What is the best bear defense weapon is the subject of much debate. But, much of the evidence available suggests that many choose a shotgun for this role. Why? Because shotguns tend to be affordable, reliable and can throw a big chunk of lead. So, what is the best bear defense shotgun? Let us look at some of the offerings available.
In this article, I will be dealing primarily with 12-gauge shotguns. I know that other gauges have performed effectively in defense against a bruin, but for grizzly bears, a small gauge gun can lack terminal energy.
If a small gauge shotgun is what you have or the largest you can shoot effectively, then use it, preferably with appropriate ammunition (see ammo paragraph near the end). Likewise, a 10-gauge shotgun works quite well against large and irate animals, but the weapons tend to be long and heavy models geared towards hunting waterfowl and not fun to carry for any duration.
Most of my recommendations come with 18-inch barrels and full-length buttstocks. This is the standard defensive configuration sold by most manufacturers. You can make your weapon even shorter and handier by registering it as a Short-Barreled Shotgun (SBS), but that brings its own set of legal challenges.
So, let us dive in.
Table of Contents
Top Pick: Mossberg 590A1
With a heavy-walled barrel, ghost-ring sights, and a 7-round capacity, the 590A1 means business. It is the same shotgun used by several branches of the US military and it is combat-proven. This track record is proof enough for me to include it on the list to carry if my life was on the line.
Runner Up: Remington 870
Finally back in production after its bankruptcy-induced hiatus, the Remington 870 is the other mil-spec gun on this list. A decent example will probably be more expensive than the 590A1 but is just as reliable. I grew up with a Remington 870 and tend to be partial to them, but acquiring a defensive barrel for mine would cost nearly enough to buy another gun altogether.
Honorable Mention: Benelli Nova
The Nova took the market by storm upon its release in 1999. and for good reason. With its polymer wrapped receiver and polymer stock, the Nova was both weather-resistant and durable enough to survive in the bottom of a duck boat without damage.
The rotary bolt mechanism is lightning quick, and the shell-cutoff button on the forearm allows you to switch out the shell in the chamber without having one come out of the magazine. This feature allows for a quick swap from birdshot to slug in an emergency.
The Stevens 320, Mossberg Maverick 88, and RIA Meriva shotguns all fall into the category of affordable and reliable. All three are available for less than $250 at Academy Sports and can be had with ghost-ring sights and or pistol grip stocks. None of these weapons have been faulted for reliability, and two of them trace their lineage to proven designs. The Stevens 320 is a descendant of the Winchester 1300 series, and the Maverick is a brother to the Mossberg Model 500.
These weapons check all the boxes for a reliable shotgun that will not break the bank or cause you to feel bad about carrying in nasty conditions.
The option that no one can agree on: The PGO Shotgun
The Mossberg Shockwave and Remington TAC-13 are a class of weapons that do not fit the legal definition of either a shotgun or a pistol and end up a slight combination of both. Sporting 14-inch barrels and birds-head grips, these weapons are compact but carry the same firepower as their full-stocked brethren.
There seems to be no consensus on the suitability of these two guns for bear defense. Some call them the best bear defense shotgun available, while others counter that they are the worst. The weapons can be hard to shoot with heavy loads and are designed for very close quarters. If you go this route, please spend enough time at the range to become proficient with the gun.
Other Shotguns for Consideration
The Double Barrel.
While not the best defensive weapon due to limited capacity, it is better than a single shot. Models like the Stoeger Coach gun are purpose-built as a short and handy weapon. Other models like the Mossberg Maverick O/U Thunder Ranch edition or the Stoeger Outback, come with rifle sights or scope rail installed for faster target acquisition.
An advantage to a double-barrel is having two different types of ammunition loaded simultaneously. A slug in one barrel and birdshot in the other makes for versatility in staying alive and gathering dinner (just don’t squeeze off the wrong barrel).
In the same vein as a double-barrel (but much more expensive), the combination gun has limited firepower but increased versatility. If you run a trapline, a model with a .223 barrel over a 12 gauge allows one to take coyotes and other game while having a slug on hand for emergencies.
If you are blessed to own a drilling (three-barreled gun) then you have a formidable weapon for bear defense. Most drillings can be heavy beasts, but if kept as cabin gun, allow two slugs and a high-powered rifle round to be at your fingertips.
Ammunition for Bear Defense
While non-lethal rounds like loud blanks and beanbags are available to deter an aggressive bear, they do not always do the job. When the excrement hits the spinning blades in a bear-human encounter, heavy shells like slugs or buckshot are needed to resolve the situation.
Buckshot, especially the 000 variety, will make a severe impression at close range. But, the .36 caliber pellets may not penetrate deep enough to save your bacon. Use a slug to maximize your shotgun’s terminal effectiveness.
A solid slug like a Brenneke Classic Magnum will penetrate well without losing too much energy to deformation. Brenneke slugs were designed to kill large game in Africa and Europe and do it quite well. Typical rifled slugs are hollow and can flatten upon the impact of heavy bone, limiting the depth of the wound cavity. In the smaller gauges, the need for penetration is even more acute. Choose your ammunition wisely, and carry as large a gauge as you can shoot well.
Intimate familiarity with a reliable shotgun loaded with good slugs can mean the difference between life and death during a bad encounter in bear country. Pick a good gun, practice with it, and get used to carrying it.
What would your choice be? Let me know in the comments below.
Stay safe out there.