By Bob Robb
It was a foggy afternoon when master guide Jim Boyce and I motored our small skiff quietly along the calm waters of Baranof Island in southeast Alaska. On shore up ahead was a huge brown bear, slurping up herring eggs laid on kelp at high tide.
We beached the skiff 125 yards from the bear, and I went prone. When he turned broadside, I squeezed the trigger of my .375 H&H Magnum. The 300-grain Nosler Partition bullet pasted him, but didn’t knock him down.
My second shot hammered him through the shoulders, and down he went into the lagoon. It was far from over as he swam 30 yards to the other side, where my crosshairs were waiting. I bammed him again through the chest, but still he tried to climb the vertical bank to the brush. I quickly fed another round into the rifle and hit him at the base of the tail. When the echo of the last shot faded, the only sound was the soft lapping of the ocean on the rocks — and the beating of my heart.
Big game hunting of any sort is full of excitement. But if it’s high adventure you want, try hunting Ursus Arctos. Both the giant coastal brown bear and its smaller yet equally dangerous cousin, the mountain grizzly, present challenges above and beyond anything else North America hunting has to offer.
As both a hunter and guide, I have spent an inordinate amount of time observing and hunting what I consider the most magnificent big game animal in the world. Over the years, I have taken 10 grizzly or brown bears —eight with centerfire rifles — and have seen at least twice that many taken by friends and clients. There’s nothing like it.
When I talk with people interested in taking the challenge, their first question usually is about guns and loads. This is understandable for many reasons. A lot has been written on the topic by “experts” who been big bear hunting once or twice. So let’s cut to the chase, dispel some of the myths and innuendo, and decide what you really need when hunting two of North America’s three most dangerous animals. (The other is the polar bear.)
The Cartridge Baseline
There are a couple of things you need to understand when planning a hunt for dangerous bears. First and foremost is that you will be hunting with a guide who will be carrying some heavy artillery as backup, “just in case.” Most brown bear guides tote a rifle chambered for at least the .375 H&H Mag, with many opting to go up the ladder with one of the various .416s or selecting true “stopping power” cartridges like the .458 Win Mag or wildcats like the .458 Lott.
They need these types of cartridges because it is their job to follow any wounded bears into the thick stuff where things can get dicey. And since even the toughest, most macho man tends to get jelly-kneed around brown and grizzly bears, this happens more than you can imagine.
On mountain grizzly hunts, guides also carry backups, but generally they are downsized to fit both the size of the bears and the country. Here, .300 and .338 magnums are popular, though some guides I know love their .375s, as I do.
That said, when choosing a cartridge for hunting, not guiding, you need to do so with the understanding that it is not your job to try to knock a big bear off its feet with the first shot. With a spine or head shot, both of which are really mistakes, you might knock a grizzly or brown bear down with one shot, but the odds are good that it will get up again, regardless of the caliber used. Here’s a chilling example of what I mean.
My friend Scott Newman is a crackerjack brown bear guide from Petersburg, Alaska. I have hunted with Scott several times and would do so again in a heartbeat. In spring 2004, one of Scott’s clients hit a large brown bear poorly, and he was forced to follow it up into the thick old-growth forest. To make a long story short, the bear was not dead, and when Scott heard him coming up behind him, it was too late. At a distance of just a few feet, he hit the 1,000-pound bruin right in the chest with a 400-grain bullet from a .416 Remington. The bear didn’t even flinch, and in a flash it was on him. The shot killed the bruin, but not before it had about 40 seconds to maul Scott.
After 21 days in a local hospital and months of rehab, Scotty went back to guiding, but his story tells all you need to know about what it takes to knock brown bears down for keeps.
Age-old advice says to bring the largest caliber rifle you can shoot well. However, I believe it’s is all about placing that first shot in the boiler room, not the kinetic energy found in some ballistics table. I would much rather be hunting with someone who can hit a pop can every time at 100 yards with a .30-06 than someone packing a .416 who flinches from the recoil. Also, remember that most first shots at both brown and grizzly bears are taken at under 150 yards and often half that distance.
Brown Bear Cartridges
A large male brown bear can weigh upwards of ¾ ton, though most mature boars — those squaring over 8½ feet with lush hides — weigh between 700 and 1,000 pounds. That’s a lot of thick muscle wrapped around leg bones like steel pipes, shoulder blades like Roman shields, and ribs like machetes. Brown bears take a lot of killing, and that means using powerful cartridges whenever practical.
The smallest round I have seen used successfully on a mature brown bear was by a lady packing a .30-06 loaded with 180-grain bonded bullets. It was a rifle she was comfortable with, and when she tried using something a bit more powerful, she flinched and didn’t shoot well at all. We wiggled our way into 85 yards of a feeding spring bear, and she bammed him twice in the chest before he could get out of there. That bear, shot through both lungs, ran about 100 yards before piling up, graveyard dead.
Admittedly, a .30-06 is about as small as you want to go for brown bears. The minimum I recommend for most hunters is one of the various .300 magnums, including the Winchester, Weatherby, Remington Ultra Mag, Winchester Short Mag and Remington SAUM, using at least a 180-grain bonded-core or Partition-type bullet, with 200-grain bullets better. Most men — and the majority of clients are men — can handle the recoil of a .300 mag, and if they can’t, I recommend a muzzle brake on the barrel.
Of course, if you can shoot it well, bigger is always better. The .338 Win Mag is popular with many brown bear hunters, with the .340 Weatherby Mag, .338 RUM and the.325 WSM also excellent choices. Bullets should weigh at least 200 grains, with the 250-grainers better.
My all-time favorite brown bear cartridge is the .375 H&H Mag with 300-grain bonded or Partition bullets. In this class and also superb are the .378 Weatherby Mag and .375 RUM. The various .416s will hammer them, but few people can handle the recoil.
The largest caliber I have seen used is the .460 Weatherby Mag, a cartridge that hits both bear and shooter like a team of mules, but gets the job done incredibly well, if you can place the bullet where it’s supposed to go.
My all-time favorite brown bear rig is a Remington Model 700 KS rifle chambered for the .375 H&H Mag. This Custom Shop gun has a Kevlar stock and stainless steel metalwork to which I added the Answer System muzzle brake. The gun shoots everything incredibly well, especially factory Remington Premier A-Frame ammunition featuring the 300-grain Swift A-Frame bullet.
Many years ago, I was an editor of one of the country’s largest hunting magazines. I wrote an article about my first grizzly, a 7-foot, 3-inch mountain bear I shot at 100 yards with a .280 Rem handload featuring the 160-grain Nosler Partition bullet. The bear traveled less than 100 yards before nosing into the tundra.
You should have seen the mail I got from readers telling me that I had no business hunting these fearsome beasts with such a diminutive cartridge!
In truth, interior grizzlies are often hunted successfully with the .30-06, any of the various 7mm magnums, the .280 and other cartridges in this power range. Popular rounds include many of the same used for brown bears previously listed up to and including the .375s, though the most popular cartridge class for grizzly hunting is one of the .300 magnums.
My favorite all-time hunting rifle is also my pet grizzly gun. It is a custom-built Brown Precision Pro Hunter built on a Remington Model 700 action. It has a No. 3 Shilen barrel, Kevlar stock, is chambered for the .300 Win Mag and topped with a Swarovski 2.5-10x42mm scope. This rifle loves factory Remington Premier Scirocco Bonded ammo with the 180-grain Swift Scirocco bullet, which it can shoot into a 3/4-inch cluster at 100 yards.
The Bottom Line
When hunting dangerous bears, the bottom line is simply this: Use the most potent cartridge you can handle that makes practical sense given the conditions most likely to be encountered. If you want to use such a hunt as an excuse to go out and buy a new rifle chambered for a big cartridge, by all means do so. But if you do, promise me you’ll do two things before you hunt with it.
First, shoot that rifle a lot. If you find you have trouble handling the recoil, sell it. Now. Then bring the rifle you love hunting with, as long as it meets the parameters your guide and outfitter set for the hunt. (This is something you should discuss openly with them well in advance.)
Once you’ve decided on what you are bringing, run several boxes of ammo through it at the range. Shoot just enough off the bench to make sure it is sighted-in properly. After that, shoot from field positions, with prone and sitting the most common on these hunts. Practice shooting off your shooting sticks and over your daypack. Practice firing a full magazine as fast as you can while still hitting the bull’s-eye, then reload rapidly and shoot again. The cardinal rule of hunting dangerous bears is to shoot them until they quit wiggling — and shoot once more for good measure.
Kinetic energy is important, but it is all about putting that first one in the wheelhouse.
Reprinted from the December 2005 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.