Heavy-for-caliber hard-cast bullets make outstanding bear stoppers. However, handloading them for maximum energy and reliability requires extra attention to detail. Here’s how to turn your lever-action rifle—whether a revolver-caliber carbine in .41 Mag. or .44 Mag. or a big-bore in .45-70 Gov’t or .450 Marlin—into the hammer of Thor.
First, you have to pick the right bullet. Bear-stopping lever-gun projectiles possess certain unique characteristics. They’re heavy—almost to excess. Since no traditional lever-action cartridge is going to provide high velocity, it’s necessary to pick bullets with extremely high sectional density, which is a measurement of a bullet’s ability to penetrate.
Derived by a convoluted calculation using two numbers—weight and diameter—SD is a rather outdated method of estimating penetrating ability, but when applied to traditional bullets of similar shape and composition, it still provides a useful baseline. Basically, the heavier a bullet of a certain type is in a given diameter, the higher the SD and the better it will typically penetrate.
For comparison’s sake, most deer bullets have SD numbers in the .210 to .280 range, and legendary penetrators such as the 300-grain .375 H&H and 500-grain .458 Win. Mag. top that, measuring .305 and .341 respectively. Your lever action can’t match the velocity of those cartridges, but handload a 550-grain hard-cast .458-diameter bullet (SD .375) to 1,500 fps or more and it becomes mighty authoritative.
Revolver-caliber cartridges can’t achieve extremely high SD numbers simply because they are incapable of housing super-heavy bullets. However, replacing the standard 240-grain soft nose (SD .169) in your .44 Mag. with a 300-grain hard-cast flat-nose bullet brings the SD up to .211. Doesn’t sound like a lot, but when combined with the other beneficial elements of hard-cast projectiles, it becomes significant.
In addition to a substantial SD number, a good bear-protection bullet must feed with 100 percent reliability. In this case, reliability is far more important than accuracy, since a bullet intended for bear protection will be used inside 20 yards and maybe inside 20 feet.
For lever-action reliability, overall cartridge length and nose profile are most important. The first is easy: Pick a bullet designed for a lever action (as opposed to a single-shot) and simply be sure to load to factory-specified overall cartridge length. Rigorously test your ammo in your particular rifle before trusting it.
Nose profile can be more problematic. Sleek, round-nose designs aren’t what you’re looking for here. You want a big flat nose that hits like a sledgehammer, cuts arteries and smashes through bone while driving straight as an arrow.
Pick a round-nose flat-point bullet with the biggest meplat (flat front portion) you can dredge up. Such bullets typically have just enough curve between full-diameter shank and that broad, devastating meplat to flow reliably up a feed ramp and into a chamber, and they provide a massive, impact-imparting frontal surface.
The last critical element of a bear-stopping lever-gun bullet is hardness. Soft, expanding bullets impart tremendous energy on impact and are generally the best option for the broadside or quartering shot angles hunters strive for. However, an attacking bear is almost surely going to be facing straight on, and you need a bullet that will penetrate stem to stern—and with our biggest bears you need to think of penetration in terms of feet, not inches. Hard-cast bullets, especially those with a broad, flat, sharp-edged nose, are less likely to be deflected by heavy bone and more likely to travel in a straight path, enhancing penetration.
Hard lead bullets offer one other benefit: They handle higher pressures and velocities than softer lead bullets without leaving accuracy-robbing lead deposits embedded in the rifling. Picking a gas-check design with a robust copper cup on the base will also help prevent leading.
The bullets I’m describing present a few special demands on lever-action rifle cartridges such as the .38-55, .375 Win., .45-70 and .450 Marlin. Most critical is the fact that the shank of long, heavy-for-caliber bullets protrudes deeply into powder capacity.
As a result of the dramatically reduced capacity, spherical and fine-grain propellants that fill densely into a case are necessary to achieve useful bear-stomping velocities. Pick a powder that generates maximum velocity at acceptable pressure and fits a full charge beneath the bullet.
Good choices are H322, a long-time favorite for heavy-bullet .45-70 loads, and Reloder 7, a relative newcomer that has proven to provide unprecedented velocities at safe pressures. Both are small-grain extruded propellants that fill a case with admirable density. I use RL-7 under a 550-grain Crater or 525-grain Beartooth Pile-Driver in my Marlin 1895 GS .45-70 and get 1,600 fps and decent accuracy.
Ideally, your chosen charge will completely fill or be lightly compressed into the available space, which helps prevent bullet setback during recoil. Fully filling the available powder capacity can often be done with both H322 and RL-7, depending on brass make and wall thickness. As always, don’t exceed maximum charges.
On the subject of maximum charges, data for lever-action cartridges rarely includes very heavy-for-caliber bullets. Often, it’s necessary to extrapolate data for heavy bullets loaded long for single-shots—a risky business. Reduce starting charges five percent and work up carefully.
Finally, seat and crimp your bullets with obsessive perfection. First, carefully trim your cases to consistent length, making sure the mouths trim up perfectly square so the crimp doesn’t apply lopsided pressure. Be sure your seating stem fits the nose of your bullets properly and seat fully without crimping. Then back off the seating stem, dial your seating die down until it applies a nice, even, definite crimp and run the cartridges through one last time.
The last step is to test your point of impact, because heavy bullets typically won’t hit the same place as lighter, faster projectiles. I test and zero at 50 yards, but you can check as close as 20 yards.
Heaven forbid you ever have to fire one of these loads into a charging bear at spitting distance, but if you do, you can be confident that it will do a good job of changing said bear’s attitude.