By: Tom Claycomb

Which pistol(s) do you choose for protection in the backcountry?

9mm Doesn’t Cut It
I’m an avid outdoorsman, and I’m constantly surprised by how many people I see carrying a 9mm or similar sort of pistol in the backcountry with a false sense of security. A 9mm just doesn’t cut it.

Sure, there are always anomalies, but you can’t live your life according to them. For instance, one of my best buddies knows a guide who, for whatever reason, carried his 9mm out while guiding some salmon fishermen. A brown bear appeared, knocked over his clients, and the guide emptied his 9mm into the animal.

The bear kept nipping at his shoulder when he’d get shot instead of mauling the customer underneath him. By the grace of God, one of the bullets penetrated and hit the bear’s heart. By the time the gun was empty, the bear had expired. BUT! just because one bear in the history of the world has been killed with a 9mm doesn’t make the 9mm a good bear cartridge.

I lost all faith in 9mm’s years ago. We had a cow go berserk. She got out and was charging everyone. All I had handy was a 9mm. I’ve dropped cattle before with a single shot .22. This cow couldn’t have been much over 900lbs. I shot her in the head, but here she came. This process repeated itself for a while, until she finally went down. I walked out to her and put the 13th round into her head. That’s the day I wrote off 9mm’s for stopping charging animals.

Another time I was bow hunting and walked up to a downed buck. He jumped up and charged me. I emptied my .357 into him while pedaling backwards. In the tall grass I stumbled and fell over backwards. He pretty nearly ran over me. I jumped up, but by then the buck had tipped over. I was firing into him as fast as I could, and he acted as if nothing was even hitting him.

I could tell many such stories regarding lighter caliber pistols, but you get my drift. In a laboratory setting you might be safe with a smaller pistol, but what about when you’re taken by surprise and lucky to have time for one fast, awkward shot? You better make sure what you’re carrying is adequate.

Carry a Functional Caliber
I don’t want to scare you but, you need to be scared. Don’t carry a certain pistol just because it’s lightweight or handy to carry. First and foremost, carry a functional caliber. With that in mind, I’m going to tell you what I suggest – what has worked for me. One disclaimer: I don’t pretend to be a ballistics expert. It’s likely many of the people reading this article will know more on that topic than me.
For a good many years, I carried a .357 mag. But here in Idaho I just see too many big bears. So I jumped up to a .44 mag. And what about moose? When I was moose hunting over in Eastern Idaho years ago, it seemed like nearly every old-timer I met had been run up a tree by a moose. Moose are big and unpredictable. I hit my first bull three times in the chest with a 30-06 before his knees buckled. The first shot he acted as though I had missed, and the second shot he kicked it up a gear.

I have a friend who swears by his .41 mag., and the .454 Casull has a good reputation. From what I’ve heard and read, I’d limit my selection to either a .44 mag, .41 mag., or a .454 Casull.

Take Weight into Consideration
I once went backpacking by myself and stopped to fish a high mountain lake. A guy and his son were hopping over the mountain (on a trail) and headed off into another drainage into the Frank Church Wilderness.

I don’t remember exactly which model the father was carrying, but it was a six or eight-inch Ruger. He showed it to me. I bet it weighed 100 lbs. Which brings up the next angle: if your pistol weighs too much, you’re going to end up not always carrying it, which does you no good at all in an emergency.

In my quest to find a manageable yet powerful pistol, I settled on the S&W Titanium 329, which is a .44 mag. It’s super lightweight. To me it is the ultimate backcountry pistol. Until……you have to shoot it. Its lightweight is also its downfall. It kicks like the proverbial mule.

When I first got the 329, I was excited to test it out. With the factory wood handles, however, I could barely empty the gun because of its extreme recoil. I quickly bought some Pachmayr grips. I could now empty my gun without crying, but it was still a killer to shoot.

Still, this gun fit the bill for what I needed to use it for. It was light to carry, so I wouldn’t leave it in camp. I put on a Crimson Trace laser sight, figuring if a bear breaks into camp, I can zero-in on him better. I’ve since had two bears come either rub on my tent or only be one foot from the tent wall with me on the other side. So yes, it kicks, but I don’t shoot it for fun. I carry it for protection against bears, wolves, and moose.

Pistol vs. Rifle
I do a lot of bear hunting and used to take a lot of kids with me. And who do you think gets stuck tracking wounded bears into the brush?

I’ve found I’m a lot more comfortable carrying a pistol when tracking a bear into the brush. A rifle can get hung-up while you’re swinging it around for a shot. I’ve finished off two or three wounded bears with my .44 mag.

What about Ammo?
I can’t end just yet. The next most important choice for backcountry protection, after picking which pistol to carry, is what ammo to use. What ammo you carry is almost as important as which gun you tote.

The guy who taught me how to bear hunt carries solid core hunting bullets in his pistol. His theory is that he wants to break down their wheels, break a shoulder. I’m not 100 percent sure of that, so I alternate in my cylinder. One solid core hunting bullet and one high quality hollow point. Call the Hornady factory and ask them what they recommend. Use the largest grain bullet you can comfortably shoot.

How to Carry
The next big item is your choice of a holster. There are a lot of choices on the market nowadays. But if you can’t quickly palm your pistol when it’s panic time, then what does it matter what you’re carrying?

I think there are only two choices. A good holster on your belt or a shoulder holster. If you’re fly fishing in waders, wear a shoulder holster on the outside so you can have easy and fast access. I like Diamond D holsters.

And lastly, carry speed loaders. That way you aren’t digging around for loose ammo in your lint-filled pocket.

Be safe out there.

Tom Claycomb III is a product tester for outdoor manufacturers, hunter, and outdoor writer, writing from Idaho.