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Best Big Guns for Big Black Bear Hunting

The top rifle calibers for hunting black bears this spring.

Best Big Guns for Big Black Bear Hunting

(Author photos)

We use big guns for the biggest bears, right? Rifles from .338 on up are fairly standard, and one brown bear camp I hunted in set .375 as their minimum. So why, exactly, do we take a more casual approach to the black bear? Because they’re less dangerous and smaller, right? Yes, both are usually true, but not always. As for the danger factor, black bears are possibly even more unpredictable than their larger cousins. Across America, they wreck our trash cans and, in parks, they seem cute and cuddly until they’re not. I’ve known more people who have been mauled by black bears than all the rest. This is not to say I consider black bears “dangerous game,” but the potential is there and must be respected.

Hunters talk about 500-pound black bears as if they were common. They are rare, but they do exist. Few bears are actually weighed in the field, but a bruiser I shot in North Carolina scaled 470 pounds. On the same hunt using the same scale, a friend’s bear exceeded 600 pounds. The known record for a wild black bear is 704 pounds, taken in the fall in Pennsylvania.

The average adult black bear doesn’t weigh 200 pounds, especially if we’re talking spring weights, after hibernation. Similar in weight to mature whitetail bucks in many areas. However, along with sharp claws and teeth, the black bear has heavier bone structure, and there is great size variance. Still, hunters are usually looking for the biggest bear we can find, and always hoping for a monster. It seems to me we should be properly armed for the huge bear we really want, not the average bear we’re more likely to find.

So, what gun is best for black bears?

The Minimum and Maximum Cartridges for Black Bears

Dumb luck being what it is, in my 20s I shot a giant black bear, with a hide over seven feet. He came out of thick timber onto a little hump, quartering to me. The bullet entered on the point of the on-shoulder and the bear collapsed on the spot, body on the crest of the hillock, head and front paws outstretched downhill. The rifle was a .375 H&H, the bullet a 270-grain Core-Lokt, impacting at near full velocity. I am not suggesting a .375 is necessary, or even ideal, for black bear. However, I can assure you that it works with decisive finality. If, and only if, the shot is well-placed, and that applies to all the many good choices.

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Years ago, I saw a nice black bear cleanly taken with a .243. I suppose a lot of black bears are taken with .243s and .25 calibers. For sure, right now many are taken with the 6.5 Creedmoor. It all depends on bullet choice, distance of shot and placement and so much on the size of the bear. I have seen failures with very adequate cartridges. Usually poor shot placement, but also instances where bullet failure was suspect.

On a hunt not long ago, a big black bear was shot (or shot at) with a .300 Blackout. No reaction, no blood, no trace. Could have been a miss but, over bait, the shot was close and the shooter felt good about it. I doubt it. With elastic hide, bears bleed little from entrance wounds. I submit there was not enough bullet weight, velocity, and energy—in whatever combination—from that tiny case.

I think 6.5mm and bullets from 140 grains up is a sound minimum. There is no real maximum, nor is there need for heavy artillery. In North America, we have little use—and no requirement—for thick-skinned dangerous game cartridges from the .40s and .416s on up. Do they work on the biggest bears (of any breed)? You bet, but rifles are heavier and recoil is severe. Properly, anything between .30 and .40-caliber is best described as a “medium bore” but, over here, we think of anything bigger than .30 as “large.” The various 8mms (.323), .33s, and the several .35s are all excellent choices for even the largest black bears, the utility of a given cartridge depending on velocity and shooting distance.

Here in North America, we have a long tradition of cartridges that, although “big bore” by caliber, aren’t suitable for the world’s largest game, but have short-range utility on our game, especially for black bears. These include the largest pistol cartridges, from .44 Rem Mag on up to .500 S&W, all chambered in rifles as well as handguns; and our big lever-action cartridges. In current factory form, most available are the .444 and .450 Marlin, the great old .45-70, and the .450 Bushmaster. With limited velocity, all of these are black bear thumpers.

The Most Versatile Black Bear Calibers

On a recent baited bear hunt in Alberta, six of us took eleven black bears. None were 500-pound monsters (unlikely in spring), but all were good bears, over half of them measured seven feet or better. We all used Hornady ammo, and our Mossberg Patriot bolt-actions were topped with low-range Swarovski variables. The bears were taken with four radically different cartridges, several of us using one rifle for a first bear, another for a second. On this hunt, collectively, three bears were taken with 6.5 PRC, three with .308 Winchester, two with .350 Legend, and three with .450 Bushmaster.

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All worked well. Each bear was pretty much taken with one well-placed shot each, which should certainly be possible at such close range. The 6.5 PRC is fast, powerful, and flat-shooting. It would be fine for glassing and stalking at any sensible range, though not demonstrably better (possibly not as good) as many cartridges up to .30 caliber. The versatile .308 is also a “do-anything” black bear cartridge, not as fast or flat-shooting as the PRC, but propelling a heavier bullet with greater frontal area.

The .350 Legend was designed to be legal in former shotgun-only states that now allow straight-wall centerfire rifle cartridges. Since Michigan is one of those states, it was certainly designed with black bear in mind as well as whitetails. The ballistics are neither fast nor flashy, but they’re similar to the old .35 Remington, a legend for black bear. On this Alberta hunt, I used it for my second bear, which was down and dead inside 20 yards. For close-range black bear hunting, I like all the low-to-medium velocity .35s. The .350 Legend proved itself part of this group, but I’m a fan of them all: .35 Rem; .348, 356, and .358 Win; .35 Whelen. The .35 Whelen is the fastest of this group, crossing the line into a “do anything” black bear cartridge.

Recommended


The .450 Bushmaster is different. The .45-70 owns the “guide gun” concept and, at close range, with modern loads in strong actions, is adequate for any and all bears. Designed for the AR platform, the .450 Bushmaster meets criteria in all five of the “straight wall” states, and has been adapted to several bolt-action rifles. Velocity and energy are similar to the .45-70 with bullets from 250 to 325 grains, so very adequate for big black bears. I’m a big fan of the .45-70, but I’ve never used it to hunt black bears. I need to do that one of these days but, no surprise, I was impressed by the .450 Bushmaster on these Alberta bears.

Now, let’s be clear: Neither the .350 Legend nor .450 Bushmaster (nor their older ballistic siblings) have the velocity and flat trajectory to be ideal for spot-and-stalk bear hunting (you need to get close). Nor do they have the resultant downrange energy to be ideal for the biggest black bears at distance. Because they are relatively slow, they have the wonderful attribute of surprisingly mild recoil. Yet they are hard-hitting cartridges, adequate for the biggest bears at close range. They fit my criteria as “big cartridges for big black bears.”




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