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Bruin Shot Placement 101

Killing a bear is harder than you think. Shot placement is key.

Bruin Shot Placement 101
(Donald M. Jones photo)

This article was featured in the Spring 2024 issue of Backcountry Hunter. Pick up a copy of the issue here.

One spring in an Idaho bear camp, three of us killed bears with one shot. Four other hunters missed or hit bears they failed to recover. All shots were taken over bait, all inside 50 yards and all with rifles.

Of all the big game camps I’ve been in over the decades, black bears are the most often missed animal by hunters, with rifle or bow. Having the opportunity to chat with many hunters who’ve missed has enlightened me.

Don’t Rush

I always thought the two main reasons hunters missed shots at black bears had to do with the bear’s long fur and their lack of muscle definition. These features undoubtedly make “picking a spot” difficult, especially in shadows or low light.

However, the most common response from fellow hunters, when asked why they thought they missed the shot, came down to being too excited. Fast, heavy breathing typically began the moment a bear appeared. That feeling was quickly compounded by the notion they had to rush the shot before the bear ran off or, worse yet, attacked.

black-bear-in-forest-01

If you’re a seasoned hunter, you know bear attacks are rare. In fact, once they sense you, bears normally can’t run away fast enough. If you’re new to bear hunting, take a deep breath and relax. This is easier said than done. Experience is the best building block.

Rushing a shot at any big game animal is a common reason for a miss, but it’s accentuated with bears. It doesn’t matter if you’re sitting in a treestand overlooking a bait site, have a bruin spotted at 2,000 yards that you’ll eventually stock, looking at one in a tree put up by a pack of hounds or are bringing one in using a predator call—when a bear first appears, try to remain calm. Don’t let the adrenaline rush interfere with your thought process.

sh-shot
A solid shooting rest greatly increases the likelihood of executing a lethal shot.

Focus on Size

When a bear is first spotted, focus on sizing it up. Most of us want to kill a big bear. While bear meat is some of the best eating wild game out there, not many hunters step into the woods with their sights set on a 125-pound bruin for the pot.

Studying parts of a bear to determine its size will help calm your nerves. Focus and look for a big back end that gyrates independently of the front as it walks. Study the head to see if it appears “blocky” with a triangular divot atop the crown and ears set to the side. Next, examine the front legs to see if the shoulder, elbow and wrist are all the same thickness. If these things check out, you’re looking at a big bear. By focusing, you're calmer and can concentrate on the most important part of bear hunting: shot placement.

black-bear-in-forest

Shot Placement

When it comes time to shoot, wait for a bear to turn broadside. Never have I seen a big game animal expire as quickly as a bear that has a hole punched through both lungs. I’ve watched numerous black bears expire inside 10 yards, with bow and rifle. I’ve seen massive grizzly and brown bears die within a few steps of being shot in both lungs. If the habitat you’re hunting is rugged with dense cover, you may never find a poorly hit bear. Bears are notorious for leaving finicky blood trails because of their thick fur, even with a well-placed shot.

Black bears are crepuscular and often shot amid heavy shadows and in low light conditions. Placing a thin, black scope reticle on a black target can make it challenging to locate the center of the vitals. With an illuminated reticle, putting the crosshairs on the precise point of impact is easy and quick. Often, all you’ll be able to see is the illuminated dot against the black fur, no crosshairs. This calms the nerves and allows you to focus while picking the exact spot you want to hit.

shor-bear-hunter
Sporting a "blocky" head and ears tipped to the side, the author had no reservations about the maturity of this big bruin.

Look through the scope and travel up the back of the bear’s front leg, then stop mid-body. When a bear is broadside, that spot will hit both lungs every time.

Recommended


If bowhunting, and you’re struggling with shot placement, try reaching full draw with all pins below the bear’s belly then track up the back of the front leg, stopping when the pin you want hits the bear’s midsection. This is the highest percentage bow shot for a bear standing broadside.

When rifle hunting, and a quartering away shot is all you have, shoot for the offside shoulder and try to break it. A one-lung hit bear can travel a long way, but a broken leg will slow it down. The humerus and shoulder blade of a bear are positioned far forward, so wait for the nearside front leg to be angled backwards, the offside front leg striding forward. A shot at this angle has a good chance of hitting both lungs.

bear-and-scope
Illuminated scope reticles are extremely beneficial for precise shot placement, especially in low-light.

Avoid sharp quartering toward you shots. These usually find only one lung before the bullet enters the intestinal cavity or hits big bones that inhibit proper penetration.

If a bear is in a tree or at an uphill angle, and you have a clear shot at the chest, don’t hesitate. Center the crosshairs between the legs and you’ll often hit heart, lungs, and break the spine. The same is true if a bear is sitting on its hind legs, facing away. Put the crosshairs between the mid-section of the bruins shoulders and the bear will likely drop.

When it comes to bears, know your equipment and shoot it with confidence. The rest comes down to being patient and placing the shot exactly where you want it when the time is right.

brax-bear-bullet
A well-constructed bullet, paired with precise shot placement, will result in quick, clean kills.



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