Bear Spray vs. Gun: Which is Better?

Roaring Bear

First and foremost, when we set foot into wilderness areas of Montana, we must understand and respect that Mother Nature is in charge. Meaning, when we head out to recreate as we please, we immediately are in nature’s backyard. Now with the argument laid right across the table for you to contemplate and consider which is more dangerous, a bear or mountain lion, we decided to give it a try and see what your opinion is on which method for self-defense from these animals is the most effective. A gun or bear spray?

For those who haven’t had the opportunity to catch up on the latest topic between the two most dangerous predators in Montana to humans, click here. But for those that have, we want to lay out the facts for both and let you decide which may or may not be the most suitable for your experience.

Bear Spray

Bear Spray

Walk into an REI, Sportsman’s Warehouse, or even a local gas station, and you can find bear spray for sale. Bear Spray, essentially is a high powered pepper spray designed to use as a deterrent in the event of a bear attack. You use it by discharging a one to two percent concentration of capsicum oleoresin and spray under high pressure. The canister discharges a chemical mixture designed to deter even the most determined bear. It comes in a tall metal canister with a nozzle on top and a toggle with which you squeeze and press with your thumb to discharge.

Some are very aware of the uses of bear spray and are knowledgeable about how to use it. Some are scratching their heads, laughing at the fact people use pepper spray to deter a 600-pound charging bear. Don’t be fooled. Anyone who has trespassed against a suitably armed woman or had a scape with the police knows the power of pepper spray and would argue how effective the substance is. In other words, add steroids to the cute canister in your purse, and that is essentially bear spray.

There is much more to bear spray than an overpowered aerosol can filled with an irritating concentration that bears don’t like. So much so that Montana Fish and Wildlife recommend its uses when in bear habitat. They also recommend the purchase of a practice container, so you know how to quickly draw and remove the safety clip to effectively use the spray. Never discharge spray unless the bear is attacking. Spray for 6-9 seconds and try and create a somewhat invisible wall that the bear has to run through to get to you.

Bear spray does not kill or even injure a bear or mountain lion; it stuns them and persuades them to seek food and interests elsewhere. But that is the point. Montana Fish and Wildlife recommend its use to both help keep grizzly bear populations from declining. Bear spray has shown effectiveness ranging from 92 to 98 percent of the time in an attack. Every study indicates that no deterrent is 100 percent effective. Depending on the situation and mood of the bear, the adrenaline can make even the most toxic pepper spray seem like a squirt of cologne or perfume. Firearms, on the contrary, can put down even the most aggressive bear, but don’t think they are 100% effective either.


In uses for self-defense in the event of a charging bear or an attacking mountain lion, the topic is a controversial one. Some argue that discharging a firearm against a charging animal is only effective when in the hands of a skilled marksman. Some argue that the use of firearms is unethical for the treatment of animals and that they shouldn’t be killed, even in self-defense. Others swear by the use of our firearms and refuse to head out into the wilderness without one. That debate and topic are for you to decide.

If you are new to the area or even new to the use of firearms, you need to follow the state’s guidelines and rules for purchasing and owning a firearm. Information is available here. Unlike bear spray, firearms go under a very different rule system, and knowing which caliber to carry is another topic up for debate. Ask any hunter, and they may laugh at the use of a .22 caliber in the woods of Montana, while some carry a 500 ultra mag and wouldn’t consider carrying anything smaller. So the variances in caliber may be worth researching on your own and finding which is appropriate for your uses. Guns are also heavy, and so is ammunition—another thing to take note of depending on your desired activities.

The other dilemma with firearms is the laws associated in the event of self-defense. For instance, anywhere within the boundaries of National Parks, it is strictly enforced and illegal to discharge a firearm. Though you may carry one, even in the event of self-defense, it is illegal to fire your weapon, and severe consequences may ensue. Elsewhere, in the use of a firearm for self-defense against another person or domestic dog, you must report the incident to authorities within 72 hours. If not deemed appropriate for self-defense, huge fines and even prison time may be enforced.

Even after all that, abiding by the rules and doing all you can to be prepared in bear country, it is surprising that even guns are arguably less effective than bear spray. A study by U.S. Fish and Wildlife has shown that discharging your weapon even as a scare shot or by hitting the bear; injuries still occur 50% of the time. While using bear spray, people tend to be uninjured most of the time. A gunshot can evoke an attack response from a bear, causing it to charge. As mentioned, unless you hit the bear perfectly with the right caliber and do so quickly enough, even the use of a firearm in self-defense may not be the most effective in the situation.


Again, successful track records of working for self-defense against a charging bear or mountain lion. Which one you prefer or think is a better option for yourself, and the surrounding environment is up to you. Different counties and people in our state will have different opinions. The take away from this is that government studies and agencies recommend the use of bear spray over firearms. Ultimately, be prepared, and remember we are in the bear and mountain lions realm, and that must be respected.

Whether you are a die-hard gun owner or someone who would never touch one, neither should be discharged against an animal unless absolutely necessary. Our encroachment into the bear’s realm grows every day as our state population grows, and our confrontation with these incredible apex predators becomes more frequent. 

Bear Attack

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