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The Best Calibers for
Bear Hunting

Black bear walking

Selecting the best caliber for bear hunting can mean the difference between harvesting a bear or not. It can also mean the difference between life and death when a surprise encounter with a grizzly takes place out on the trail. With the hundreds of calibers and bullet sizes available in boxed ammunition, hunter’s choices may seem endless in finding that best caliber for bear hunting.

There are black bear seasons in most states, while grizzlies are a protected species in the lower 48 states, but are legal to hunt in Alaska. The Kodiak bear of Alaskan fame, is a subspecies of the grizzly. The caliber needed for each species is vastly different.

Grizzlies may be protected from hunting in the contiguous states, but several are killed every decade by hunters when a rogue bear will attack a single person, or a group. When that time comes, it is a matter of life and death for the individual and for the bear. Carrying the best caliber for bear hunting, one heavy enough to drop this largest of North American predators is mandatory before you hit the field.

Black Bear Calibers

Black bear don’t present themselves at distances as do other big game species. Spotting a black bear is often difficult in open country, that’s why so many states allow baiting. The idea is to take a shot below a tree stand, or outside a hidden blind when the bear comes to the bait. In the old west, they tied goats or old mules to posts in the woods and waited for grizzlies, but that practice is now illegal, and just a fading memory.

Since close range is often the only way you can harvest a black bear, you don’t need huge caliber, high powered cartridges such as the .300 WIN Mag, or the .338 Lapua to take a black bear. A standard .25-06, 6.5 Creedmoor, 7mm Mag, .270, .308 or .30-06 will usually do the trick with black bear.

Best Black Bear Calibers
  • .25-06
  • 6.5 Creedmoor
  • 7mm Mag
  • .270
  • .308
  • .30-06

Alaskan – Kodiak / Grizzly Calibers

Alaskan bear hunting is different. The Kodiak requires that larger caliber weapon. The .25-06 to 7mm Mag will deliver enough energy to take a bear at very close range, less than 150 yards, but Kodiak hunting isn’t usually done in the heavy cover you find with black bear habitat in the lower 48 states. Kodiak bear often present themselves in more open settings, along river banks, in open meadows and on the edge of heavily treed areas. You can get longer shots in Kodiak hunting than you will with black bear hunts.

Experienced Alaskan hunting guides suggest cartridges of at least 2,000 foot pounds of energy on the target at distance for their clients. Sportsman’s reinforces this idea in listing grizzly in their toughest game category, which also carries the 2,000 pound rating.

grizzly bear on a mountain

Kodiak bear, and their overriding main species, the grizzly, are heavily muscled, large bodied animals that require greater energy than any other game animal. They’re also the only game animal along with the cougar that can kill the hunter as easily as the hunter can kill them. A popular caliber for Kodiak hunting begins with the .308 and .30-06 at close range, then moves to the .300 WIN Mag, and includes the .300 Ultra Mag, the .338 Win Mag, the .338 Lapua and the Ruger .375 at sporting distances of 400 yards. When hunting large bears, more firepower is always the best idea. Alaskan bear hunting is the closest thing a North American hunter can experience in comparison with African safari style hunting for Cape buffalo and other dangerous species.

Best Kodiak/Grizzly Calibers
  • .308
  • .30-06
  • .300 WIN Mag
  • .300 WIN Ultra Mag
  • .338 WIN Mag
  • .338 Lapua
  • .375 Ruger

What Does it Take to Stop a Bear?

It’s more than the energy of the bullet. The most powerful cartridge you can find is useless if you can’t hit the target, and the target to kill black and grizzly bears is vastly different. We will discuss the best bullet to use with each caliber for each species, and review the best locations for a kill shot too.

As you’ve read above, it takes a little firepower to stop a marauding grizzly. A wounded bear is even more of a threat than an enraged healthy bruin. A tale from two centuries ago relates the first firearms incident with a grizzly in present day North Dakota when men from Lewis and Clark’s expedition put 17 .58 caliber musket balls into a big grizzly before it fell.

Grizzlies in Wyoming are a real threat in the western counties of the state as the bear population recovers from endangered species status and they increase their range. Bear encounters are now common in Wyoming. The story below is an example of what can happen when humans encounter bears who have no fear of man.

The two calibers involved in this encounter are both listed above, and expanded on in a section below regarding bullet size in association with these calibers. One rifle was easily qualified as one that worked with the toughest game, the .300 Win Mag, while the other, a .270, meets the 2,000 foot pound energy requirement at ranges less than 200 yards. This encounter was much closer than anyone would ever want to experience.

A Grizzly on the Attack Near Teton National Park

My friend, David Trembly, a football, wrestling and track coach at Dubois High School where he also teaches math was guiding his 21-year old son Grant and 18-year old son Joel on an elk hunt in the area between Jackson Hole and Grand Teton Park on Thanksgiving Day 2012 when they startled a boar grizzly trying to cache a dead elk.

Grizzly Bear growling

David was in the lead when the bear charged. Grizzlies are notorious “Bluff chargers” but this one wasn’t bluffing. David popped the top off a can of bear repellent and sprayed it directly into the oncoming grizzly’s face. “I could see drops of spray dropping off his nose and the roof of his mouth,” David said.

As he prepared to take the full charge of the bear. His son’s opened up. Grant fired three quick .300 Win Mag shots from his Remington 700 CDL, while Grant hit the bear twice with a pair of .270 shots from his Remington 700 BDL. The 534 pound boar slid to a stop, 11 feet in front of their dad. A round from each of the boy’s rifles hit the bear in the heart.

A .300 Win Mag is powerful enough for a grizzly a long ways, the .270 not as much, but the boys fired the first time at 40 yards, hitting the bear, and the second and third times at just 12 to 15 yards. Even the lighter .270 had more than enough punch at that range. Witnesses who heard the shots but didn’t see them thought they’d only fired three times, since a couple were nearly simultaneous.

A subsequent investigation by the Wyoming Game and Fish and the U.S. Department of Wildlife cleared the trio of any charges, calling the incident self-defense.

Grizzlies and Handguns… Don’t Shoot Him, You’ll Just Make Him Mad

Large caliber weapons are an absolute necessity in stopping a charging grizzly. There is no evidence that something as powerful as a .45 ACP or a .44 Magnum could stop a grizzly. The hottest .45 ACP round delivers less than 1,000 pounds at 50 yards, and the legendary .44 Magnum delivers around 1,300 pounds at the same distance.

The Shot is as Important as the Cartridge

Two men with a downed bear

Too often hunters worry about the energy in a round, how accurate it is over distance and whether it can drop a bear effectively from just a few yards away to almost half-a-mile distance. These are all good things to know, but hitting a bear where it counts is equally, or often more important.

Prime Target Area on a Kodiak / Grizzly

Grizzly bear remains, whether taken by a hunter, or dying from natural causes are given complete autopsies by game and fish agencies in the Rocky Mountain region. Many times during the process flattened lead bullets are discovered along the rib cage, and often in the front of the skull. Grizzlies are tough, incredibly tough, and with heavier bones, and much denser muscle mass than other game species it often takes a heart / lung shot from the side to drop these bears with a single shot. Many hunters mistakenly shoot head on, striking the very dense breastbone and doing little damage, or they’ll fire a lighter caliber weapon, often a handgun at the head of a charging bear. A hit in the head will often send the bear on a reverse course, but it won’t always kill the bruin.

Placing the shot where it can do the most damage, whether you’re hunting with a high powered 2,000 pound plus energy cartridge, or desperately trying to defend yourself is the key.

Targets on a Black Bear

For black bears, it’s not as important to get a specific shot. A head shot, side heart / lung or a head on heart shot through the brisket will drop a black bear as quickly as it will an elk or a moose.

Required Bullet Weight in Popular Bear Calibers

The best bear calibers we listed above can vary greatly in energy depending on the size of the bullet used. Just because you’re shooting a .30-06 doesn’t mean it will have the power at distance to stop a Kodiak bear if you’re firing a lighter weight bullet. With a heavier bullet, it has more than enough energy to harvest one at 100 yards. You need to pay as much attention to the weight of the bullet fired, as you do in the caliber you’re firing.

Bullet Size and Caliber – A Deadly Bear Combination

In the section of calibers listed below we’ll list the size bullet it takes to deliver 1,000 pounds of energy for black bear at 400 yards, then do the same thing for grizzlies, only at double the power at 400 yards with 2,000 foot pounds of energy.

Best Black Bear Calibers Minimum 1,000 foot pounds at 400 yards
.25-06 117 grain
6.5 Creedmoor 129, 140, 143, 147 grain
.270 130, 140, 150 grain
7mm Mag 139, 152, 159 grain
.308 150, 165, 178 grain
.30-06 150, 165, 180 grain
Best Kodiak/Grizzly Calibers Minimum 2,000 foot pounds at 400 yards
.308 Only good to 200 yards with 165 or 178 grain
.30-06 Only good to 300 yards with 165 grain
.300 WIN Mag 165, 180, 200 grain
.300 WIN Ultra Mag 180 or 200 grain
.338 WIN Mag 180, 200 or 225 grain
.338 Lapua 250 or 285 grain
.375 Ruger 250 or 270 grain

The Different Types of Bears… They’re Not all Yogi

Black Bears

Black bears look pretty much alike, unless you’re an animal taxonomist or a state or federal fish and game bear specialist. If you have the keen eye of a profession, there are 16 sub-species of black bears identified in North America. The differences are subtle, with a few having a slightly lighter coat, or possibly smaller ears, or a snout that is marginally different than the species as a whole.

Black bear

Black bears are smaller than grizzlies, or the grizzly sub-species in Alaska and Canada, the Kodiak. A black bear is an omnivore, living on a diet similar to a raccoon, an animal they share similar habitat with.

A black bear is a timid animal by nature. They avoid human contact when they can, but when people feed them illegally, they often lose their fear of man and become “nuisance bears.” A nuisance bear is one that my knock over garbage cans, do a little dumpster diving, or eat dog food off the back porch of a home, even in a residential area.

I’ve encountered black bears many times in the Wind River Mountains while hunting and fishing. Without question they always make a quick exit when they’ve spotted me.

Grizzly Bears – Truly Ursae Horriblis

Grizzly bears are the stuff of legend, and the stuff of nightmares for those unlucky enough to encounter one. Once an endangered species, they have rebounded well in both population numbers and range across the Rockies. One fact will clearly separate the two species in your mind, grizzly bears often kill and eat black bears, so much for family friendly relations.

Grizzly bear

A full grown grizzly can reach 600 pounds in the mountains of the American West and grow even larger in Alaska and Canada. They are not an animal to be trifled with.

In Summary

Bear hunting is much less common than whitetail, pronghorn, mule deer, elk or moose hunting. It is more common than Big Horn Sheep or Rocky Mountain Goat based on the number of tags issued each year by state game and fish agencies in the Rocky Mountains.

Black bear hunting varies greatly in regulations, allowable hunting techniques and caliber limits from state to state. In some states, the regulations even vary by region. As a responsible hunter, you need to know the rules before you go out into the field. Some states don’t allow it at all.

Grizzly bear hunting, in the form of the Kodiak sub-species is only allowed in Alaska. The rules in the Alaskan wilderness are important to know as well.

There is an added level of excitement in hunting an animal, that is capable of hunting you, it touches a very primordial instinct in many hunters.