Being young and inexperienced, as well as somewhat lacking in funds, I had few rifles from which to choose and no option for buying a new one. So I brought along a battered old pre-64 Winchester Model 70 in .30-06, stuffed with some handloads featuring the 180-grain Nosler Partition bullet. It proved to be a wise decision.
I was on a spot-and-stalk hunt in western Montana, a trip on which I saw far more elk and mule deer than I did bears. When I finally got my chance, I shot a medium-sized bear (about a 200-pounder) at 150 yards. He didn't go 75 yards before piling up.
Since that time, I've seen something in the neighborhood of 50 black bears taken with firearms of all shapes, sizes and descriptions. The two largest calibers I've seen used are the .375 H&H Mag.—not an uncommon caliber in Alaska or British Columbia when on a combination brown bear/black bear hunt—and .338/.378 Wthby Mag., an incredibly powerful, flat-shooting cartridge suitable for hunting big game animals the size of small automobiles. The smallest caliber I've seen used is the .243 Win., used by a Rocky Mountain deer hunter who happened to have a bear tag in his pocket when we glassed up a bear one crisp fall afternoon.
After all that, I've come to believe black bears aren't indestructible tanks that can take shot after shot and keep going. Certainly there are tougher big game animals out there. But bears are bears, and a poorly hit bear that escapes into thick cover and must be tracked can be bad news. It's a scenario to be avoided.
The Match Game
Generally speaking, black bears can be cleanly taken with most standard deer-hunting cartridges. The prudent hunter will make a final choice based on the specific hunt, and match the cartridge accordingly. Considerations include the type of hunt, the terrain and the size of the bears expected to be encountered.
As we've seen, all black bears aren't created equal. The average bear taken on many central Canadian bait hunts weighs maybe 150 pounds. That bear is nothing like the 300- to 450-pound tanks taken on the Alaska and British Columbia coast, or the huge-bodied bears found in more southerly states like California and North Carolina, where 800-pound bears have been weighed on certified scales. Bigger bodies are harder to bring down and require larger bullets and more kinetic energy.
Bears hunted on spot-and-stalk hunts or from treestands and ground blinds overlooking large cornfields should be hunted with flat-shooting cartridges that permit precise bullet placement at extended distances. This is especially true in areas where the escape cover is as thick as a coastal fog.
On the other hand, where shots will be short—this includes most bait hunts and when following hounds, where shots will probably be less than 30 yards—it makes more sense to use a medium-velocity cartridge featuring a large-caliber bullet with a wide frontal section that makes a big hole.
Specific Cartridge Choices
Regardless of the size of the bears being hunted, in my mind the minimum cartridge should be some sort of .25 caliber, like the .25-06 or .257 Wthby Mag., using bullets weighing between 117 and 120 grains. Cartridges in the .270/.30-06/7mm Mag. class are better, and excellent for black bear hunting coast to coast.
But I personally prefer .30 caliber and up because of the larger wound channels these rounds create. These include the .308, .30-06, and the various .300 magnums. There's really no reason to use more powerful cartridges such as the .338 Win. Mag., .340 Wthby Mag. and the like, unless you simply want to.
Perhaps the best overall black bear cartridges I've used are considered “tame” by some experts. These are .348 and .358 caliber cartridges like the .348 Win., .358 Win. and .35 Whelen, rounds that use relatively heavy bullets with a large frontal section traveling at medium velocity. At the distances most bears are taken--200 yards and less—this combination produces a wallop that really gets their attention and creates a big hole that facilitates blood trailing.
One of the most knowledgeable ballisticians around, and an extremely experienced big game hunter, is my friend Col. Craig Boddington, USMCR. He has an old lever gun in .348 Win. with a classic peep sight that he absolutely loves to take bear hunting. He's proven its effectiveness many times over.
On hunts when you have to move quickly and shoot at close-range targets—hound hunts come immediately to mind—a light rifle that's easy to carry makes sense. Many rifle hunters choose light lever-action rifles chambered for classic cartridges like the .30-30, .300 Sav., .348 Win. and .358 Win. These rifle/cartridge combinations are also excellent choices for most bait hunts.
Rifle Action Types
All rifle action types are suitable for black bear hunting. It's more important to use a rifle you are both familiar and comfortable with rather than picking up a new rifle just for the action.
Bolt-action rifles are far and away the most popular in North America for all big game hunting. On hunts when shots might be long, bolt actions are highly accurate, extremely reliable and offer a relatively quick follow-up shot. Single-shots are also good choices for open-country hunting. Deer hunters who have a pet pump action or autoloader in .30-06, .308, and the like, need look no further when planning a bear hunt.
And lever-action rifles will get it done too. In fact, my own “pet” black bear rifle is a Browning BLR lever-action rifle chambered for the .358 Win. cartridge. When loaded with bullets weighing between 200 and 250 grains, this rifle is highly accurate out to 250 yards, and really lays it on them. I've used it on dog hunts, over bait and on some spot-and-stalk hunts, all with great results.
What About Bullets?
Regardless of the type of bear hunt I am on, I always use stout bullets. “Premium” bullets like the Nosler Partition and Partition Gold, Barnes X-Bullet, Winchester Fail Safe, Speer Grand Slam, Swift A-Frame, and others of similar ilk, are designed for both controlled expansion and deep penetration.
Black bears have thick, dense muscles on their shoulders, backs and legs. These sturdy bullets are designed for maximum penetration while retaining a high percentage of their original weight—a superb combination for a bear's physique as well as for shot angles that are less than ideal. The last thing you want is to use a “soft” bullet that expands too quickly, fragmenting on the hide or just inside the shoulder muscles before getting inside the boiler room. And if you have to take a follow-up shot at the south end of a northbound bear, you'll really appreciate the deep-penetrating design of premium bullets.
I also like some of the “classic” bullets designed for deer and elk hunting. These include Winchester Power Point, Remington Core-Lokt, Federal Hi-Shok, Speer Spitzer, Hornady Interlock, and others in this class. These bullets penetrate well, expand rapidly and retain a good amount of their original weight.
Bullets to avoid are those designed for extremely rapid expansion on smaller, light-skinned animals like pronghorn and small deer. The Nosler Ballistic Tip and Sierra Boattail are two that come immediately to mind. Both are superbly accurate bullets that really knock the heck out of light game, but expand much too rapidly and violently for bears.
Shot Placement Is Key
Keep in mind that, as in all big game hunting, shot placement is much more critical to your success than the caliber rifle you're using. It is far better to go bear hunting with a rifle/cartridge combination with which you are familiar, and that you shoot well, than to go out and buy a new rifle in a larger caliber that you end up being scared of and that you hesitate to practice with.