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Bear Defense: Shocking Truth about Bear Spray & Guns

Image of Bryan Hill, Founder of Pistol Wizard Bryan Hill / October 02 2021

If bears are following you, digging into your campsite, or charging, what do you do?

Studies on pepper spray vs. firearms for bear defense have been cited by government agencies and pundits as pure fact, despite deep flaws. These studies have gone unchallenged...

Until now. We're going to apply some critical thinking to the academic literature and some independent research to get a clearer picture.

On This Page:

  1. Pistol Defense against Bear Attacks (2020)
  2. Human-bear conflict in Alaska: 1880-2015 (2018)
  3. Efficacy of Firearms vs. Bears in Alaska (2012)
  4. Efficacy of Bear Spray in Alaska (2010)
  5. Field Use of Bear Spray (1998)
  6. Conclusions

Pistol Defense against Bear Attacks (2021)

Handgun or Pistol Against Bear Attacks 104 cases, 97% Effective (2021)
This samples all available cases of when someone fired a pistol defend against bears. If the pistol stopped the attack, it was a success whether the bear died or left the scene. Each case has details on the attack and its resolution.

It also lists combined arms encounters (multiple firearms or vehicle + firearm), but doesn't factor it into the success rate. In the analysis below, I'm including those combined arms incidents.

Key Takeaways
  • Pistol shots stopped 97% of the bear attacks.
  • 12.5% of shooters were injured after firing on the bear.
  • Weaker ammo needed more shots to stop the attack than stronger ammo.
  • Hollow pointsneeded more shots; multiple reports cited them glancing off of bear skulls.
  • The 4 failures: .22lr vs. polar bear, .38 special vs. black bear, .357 Magnum vs. grizzly bear, .45 ACP vs. black bear.
  • 5 incidents were initiated by dog(s).
  • Dogs assisted in 2 incidents, buying time for the owner to fire.
  • Several successful uses of firearms followed the failure of pepper spray.
  • Warning shots were successful about half the time they were tried.
  • Aiming for the heart or lungs was highly effective:
    Where to shoot a bear to stop it (side view) Where to shoot a bear to stop it (front view)

    3D archery targets by Rinehart Targets

Human-bear conflict in Alaska: 1880-2015 (2018)

Human-bear conflict in Alaska: 1880-2015: Alaska Human-Bear Conflict (2018)
This analyzed 682 recorded human-bear conflicts in Alaska, USA, from 1880-2015.

Key Takeaways
  • When hiking in bear country, stay in areas with good visibility.
  • Can't be in areas with good visibility? You're most likely to be attacked when alone. Travel in a group, preferably 3 or more people.
  • In 40 incidents, domestic dogs tried to stop an attack. 19 (47.5%) were successful. However, in 5 of those 40 cases, dogs initiated the conflict.
  • This is a rough estimate on my part, but if you bring a dog to protect you, the odds it will actually help are between a coin flip and Rock Paper Scissors.
  • When involved, rescuers stopped maulings 90.3% of the time, but 9.7% of them were mauled in turn.
  • This study cites Efficacy of Firearms vs. Bears in Alaska (2012), claiming firearms stopped bears 76% of the time. The rate is actually 96%. Why? Read on.

Efficacy of Firearms vs. Bears in Alaska (2012)

Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska (2012)
This analyzed 269 recorded cases of firearms in bear defense between 1883-2009. These included aggressive attacks, and bears acting curiously or scavenging for people's food or garbage.

Criticisms
  • This study was done to find how firearms to fail to protect the user.
  • Of all the types of failures of firearms to protect the user, only 9% were due to missing the bear and 8% were due to firing until out of ammo (17% total).
  • All other failure types, like "lack of time to respond" (27%), "did not use the tool" (21%), etc., meant the firearm was never fired. This could happen with pepper spray as well as a firearm.
  • Unless we only count cases where the firearm was fired, this study's results aren't comparable with the other studies listed on this page. Why? Those other studies only count pepper spray or firearm uses when they were fired at a bear.
  • With this in mind, the failure rate of firearms compared with pepper spray was probably 17% of what the study portrayed it to be.
Key Takeaways
  • The authors did not account for the above when comparing their data with other studies on pepper spray.
  • Nor did they account for this when counting successes or failures, injury data, or making their conclusions.
  • Nor did people citing this study account for this, whether they were authors of academic studies, journalists, or government officials.
  • This study claims an overall firearms success rate of 76%.
    It's actually 96% when comparing properly.

Efficacy of Bear Spray in Alaska (2010)

Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska (2010)
This analyzed 72 recorded cases of pepper spray in bear defense between 1985-2006. These included aggressive attacks, and bears acting curiously or scavenging for people's food or garbage.

The results came in 3 types:
  • Immediate stop: The bear stopped and then left, never to return.
  • Momentary stop: The bear left the area, but returned later.
  • Failure to stop: The bear didn't stop and leave the area. It may have paused, but resumed attacking or scavenging without leaving. The encounter only ended when the person left the area, was rescued by rangers, was mauled, etc.
Key Takeaways
Pepper Spray vs. Curious/Scavenging Bears
Pepper Spray vs. Aggressive Bears
  • Pepper spray at least momentarily stopped 72% of aggressive bears and 91% of curious bears.
  • Of the 25 aggressive cases, people were injured 3 times (12%).
  • The math doesn't always add up. On pg. 3, it says there were 31 curious brown bear incidents, but later it says that in 100% of incidents (29 of 29), bear spray stopped the attack:
    Contradition in pg. 3 of the paper showing the number of bears shifting from 31 to 29 as though 29 is 100% of 31.

    If there were 29 stops, but 31 cases, that leaves two cases.
  • There are several other math errors like this in the study.
    How did this pass peer review?

Field Use of Bear Spray (1998)

Field Use of Capsicum Spray as a Bear Deterrent (1998)
This analyzed 66 recorded cases of pepper spray in bear defense between 1984-1994. These included aggressive attacks, and bears acting curiously or scavenging for people's food or garbage.

The results came in 3 types:
  • Immediate stop: The bear stopped and then left, never to return.
  • Momentary stop: The bear left the area, but returned later.
  • Failure to stop: The bear didn't stop and leave the area. It may have paused, but resumed attacking or scavenging without leaving. The encounter only ended when the person left the area, was rescued by rangers, was mauled, etc.
Key Takeaways
Pepper Spray vs. Curious/Scavenging Bears
Pepper Spray vs. Aggressive Bears
  • Pepper spray at least momentarily stopped 80% of aggressive bears and 84% of curious bears.
  • Over half the time, the bear came back after being sprayed. What then?
  • Of the 20 aggressive cases, people were injured 3 times (15%).
  • The sample sizes are small, so don't weigh this study too heavily.

Conclusions

For safety against bear attacks:
  • Stick to areas with good visibility. Many attacks start because the person and/or bear weren't aware of how close they were to eachother.
  • Travel in a group of 3 or more, even when going to the bathroom. The more people around, the less likely a bear will attack.
  • Hunting in bear country? Carry a pistol. You're the most at-risk.
  • Dogs are not reliable protection against bears.
  • Firearms are actually 96-97% effective at stopping bears, but one must be proficient and select the right ammo.
  • Hollow-point ammo doesn't work on bears. Pick penetrators instead.
  • Pepper spray is better vs. curious bears (~85%) than aggressive ones (~75%).
  • Injury rates are about the same for firearms and pepper spray users.

Related Articles



References

  1. Staying Safe in Bear Country: Bear Spray & Firearms (2018)
  2. Bear Spray vs. Bullets: Which offers better protection? (2015)
  3. Handgun or Pistol Against Bear Attacks 104 cases, 97% Effective (2021)
  4. Human-bear conflict in Alaska: 1880-2015: Alaska Human-Bear Conflict (2018)
  5. Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska (2012)
  6. Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska (2010)
  7. Field Use of Capsicum Spray as a Bear Deterrent (1998)


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