Contrary to popular belief, black bears are not that hard to kill. On average, they go under 250 pounds. Shots are usually close, and the fact that many bruins are taken incidentally by deer hunters, with deer-hunting rifles should tell you something. But they’re still bears. As a rule, it doesn’t hurt to make a big hole.
Choosing the best cartridge, however, depends on how you hunt. Black bears are typically gotten after in one of three ways: behind hounds, over bait, or via spot and stalk. Hunters trailing hounds don’t need a round with reach, as shots are very close and you have plenty of time to take careful aim. Hunting over bait is a short-range affair, too, but the brush is typically thick and shots more unpredictable, so a hard-hitting cartridge in a repeating rifle is the way to go. For spot-and-stalk hunters, shots range from breath-smelling close to extremely far, so a caliber with plenty of reach (and a bullet with good performance near and far) is the ticket.
Here are 10 of the very best black bear cartridges—three for each hunting method and one all-round top choice.
For Bears with Hounds
The .30/30 Winchester. Richard Mann
If you’ve ever hunted black bears with dogs, you know that the trail can be long and rough enough to stop a mule. For that, a lightweight, easy-carrying, rugged rifle, like an open-sighted Winchester Model 94, is ideal. The shot will be short, and if you fall and roll down the mountain before you get to the tree, you don’t have to worry about a scope losing its zero. The .30/30 is not just a proven bear killer, it is probably the most-proven bear killer. Select a quick-expanding bullet for this kind of hunting.
Top Load: Browning BXR Rapid Expansion
- Bullet Weight: 155 grains
- Muzzle Velocity: 2,390 fps
- Muzzle Energy: 1,966 ft/lbs
The .35 Remington. Richard Mann
Almost forgotten, the .35 Remington is a favorite of hunters who chase black bears with dogs. This antique cartridge seems to kill out of proportion to its ballistic numbers, and old-timers trust it. So should you. I keep a custom takedown Marlin 336 in .35 Remington behind my truck seat. Standard .35 Rem loads will do the job, but Buffalo Bore’s Heavy load operates at the maximum allowable pressure for this cartridge and delivers more copper and lead than any black bear can handle.
Top Load: Buffalo Bore Heavy
- Bullet Weight: 220 grains
- Muzzle Velocity: 2,200 fps
- Muzzle Energy: 2,364 ft/lbs
.44 Remington Magnum
The .44 Remington Magnum. Richard Mann
Mostly considered a revolver cartridge, the .44 Magnum is often chambered in rifles. And those rifles—like the Marlin 1894 or Ruger 77/44—are lightweight, compact, and ideal for hound hunting. Match one with a great .44 Magnum load and you’ll drop bears stone dead, no matter how tall the tree he climbed into is. Make sure you select a tough bullet that will hold up to rifle velocities. (For maximum packing comfort when following hounds in mountain country, check out the Scandium-framed, 25.2-ounce, S&W Model 329PD revolver.)
Top Load: Sig Sauer Elite Performance V-Crown JHP
- Bullet Weight: 240 grains
- Muzzle Velocity: 1,600 fps (rifle); 1,300 fps (pistol)
- Muzzle Energy: 1,364 ft/lbs (rifle); 901 ft/lbs (pistol)
For Bears Over Bait
Yep, it’s old-fashioned, but with modern ammunition the .45/70 is far from antiquated. This cartridge is available in fast-handling lever guns, like the 16.5-inch-barreled Marlin 1895 Trapper. Load it with the latest .45/70 ammo, and it will provide all the short-range bear-busting muscle you’ll ever need. And if you happen to make a bad shot and have to trail a wounded bear into the pucker brush, there’s no better rifle/cartridge combo to be carrying.
Top Load: Barnes VORTX
- Bullet Weight: 300 grains
- Muzzle Velocity: 1,905 fps
- Muzzle Energy: 2,418 ft/lbs
The 12 Gauge. Richard Mann
A 12-gauge shotgun loaded with slugs is more often thought of for bear defense than for bear hunting. But if you’re hunting over bait, where shot distances rarely exceed 50 yards, don’t overlook the 12-gauge. More than 300 grains of lead and copper will knock a mouthful of week-old donuts out of any black bear. And if a particularly curious or aggressive bruin tries to climb into your treestand, you’ll be glad you’ve got a fully loaded slug-slinger in your hands.
Top Load: Remington AccuTip Bonded
- Bullet Weight: 385 grains
- Muzzle Velocity: 1,850 fps
- Muzzle Energy: 2,925 ft/lbs
There are a number AR-15-compatible cartridges that you can hunt bears with, but this is my top choice. At bear-baiting distances, the Wilson Combat 300 HAM’R will do anything the .30/30 Winchester will, and from a lighter package that holds more ammunition. Attach a reflex sight and you’ll have a nimble rifle chambered for a cartridge that’ll hammer black bears of any size. And if you need a quick second shot, nothing is faster than an AR-15.
Top Load: Wilson Combat Speer Hot Core
- Bullet Weight: 150 grains
- Muzzle Velocity: 2,265 fps
- Muzzle Energy: 1,708 ft/lbs
For Spot-and-Stalk Bears
The 6.5 Creedmoor. Richard Mann
The wildly popular Creedmoor may seem a little light, but it makes the list because out to around 400 yards or so this mild-kicking round not only does the job on black bears, but is also a joy for anyone to shoot, including young hunters. It also flies flat and the sectional density of the best 6.5 bullets helps them penetrate deeply. I took my largest spot-and-stalk bear—a 355 pounder—with a 6.5 Creedmoor. Make sure you select a bullet that will hold together at close range and still deform at distance, because you never know how far you might have to shoot.
Top Load: Hornady ELD-X Precision Hunter
- Bullet Weight: 143 grains
- Muzzle Velocity: 2,700 gps
- Muzzle Energy: 2,315 ft/lbs
The .338 Federal. Richard Mann
If ever there was a cartridge made for bear hunting, it was the .358 Winchester. I killed my first bear with a .358, and for deep-woods stalks, it has plenty of reach and mojo to get the job done. Buffalo Bore’s 225-grain Heavy load is the best option still going, but the .358 has largely gone the way of the dodo. The .338 Federal is the modern version of the .358—but even better. It hits harder, shoots flatter, and you can actually find factory ammunition for it. For spot-and-stalk bear hunting in cluttered country, this one is tough to beat.
Top Load: Federal Fusion
- Bullet Weight: 200 grains
- Muzzle Velocity: 2,660 fps
- Muzzle Energy: 3,140 ft/lbs
.300 Winchester Magnum
The .300 Winchester Magnum. Richard Mann
As a rule, magnums are not necessary for black bears. But when a big boar is looking for love in the spring, he’ll cover a whole lot of ground. And he probably won’t wait around for you to get up close and personal. Your only opportunity might be brief, and it might max out the limits of your skill and equipment. If you’re capable and you think you might have to shoot across a wide canyon, you need a cartridge that flies flat and hits hard at distance—and the .300 Win Mag does just that.
- Bullet Weight: 190 grains
- Muzzle Velocity: 2,900 fps
- Muzzle Energy: 3,547 ft/lbs
Best All-Round Black Bear Cartridge
If you’re looking for a one-cartridge answer for all methods of black-bear hunting, it boils down to the .308 Winchester, as it does for just about every other type of big-game hunting in North America. The .308 fits in compact rifles of all action types. You can find ammo at gas stations, roadside markets, and probably under your truck seat. Bullet options are endless for the .308, and it offers a great ballistic balance for shooting up close and far away. What about the .30-06? Well, there’s never been a black bear that could tell the difference between a .308 and a .30-06. And when you’re behind the gun, you can’t either.
Top Load: Federal Premium AccuBond
- Bullet Weight: 165 grains
- Muzzle Velocity: 2,700 fps
- Muzzle Energy: 2,671 ft/lbs
Some of the best-ever black bear cartridges are not new, and some hunters don’t just hunt black bears in one manner; some will use dogs, sit over bait, or prefer to spot-and-stalk. Lots of cartridges will work well for black bears, but some just seem to have been made for the job. Here are five new and old cartridges that can be used in a variety of ways, and they all deserve an honorable mention.
Though there are no new rifles being manufactured for the .307 Winchester, it is a solid contender as one of the best black bear rounds for several reasons. It is one of the most powerful cartridges available in a traditionally styled lever-action rifle; it will hit much harder than a .30-30 Remington and fly flatter. It’s also because those same ballistics allow for some crossover between hunting techniques. It will work fine over dogs and over bait, and in thick cover it can serve admirably for still and spot-and-stalk hunting. Ammo can be a bit difficult to find, but two years ago Hornady added the .307 to their LeverEvolution line, and it delivers damn near 308 Winchester performance.
Top Load: Hornady LeverEvolution FTX
- Bullet Weight: 160 grains
- Muzzle Velocity: 2650 fps
- Muzzle Energy: 2494 ft/lbs
.350 Remington Magnum
Remington’s .350 Magnum, which was introduced in 1965, is another cartridge for which you will not find any new rifles. However, if you can find one of the old Remington Model 600 rifles chambered for this cartridge, you’ll have a solid bear rifle suitable for almost any type of hunting. In 2003, Remington also offered the .350 Magnum in their Model 673 rifle, which was modeled after the older 600. They’re a bit easier to find on the used market. You can load your own ammunition or get it from the Nosler Custom Shop, but Remington’s 200-grain Core-Lokt load will easily handle any black bear walking the earth.
Top Load: Remington Core-Lokt
- Bullet Weight: 200 grains
- Muzzle Velocity: 2775 fps
- Muzzle Energy: 3419 ft/lbs
Invented as a replacement for the .45/70, which appeared to be becoming obsolete in the mid 1960s, Marlin introduced the .444. It was moderately popular for a while but is now seeing a resurgence due to more states allowing straight wall cartridges for deer hunting. Marlin’s big .444 will for sure kill a deer, but given its ballistics it’s an outstanding choice for black bear in a wide range of hunting conditions. The .444 uses the same diameter bullet (0.429) as the .44 Magnum, and Hornady’s Superformance load hits like a ton of bricks even past 100 yards. If you’re looking for a sweet .444 rifle, Marlin is chambering their 150th Anniversary Model 1895 for this classic cartridge in 2020. If you get one you’re sure to have the coolest rifle at the campfire.
Top Load: Hornady Superformance FP
- Bullet Weight: 265 grains
- Muzzle Velocity: 2400 fps
- Muzzle Energy: 3388 ft/lbs
7mm Remington Magnum
When it comes to long-range shooting, 6.5mm cartridges get all the attention. However, one of the most outstanding long-range hunting cartridges has been around since 1962, when Remington introduced their Model 700 Rifle. And here’s the thing, in some places where black bears are hunted by the spot and stalk method, shots can be long. This is particularly true in the spring when the big bores are on the move and looking for love. There’s lots of Seven-Mag loads that will work for black bear but if you want something that shoots flat and delivers deep, bone breaking penetration, pick one loaded with a Barnes Tipped Triple Shock. If you can’t find one, the Barnes Custom Shop can help you out.
Top Load: Barnes Custom Ammunition TTSX
- Bullet Weight: 168 grains
- Muzzle Velocity: 2778 fps
- Muzzle Energy: 2878 ft/lbs
Black bears are not that hard to kill, and they are not necessarily known for attacking hunters. But some hunters want to whack a black bear hard enough to rattle his claws. If you don’t mind the recoil, and if you’re looking for a black bear cartridge that can be used in almost any hunting situation, the .375 Ruger hits hard and shoots reasonably flat.
Top Load: Hornady Dangerous Game Superformance Interlock SP
- Bullet Weight: 270 grains
- Muzzle Velocity: 2840 fps
- Muzzle Energy: 4835 ft/lbs
The Three Worst Black Bear Loads
Black bears are not that hard to kill. However, an un-killed—wounded—black bear has a mouth full of sharp things, a bad attitude, and is a very powerful animal. You want to shoot a black bear with a bullet that will create a wide wound cavity, and one that will exit to let as much air out, and put as much blood on the ground, as possible. Here are three to avoid.
Full metal jacket bullets from just about any cartridge should shoot completely through just about any black bear. But these bullets do not expand, thus creating minimal internal damage. FMJ bullets work great on paper and steel, not so much on critters.
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Some hunters have found varmint bullets instantly lethal on deer. But a black bear is not a deer. Black bears are fatty, hard-boned creatures. If you can slip an explosive varmint bullet into their lungs It’ll work. However, hit a bone, the paunch, or a lot of fat, and the wound will be nasty but superficial. And, the bear will be as pissed off as agitated hornet’s nest. You don’t need premium bullets for black bear, but you do need an expanding bullet that’ll hold together and drive deep.
Many consider buckshot the ultimate equalizer. If you’re shooting a bad guy who just broke into your home to maim, rape, or kill, buckshot works pretty damn well. However, Buckshot and bears do not mix. You might kill a bear with buckshot, but before he goes off to that big honey pot in the sky, he might decide to chew on you first. Shotguns can work great for bear, but load them with slugs, not buckshot.