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Shot Placement on Bears

Dalton Gray,
December 7, 2022

          Shot placement is always important, but it’s especially important when your target weighs over 1,000 pounds and wants to rip your body limb from limb while you regret your poor choice of shot placement. I’ll preface this by saying that shot placement on bears is one of the most widely disputed positions in the hunting world as of late. You’ll read articles from many different sources when it comes to bears and proper shot placement, but the question you need to ask yourself is this, just how many bears have these self-proclaimed expert bear hunters killed?

          The State of Alaska offers more bear hunting opportunities than any other destination available, and the hunting is superb. Hundreds of hunters take to the backcountry every spring and fall in pursuit of North America’s largest carnivores, and unfortunately many of them are misguided as to how to properly bring down their quarry. There are many important things to consider when planning a bear hunt in The Last Frontier, but in my opinion, there is none more important than shot placement. As hunters, our only contact with our target animal is the bullet we have chosen for the job. We’ll save the bullet choice discussion for another time, but it should be noted that choosing the right bullet is equally as important as where it is placed on the animal.

Moriah Humphries 6'6" color phase black bear. with a single well placed double lung shot this bear went 15 yards and expired below the stand.

Most hunters today are familiar with the term “break it down” when it comes to shot placement. This is in reference to the belief that if a bear is shot through the shoulders, it is less likely to escape to thick brush, and therefore allow for follow-up shots to quickly bring the bear down. This theory holds true in a perfect world situation where the bear is hundreds of yards away from the nearest brush to escape to, and therefore allowing the hunter multiple follow-up shots if necessary. The reality of bear hunting is in fact that the majority of bears are shot in close proximity to densely vegetated areas, affording a quick escape from any danger presented. It would seem as though hunters have forgotten the idea of a one-shot-kill when it comes to bears, when in fact they die just as easily when shot in the lungs as any other animal would of similar construction.

Bears have a reputation for being able to absorb multiple hits from large caliber rifles and keep fighting. Many bear guides from Alaska tell stories of bears that have taken more than 10 hits before expiring. There is no doubt that there will always be the bear that takes some serious convincing to put down with more than one fatal shot, but this is not usually the case. A bear that is shot through the lungs is dead, they just don’t know it yet. A bear that is shot through the shoulders, however, is not mortally wounded, and could take many hours to bleed out and die, assuming no follow-up shots were administered. This is the risk that is taken when your first shot is into the shoulders. In the event that a second shot isn’t taken, you’re now tracking a wounded bear with a mangled front end that is nowhere close to dead. Make no mistake, a shoulder shot bear that makes it into the brush is going just far enough to bed down and wait for you to come in the brush where he has the advantage in the fight. The better choice is to place your first shot into the middle of the bears’ ribs where it will destroy the lungs and ensure death in a timely manner, no matter if a follow-up shot is taken. Even in the event that a lung shot bear makes into the brush, as they sometimes do, you will be following up on a bear that is lying dead, not lying-in wait to ambush its attacker.

Illustration of proper double lung shot placement on a broadside bear.

Bears have low blood pressure compared to many other big game animals that we are used to hunting, and can take longer to die because of the time required to bleed out. Also, bear’s vitals are located farther back in the chest cavity than those of most other big game species. The conventional “tight behind the shoulder and low in the armpit” shot placement will lead to long bloodtrails that don’t end at a dead bear. Bears’ lungs are centered at the halfway point of the ribcage, and aren’t protected by any major bone structure, and therefore are easy to reach with either bullet or broadhead.

Every bear hunt presents its own unique set of challenges and each hunter needs to be well educated in how to bring the animal down in the quickest possible way. Familiarize yourself with the location of bears’ vitals and envision shot sequences ahead of time to prepare for whatever opportunity presents itself in the field. Remember, bears are dangerous game and should be respected as such. Never assume that a follow-up shot is guaranteed, always aim to kill with the first shot.

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