Journals of early hunters and explorers (pretty much the same thing) of North America, especially the eastern part, are filled with accounts of bagging black bears. That the deeds were done with relatively small bore, underpowered round ball rifles proves that Ursus Americanus can be collected with rifles only marginally suited for whitetail deer.
Early Season Tactics
Unfortunately, these early writers were somewhat like some outdoor scribes of today who seldom publish any accounts of missed, wounded, or lost game.
Things are a bit tougher in most respects today. The fellow who buys a bear license jolly well wants to fill that tag as cleanly and simply as possible. Archery hunters labor under a self-inflicted handicap, but let me assert right now that I would rather have a good compound bow and top quality broadhead than a .40 caliber charcoal burner of 1800 vintage. Bears, even modest sized black bears which are the staple of today's bruin hunters, can provide enough thrills under the best conditions.
The general opinion concerning calibers suitable for taking black bear has long been made out as a simple affair. In the text of numerous shooting volumes you will find something like, "The .30-30 Winchester is adequate for deer sized game and black bear." While the venerable .30-30 has sent a vast number of bears of all persuasions off to the Great Beyond, it certainly would not be my first choice. That is especially true considering the number of better options around.
Backtracking for a second, let us take a quick look at why any old "deer rifle" might come up on the short end against a decent sized bear. In my neck of the woods, it takes a big whitetail to weigh in at 200 pounds. At the same time, I have shot only one black bear that weighed in at that mark or below and that was a camp pest in Canada several years ago. When you consider that one of these critters weighing better than 400 pounds is fairly common, you can see that the bear is the winner in the weight category. Very few ever look as if they are graduates of a Jenny Craig course, either.
Next is body composition. Deer are lightly boned and as a rule carry minimal amounts of extra fat around the vital organs. Bears tend to pack a lot of lard, especially during the fall prior to hibernation. Spring bears are substantially more lean, but you still have to poke through a lot of tissue and body mass on occasion.
A very good friend, let's call him Bill, was with me on an Idaho combination hunt and had taken a nice 6-point bull elk the first day with a 7mm magnum. He then switched to a .270 Winchester with 130-grain bullets for a crack at mule deer and quite naturally all but ran over a nice bear feeding on huckleberries on the slope above camp. Bill is an excellent shot, and he stuck his bullet just back of the bear's ribs on a direct line with the off-side shoulder. After two hours of painstaking tracking, we found where the animal had dropped off a steep rock face that we were unable to negotiate. Fat had plugged the entry wound so that the blood trail vanished, and penetration had been insufficient to produce a mortal wound. A larger entry hole, especially combined with broken bones and an exit wound would have put a different end on the story. I suspect that the bear survived.
This is not to cast stones at the .270 any more than at the .30-30 mentioned earlier. When all goes well, especially when a bear is treed or shot from a stand over bait, shot placement is not a great problem. Even pistol calibers from the .357 on up will get the job done when you have time to make a very precise delivery. However, there are times when a long-planned hunt may hinge on taking a shot at less than a perfect angle, or when a record book animal refuses to let you have that nice broadside shot. You need to be able to hedge your bets.
Most spring hunting in the lower 48 states and Canada is done at relatively short range. This generally coincides with the use of bait. Long range, high-potency rifles and cartridges are not necessary to handle these chores. It is true that in some of our Western states and parts of Canada you can spot, stalk and take an occasional long shot, but for now we are going to stick with the more common scenarios and equipment best suited for handling them.
While the bolt action and perhaps the autoloader in some areas have replaced the traditional slab-sided lever gun on whitetails, a fair number of Winchesters, Marlins, Savages and more modern Brownings still wind up in the woods each year. Given the fact that they are light, fast handling, and come in calibers providing adequate punch, they remain a personal favorite in terms of design. My particular pet is a Marlin 336ER in .356 Winchester caliber. That particular rifle is no longer produced, sad to relate, but Winchester will still sell you one from their Big Bore line.
Ballistically the .356 is nothing more than the almost defunct .358 and similar in performance to the even older .348 Winchester. The only practical difference that you will find between the two newer ones is a bit of a rim on the latter version which makes it more suitable for traditional lever action extractors. The case length is 2.015, the same as the .358 and its parent round, the .308 Winchester or 7.76x51mm NATO round. Working the short action, in this case the stroke of the lever, puts a fresh one up the spout quickly.
In terms of power, the .356 has a substantial edge over the fine old .35 Remington, another widely used black bear caliber. Where the .35 launches a 200-grain bullet at around 2,000 fps from a 20 inch barrel, the .356 pushes the same weight projectile at better than 2,400 and a 250-grain bullet at around 2,100. I was using the latter on a spring hunt in Colorado when a lovely cinnamon bear turned so that both shoulders were in line for a shot. The modest recoil pushed me off target due to a rather unusual shooting position, so I asked the guide what he had seen before my trophy disappeared downhill. "Four paws in the air," was his answer.
Another Winchester entry, the .375 fills the woods hunting needs quite nicely. It does not look especially great on paper, but the big 250-grain bullet is more than a match for any black bear - and most other kinds - now walking this hemisphere.
Other calibers used in lever guns which can be called into use are the .444 Marlin and .45-70 Government, both of which are available from Marlin and their excellent line of rifles. As factory loaded by Remington, the .444 carries a 240-grain bullet, which is little more than a souped-up .44 magnum. Handloads using bullets like the 275- and 300-grain Barnes softpoints add substantially to the punch of this cartridge.
The .45-70 suffers from the same problems that plague a few other calibers: too many old guns still in use. Factory loads are watered down to prevent lawsuits, but in a modern Marlin, Ruger or Browning rifle, the ancient "Guvmint" delivers more than a ton and a half of muzzle energy when loaded with something like the 400-grain Speer softpoint.
Both the .444 and .45-70 are genuine short range offerings, but if your shots are going to be under 150 yards they get the job done with dispatch.
In areas where I might possibly encounter a grizzly with an attitude problem while I'm looking for a black bear, the hands down choice from the family arsenal is a Remington 7600 pump in .35 Whelan. When stuffed full of factory 250-grain spire point bullets, it has more than 3,000 foot pounds of muzzle energy for pure penetration and stopping power, plus shoots flat enough to stretch out farther than 200 yards. Give an old duck and goose hunter a pump action and you know that he can fling follow-up shots out, practically on top of one another.
Okay, you have decided to go on a bear hunt this spring. You might have your chance at point blank range, or a big boar might be sunning on a hillside a fair distance away. Let us also assume that you do not have an infinite number of rifles and calibers from which to choose. The country is rough, so a heavy big bore is out of the question. You're also going to be back in the hinterlands where, if your ammo is lost in transit, a problem could develop. The rifle needs punch, a decent trajectory, yet you really do not care for recoil.
Weighing all the factors which could enter into the equation, the prosaic .30-06 Springfield is a difficult act to follow, and this caliber loaded with 180-grain bullets has taken an awful lot of bruins of all persuasions. Perhaps no rifle and caliber is perfect for all the situations you might encounter; weight and power versus recoil, bullet penetration versus down range accuracy, etc. The '06 has proven it can get the job done time and again, so do not feel that you have a problem if that is what's hanging on the rack already.