Couple Wants to Choose Firearms for Self-Defense
Updated: Apr 19
A couple I’ve known for a while asked me for advice on purchasing his and her firearms for the first time. For a better context of our exchange, I need to add that they have very little experience in the firearms area. She had some experience as a child, but as adults neither of them have been near firearms at all.
You may have similar questions or know someone who might be in this situation. My notes to them are designed to provide a broad brush to begin the discovery process for them and should not be considered exhaustive.
Any helpful feedback or additional thoughts are welcomed in the comments section.
Q: Last year, we bought a summer home in Montana and are getting ready to head up there. We have black bears and mountain lions. My wife saw a mountain lion bring down a deer just across the driveway. We carry bear spray but would like to get a pair of hand guns, and not just for protection from the animals. Is there anything you recommend?
A: It sounds like you are looking for your first handguns which you will use for defensive purposes. Here’s the interesting part of your question: your adversaries can include up to black bears. This presents a unique challenge in defining some handgun options for you.
As you get more knowledge about this, you’re about to delve into a black hole of conflicting opinions from experts that seem to go all over the place. Get ready, so many people will give you so much information on what they advocate that it’s tough to keep it in the bounds of what’s useful for you.
I’m going to give you my bottom-line up front before the avalanche of options:
Your firearm is your sword. Yours, not someone else’s. It’s a personal fit. You must have enough mastery to make it work reliably under duress and have confidence in your ability to wield it. Your sword.
Unfortunately, that might mean you and your wife might have to opt for different swords. She might need one that is shorter and lighter than you do. Or not. It could also mean you might want to include more options than strictly handguns.
Here’s why I bring this up. There can be a real dichotomy when it comes to handguns. You need a cartridge that can impart enough energy to stop an adversary, but needs to be in a platform that:
1. Is convenient to carry
2. Is manageable to shoot
There are many cartridges and platforms which can handle mountain lions, wolves, coyotes, and two-legged predators. What gets “interesting” is your need to be able to stop a charging black bear. Now you are having to deal with a threat that requires a caliber that is substantially above the most popular defensive calibers in both handguns and long guns.
Here are some generalities to consider:
1. Long guns are easier to shoot accurately than handguns.
2. Long guns are generally more powerful than handguns.
3. Handguns are more convenient and available for you in that they can be “worn and not borne”.
4. Handguns powerful enough for bear are generally heavier and have more recoil than most “defensive” handguns.
5. On the other hand, handguns powerful enough for bear should be able to handle any other predator you are likely to run into.
6. Semi-auto handguns are generally easier to shoot than revolvers but take more training to be proficient. (These are preferred by combat/defensive shooters, LEOs, military).
7. Revolvers are generally simpler to operate and can shoot more powerful cartridges than semi-autos. (These are generally preferred by hunters and back country people).
8. But if your handgun is too large and inconvenient to carry – you won’t carry. Some of the choices we could consider might not even fit in the glove compartment. However, there is a saying “Your firearm is meant to be comforting, not comfortable.” Generally carrying a handgun is a pain in the rear. It’s a pound of metal on your belt that tends to poke you, get in the way and generally be inconvenient to put on, take off, and go to the bathroom.
Ready to go down the rabbit hole?
• You might want to consider a long gun for home and your personal handguns when you are outside or away from home. Potentially, this means you could have a more powerful firearm at home (your long gun) than what you can manage for your handgun.
• Long guns could be a semi-auto AR-15 platform, pump action or semi-auto 12-gauge shotgun, or lever action rifle.
• The common AR-15 in .223/5.56 is considered by most to be too marginal in stopping power for bear. It would be worth considering calibers like .308, .50 Beowulf, and .458 SOCOM.
• Another option is a lever action rifle in calibers like .45-70 Government, .45 Colt and .44 Magnum. These are simple to manage, rugged and give you 7 to 8 shots.
• The venerable 12-gauge shotgun is usually considered a good tool to have in bear country. It’s easy to manage but can be unpleasant to shoot for smaller-statured people because of the recoil and the long length of pull (the length of the stock or the distance between the end of the stock and where your finger meets the trigger -- commonly measured by holding the long gun with the end of the stock in the crook of your arm forming a 90 degree angle). When loaded with slugs you can pretty much stop a truck with it (slight exaggeration intended). You can choose pump action or semi-auto action.
• Semi-auto handguns generally come in calibers like 9mm, .40, .45, 10mm and even a .50. You’ll find most recommendations for bear require the 10mm and higher.
• Revolvers generally come in cartridges like .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .44 Special, .44 Magnum, .45 Colt and .454 Casull. Interestingly, these revolvers offer the versatility to shoot a pair of the calibers as I’ve presented i.e. .38 Special/.357 Magnum, .44 Special/.44 Magnum, .45 Colt/.454 Casull. This adds to the versatility of the revolvers as well as offering a chance to practice with the “lower” power cartridge of the pair. Many tell me they consider the .44 Magnum the minimum cartridge for bear, while others tell me the .357 Magnum can suffice.
• There is an interesting option with these revolvers noted above – there are lever action rifles that shoot these handgun cartridges so you can use the lighter load in your revolver and the more powerful load in your rifle (as described above). For example, your revolver could shoot the less powerful .44 Special cartridges (they are a little shorter, so they have less powder) while your rifle has the more powerful .44 Magnum. Or your revolver could shoot the less powerful .38 special while your rifle shoots the .357 Magnum. However, there are noted experts who would argue the advantages of a rifle are diminished to a certain degree by firing pistol ammunition through them. This option is attractive to people who want to keep their logistics simple.
• Be aware that both the .357 and .44 Magnums in revolvers are a HANDFULL! I do not enjoy shooting them.
You can see that you’ve opened a Pandora’s Box of discussion points. I would recommend renting some of these options first and see for yourself what your appetite is for the platform/caliber. There are a lot of “Ford vs. Chevy” discussions that can be argued for hours. Don’t be dragged into uncertainty because of this phenomenon.
It’s. Your. Sword. Find what works for you and don’t look back.
I will opine that almost everyone you ask will recommend .44 Magnum or higher as soon as you mention the word “bear”.
However, I will leave you with this. I would rather have a smaller, more controllable platform that I have confidence in than a larger platform in which makes me cringe when I think about shooting it.
Remember, the first rule of a gunfight:
1. Have a gun.