We’ve all played the scenario through in our minds. You’re walking through the woods and have a surprise encounter with a sow and cubs. The sow springs to an erect position with a loud “woof” as soon as you both see each other. Perceiving you as a threat, in an instant she dives into a full charge. You’ve got three seconds get your bear deterrent out and “fire” it at the bear. In your scenario, what are you carrying? Bear spray or a firearm?

            As hunters, I think we often dismiss the threat of a bear attack because we’re hunting bear while carrying a weapon. However, because of our exposure in bear country we might be some of the top candidates for bear attacks. Here are some thoughts on whether you should carry bear spray or a firearm as protection.


The Stats


            Statistically, bear spray is more effective at deterring a charging bear. In a study done in 2008 (Smith et. al. 2008), researchers analyzed 83 bear spray incidents (61 brown bears, 20 black bears and two polar bear). Red Pepper spray proved over 90% successful on stopping the bear’s “undesirable” activity. 98% of people involved in these incidents were unharmed by the bear. However, fourteen percent of the incidents resulted in negative side effects upon the human (they were effected by the spray) and three percent left the user incapacitated.

            In similar study on firearms (Smith et. al. 2012), they were effective 84% with handguns and 76% with rifles to stop bears from undesirable behavior. The study analyzed 269 bear-human conflicts in Alaska from 1883-2009. The study said, “firearm bearers suffered the same injury rates in close encounters with bears whether they used firearms or not.” Basically, firearms didn’t statistically keep people from getting injured by bears. This means that people shot bears that still attacked them. They concluded by saying, “Our findings suggest that only those proficient in firearms use should rely on them for protection in bear country.” (Copyright The Wildlife Society). I think we would all like to think we are “proficient” but the truth is, even as hunters, we all aren’t. Firearm accuracy in the heat of a fast, stressful and real-life situation isn’t easily tested.

            The arguments against bear spray typically revolve around the wind blowing the spray back into your face and not hitting the bear. This is a legit concern, but it would be rare that this would happen. It’s like stacking two highly unlikely scenarios on top of each, yes it could happen, but it probably won’t. However, it is possible for bear spray to not affect a bear, such as happened with Montana resident Todd Orr. He sprayed a sow that attacked him, but it didn’t stop her. He sustained some serious, but not life threatening injuries. In his words, “Bear spray doesn’t always work, but it’s better than nothing.”


Access is the Limiting Factor


            The limiting factor on both bear spray and firearms is the users ability to access it quickly and fire it accurately. If your bear spray is in your backpack it will do you no good in a surprise charge. If your sidearm is buried under layers of clothing and jackets and you can’t get to it “western quick,” then it likely wouldn’t do you much good either. In a situation where you had warning of the attack, access becomes less of an issue.  In Todd Orr’s situation he saw the sow coming from 80 yards away and had time to access his bear spray.


Carry Both


            When in bear country I like to carry both bear spray and a handgun. Here’s why. Both methods have pros and cons and it’s not that difficult to carry both. I don’t like the idea of having to shoot and kill a non-target bear because he’s threatening you. This would be a sorry way to fill your tag on a long distance bear hunt. I always like to have a non-lethal method to deter bears, because it’s usually the younger ones or a sow with cubs that can give you trouble.

            Secondly, you can use bear spray in a non-life threatening situation without significant consequences. If you shoot a bear with a firearm, even in self-defense, you could be facing some less-than-desirable legal hurdles. Bear spray isn’t lethal so you can you use it with less fear of consequences. For instance, I shared camp with a hunter this spring sprayed a sow that was getting too close to his ground blind. After watching her for over thirty minutes, she became more and more aggressive. When she closed the distance to within 10 feet he sprayed her – problem solved. 

            However, I don’t feel comfortable with just bear spray. I’ve often envisioned a scenario of being pinned down by a bear and shooting him from underneath. God forbid it should ever happen, but if it did a pistol would be the best option. Personally, carrying a pistol when bowhunting for bears, especially in grizzly country, makes for a better hunting experience. Stats or no stats, I find that I’m more relaxed and just feel more secure. For me, the best answer is to carry both.