The Perfect Alaska Bear Rifle
By: Michael Rogers
There is perhaps no other category of hunting accoutrement that will spur more interest or throw more gasoline on a proverbial fire than discussing the idealized bear rifle for an Alaskan hunter. Alaska has a rather significant population of all three bear species found in North America. The 49th State is home to more than 100,000 black bears, roughly 80% of the grizzly bears on the continent and a healthy number of polar bears. The white bears we can dispense with right away. As a marine mammal they’re limited to hunting by Native populations and that is likely too much of a niche for a publication such as this. It would be pure speculation on my part since I’ve never hunted a polar bear and will be unlikely to ever do so.
Alaskan bears are common quarry for hunters and often are the target of visiting sportsmen and women- many of whom have saved and dreamed their whole life for a close encounter with one of the denizens of the North. While a moose is far more dangerous statistically, bears represent one of the only truly dangerous game species on this side of the Atlantic. It is perhaps their reputation as an apex predator that generates the anxiety about the right rifle to shoot one with. Or perhaps it’s that being eaten is a primal fear that all humans have to some degree; regardless, when you talk about bear guns…Alaskan hunters generally take interest.
In previous pieces we talked about rifles to pursue moose and caribou. This one will follow the same sort of format with a caveat. While black bears and grizzly bears are both bears, they are fairly different in regards to hunting them. Even with grizzlies, there are Interior grizzlies and “brown bears” who are genetically identical but vastly different in behavior and appearance. A typical Interior grizzly will be somewhere between 5 and 7 feet and live a hard life in the mountains. They can get a bit bigger than that, but their sparse diet miles away from the coastal plenty dictates that it’s unusual. So we’ll treat the three bears to three different rifles.
Black bears are plentiful here and make for good eating when not feeding on fish. An alpine bear shot in a berry patch is perhaps the finest piece of wild game I’ve yet to eat. They typically are residents of mature forests although they are occasionally seen at higher elevations during the fall berry season. An average one will be about 5 feet and weigh something just over 200 pounds with coastal specimens and those in the Southeast panhandle of the state a bit bigger on average. A six foot black bear at 300 pounds is getting on the big side of big for type. Despite their reputation and the regularity with which black bears tend to predate on humans, they simply aren’t all that tough. Any reasonable deer rifle will cleanly take a black bear.
Given their forest dwelling proclivity, even mild rounds like the 30-30 and 35 Remington do just fine on black bears because the ranges tend to be short in many black bear hunting situations. Basically, any center-fire rifle from .243 on up to the .30-06 will be just fine if you shoot straight. If you like a scope sighted rifle, a scope with a lower power range and good light gathering is essential. My favorite is one of the 1-4x or 1-5x models with a 30mm tube. This is one category of Alaska game that the lever guns are well suited for since you aren’t generally working with long ranges and many Alaskans favor the 45-70 for anchoring black bears in thick forests.
Interior grizzlies live over a wide swath of the state but I tend to associate them with the mountains and they tend to be hunted in a bit more open country than black bears. Smaller than coastal brown bears, grizzlies tend to be more aggressive and often are hunted spot and stalk from greater distance. While I would go with a heavier rifle than I would for a black bear, there’s no need for going to a truly large rifle. While theres’s certainly no argument against the .270 or .30-06 with modern ammunition, I think the 7mm Remington magnum or any of the .300s make a lot more sense with grizzly bears. You might want a bit more power, but you’re more likely to want a bit more reach instead. I’d probably top out the perfect grizzly rifle at the .338 Winchester Magnum. For resident hunters, the .300 and the .338 magnums likely represent a huge percentage of rifles used on grizzly hunts or as “all around” choices, and for good reason. They work.
Coastal brown bears have a much easier life than their Interior cousins, with milder winters and a protein heavy diet of abundant salmon, they can grow to truly massive proportions. A “ten foot” bear seems to be the standard for a very large bear, although from the ground in proximity to one, an “8 foot” or “9 foot” bear seems pretty darn impressive. These bears aren’t just large but heavy as well, with many specimens going north of 800 pounds with regularity in the fall. Any way you slice it, a brown bear is just a lot bigger animal than either a grizzly or black bear is.
A look at the rifles professional guides use for brown bears generally starts at the .338 and goes up from there. The .375 Holland and Holland has been relatively standard for many years and the .416s and .458s make up a smaller but significant percentage. One legendary Kodiak guide even used a .500 Nitro Express. But guiding for bears isn’t the same thing as hunting them. Few people shoot a .458 or .375 really well and good shooting tends to eliminate all the drama that a big rifle needs to clean up. While plenty of residents use a .375 for hunting brown bears, a lot more use a .300 or .338 magnum and do just fine. In many cases, it’s the same .300 that they use for everything else so they have a lot of familiarity with it which tilts the balance in their favor.
If you’re unwillingly or unable to learn to handle a big bore rifle, it will be more of a hindrance than a help. Many professional brown bear guides want a client to use a rifle they’re more comfortable with rather than a new heavy rifle they haven’t shot all that much. I do think when you get to brown bears, a .30 caliber represents the minimum bore for serious consideration. For example, the biggest bear that any of my friends have taken was shot with a .308 Winchester and went over 10 feet square. It died with a single, well placed bullet. While brown bears wouldn’t be something you’d want to pursue casually with a light rifle, straight shooting makes up for a lot. I’d suggest the heaviest cartridge you can still honestly manage. For the fellows, that means after you set your machismo to the side.
Speaking of bullets, any of the bears are best taken with good quality modern hunting bullets. There are so many really good controlled expansion hunting bullets, there’s really no reason to not use one when pursuing Alaska’s great bears. Any of the good quality bullets like the Partition, TSX, Trophy Bonded or similar will be a good investment on a bear hunt.
For more reading on my thoughts surrounding the pursuit of both moose and caribou, the two articles below summarize my thoughts on rifle selection for those animals.