The Unbearable Bare Truth About Bear Bullets

Bullet design, not diameter, makes all the difference.

(Photo: Natasha Wheatley/iStock)

 

A reader wrote to ask which of his bullets would be appropriate for a Rocky Mountain black bear hunt. He said he’d be shooting a .30-06 Springfield and this was the ammunition on hand:

  • Remington Core Lokt  180 gr.
  • Remington Core Lokt 150 gr.
  • Remington Swift Scirocco 150 gr.
  • Winchester Power Point 150 gr.
  • Hornady Interlock SST 150 gr.

 

The boring, easy, but honest answer is “yes,” meaning any and all of the above can work, and quite well if applied to the proper place, i.e. the vital chest/lung/heart region or the spine/brain from the shoulders forward.

More exciting is the possibility of a botched shot and a bear attack, but this is barely a probability because black bears rarely attack humans, especially hunters, even though statistically they’ve killed more people than grizzlies. This is because black bears are common across most states and grizzlies are rare. Not often, but often enough, black bears will prey on humans. Less commonly they’ll attack us out of pure aggression.

A .30-06 is effective at dissuading an aggressive bear. But most likely the bear will be shy and reclusive and shot unawares. The hunter sneaks into position and uses his rifle/bullet to invite said bruin to dinner and a lasting legacy as a rug.

But I digress. What folks want to know is which bullet is best, imagining that bears are big and thick and strong and tough and lesser bullets might bounce off them. Not in my experience. Despite its massive shoulders and legs and brute power, a black bear is not that hard to penetrate or terminate. I settled my last one with a single 100-grain Barnes TTSX fired from a .257 Weatherby through a three-inch-diameter alder limb. The limb part was an accident. Nevertheless, that little bullet exited the wood, broke the bear’s shoulder, and passed out the far side.

Passing out the far side is the key for a bear bullet. Like most animals, bears are likely to run after absorbing a heart or lung shot, then expire within five to 30 seconds as blood pressure drops. Sometimes the shock of the punch drops them in their tracks, but this is no guarantee regardless of how big and fast the bullet. So be prepared to track a soft-footed animal through thick cover. This isn’t easy without a blood trail, thus the need for a pass-through bullet, and of the above choices, only the Scirocco, a bonded bullet, can be counted on to do this.

All the other bullets are what I call classic cup-and-core slugs. They consist of a thin, gilding metal tube into which a soft lead cable is pushed. The two units are then squeezed (swaged) into the bullet shape. The soft lead mushrooms upon impact, sometimes extensively, turning into a pancake that minimizes penetration. This is not good. Sometimes the core and jacket break apart, minimizing penetration. Also not good.

Better are controlled-expansion bullets that stay in one piece, expand about 1.5X to 2X, and punch through hide, muscle, bone, vital organs, and out the far side, leaving a sizable hole for blood trailing. Entrance holes typically seal up due to the fat on a bear. The thick fur also soaks up blood, so a big exit hole is beneficial.

Controlled-expansion bullets include bonded-core types in which the jacket is welded to the lead core. These still lose weight as the lead erodes, but at least they don’t fly to pieces. Those with thick jackets hold up better than thin.

Mechanically locked bullets use an internal wall to isolate nose lead from rear or shank lead. The Nosler Partition was the first of this type. The Swift A-Frame is a beefier version, and its nose lead is also bonded.

Copper hollow points are exemplified by the Barnes X series. This is an all-copper alloy slug with a strategically designed hollow nose that expands as pressure peels four petals back to the shank. Barnes Xs usually retain 90 to 100 percent of their weight and punch right through broadside. They’ll often penetrate 30 inches—ideal in case you have to shoot a bear lengthwise. Similar performance can be expected from Nosler E-Tip, Hornady GMX, Winchester Power Core 95/5, Remington Copper Solid and Cutting Edge Bullets.

Hybrids combine copper, hollow-point noses with lead-filled shanks (Wincheseter XP3) or copper shanks with bonded lead noses (Federal Trophy Bonded Tip), etc. Study these bullets to understand what they do, then select one based on your penetration needs for not only bear, but all other game. Soft bullets that mushroom extensively or break apart can be deadly on smaller game, or even large specimens if the bullet enters behind the shoulder and into the lung cavity. But if you have to shoot a bigger animal head-on or back-to-front or at any weird angle, a tougher, controlled-expansion bullet would be a better bet.

Don’t get too worked up about magnums. The additional power is not going to “hit harder” and drop an animal like a punch from a heavyweight boxer. For every action there is an equal reaction. If the gun doesn’t knock you over when fired, it isn’t going to knock a 200-pound bear over. Vital organ destruction is the key, and the right bullet from a light caliber in the right spot will do the job. Perhaps the best place to target a bear for an instant kill is the high shoulder. This usually results in both a lung hit and a spine hit, and the latter means lights out, instantly.

 

For more from Ron Spomer, check out his website, ronspomeroutdoors.com, and be sure to subscribe to Sporting Classics for his rifles column and features.