.45 ACP for Bear Protection: Best ammo, and if it’s enough

Being up close to a Grizzly is a nerve-wracking experience. After a hunter recounted to me his experience of being severely mauled on a mountainside, I decided to write this article.

In general, the .45 acp is a poor choice for bear defense. The round is slow, fat, and has fairly poor penetration on tough-skinned animals; however, some people carry .45 acp with modern +P ammo and hardened bullets for bear defense. There are many better options, but it can work.

If you’re using a .45acp for bear protection, I highly recommend you specifically use either this Black Hills 230gr FMJ ammo (click to buy online from Brownell’s), or else this Winchester Whitebox 230gr FMJ (click to buy online from Brownell’s).

This topic is very important to get right. I’m going to give you the reasons for and against in great detail. Read through the whole article before you make your decision.

45 ACP for Bear Defense

The 45 acp is thought to be a large powerful round. Bears are also large, powerful creatures. If both go toe to toe, which one would win?  The 45 acp is known for “punching a big ole’ hole” in whatever it hits. That it does. It’s a big ole’ bullet as far as the diameter is concerned.

The 45 acp is by no means marketed or intended as a bear gun, but like any good American, we’re not too good at following expectations all the time. It’s the same reason some guys want to turn a Ford Pinto into a racecar. It’s not supposed to be, but they’re gonna make it work.

Compared to other “bear calibers” like the 44 mag, 454 Cassul, or 500 Smith and Wesson, the 45 is pretty wimpy looking. Most guys would laugh at or ridicule the idea of anything under the 44 Magnum as a bear backup gun. Some of these guys have real experience, most do not.

As I said, I’ve carried a 45 as a bear sidearm. So has my brother. Neither of us felt under gunned. Were we foolish, probably a little. More naïve I’d say.  Would I carry a 45 in the woods again? Perhaps in some instances, but I’d exercise a lot more caution this time around.

Bear Handguns of Yesteryear

I’m going to do what I’ve done several times before in these “is X-caliber enough” articles. Let’s take a look back at what used to be considered “enough” by those whose lives truly depended on it every day.  I’m always astonished at what history tells us, compared to the current day.

Handguns have been used to bring down bear since the frontier days of black powder and pure lead balls. Back in the days of the untamed frontier (1840 through 1880), the most common gun on the American frontier was arguably the black powder revolver.

This revolver came predominately in Navy and Army configurations. Navy revolvers were 36 caliber, for antipersonnel use only. Army revolvers were 44 caliber and designed larger to take down horses on the battlefield. Sounds impressive right? It surely would take a powerful gun to take down a muscular, thick-skinned 1,000-pound warhorse, right?

Not by today’s standards. The powerful Army revolver that every frontiersman wanted, fired a 140-grain soft lead ball at around 900 fps, raking up a mere 250 ft/lbs. of energy. That’s significantly less than a 9mm. How was the frontier won with guns like that? Frankly, I’m not sure.

In his 1859 book titled The Prairie Traveler, Army Captain Randolph B. Marcy describes his first grizzly encounter. I’ll summarize it for you.

“His breathing (the horse) so much disturbed my aim that I missed the animal (with his rifle) … Fearful that if I stopped to reload my rifle, the bear would make his escape … the two balls from the larger pistol (Army Revolver) had gone into the vitals and killed him… I resolved henceforth to carry the larger size.”

Randolph B. Marcy- The Prarie Travler 1859

For many people, the only two choices were a 36 or 44 caliber black powder revolver. They got the best they could and made it work as best they could. It comes down to what’s available.

Let’s compare that to the 45acp. The 45acp fires a 230-grain bullet at about 850 fps with 369 ft/lbs. or energy. That’s a significant difference. Those old-timers, when they got ahold of the 45acp, thought they had struck ballistic gold with this new and more powerful cartridge.

Do People use the 45 ACP for Bear Defense?

The 45acp is one of the common handgun calibers found in the woods of North America. For most people, the large caliber and the idea that it’s a “big ole’ bullet” makes them more than confident about it. So, what are people carrying it for? What do they expect to ward off with their 45?

Mostly the worry is wild hogs, wolves, mountain lions, and bears. People certainly do carry the 45acp for whatever comes along. For the most part, that’s fine too. like the old revolver, for some people, it’s the only viable option they have.

Fortunately, today I can walk into a small gun store and buy one of 10 different caliber handguns and have a wide selection of ammo for it. we are now presented with a lot of choices and it’s for the better. Still, sometimes you have to be happy with what you have.

If you have a 45 and it’s your only pistol, that’d be what you call a reason to carry it in the woods. Not everyone can afford to own multiple pistols, I understand that well. If you can only afford one, consider all the various uses you might have and look for a pistol that can handle them all.

Something interesting that I recently found out is that the Most common pistol being sold in Alaska is a 45 caliber Glock. In fact, for a lot of Alaskans, the 45 is their “big gun”. The 45acp with fmj ammo is commonly carried in towns of Alaska as a do-all woods gun.

I think that has a lot to do with the choices. Most of the cheaper handguns on the shelf are either 45acp or 9mm. It’s kinds of like that Navy revolver vs. Army Revolver thing. The 9mm is way too small, let’s go with the other one. No, it’s not ideal, but it’s being used.

Being used that way doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good idea, just that people are willing to give it a try. I’ve pulled a boat with a Chevy Cavalier, but I wouldn’t recommend anyone else to do it.  I reinforced the hitch mount, went slow, and took the backroads. It worked, but I don’t want to do it again.

Is the 45 ACP Enough for Bears?

I know of some bears that have been killed by a 45 acp. Some intentionally while hunting, some in a defensive situation.  Most of the info on this actually comes from police officers responding to a problem animal within city limits.

I’ve read multiple stories about an officer shooting a bear in someone’s backyard or up a tree, usually after causing damage and not leaving the area. Generally, it ends up with a dead bear. Sometimes, the bear gets hit and runs off.

There are also several first-hand accounts of people fending aggressive off bears, blacks and grizzlies, that were endangering human lives. In every instance where the bear was shot with a 45acp defensively, the animal was hit multiple times and died. 

The key is “hit multiple times”. this sounds like it means one shot isn’t enough, but that’s not exactly the case. The 45acp is predominately used in auto-loading pistols or semi-autos. They shoot fast, are easier to point and stay on target batter than a revolver.

That means you can generally get off more shots in a shorter timeframe. With a 45acp semi-auto, I personally get 4 shots off in the same time it takes me to fire 2 shots with my revolver. that equates to more bullets in a target before it moves away. That’s certainly a plus for the 45.

Despite its low velocities and poor ballistic coefficient, the 45 acp has a good track record of at least warding off aggressive bears, much better than the 9mm which some people are carrying into the woods. but it does often fail to penetrate.

Bear hunters usually aim their rifle very near the shoulder, but that causes a lot of defensive pistol rounds to fail to penetrate. The shoulder is the toughest part of a bear’s side and it puts the brakes on a pistol bullet.

How Much Penetration will a 45 ACP get on Large Animals?

Forgoing hollow-point ammo, good 45 fmj bullets will penetrate around 25 inches into soft tissue. Add to that course hair, bear hide, and heavy tissue muscles, it often comes down to around 20 inches.  Hit a rib on the way in and you’ll get a couple of inches less. Some bullets do offer a bit more penetration than others.

So, how much penetration do you need? Well, the average mature bear is about 2 feet thick at the chest. Many are closer to 3 feet. You want to be able to make a hole straight through, in one side and out the other. It would take a really potent 45 to be able to do that every time.

Are 45 ACP hollow Points Good for Bear?

Hollow Points have two weaknesses on bears. The first is that they just don’t penetrate enough, hollow points are made to expand, quite literally putting on the breaks. A hollow-point from a 45 acp just isn’t feasible for bears.

The second weakness of hollow points is that they often fail. Let me explain this failure. Hollow points work because they have a hollow cavity on the nose of the bullet. That hollow cavity catches a lot of stress and it, in theory, peels back like a banana skin, creating sharp edges and a wider bullet.

The trouble happens when the hollow cavity gets plugged up with tissue. it sounds like that’s what’s supposed to happen, but it isn’t. the hollow point can get clogged with coarse hair and simply not allow it to expand. I’ve seen it happen and it’s weird.

I think the bigger problem is distance. Most hollow points are designed to expand at around 1,000 fps, most 45 acp hollow points, 850-900 fps. The vast majority of hollow points are loaded to near the minimum velocity required for expansion. At 20 yards, they may not be fast enough to expand and still won’t penetrate well.

There are no hollow-point bullets in 45 acp that should ever be used against a bear if you can help it

Which 45 ACP Pistol is Good for Woods Carry?

If I had to carry a 45 for bear defense, I’d carry a Glock 21, or a similarly large-sized pistol with a 6-inch barrel. Longer barrels help to gain more power out of the cartridge. More power is always nice for big animals.

There are a number of 1911 pistols that have a 6-inch barrel, but I wouldn’t really recommend them. I much prefer a pistol with a double-stack magazine. There are a few double-stack 1911’s, but those are the exceptions and are hard to find.

In reality, if you are asking this you’ve probably already bought a 45 and you want to know if you can carry it in the woods. Sure, go for it if that’s your best option. It’s better than no gun. if you do want to maximize the power of a 45, get a full-sized, double-stacked pistol with a barrel 6 inches or longer.

Best 45 ACP Ammo for Bears

Based on numerous ballistics tests, There are some ammo choices that are surely better than others. Hollow points are out. That leaves us with fmj and hardcast bullets. Fmj bullets are pure lead, with a copper or brass jacket around the lead.

Hardcast bullets are lead alloys with zinc and antimony to harden them. They are made to an equal hardness as the copper or brass jackets. The hardcast lead bullets will not deform, which keeps the bullet going significantly straighter in an animal. straighter penetration equals deeper penetration.  

One of the better penetrating cheap rounds is Winchester White Box. Winchester White Box is military production that the military didn’t need. The military 45 fmj, known as Hardball, penetrates better than many other cheap fmj bullets.

If you are looking for the most powerful, you need a +P option. +P means it is loaded to maximum safe pressures. Ammo designated as +P is about 10 percent more powerful. Buffalo Bore and Underwood are the most popular companies offering +P 45 acp ammo, but there are a few others as well.

The gold standard for deep penetrating bullets is Buffalo Bore 250 grain Heavy Outdoorsman, and Black Hills 200 grain Hardcast SWC. The Black Hills 230 grain Fmj is impressive too. Personally, I’m kinda sold on the Black hills fmj. Black Hills makes amazing ammo and has super helpful ballistic information and penetration pictures on their website.

Another good option is Black Hills Honey Badger. Currently, that stuff is like a unicorn. Rumored, but no one has ever seen it. It just seems to be unavailable everywhere. Two other companies

So, is the 45 ACP a Good Gun for Bears?

No, it is a terrible choice for bears. They can’t get their paws around the small grips and have trouble manipulating such a small trigger. Furthermore, they can’t hold the small bullets while attempting a magazine reload.

Thanks for reading.