Pistols for Deadly Predators

Many year’s ago I read a very informative article on what weapons should be carried when traveling in big predator country occupied with bears, wolves or lions.

brown bear
During our trip to Haines and driving up the Old Dalton Highway, we saw up to five bears together at a time. Photo by Kevin Lee McIver

I later thought much about this when I lived in Alaska and had to select my own weapons to carry, so now I’d like to share some insight into this subject that could possibly save your life.

It would be grand if I could recall the exact story I read so I could link it, but it was long ago. What I can do is describe it, for the subject always comes to mind when in the back country.

The article outlined several cases where the ‘right’ weapons should have been carried, but were not. One case was of a British Soldier on leave during WWII in Africa. He opted to do go big game hunting and ended up being attacked by a lion.

Fortunately for him, he was saved by one of the local tribesmen who shot at the lion, or lions, after the other tribesmen left him for their own safety.

Walther P22
A semi-automatic may not be the best defensive handgun when traveling in the backcountry occupied by large predatory animals.

The overall recommendation of the author who wrote the article was that a pistol should be carried. Specifically, a large-caliber double-action revolver with a very short barrel. The rationale was a semi-automatic might not be drawn, fired, or cleared/chambered in time.

Additionally, if pinned down while being mauled, which was the case in the article, you would be lucky to have one hand free to shoot at extremely close quarters.

Another item I remember from the article, was  it recommended carrying a knife with a blade long enough to penetrate a large animal’s ribcage to enter the heart-lung area; thus, to severely would or kill it.

Now comes my part. When I lived in Alaska, I carried a .44 magnum Ruger Super-Blackhawk with a 4-inch barrel. Although the article I read years earlier recommended a double-action, I’ve been a fan and used a single-action since I was about 13-years-old, so a Ruger single-action was my choice (plus I still feel it is the fastest drawn sidearm for me and the style great-grandpa carried in the West). I also carried a long hunting knife on my side. With both weapons, I always ensured they were on my hip and not covered by clothing that would make them inaccessible.

I did see people carrying semi-automatic pistols in Alaska and I’m sure they would do the job most of the time. I also saw many carrying rifles (and many not carrying anything). I’m not sure this was the smartest move. Here are a couple of examples why.

The first time I lived in Alaska, a couple was killed by a brown bear. In another case, a woman was killed by wolves. I was at a campground one time and brown bear scat was two feet from my cabin door. Two weeks later, a girl was bit by a bear. My wife and I also had a close encounter with a black bear on Perseverance Trail in Juneau. Fortunately, the bear basically ignored us, but I felt much safer with my old hog leg in my holster.

In comparing rifles, shotguns or handguns carried in deadly predator country, that is an individual choice. Many of the government agencies in Alaska issue rifles (although you cannot load them by policy until threatened). I had a friend named Ray who passed away a few years back who told me he carried a 12-ga. with a folding stock when king in Alaska.

All of these weapons are good choices unless you have read the book series Alaska Tales that look historically at bear attacks over about 100 years. In most cases, even if the victim had a rifle, it was knocked away by the initial brutal blow delivered by a bear that outweighed them several hundred pounds (just think when you were a kid and you wrestled with your uncle who only out-weighed you by 100 pounds instead of 600 pounds). In several cases the bear left the victim and then quickly returned for another pouncing after the victim moved or stood up. Either way, a pistol on their hip would have possibly provided somewhat better protection than a rifle several feet away.

Now I guess I should also discuss another option. Carrying bear spray instead of a weapon. Many experts will tell you this is a better option because hitting a large predator running at you as fast as a horse can run makes a very tough target. With bear spray, experts will say you don’t have to be as accurate or that the sound of the discharge may scare the away. That makes sense, but a bear or wolf isn’t the only predator in the woods, so I like to carry a sidearm for those close encounters of the people kind if ever needed for self-defense.

My great-grandpa carried a single-action pistol in the good old days.

Today, there are many fine handguns available in a large caliber that would be a good choice, including ones like Ruger’s big-bore Alaskan in .454 Casull/.45 Colt or .480 Ruger.

Whatever your choice, ensure you know your weapons, that you use and carry any weapon safely, while abiding by all local, state and federal gun laws.

Enjoy the great outdoors!

Kevin Lee McIver

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Kevin Lee McIver

Soldier, Army Ranger, Writer, & Adventurer