggressive because it was with its cub. Gottsegen said no one ever saw a cub.

The group was hiking through bushes that got so thick they decided to wade through a river, walking in single file. Around a bend in the river, Joshua Berg, 17, of New City, N.Y., began yelling “Bear! Bear!”

The bear took him down first. The animal made angry, snarling noises as it attacked, Gottsegen told The Associated Press from his hospital bed in Anchorage, recounting the attack.

It was so sudden. There was no time to pull out their bear deterrent spray and no one had a gun. Berg, badly wounded, called for someone to set off the personal locator beacon they carried for emergencies.

One student said he tried to activate the emergency beacon, believing the bear had gone, but it came back and attacked him.

Patricia Allaire, the mother of another injured student, Noah Allaire, 16, of Albuquerque, N.M., said her son initially tried to activate the beacon, thinking the bear was gone, but then it struck again.

Some students were in denial during the attack, believing it was not really happening. This is a common response from people who have not played “what if” games about such situations. Other students were said to wave their arms and shout in an attempt to drive off the bear.  Two of the young men had bear spray in their packs.

I do not classify the attack as a bear spray failure. No one sprayed any bear spray. The bear spray in their packs was never used.

The following is a bear attack that occurred where a handgun, a .44 magnum revolver, was available, but was not fired.

On 25 September 2016, a bow hunter in Montana was attacked by a grizzly bear. He had a .44 magnum revolver with him, but he did not use it during the attack. Like the bear spray in the first incident, the revolver was in his pack.  From

Eventually, the bear let Rico go after her cubs got about 40 yards away, he said.

“Didn’t even give, like I said, the courtesy look back. Just rolled off, walked off, and walked away as if nothin’ happened,” Rico said.

That gave him the break he needed to pull out his .44 magnum handgun, which he had tucked into his backpack before the encounter.

“That’s about what cost me my life was doing that,” he said, noting that he’d had the handgun handy on his belly attached to his backpack hipbelt earlier in the hunt but took it off because it was in the way.

“It’s a mistake that I’ll never make again,” Rico said.

“After she got off of me, that’s when I pulled my pistol out of my pack. I cocked it back and had a choice: I could either shoot her and possibly wound her and have her come back to finish me off, or just let her go.

He let her go.

I do not classify the attack as a defensive pistol failure. The pistol was there, but it was never fired.  All weapons used to defend from bear attacks will not work if they are not used. This applies to rifles, shotguns, handguns, bear spray, and even knives or hands and feet.

It makes no sense to classify a bear attack as a failure of defensive weaponry if the weapon is never used. A rifle slung on the shoulder, with no round in the chamber, is as difficult to bring into play as a can of bear spray in a pack.

In the seminal study of how effective bear spray is, the authors made this statement in the abstract of the article.  From Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska:

Of all persons carrying sprays, 98% were uninjured by bears in close-range encounters.

There are multitudes of people in Alaska who have not been injured by bears, in close range encounters, while carrying guns.  That would be the appropriate comparison to the 98% figure in the seminal bear spray study. It would also be silly. The authors included all incidents they could find involving bear spray, including anecdotal accounts. From the study:

We collected bear spray incident records from 1985 to 2006 from state and federal agencies, newspaper accounts, and anecdotally.

Merely carrying a defensive tool is not a reasonable measure of how effective it is. Of the 83 incidents in the Deterrent Spray study, only 72 actually sprayed bear spray at bears. Of those, only 25 of the bears were classified as aggressive. Three people were injured, none severely.

In the study done on the efficacy of firearms, people were injured in 56% of the incidents.  Firearms were not fired in 40 of the 269 incidents selected for the study. The authors found no statistical difference in cases where the firearm was fired or not.  No anecdotal accounts were included. The authors noted their selection bias. The selection bias included over-selection of cases where people were injured while possessing firearms in a bear-human conflict.

This incomplete record potentially affects 3 findings: the number and type of human injuries, the number and type of bear injuries, and firearm success rates. First, because bear-inflicted injuries are closely covered by the media, we likely did not miss many records where people were injured. Therefore, even if more incidents had been made available through the Alaska DLP database, we anticipate that these would have contributed few, if any, additional human injuries. Second, including more DLP records would have increased the number of bears killed by firearms. Finally, additional records would have likely improved firearm success rates from those reported here, but to what extent is unknown.

It is not surprising that a higher percentage of people are injured in a study that biases the selection of data toward cases where people are injured.

When comparing the efficacy of various methods of protection against bears, it is important to compare similar incidents to determine what method might have an advantage in efficacy.

The two studies most commonly compared, the Efficacy of Bear Deterrent spray, and Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska, both written by Tom S. Smith and Stephen Herrero, are significantly different. The incidents they cover are significantly different.  The incidents were selected using different criteria.

The difficulties in making such comparisons can be reduced by only including incidents where bear spray was actually sprayed or the firearm was actually fired.

About Dean Weingarten:Dean Weingarten

Dean Weingarten has been a peace officer, a military officer, was on the University of Wisconsin Pistol Team for four years, and was first certified to teach firearms safety in 1973. He taught the Arizona concealed carry course for fifteen years until the goal of constitutional carry was attained. He has degrees in meteorology and mining engineering, and recently retired from the Department of Defense after a 30 year career in Army Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation.