Handguns Are Sidearms

We Know That, But…

Hunting outfitters and other learned outdoor folks in Alaska, Wyoming and Montana are often asked this earnest question: “What handgun should I carry when hunting in grizzly country?” Their almost universal response: “What rifles do you own?”

Why carry a sidearm when you already have a rifle in your hands? Even a .270 Winchester is much more suitable for stopping a grizzly than a .500 S&W, and the reason doesn’t lie in sheer power. We could debate bullet weight and diameter versus kinetic energy and muzzle velocity, but the biggest factor in killing a bear (or any other animal) is not ballistics but bullet placement. Almost all humans stand a much better chance of stopping a charging bear with a rifle in their hands, rather than a handgun in a holster.

We also stand a better chance even if the bear is merely threatening us. Several years ago, in my home state of Montana, two men were bowhunting elk in a creek drainage just north of Yellowstone Park notorious for grizzly bears. They ran into a sow with cubs, and the sow acted quite threatening. Threats don’t mean a bear will charge — I’ve been bluff-charged by several sows in both Montana and Alaska — but one of the bowhunters got nervous and drew a semi-auto handgun and started blazing away at longer range than a nervous guy should. He wounded the sow, and then it did charge. The bear was beating the snot out of the shooter when his partner drew his own bear sidearm — a big can of bear-strength pepper spray. This chased the bear off, and the handgunner lived.

It Can Be Done

This doesn’t mean advancing grizzlies and brown bears haven’t been killed with handguns — though a couple of decades ago the Alaska game department claimed it had never investigated a case where somebody tried to defend themselves from a bear with a handgun and lived. Sometimes the bear died, but the human always did. That statistic has since changed, partly because of the introduction of more powerful revolver rounds, from the .454 Casull on up. Still, we’re far better off trying to defend ourselves with a rifle than a handgun.

I grew up in Montana. In the 1950’s quite a few cowboys still habitually wore revolvers on their hips, not to get into gunfights with bad men but to carry out their normal chores. Most of them also carried a rifle (often a Winchester .30-30) in a scabbard on their saddle. This was the serious firearm, used for killing sick cattle or angry bears. The revolver on their hip was in case they got bucked off and the horse ran away with their rifle. They’d still have some sort of firearm, so they could fire three shots in the air to attract a rescuer after their horse turned up empty-saddled back at the ranch. This could save their lives if they’d broken a leg, or save a lot of walking. Most cowboys don’t like walking.
By John Barsness

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