76% of Documented Handgun Defenses Against Bears Happened Since 2000

76% of Documented Handgun Defenses Against Bears Happened Since 2000

U.S.A. –-(AmmoLand.com)-– As I collected documented incidents of handguns fired in defense against bears, a pattern emerged. The recorded incidents of pistols being fired in defense against bears overwhelmingly occurred from 1960 onward.

I’ve found 125 documented cases where handguns have been fired in defense against bears, from 1890 to present. Two of the 125 cases were considered to be indeterminate as to success or failure. An additional 20 cases, where handguns were used with other lethal means, are considered combination defenses. They are not included in this analysis.

The total numbers include indeterminate cases, but not the combination cases. 95% of all the documented cases occurred from 1960 onward. 76% of all cases occurred from 2000 forward.

Three phenomena have contributed to create this lopsided effect.

First, while pistols were used against bears prior to the development of the cartridge firing handgun, (about 1840 – 1870) much of the use was in hunting. There the handgun was used as an ancillary device to long guns.

Bears tended to be hunted hard on the outskirts of settled areas. They were considered pests. Bounties were offered for them. Bears had no legal protection. Bears, of necessity, became wary of humans, and seldom attacked humans other than when hunted and wounded.

Second, few records were written of handguns being used against bears during this period. Some hunts were recorded, as were a few incidents involving bears. Most involved long guns. What few records there were are difficult to find. Records became more common after 1960, and much easier to find after the Internet information explosion in the 1990’s.

Third, while human populations continued to increase, bear populations declined, then started to increase, with the greatest increase from about 1960 onward.

To sum up, an increase in effective handguns, record keeping and the ability to search records, and increasing populations of humans and bears do much to explain the rapidly expanding number of documented cases of pistol defense against bears.

After the cartridge revolver became dominant, about 1870, the concurrent increase in the expansion of literacy and handgun use started to produce records.

In Meet Mr. Grizzly, by Montague Stevens, there are examples where a revolver was used to finish off a wounded bear.  It is clear from the examples shown in Stevens work, that by the 1880s, bears, even in the wilderness of New Mexico, were extremely wary of people. The number of bears were declining with unlimited hunting. Bears which survived did so by keeping far away from humans.

The first documented case of a cartridge revolver being fired in defense against a bear occurred about 1890, documented in the book “Colt on the Trail”.  In 1906 there is a case of a revolver being fired against a bear. It is unknown if the revolver was a cartridge or percussion firearm, or what caliber it was. It could not be determined if firing the revolver was successful or unsuccessful in driving off the bear. Between 1890 and 1959, we have recorded six documented cases, about 1 per decade.

Record keeping has increased enormously since 1960.

By 1960, several events had changed the landscape to increase both defensive uses of handguns against bears, and the recording of those incidents.

Alaska became a state. The population of humans was growing rapidly. The .357 and .44 magnums had been introduced and were gaining in popularity. Effective, reliable handguns were common. Conservation movements were calling for the management of bears as a game animal. Bear populations were starting to increase.  The 1973 listing of grizzly bears as an endangered species started to create a population of bears that did not fear humans. More people were documenting their experiences with bears. When the Internet became widely available in the middle 1990s, those incidents became significantly more accessible.

In the decade from 1960 to 1969, we have discovered five documented cases where a handgun was fired in defense against bears, nearly as many as the previous seven decades! The trend continued for the next three decades. From 1970 – 1979, five cases; from 1980 – 1989, five cases; from 1990 to 1999, eight cases.

The Internet changed everything. Several trends came together for a large increase in the documented cases of handguns being fired in defense against bears.

By 2000, a great many publications were being recorded on the Internet, making a discovery of documented defensive use of pistols exponentially easier. Bear populations of all three North American bears (black, grizzly, and polar) were increasing and thriving. Human populations were increasing and thriving. Bears were so well protected, that many had lost the fear of humans. By 2000, the trend to restore the right to bear arms was well underway. More people were carrying handguns.

For the decade 2000 to 2009, 30 documented cases of handguns being fired in defense against bears have been discovered.

For the decade 2010 to 2019, 55 documented cases of handguns being fired in defense against bears have been discovered. In 2020 and 2021, nine cases have been documented and discovered.

The national ban on carrying firearms for defense in national parks was removed in 2010. Three of the 64 documented cases since 2010 have occurred in national parks.

The trend indicates we should expect 5-6 new cases each year, on average, to be documented and discovered. Populations of bears and humans continue to increase. More people are carrying handguns for defense of self and others. The ability to communicate and record events continues to expand as never before.

A countervailing trend is the demonization of people who defend against animal attack.  This motivates people who fire a handgun in defense against a bear to keep their experience private, to avoid documentation out of fear of reprisal.

There is a strong bias against reporting when a handgun is fired defensively against a bear, and no human is hurt or killed. This is countered, in the case of grizzly bears, by federal law which makes it a misdemeanor to fail to report the defensive act. No such federal law exists for black bears. This implies a bias toward reporting grizzly bear incidents and against reporting of black bear incidents.

The bias against reporting black bear incidents is somewhat countered by increased ability to communicate, and by the understanding that factual knowledge of bear behavior is necessary for effective management of bear populations. As communication improves, more cases will be documented.

The number of cases remains insignificant compared to bear populations.

The discovery of 55 documented cases from 2020 to 2029 is a reasonable prediction.

About Dean Weingarten:

Dean Weingarten has been a peace officer, a military officer, was on the University of Wisconsin Pistol Team for four years, and was first certified to teach firearms safety in 1973. He taught the Arizona concealed carry course for fifteen years until the goal of Constitutional Carry was attained. He has degrees in meteorology and mining engineering, and retired from the Department of Defense after a 30 year career in Army Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation.

Dean Weingarten