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Shotguns for Bear Hunting

Yes, you can hunt bears with a shotgun, with the right set-up.

Shotguns for Bear Hunting
(Photo courtesy of David Draper)

You rarely read about bear hunting with a shotgun. The classic, go-to gun for black bears is almost always a rifle, and something chambered for a heavy caliber. While bears are not notoriously tough to kill provided you hit them in the right spot, they can be dangerous to follow up when wounded. And the thick hide soaks up a lot of blood, so tracking them can be difficult. Shotguns loaded with slugs shoot big bullets that leave big holes. Hit in the right spot, a shotgun slug can drop a bear in its tracks, and the exit wounds are typically large, leaving more blood than a smaller diameter rifle bullet. So, maybe you should consider hunting bears with a shotgun, provided you have the right set-up and are hunting them in close quarters.

Let’s first note, we’re talking about black bears here. While many Alaskan guides and residents do carry short-barreled shotguns afield for bear defense, a good gun for hunting brown and grizzly bears typically leans toward magnum-caliber rifles. And no, I wouldn’t recommend a shotgun when hunting black bears out West, where the distances can be farther than a slug can be shot accurately. But hunters going after black bears where shots will close, such as hunting them over bait, following a pack of dogs or stalking in thick woods, might opt for a shotgun loaded with slugs. In fact, it might just be the perfect firearm for hunting bears in those situations.

black bear standing by barrel
(Photo courtesy of David Draper)

A Shotgun Field Test

Hunting black bears with a shotgun isn’t common, which is one of the reasons I opted to carry a Mossberg Pro 940 12 gauge on a recent bear hunt in Alberta. I’ve taken several bears with rifles in many different calibers, so for this particular hunt, over bait, I decided to see how a shotgun would fare in the bear woods.

I was hunting with W&L Guide Service near High Level, Alberta, in the northern reaches of the province. I had hunted with them in the past and knew that any encounter with a bear would be close. Wally Mack, co-owner of W&L, sets his baits close to the treestands; most are less than 30 yards away, well within the range of a good shotgun. Mack is also known for taking some giant black bears, but I didn’t feel undergunned using the 12 gauge stoked with the 1-oz. rifled slugs from Hornady.

I topped the Mossberg Pro 940 12 gauge with a Swarovski Z8i 1-8x24. The minimal zoom range, and corresponding quick target acquisition, is perfect for a slug gun, which doesn’t have the kind of range that would require higher magnification. The low objective also facilitates a better mounting position low to the bore and lined up with the shooter’s eye along the rib of the Pro 940.

hunter sitting behind black bear
(Photo courtesy of David Draper)

At home, this combination was printing 1 ½-inch groups at 100 yards. That’s typical accuracy for a slug gun, and good enough for most big-game animals taken at moderate ranges. Again, I wouldn’t expect to take long shots with this set-up, but for bears over bait, which is typically an up-close-and-personal endeavor, a shotgun should work well.

Within an hour of climbing into my stand in Alberta, a good bear quietly approached the bait sight. I rested my shotgun on the shooting rail and watched the bear closely, trying to size it up. On my last trip to W&L, I had taken two bears – both in the 6 to 6 ½-foot range. They were both solid bears, but I was hoping to beat that on this trip. This first bear I guessed to be similar to those two, reaching to about the top ring of the 55-gallon barrel filled with bait. I watched it feed for awhile before it wandered off.

Soon enough, a second bear approached, this one much bigger. Standing on all four paws, its back reached above the top of the barrel. It was also bulkier than the first bear, and I guessed it to be a big, mature boar. This is the true benefit to hunting bears over bait – typically you have plenty of time to judge them before making the shot.

shotgun shell on bear paw
(Photo courtesy of David Draper)

After feeding at the barrel, the big bear wandered to the nearby crossbeam, where more bait was suspended. It stood and tore at the skinned beaver – a bear’s preferred bait – and I steadied my gun. When the bear dropped to all fours, I centered the Swarovski’s illuminated reticle behind its shoulder and gently squeezed the trigger. The range was 18 yards, and the impact sent the bear scurrying into the woods. Within seconds I heard it crash. After waiting for my guide to return, we found the dead bear less than 10 yards from the bait.

The next night I took a second, bigger bear, from a stand set deep into a dark swamp. A poor shot on my part hit the bear a bit more forward than I would have liked. It made for a longer tracking job, but the big 12-gauge slug left a large enough hole that the blood trail was easy to follow. The big bear, which measured in excess of 7 feet from nose to tail, took all the muscle we had to load onto the quad.

two hunters displaying large black bear cape
(Photo courtesy of David Draper)

My hunt complete, I came to the conclusion a shotgun was plenty of gun for the biggest black bears. Is it the right gun all the time? No. But few firearms are perfect for everything. Instead, think of a slug gun as the right tool for a specific job – hunting big black bears at close and moderate ranges within 100 yards.

For a full review of the Mossberg Pro 940 shotgun, click here: Mossberg 940 Pro Turkey Shotgun Full Review

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