Handguns in the Backcountry: What, when, and why professional guides carry, and should you?

A 44 Magnum owned by one of the survey respondents

You don’t need to carry a pistol in the wilderness. No handgun ever made can stop a charging grizzly anyway. Automatics jam, and big revolvers are heavy and bulky as hell. Research shows that bear spray is more efficient as a defense against wild animals. The pistol or revolver in the backcountry is just so much dead weight, you’d better leave it at home. You can often hear these, or similar statements. How much truth is in them? To find out, we run a small survey among American hunting guides, and here’s what we learned.

To carry or not to carry?

100% of hunting guides who responded to our survey find a handgun useful for their guiding duties. More than half carry a pistol wherever and whenever they legally can. About a third said they carry a handgun in the course of their guiding duties only when they are not carrying a long arm, e.g. during archery hunts or fishing, and a tiny minority packs a handgun “usually, but not always”.

A .44 Magnum seems to be a non-negotiable piece of equipment for camping life in Alaska brown bear country. “Alaskan life has given me plenty of opportunity to use handguns in real scenarios, most of which happen within 25 yards of my house. Charging moose or bears, bears in my truck, bears in my house or barn, moose pinning me under a truck, a sow and cubs having a look while I am grilling burgers – all of these scenarios are real, each time they happen in the blink of an eye and I end up using whatever gun is the closest and that’s it!” – says Matt Moskiewicz of High Country Guide Service llc

attitude of hunting guides to handgun carry

But even in the more settled areas like Arkansas you may encounter a situation where you wish you’d had a pistol or revolver ready. Black bears and mountain lions, whose range now covers most of the USA, also present a certain level of danger. So are wolves and wolf/coyote hybrids. Moose can be very aggressive as well.

One other risk factor when a handgun may be more useful than a long gun is an encounter with a rabid animal. Rabies is fatal, and can be found in all mammals, including such innocent-looking creatures as squirrels and hedgehogs, but most aggressive attacks seem to come from coyotes, foxes, and similar animals. If a rabid animal bites you, and you don’t get treatment, you die, and the treatment for rabies is long, painful, and beset with rather bad side effects. Once the symptoms of rabies are obvious, there’s nothing to be done for the poor creature than to put it out of its misery as soon as you can, and a handgun is often the most convenient way of doing so, or protecting yourself from the charge.

And, of course, the ‘two-legged threat’ – people who are up to no good – are often worse than all grizzly bears combined. The 2020-2021 waterfowl season in Tennessee was tragically marked by a conflict between duck hunters, in which two hunters were fatally shot and the third, who is believed to have killed them, was later also found dead. This doesn’t mean you should see danger in every hunter you face afield, but you don’t only see hunters. Some illegal activities take place in the wilderness, and an unexpected encounter with people who’d rather shoot than risk going to jail is something you may need to be prepared for in certain parts of the world. For these encounters, a handgun can be invaluable.

Gun or Spray?

When it comes to carrying a gun in the backcountry, a grizzly or brown bear is the first animal that springs to mind. Indeed, brown a.k.a. grizzly bears are perhaps the most dangerous representatives of wildlife a hunter may run into in North America. Predatory, short-tempered, and big, they do present a big risk.

In certain areas of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, where grizzlies haven’t been hunted in over 50 years, the bruins lost all fear of humans, and often claim the carcasses of elk and deer that hunters kill. Such conflicts cost the lives of many bears shot in self-defense; a few years ago, a sow and a cub killed a hunting guide. While a rifle, and even a 12-gauge shotgun with slugs, is a more than adequate bear medicine, archery hunters are at a considerable disadvantage: bows and arrows are not very suitable weapons to fight off a bear charge.

There’s an often-quoted research paper that seems to say that you’re running a better chance of surviving a bear attack with pepper spray than with a firearm. The guides we surveyed do not seem to believe it was the case. As a matter of fact, when asked to agree or not with the statement “Bear spray is more efficient against a bear charge than a handgun”, 25% of our respondents disagreed, another 25% strongly disagreed, and the other 50% were on the fence – but none answered in the affirmative.

By contrast, even those of our respondents who consider handguns only when they can’t carry a long arm, like Chet Benson of Barefoot Adventures, Alaska, point out that guns can do everything that bear spray does, but not the other way round. “Bear charges don’t always happen out of nowhere and without warning” – says Chet. – “Having 6 shots or more at your disposal can mean that, depending on the situation, a warning shot can be fired and the noise might persuade a bear that it’s not worth it to come for you”.

Speaking of warning shots, some experts recommend to shoot at the ground between you and the bruin – the fountain of dirt raised by the impact of the bullet is more suggestive of danger than simply a bang of the weapon pointed skywards.

“Handguns are an absolute necessity in rural Alaska, however there are a few factors that might disqualify handguns for some people” – says Matt Moskiewicz “If carrying at the ready makes you feel uncomfortable in any way, if you cannot use a handgun at an expert level then handguns are not for you. You would be better off with bear spray or a well-trained biting dog.

“From a .22 up to a 44 it all works if you know the limits of the gun. I think for the average person the answer is a couple of rounds, when the target is really close. Remember the goal here is not necessarily to kill the bear – only to stop it killing you. If a bear knocks you down, and you pull out your 9mm auto and dump a clip in its face, congratulations you win! Yes, the bear might not be dead, but he doesn’t want to mess with you anymore. Can’t do that with pepper spray.”

45acp and 44 magnum

What Gun to Carry?

You can often hear that only the biggest handgun calibers, such as .454 Casull or even .500, are of any use in the backcountry. This is not how the guides we surveyed feel. None of them carries a real monster caliber handgun, but the .44 Magnum does seem to be the most popular choice. The .45 ACP runs a very close second. However, just as many people carry handguns chambered the .357 Magnum to .40 and .41 Magnum. The smallest caliber mentioned, by only one respondent, was 9 mm. A variety of makes and models were reported, including the good old M1911, Glock, and others. The smallest caliber that would be the absolute minimum for the conditions where they guided, according to the survey, would be .38 Special, .380 ACP, 9-mm short, etc.

“It’s been my experience that shot placement is more important than brute force of muzzle velocity or energy. I once had a client that was charged by a black bear boar while on stand. The client hit the boar in the skull above the left eye, stopping the charge but not the bear. The bear went down but immediately jumped back up. He took a second shot through the vitals and still ran 100 yards down ridge into a swamp thicket. (we recovered the bear). The client was shooting a .45-70 Gov’t and the head shot was at 75 feet or so. That bear should have dropped in its tracks. It turns out, the bullet passed through the meaty part of the bear’s head where the skull is a bit concave between the eye and ear. Proper shot placement would have made a big difference. Also, another benefit of carrying any sidearm afield in my region is that a handgun can be used as an additional piece of signaling equipment should a hunter get lost or hurt deep in the woods.” – says John, owner and operator of Tucker Ridge Outdoors in Northern Maine

“The most important thing is being familiar with the handgun you are carrying. Making sure to practice and being comfortable with shooting for when/if a situation arises” – the words of Jen Jenkins of Great Plains Outfitters pretty well sum up the opinion of the guides we surveyed. Most of our respondents agreed that the ideal situation is when you can carry your everyday carry gun as a wilderness protection gun. With proper ammunition, a 9-mm or .38 you shoot well would probably serve you better than a big Magnum gun bought for the occasion and fresh out of its factory package.

Minimal caliber preferences pie chart

Should You Bring Your Handgun to a Guided Hunt?

Now to the bad news. Most guides do not enthusiastically support the idea of their client packing a handgun in the backcountry. If you feel offended by that, ask yourself a simple question: Would I feel safe with someone whose proficiency with a gun is a mystery to me wielding a loaded weapon behind my back? Unless you’re suicidal, you’ll answer in the negative. So did the guides we surveyed.

Admit it: every guy feels he’s cooler than Dirty Harry as soon as his hand grips a Model 29 Smith & Wesson (girls tend to be more realistic in assessment of their skills). And he may well be, as long as it is about shooting blanks at stunts who read the script. Using a real heavily recoiling weapon in a critical situation is kind of different. Here is what you can do to practice and test yourself.

The first is Proof of Proficiency, that registered trappers in Canada have to pass to be granted a license to carry a handgun in the wilderness. The version adopted by British Columbia requires the applicant to draw the handgun from a holster and fire six rounds “in one continuous motion” at a 9-inch circle in 20 seconds. You must do six such series, from standing and kneeling positions, at 5, 10 and 15 meters. The kneeling position is important, because it brings you on the same level with a charging grizzly, so that you will be less likely to shoot over the animal as it comes towards you at full speed. If 15 out of 18 shots from each position hit the 9-inch mark, you pass.

A bit closer to the real thing, but also quite a bit more challenging, is the routine that John B Snow recommends in Outdoor Life. Place six targets, each with a 2.5” circle as an aiming point (think of it as a grizzly’s nose), at varying distances (from 50 to 5 feet away), and at varying heights (2 to 4 feet high). Take six shots at the targets starting from the farthest away to the closest – you have three seconds, and if you can score three good hits out of six shots, you get a passing grade.

To add a little excitement, make a small bet with a friend. And have the friend film your attempt. The video may convince the guide that you can be trusted with a firearm. Or, it may convince you that you may need to get some coaching to improve your shooting. In any case, before bringing your handgun for a backcountry hunt, discuss it with your guide. The chat feature on BookYourHunt.com is great for the purpose, as it would fix whatever agreement you’ll make. Complete understanding of each other is essential.

Protection is in your Head

Guns don’t kill, people kill. This is the truth, but it also means that having a gun does not automatically offer you protection. It is your skills, your proficiency, your ability to assess risk, and to make the right decision in the split second when danger comes at you, that keep you safe. In the words of Matt Moskiewitz, “99% of my wildlife encounters result in a pleasurable viewing experience. Remember that in all shooting, the massive responsibility for every bullet fired can come with some harsh consequences for mistakes. Shooting is a last resort, education that promotes responsible and confident behavior is the best answer. Handguns are just there to help you out in some of life’s more critical moments”

When we asked the guides to pick one risk factor that trumped all others, the second most popular answer was “Things you can’t shoot (extreme cold, sudden floods, etc.)” The winner, by a long margin, was “one’s own stupidity”.

BookYourHunt.com team would like to express our gratitude to the hunting guides who contributed to this story. In addition to people and enterprises mentioned in the text, we would also like to thank Prairie Farm Homestead llc, RB Outfitters & Guide Service, Geneva Park Outfitters, Arctic Rivers Guide Service, Boggybrooks Outfitters llc.

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