The perfect bear cartridge doesn’t exist because the perfect bear doesn’t exist. Don’t get me wrong. They’re all good bears. They’re just not a consistent size. Or even species. They range from 150-pound black bears to 1,300-pound brown bears.
So forget the perfect, all-round bear cartridge. Instead, let’s concentrate on a good black bear round. This is assignment enough because black bears can grow to weigh more than 700 pounds! Most, however, are going to fit into the 150 to 400-pound range, and that’s doable for a great number of cartridges. Before we dive into those, however, let’s pay homage to something even more important — the bullet.
In our enthusiasm for cartridges we often forget that the bullet is the real work horse here. You can run it through the fanciest, most advanced, most accurate rifle in the world and push it to hyper velocity, but if it’s not built right, you lose.
A good bear bullet needs to be stout, something that will not just stick around, but stick together. Because we’re asking it to reach the vitals of an animal that has lots of thick fur, reasonably heavy hide, muscle and bone — and often enough bulk to slow bullets dramatically before they reach the pump house — a black bear bullet should be fairly heavy and built to stay in one piece. That suggests a monolithic hollow point like Winchester’s Razor Boar XT, Power Core, and E-Tip. Equally good options are Winchester’s bonded bullets with their jackets molecularly tied to their lead cores. These include Power Max Bonded, AccuBond CT, and AccuBond LR.
The idea with all these premium bullets is enough toughness to withstand dramatic, high-energy impacts, stay in one piece and plow deep into and through the vitals, leaving a sizable exit hole. An exit hole is important because bears leave no sharp hoof prints as they run. Their fat and hair tend to plug small leaks and soak up blood.
Not all cartridges need to fling a super-tough bullet. You have to take impact velocity into account. A 30-30 Winchester, for instance, launches 170-grain projectiles at just less than 2,400 fps. That results in a lot less bullet energy than a 30-06’s 150-grain bullet at 2,900 fps or a 300 WSM’s 180-grain at 3,000 fps.
You also must consider bullet weight and diameter. Winchester’s 405-grain Lead Flat Nose 45-70 Govt. is stepping out at just 1,150 fps, but you don’t want to get in front of it. A bullet that large at close range just tends to keep crushing forward.
So, choose your bullets to match your cartridge and the velocity it’s putting out. An easy rule to remember is to use the heaviest bullets available in whichever cartridge you’re shooting. A 150-grain in 270 Win., a 180 or 190 in 30-06, a 140-grain in 6.5×55 Swede or 6.5 Creedmoor, etc.
That firmly in mind, we can begin contemplating cartridge options. Traditionally, big game hunters have longed for more velocity because it provides more reach. With black bears, reach isn’t usually a major need. Most bears are encountered while stand-hunting over bait or still-hunting in thick woods. In some places you stalk them along the edges of forage fields of alfalfa, wheat or oats. Along some coasts you can stalk beach combing bears. Heck, you can even call black bears into your lap by mimicking a wounded fawn or frightened black bear cub. That’s exciting!
Any and all of these hunting tactics usually lead to close shots, often inside of 100 yards, almost always inside of 200 yards. This means high-velocity, long-range cartridges offer no big advantages. This frees you up to entertain the classic 30-30 Winchester, an excellent and proven black bear tool. If you come across Grandad’s old 300 Savage or 303 Savage, you can revisit the good old days with Winchester’s Power Point loads for those classics. Another little-known, deadly, but seldom seen cartridge is the superb 358 Winchester, a short-action round based on the 308 Winchester necked up to 35-caliber. The old 348 Winchester powerhouse in a lever-action would be fantastic on a bear hunt. That thing throws a 200-grain bullet over 2,500 fps.
In 308 Winchester, 30-06 Springfield and 300 WSM you have lots of bullet options. The 300 WSM and its long-legged cousin, the 300 Win. Mag., provide more velocity and flatter trajectories than you truly need, but better too much than too little. There are plenty of hunting grounds in the Rocky Mountain West where we glass-and-stalk black bears, having to take shots across wide draws and canyons.
If you own a 325 WSM or 338 Win. Mag., break it out for any black bear hunt. Both pop with more power than you really need, but there’s no such thing as too dead. With the controlled expansion bullets already described, you’ll have the medicine to deliver from 10 yards to well past 400 yards.
For something different, try a handgun. Revolvers in 357 Magnum, 41 Rem. Mag., 44 Rem. Mag., 45 Win. Mag., 454 Casull, 460 S&W Mag. and 500 S&W Mag. are perfect for short-range black bear work. Chambered in rifles, they’re even better.
Last but not least, you’ve got the slug gun option! Slug guns aren’t famously accurate, but they’re plenty precise enough for stand hunting. With Winchester’s Dual Bond, Partition Gold, and XP3 Tin Core sabot loads, accuracy can be impressive out to 100 yards, nearly double that with some guns.
Big bears, close range, big bullets. It makes sense.