What To Look For In A Brown Bear Rifle
April 09, 2012
On my first hunt for brown bear, I flew into Juneau and from there we headed by boat to the ABC islands area. The custom rifle I used wears a McMillan stock in the Griffin & Howe pattern and has a Lilja 23 1/2 inch barrel chambered to .358 Shooting Times Alaskan with a handload that pushed a Nosler 250-grain Partition at 2,950 fps. I killed a bear at 40 yards--with no backup because my guide's scope had fogged up and he didn't have irons.
I took my second brown bear in Alaska's Wood-Tikchik State Park using a pre-production Remington Model 700 in .300 Ultra Mag, several months prior to the introduction of that cartridge. My ammo was loaded with the 180-grain Nosler Partition at about 3,200 fps. The bear never moved from the spot where it took my first bullet at 65 yards, but I put in a couple more shots for good measure.
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The interior grizzly I took in April 2010 is one of my proudest hunting achievements. On that hunt I used a custom rifle in 7mm STW and a handload with the Federal 160-grain Trophy Bonded Tip bullet at 3,225 fps. With the rifle resting steady atop my daypack, I shot from 319 yards due to the open country we were hunting. The magnificent animal stumbled forward about 20 yards and dropped stone dead before I had time to chamber a fresh round.
None of this makes me an expert on the best rifles and cartridges for big bears, but by combining what I have experienced first-hand with a few things I have learned from experienced bear guides--along with a pinch or two of common sense--I do have a pretty darned good idea of what works and what does not.
Rule No. 1 to keep in mind is it can rain a lot in a lot of bear country, and for that you cannot beat a top-quality synthetic stock. A laminate stock is also a good choice; while it will likely be heavier than a synthetic stock, it can be stronger as well. The rifle's barreled action should be stainless steel or one wearing a rust-resistant coating.
A weatherproof rifle is just as important as rain gear that does not spring a leak during two weeks of thrashing through alders and devil's club. You don't have to have either one, but both will go a long way toward making your hunt enjoyable.
Alaska can be hard on rifles and even harder on riflescopes. A scope cover, whether it be store-bought or trimmed from an old automobile inner tube, keeps the lenses free of water, snow, mud and field debris.
When hunting in country where shots are likely to be at fairly close range, I prefer a fixed-power scope with the widest field of view available. Fixed power scopes in that category have become quite scarce. In variables, a magnification of 3X or 4X on the upper end and no more than 1.5X below is tough to beat.
Again, we are looking for maximum field of view inside 50 yards, and for that the Swarovski 1.25-4X with its 25-foot field at 25 yards is an excellent example. Same goes for the Weaver V1-3X (22 feet), Zeiss 1.5-4X (26 feet) and Schmidt & Bender Zenith 1.1-4X with 24 feet at 25 yards.
Those scopes also work fine in more open country, but for that I prefer a bit more magnification with anything ranging from 6X to 9X on the upper end plenty.
Most of the rifles I hunt with don't even have open sights, but I grew up with them and have never been able to entirely shed the nagging feeling that sometime, somewhere in the future I will find myself in a situation where my scope is damaged or has suddenly called it quits and my rifle wears no other option in sights.
I have a Marlin 1895 in .50 B&M Alaskan, and its Weaver V1-3X scope is held in place by a SSK T/SOB base and Warne Maxima rings. The combination is extremely durable, it allows the scope to be quickly detached and yet it returns to zero when reattached. Talley and Leupold also offer quick-detach mounts, and the old Pivot Mount is still available from Weaver.
This type of mount combined with rugged iron sights is not something everyone needs for every occasion, but even today it is not a bad idea on a rifle that will be used in country where the knocks are hard and the weather brutal.
As a rule, the grizzly is bigger than the black bear although some bagged by hunters each year are actually smaller than the larger black bears taken. Interior grizzlies usually run 350 to 500 pounds, although a mature boar fattened up for hibernation can easily weigh 200 pounds more.
I do not think a grizzly is any more difficult to kill than a black bear weighing the same, but an important difference between the two is, if wounded, the grizzly is more likely to shoot back, as it were.
Depending on age, coastal grizzlies--or brown bears as they are commonly called--usually range from 500 pounds on the small side to 1,000 pounds or so for a really good boar. They are usually bigger than their interior brothers, mostly because they have better food, milder weather and a shorter hibernation period. Here again, there are exceptions: The interior grizzly I took in 2010 was actually larger than the average brown bear taken on the coast.
Mountain grizzlies are often taken in relatively open country, and since shots can be at greater distances than on the coast, there is usually ample time to take a steady rest while squeezing off a killing shot. The .270 Winchester and .30-06 have put a lot of furry rugs in front of the fireplace through the years, so there's no arguing the fact that either will get the job done with proper bullet placement.
I could probably be talked into using the .270 loaded to 2,800 fps with the Nosler 160-grain Partition, but I would be a happier hunter with the .30-06. While I consider it a bit light, it is the practical choice for a hunter who cannot handle more recoil. A deep-penetrating bullet weighing 200 or 220 grains at 2,600 to 2,700 fps from the .30-06 placed into a vital area will always be more effective than a bullet fired from a more powerful cartridge but placed around the fringes.
Virgil Umpenhauer, who has outfitted for grizzlies in the high country since 1987, recommends the various 7mm and .300 magnums loaded with premium-grade bullets weighing a minimum of 160 grains for the former and 180 grains for the latter. Some hunters prefer larger calibers, with the .338 Winchester Magnum a favorite, and if that's what makes them happy I am all for it.
Other cartridges that I would consider for all-around brown bear hunting--where shots can range from danger close to a couple hundred yards--include the .338-06, .35 Whelen and 9.3x62. Regardless of the cartridge used, the bullet must be fully capable of handling an extremely difficult task.
The brown bears I have taken were within range of a lever-action rifle chambered for a powerful cartridge. I have already bagged my share and will likely leave the rest for other hunters to enjoy, but should I someday change my mind I will be tempted to use a lever-action just for the fun of it.
The .45-70 loaded to 1,900 fps or so with a good bullet weighing around 400 grains should work. Then we have the .348 Winchester with a 250-grain bullet at 2,300 fps. I have something bigger in mind. My Marlin 1895 in .50 B&M Alaskan pushes a 500-grain bullet along at 1,950 fps, which is a tad faster than Winchester's .458 Magnum load in my Model 70. That might just be enough to handle a very large brown bear out to about 150 yards.
I have proven to my own satisfaction that a .300 magnum loaded with the right bullet will get the job done, and while I am not totally convinced that a step or two up in bullet weight and diameter makes a great difference in performance, I will have to admit doing so increases my confidence level.
I like the .338 Winchester Magnum loaded with a 250-grain bullet at 2,800 fps, and I am even more fond of the .358 Shooting Times Alaskan (which I developed) loaded with the same weight bullet at 2,950 fps.
For that matter, one of the .416s will kill the biggest of bears awfully dead. But when all is said and done, the grand old .375 H&H Magnum with a 300-grain bullet at about 2,600 fps has long been our classic brown bear cartridge, not only among hunters but among guides as well. Regardless of what cartridge is chosen for use on the big bears, bullet performance and placement far outweigh everything else in importance.