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Bullets for Black Bear Hunting from Treestands

Photo by Bill Robinson

Choose your bullets for black bear hunting wisely with these helpful tips.

First let’s get the obvious out of the way. Black bears have been killed with just about any cartridge you can think of.

I have personally witnessed a black bear fall dead to a .357 jacketed hollow point fired from a 3” barrel handgun, and one to a 219 Zipper! If you were there you’d conclude that either of those cartridges is dynamite on bears but that is a dangerous, potentially deadly assumption.

Bill Robinson

Choose your ammo based on time proven parameters that put the odds in your favor. Close range bears in thick woods require special considerations.

Take the stand

The three factors that influence your ammunition performance in typical treestand hunting scenarios are the bear’s anatomy, the close range and the downward angle of the shot. We cannot control the bears or the circumstances when they show themselves. What we can do is chose the best bullet/cartridge combination for a variety of situations.

The bear’s heart is low and forward in the chest. It is protected by a large, hard leg bone. The lungs are large but are positioned behind an equally large scapula. All of the vitals are underneath a heavy coat of matted hair, a thick and pliable hide and a substantial layer of fat. The fat and hair often clog up holes and prevent blood from seeping out.

Typical baits are located from 15 to 30 yards from the stand. The close range can effect shot placement and bullet performance.

Bear Bait
Bear stand view, Joe Riekers

Bullets are designed to perform within certain limits. At close range the velocity hasn’t slowed down much, and this can cause a bullet failure in some designs. If the bullets doesn’t do what it should, the bear will be wounded or you may face a difficult tracking job.

The bullet will behave differently depending on what it hits. A bone will cause faster expansion and slow the bullet down while just penetrating through flesh will cause much less bullet deformation. When aiming, you should think of an imaginary line straight through the bear and consider not only where the bullet will enter, but where it will exit. Proper bullet selection will assure appropriate performance under a variety of circumstances.

What kills an animal?

Death occurs when blood does not carry oxygen to the brain. What oxygenates the blood to begin with? The lungs inflate and pressurize putting oxygen in the bloodstream. How do we find an animal that does not drop dead right there? Follow the blood trail. So ideally, you want a bullet that will damage the circulatory system and exit too. Archers use super-sharp broadheads and heavy arrows to insure pass-through penetration.  A bullet that will do like-wise should be selected.

Joe Riekers

Conventional bullets are basically cup and core designs. Melted lead is poured into a copper jacket. The problem is that this type of bullet is made to expand uniformly at certain velocities and with little resistance.

Most bottleneck cartridges launch a conventional bullet too fast for close range work. At bear-over-bait ranges, the bullet is going too fast for the jacket and core to stay together. The core separates from the jacket, causing a significant loss of penetration.

Going premium

Premium bullets for black bear hunting offer best combination of expansion and penetration. Premium bullets incorporate a design that allows it to expand in a controlled manner without the jacket and core separating. This is achieved in different ways by different manufacturers.

Premium bullet recovered from game – a rare occurrence, Joe Riekers

One of the oldest styles is the Nosler Partition. The Swift A-Frame uses the same principle but the front has a thicker jacket to expand a bit slower than the Nosler. Another design is the bonded core. These bullets are made with a process that fuses the core and jacket together so they stay together during expansion. Additionally, most bonded core bullets will expand at a steady rate regardless of the velocity. Examples of these are Kodiaks, Sciroccos, and Bear Claws. Barnes eliminates the core altogether by using a solid copper bullet with pre cut petals to open and start expansion.

All of these premium bullets stay in one piece at a wide range of velocities and even when they hit resistance they retain weight and penetrate very deep. If you are going to use a bottleneck rifle cartridge for close range black bear, premium bullets are the way to go. A premium bullet will certainly increase the odds of a pass through shot.

Premium bullets in moderate velocity cartridges expand reliably and retain weight to penetrate consistently. They are designed to hold together they easily smash through bone and thick hide and muscle, especially if you choose a heavy bullet to begin with. Most of the time they will exit the bear.

Hard cast bullets

bear bullets
Hardcast and premium bullets recovered from bears, Joe Riekers

Hard cast bullets for black bear hunting work in a different way. Hard cast bullets are solid bullets of lead and alloy that remain hard and intact without expansion.

There is a big difference between hard cast bullets and plain lead bullets. The cast lead bullets commonly found in cowboy ammo, target ammo and plinking ammo is soft and is not made to remain intact at high velocity or when contacting hard bone.

Soft lead bullets that come in contact with hard or dense resistance will smear, similar to hard pressing a crayon against a paper on a hard desk and drawing a line.

Sometimes they will bend and expand and sometimes they will break into more than one piece. Hardcast bullets are hard but not brittle.

Good hard cast bullets like those from Cast Performance are made to stay together through tough bone and thick muscle.

Joe Riekers

Yeah, you can kill a bear with a lot of different bullets. Just remember, the only thing that touches your bear is the bullet, so why skimp there? Use a bullet for black bear hunting that is up to the task no matter what.

What’s your favorite bear hunting cartridge?

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Bullets for Black Bear Hunting from Treestands