As with all matters of ballistics, when it comes to selecting a rifle caliber for black bear, there's no shortage of debate. If you already own a rifle you've used to hunt deer or other big game, there's a good chance it will work just fine for black bear. But, if you're looking for optimization and considering buying a new rifle for bear, there are some important factors to consider. As you'll see, the "perfect" black bear caliber depends largely on the specifics of your hunt. In this article, we'll discuss the minimum caliber for black bear, common calibers, choosing a caliber by tactics and size of bear, and bullet selection.
The first thing to remember about selecting a caliber for black bear is the undisputed fact that shot placement will always be the most important factor in taking down a bear. While there certainly are good reasons to choose larger calibers, compensation for poor shooting is not one of them. You need to be able to place the bullet where you want it to go and be confident in your ability to do this consistently. With that in mind, let's start by looking at some rules of thumb for the selection process.
In general, the .270 is widely considered the minimum caliber necessary to cleanly kill a black bear. A minority of experts argue that the .25 caliber should be considered the minimum, but it's much safer to go with the .270 as the low end of the spectrum.
How about the maximum caliber? On the bear side of the equation, there really is no "maximum" because you want to achieve the most penetration possible and leave the biggest hole you can. However, on the hunter side, there is a definite maximum. Most experts recommend going with the largest caliber you can shoot well, with the emphasis on "shoot well".
As caliber increases, recoil generally increases right along with it. Too much recoil can lead to shooting problems such as anticipating the shot, flinching, jerking the trigger, and closing the eyes -- all of which can wreak havoc on shot placement.
As a rule of thumb, if you choose the largest caliber (.270 and up) that you can shoot well, you'll be in good shape for black bear hunting.
Some of the most common calibers for hunting black bear include:
If you already own a rifle in one of these popular calibers, it may indeed serve you perfectly well for black bear hunting, depending on the size of the bears you're hunting and the tactics you're using (more on that below).
There's one caliber on the list above that deserves special mention: the .30-06. If you go out and read all the books and articles published on black bear hunting, you'll notice one common thread that runs through most of the expert advice: it's hard to find a discussion of rifle calibers that doesn't include a .30-06 recommendation. While most sources provide a long list of cartridges that will work, they almost always include the .30-06 sooner or later. This holds true regardless of geographic location and tactics.
The .30-06 may not be the perfect black bear gun if you're planning on having a specialized rifle just for bear. But its unmatched versatility gives you the ability to hunt just about any big game in North America with one rifle. Because it's so popular, you'll never have any trouble finding ammunition, and you'll have over 130 different factory loads to choose from.
This isn't intended to be a .30-06 commercial. However, if you're looking for a proven rifle that will work for black bear as well as for countless other big game species, and you don't want to get bogged down in the opinion-heavy debate about the perfect caliber, then you really can't go wrong with the '06.
The next thing to consider when selecting a caliber for your black bear rifle is the size of the bears you'll be hunting. Black bears can vary substantially in size. In some areas, the average bear may weigh only 150 pounds. In Alaska, the black bears can easily average 400 pounds. There's even been bears shot in California that tipped the scales at over 800 pounds!
If you're hunting in Alaska, where the black bears can be the size of grizzlies, it's wise to gun up and go big on the caliber. If you're hunting in areas with thick cover, this applies even more urgently. In dense undergrowth, you don't want the bear you shoot to run very far because tracking it in the thick stuff can get dangerous. Larger bullets make it more likely the bear will go down fast.
Also, if you're in grizzly country, you want your rifle to serve double duty as grizzly self defense, and only the larger rounds are acceptable for this task.
So, if any of the above factors apply to you, many experts recommend going with a larger caliber like .338 or .375, or even bigger. However, make sure you can shoot these larger calibers confidently and without flinching -- shot placement will still be the most important element of success.
Another important consideration in choosing your black bear caliber is the tactics you plan on using in your hunt. This could be broken down into two categories: close quarters and longer range.
Close quarters bear hunting tactics include hunting over bait, hound hunting, and calling. The common denominator here is short shots that require a caliber that performs well at close engagement ranges. For hunting over bait, two very commonly used calibers are the .45-70 and the .450 Marlin. For hound hunts where you're covering lots of ground, many hunters prefer light, lever action rifles like the .30-30.
For calling bears, the above calibers would work well. However, there's a greater possiblity of shot opportunities in the medium range or longer, so a more all-purpose caliber like the .30-06 may serve you better, depending on the type of terrain you're hunting.
Longer shots fall under the tactic of spot-and-stalk hunting. In these open country environments, hunters typically opt for a flat-shooting cartridge that will maintain good kinetic energy at longer distances. Common calibers include 7mm Mag, .270 WSM, .280, .300 WSM, or one of the other various .300 magnums.
Once you've arrived at your choice of caliber, it's important to devote a similar level of consideration to choosing the right bullet. First and foremost, this is not a place to skimp on price and thus quality. Makes sure you use only premium bullets for hunting black bear. These more expensive bullets feature sturdy construction, deeper penetration, and more controlled expansion -- important features because black bears have thick hides and tough, dense muscles.
Some of the most popular makes and models include:
After deciding on the bullet, you need to choose the bullet weight. A common piece of advice from the experts is to use the heaviest bullet your gun is designed to shoot, provided, of course, you can shoot it accurately. As far as minimum bullet weight for black bear, the most commonly cited is 180 grain, with 150 grain also considered by many to be adequate (as long as you're shooting small or average size bears).
One word of caution: stay away from hollow point bullets. They're simply not a good choice for black bear because it's too easy for the bullet to simply explode in the bear's fat layer and not penetrate any farther. Also, bullets designed for rapid expansion on small, thin-skinned animals like pronghorn or Cous deer will not work well for black bear either.