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The Best Bear Gun?

December 8, 2022
Kevin "KJ" Jarnagin

I took an adventure into my own hands, selecting bear country as the destination. I'm not pursuing Kodiak brown bear, but it's not lost on me that surprising a massive brown bear isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Bear medicine shouldn't be taken lightly. The selected spray or firearm carries the weight of safety and getting home safely to those you love.

Close your eyes and imagine your bear attack. Which gun is in your grasp? In what position did you draw? Both questions have wildly different opinions depending on who you talk to. So, what’s the best bear gun, and do you even need a gun?  

Gun or Spray?

My first experience with bear spray was a bit lacking. I carried it throughout my Alaskan black bear hunt but wanted to better understand its effectiveness. So, in my infinite wisdom, I decided it was a good idea to test out the bear spray. By the way, this should be done before you trust your life. If we do it with our firearms, we might as well do it with the bear spray we carry.

I stepped off 20 feet from my target with a slight breeze at my back. As I squeezed the trigger, I thanked God for not having to use it to protect myself and others. A little dribble of bear spray flowed out of the canister, barely extending beyond my boots. It was clear this was spicy seasoning.

A firearm is a wise choice, but how do you select caliber, and how should you carry it? First, ask yourself how well you can shoot the firearm. This often allows you to select the best cartridge to carry in the backcountry. I’ve talked to several folks that carry a small, self-defense 9mm for bear protection. Why? Well, it’s because they are familiar with it and probably can shoot the tar out of that gun.

I chose the Springfield Armory XD-m Elite chambered in 10mm. I’m familiar with the XD-m Elite and am confident in its capability. The 10mm is a popular choice for bear protection for a good reason. Jeff Cooper designed the 10mm that incorporated all the characteristics he believed to be the ideal law enforcement round. Unfortunately, not everyone could handle the recoil impulse. Luckily for us backcountry hunters, the 10mm carried on and is suitable for protection from four-legged critters.

Where to Carry?

I’m on the outside looking in on this debate. My go-to positioning for holster placement is right on the thigh. Most folks begin to explain all the benefits of carrying with a chest rig, but I haven't found the right fit since I run a bino harness. One of the guys on the Kodiak trip carried a chest rig with a bino harness and never noticed the discomfort.

Safariland makes one helluva thigh rig. I spent about a month walking around the house with the SLS Tactical holster and XD-m Elite, drawing and dry-firing randomly. I'd have my arms full of laundry, drop everything to access the firearm, and practice my draw stroke. That sounds a bit extreme, but I don't have many reasons to carry a bear gun on my usual hunting grounds. Therefore, it made a lot of sense to practice, practice, practice.

The one complaint from the hunting crew about running a thigh rig was walking through the short alder patches. They didn’t like the way alder branches would hang on the holster. I never noticed or experienced this in large part due to the positive retention (Self Locking System) Safariland features in the holster. The gun firmly stayed in place without shifting.

I think I had more success with the thigh rig by having it set up correctly. It set at arm's length, and leg straps were tight. When I closed my eyes and envisioned a bear attack, I imagined being just as shocked as the bear. I have a knife to my bino harness and a gun on my thigh. I've got two forms of protection in two different locations. If I must access the blade, I'm in massive trouble. However, the firearm at arm's length on my thigh feels right and quick to me.

Safariland also offers an option for chest rig carriers. I have nothing against this form of carrying in the backcountry. The chest rig would be a comfortable option if I was hiking and didn't run a bino harness.

Make sure practice is on the agenda and run what's comfortable, no matter which rig you prefer to run. If you need a backcountry holster, Safariland makes some of the best. They also have quick detach mounts that allow you to shift from thigh to chest rig in the blink of an eye.

Final Verdict

The best bear gun to have is the one you don’t have to draw. We continue to have more wildlife run-ins, and just like in self-defense situations, the last thing we want to do is draw our firearms to protect ourselves. However, when push comes to shove, ensure you have a gun within arm's reach. ~ KJ


Kevin Jarnagin (KJ) hails from Oklahoma but quickly established Louisiana roots after joining the Gun Talk team. KJ grew up as a big game hunter and often finds himself in a different venture often. His early career had him working with one of the finest PR agencies in the outdoor industry – Blue Heron Communications. Before that, KJ molded the minds of business school students at the University of Oklahoma. Quickly learning he had to grow up sometime, KJ dedicated himself to the outdoors no matter what it took.

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