Best Bores For Big Bears
Author: Craig Boddington
You need raw power, sure - but you might need some reach as well.
In order to understand why powerful cartridges are in order for the biggest bears, you need to see one of these creatures up close and personal. The problem with this is that most hunters who go in search of one of the really big and genuinely dangerous bears-grizzly bear, coastal brown bear, polar bear - haven't actually seen one in the wild until the first sighting on a long awaited hunt. By then it's altogether too late to rethink your choice of rifle and cartridge, so it's best to think it through up front.
It's easy to say that a .30-06 with a good bullet will take any game in North America, including the big bears. This is a true statement, proven by many hunters during the last 96 years. If a .30-06 will work, then any of the several magnum .30's mated with heavy, well-constructed bullets will work even better. Also true. It's even true that, if everything is perfect, you can get away with a .270 or a 7mm. In my opinion there are differences between what you can get away with (if everything is perfect), what will work, and what is ideal.
To fully understand these differences you have to appreciate how big a really large bear can be. A grizzly bear can weigh as much as a 1000 pounds; an outsized specimen of his better-fed coastal cousin can weigh 50 percent more. Polar bears tend to be longer and leaner, with the biggest bears probably weighing somewhere in between. Weight alone is just one factor, but it means that the biggest bears weigh more than most moose and about the same as African Cape buffalo. We don't consider moose to be particularly tough or difficult to kill . . . but (and rightfully so!) we consider Cape buffalo among the toughest and most dangerous game on Earth. Most African countries that have Cape buffalo require a minimum of .375 H&H as the legal hunting caliber.
Working in a vacuum, with knowledge only of a bear's potential physical size, you could consider an ideal moose cartridge to be just right . . . or you could consider an ideal Cape buffalo cartridge to be just right. If you have seen a big bear up close, especially if you've skinned one, you could make a more educated decision. Depending on the time of year, a bear may or may not have a thick layer of fat, which won't turn a bullet but will quickly clog a wound and preclude a blood trail. In the spring, the layer of fat will have been depleted during the bear's long winter nap-but you'll still be amazed at the thick hide armoring the neck and shoulders. Underneath you'll see a network of incredibly powerful muscles; "dense" is a good word for a bear's flesh. And then you'll find the powerful skeletal structure needed to support an animal of such great weight. Working together, these corded muscles and stout bones can propel a 3/4-ton bear as fast as any racehorse, for short distances!
Bears are not only large and strong; they are also tough and tenacious. They are not impressed by foot-pounds, nor by firepower. Always and forever, the two key ingredients for stopping a big bear are shot placement and bullet performance: The bullet must be properly directed into the vitals; and the bullet must be tough enough to get through hide, fat, muscle, and bone to reach its destination. Given these things, a .270 will certainly do the job-but an animal of this vast size and potential for mayhem needs much more.
On the surface, the big bores that might be used for Cape buffalo would seem ideal, and indeed many Alaskan guides carry .458's, and a few carry big-bore double rifles - for backup. However, for the hunter in search of the best trophy bear his effort and luck will show him, the requirements are different. The bear guide must be prepared to stop the biggest bear at point - blank range in the alders. The bear hunter should be prepared to do this-but he must also be prepared to take (and make!) any reasonable shot when the bear of his dreams appears. On dangerous game you want to get as close as you can - but wind, brush, other obstacles, and time sometimes dictate that you can't get as close as you would like. In more open habitat, where grizzlies and polar bears are hunted, a 250-yard shot may not be out of the question. Even in the generally thicker coastal habitat there are openings; on a big bear a 200-yard shot is very far, but sometimes that's all there is.
So, an open-sighted big bore is out of the question, and even if scoped is a poor choice. To me there are just three ideal calibers for big bears, caliber meaning bullet diameter: .338, .375, .416. Before the rifle cranks among you start picking me apart, these three bore diameters are not alone. The .35-caliber could be excellent, but there are no commercial .35-caliber cartridges that have enough velocity for the longest potential shot. The European 9.3x64mm (.366-caliber) is excellent, but is rare in this country. There are also a number of wildcats and older cartridges - but no suitable, current, commercial cartridges-between calibers .400 and .423 are available. So, for the average bear hunter, the .33's, .375's, and .416's represent the best choices.
Within these calibers there are many suitable cartridges. Of at least equal importance, there are also plenty of good bullets that will provide the combination of deep penetration and expansion that you want, either in factory loads or as component bullets. All three of these calibers, mated with good bullets, provide the penetration and stopping power you want - plus a trajectory flat enough to take a slightly longer shot if you must.
At the lower end, caliber .33, good choices include the .338 Winchester Magnum, .338 Remington Ultra Mag, .340 Weatherby Magnum, and .338-.378 Weatherby Magnum. For big bears, choose a 250-grain bullet of strong construction. "Sectional Density" (SD) is the relationship of a bullet's diameter to its weight, a simple ratio that has much to do with penetration. Given equal construction, a high SD means deeper penetrating qualities, and an SD approaching or exceeding .300 is very high. A 250-grain .338 has an SD of .313, which is greater than the 300-grain .375's SD of .305. Yes, this means that, if bullet construction is similar, a 250-grain .338 bullet will outpenetrate a 300-grain .375. I like the .33's for big bears. They will do the job up close, but they also tend to have somewhat higher velocities than the bigger bores without bone-crushing recoil, making them more versatile for the longer shots.
At the upper end, the .416's are devastating bear medicine. The .416 Rigby and .416 Remington are ballistic equals; their 400-grain bullets (SD of .330) at 2400 fps fly flat enough to enable shooting at something beyond 200 yards without great difficulty. The .416 Weatherby Magnum is much faster and flatter shooting and thus even more versatile - but the recoil is much greater, so that one isn't for everybody. Collectively, all of the .416's are suitable for the largest game on earth. Shot placement and bullet performance remain absolute requirements, but a .416 will certainly anchor a bear with greater authority than any lesser cartridge.
In the middle is the .375. Since the .375 H&H's introduction in 1912, it has stood as the world's most versatile caliber. With the right bullet it will take any game from large to small, and under almost any conditions. For generations, the .375 H&H has been an irrefutable, unarguable stand-by for hunting the big bears, and it remains so today. It should also be remembered, however, that the great .375 H&H isn't the only .375-caliber cartridge. Among standard factory cartridges it is joined today by the faster .375 Remington Ultra Mag and .375 Weatherby Magnum (ballistic equals); and the still-faster (and harder-kicking) .378 Weatherby Magnum. You could argue that the lighter, faster 270-grain bullets are adequate, and you'd probably be right - but in .375 I stick with the tried - and - true 300-grain bullet.
Which is best? All of them! The closer you are, the better the .416's; the farther you are, the better a fast .33-with the .375's a wonderful compromise. But all of the standard (and non-standard) cartridges within each caliber will handle any sensible shot on a big bear - and, if you do your part, will stop a charge if necessary. To some extent your personal tolerance for recoil comes into play, with your bottom line being the combination of the rifle and cartridge that you shoot best and which gives you the most confidence.
A Word On Bullets
Regardless of which caliber and which cartridge you choose, ultimately it's the bullet that will do the work. You want expansion, because bullet expansion transfers energy and creates a larger wound channel-but you must have penetration to reach the vitals, and on a big bear you need a lot of it! Good, deep-penetrating bullets that come readily to mind include Nosler Partition, Swift A-Frame, Winchester Fail Safe, Barnes X, Trophy Bonded Bearclaw, and Woodleigh Weld-Core. However, and this is critical, the smaller the caliber and/or the higher your cartridge velocity, the tougher your bullet should be. A really good bullet makes a smaller caliber much more effective. And bullet performance is always relative to velocity; the more velocity you have the tougher the bullet must be in order to hold together and penetrate.
So, in lighter calibers than my three top picks you want the best controlled-expansion bullets money can buy - and you also want the very best bullets in the fastest .33's and .375's. As velocity drops, the absolute requirement for the best bullets diminishes. For instance, if loaded in the .375 H&H any 300-grain softpoint is a good bear bullet; and any 400-grain .416 softpoint is a good bear bullet in the .416 Rigby or .416 Remington Magnum. Handloaders have a whole universe of bullets to choose from, but today the manufacturers offer considerable variety, including many of the very best bullets once available only to handloaders. So whether you reload or shoot factory ammo you have choices. Stick with heavy-for-caliber bullets to get a high, penetration-enhancing SD. Make sure you understand the performance properties of the bullet you choose; on bears you want bullets that will absolutely penetrate.
Arguably the most experienced hunting writer alive today, Craig Boddington has hunted big game in 29 American states, five Mexican states, and seven Canadian provinces . In addition to his vast North American hunting background, he has been on 46 African safaris and has thoroughly hunted 25 different countries, effectively spanning all six continents.
He currently lives on California's Central Coast when he's not away hunting or on duty with the U.S. Marines. His work includes numerous magazine articles as well as 14 books on hunting and shooting (several of which can be obtained through Cabela's).
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