Handguns and the Backcountry

By Bob Campbell published on in Camping & Survival, Firearms, Outdoors

America is far from tame, as we have seen recently. Despite the advance of civilization, there are places that are wild and free and not occasionally, but daily dangerous as a matter of course. Intense aridity, sweeping blizzards, terrible heat, dangerous wildlife and natural disasters come often. There are many challenging landscapes. Those who live in Alaska, Arizona, and Wyoming on a permanent basis are prepared but sometimes make a misstep. God help the occasional visitor such as myself. Resident or visitor, you need the right caliber handgun for the backcountry.

Taylors Cattlebrand revolver and Randall Trailblazer Bowie knife

A single-action .45 Colt, such as the Taylors Cattlebrand, is a good outdoors revolver. This one is often carried in the Galco Wheelgunner holster along with a Randall Trailblazer knife.

In some places, fire, snow, and slush are just seasons. Some dream of living in a wild place, but very few become fully accustomed to isolation and inhospitable environments. I occasionally get into the wilder pines and valleys. It is energizing and in a very specific way relaxing, but one must be alert to danger at all times.

Some of the places are little known and others are historic. A focus on nature and a connection is important. This is the animals’ home, and they are a concern. The cute ones that run away with your sandwiches are only funny once. The big ones want a larger meal. A fear of animals is primal and worthy of study, despite reassuring statistics on animal attacks.

Dangerous animals are a concern when you are isolated from other humans. Just the same, closer to town people often encounter deadly attacks from feral dogs and dangerous guard dogs. These dogs are often owned by inadequate personality types that use the animal as a snarling growling prosthesis for their own shortcomings. Some of these folks have a lot to hide, or a crime to conceal, and have mistreated the animal to the point any human is fair game. This is understandable, but I am not willing to take the brunt of an attack for another man’s sins.

Truly feral dogs are more dangerous than wolves, as they do not fear humans. A wild bear or one of the big cats has a different motivation. They have no axe to grind with humanity. They demand a certain offset of space from humans to feel safe. When you invade that space, you will set off a number of reactions. It may be a demonstration and baring of teeth, particularly if they have young in tow. It may be a full blown attack without warning. When the animal only demonstrates you are lucky, and it is time to carefully retreat.

DM Bullard hippo holster with a revolver

An outdoors holster should carry the revolver high. Most of carry the revolver under a jacket or vest. The DM Bullard holster molded from Hippo hide is ideal and will last several lifetimes.

In the deep woods, the bears and big cats—not to mention wolves—are a danger. We like to have something on the hip for protection. Unfortunately, the bad guys sometimes make it to the back country as well, but that is another subject. We like to have something in the holster, or under the shoulder, in case of attack.

These animals attack in a very specific manner. They will bowl the victim over and go for the back, neck, or head. You need a handgun that may be pressed into the animal’s body and fired repeatedly to counter this attack. I did not make the rules, the animal did and these are very old rules.

A self-loading handgun would jam after the first shot if thrust into the animal’s body. The only automatic that I think might be viable is the Honor Defense 9mm with integrated frame set off. You would have a fighting chance with this handgun, provided you did not limp wrist the piece and cause a malfunction. Buffalo Bore offers a highly-developed maximum-penetration load that coupled with good shot placement might turn the tables on a bear.

The Honor Defense handguns are rated for +P+ loads. In the absence of bears, and with feral dogs and the big cats to worry about, a Buffalo Bore JHP +P+ is another answer.

Ruger 10mm, top, and Springfield .38 Super pistol, bottom,

The Ruger 10mm, top, and Springfield .38 Super, bottom, are much loved handguns, but not ideal for outdoors use.

Most of us will chose a revolver for this mission. Caliber choice begins with the .38 Special +P. One of the most durable and accurate revolvers I own is a Smith and Wesson Heavy Duty .38 Special. With a handload using a hard cast 173-grain bullet at 1,100 fps, I have plenty of penetration for animal defense.

Buffalo Bore offers a 158-grain SWC .38-44 that offers excellent penetration. Moving to the .357 Magnum, we have more options. It is good to know, if needed, we could take deer-sized game to 35 yards or so with the field gun, and the Magnum gets us into that territory. A reliable, accurate, and fast handling .357 Magnum is all the gun an occasional shooter will care to handle.

A 180-grain FP bullet at 1,330 fps (Buffalo Bore) is ideal for animal defense. The obvious frontrunner is the Smith and Wesson Combat Magnum with 4-inch barrel. However, as I have been manipulating single-action revolvers for 40 years, I sometimes carry my light and well-balanced Traditions Sheriff’s Model. It just seems ideal, and the heft is good.

Moving to the big bores, there are credible choices. The problem is we are not going hunting but hiking and camping, at least in my scenario. Weight is a consideration. One of the best choices is the new Ruger GP100 in .44 Special. This is a fast handling revolver that features a fiber optic front sight. If you have a shot before the animal is on you no revolver offers higher hit probability. Load selection is critical.

Honor Guard Honor Defense pistol with standoff

Among a very few self-loaders suited to animal defense is the Honor Guard 9mm with its innovative integrated standoff.

Lightweight, jacketed hollow point loads designed for personal defense would be worthless. Buffalo Bore offers a 255-grain SWC at 1,000 fps. It isn’t difficult to control in double-action pairs and offers good sectional density and excellent penetration. If the bad guys are part of the equation, this revolver and the aforementioned 4-inch barrel .357 are at the top of the list.

An overlooked combination that has much merit is the Ruger Blackhawk in .45 Colt. A personal 5 ½-inch barrel Blackhawk is one of my favorite outdoors revolvers. This is a special flat top edition on the smaller Ruger frame making it lighter than the .44 frame Blackhawk. It is accurate enough for deer-sized game to 50 yards and hits hard. A 255-grain SWC loaded to 1,100 fps is potent medicine.

Buffalo Bore’s 255-grain SWC at 1,000 fps is another choice. There are lighter revolvers that will do the business. Ounce-for-ounce, the Taurus Tracker .44 Magnum 5-shot revolver is a good buy. The ribber grips make for bearable shooting with the .44 Magnum, at least for a couple of cylinders in practice. I regard the 5-shot .44 Magnum revolver as a nice .44 Special. Just the same, when you are on your back and the revolver must be stuck into the animal’s body, the factory loaded .44 Magnum offers good performance.

There are larger and more powerful handguns including the .44 Magnum and .454 Casull Redhawk revolvers. They require considerable effort to master and determination in learning to control recoil. Against a bear, no handgun is anything more than a last ditch weapon. The handgun is always on our hip and may be called the weapon of opportunity not the weapon of choice. These handguns will give you piece of mind and comfort, and just may save your life.

Which gun, and what caliber, do your prefer for backcountry carry? Share your answers in the comment section.

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Comments (42)

  • mrsgunnut10

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    I may be over loaded, but I love my Smith Wesson Governor. It shoots 45 Long Colt, 45 ACP, and 410 Bore. Self Protection, Hunting, or Target shooting, all are covered, by this fine Weapon. Oh yeah, I do have a small 5 shot 22 Magnum, NAA Derringer, that I carry daily in my pocket. That is a safe Self Protection ” Trinket ” also. You all stay Happy . Healthy, and above all ” STAY SAFE ” . TSgt., USAF Analyst Retired.

    Reply

  • Mike H

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    My first choice is my S&W M66 (stainless steel) .357 with 4 inch barrel. Perfect with a high riding holster. I carry .38 snake shot and 180 gr Buffalo Bore lead. Those Tradition single action revolvers are sweet…might have to grab one.

    Reply

  • Graywolf12

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    I carried a Ruger black hawk 44 Mag, in Alaska. I never needed it to protect against animals, but shot 2 Caribou with it . One a head shot at maybe as far as 10 feet, it almost ran me over. The other was about 40yards. I hit it in the neck going directly away from me. I used HOT hand loads with 247 Gr. soft points. The Shot to the neck took out about 6 inches of neck bone. I was impressed, and felt safer while fishing with only a hand gun. It was superbly accurate for a 6″ barrel.

    Reply

  • Robert

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    On the eastern side of the US where the most dangerous thing is a Black Bear or possibly a bobcat. I carry a 10mm Glock. I know not traditional, but I like having the possibility of quick reloads and with +P ammo a quite substantial amount of power with every shot. Also I feel 15 rounds without reloading gives me an advantage in a crisis situation and finally I do a lot of training with smaller glocks and have a lot of experience with them so it is more familiar to me and easier to use quickly.

    Reply

  • oldvet

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    Have always loved the old single action , by your own reasoning though if you are concerned about reliable function then I would recommend a Double action of any of the .40 plus calibers . The less you have to remember to do in a stressful situation the better.

    Reply

  • Steve

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    Single action revolvers does not make sense to me! When you only have time to put as many rounds into the threat as possible, do you really want to recock every time! I carry a S&W 629 3″ with 240gr hard cast rounds with shoulder holster and in my truck gun rack a Rossi 44mag lever action with 300gr hard cast rounds and a Ruger 10/22 with LRHP(for smaller pests) This way I only have to pack a couple of different calibers. Any gun is still better than no gun,

    Reply

  • Jim Guidry

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    Having moved into Montana several years ago, I picked up a S&W .500 Mag 4″ model. After several trips to the range, I am confident as to its stopping power, especially with a 540-gr spire point load. The revolver is much easier to handle than most believe.

    Great article!

    Jim Guidry

    Reply

  • Dean Gilbert

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    The .44 Special in the Taurus Tracker is a great gun. I’m a big fan of Taurus and carry my PT-111 as my EDC gun of choice. But, out in the ‘toolies’, I carry my Ruger Redhawk 5.5″ .44mag. A couple extra ounces doesn’t bother me when I know I have that extra round if I need it. If I should happen to forget to pack it in with the rest of my gear, (if I’m running late to meet up with the guys) I always have my trusty ‘truck gun’ under the seat. I keep an old Taurus Gaucho 5.5″ in .45 Colt. Either one will get the job done.

    Reply

  • Greywolf

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    My .44 mags in a Blackhawk and Marlin are my favorite hunting guns. But for carring 24/7 in the back country, I love my Ruger Police Service Six SS in .357 mag using 158 JSP rounds. My holster for it is a Biachi that allows me to carry it strong side or cross draw. Seeing as how I’ll never make it to Alsaka, my PSS excels!
    Thank you…

    Reply

  • Tim

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    Here in Montana where we have grizzlys, wolves and mountain lions the minimum caliber for the woods is .44 magnum. I personally carry a Ruger Spuper Redhawk in .454 Casull. In camp I keep a 12 gauge wth slugs handy. Don’t waste your time with anything smaller unless you plan to use it to shoot your partner in knee while you get away.

    Reply

    • MR. CHARLES

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      TIM, Good comment especially the last sentence – good joke.. I do like my .454 Casull Super Redhawk as well as you since I can load many different levels of 45 Caliber ammunition in it. It will actually shoot .45 S&W Schofield all the way up to 240/300 gr Jacketed Flat Point/Lead Hard Cast at 1,900+ Fps and 1,800/1,900 Ft. Lbs of Energy. Recoil is STOUT with the heavier, faster loads but very mild at lower Fps .45 Long Colt loads and even TAME at .45 Long Colt Cowboy Action loads. There are even loads in the 1,000/1200 Fps area that are the same or slightly better then .44 Magnum Ballistics and you get a bigger bullet as well. I have said before that we can all learn things from each other, keep the comments coming.

      Reply

    • Greywolf

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      I’m sorry, this reminds me of a very appropriate joke too.
      “Two friends are dressing for their first morning fishing in Alaska. First friend asks second friend, “Are those running shoes you’re putting on? Don’t think for a second you can out run a bear! Second friend quips “You’re right. There is no way to out run griz, I just have to out run you!””

      Reply

    • MR. CHARLES

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      GREYWOLF: Heard that one many years ago, I laughed then and again when I read it from you. Good go and thanks for the reminder of hunting humor.

      Reply

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