Recorded Defensive Uses of Pistols Against Bears Has Grown Exponentially

Grizzly Bears are Migrants to the Lower 48 iStock-1281962973

As the research into how effective pistols are when used as a defense against bears has progressed, a startling progression has been observed. The recorded use of pistols in defense against bears has grown by two orders of magnitude in recent decades.

As pistols came into common use, they were almost certainly used in defense against animal attacks. Portable, reasonably reliable pistols, which could be used as a defensive weapon against an unexpected attack, were unavailable until about 1534 when wheellock pistols became available.  They were relatively expensive.  Arms of the period were commonly privately owned. Some were likely used in defense against animals. Europe, at the time, had much wild land. Bears, except for those in captivity, had been eliminated from England. Wild bears still existed in the mainland of Europe. While the use of wheellock pistols against bears probably happened, this correspondent has not seen any records documenting it.

The development of the flintlock, then the percussion pistol and revolver, made the use of a pistol in defense against a bear much more likely. Pistols became less expensive and more common. Bears were becoming uncommon in much of Europe by 1820. I can recall an account where flintlock or percussion pistols were used as secondary weapons on bear hunts in North America.  Starting in 1836 (effectively the 1840’s), revolvers added the potential for more firepower. Records are sparse and difficult to document from the era.

The database is limited to handguns that use self-contained cartridges.

Link to previous article listing where pistols were fired in defense against bears.

As a defense against bears, handguns came into their own with the development of the self-contained cartridge.  The .44 Russian (1870), .45 Colt (1872), 10.55×25 Reich Revolver (1879), and .455 Webley (1880) cartridges are all sufficiently powerful to be used in defense against men and bears. All were developed as state-of-the-art military black powder cartridges of their day.  All of them were traditionally fired in revolvers with six-round cylinders.

The earliest documented case in our database of pistol defenses against bears occurred near the California/Oregon border in the 1890s. The caliber was .44, in a Colt revolver. It was almost certainly a .44-40, introduced in 1873 as the .44 Winchester Center Fire. It was first chambered in the Colt Single Action revolver in about 1878. It became immensely popular, as it could be shot in both the revolver and a companion Winchester rifle. There were a few other .44 caliber cartridges chambered in Colt revolvers, such as the .44 American and .44 Russian, so we cannot be absolutely certain it was a .44-40. The .44-40 was the second most popular cartridge for the Colt. The others are rarely encountered.

From the 1890s to 1960, the recorded events of pistol defenses against bears are flat. The average is one per decade.

Seven decades, seven recorded defense events. None were recorded and found during the decade from 1910 to 1919. Two were recorded and found from 1930 to 1939. The other five decades had one each.

Many important advances occurred during those seven decades in both firearm and information technology. Handguns became relatively cheaper and more powerful. At the same time, ammunition became cheaper, cleaner, and more effective. The 9×19 (9mm Luger) was developed in 1900, the .45 ACP in 1909, the .357 magnum in 1935, and the .44 magnum in 1956. The availability of print media exploded. Radio networks, then television became common. Populations of both people and bears expanded.

From 1960 to 1969, six defensive uses of pistols against bears were recorded, only one less than the total during the previous 70 years.

From 1970 to 1979, there were eight. From 1980 to 1989, there were eight. From 1990 to 1999, there were a dozen recorded. During the 1990s, the information age dawned. The invention of the World Wide Web in 1989, and the release to the public, of the first web browser in 1991, combined with the rapidly expanding Internet, made access to enormous quantities of information by most people easy, cheap, and fast.

From 2000 to 2009, there were 40 cases recorded where pistols were used in defense against bears. From 2010 to 2019, there were 67 cases.

Almost certainly, from 1870 to 1960, there were many cases where handguns were used effectively against bears, which were not recorded and published, or if published, have not been found. They were not published if they were recorded in a trapper’s diary. If they were published in an obscure local paper, they are not available on the Internet. A man using a .22 rimfire, a .38 special,  a .45 ACP, or a .455 to defend against a bear in 1930 while trapping in Alaska or Canada might not talk to more than a few people for months. They probably would not consider the incident extraordinary or newsworthy if they were not injured.  If they were in the Soviet Union, access to a pistol meant they were probably a member of the Communist Party, and bear attack information would be a state secret, as was information on wolf attacks.

This correspondent believes there are many defensive uses of pistols against bears that are not recorded or reported.  If a resident of remote Alaska pops an aggressive black bear, there is little incentive to fill out a Defense of Life and Property form. Even if they do, it would not be considered newsworthy and would be unlikely to be published. The Defense of Life and Property forms are protected by privacy concerns. Grizzly bears are another matter. Because of the severe penalties for killing grizzly bears, people are more careful when they are shot. Many are categorized as licensed hunting kills. Such kills seldom make the news. Two such incidents have come to the attention of this correspondent. One made the news. The other did not and came to light only because the person involved had to shoot another grizzly in self-defense.

Pistols have become far less expensive, in more powerful calibers. Less expensive ammunition has made the effective practice more affordable. Bear populations and human populations have grown. All these things contribute to more incidents where pistols are fired in defense against bears.

The most important thing is the extraordinary speed of information flow today compared to 150 years ago. This correspondent believes the speed of information is the most significant component, as more and more of existing bear defensive uses are recorded and published.

If readers know of an incident where a pistol was fired in defense against a bear, please contact AmmoLand so the incident may be considered as an addition to the database.

About 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 retired from the Department of Defense after a 30 year career in Army Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation.

Dean Weingarten