The best bear medicine for stand hunting over bait



by Joe Riekers

photography by Joe Riekers

June 12th, 2007




First let’s get the obvious out of the way.  Black bears have been killed with just about any cartridge you can think of.  I have personally taken part or witnessed a black bear fall dead to a .357 Jacketed Hollow Point fired from a 3” barrel handgun and one to a 219 Zipper!  If you were there you’d easily conclude that either of those cartridges is dynamite on bears but that is a dangerous, even potentially deadly assumption to make.  You should choose your ammo based on time proven parameters that put the odds in your favor.  Close range bears in thick woods require special considerations.

The three factors that influence your ammunition performance in typical northeast hunting scenarios are the bear’s anatomy, the close range and the downward angle of the shot.  These three factors are fairly consistent when hunting over bait from a tree stand.  The only variable is the shot placement.  You can limit the variation by vigilant practice, particularly practice shooting from tree stand height at a target 20-25 yards away.  We cannot control the bears position or movement which will ultimately affect where the shot hits.  What we can do is chose the best bullet/cartridge combination for a variety of situations.

The bear’s heart is low and forward in the chest.  It is protected by a large, hard leg bone.  The lungs are large but are positioned behind an equally large scapula.  All of the vitals are underneath a heavy coat of matted hair, a thick and pliable hide and a substantial layer of fat.  The fat and hair often clog up holes and prevent blood from seeping out.  Typical baits are located from 15 to 30 yards from the stand.  The close range can effect shot placement and bullet performance.  A lot of people have a hard time distinguishing the “sweet spot” to shoot on a fat, close, dark bear. It is fairly common for a novice to shoot high and back a bit.  Some hunters cannot resist sighting in their gun to hit high at 100 yards in spite of the guides’ advice.  It is extremely important to sight in exactly as your outfitter instructs.  They want you to get a bear and they know the stands and the terrain.  You are not gaining any advantage by thinking you can outsmart the guide by sighting in for longer range “just in case”.  What you are doing is making it more likely you will miss or worse make a bad shot.

This information is not about shot placement, it is about bullets.  I will not harp on shot placement but I will point out there are two distinct schools of thought.  One is to aim for the lungs behind the shoulder.  That is the largest vital area.  The second is to shoot right into the shoulder, which may also break the front leg bone or the neck.  The actual shoulder is a small area.  A good shot into the shoulder will nearly always knock a bear down right where it is but a second shot may be required to expedite death.  Listen to your guide regarding shot placement.  Discuss your skill level and equipment and agree on what shots you will attempt before you climb into your tree.

The close range encountered in when hunting over bait also affects bullet performance.  Bullets are designed to perform within certain limits.  I will be more specific about bullets a little further on but for now let’s agree that at close range the velocity hasn’t slowed down much.  This can cause a bullet failure in some designs.  If the bullets doesn’t do what it should have the bear will be wounded or you may face a difficult tracking job.

The downward angle can directly affect bullet performance and the lethality of the wound.  It is very common to hit a bear in the “vital square” and have the bullet come out under the bear on the opposite side.  Think about a straight line through the bear from the tree stand to the ground.  If the first shot is too low the bullet may only get the bottom of one lung.  If it is too high it may hit between the neck and shoulder and exit behind the opposite shoulder without hitting any vitals.

The bullet will behave differently depending on what it hits while going into and through the bear.  A bone will cause faster expansion and slow the bullet down while just penetrating through flesh will cause much less bullet deformation and velocity loss.  When aiming, you should think of an imaginary line straight through the bear and consider not only where the bullet will enter, but where it will exit.  Proper bullet selection will assure appropriate performance under a variety of circumstances.

Taking all the above into account it is time to outline our parameters for cartridge performance.  I don’t want to keep you in suspense any longer.  However, don’t get offended or start huffing when you hear what I have to say.  Consider that this is a guideline based on being around 30 bear kills and consulting with bear guides that can reflect on about 100 more.

The bullet should be a premium or hardcast bullet that is heavy for caliber, ideally .35 caliber or bigger in diameter and a nominal velocity for the bullet design.  What does this include?  Well with the right bullet it includes 35 Remington; 44 Magnum and 45 Colt and their derivatives; .348 and .358; most .375’s, some European and African traditionals like 458 Winchester and 9.3X74R; .444 and .450 Marlin; 45-70 and like 45 calibers of black powder origin; 50 caliber muzzleloaders, and .50 Alaskan, Wyoming and S&W centerfire cousins and; 20 and 12 gauge slugs.  You don’t see your favorite?  You can’t believe I have the nerve to leave out the 30-30?  Well hold on, this list is not all inclusive and if you stick with me you will probably fit your cartridge into the guidelines

What kills an animal?  Death occurs when blood does not carry oxygen to the brain.  What oxygenates the blood to begin with?  The lungs inflate and pressurize putting oxygen in the bloodstream.  How do we find an animal that does not drop dead right there?  Follow the blood trail.  So ideally, I want a bullet that will go in the bear, damage the circulatory system and exit too.  There are a lot of heated discussions about whether a bullet should exit or stay in an animal.  I’m not debating the merits of the later; I am telling you what works to let blood out and increase the odds of finding a bear that runs after being hit. 

I already told you that a bear’s fat and hair commonly clog up wounds.  Collectively, I have found that a hole at least .35 diameter is the minimum size to make it likely that blood will come out.  The bigger the hole the more likely it will let blood out.  In 2005 I shot a bear 5 times with a 45-70 as it ran and there was not one drop of blood on the outside of it.  I did not know it at the time but the softpoint bullets were actually too soft and did not penetrate through the bear.  The entry holes clogged up tight.

If a bullet is going to exit the bear it has to be able to get through a lot of stuff to make it from the entry to the point of exit.  The bullet needs to retain weight and stay together in order to get that done.  The performance depends on the bullet design and the bullet weight.  I have found a minimum bullet weight of around 250 grains is the starting point for consistent through and through penetration.  Combined with my recommended minimum bullet diameter of .35 you can see that the 35 Remington barely makes it with its 200 or 220 grain bullets.  However, it gets the job done because the bullet is operating within ideal parameters for its design.  In fact, bullet design is going to be the most important factor if you are using a 6mm or 7mm or a .30 -.33 caliber or whatever high velocity bottleneck cartridge you prefer.

There are 2 types of bullets that will consistently penetrate through a bear at close range:  premium and hard-cast.  That didn’t leave out much did it?  You’re probably thinking I left out varmint bullets, target bullets and self-defense loads.  I pretty much covered everything else.  Well I intentionally left out conventional bullets – the type that makes up 75% of the loads available. The biggest factor regarding bullet design is the construction and velocity.

Conventional bullets are basically cup and core designs.  Melted lead is poured into a copper jacket.  The problem is that this type of bullet is made to expand uniformly at certain velocities and with little resistance.  When hunting bear over bait we are dealing with close range shooting so the bullet hasn’t lost much velocity when it gets to the bear.  Most bottleneck cartridges launch a conventional bullet too fast for close range work.  The bullet is designed to mushroom and stay together at reduced velocities that most likely start at around 100 yards.  At 15 to 25 yards the bullet is going too fast for the jacket and core to stay together and mushroom uniformly.  What results is bullet fragmentation.  The core separates from the jacket causing a significant weight loss and a violent expansion.  Many of the classic blunt nosed bullet firing cartridges operate at nominal velocities and therefore perform admirably with conventional bullets.  The 200 and 220 grain bullets in 35 caliber are designed to expand in a controlled manner at velocities somewhere between 1500 and 2000 fps.  A 25 yard bear will be hit by the bullet at a velocity within those parameters.  The curveball to conventional bullets operating within specifications is contact with hard bone and dense flesh.  Bear have much thicker bones than deer and their hide and muscle is thicker.  Conventional bullets can come apart when a hard bone is struck; especially on an angle that puts more stress on one side of the jacket.  The bottom line is that conventional bullets will work on bear if they are used within the proper operating specifications and shot placement is good.  Some good examples are the 405 grain 45-70’s driven to around 1500 fps muzzle velocity and the 220 grain .348 Winchester fired at around 2100 fps.  The downfall to conventional bullets for use on close range bear is that the performance is somewhat unpredictable.  It is subject to muzzle velocity and obstacles encountered by the bullet.  Overall, conventional bullets will not consistently expand and exit a bear at close range.  Here’s an example of how they can fail. A trusty 7mm Remington Magnum fired a 150 grain Winchester Power Point bullet that hit a bear in the shoulder at precisely 21 yards.  The bullet penetrated less than half way through the bear and bits of lead and copper were scattered around the wound channel.  Two things occurred that were detrimental.  First, the bullet is designed to expand slowly between 2300 and 2700 feet per second.  At 21 yards, the bullet was still traveling over 2900 feet per second.  Secondly, the bullet is made for light, thin-skinned game.  The jacket is thin and the core is soft.  Between the hard, thick bear and the high impact velocity the bullet was overstressed and came apart.

Premium bullets are the best combination of expansion and penetration on close range black bear.  Premium bullets incorporate a design that allows it to expand in a controlled manner without the jacket and core separating.  This is achieved in different ways by different manufacturers.  One of the oldest styles is the Nosler Partition.  The bullet has a thick wall between the front half and back half of the bullet.  The front will expand, sometimes rapidly and violently.  The rear will nearly always remain intact and retain weight to further penetration. The Swift A-Frame uses the same principle but the front has a thicker jacket to expand a bit slower than the Nosler.  Another design is the bonded core.  These bullets are made with a process that fuses the core and jacket together so they stay together during expansion.  Additionally, most bonded core bullets will expand at a steady rate regardless of the velocity.  Examples of these are Kodiaks, Sciroccos, and Bear Claws.  Barnes eliminates the core altogether by using a solid copper bullet with pre cut petals to open and start expansion. Shotgun slugs that are reduced diameter in a sabot can be had with premium bullets as well.  Several brands offer the Barnes copper solid slug as well as other premium designed slugs.  Muzzleloader bullets are often pistol bullets in a sabot.  Again, look for the premiums such as Nosler Partitions, Barnes X and Hornady Interlocks.  All of these premium bullets stay in one piece at a wide range of velocities and even when they hit resistance they retain weight and penetrate very deep. 

If you are going to use your bottleneck cartridge rifle for close range black bear, premium bullets are the only way to go.  Use a premium bullet that is heavy for the caliber, for example in 30 caliber this would be 180 grain plus, in 7mm it is 175 grain.  A heavy premium bullet will certainly increase the odds of a pass through shot in your favor but overall they are still less reliable than the heavy, large bore, medium velocity cartridges cited earlier. To be clear I will give one example of how even a premium bullet can fail because it is operating out of its design parameters.  The same 7mm Remington Magnum mentioned before fired a 175 grain Barnes X bullet at a bear standing 27 yards from the muzzle.  The bullet hit the bear and exited, but left no blood trail.  When the bear was located about 100 yards away it was still alive and needed to be shot again.  The bullet should perform perfectly at velocities from 1900 feet per second to 2700 feet per second, give or take a little on either end.  This bullet was traveling somewhere very close to the 2700 feet per second when it hit the bear behind the shoulder.  The bullet went between two ribs, traveled though both lungs and exited behind the rib cage on the other side.  This bullet did not hit anything hard while traveling at maximum velocity and therefore never got a chance to expand like it would have if it slowed down or hit bones.  Since the bullet was only .284 to begin with, the wound channel was literally like a pencil hole through the bear. 

Premium bullets in moderate velocity cartridges provide the best of both worlds.  The bullets are always performing within their design specifications.  Therefore, they expand reliably and retain weight to penetrate consistently.  They are designed to hold together they easily smash through bone and thick hide and muscle, especially if you choose a heavy bullet to begin with.  Most of the time they will exit the bear.  The exit holes are substantial.  A .45 or .50 caliber bullet can expand to an inch in diameter.  The .35 caliber bullets can reach three quarters of an inch before they exit.  The huge wound channels and big entry and exit holes produce a good blood trail and a lot of damage to the parts that keep bears alive. 

Hard cast bullets work in a different way.  Hard cast bullets are solid bullets of  lead and alloy that remain hard and intact without expansion.  Since hard cast bullets are primarily designed for medium to large caliber they really don’t need to expand.  Consider a .45 caliber hard cast bullet will stay at least .45 diameter.  If we started with a 7mm bullet at .284 and it accomplished a respectable expansion of 75% its size or .426 it would still be smaller than the .45 caliber bullet.

There is a big difference between hard cast bullets and plain cast lead bullets.  The cast lead bullets commonly found in cowboy ammo, target ammo and plinking ammo is soft and is not made to remain intact at high velocity or when contacting hard bone.  Soft lead bullets that come in contact with hard or dense resistance will smear.  This is when the bullet sheds weight and loses its shape because lead is coming off as it travels through the resistance.  It is similar to hard pressing a crayon against a paper on a hard desk and drawing a line.  Two other detrimental things can happen to soft cast lead bullets.  Sometimes they will bend and even expand a little and sometime they will break into more than one piece.  If a soft bullet breaks it is even more problematic because the soft pieces lack the weight and density to continue traveling though resistance.  I had a lengthy discussion with a representative at Ultramax, specifically regarding their 45-70, 405 grain Cowboy load for use on bear.  He basically told me what I already spelled out for you.  The bullets are very soft and not designed to retain their weight or shape for penetration in spite of the relatively low muzzle velocity.  He absolutely does not recommend them for anything larger than a medium sized whitetail deer at relatively close range.

Back to hard cast bullets.  They are made with metallurgy that allows for a hard but not brittle bullet.  The front of the bullet may smear a bit but a good hard cast bullet will not lose enough weight or shape to stop inside a black bear shot at close range.  Good hard cast bullets like those from Cast Performance, Oregon Trail and Montana Bullet Works are made to stay together through tough bone and thick muscle.  The bullets may change course after penetrating through a particularly thick bone but they will usually not shed enough velocity to stop them. 

There are two additional categories of lead bullets, shotgun slugs and muzzleloader projectiles.  The same rules apply to these firearms projectiles.  The bullet should be hard cast and should be operating within the design specifications.  Many shotgun slugs are made with soft lead because they are primarily intended for use on deer.  Look for full bore diameter lead slugs and stay away from hollow points.  What I mean by full diameter is a slug that is the whole size of the bore, not a reduced diameter slug inside a sabot.  Brenneke and the Remington Buck Hammer are two examples of full size solid, hard slugs that are effective on close range bears. Use heavy slugs when you can such as over one ounce in twelve gauge and over 7/8 ounce in 20 gauge.  In muzzleloaders, use a heavy bullet with premium hard lead.  Some also have features to help maintain the bullet shape and integrity such as ribs or a solid core. An example of a hard cast muzzleloader bullet made to penetrate is the Thompson/Center Maxi-Ball.  Avoid hollow point lead muzzleloader bullets and hollow based conicals.  They are too soft to be reliable on close range bears.

The most well known bear hunter of this decade has got to be Jim Shockey.  His bear hunts on Vancouver Island and other Canadian locations are a little different than the typical Northeast United States bear hunt.  Jim is hunting bear that on average weigh substantially more than typical woods bears below our northern border.  He is also using spot and stalk hunting instead of baits.  Nonetheless, he does try to get close shots whenever possible.  His firearm/bullet of choice is a .50 caliber black powder rifle firing a 300 grain .45 caliber Nosler Partition bullet in a sabot at muzzle velocity of around 1700 feet per second.  As Jim puts it, he trusts his life on it.  This is a perfect example of a premium bullet being applied within its design parameters.

Yeah, you can kill a bear with a lot of different bullets that are not considered ideal for bear hunting.  I’ll bet some bears have even been killed with a .22 rimfire.  However, when you pick a bullet/cartridge combination ask yourself this: If you were looking for a potentially wounded bear in thick cover would you bet your life on it?  Of course you can also use your bottleneck cartridge firing rifle, but it is likely not ideal.  A .308 or 300 Magnum certainly has the ability to kill black bear but the cartridges lack the qualities to make pass through wound channels that leave massive blood trails. Premium bullets will increase the odds in your favor but you are still asking a bullet to do a job outside of its comfort zone.  In the thick bear woods we want to kill quickly and humanely, and recover the bear.  The greatest chance of both occurs when a bullet leaves two big holes in the bear with blood coming out of both of them.  This is best accomplished with medium to large caliber bullets of premium or hardcast design at a nominal velocity. 

Joe Riekers


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Click pictures for a larger version.


Black bear taken with a .45-70 shooting 405-grain Kodiaks.



200 pound bear took 5 solid hits before going down.



Various .45 cal. cast and bonded core bullets recovered from game.



A premium bonded core bullet recovered from game.



Two different style bonded core bullets recovered from game.



A .44 caliber partition style premium bullet recovered from game.



View from a bear stand.



A bear on bait.



A Trail Cam picture.



A bear taken with a .35 Remington.