November 3, 2022

Loaded for Bear: Muzzleloaders, Mountain Men, and Bears

By Seth Isaacson

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I can still remember seeing the black bear at the Wildlife Prairie Park as a kid for the first time.  Most of the park's animals are essentially just fenced in within natural habitats rather than man-made exhibits, so it was easy to imagine what stumbling upon a big black bear in the woods would have looked like. Several years later we saw grizzlies and black bears in the wild in Yellowstone. That certainly made you pay attention to your surroundings as you hiked around the park. You really didn’t know what might be around the next bend in the trail. That is why hunters and explorers in 19th century America went out “loaded for bear.”

The phrase has come to mean being prepared for anything, but in its original meaning, it meant exactly what it sounds like: having your firearm loaded for bear. That did not always mean the same thing depending on what kind of firearm you had. To some, loaded for bear meant a double barrel shotgun loaded with slugs/round balls instead of birdshot or perhaps a heavy load of buckshot. Some loaded muskets with two balls instead of one. For others, that meant a stout rifle in a fairly large caliber with a heavy powder charge. Later in the century, a Winchester 1876 in .50 express or a big .50 Sharps would fit the bill nicely. In addition to a powerful long gun, a pistol and a Bowie knife were excellent for backup. Knives especially were common given they were already carried for butchering game and various other tasks.

Hunting big game like bears is popular in firearms advertising, and this calendar for Winchester and advertisement for Peters Ammunition Company are no exception, using early 20th century nature paintings to catch the eye. Both are available in RIAC's Dec. 9-11 Premier Firearms Auction.

In 19th century America, bears were far more prevalent. Black bears historically could be found throughout most of North America and are still fairly widely distributed though they have been extirpated in Illinois and much of the Midwest. Grizzly bears, aka brown bears, were historically found throughout the American West. Bears were a popular game animal in the 19th century. Many enjoyed their meat. Their furs could be valuable, and their fat could be made into grease that could be used for cooking as well as a lubricant for rifle patches.

The populations of both species declined significantly over the course of the 19th century, and grizzlies have vanished from much of their historic range. They are most famously now primarily found in Yellowstone National Park, Alaska, and western Canada. Predators and agriculture have clashed throughout history, but Americans began battling with bears in the West before we were interested in farming there.

This over/under combination gun has a rifled upper barrel and a smoothbore lower barrel. Some hunters armed themselves with guns with two barrels to be ready for charging large game like bears.

The Rocky Mountain Fur Trade, 1800-1840

Even before Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery returned to St. Louis, bold men began traveling up the Missouri River in search of wealth in the form of beaver pelts. Their adventures brought them face to face with the largest predator in the country at the time. The grizzly bear was a dangerous foe, and many of the mountain men had tales to tell about their encounters with them, those that survived at least.

The story of the mauling of Hugh Glass is perhaps the West’s most famous grizzly bear tale and has been told again and again, including more recently on the silver screen in The Revenant.

In early 19th century America, hunters might get one shot with their muzzle loading rifle at a charging bear. This American long rifle is a percussion conversion rifle.

Glass was one of “Ashley’s Hundred,” a group of “enterprising young men” who signed up to travel up the Missouri River from St. Louis and trap furs in dangerous territory occupied by Native American tribes like the Arikara that resisted their incursion on their hunting grounds. Though they faced the Arikara in battles, it was not a man but a beast that nearly killed Glass: a large grizzly bear.

Exactly what happened to Glass varies from account to account, but the stories and legend all agree that Glass was nearly killed by a grizzly bear in 1823. As is often the case with grizzly attacks, he surprised a momma bear with her cubs while he was hunting. In many accounts, he fired upon the bear with his flintlock rifle but was severely mauled. In some versions he pulled a pistol and shot the bear again and then pulled his knife to try to fight for his life, slaying it. Other versions still had him fighting for his life but another member of his party fired the shot that killed the bear.

In case of bear attack, bring enough knife for the job. This John Lingard American hunting knife with Sheffield etched blade would readily qualify. Frontiersmen often carried a blade for any number of uses, and this one would've been deadly with its 7 9/16 inch blade.

Glass was expected to die quickly from his numerous, deep wounds, but he continued to linger on. Trying to bring him along slowed down the whole party and thus left them in jeopardy from Indian attack. John Fitzgerald and another man recorded as Bridges, often identified as Jim Bridger, were supposed to stay with Glass until he died and see that he was properly buried before rejoining the party. Glass continued to linger so Fitzgerald and Bridger fled, taking his rifle and other equipment with them.

Glass lived and, despite being severely injured, traveled alone for more than 250 miles to Fort Kiowa. He later recovered his gear and confronted the men that had left him for dead. He recovered from his wounds though no doubt he wore serious scars, and continued hunting and trapping until his party was ambushed by Arikaras in 1833.

This James Wilkinson & Son double barrel shotgun offers the hunter two chances to take down a bear.

Jedediah Smith was also a member of “Ashley’s Hundred” in Rocky Mountain Fur Incorporated in 1823. In the wake of Glass's mauling, Smith’s party headed for the Green River Valley in search of beaver. They again stumbled upon a grizzly that charged them. Smith stepped ahead, but the bear was on him before he could fire. The bear tore his scalp from his head and smashed his ribs. Another man shot the beast before it could kill Smith. Like Glass, Smith was a bloody mess with frightful wounds. His scalp and ear were crudely stitched back on. He bore the scars for the rest of his life. Like Glass, he died in a fight with Native Americans, in his case, the Comanches in 1831.

Bear Hunters of the Far West, 1840-1860

While Glass and Smith are famous for their near death experiences with bears in the West, other men became famous as hunters of bears themselves. Such was the case of Seth Kinman (1815-1888). He came West after the end of the Rocky Mountain trade era ended and settled in California where he became famous as a hunter.

Much of Kinman’s life is exaggerated, but it is clear that many grizzly bears fell to his rifle. His rifle was a character itself and part of Kinman’s persona. He said he had restocked after the original stock was destroyed by a bear that chased him up a tree. He claimed to have killed as many as 800 grizzlies, and his actions led to the eradication of grizzlies in Humbolt County, California, by the end of the 1860s. The California grizzly subspecies had been very common, but by the late 19th century, the bears were nearly extinct. The last one was shot in the 1920s.

This Sharps 1874 rifle packed a punch that could even take down a bear. It was shipped to Wyoming, where it might've been used for hunting and protection from bears.

Kinman used some of his bear hides for his famous chairs and used them as part of his shows. He was quite the character and had audiences with men like President Abraham Lincoln, but he was also characterized as a vicious brute and a killer of animals and man alike. He continued to use his mountain man persona and hunting trophies to make a living into the 1880s.

This Winchester 1886 carbine chambered in .50 Express offers plenty of power to take down a charging bear.

Another of the most famous grizzly bear hunters was John “Grizzly” Adams (1812-1860). He worked as a market hunter and killed many bears earlier in his life. He also captured wild animals live to sell for menageries. Adams caught and trained grizzlies, even training one named Lady Washington to allow him to ride her and work as a pack animal. Another of his grizzlies named Benjamin Franklin fought off a momma grizzly that charged Adams in California. The attack tore open his scalp and dented his skull, bit into his neck, and wounded Ben before Adams shot and killed her. Adams, who had been seriously wounded trying to train a tiger back in New England, would never fully recover from his wounds, in part because he continued to wrestle with his bears. In one incident, a bear tore open part of his skull, exposing his brain.

Adams and his bears traveled and performed live shows. Late in his life, he took his “Monster Bear Menajerie” to the East on tour, sold his animals to P.T. Barnum, and toured with Barnum before retiring.  He died from complications of his head injury from the bear attack and his shenanigans with his bears shortly after returning home. His death was widely reported across the country. Though he was only 48 when he died in 1860 and had gone broke multiple times, he succeeded in leaving behind a tidy sum for his wife through the sale of his animals and his tour with Barnum.

This Freedom Arms single action revolver is chambered in 454 Casull and offers plenty of power to take on a bear.

Loaded for Bear in the 21st Century

Despite numerous encounters with bears during the mountain man era and expansion of American settlement in the West, if you look up confirmed fatal bear attacks, there weren’t as many as you’d expect despite some saying grizzly bear attacks were quite common. If you look into it, many of the fatal attacks that occurred took place when hunters were pursuing the bears and failed to finish the job. Many of the other accounts are of “encounters” with grizzlies rather than fatal attacks, and, they often ended with the bears being killed. If you’ve read the journals of Lewis and Clark, you’ll remember that the Corps of Discovery encountered bears numerous times on their journey without any serious consequences, but as other stories demonstrate, it was still wise to come prepared, and one of the best preparations was to have some trustworthy armed friends along.

Nowadays, many still debate the right gun for bear country, and others still choose to rely on bear spray. Smith & Wesson offered their famous 500 ES revolver in a survival kit complete with a pamphlet on “Bear Attacks of the Century” and other survival gear. Some might choose a classic single action in a powerful cartridge like .454 Casull. A 1911 or other semi-auto in .45 ACP or another strong cartridge is still a good option, especially if that is what you are used to shooting. When under pressure, being able to hit your target, likely multiple times, is more important than power alone. Steve Rinella recommends a 12 gauge with slugs, much like the mountain men of old. Unless you have a tag and it's bear season, you should avoid bears in the wild rather than count on killing one with your firearms. Bears are amazing to see, and many now choose to “shoot” bears with cameras and long telephoto lenses rather than a rifle. No tag needed.

Though an atypical choice, this Stevens trench shotgun can unload a lot of lead quickly by slam firing it and would be a good defensive weapon to take into the wilderness.

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