Pistol = Protection When Bowhunting the West

There are plenty of reasons to carry a pistol — when legal — while on a bowhunt, especially when you are in apex predator country.

Pistol = Protection When Bowhunting the West

The mountain lion can be a sneaky opponent in the woods. (Photo by Kade Purser)

It was the last evening of September, and Adam Miles and his wife, Mary, were giving it one last go on a Wyoming elk hunt. Already having seen 30 grizzlies that fall, including a sow with three cubs on several occasions, they were definitely what you would call “bear aware.” Planning to hunt a small pocket near the road, Adam decided to leave his pack and set out with only his bow in one hand and grunt tube in the other. His wife remarked that “He should have a free hand in case of a bear encounter, so he could access his sidearm.”

Only 150 yards from the road, while maneuvering through thick brush with his bugle now tucked under his arm, Adam spotted a grizzly cub. Quickly, he reached for his pistol as he heard the loud growl of the sow grizzly, which was half the distance from the cub and coming at a full charge. Immediately, Adam fired his 10mm pistol with 180-grain bullets, hitting the charging bear square in the chest. The impact stopped the sow, knocking her backward as quickly as she came, then she turned and ran away.

Some people will say there is no place for a pistol on a bowhunt, but where legal, the author (shown) always has one handy just in case. Even when you aren’t seeing the animal with your own eyes, one must always be aware of their presence.
Some people will say there is no place for a pistol on a bowhunt, but where legal, the author (shown) always has one handy just in case. Even when you aren’t seeing the animal with your own eyes, one must always be aware of their presence.

Defend Yourself?

Over the past several years there seems to be an increasing number of instances where hunters are finding themselves in life or death situations with apex predators such as grizzly bears and mountain lions. I’m not sure if these instances are happening more frequently, or if use of social media has drastically sped up the spread of the news when they do take place. One thing is for certain though: There is more talk about this subject than in years past.

Oftentimes, amongst bowhunters, these discussions turn to whether or not we should carry a pistol on bowhunts. There will always be those who think a firearm has no place on a bowhunt. But there is a growing number of bowhunters who have decided to start carrying and enjoy the peace of mind it provides them.

I am in no way a professional in the handgun field, so I asked a friend, Luke Johnson of Lone Wolf Distributors — a parts distributor, but also maker of fully custom Glocks and custom Glock parts — for a little help with the subject. Every hunter will undoubtedly have their own needs and wants, but our goal is to provide a baseline to get you started down the road to having your own “insurance policy.”

One of the most dangerous encounters in bear country is a bear protecting its kill. (Photo by Jake Skeen)
One of the most dangerous encounters in bear country is a bear protecting its kill. (Photo by Jake Skeen)

Revolver vs. Semiauto

For well over a decade, I have carried a Taurus Titanium revolver chambered in .41 Remington Magnum. Even though I have carried this pistol more miles than I would dare to guess, I have often thought there is likely a better pistol to carry on my outings. When I originally set out to buy a carry pistol all those years ago, I was determined to find a pistol small and light enough that I wouldn’t be tempted to leave it in the truck, instead of having it on my hip in case I needed it. I went with the .41 Magnum due to its ability to shoot heavy loads in a lightweight gun with a more manageable recoil than that of the popular .44 Magnum. That being said, with the 230-grain bear loads I use, the recoil is still substantial, and although I can shoot it decent enough, my groupings leave something to be desired. To keep the weight of the titanium pistol model down, they also made it a five-shot instead of the standard six-shot in most revolvers. I generally load only four cartridges into the gun to keeping one cylinder empty in case the hammer is accidently pulled back while I am busting brush with it on my hip.

During the past several years, I’ve spent quite a bit more time firing semi-auto pistols and found I’m significantly more accurate with them over revolvers. To a novice shooter, they just seem more manageable. I seem to get back on target quicker, and I was never sure if that was due to the makeup of the gun itself or the recoil. When I asked Johnson his opinion on why he chooses a semi-auto over a revolver, he said, “Shootability due to a lighter recoil, more manageable ergonomics, and balance. Also, it’s a more packable-friendly platform as far as size and weight. And they come with a higher cartridge capacity.”

The author’s custom built Lone Wolf Distributors 10mm.
The author’s custom built Lone Wolf Distributors 10mm.

10mm vs .45ACP

When I started to research pistol calibers, I quickly narrowed my decision down to the .45ACP and the 10mm. Full disclosure: My initial research came from online searches about what are the best semi-auto pistols to carry in the bear woods, and nearly every search lead straight to these two choices. After a little research of my own, I asked Johnson. “10mm hands down,” he said. “The 10mm is ballistically superior in every way and will out penetrate the larger, slower .45 round. The 10mm has a much flatter trajectory and less muzzle rise as well. All of these characteristics mean more horsepower downrange and quicker follow-up shots. Also, with the 10mm you generally get two extra rounds of capacity.”

Just for curiosity sake, I also asked him where the 10mm falls ballistically compared to many revolvers. “Somewhere in the middle of a .357 Magnum and the .41 Magnum,” he said.

Pick a 10MM

There’s a wide selection of pistols out there, but before I decided on which one would be my primary carry, I wanted to make sure I was getting exactly what I wanted. I wanted a pistol with plenty of firepower but also light and maneuverable. This is why I ended up going with a Lone Bolf build. Their Timberwolf Large Frame allows a high capacity, large frame like a 10mm to have the same grip size as a standard 9mm. Johnson also explained to me how this set up has a true 1911 grip angle, which helps you get on target. This particular build also has an undercut trigger guard and an extended beavertail. All of these things together also help with quick target acquisition. Additionally, they reduce muzzle rise so you can get back on target for follow up shots.

Another key feature was the Signature Series Slide pattern that makes a cleaner profile and shaves weight off the slide, which equals faster tracking. Slide melt mount, which is a precisely machined footprint that allows you to mount an optic as low as possible. I mounted a Vortex Venom red-dot sight on my gun; this set up mounts the RDS forward of where standard rear sights are located, which allows you to use your front and rear sights, even if your battery on your optic is dead or not working.

When I asked Johnson what he considered the ideal sidearm to carry on bowhunts he said, “A polymer framed 10mm has all of the characteristics you would want in a backcountry gun. A Glock 20 offers a lightweight, great-shooting package that can be chambered in a powerful cartridge with a 15 round capacity. Beyond that, you can do a custom build chambered for the round you want with all of the things to fit your personal needs. However, at the end of the day, pistol and caliber that you feel the most comfortable with and shoot well is the ideal choice.”

How to Carry

There are different ways to carry a sidearm and one of the things that initially drew me to an automatic pistol was the availability of holsters. It seems that every holster I have tried for my revolver has never been super “tight” and I always felt the need to have one that secured my hammer from being pulled back while in brush. Although I have always carried my pistol on my belt I am currently looking at different options with my 10mm. I really like the chest pack option from companies like Gunfighters Inc. that keep your holster at the ready and tight to your chest, maintaining low interference. There are also some companies who are making systems where a holster hooks right to your bino harness. In one harness you can carry your binoculars, rangefinder and keep your pistol readily available. Even though I like all of these options, I’m still leaning toward a standard holster that I can primarily carry on my backpack waist belt, but can quickly be removed and worn on my belt when I drop my pack to stalk.

The author keeps his handgun easily accessible in a Kenai Chest Holster.
The author keeps his handgun easily accessible in a Kenai Chest Holster.


Although there isn’t quite the selection of ammo for the 10mm as that of the 40-cal or 9mm, there are still plenty of options. Many of the standard loads for the 10mm fall in the 180-grain neighborhood. I’ve been firing these loads during break-in and general target practice. However, for carrying in areas with large predators I want the most accurate load I can find in the 200- to 230-grain range. Companies like Doubletap ammo have a great selection of bullets for defense, as well as for hunting. One bullet I have recently been testing is their 200-grain hard cast solid and have been impressed with accuracy. This bullet at 25 yards is still going 1253 fps and has nearly 700 ft. pounds of energy. Johnson had an interesting take on what loads to use. He said, “I stagger the 200-grain hard cast with 180-grain hollow points. I call it the shock-and-awe approach. The idea is the first shot is a deep-penetrating, killing shot with the follow up shot dumping kinetic energy into the animal.”

Choosing the right ammo for protection is vital. Doubletap ammo carries a great line of bullets specifically designed for hunting and defense.
Choosing the right ammo for protection is vital. Doubletap ammo carries a great line of bullets specifically designed for hunting and defense.

Carry Laws by State

In my opinion, our second amendment right should allow us the right to carry a sidearm while bowhunting. However, there are still certain states with laws in place that prohibit carrying a firearm while in the field bowhunting. In some instances, you simply aren’t legally allowed to carry a sidearm, while in others you can only carry if you are a concealed weapons holder. To ensure compliance, it is best to fully read through all the game laws in the state(s) you plan to hunt. Furthermore, I encourage you to research the carry laws in the state(s) you plan to hunt and follow them to the letter of the law.

Final Thoughts

Grizzlies are under federal protection, so the warden contacted a federal officer. The following day, Adam took investigating officers to the scene and walked them through what had happened. After surveying the scene they determined that the sow was at 7.8 yards when Adam fired the shot. The group trailed the substantial blood trail of the bear for some time until the officers decided that they didn’t want to pursue any further. There were no citations issued, but Adam was told the instance would likely be under investigation for eight or more months. At this time, the Miles family hasn’t heard any more from the game department or the federal government regarding the incident.

Adam also told me of several instances where they have had close encounters with grizzlies and said that they just love the area and will continue to hunt there. There’s been more than one instance where they’ve had grizzlies take a harvested elk from them. Their group tries hard to not leave a downed animal on the mountain.

Adam said that the incident where he had to shoot the bear was “Really unfortunate and nobody’s fault. They just happened to both scare each other and were both just trying to protect themselves.”

As mentioned earlier, some bowhunters will never carry a sidearm in the field. I for one, like the peace of mind from knowing that I have a form of protection. Hopefully, I never have to draw my firearm in a moment of distress, but if I do I plan to be ready.


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