What it’s like to take a bear defense course
I’ve been interested in bear protection and a bear defense course for a while, mostly because just the mere thought of surprising a bear to the point of attack heebies the jeebies right out of me; it leaves me quaking in my Xtratuf Salmon Sisters Deck Boots; sweating .357 magnum bullets…you get the picture.
That is why I signed up for the Bear Aware and Intro to Firearms for Bear Defense course with the enthusiastic team at Accurate Advantage. Led by highly respected, local hunter and firearms expert Sarah Stallone, Accurate Advantage is a company in Anchorage that provides a foundation to firearms safety, gun knowledge, and situational defense to the local community. Their goal is to arm people with knowledge which they do with a mixture of classroom learning and on-the-range training.
Like most anglers I love bears and feel being around them in the wilderness is a majestic experience. I also have a healthy fear of them in knowing they are a wild, powerful animal. I’ll do everything in my power to avoid a bear encounter and take plenty of precaution ahead of time and in the field. It’s those rare, unplanned moments and unlikely chance encounters that leave me wanting to prepare for the worse case scenario.
I convinced my husband to take the bear defense course with me. I had him at “guns”. We showed up to the Rabbit Creek Shooting Park at 6 PM on a Friday evening this past November, meeting in the Hunter Education Building. The first night was filled with a presentation led by Sarah talking to our small group about bear behavior. Sarah was accompanied by her team including her husband Tony Stallone and Robby Gunther.
We learned about a bear’s natural response in certain situations, and while some bears are unpredictable, they often follow a certain protocol. Sarah talked about bear biology, sharing a YouTube video that is dated but still one of the most comprehensive presentations on bear attacks available. We learned how to identify brown bear versus black bear from their physical appearance including the shape of their snout, how their ears sit, or where their humps may or may not appear.
The discussion moved to preemptive planning, like bringing a bear-proof, food-storage container to keep smells and food draws to a minimum. We heard about the do’s and don’ts in bear country—do’s like washing your dishes far away from your sleeping tent and don’ts like choosing not to camp on a bear super highway or next to a food source.
Is bear spray enough?
The inevitable talk about what to do in the unlikely situation of a bear attack came up. Is a bear spray safety deterrent enough to stop a bear? It certainly can be in all the right conditions. You can have all the knowledge in the world but when a real-life situation occurs in the blink of an eye you have to know where to aim and to be aware of when and how to spray. We headed outside to practice with inert bear spray on the heated, lighted range. We learned to watch for wind direction and make quick bursts of the spray aimed at bear targets to see where it landed, working in teams with one of us acting as a wind spotter.
Sarah concluded with a brief overview on which firearms pack enough punch to put a bear down in a life-or-death situation. We learned about being prepared to shoot because you have a whole lot of work to do and scrutiny to succumb to if you do shoot a bear in Alaska. You must pack the bear out properly by regulation for the area where it occurs and you will be interviewed and analyzed by ADF&G and Alaska Wildlife Troopers.
During the bear safety course we talked about the best spot to shoot on a charging bear for maximum effect in an attack. It’s not the humane hunter point of view with a kill shot to the lung or skull as you might think; you shoot them right in the kisser where the bullet has a chance to enter the skull through the soft tissue behind the bear’s snout as the means to put them down at the angle of them charging on all fours. Another viable option is taking out a shoulder to stop them temporarily. We were encouraged to ask questions about any of these subjects throughout the evening and again at the end of class.
The next afternoon we met back at the shooting range, dressed to be outside for several hours. It’s a nice set up under heaters but I still appreciated my ice-fishing bibs to stay warm! First Sarah pointed out a couple of chest holsters she typically finds useful. I tested the Alaska Guide holster that’s been around for years. I felt pretty comfortable in it and thought it would work well for carrying an appropriate bear protection gun.
Enforced from the moment we started talking about firearms, the Accurate Advantage team went over the basic principles of gun safety and general range behavior; always treat a gun like it is loaded, keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction away from anything you are not willing to destroy, keep your finger off the trigger until you are going to shoot, and know your target, including what’s in front of it and beyond it.
Robby led the charge when it was time to examine bear protection shotguns. He showed us the basic way to hold a shotgun, how to check if it’s loaded, the proper stance for firing, and where and how to aim. To shoot the shotgun Robby recommended a modified Weaver position where your support foot is forward, strong foot is in the back with your feet spread approximately shoulder-width apart. If you are right-handed, you put your left foot forward. Next pull the shotgun stock tight into your shoulder pocket, with your cheek resting on top of the stock. Use your right eye to look down the barrel through the sights or at the front bead when you aim.
Then Robby asked who wanted to go first. A local woman stepped up and fired the 12 gauge like she owned it. Then her husband took a turn. My husband followed like he’s been shooting guns for almost 40 years (because he has) and then it was my turn. Robby verbally walked me through the steps. I followed his directions including a reminder at the end to run the pump.
Next up, we spent time with a couple different revolvers—another common bear protection gun in the right caliber, especially for anglers who want to be mobile and hands-free on rivers. Before coming to class I had aims on practicing with a .44 magnum and a .454 Casull, two common handgun cartridges meant for bear protection. Sarah explained the best bear gun selection is actually the one you are most comfortable with and willing to practice with most. For me that was their Ruger SP101 in .357 magnum. I tried it with both .38 special ammo and .357 magnum ammo. I quickly preferred the .38 special. I planted my non-firing hand on my body while I removed the gun from my chest holster to avoid any extra catastrophe in the event of an accidental fire. I pointed the gun down range away from people and towards the target. I loaded a couple bullets into the revolver as Sarah had shown us, noting where they were in the cylinder. We had practiced loading the bullets efficiently taking them from our pockets and using two fingers to load them in the gun, making sure it locked. I planted my left hand over my right hand for stability, cocked the hammer, took my firing stance, aimed and brought my finger around to the trigger. I was comfortable shooting and hitting the target.
I fired their .44 mag as well as my husband’s. I don’t enjoy this caliber as much as the .357 because of the kick back and the effect on my aim. I’d have to spend a lot more time practicing with this caliber if I were to use it for bear protection. When it came to the .454 Casull I just opted out after overhearing the men saying “no thanks”. Sarah, Tony and Robby were there to give hands on instruction the whole time.
We also got to try some semi-automatic pistols. I wasn’t as interested in them since my main purpose is bear protection, not so much protection from humans. But I’m not as brazen with bears, so I think a well-practiced .357 magnum is my preference, along with a can of holstered bear spray on each hip if I’m hiking in the backcountry.
Bear attacks are rare and uncommon. Still the chance encounter exists when living an active outdoor lifestyle in Alaska. Your chance of survival has everything to do with your knowledge and preparedness. I would highly recommend this bear defense course with Accurate Advantage. Their team is safety-first oriented, knowledgeable on the expert level, fun-loving, and enthusiastic. Sarah Stallone has over 30 years of experience in bear country, a 12-year career in the hunting and guiding industry, and has worked in the hunting industry in Alaska in retail, as a buyer, and currently as a manufacturer’s rep for Leupold Optics. She’s a total rockstar and one of my favorite people in the industry. Every bit of communication with Sarah was professional, thorough, and elaborate. Their team provided more than I hoped for when taking this course.
Visit accurateadvantage.us for more information or call Sarah at 907-223-8617.