While white-tailed deer have become the country’s most popular big game animal, it wasn’t too long ago that black bears were considered America’s premier wild dish. MeatEater’s Clay Newcomb pointed out that black bears fueled the expansion of the American frontier and that bear hunting featured prominently in outdoor stories of the 19e century.
For novice and aspiring hunters, however, bears can seem invincible. Even though they’re generally smaller and lighter than elk, all that fur and fat makes them look like formidable adversaries.
If this is you, or if you’ve just wondered which shotgun shells are best for bruins, you’ve come to the right place. Most of the cartridges listed below are suitable for short and long range work, point and rod hunting, and hunting over a bait pile. However you choose to tackle bears, these five rounds will get the job done.
Some might wonder if the 6.5 Creedmoor has enough juice to knock a bear down, and of our five options, it produces the least muzzle energy. But MeatEater’s Brody Henderson points out that the aforementioned aura of invincibility doesn’t translate to the real world.
“At the end of the day, black bears aren’t that hard to kill, so you don’t need a high-caliber magnum,” Brody said. He once shot a big Colorado boar through the ribcage with a 6.5 Creedmoor, and he piled himself within 20 yards.
This should come as no surprise to those familiar with the ballistic profile of the Creedmoor. These 120-grain Trophy Copper charges, for example, travel 2,875 feet per second (fps) at the muzzle and produce 1,259 foot-pounds (ft.-lbs.) of energy at 400 yards. At that distance, it’s only 200 ft-lbs. less than the .308 Winchester, which is often considered one of the best black bear cartridges on the market.
As Brody has proven, shot placement is almost always more important than power, and with the 6.5 Creedmoor, you can have both.
Our choice : Copper Trophy 6.5 Creedmoor
Ball weight: 120 grain
Initial speed: 2875 fps
Initial energy: 2,202 ft-lbs.
Musket: Weatherby Vanguard First Lite
The .308 Winchester made the leap from the military market to the hunting market in 1952 and has never looked back. Its versatility has made it one of the most popular short action big game hunting cartridges in the world. Black bear hunting is no exception.
The .308 delivers great power at close range and can maintain that power and velocity at longer ranges as well. Federal’s Trophy Copper projectiles reach full expansion at velocities in excess of 1,800 fps, and this 165-grain option exceeds that velocity beyond 500 yards. At 200 yards, he hits with a whopping 2,203 lb-ft. of energy, which is more than a .30-30 Win. (another proven bear killer) to the muzzle.
Our choice : Copper Trophy .308 Victory.
Ball weight: 165 grain
Initial speed: 2700 fps
Initial energy: 2,671 ft-lbs.
Musket: Weather by Mark V Hunter
If there’s one cartridge that’s proven to do it all in North America, it’s the .30-06 Springfield. The legendary .30 caliber cartridge has been battering bears for almost 100 years, and it shows no signs of slowing down.
You can opt for this 200-grain trophy-bound bear claw, which would be great for taking down really big bears up close. But for most black bear hunting situations, these 165 grain Sierra GameKing loads will do the job. They hit with over 2,800 foot-pounds. of force to the muzzle, and Sierra’s famous hunting bullet has taken down big game for years.
Our choice : Sierra GameKing Boat-Tail SP .30-06 Springfield
Ball weight: 165 grain
Initial speed: 2800 fps
Initial energy: 2,872 ft-lbs.
Musket: Weather by Vanguard Sporter
7mm Remington Magnum
You may not need a magnum cartridge to take a bear, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. From a ballistic point of view, the 7 mm Rem. Mag. beats both the .30-06 and the .308 Win. This 150-grain option, for example, registers over 3,000 muzzle fps and produces 3,047 ft-lbs. of energy. At 500 meters it is still moving north of 2000 fps.
Additionally, as Garrett Long of MeatEater told me, the 7mm is available in a multitude of bullets designed for short and long range work.
“With the 7mm getting a little more love in bullet design, it’s quickly becoming one of the best all-around calibers,” he said. “If you’re hunting bears in dense forest, there’s a bunch of good bullet choices. If you’re a BC nerd shooting through the canyon, there’s a bullet for you, too.
Federal’s 7mm Trophy Copper Bullet is a good mix of the two. It features a high .498 BC, and its all-copper construction will hold up to even the toughest conditions.
Our choice : Copper Trophy 7mm Rem Magnum
Ball weight: 150 grains
Initial speed: 3025 fps
Initial energy: 3,047 ft-lbs.
Musket: Weatherby Vanguard MeatEater Edition
.300 Winchester Magnum (and Short Magnum)
If you have a question about black bear hunting, Clay Newcomb is your guy. When I asked him what his favorite general-purpose bear caliber was, he had only one choice: the .300 Winchester Magnum. The .300 Win. Mag. has more than enough juice to get the job done at long range, and Clay has had great success with bullets that weigh at least 180 grains, like this Nosler Partition load.
For spot and rod hunts, MeatEater’s Sam Lungren also recommends the .300 Winchester Short Magnum. The .300 WSM can be built with a short, light action, which Sam says is perfect for the high mountain hunts he usually takes. Plus, the .300 WSM packs a punch: this 180-grain option fires at nearly 3,000 muzzle fps and retains 2,075 ft-lbs. energy up to 400 meters. (For context, a Creedmoor 6.5 only hits with about 1,200 foot-pounds at that range.)
Sam also pointed out something I’ve heard the MeatEater team talk about many times. The Black Bears take a solid hit to stop them in their tracks, but shot placement is still king. The .300 WSM does a great job, but Sam killed his bear fastest with a well-placed arrow.
Our choice : Nosler Partition 300 Win Magnum
Ball weight: 180 grain
Initial speed: 2960 fps
Initial energy: 3,502 ft-lbs.
Musket: Weatherby Vanguard Badlands
There are many other cartridges capable of taking down a black bear. For close range work, the .45-70 Govt., .30-30 Win., or even a 12 gauge bullet will all do the job. But if you’re looking for a cartridge that can perform in virtually any hunting scenario, look no further than the 6.5 Creedmoor, .308 Winchester, .30-06 Springfield, 7mm Remington Magnum, and .300 Win. Mag.