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Bear Prepared: Which Cartridges Are Best?

Craig Boddington explores the top cartridge picks for when you need to be ready for the largest black bears.

Bear Prepared: Which Cartridges Are Best?

Veteran British Columbia outfitter Ron Fleming has an interesting perspective on black bears. Ron has hunted grizzlies and black bears most of his life, and he has lots of experience and a healthy respect for all bears. He figures problems with grizzlies are mostly defensive or territorial. Get between a sow and her cub, or disturb a bear on a kill, and you’re in trouble. Nothing new about either situation. “Now, if a black bear comes for you, his plan is to eat you.”

I don’t consider black bears dangerous, but they are unpredictable. Especially in wilderness areas, where they have no familiarity with humans, a predatory response is possible. Across the black bear’s huge range, it happens now and then. I’ve never had a problem with a black bear, but I’ve known two experienced bear guides who were badly mauled while tracking wounded bears. Treat them with respectful caution. Hit them hard and well with the first shot, and with a cartridge and bullet adequate to handle the largest bear you might encounter.

This last is what causes problems. Black bears occupy the largest range of any North American big game animal, from northern Mexico to the Arctic. We even have a few in southeast Kansas now. Across this large range, the average black bear isn’t all that big. Call it 200 pounds—no heavier than a good-size buck, although somewhat more solid.

Left to right: .308 Win., .30-06, .338 Federal, .358 Win., .35 Whelen.
Left to right: .308 Win., .30-06, .338 Federal, .358 Win., .35 Whelen. These standard cartridges are good choices for any hunting method, although Boddington is especially big on the .35s.

Thing is, we’re talking about hunting black bears, not shooing them away from a campground or trying to keep them out of the trash barrel. Averages being what they are, we’ll probably hang our tag on an average 200-pound bear and be perfectly happy. But since we’re hunting bears, we go forth hoping to find that rarity—size double-extra-large.

There’s a big variance between spring and fall weights. North Carolina and Pennsylvania are two areas known to produce huge black bears. There, hunters typically use tractors to recover bears whole so weights can be recorded. Any black bear approaching 500 pounds is XXL and uncommon. Both areas have produced autumn-weight bears that topped 800 pounds on good scales. That’s considerably larger than most interior grizzlies.

I submit that an XXL black bear is a different animal from the average bear and requires different thinking about adequate cartridges. My for-sure-heaviest black bear came from North Carolina, weighed by a biologist at 479 pounds, taken with an 8mm Rem. Mag. It was a big, impressive bear, but on the same hunt one of the guys took a 600-pounder, a tank of a bear, that looked like a grizzly. He used a .338 Win. Mag.

While I’ve taken black bears with cartridges as powerful as the .375 H&H, extra-large magnums are not required for black bears. You bet they work, but they’re not essential.

There are nearly as many suitable black bear cartridges as for whitetail deer. We need enough velocity, energy and bullet weight to ensure penetration on a tough animal up to three times the size of a big buck. I’ve seen medium black bears taken cleanly with .243s. Some folks swear by .25s, but with hopes for a big bear, I step up a bit.

I bypass the 6.5mms because I don’t think today’s standard 140-grain bullets are heavy enough for the biggest bears. I’m okay with .270s with at least 150-grain bullets, fine with 7mms, again with heavier bullets, preferably 160 grains and up. However, my preference for black bears starts with medium .30 calibers and goes up from there.

That’s a broad range, and within that large spectrum, how you hunt your bears matters. There are three primary methods: baiting, hunting with hounds and spot-and-stalk. There’s also calling with a predator call, which is not as common. Keep in mind that if you call in a bear, you are inviting a predatory response, which is not the same as getting the drop on an unsuspecting bear. The shot will probably be close but could come from any direction. The rifle must be fast-handling and preferably on the more powerful side.

Across the board, I think the .308 Win. is a solid, sensible minimum for black bears, adequate for all three primary hunting techniques. Pick a good, tough 180-grain bullet, and you can’t go too far wrong. Since I’m more a .30-06 guy, I’ll add the .30-06, again with at least a 180-grain bullet.

Craig Boddington glasses a hilled treeline looking for black bear.
While Boddington carried a Winchester 88 in .348 Win. on this hunt—simply because he wanted to—spot-and-stalk hunts require cartridges with sufficient reach and punch.

In baiting, the shot distance from blind to bait is known. Baiting also offers time to wait for a good, broadside shot presentation. I’ve hunted black bears over bait in Alberta, Idaho, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Newfoundland. In most camps, blinds were sited 70 to 100 yards from the bait.

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Last year, I hunted with Wally Mack’s W&L Guide Service in northern Alberta. I took two bolt actions, a .350 Legend and a .450 Bushmaster. I knew it was a hunt over bait, but I was surprised that all their blinds were within 25 yards of the bait.

I have two rifles in the belly of the plane right now, oddballs but good examples of the wide range of suitable choices. One is an old double in .303 British shooting handloaded 215-grain bullets at 2,200 fps. The second is a Big Horn Armory Model 89 Spike Driver in .500 S&W shooting 440-grain hard-cast flatpoints at about 1,700 fps. Pretty sure I’ll be loaded for bear with either.

In hound hunting, getting to the hounds can be a mad scramble in brutal terrain, so a premium is placed on a rifle that is short, light and fast-handling. To this day, a favorite among houndsmen is a good old .30-30 carbine. There’s not much out there faster or easier to carry, and powerful enough because the ranges are so short. Go with the heavier 170-grain bullet, rather than the more popular 150-grain load.

But here’s a cautionary tale. The great Oregon houndsman Jess Caswell carried a .30-30 for years, accounting for an untold number of bears, and he never had a problem until a medium-size bear jumped him and chewed him up one side and down the other. After he got out of the hospital, he got one of the old, hard-kicking Remington Model 600s in .350 Rem. Mag.

Left to right: .35 Rem, .360 Buckhammer, .348 Win, .444 Marlin, .450 Bushmaster, .45-70 cartridges
Left to right: .35 Rem, .360 Buckhammer, .348 Win, .444 Marlin, .450 Bushmaster, .45-70 cartridges. For close-range situations, including over bait and with hounds, the various larger-caliber “brush” cartridges are excellent.

Spot-and-stalk bear hunting is perhaps the most demanding. I do not advocate long-range shooting at black bears for two reasons. First, and obvious, is that following up a wounded bear crosses into dangerous territory. Second, it’s very difficult to judge the size of a bear. At first glance, all black blobs on hillsides look big.

Spot-and-stalk hunting demands more versatility, at least a couple hundred yards of reach without having to think too much. I’m happy with a .308 or .30-06. I’ve also carried faster .30s on several spot-and-stalk hunts, wonderfully versatile and very effective.

Regardless of hunt type, the .30 calibers with tough, heavy bullets are adequate for even the biggest bear. However, on large, tough game I believe in frontal area and bullet weight—velocity not so much because most shots are close. I have no experience with the .338 Federal, but it’s certainly in the running, able to use 200- or 225-grain bullets, with greater frontal area than a .30.

I have almost a fetish for the .35 calibers, especially for black bears. I have not hunted bears with the legendary .35 Rem. or the new .360 Buckhammer, but I have hunted black bears with the .348 Win., .350 Legend, .358 Win., .350 Rem. Mag. and .35 Whelen.

Of them, I’m least sure about the .350 Legend. The bear I shot with it last year was hit well at close range and shrugged it off, instantly running through brush too thick for another shot. I was already starting to worry, but I was pretty sure I’d seen the bear roll, then heard it bawl. Sure enough, it went nowhere, but due to cartridge overall length concerns, the Legend is limited to 170 grains, which is not a lot of bullet in a .35 caliber.

One bear is not enough to pass judgment, but I am certain about the other .35s I’ve used. The unpopular, almost obsolete .358 Win. is easily my favorite. Mild in recoil, it propels 250-grain bullets fast enough to enable any shot I’m likely to take. Wow, does it thump black bears.

I also have a long-standing love affair with the old .348 Win., slightly faster than the .358, so it’s another thumper. Unfortunately, the top-eject Model 71 requires a side-mounted scope, and current factory loads are now limited to 200 grains. The old 250-grain load is long gone, and component bullets are scarce in the oddball .348 diameter.

There are no flies on the faster .350 Rem. Mag. and .35 Whelen, which are ballistic twins. I just happen to prefer the lever-action platforms of the .348 and .358.

Select Black Bear Cartridges Ballistic Comparison

In the context of black bear hunting, bigger cartridges fall into two categories: the large-caliber brush cartridges and the faster medium magnums. The first group includes .444 Marlin, .450 Bushmaster, .45-70 and .450 Marlin.

We should also include pistol cartridges such as .44 Magnum, and the .460 and .500 S&W. All have been chambered in rifles, delivering higher velocity and more energy in longer barrels. They are all adequate for black bears, but they’re slow. This means rainbow trajectories, and they shed energy quickly. Perfect for hound hunting, excellent over bait, but poor choices for spot-and-stalk hunting.

Last spring, I shot my second Alberta bear, a nice 6.5-footer, with a .450 Bushmaster, which is pretty similar to the .45-70 in performance. Since he was hit hard on the shoulder, I expected the bear to go down and stay down. He bounced back up, started to run. By then I had the bolt worked, and I was swinging on him when he rolled out from under my sight picture.

Then we have the versatile medium bores: the faster .33s, 9.3s, .375s. They’re not essential, and there’s no point in discussing any of the over-.40 cartridges intended for African dangerous game and suitable for Alaskan brown bears. Except to say this: If you happen to have a rifle you like chambered to anything in these groups—and shoot it well—be assured it will work wonders on the largest black bears that walk.

I shot an Idaho black bear on the point of the shoulder with a 286-grain Hornady from a Montana Rifles 9.3x62. It was an average-size bear, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a bear go down so hard or so fast. On some occasions when I’ve used a .338 Win. Mag. or .375, I’ve also been hunting either grizzlies or brown bears or been in their country. That makes a difference.

Not so long ago, I got a note from a reader in Pennsylvania. It’s XXL bear country, but the short fall season is spot-and-stalk, and success is low. He’d read something I’d written, realized that he owned a .375 H&H and decided to carry it. He found a big bear track in fresh snow and followed it to a large blowdown. As he approached, the bear boiled out of the tangle and rushed downhill straight at him. His .375 settled the matter at close range. The bear weighed in at more than 600 pounds.

The point of the note was to thank me—otherwise he’d have been carrying his .30-30. Maybe he could have stopped it, but I’m certain that, with good shot placement, bigger guns are more reliable for XXL bears.

Well, I’ve got to get on to bear camp. I don’t have a magnum on this hunt. With its extra-heavy bullet, my old .303 should do the job, and I have no concerns about the .500 S&W carbine. I just hope that, over the next few days, a monster bear steps out of the woods.

A black bear walks near a treeline.
While average-size bears like this one are common, a really big one could be two to three times this size—so be prepared with a cartridge capable of making a clean kill, regardless of what method you use to hunt them.

The Sight Question

Bears are most active in the late afternoon, and bigger, older bears often come late. You must think about low light. Distance-wise, iron sights should be okay when you’re in a blind over bait, but not when the light starts to fade.

A couple of years ago, in Idaho, I really wanted to take a bear with a new-to-me Winchester 71 in .348. The last night, I hedged my bet, stashing a scoped rifle in the blind. Sure enough, a decent boar came out shortly after sundown. The bait was in heavy shadow, light going fast. I simply couldn’t resolve the aperture sight. I quietly put down the old lever gun and grabbed the scoped rifle and killed the bear.

Over bait, low-power scopes—preferably with illuminated reticles—and red-dot sights are probably best. But it depends on how the blinds are sited.

Hound hunting is different. The shot will be extremely close, from point-blank to a couple dozen yards in a tall tree. Optical sights aren’t needed. Most houndsmen I know strongly discourage use of scopes because of the tunnel-vision effect and the necessity to be certain the dogs are clear.

The rifle for spot-and-stalk bear hunting must wear a clear, bright scope. Since I don’t believe in long shots on bears, big magnification isn’t needed. The good old 3-9X should be plenty. However, whether bear, boar or buffalo, there’s something about dark animals that confounds the human eye. An illuminated reticle speeds and simplifies shot placement.




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