Featured Surviving Bear Attacks: Life-Or-Death Decisions Ben O'Brien January 12, 2023 Join the Conversation BEARS IN THE BACKCOUNTRY. OH, MY. [Editor’s Note] The following article contains graphic images of the aftermath of a bear attack. Bret Bohn doesn’t remember how fast he was moving or if his feet were even touching the ground. As he rushed down the snow-covered bank toward what was surely a bloody horror, there was a very real possibility that he and his father would soon be dead. The 35-year-old hunting guide and resident of Wasilla, Alaska, had just watched in shock as a hulking 8-foot grizzly bear plowed into his father at full speed. “It looked like a semitruck hitting a fire hydrant,” he said. “I mean, one second, my dad is on his knees there, knelt in a shooting position, and then he’s gone and they’re down the mountain. So, basically, the bear just hit him and grabbed him like prey, behind the neck. He took him down just like he was a ragdoll.” The bear dragged 77-year-old Glenn Bohn down the slope at a run. Without a second thought, Bret sprinted after them. The wildlife officials who later investigated the incident said Bret’s footprints were so far apart they looked like they were made by an Olympic athlete. He had his .375 rifle in one hand and his .454 Casull pistol in the other, ready for whatever might happen. Glenn and the grizzly were much further down the hill than Bret expected, but he followed the bloodcurdling sounds until he could see the fight. “I was just going straight down into it [with the] .454 Casull double-action Ruger Super Alaskan Red Hawk, and I pull the hammer back ’cause I know it’s a light trigger,” he said. “I knew I was going to have to get close and things are going to happen fast. I don’t know how far, but I held the gun straight out and I was yelling. So, I mean you basically have two objects going at it in a full brawl, and I was the third party and I was making myself known as I approached them.” The bear heard Bret’s shouts and lifted off Glenn to see what was happening. “I think my dad was on his back. I’m not sure. It didn’t even look like he had a head. It was just a red blob and blood. It’s hard to describe how much blood there was at the scene. So, I started aiming and I was like, ‘Man, this is not good.’ I just wanted to get a human out of my view. Basically just [until the] only thing I see is bear. “I was running straight at him, shot him in the neck, and then the bear kind of backed off. And that’s when I smoked him, got him in the vitals.” Bret placed himself between his wounded father and the wounded grizzly bear. “I didn’t even worry about him at that point. I was just trying to kill the bear,” he said. “Then, the bear turned on me and dug into the mountain. I’m coming down at him. Well, basically playing chicken, going head-on. He made one stride; I leaned back.” “I did not hesitate, but at that moment I thought to myself, ‘OK, this is the last shot. This has to happen because my dad’s life depends on it, and my life depends on it.’ I was literally bracing for impact, when I made that third shot and it hit him straight in the head.” Bret later measured the length of that killing shot: 5½ feet, “from claw mark to my bootstrap.” This photo, taken only hours after the attack, shows the bear that mauled Glenn with bullet holes in its head and throat. Even shot in the head, the bear reared up on its hind legs, and Bret shot it again in the throat. He kept firing as the bear rolled down the mountainside. Threat removed, he remembered his mauled father. “To be honest with you, I thought I might get a couple seconds. If not, he’s already dead cause he wasn’t moving when I got up there. And then he just started moving around and talking like normal.” Despite the gruesome injuries, Glenn lived to tell the tale. He recovered in nine days with only a single surgery to repair his mangled face. THE DEBATE There’s a popular debate around bars, campfires, and ranges in the American West and far North. It covers a spectrum of hardened opinions on the efficacy of bear spray, what bear defense gun to carry, and what to do should you be facing down a charge. Stories like Bohn’s almost always help kick off the banter. Like most arguments, this one has built-in biases, and the subject of bear spray versus firearm tends to bring them to the surface. While most diehard backcountry hunters wouldn’t be caught dead in bear country without a sidearm, plenty of tourists in Yellowstone National Park carry non-lethal bear spray with hopes of deterring an angry or surprised grizz from tearing them up. The National Park Service advises these outdoor tourists that “using a firearm during a bear attack may only worsen the attack.” Bear spray holsters or clips are a good idea when you're hiking in bear country “An injured bear will be more aggressive, especially during a fight,” the official NPS advice continues. “It’s also harder to hit a charging bear with a firearm rather than bear spray, and a firearm can be dangerous to any hiking partners. While firearms have been effective at stopping an attack, they aren’t recommended.” The Park Service asserts that bear spray is “easy to use without much experience, and it’s a highly effective tool for deterring bear attacks.” To boil down the official messaging, they’re saying if you don’t know how to use a pistol, don’t use one. You can find this same sentiment in message boards, popular news sites, and beyond. STORIES AS EVIDENCE Bear attack stories are some of the most dramatic examples of all human-wildlife conflicts, and in the “nature is metal” age of social media, they’re served up to us regularly. Accounts of attacks are almost always front-page news, and the Bohn attack in 2016 was no different. Bret played the hero and saved his dad. Their story become a viral sensation online and a permanent piece of Alaskan hunting folklore. The problem is most folks don’t have firsthand experience like Bohn. You don’t know how you’ll react in those brief yet all-important seconds of stress, but you do know how much you’ve prepared (or not prepared) to face it. “In 2012 at the age of 25, I heard a brown bear attack story that encouraged me to purchase a handgun to carry while in the back country,” Bohn said. “Since then, I’ve been carrying a .454 Casull Ruger Super Red Hawk Alaskan. I use solid rounds, Buffalo Bore ammunition, 360-grain. I carry it in a Diamond D Leather Guide Choice holster to ensure my handgun is accessible and ready to use.” When it comes to Grizz, you're going to need a bigger bullet. Left to right: 9mm Europellet, 357 Irrelevant, and 10mm Short. If you’re sitting around the bar debating this subject, you might employ this story to defend the use of a chest holster, a revolver as opposed to a semi-auto, or to champion the .454 Casull as a the top bear stopper. You also might highlight that the veteran Alaskan hunters didn’t even think about using bear spray. The problem with this gruesome encounter is that it’s just one story. How much can we really learn from it? If we hope to answer any questions, we must start by weighing the value of this story and the hundreds like it. That’s where Tom Smith comes in. Smith and a team of researchers at Brigham Young University published “Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska” in 2012, a noted paper in the vanguard of this subject. The paper “compiled, summarized, and reviewed 269 incidents of bear-human conflict involving firearms that occurred in Alaska during 1883 to 2009. Encounters involving brown bears, black bears, polar bears, and unidentified species provided insight into firearms success and failure.” Smith and team later updated that effort with the 2018 paper “Human-Bear Conflict in Alaska: 1880–2015” in which they looked at a total of 682 human-bear conflicts. He did the research and has some interesting conclusions from the data. “In our data, no person carrying bear spray was killed, and 98 percent of persons involved suffered no bear-inflicted injuries,” the 2018 paper reads. “Those injured received only minor injuries ….” “Persons carrying firearms fared worse (76-percent success rate overall; Smith et al. 2012). Attempting to dispatch a charging bear in heavy cover over uneven ground while under extreme duress is undoubtedly difficult. Hence, we suggest only those proficient with firearms in extreme conditions as present in a sudden bear encounter should rely on them for protection.” Smith said in a phone interview that regardless of the numbers, there’s one huge advantage for firearms. In many cases with bear spray, the bear kept coming back. “A firearm stops that problem,” he said. Smith isn’t the only one looking into these attacks. A more recent study by Dean Weingarten on Ammoland.com doesn’t quite agree on firearm efficacy. In their 2021 study, 104 cases were examined, and handguns were found to be 97-percent effective. Only cases where the pistol was fired are included in that piece, but it illustrates the differences in how data is compiled, among other factors. Forrest shows off two bear skulls — on the right, a grizzly and on the left a diminutive black bear. It’s not impossible to make correlations and draw conclusions, and Smith’s papers are extremely interesting and very useful, but nobody can eliminate the endless list of mitigating circumstances with these attacks — not to mention the regional differences in bear behavior and attack scenarios. “People have said I’m anti-firearm, and that’s not the case,” Smith said. “I own guns, I teach it. I say that there are some things to consider.” Smith was clear that he advocates for carrying both bear spray and a firearm. “There are some people who surely shouldn’t have a firearm in their hand because they’re not skilled. They haven’t put in any time or effort,” he said. If anything, these studies provide a window into just how hard it is to find real answers from bear attack stories, no matter how many you study. Despite that, there’s still takeaways that can help us make decisions. “I think one of the things that shocked me when we compiled all the data is that handguns were more efficient than long guns,” Smith said. “What I saw is that the problem with long guns is that it’s close-quarters contact. [A handgun] is your weapon of choice in that scenario.” “The summation beyond that is that we all know that firearms can take out a bear,” Smith said. “You can make up for accuracy with shock power.” Smith and his cohorts are working on even more research as we speak, and this time it’ll study attacks across North America. “I have a lot of faith that bear spray is going to stop them,” Smith said with a chuckle. “At least long enough for you to shoot them.” THE TRAINER As the debate around firearms and bear spray trudges on, there’s one solution many experts feel ends the conversations all-together: handgun training. Steve Nelson, a now retired geologist who spent decades working for the USGS, is undoubtedly on the Mount Rushmore of bear-defense experts. Nelson started teaching bear defense classes in 1978 and has taught lifesaving tactics to almost 3,000 students over that 44-year run in Alaska. Nelson himself has killed four bears in attack or what various wildlife agencies term Defense of Life and Property (DLP) situations, so he knows the realities of what he’s teaching. Nelson’s coworker Cynthis Dusel-Bacon lost both arms after a particularly gruesome black bear attack in 1978 after being dropped by helicopter in a remote region of the Yukon. She barely survived, but the incident was a wakeup call to Nelson and his colleagues. Nelson started his bear defense and awareness class soon after. “We mainly wanted to get people familiar with firearms in the beginning,” Nelson said. “Back in the old days, any bear around camp tended to get shot. We also wanted people to understand bear behavior so we could avoid [an attack].” Nelson has been doing this for a long time, and he’s seen just about everything when it comes to what handguns work and why. “As far as a choice of calibers, it needs to be the largest caliber you can shoot well,” he said. “Size isn’t really an issue if you can get the right training and mentally overcome recoil concerns.” Recently, Nelson has seen his students leaning toward semi-auto pistols like the Glock 20. He’s old school, but clearly recognizes the trend. He also understands that there are regional differences — in Montana, revolvers and shoulder holsters seem rarer, but in Alaska they’re common. GP100 in 10mm “The 10mm semi-automatic pistol is becoming more popular because it is easier to shoot and holds a lot of cartridges,” he said. “The problem is that it’s underpowered, compared to a .44.” Nelson is always looking for the little details beyond the big trends. Last year, he observed 49 students shooting semi-auto pistols, and 16 of them had limp wrist-induced malfunctions. “That’s one of the concerns I have,” he said. “Students need to address the three common malfunctions for a semi-automatic pistol.” Nelson, who comes off like Mr. Miyagi in tactical gear, tried an experiment last year in which he timed 50 students drawing and firing one round with a revolver and a semi-auto back-to-back. Students were a full second faster with the semi-auto. Nelson first wondered why the difference in speed. “When you grip a revolver fast you may not get your hand position exactly right,” he said. “With a semi-auto handgun, you can acquire that grip easier thanks to the beavertail on the backstrap. Your hand goes to the right place every time.” Then came the all-important accuracy test. “The issue with the semi-auto was that they didn’t shoot any better,” he said. “They were hitting center mass much less. They think because they have 15 rounds that they can send this barrage of bullets downrange, and it’ll do the job. The problem is, in the bear charge test that I run, nobody gets more than three shots off.” THE RANGE Chris Forest is a former Navy SEAL and owner of Tactic, a Montana-based combat training firm that centers on teaching their law enforcement and civilian clients a process the military calls “forging.” Tactic offers a long list of courses that “focus on building habits that will not degrade under stress.” After some pressure by local bowhunters, he’s recently started teaching a class called “Surviving the Grizz” that includes training with bear spray, pistol … and a real grizzly bear. “In the SEALS, we had a saying, ‘Two is one, and one is none.’” Forrest’s critique of most bear defense information out there is that experts don’t provide real, tangible advice that anyone can understand. That’s why he spends the time testing all the gear he recommends to students. Forest said. “This means that Murphy’s Law is always in effect, and you better have two contingencies in case one fails. If I am going into bear country, I make sure I have two or more techniques to deter a grizzly bear.” Forest agrees with Nelson on the larger theme when it comes to bear defense: Shoot what you can handle. But that’s not where his expertise ends. “I’m always thinking about better ways to qualify what I’m seeing in my classes,” he said. “Testing cartridges in a real way is just one of the many things we can do to make that happen.” On his elaborate range outside of Bozeman, Montana, he regularly runs the guns and ammo at his disposal through their paces. He tests penetration in .22, 9mm, 10mm, and .44 magnum calibers with two different weights of bullet by shooting them through a 10-inch block of wood with a rubber composite horse mat as a backstop and a steel target behind that. At his sprawling private range west of Bozeman, Montana, former SEAL Chris Forrest sets up a series of performance tests with various bullet and caliber choices. “I think doing this a lot, what I’ve observed is how you get through thick hide, flesh, and bones that are super dense really matters. You have to know what that bullet is going to do.” Forest’s philosophy is summed up with his pretty simple moniker: skinny and fast. “The idea is to go skinny and fast, and I want a lot of powder. Lots of power, a long bullet, and plenty of feet per second,” he said. “In my experience and in my testing, the .44 mag is going to be better than 10mm overall, but a 10mm with the correct load is really the whole package. We’re shooting Buffalo Bore Dangerous Game 10mm with a 190-grain mono-metal bullet at 1,200 fps.” The bullet slips through the wood and rubber mat, smacking the steel target with authority. “You get 15 plus 1, and it’s easier to shoot,” Forest said. “Revolvers do well, but you still have to carry them on the mountain. Down here in Montana, we’re going with the 10mm.” Forrest teaches students “when they practice something intentionally with elements of struggle, they can train their brain for bear defense.” It’s a part of his approach to “forging.” THE MOMENT OF TRUTH Skies were clear, and the conditions were good on April 15, 2016, the day of the attack on Glenn. Bret remembers riding north with his father following behind him, the two snow machines cruising over the still crusty snowpack. Glenn and Bret were out to find a grizzly fresh out of its den with a pristine hide that hadn’t been rubbed off. It’s a hunt that Bret knows very well, and he also knew that they “had to get on something before noon and try to get out of there before the snow got too soft for riding.” On the way up, Bret reflected on how great it was to still be hunting with his dad. “I was actually visualizing taking pictures with him,” Bret said. Glenn helped his son kill his first caribou at age 7, and now Bret was helping his dad with a bear hunt at age 77. It’s not a surprise, though, that a lifetime spent hunting and years of guiding in Alaska had led to a few bear encounters. Glenn and his son are capable and knowledgeable outdoorsmen, both trained in wilderness and emergency medicine. It’s what they do and what they know best. So, as Bret spotted a bear’s den with some visible tracks surrounding it some 24 miles into their snow machine ride, there was caution but the focus remained on the hunt at hand. “I studied it pretty good from down below and noticed, ‘Hey, there’s no exit tracks,’” he said. Bret told his dad they were in business. They found a nice vantage point just below the bench where the den lay, only 36 yards from the hole. Glenn loaded his rifle and Bret struck off to get eyes on the tracks and try to judge the bear. He cut around and came out above the den. “It took me a little bit, and I got up there and I was above it. I don’t know how far, I would say 10 yards probably,” Bret said. “And I’m facing back to my dad. I was looking at the size of the track and realizing, wow, it looks like it’s a big bear, you know, just starting to comprehend what we got going on. And that’s when he says, ‘He’s coming out, Bret!’” The younger Bohn spun around. “This bear comes, I mean, I’m in shock of the size of it and how close I was to it. And very, very fortunate that I didn’t get nailed from behind.” “‘My dad was screaming, ‘Bret, he’s coming out’ and basically when I saw it, my dad lets off a round and I was all excited thinking, ‘OK, boom, he’s going to hit him. And he’s going to spin, and I’m going to plug him.’ And that bear just looked like he got spit on.” The horrific frenzy that started this article played out. And almost as quickly as the bear charged his father, the big bear was dead. Bret rushed to his father’s side and did an immediate medical assessment. “I’m doing the pat down that Learn to Return taught me,” he said. “He had a lot of winter clothes on his snow pants. I saw a little bit of blood on him, but later on found out that he had actually had claw marks in his butt from the bear. That’s one thing I missed in my assessment, but mainly his hands. That was the only thing he complained about was his wrist.” Realizing there was no major bleeding in the wrist, Bret moved to address his dad’s face. He tried to tie Glenn’s face together with a handkerchief, but before he could get half the knot done, he realized his father was choking on his own flesh. Bret uncovered the wounds and, knowing there was little more he could do, loaded up the snowmobile and seated his father behind him. On March 20, 2020, almost four years after the attack, Bret made a post to his Instagram account @bbbalaskan featuring this image of his father sitting on a snowmobile next to the gargantuan body of the dead grizzly bear. The two were off toward safety. It would take them an hour and a half to get there. It was an hour filled with bouts of calm and panic, but it may have been the most crucial time in this fight of survival. Above all, one thing is clear: Bret and Glenn were tough as nails, and they knew what they were doing. In all bear attacks, there are fleeting moments in which life or death is decided. Glenn’s case was no different. Only nine days after attack, Glenn, Bret, and shop owner David Johnston stand smiling next to each other in the Diamond D Custom Leather shop just outside of Anchorage. Bret is clad with the Diamond D holster he was wearing when he saved his dad. “If you’re going to solve this riddle and truly be prepared to survive,” Forrest said, “you’ve got to find that whole package. Be mentally ready and confident with your firearm. Confidence in this case means knowing what your bullet is going to do.” “I don’t care what you carry,” Nelson said. “If you can’t shoot it well, you’re screwed.” Explore RECOILweb:Thin Green Line Tactical RZRS&B Rogue Edition Field WatchPrism Scope Versatility: The Battlefield and BeyondWeekly Deals From Around the Industry NEXT STEP: Download Your Free Target Pack from RECOILFor years, RECOIL magazine has treated its readers to a full-size (sometimes full color!) shooting target tucked into each big issue. Now we've compiled over 50 of our most popular targets into this one digital PDF download. From handgun drills to AR-15 practice, these 50+ targets have you covered. Print off as many as you like (ammo not included). 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