What is the best caliber rifle to use for killing a bear, regardless of the species? The biggest one you can comfortably carry and shoot accurately. That’s the advice I have been given by a couple of Alaska’s finest bear guides, and after years of killing bears, I have finally accepted that advice as gospel and you should too.
During the early part of my three decade hunting career, I managed to put down my share of Black Bears. I have killed bears with a .30-06, a 7mm, .280, and with my bow. I was fortunate to never have lost any in my early years, due to poor shot placement, so I always assumed that killing bears was relatively easy as long as you hit the target where you were aiming. In fact, killing bears never occupied my mind until on fall day when I actually lost one.
I was hunting with a Remington 870 slug gun that was finely tuned from many seasons of Illinois deer hunting. I had a blackie at around 50 yards broadside. I aimed, I shot and he ran off…for good. I found some blood after miles of walking in grids and circles, but I eventually gave up looking for him after two days. I had no idea what happened, but I learned a hard lesson: keep shooting until a bear is down.
After that day, I also realized that I might have just been lucky on some of my previous bear kills. It is human nature to overlook the dangers or mistakes of our actions when they end up working out in a good way. While guiding big game, I have had more than one client get totally lucky with a kill shot and the only way they acknowledged the mistake was a simple shrug while admiring their trophy.
Bears are big boned and have smaller vital areas, so even if can poke a shot through the right place most times, you can never account for unseen obstructions in the shape of limbs or grass, and you can never anticipate when an animal suddenly turns or moves up or down. No shot is a sure thing and the bigger caliber you have to follow through, the more success you are going to have.
Sometimes bad things happen and after having to sort out a few wounded bears in my lifetime, I have come to the conclusion that you need to be able to put a satisfactory round in a spinning bear once in a while that will go through the whirling ball of bones, hide and meat. Sure, a deer rifle can kill a bear but a bear caliber will ensure that you can handle the job no matter what situation unfolds after that first shot.