Camping & Survival

Handguns and the Backcountry

Taylors Cattlebrand revolver and Randall Trailblazer Bowie knife

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.

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (43)

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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

  5. 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’!

    1. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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,

  13. 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

  14. 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.

  15. 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…

  16. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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!””

    3. 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.

  17. I am comfortable with any caliber from 9mm on up,it is all about ammo selection.+p loads with hardcast bullets is my choice.

  18. I use the first rule of backwoods hiking; don’t go where the great bears are going to be. The big cats are getting lots of pressure on their territory and are getting more attention as their attacks get more frequent.

    I carry a Circuit Judge 16 inch carbine with either .410 X 3″ slugs, or Corbon Colt 45 +P with a 300grain jacketed soft point. This light carbine can handle fast, with plenty of poke, and is effective at close to moderate ranges. But there is always a Ruger Security Six in 357 mag, with a 41/2″ barrel.

    The rest of you will be identified by the ME when they open the great bears stomach.

  19. Ruger Blackhawk .357, will take care of any critters where I live….or the ,500 S&W min. if a chance of big bears, plus 12 ga. with slugs when in big bear country..

  20. My first choice is a S&W Model 57, 4 inch barrel,.41 Mag. 2nd choice S&W .10mm revolver, 6 1/2 inch barrel. 3rd choice S&W Model 629 .44 Mag, 6 1/2 inch barrel if I am in bear country. 1911 with 8 rd magazine is good loaded with good JHPs. Just beware of the wild animals including the two-leg kind.

    1. I concur. I’ll carry a 4″ S&W Model 57 or my 6″ version when in the field. The 6-inch rides in an old Safariland “Quarter Flap” holster that also acts almost like a safety strap. Using a 210 grain soft-point at 1300 fps makes it potent bear medicine. I also have a Marlin 1894 chambered in .41 Mag which serves as nice outdoors rifle.

      It’s just as important, I think, to carry a good strong, sharp knife on the belt too. Numerous hunters and hikers have had their lives saved by a knife.

  21. I think your comments are off the wall and not based on experience or research. While the chances of an animal attack are slim I would not wish to find myself facing a cougar or a pit bull for that matter with a .22 or .32 mag barely adequate for bob cat. I studied the official report a few years ago of the unfortunate incident in which a psychopath loosed zoo animals on the public. The .40 did ok in a few short range incidents. The shotgun was ‘almost worthless’ probably due to the range at which they attempted to use buckshot. The .223 required multiple hits, up to 20 on the big cats. The .308 required two to three hits in most incidences. So, I based my choices on facts and while a rifle over the shoulder is best the handgun is the firearm always with us. It has best be a good one.
    Thanks for reading.

  22. Thanks for reading.
    You do not have logic or experience on your side.
    I read a convincing report from the police agency that dealt with the unfortunate chore of dispatching a large number of wild animals- including the big cats- that were intentionally loosed from a zoo a few years ago. The .40 did OK the .223 required many hits- up to twenty on tigers- the shotgun was unimpressive with buckshot, possibly due to the range, and the .308 the best choice, although it often required two to three shots. A large animal with thick hide and heavy bone structure would not even know it had been shot with a .22. They attack quickly and you will not have time to put a lot of round in. While the chances of an attack, as I noted, are low, I certainly don’t wish to have something on my hip that I would not feel comfortable with against a bobcat much less a cougar.

    1. Any gun is better than none, go with what you have to give yourself a fighting chance. A sharpshooter with a .22 can do better than a novice with a 308. So practice and your shot placement will improve. Also practice off hand, hip fire, quick shot and choose a reliable weapon that you maintain properly. Choose what you know you can fire well.

  23. The firearm for outdoor protection will depend on local. I live in Alaska. My firearm is a .30cal rifle with 200gr jacketed bullets or. 3” 12 gauge with slugs.

  24. Well Ladies and Gentlemen, I have carried everything from .22 Cal to .454 Casull Magnum for protection while traveling in the wilderness, being prepared for many situations just became a way of life and it has saved me in a few situations. So yes I agree with the article that any person going into harms way should be prepared for many possible situations that may arise.

  25. I have a G40 10mm loaded with Underwood 220gr hard cast. Did some more reading about brown bears and got a 454 with 360gr hard cast. From what I’ve read recently, I need a 500 S&W.

    1. I taught bear protection for Fish and Wildlfe in Alask for almost 20years. A pistol in all but the most experienced shooters hand will get you mauled or worse. In almost all cases a handgun will not be effective on a charging brownie. Reaction time, accessibility (holstered), lack of knockdown energy and lack of a precise shot are the problems you would very well encounter. A 30 to 35 cal rifle or 12 gauge with 3” slugs are your best protection from big bears.

    2. Live in Montana. Have hunted elk and mulies in bear (griz) country for almost 40 years. Use to carry a .338 win mag and sided a .44 S&W 29 for about 30 years. When I hit my late 60s arthritis and injuries from ‘nam took their toll and had to make some trade-offs. Never hunt alone anymore. Team up with huntin buddies. Carry a .45-70 lever gun (Marlin) when others go for game and get the turnabout when I hunt with my 6.5 CM (antelope/white-tail) and .308 MSR (elk/mulies). Else use a .22mag/.22LR for plinkin/practice.

    3. SCO, I agree that a 10 MM and .454 Casull will just about take down anything in the lower 48 states, including bears, however, if you are not in the lower 48 – then yes you could get a .500 S&W as a backup. For BIG BROWN/POLAR BEARS you will be much better armed with a rifle in .375 Mag or .416 Rigby or .45-70 GOV is used in Alaska for the biggest animals.

    4. I have carried 44 Mag and also 45 Long Colt, both in Ruger Blackhawks, both hot loaded with heavy hitters. I NEVER carry a 44 Mag with hollow points, always 240 gr soft points, and 255 in my 45 Long Colt. Your 454 Casul should take care of anything you need. That’s one of the best choices for Kodiak Browns in Alaska! There are always people hyping new calibers as better but until they are proven I would not waist my money!

    5. What I was trying to say also was – keeping your backup firearm in the range of those revolvers/pistols that are manageable and a person can shoot well. This is a personal choice type of thing that anyone using any firearm MUST EVALUATE FOR THEMSELVES. When I got my .454 Casull Ruger Super Redhawk, I had tried the Taurus Raging Bull in .44 Magnum and did’t like the way it recoiled into my hand. On talking with several gunsmiths and checking the Ballistics Tables I came to the result that I could comfortable shoot the .454 in the Ruger because it would RAISE ON RECOIL INSTEAD OF DIRECTLY BACKWARDS AS THE TAURUS DID, also the .454 ammunition could duplicate the .44 Mag and if needed reach up to 2,000 Ft. Lbs of energy, which was enough for any lower 48 animals that I might encounter. It can also be used in Alaska as a last ditch effort to save your life with HARDCAST OR FLAT POINT both of which are around 1,900 Ft. Lbs of energy and penetrate deeply. I still would not use a .454 by itself on largest type bears or other large animals. Well I’ll leave this for your thoughts for now. Please comment as that is how we all can learn something.

    6. Yes sir. I feel pretty confident in shooting my 454, can’t say that about a 500, because I haven’t shot one yet. I carry a 375 Ruger, but always some kind of backup pistol, plus spray. My friend is a guide up there and I usually make it every year or two. He showed me a mauling where the bear took 5 shots from a 454 to go down. Him and his client put 11 rounds of 375 H&H that they both carried on a +10ft² brownie this year. I know shot placement is key, mixed with a little luck, but he carries a 500 for back up. He’s also never had to use it. I think as long as we hunt together, both having 375’s and having a 454 and a 500, we should be good.

  26. Unless you live in an area where you risk encountering one of the great bears, you choice of firearm is not nearly as critical as the author makes it out to be. Eliminate true pocket pistols as hard to manipulate effectivrly, hard to shoot accurstrly, and low cspacity, and what is left? Carry it. 9mm? .45? 10mm? Yeah baby! In revolvers, anything from .32 mag on up. Sure, bigger and more powerful is better, but shot placement and lots of shots placed will do it too. Ruger 10/22 with a 30 rd mag dump will end a black bear or any North American “big cst”.

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