The Great Thrill—The Grizzly Bear Rifle

The following information on choosing a grizzly bear rifle comes from Chapter 3 of Hunting Our Biggest Game by Clyde Ormond. Hunting Our Biggest Game is also available to purchase in print.

There is something highly personal and elemental about a man’s killing a grizzly. No matter how much experience he has had with other species of big-game, the question of how he will react to a grizzly encounter persists until he has actually contacted his first Ursus horribilus.

This basic uncertainty, I’ll admit, was with me on my own first grizzly-hunt. Indeed, it was one of the fundamental reasons for going. Although I’d hunted and taken other species of big-game for nearly two decades at the time, the questions still persisted. Would I get buck-fever in the face of a grizzly? If I met the beast under conditions of terrain, position, or surprise most favorable to him, would I have the guts to remain cool and shoot it out?

In discussing grizzly-hunting with numerous other hunters, I have discovered feelings to be common. Often, after mentioning certain grizzly episodes which were somewhat hair-raising, I’ve had a fellow hunter say, “Godfrey, I’d likely have turned tail and ran!” Or, “I don’t think I’d have had the nerve!”

These feelings of uncertainty are based on the fact that the grizzly bear alone, of the Continent’s big-game, is potentially dangerous. In the majority of instances where man contacts this great bruin, the bear will retreat if given a chance. Should the beast scent or sight the hunter first, it will, under normal conditions, move to avoid an encounter. By his very nature, a grizzly is shy, wary, and wants no part of a meeting with man.

This innate shyness is often misleading. There are conditions under which a grizzly is the exact reverse. Situations exist under which he’ll charge immediately, instead of disappear. Getting between a sow with cubs is almost certain to induce a charge. Contacting a grizzly previously wounded, or currently wounded, is apt to result in a charge. Cornering one of the beasts is nearly certain to produce charging. Other seemingly trivial annoyances may result in charging.

Old Pete Petersen of Muncho Lake, British Columbia, once told me, “If you suddenly come upon a grizzly in the bush, whatever you do, don’t whistle, shout, or wave your arms at him. Any sudden noise or action touches a grizzly off. They’re hair-triggered, and come uncorked terribly easy.”

We were, at the time, hunting grizzlies in heavy bush. “What is the best thing to do?” I asked him.

“Remain still. Brow-beat him, if you have the nerve, old man. I’ve come suddenly upon the beasts in a turn of the trail many a time. They’ll often snort and blow in indecision. Sometimes they’ll move towards you, hair all raised, and chomping their teeth. I once had a big one come within fifteen feet of me that way, trying to make me out. That’s too close. One step more, and I’d had to shoot him.”

Pete, incidentally, has lived a lifetime among the beasts. He is the fellow whom the military, during World War II, flew over the bush country from Fort Nelson to Fort St. John, mapping the route for the Alaska Highway. Pete knew the country more intimately than any man in the region, and could point out the route between the impassable muskeg areas. Pete learned this route the hard way. Before a road came to the country, Peterson made six different pack-horse jaunts between the two out-posts, for as many years’ trapping supplies. These were trips of six-weeks each, covering several hundred miles. What Pete says about the grizzlies common to this country is worth the bear-hunter’s attention.

He told me once of a certain grizzly which had raided one of his trapping cabins. Nothing edible, except fifty pounds of dry navy beans, was in the cabin. The bruin ate most of these. When they began to swell, obviously giving him the belly-ache, the bear had impetuously grabbed the stove-pipe. As thoroughly as one would flatten a can with a hammer, the bruin had flattened the entire length of pipe between his two great paws. Later, he’d scattered dung all over the cabin’s interior, even the ceiling.

As Pete told me, his concern still wasn’t for the destruction to his cabin or furnishings. “But how do you suppose, old man,” Pete asked soberly, “that bear could get into a position whereby he could crap on the ceiling?”

My own experience indicates that these big bruins are not always the shy, complacent beasts which many desk-authorities would have one believe. Just as a sample, an aluminum canoe, which the outfitter had flown in on a plane-pontoon for us to use on Cry Lake, had been seized within the week by a large grizzly; chewed into a poor state of seaworthiness; and the thwarts torn off and bent—all apparently because it was shiny and annoyed the wandering beast.

I know of a packer in the Dease Lake area whose packstring was scattered from hell to breakfast, even though the packer, seeing the wandering beast at a distance, had tried to circle him. This one, after the packer finally had to kill him, was discovered to be crawling with maggots and festering wounds from a previous bush-hunter’s rifle.

I talked with another Tahltan Indian boy in the same country, whose uncle was killed when he unwittingly trailed a wounded black bear into some surrounding wild-raspberry bushes. A grizzly, which he didn’t suspect was there, assumed that the abrupt noise in the bushes was an intrusion into his domain and a threat, somehow, to his being. With a swipe or two of his great paw, the bear strung the luckless man’s intestines over forty feet of bush.

As late as the fall of 1954, my hunting partner, Doc Jacobs, came within an inch of his courageous hide, from a whopping yellow grizzly which charged him for no other reason than that he’d wandered within a hundred yards of the animal, in the bush country surrounding sheep-range.

In this dual, basic aspect of grizzly-hunting—that of never being certain of the quarry’s intention or action—lies the innate danger, the big thrill, and the more-than-compensating rewards. A grizzly may be spotted at reasonable range, and hunted down like any other big, non-dangerous game. Because of his hair-triggered, unpredictable nature, he may, just as easily turn into being the hunter. Despite the knowledge slowly gained about these great bears, and in spite of the aggregate experience of numerous hunters, the fact remains that one never knows exactly what any grizzly is going to do. Neither does the hunter in the terrain peculiar to grizzly habitat, ever know with any degree of certainty, just where he is going to run into his quarry. Each grizzly hunt, every grizzly encounter, is a different, singular experience. The satisfaction of taking a great wild beast under such conditions of uncertainty, does something beyond price to the masculinity of the red-blooded man.

Some good choices for a grizzly bear rifle

Suitable grizzly bear rifles, as well as satisfactory rifles for other of our biggest game. Left, deluxe Model 70 Winchester in .300 H&H Magnum, with Weaver 2 1/2-power scope in Stith mount; center, .375 H&H Magnum, Model 70 Winchester, custom stock, with Lyman Alaskan scope in Redfield mount; right, Weatherby .300 Magnum, with Imperial 4X scope in Beuhler mount.

What is the best grizzly bear rifle-and-cartridge?

There is no one “best” rifle or cartridge for any species of game. Every rifle and every cartridge is a compromise. Grizzly bears have been killed with every cartridge from a .22 to the .375 H&H Magnum and larger. Grizzlies have been lost with every one of the same list.

In the Liard River country of Canada, a youngster killed a monstrous grizzly with one shot from a .22 long rifle. While tending Tom Mould’s cabin while Tom was on the trap-line, Jimmy, the young fellow, had a big black grizzly follow him right into the cabin after Jimmy had brought a bucket of water from the spring in the bush.

In an awesome fear that one can only imagine, Jimmy was chased up into the attic, through a man-hole in the ceiling insulation, and actually wound up by poking himself through the roof. Jimmy roosted there for a day and a night, until some highway maintenance men came along. He hollered them up, finally convincing them that the big bruin still lay in the kitchen. These workmen finally took a .30-30 from the truck, and fired several shots into the cabin under the window, where Jimmy told them the big beast still lay.

As the animal ran out the rear door, Jimmy, who’d taken the .22 up into the attic as the bear came all the way inside, fired to help frighten it away. The puny bullet hit the beast in the ear. With a blood-curdling squeal, it ran fifty feet out into the clearing and fell dead.

In the fall of 1947, I stayed at Tom’s cabin. I saw the bullet-holes under the window—a sizeable “group” incidentally. I photographed the bear’s tracks where it had tried to get up the wall, after knocking over some black paint with which Tom’s partner, Bud Gallant, had been painting the floor. The splintered battens of the ceiling, which the beast bit in its failure to get at Jimmy, are still there unless Tom has remodeled his cabin. And Rod Stuart, ranger from Muskwa, B.C., told me he helped string the beast up to a tripod, and that, nose downward, it stretched ten full feet!

Such instances, and indeed the affair of the lady grizzly-hunter mentioned in the first chapter of this book, do not prove that small calibers are adequate for these big bears. They are, rather, the examples which convince the serious grizzly-hunter that he should use all the ordnance he can shoot well from the shoulder, under hunting conditions. Grizzlies may be killed with small calibers and lost with large ones, and vice versa. The majority of evidence is still in favor of powerful rifles shooting heavy bullets.

The reason for this lies not in the fact that a moderate rifle, sending a smaller bullet into a grizzly’s vitals will surely kill him. Rather, the real reasons for using powerful ordnance on these bears, are that the hunter needs a margin of safety, both for his own person and to prevent losing one of the finest game animals; the hunting conditions pertinent to grizzly habitat, terrain, and physical hunter-condition, seem never to present the quarry as an obstruction-free, ideal target, at optimum range; and that a bigger margin of rifle-power often compensates, not only for mild errors in shooting, but for obstacles pertinent to the hunting condition.

I have repeatedly read writers of wide experience on other game, and with sound judgment as regards shooting, state that bullets from such rifles as the .257 Roberts and .270 will surely kill any game on the North American continent, if well placed into the beast’s “boiler-room.” They make such observations, based upon wide hunting experience with animals of similar or greater size and weight; upon the devastating effects of such bullets; and upon the experience of other hunters, often dating back to the days when game was abundant and literally hundreds of animals had been killed.

What they maintain is entirely true. What they neglect to take into account, either because of a limited experience on grizzlies or the having taken one or two beasts of this tenacity and temperament under most optimum conditions, is the fact that the hunting conditions surrounding grizzly hunting seem never to be ideal.

For example, grizzlies are native to bush country. Being innately shy, they stay to the concealment of bush, timber, and the toughest terrain. They are hunted there, shot at in this type of country in the majority of instances. Grizzlies shot at in wide open flat country, at ideal range, and standing broadside, are in the great minority. Instead, the hunter suddenly comes upon just the brown hump of a grizzly working the bush country. The beast is quartering away, presenting an angling shot at the spine if the hunter is quick and can take immediate advantage. Or, while watching a blueberry sidehill, the hunter suddenly sees the Arctic birch bordering the shorter foliage open up; and the front end of a grizzly, with broad head eternally swinging back and forth to catch and interpret scent, looks at him head-on—with the vital boiler-room accessible only if the bullet can penetrate through thick neck and shoulder muscles.

Or, more apropos to grizzly-hunting, consider the rather common bush occurrence wherein the hunter suddenly smells rotten carrion at close range. Before he can calm his wits (knowing what the smell may well mean) a brown bounding form, ears laid back and little pig-like eyes glittering, comes at him at twenty yards, ta-lump, ta-lump, as in horse-opera. A running grizzly, incidentally, covers ground approximately four times the speed of a running man.

Or again, as often happens in bush country, suppose the hunter rounds yet another turn in the willowy trail, and his great brown rug looks him in the eye at a matter of feet?

Such instances represent actual hunting contact with grizzlies. Often such adverse opportunities are also the only chances the hunter, with two thousand dollars and a lifetime’s waiting invested, will ever have. It becomes then, not a matter of whether a certain cartridge will kill a bear. It is a matter of killing the beast with certainty, under prevailing conditions. It often becomes the vital matter of not killing the beast, but of stopping him before he reaches the hunter.

To all these considerations must be added hunter-condition and hunter-conditioning. Seldom is the big-game hunter at his best as a rifle-shot, when hunting. He is usually leg-weary, out of breath, on uncertain footing, lungs pumping fast for oxygen in high altitudes, or with sweat streaming down his glasses from sheer exertion. The opportunity comes, not after he’s had time to catch his breath, but right then. There is no time to get better footing, assume a more solid shooting position, wipe the glasses, or indeed to allow the quarry to turn into a better shooting angle. It is then or never.

Couple this factor to the fact that the excitement of most men, confronting desired big-game of any species, especially for the first time, detracts from their normal shooting skill…and you have further obstacles to the certain placement of the bullet into that boiler-room.

Lastly, grizzlies are most tenacious of life. The huge stores of vitality which make them able to lick other wild beasts become a reserve against injury and bullet-wounding. Unless a grizzly is hit somewhere along the spinal length or brain, you can assume with certainty that he won’t stay put where he is hit. Invariably a grizzly will drop when hit, even if in the leg. But he’s up again and away. In the dense foliage of grizzly country, spoor is hard to follow. The trophy, while “dead” on its feet, may escape and be lost. This is another argument for added fire-power in the grizzly bear rifle and cartridge. And the ability to use it.

Suitable grizzly bear calibers

Suitable and typical cartridges for our biggest game. Left to right, .270 with 150-grain bullet; .30-06 with 220-grain bullet; .348 Winchester with 250-grain bullet; .35 Whelen with 250-grain bullet; .300 H&H Magnum with 180-grain bullet; .300 H&H Magnum with 220-grain bullet; .300 Weatherby Magnum with 180-grain spire-point bullet; and .375 H&H Magnum with 300-grain bullet.

To the argument of the novice that powerful rifles kick too much, or have to be of sufficient weight that they become burdensome, I have this answer: The big-game hunter willing and able to surmount the other real physical rigors of grizzly-hunting, surely should have, or develop the stamina necessary to the skillful shooting of a powerful rifle. Even the Big Bertha, the .375 H&H Magnum, kicks no more than duck loads in a 12-gauge shotgun—which kids the country over—shoot with pleasure. My neighbor Ike Ellis has in his battery a Magnum 3-inch 12-gauge shotgun, a .357 Magnum revolver, and similar powerful arms. Ike loves to shoot them, and considers recoil as being more of a big bad noise than a kick. He is five feet four inches tall and weighs just one hundred fifty pounds.

Here are several actual, indicative examples of grizzly bear reaction to rifle-fire:

My first silvertip was hit at the point of the shoulder with a 180-grain Silvertip bullet from a .300 H&H Magnum. The bullet entered the lung cavity at close range, pulverizing the lungs and semi-paralyzing the beast. It died soon after rolling into the Arctic birch.

Another much larger grizzly was shot from prone at close to two hundred yards as it moseyed along an opening in the bush. The first bullet, a 180-grain Silvertip from the same rifle, broke the right shoulder blade and blew up in the chest cavity. Ten minutes later the animal succeeded in getting to its feet and I sent another bullet into the left shoulder, almost identically opposite. This one broke the left shoulder, completely mincing the lungs. After waiting ten minutes longer, I approached the beast. It was still on its hind feet, trying to move, with chest on the ground and blood flowing from its mouth. I neck-shot it at thirty yards.

The smallest grizzly I ever killed was hit with the same bullet from a different rifle of the same caliber, directly through the lungs. Shock rolled the beast over on its back, at ninety steps. Two minutes later, as I thought it to be kicking its last, the animal rolled onto its feet, then galloped fast as a saddle-horse, for one hundred twenty-five paces—incidentally, not towards me.

In 1951, Doctor Jacobs, one of our party, shot a medium-sized grizzly with a standard .270 rifle shooting 130-grain factory ammunition. The bear was digging marmots in the rocks, presenting an open shot at around two hundred yards. Doc is a fine rifle-shot, and each bullet found the chest cavity. It took four perfectly placed bullets to kill the animal.

On the same trip, Gordon Fairley and Clyde Martin, two others of our party, tangled with two grizzlies in the bush at medium range. Gordy was shooting a custom-made .270, Martin a standard .300 H&H, which he’d bought for the trip on my recommendation. They literally shot all the ammunition they carried before finally killing the two beasts, though the “groups” on the hides, I’ll admit, were not minute-of-angle patterns. Neither were they all into vital areas.

On the way home, Martin was thoughtful and still scared from the affair. “You know that .300 I bought?” he asked me. “Well, when I get home I’m going to ream it out to .50-caliber. You just can’t kill them big bastards can you?”

Lastly, on my grizzly hunt of 1954. I shot a medium-sized bruin at just over a hundred yards with a .300 Weatherby Magnum, shooting 180-grain Hornady spire-points at just under maximum velocity. It took three shots, all within a hand-sized group on the rib-cage, to give that brute the quietus. It went down at each hit, but rose again, also, at each of the first two shots.

Until the hunter has actually killed a grizzly or so, there is no way of convincing him of the bear’s unbelievable tenacity, vitality, and sheer will to live. The novice hunter, abruptly discovering this after he’s hit a grizzly, often suddenly wishes that instead of presence of mind, he had absence of body.

What then, are the best grizzly bear rifles?

For the sportsman-hunter, hunting these bear in strange country under hunting conditions, I’d place the minimum in standard commercial cartridges as the .30-06 shooting 220-grain ammunition, and Winchester’s new .358 with either 200-grain or 250-grain bullets. Other suitable factory grizzly bear rifles are the .348 Winchester with 200-grain bullets; .300 H&H Magnum with 180- or 220-grain ammunition; and the .375 H&H Magnum with either 270- or 300-grain bullets.

Wildcat calibers and rifles which duplicate the ballistics of these standard calibers are, of course, as adequate.

Choice of the cartridge will, naturally, determine the type of rifle. Generally speaking the rifle action will be a bolt, with the exception of the .348 Winchester, since it takes a bolt action to handle the power of such cartridges and bring out the full ballistic potential.

If I had to choose but one standard cartridge and rifle for grizzly-hunting and for hunting all the other species covered by this volume, I’d personally choose the standard .300 H&H Magnum. Were I limited to but one “wildcat” rifle and cartridge for all the species of really big American big-game, I’d choose the .300 Weatherby Magnum. The Weatherby .300 will duplicate the performance of the standard .300 H&H. By taking advantage of powerful, maximum hand-loads, with the numerous bullet-weights available to this caliber, the Weatherby .300 Magnum can be made to far out-perform the standard .300.

Sights for the grizzly bear rifle must vary with the individual hunter. However, the full potential of the grizzly bear rifle and cartridge cannot be brought out, either as to accuracy or range, without the use of a scope. I have found a low-power scope sight, of good quality and from 1 1/2- to 4-power, to be a must on the grizzly bear rifle. Such a glass doubles nicely as binoculars to the hunter unused to climbing in high altitudes, and already over-burdened with weight.

A sling is necessary, both for accuracy at long ranges and while using the sitting or the prone position, and to take the sheer drudgery out of rifle-carrying.

For hunting brownies, a battery of two rifles is fine. Since the brown bear is normally found in the open tidal-flat areas, often being spotted at extreme ranges, one flat-shooting rifle of ample power and equipped with telescope sight, becomes almost a necessity. For shooting in heavier foliage and at closer ranges, a rifle with even greater knock-down power is vital. This, both for the hunter’s safety and to prevent wounding and loss of a prized game animal.

A scope-equipped .300 H&H Magnum, or comparable wild-cat rifle, and a .375 H&H Magnum make a fine combination. In as much as the law requires a guide, the hunter can carry the heavier caliber, and the guide tote the other. If a beast is spotted at long range, there is ample time to change rifles. Otherwise, the less experienced hunter habitually has with him the heavier ordnance for any possible surprise, or short-range shooting.

If any single piece of advice were to be given the grizzly-hunter, it had best be, “Make the first shot fatal.”

The grizzly-hunter naturally is concerned with the size of his trophy. For purposes of comparison, grizzlies have been killed whose skulls measure over sixteen inches in length.

Certain field measurements should be taken immediately after the animal is killed. Too, if there is any possibility that the trophy may later be entered in any kind of competition, such measurements should be witnessed and the affadavit notarized, if at all possible. Too, the entire skull of the animal, as well as the pelt—caped-out down to the last joint of all toe bones—should be saved. Occasionally trophies are injured in transit during the home trip, and measurements previously taken become invaluable.

The basic measurements for grizzly bear are:

(1) Length of hide, with animal lying on its side, from tip of snout to tip of tail.

(2) Length of hide between same two points, after hide has been laid flat, without stretching.

(3) Width across hide between tips of front claws, without moving hide from position used for measurement 2.

(4) Length of skull longitudinally, from occipital protuberance (medulla) to end of skull bone at the nose, but without lower jaw.

(5) Width of skull across the zygomatic arches.

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