Here in Canada, the notion of using a firearm for self-defence is a contentious one; often spurring both heated and lively debate. Until you mention bears.Because in the True North strong and free, if there’s one thing we take seriously, it’s bears. Home to three distinct species of bear, and populated by the giant omnivorous mammals from coast to coast to coast, they pose a very real threat to those that would otherwise enjoy the Canadian wilderness and while an ounce of prevention can often prove superior to a pound of cure, there may come a time in which an ounce of cure is precisely what’s called for.
Which brings us, punnily enough, to the average Canadian’s bear defence gun of choice: the 12-gauge shotgun. Now, don’t get us wrong; there’s an unequivocal place for big-bore carbines in the annals of Canadian history, many of which have been pointed at innumerable quantities of bear with great success… but this is the 21st century, and while 45-70 may knock a bear as dead now as it did in the last century, utilizing a 12-guage shotgun from any number of popular manufacturers allows the implementation of a variety of optics and aiming systems, carrying options, and ammunitions that the traditional carbine simply can’t match.
Oddly enough, while this specific topic may be the most frequently debated, it’s also the least important. With countless shotguns on the market offering excellent reliability and a vast array of features, an individual’s specific choice should play more to an individual’s specific tastes, rather than to the notion of any absolute “best bear gun.” But there are a few things to consider worthy of noting before plunking down anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars on a potential bear defence/wilderness shotgun.
The first and foremost question to be answered is one of action selection: should you carry a pump-action shotgun, or a semi-automatic? As with all firearms, both categories have their merits, with the pump-action shotgun having long since earned its reputation as the all-purpose, all-weather wilderness gun while the semi-automatic is rapidly gaining repute as the gun to have under duress when limbs can no longer be trusted to cooperate. The main factors that play into selecting either a pump-action gun or a newer semi-automatic are not entirely unpredictable, with price, devotion to maintenance, and willingness to practice being chief among them. The use of a semi-automatic requires more diligent maintenance in order to ensure 100% reliability, while the selection of a pump-action gun requires a similarly diligent approach to practice to ensure the motion of cycling the action after firing becomes so deeply engrained that to shoot without pumping a fresh round into the chamber feels odd. Also too, one needs to consider the terrain and method by which the gun will be transported, as pump-action guns are frequently far more averse to mistreatment and the ingress of dirt and junk into their actions than are their semi-automatic brethren. And be honest with yourself here. While we’d all like to think we’re dedicated enough to do our best impression of Tom Berenger from Sniper and carry our firearms above our heads ad nauseum to keep them safe from harm, the harsh truth is often farther from that fiction than we’d like. Tom Berenger never had to hop a ditch, clamber over a large rock face, or answer the call of nature in Sniper. Try doing that while holding your shotgun overhead.
Once you’ve come to terms with those factors, and determined which action to be correct for your specific tastes, the selection of an actual gun is even easier. If you’d feel more confident stoking the action yourself, the most popular and best options are encapsulated by the various models of omnipresent Remington 870 and similarly robust Mossberg 590A1, with the Mossberg 500, Winchester SXP, and Benelli Nova following up as respectable runners up due more to the preponderance of parts and accessories available for the 870 and 590A1 than to any perceived weakness within the 500, SXP, and Nova’s design. But more on that later. Prices for any of these guns range from $200 on up to almost $1,000 depending on model, and condition.
The field of semi-automatic options is even smaller: really, your best bet for a new semi-automatic wilderness gun is limited to the Benelli M2, and to a slightly lesser degree, the Remington Versa Max. Why? Because those two shotguns remain two of the only semi-automatic guns on the market that pair steadfast reliability with the availability of a shorter barrel. In the case of the Benelli M2, that reliability stems from the use of Benelli’s excellent Inertia Driven action, with the most compact example being the 18.5 inch-barrelled Tactical model. In the case of the Remington, the reliability is a by-product of a unique gas system that keeps the number of moving parts to just two (the two pistons, specifically) and locates the entirety of the action within the barrel, close to the receiver. However, it’s not as compact as the Benelli, with the shortest barrel available being 22 inches long. On the plus side, that 3.5 inches of additional tree-snagging, knee-knocking barrel length will save you in the neighbourhood of $250, with the Benelli tipping the fiscal scales at roughly $1,700 while the Versa Max Tactical typically coming in at around $1,450.
In either case, it’s best to once again consider the terrain and conditions in which you’ll be carrying your wilderness shotgun around; if you live in a typically wet climate, intend on leaving your shotguns in a less than climate-controlled environment, or know they’ll be accompanying you on the water, the 590A1 Mariner or 870 Marine Magnum make a compelling argument for the merits of stainless steel, while the availability of short 12″ and 14″ barrels for the traditional 870 Wingmaster and Express are undeniably handy for those bushwhackers for whom the reduced weight and compactness of a small shotgun mean easier carrying. After all, the best wilderness gun is the one you’ll have with you, so thinking critically about what features will make you more likely to carry this gun with greatest of ease is a good step towards ensuring it remains a comforting companion rather than a burden more likely to be left in the safe.
What to feed it?
There are two reasons why more Canadian wilderness professionals rely on a 12 gauge shotgun for protection than any other firearm: power, and versatility. With the unique ability to fire either single projectiles or vast quantities of shot, shotguns allow their owners to tailor their load to the situation in question in a manner unmatched by any other firearm. In the case of a wilderness shotgun carried for predator and animal defence, that means stuffing the magazine tube with either buckshot, or slugs.
Now, which you choose will be determined by both the season and the region, as bears aren’t the only animals in Canada possessing of a high degree of lethality. Moose, for example, are a typically passive animal that’s not frequently thought of as dangerous, and yet female moose are responsible for more deaths in Canada than any other animal, including grizzly bear. Becoming violently defensive of their calves from mid-May to June, female moose instinctively try to trample any perceived threat, while male moose typically become most dangerous during their rut, or mating season, which usually spans from September to late October. And as if the danger posed by three species of bear and some gigantic moose wasn’t enough, we Canadians may also have to contend with the impolite advances of cougars, rattlesnakes, wolves, and even bullish elk while out enjoying our vast land.
But thankfully, due to the massive advances that have been made in shotgun ammunition in order to meet the growing needs of shotgun-only hunting seasons, there’s no shortage of ammunition options with which to defend oneself. But, in most northern reaches of wilderness where grizzly bear may lurk (not to mention the aforementioned moose or elk), you really only need one: a 12 gauge slug. With grain counts typically falling between 300 and 400, these massive chunks of lead impart an unsurprisingly huge amount of energy to the target, and are now becoming accurate enough that some manufacturers claim 2″ accuracy at 100 yards. However, keep in mind that the massive amount of power a 12 gauge slug commands downrange will also impart one hell of a wallop to your shoulder, so both exercising a degree of restraint (most would do well to stay away from the 3″ magnum slugs) and practicing with your chosen load will be crucial to ensure that your first shot isn’t your last. To put it in perspective, the fastest slug on the market, Remington’s new 3″ magnum HyperSonic slug, launches a 300-grain projectile downrange at 2300 feet per second; roughly 100 feet per second faster than a factory .375 H&H load… and the .375 H&H is not a round known for making follow-up shots easy.
Now, some may profess that buckshot may be a perfectly acceptable choice in areas where one isn’t liable to encounter a brown, or grizzly bear; such as the southern regions of BC, or Alberta. However, while the larger spread offered by buckshot may be appealing, its terminal performance is such that much of the advantage offered up by the larger pattern it throws is offset by its relative lack of lethality against a larger predator intent on doing you harm.
How to carry it?
All of this preparation work and investment in a backwoods shotgun will be for naught if it isn’t easily carried, and that doesn’t mean useless socked away in a backpack. While it’s possible to make arguments for or against all the previous points we’ve illustrated thus far, on this particular one there can be no debate: any backwoods shotgun should be carried on a sling, or not carried at all.
And with the wide variety of slings, and sling mounts, available on the market today that’s hardly a hardship. However, consider the rest of your gear before you type “best shotgun sling” into Google, because depending on how you carry the remainder of your gear may dictate what sort of sling you use. For example, if the majority of your time spent in the woods is passed with a fishing rod in hand, you’ll want to find a sling arrangement that keeps the gun close at hand and easily carried without impinging on your ability to access tackle and tools you may have stowed in a vest pocket, nor your ability to handle the rod and reel.
For most purposes, sling options can be broken down into two distinct categories: two point, and single point. Basically, a single point sling hangs the firearm across the chest or down to one side under the arm, while a conventional two point sling usually sees the firearm carried across the back. Obviously, you’ll want to select the sling method that is the best compromise of accessible and convenient, but you’ll also want to consider strap width, gun weight, and sling mounting point options as well, as those factors will play in to how comfortable you remain after a long day on the trail or at the stream.
How do you aim it at something?
Shooting a shotgun isn’t quite like shooting any other firearm; the prototypical shotgun has no rear sight. Typically outfitted with a simple bead affixed to the end of the barrel, a shotgun’s accuracy is reliant on a consistent mount on the shooter’s shoulder, and a consistent cheek weld to provide a repeatable “sight picture.” And according to Eric Beer, an instructor with Silvercore; a BC-based firearms training academy offering courses in bear defence, the simple bead arrangement is typically what most agencies and companies prefer to outfit their employees with. When asked why, the answer was simple: they don’t break, and they don’t snag on things. However, he did give credit to the various popular ghost-ring sight systems as an almost-as-good solution for the average person, as they combine the simplicity of a bead with the more traditional sighting process of a rifle; allowing people to become proficiently accurate more rapidly.
However, while a ghost ring system may prove useful to those that are unfamiliar with the traditional shotgun “pointing” process, it’s important to note two things about any potential sight, be it a bead, ghost ring, rifle sight, or optic. The first is its shape and attachment. Many of the large blade-type front sights associated with rifle or ghost ring sights are large and squared off, which means they’ll also hook on any and everything that can, and depending on their attachment method could lead to the front sight simply departing from the barrel. The next thing to consider are the conditions in which you may be forced to use the gun. If your excursions are limited to fishing during daylight hours and you’re safely back at your truck by dusk, your needs will obviously be different than those that are staying out past dark, when traditional beads and sights become entirely useless. In that sort of situation, using something like XS Sight System’s clamp-on, winged tritium front sight allows you to have both a well-protected, well-attached front sight that works equally well in daylight, low-light, and night time conditions.
How do you hit something?
Once you’ve bought or built a gun that best suits your specific needs, an even greater amount of effort must be expended to ensure that you’re as ready to use it, as it is ready to be used. According to Eric Beer from Silvercore again, that means two things: practicing, and practicing more. Starting with dummy rounds and practicing basic firearm manipulation, he maintains that one should practice bringing the firearm from the carried position to a condition in which it is ready to fire until it becomes second nature. He also mentions using tools such as downloadable shot timer apps (many of which can be downloaded for free on popular smartphones) to measure your progress and add a certain level of stress to your practice.
While dry fire practice is excellent at teaching the discrete skills associated with getting your gun into action, you’ll also need to get out there and bang through some rounds. Shooting birdshot at clays at the local sporting clays course will give you an appreciation of shooting a moving target through various presentations, while putting slugs through a paper target will allow you to practice absorbing the recoil and bringing the gun back on target quickly. As you get more proficient at those processes, you can begin combining all that you’ve practiced this far, and start timing how long it takes to go from a walking pace to putting rounds on a moving target.
The last step in practicing is to start simulating animal attacks. At Silvercore and other schools, this is done by using appropriately sized targets that rush towards the students, replicating a bear’s charge. Obviously, simply enrolling in such a course is the best way to get this sort of practice as well as some excellent feedback, but those without such facilities at their disposal can use such basic methods as a tire released from atop a slight hill to practice shooting at an object coming towards them.
As firearms aficionados and enthusiasts, we relish pretty much any excuse to build, buy, or otherwise expand our collections of firearms and firearm accessories. However, it’s important to consider the purpose of a truck, wilderness, or backpacking gun such as we’ve outlined here: what we’re talking about isn’t as much a toy as it is a tool, and it’s important to treat it as such. Because when you live in a country with no shortage of gigantic things that wouldn’t mind killing you, it’s important to keep that ever-popular motto in mind, and be prepared.