Blast From The Past

Bear Hunting With The Iconic Sharps 1873

This spring I experienced an epic adventure in Idaho using a nostalgic weapon of the American West. My appetite for bear hunting is rivaled only by enthusiasm for firearms and ballistics; I prefer larger calibers and I usually shoot custom, long-range rifles on my hunts. I take pride in making ethical, precision kill shots on big game. I have always appreciated classic firearms too, but until recently I hadn’t owned any let alone hunted with them. That was about to change after I acquired my first .45-70 last winter.

Over the last few years I have begun bear hunting over bait in Idaho. This was an entirely new style of hunting for me, as opposed to spot-and-stalk western hunting that is more conducive to long-range shooting. The exhilaration of up close encounters with these impressive carnivores is something I crave, and I look forward to this hunt every year. It is the perfect hunt for a nostalgic weapon, preferably one that can still put a bear down quickly.

The 1873 Sharps is one of the most iconic guns in American history. It is the buffalo killer and precision rifle of the old West. The famed .45-70 straight-walled cartridge has also been utilized for bear hunting since its inception 150 years ago and it is the oldest rifle cartridge widely produced today. The idea to bear hunt with a Sharps was triggered last winter while researching loads for my new Chiappa Kodiak .45-70. That gun is a brilliant remake of John Moses Browning’s famous 1886 action and hits like a freight train with custom high-pressure (+P) ammunition out of a standard 18.5-inch barreled lever action. This type of ammo takes the lever gun to a whole new realm and is responsible for its modern resurgence as a formidable dangerous game weapon. I soon discovered the same .45-70 +P loads also shoot safely out of certain modern Sharps replicas with the longer barrel lengths producing higher ballistics (+P loads are NOT safe in many rifles). I envisioned how this relic of the old West could be used as a single-shot bear hammer and needed to get my hands on one of these beauties.

The rifle I purchased is a Pedersoli 1873. It’s a behemoth weighing 14 pounds with a 34-inch octagon barrel. The gun has an ultralight double set trigger and is extremely accurate. I tested many loads, and the results proved a substantial increase over lever gun velocities. With my +P ammo of choice, the Sharps have devastating power. It sends a 300-grain bonded bullet 2566 feet per second, producing 4400-foot pounds of muzzle energy. This heavyweight would be more than capable of killing anything.

As spring approached, I began preparing with my good friend and bear baiting guru, Matt Drake (Instagram handle: @mattdrakebaits208), for another do-it-yourself hunt. We exclusively use Boar Masters baiting products. We stocked up on bulk trail mix, spray and paste attractants, and frosting and sow estrus. Early May found me and my friend in scenic Idaho. There was still lots of snow, but the bears were hitting the bait. I left my Utah home at 5:00 am and that afternoon we rode 13 miles by ATV before hiking into the bait. The deep snow drifts and the weight we carried made for brutal hiking. I had been training at the gym for months prior to this hunt, but was quickly served a dose of humble pie. 

The bait site lies in a massive dark timber canyon on a well-traveled bear trail carved out of the steep mountainside. The ground blind is near the edge of the tree line about 50 yards above the barrel. As we crested the top of the ridge into our steep canyon, we had to descend a treacherous snowdrift that ended 20 yards above the blind. Matt went first, breaking through crusty, waist deep snow and soon crested out of sight. I then followed and after reaching halfway, I could see Matt motioning excitedly towards me from the bottom. He had spotted a huge boar through the thick timber and deadfall down at the bait. I quietly dropped my gear and continued my descent with the Sharps. The snowdrift ended in a vertical shoot and one wrong move would send me tumbling down the steep canyon and certainly blow that bear out of there. I dug my boots in and managed to slide down without spooking the bear below. We then quietly moved into position looking for a shooting window through the dense timber. The bear kept moving positions and by the time I found a sufficient shooting window, he had started walking off into the thick woods. I was mere seconds away from killing that trophy boar with my Sharps.

The weather turned for the worse later that evening. We rebaited aggressively each day and sat for long hours, but the wind and intermittent snowstorms slowed the bear activity. We did not see another shooter bear on the trip, but I would return a month later to hopefully seal the deal. The week after I departed, it warmed up and the bait caught fire again. Matt returned and passed numerous bears, and ended up killing the same boar we saw on my trip—a huge, chocolate color phase with a skull almost 20”. I was thrilled for my friend and knew we would have other great bears continue to show up at the bait.

When I returned in June the landscape was green and vibrant. My spirits were high as some stud bears had been pounding the bait. When Matt and I pulled into camp, it was sunny and 70-degrees but there were some dark clouds on the horizon. This time of year in the Rocky Mountains, the weather will change fast and can be unpredictable. As we rode up the mountain, we heard distant rolling thunder and the clouds were forming quickly. As we crossed a large, exposed mountainside, rain started to fall and the thunder was getting closer. Within minutes we were caught in a ferocious thunderstorm getting hammered by hail as lightning crashed around us. We rode through it and reached the trail to the bait, where we hunkered down for the next hour while the epic storm passed. Everything was soaked and we were freezing. That evening stayed windy and we saw several smaller bears but most of them were hesitant to commit to the bait. The next day brought several thunderstorms and insane temperature swings during our long sit in the blind. The bear activity was slowed by the persistent wind and only a few smaller bears came to the bait.

The third day started calmer on the mountain, but gradually another windy thunderstorm blew in and the temperature dropped. Out of nowhere we heard a massive crash right outside the blind and watched in disbelief as a massive, 80-foot pine uprooted, snapped in half, crashing to the ground right below the blind. The fallen tree now obstructed part of our view to the side of the bait. We had a good laugh about it after taking a moment to collect ourselves. Around 6:00 pm, the weather finally broke and the wind stopped. The sun poked out and the woods instantly came alive. We knew bears would be back on the move.

It didn’t take long before Matt spotted movement down below the fallen pine tree. After a few moments we could see a stunning, cinnamon color phase bear working its way up the trail toward the bait. It clearly had some age to it. I readied the Sharps as the bear crossed through the large fallen tree and neared the bait. The bear briefly stopped broadside before reaching the barrel and looked directly up towards the blind. I settled my sight and gently squeezed the double set trigger. The Sharps erupted and the bear nearly did a front flip, clawing furiously at the air as it tumbled downhill. All the work, sweat, and sacrifice culminated in a quick and humane kill on a beautiful animal. The bear tumbled just 10 yards and expired within seconds. 

Matt and I celebrated another successful DIY bear hunt and fulfilling adventure. He is a great friend and one of the few people I know who is as crazy as I am and will stick it out during the worst possible conditions. Our adrenaline was sky high after watching that cinnamon bear approach the bait soon after the pine tree eruption that nearly squashed us. The behemoth Sharps .45-70 proved itself to be a very formidable bear gun, and I have a feeling it will find its way back into the woods again.