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Joel Nordness Jan 21 2023 8 min read

Will a 9mm Kill a Bear? Fact vs. Fiction

Introduction

There is a lot of talk about theories in the gun community because, luckily, most of us haven’t been put in a life-and-death situation that requires us to use a weapon. Still, it’s always good to be prepared and to do thought experiments to prepare us for potential outcomes.

One question many people have is whether or not 9mm is sufficient enough to kill a bear. It’s a good question because most of us have a 9mm of some sort due to its popularity. Many of us are also cheapskates and don’t want to buy something else for a very unlikely event, like a bear encounter.

At the same time, we can’t help but think about what our life is worth. Is it worth sticking with something considered low-power to save a few bucks? If a bear DOES happen to attack, will I be able to fend it off with the 9mm I have on hand?

Separating fact and fiction can be hard, but we’ll stick to the facts as much as possible in this article. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about 9mm and bear attacks!

Is 9mm Really Enough for Bear?

The short answer is yes. There are a lot of thoughts and feelings when it comes to personal defense, not just bear defense. Even against humans, many people feel undergunned if they don’t have anything less than a .45 or 10mm, but most of these arguments aren’t based on facts.

Many people have been killed by small caliber guns, as have bears. Just because a certain cartridge CAN kill something, though, doesn’t mean it’s the best way. 9mm is considered a mid-power pistol round and is probably the lowest-power cartridge that can reliably stop a bear.

There are also multiple kinds of bears, all different sizes. Barring shot placement, it’s safe to assume that a large bear will be harder to kill than a small bear. Using a 9mm to stop a brown/grizzly or a polar bear would be more difficult than smaller bears, like the black bear.

Black bear

Will 9mm Penetrate Enough to Kill a Bear?

With the right ammunition, yes. Hollow point bullets are designed to expand and arrest penetration, which is good for human-size targets but not good for dense animals like bears. Full metal jacket (FMJ) bullets do not expand and penetrate deeper, ensuring they can reach vital organs.

Hot +P or +P+ FMJ or hard cast ammunition is best to guarantee sufficient penetration. Standard loads could work, but the more penetration, the better. Using specialized outdoor loads will give you peace of mind.

Hard cast 9mm bullets may even offer better penetration than larger calibers. A larger bullet means a larger surface area to bleed off energy. A smaller bullet bleeds off energy more slowly, meaning deeper penetration. Bullet type and ammo loading also have a significant contribution, though.

Brown bear

When Is 9mm a Good Choice for Bears?

Most bear defense handgun calibers are .357 Magnum, 44 Magnum, and 10mm Auto due to their high power. What they lack, though, is ammo capacity. Since 9mm bullets are smaller than these other calibers, they can hold more bullets. It’s better to have 18 rounds of 9mm than to have only six shots of 44 if you need seven or more to stop a charging bear.

9mm also has less recoil, so follow-up shots can be quicker and more accurate. Essential when you have a bear charging at you.

9mm pistols are also the most popular, so chances are you already have one handy for your hunting trip. No need to spend beaucoup bucks on a new pistol just to fend off a very unlikely bear attack when you can throw in some special ammo and be good to go.

Best 9mm Ammo for Bears

Several manufacturers have released special bear loads. These have hardened cast bullets and are loaded hotter than standard ammo, ensuring deep penetration. Buffalo Bore has a 9mm 147gr. +P round specially designed for bears. There is a story about a grizzly that was stopped with a 9mm and Buffalo Bore rounds.

Detail 388 24lmedium
Caption: Buffalo Bore 9mm +P Outdoorsman

Generally, the best ammo for use against bears is non-hollow point bullets with hotter than standard loading. You’d be fine with standard FMJ +P or +P+, but with special bear loads on the market already, it’s best to go with those.

There are other companies that make special ammunition for outdoor/bear use. Do your own research to see what type of ammunition is right for you.

What Would be a Good Bear Gun?

A good bear gun is one you have shot a lot and are comfortable with its characteristics and reliability, regardless of caliber. For 9mm handguns, a larger gun with high capacity would be best.

Muzzle velocity is dependent on barrel length, so a larger gun will have a longer barrel and will give a bullet a bit more velocity. This means greater penetration. A large gun will also have a larger magazine capacity.

Unless one is very lucky, it will take more than one bullet to stop a bear. Being able to put rounds on target quickly and accurately will save your life, so having a high-capacity handgun with manageable recoil will be an advantage. This is where a 9mm pistol shines.

Handguns vs. Long Guns

The Journal of Wildlife Management released an interesting study about the effectiveness of firearms in stopping bears. While it made no mention of handgun caliber, one interesting statistic in the study is that handguns had a higher stoppage percentage than long guns.

The difference in muzzle energy between pistol calibers is less than the difference between pistol calibers and rifle calibers, so it doesn’t appear that pistol caliber is a major factor in stopping bears. Over 80% of the bears in the study were grizzly bears.

It’s interesting to think about the reasons that handguns are more effective. One could be that most bear encounters are by surprise, where one party suddenly stumbles upon the other. This means that the encounter is close quarters, and pistols are much easier to wield and handle than rifles in close quarters. Some of those rifles could have been bolt action.

What are Non-Firearm Bear Defense Alternatives?

Behavioral Analysis

Just like with standard self-defense situations, preparation is key. Most people know where the rough areas of town are and when to go and stay away. The same logic applies to hunting and bear attacks.

No one WANTS to get into a situation requiring lethal force, so they study the environment and likely adversaries before they venture out. Doing what you can do to avoid a bad situation in the first place is key to self-defense.

Knowing the terrain and what animals are active where you’ll be going is another key to being prepared. If you’re hiking in Colorado, your chances of encountering a polar bear is nil, whereas in northern Alaska, brown bears are extremely rare.

Knowing what type of bear you may encounter will determine what deterrence measures you’ll take. Knowing each species and its behavioral patterns will help you avoid a confrontation in the first place.

Bear Spray vs. Firearms

Bear spray is an effective alternative to using a firearm. A 2006 study shows that using bear spray is over 90% effective. A fact sheet released by the US Fish & Wildlife Service says that 50% of bear attacks in which firearms were used resulted in personal injury, whereas most bear attacks stopped with bear spray resulted in no injuries.

A shot/injured bear may press an attack out of self-preservation, which leads to the above statistics. Using bear spray is a non-lethal alternative and encourages a bear to retreat on its own. Running away from a bear also encourages it to chase and attack, and bear spray makes the user stand their ground, further encouraging the bear to fall back.

There are downsides to using bear spray. Shooting the spray upwind decreases effectiveness and risks blowing the spray back at the user. Not an ideal situation. The effective range is also much less than a firearm. Studies show that most bear spray is used within about 10 feet of a bear.

Legal Considerations

One major consideration in bear defense is legality. In many places, bears are protected and, therefore, illegal to kill. Even if you kill one in self-defense, it’s possible you may have charges pressed against you.

Some places have paradoxical laws. The National Park Services states that while firearms are allowed on national park grounds, it is illegal to discharge them unless hunting is authorized. It seems rather pointless to be able to carry a weapon and not able to use it.

Using bear spray instead of a firearm dramatically lowers the chances of a fatal encounter for both the outdoorsman and the bear. When it comes to your life, though, it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission, so use the non-lethal option first, and switch to your firearm as a last resort.

FAQs

Should you choose bear spray or a pistol?

From a legal and self-preservation standpoint, it’s probably best to carry bear spray. That doesn’t mean that carrying a firearm for backup is a bad idea. Using spray first and switching to gun second is probably the best outcome for you and the least likely to get you into trouble.

Would you use a hollow point for bears?

No. Bears are much more dense than humans so for this context penetration is better than bullet expansion. Being able to penetrate enough to hit the brain or central nervous system is paramount in stopping a bear, and hollow points do not offer good enough penetration depth to be reliable.

Can a .22 Kill a Bear?

There have been cases when a .22lr has stopped a bear. Due to its low power, it’s not a reliable enough penetrator to hit vital areas, although a lucky shot through the eye socket would be enough. Still, I’m not sure I would trust a .22 to have enough power to stop a charging bear.

Conclusion

Taking every statistic and factor into account, it seems best to carry bear spray and use that as your primary bear deterrent. If legally allowed, carry a handgun as a backup. This combination gives the most flexibility for most black and brown bear encounters.

Because the statistics show that handgun caliber is less important than just having a gun, a high-capacity 9mm with hard cast +P ammo would make a good backup choice. You can always go up in caliber for more power, but that comes at the expense of high recoil and less capacity.

Avoidance is still the best policy, so make sure you’re mindful of the terrain, the bear species you’ll likely encounter, and, most importantly, laws before you head out on your adventure.

Written by Joel Nordness
Joel grew up in the cornfields of Illinois. After college, he had a brief stint in California, befriending veterans at the Navy base he worked at who introduced him to shooting. Realizing how much fun shooting could be, he carried that passion with him to his new home in Indiana, where he developed a love for rare and unusual handguns and firearm history. He tries his best to keep his gun collection to reasonable levels while doing what he can to introduce new shooters to the joy of the hobby.

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