WHY NOT JUST CARRY BEAR SPRAY? The decision to carry a firearm, be it for sport, self defense, in the field, or concealed in town is not one that anybody should take lightly. Unfortunately, in our time, there are far too many well meaning firearm owners who are carrying weapons every day, who have not put in the training and repetition that someone responding to an emergency situation should have, be it in the field or at home. Unfortunately even far too many Law Enforcment Officers are also not trained to the level they ought to be, due to budget constraints and the price of ammunition. This lack of training becomes evident in a 20% successful hit rate in emergency situations for Law Enforcement. Whether you are civilian, military, or a LEO, bottom line, none of it should be taken lightly. Training, discipline and mindset are paramount, and that means drilling for shoot and no-shoot situations and ideally training under stress.
What does this have to do with bear spray? If you are not going to train and drill with a firearm for emergency situations, then you would very likely be better off carrying bear spray for defense in the woods. I'm not saying this to put people who are not training often down. I get it, ammo is expensive, range access or memberships are expensive, and it is hard to find a place where one can practice drawing from a holster. There are reasons to not carry a sidearm while hunting. Money and time are as good as any. You might think you would be just fine with grandpa's old .44 revolver, but if you don't shoot it much and you are basing your ability on how well you shoot your Glock 9mm, cause ammo is cheaper and easier to shoot. Well, either carry that 9 and hope it is capable of getting the job done, or carry bear spray. It is that simple. If you only shoot rifles and don't own any sidearms, either carry your rifle in an accessible position or put some bear spray on your belt. The studies that I have reviewed of bear incidents in Alaska have had over 90% of individuals using bear spray survive incidents uninjured. Whereas 56% of those who used firearms for self defense were injured. I'm going to try to not turn this blog into a mathematical follow the statistics game. I will post a few links, and let you do your own critical thinking.
PEPPER SPRAY HURTS LIKE HELL & BEAR SPRAY IS MORE POTENT. During the time that I worked as a corrections officer I attended Idaho Peace Officer Standards and Training Academy, during which I had to be sprayed by pepper spray. It was over an hour before I started to normalize. Snot poured out of my nose. I wanted to yell and cuss at everyone and hide away in a hole all at the same time. It was as advertised; extraordinarily painful. As my class coordinator said, Oleoresin Capsicum is the most painful thing anyone can experience without actually being hurt. One of our class instructors, a woman who has had two kids naturally, without any pain medication, implied a few times that OC is worse than childbirth. Bear spray is a more potent spray than what is used for defense against people. A few months ago, I tested my bear spray, without wind. I started to feel the effects and almost panicked. It went away shortly and I was fine, but my heart rate increased and my blood pressure rose. I only barely smelled the spray.
Bear Spray is not without its potential problems, if a human can fight through it (inmates do it, officers do it, I did it), I have to believe that a large predator can as well. In fact in one of the studies I will share, 21% of brown bears sprayed with pepper spray returned to where they had been sprayed as did 43% of black bears. Wind affects an aerosol spray quite a bit more than it does a bullet. One cannot control the wind or when and where things will go wrong. The last thing I want in a life or death situation is bear spray in my face. So, on a windy day, do I want bear spray as my only option? Not really. That said, an over 90% success rate is pretty damn good, despite potential problems with wind or animals returning.
I have not examined all of the studies on this topic extensively. But based on most of what I have read, the results seem all too similar to a lot of anti-gun propaganda. There are a lot of unanswered questions. However, handguns were a successful deterrent 84% of the time, and "long guns" rifles or shotguns were successful 76% of the time. Weapons being unloaded, mechanical issues, marksmanship, proximity to the bear were all some of the factors that caused incidents to be considered failures.
SOME UNANSWERED QUESTIONS ON FIREARM USE: What was the shooter's level of experience and how much training had he or she had? What type and caliber of weapon was used against what species? "Long guns" we're only successful 76% of the time. In those instances what caused the failure? Was the weapon slung over the shooter's shoulder or back for ease of carry, forsaking the shooter's ability to easily access the firearm in an emergency? Was a scoped rifle used, making it more difficult for the shooter to get a good sight picture? In the more than 50% of people who used firearms and were injured, what was the extent of the injuries, and why did they occur? Was it lack of access to the weapon, inability to reload, hesitance on the part of the shooter? These studies also only include Alaska, which isn't entirely unfair, but what about Canada, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming etc....?
The studies I reviewed were put together by Tom Smith who is a bear biologist who studied at BYU. I suspect that, as with many statistics, these were compiled with a goal in mind. Mr. Smith being a bear biologist has an interest in public safety, but also in protecting bears from people. I think his goal was to prevent needless killing of bears, and promoting bear spray as a deterrent is a way to do that and keep bears and people in mind. It seems as though some important questions and answers regarding firearm use may have been left out intentionally, which is not uncommon in any debate or study regarding firearms.
Some things that were touched on in the studies, with very little detail: shooter's hesitation to kill an animal, access to the firearm, and loading/reloading. I will discuss reloading and access later. The hesitation really gets to me though. If you are not prepared to take a life in an emergency, don't carry a firearm, or at least carry bear spray as your first line of defense. That said, training and mindset are paramount with bear spray too, in one story I read, a group of NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) students ignored everything they had been taught and ran from a brown bear instead of standing their ground and spraying it. A few were seriously injured and then the bear had to be sprayed by their classmates after the fact.
WHY CARRY TWO GUNS? If I am out hunting I am already carrying a shotgun, or rifle, so what is the purpose of a secondary sidearm? This comes down to access, ammunition, and sights. If ability to access the firearm was a component of injury for some who chose to rely on their firearm, it sounds like (again, the details of this were omitted in the various studies) some hunters might have been carrying their rifle over their shoulder, and when they surprised a bear the hunter was unable to get a good shot with their rifle starting in that position. Taking it a step further, am I holding onto that rifle when field dressing an animal in the dark, with the smell of blood all around? No, I'm holding onto a knife. But if while dressing that animal I also have a reliable sidearm that I have trained with, in a holster, would that be an effective tool? Well, Tom Smith's study cited handguns as being effective more than rifles or shotguns at 84%. While that sample group was relatively small, I suspect it was higher statistically due to ease of access from a holster.
What about when hunting turkey Northwestern states in the spring, (or any other small game hunting) is bird shot an effective round at the end of the day against a bear, or other predators? I'll admit that it would likely scare a lot of animals off. But it is not what I would want if my life were on the line. As many bears as we have seen in the spring turkey season, I prefer to also have a sidearm with me. If I am deer hunting and moving through an area of thick brush and stumble upon a bear, is my deer rifle with a scope the best defense against a charging bear at close range? I mentioned this earlier, getting a good sight picture through the scope in time would be a challenge in and of itself, let alone getting an accurate shot. For this reason many guides use 12 gauge shotguns with open sights or lever guns with short barrels and open sights, as well as a sidearm. I may be preaching to the choir to some, but I have met a lot of hunters who don't want to carry a backup due to everything from comfort to the "image it seems to portray". I have met even more who in my opinion are way undergunned even for "black bear country".
Which brings me to Part 3 which I will post next week. In Part 3 I will discuss what I carry. Some ballistics, semi-auto vs revolvers, training, muscle memory and where that comes into play, and why I feel like I found a great gun for the region I live in.
Stay Tuned. Good Luck. Be Safe.