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 (43)

  • Curtis


    I am a heavy equipment mechanic and often work alone when the job does not require a helper. I was called to do warranty work on a dozier. This was in the mountains of Arizona. When I got to the job there was a Black bear hanging around. The horn on my truck scared him off, but I strapped on my 44 mag as insurance. On hour later he came for me and I was forced to kill him. So, always be ready.


  • S. Stuart


    I have had a Ruger Blackhawk .357 Mag that’s been backwoods choice for many years. Still shoots the same as the first day I purchased it. Most reliable handgun I have ever owned. I have shot against .44 Mags and have always come out on top. Can’t say anything against it on any level.


  • Jim Parker


    Consider the Glock Model 20, (10mm) for camping & hiking. The combination of 15+1 rounds in a “lightweight” gun with a cartridge with ample stopping power.


  • Jimmy


    I hunted in the bob Marshall wilderness near glacier park in Montana. I carried the 460 S&W magnum. That gun is multi caliber and also shoots the .454 and the .45 colt Incase you don’t like the recoil of the .460


  • D. Berry


    One note on the Buffalo Bore .357 magnum hard-cast 180 grain gas-checked load. Was out shooting here in Wyoming with my two Rugers; one, a 7.5″ Super Blackhawk in .44 mag and the other my Ruger 4 5/8″ .357 mag. We saw an old dead standing tree about 30-40 yards off and decided to see if the .44, with my Rem. 240 gr. soft points would penetrate through it. Two rounds and no complete penetration. (the tree was approx.. 18″ thick) My friend opined that the .357 load might do better. Darned if he wasn’t right! Both rounds completely penetrated that old tree! Guess what I carried for bears after that! Just sayin’!




      D. BERRY, I had a similar thing happen to me, my friend and I were cutting firewood and had a stump about 3 feet above ground. My buddy had just got a .44 Mag and I had a .357 Mag, so we thought it would be a good idea to shoot them into the stump, blast – blast. We then cut the stump off and started splitting it to see where bullets ended up – his .44 was about 10 inches deep and the .357 180 grain hollow point was within 1″ of where his 240 grain .44 slug was. We were both amazed that the .357 had penetrated that far compared to the .44 – the wound channel was smaller for the .357 but the slug had penetrated almost as deep as the .44. That’s my story – the truth and I’m sticking to it.


  • Billca


    Roland, what you say is somewhat true. There’s the old adage that a hit with a .22 beats a miss with a .44. Except here we are talking about wild predators with 4 legs. When hungry, ticked off or defending their young they can take several .44 Magnum hits and keep coming. It’s rather difficult to stand, aim and accurately shoot that .22 (or even .223) when hundreds of pounds of predator charges from close range, teeth and claws first, with the intent of turning you into sushi. Go ahead and walk with your .22 rifle. Brown bears are bad enough I’ll take a big caliber pistol or rifle. With Grizzlies, I’d feel under-gunned with a bazooka.


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