Bear hunting is quite different from deer hunting.
You might expect me to delve deep into how one animal is a predator and one is a prey and how that affects their behavior to make them different.
Actually, the main difference is their anatomy.
Deer are lean, with thin fur, and easily-hit hearts. You can pass a bullet or arrow through them at an angle to hit several vital organs. They also bleed a lot.
Bears, on the other hand, are filled with fat and are covered in thick fur. It’s harder to get good penetration. They’re also notorious for leaving a poor blood trail.
So, some good shot angles at a deer are a horrible idea when you aim at a bear.
The best shot angle for a black bear is a broadside double-lung shot. This applies to both rifle hunters and bow hunters. That’s not the only shot you can take, but it is the safest.
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Good Black Bear Kill Zones
Bears have thick, loose hides, varying amounts of fat, and thick, shaggy fur. This makes it hard to conclusively identify a bear’s anatomy when you’re out in the woods.
They also have thick bones and dense muscles, which reduces your projectile penetration, whether a bullet or a broadhead.
No matter the type of large game you’re hunting, your goal is always to deliver a singular strike to the largest number of vital organs you can devastate at once.
So, you want to hit the bear with a shot against the narrowest portion of its body, aiming to devastate one or more vital organs.
1. Double Lung Shot: Behind the Shoulder
With black bears, this means going for their lungs with a broadside shot.
If you can get a bullet or arrow to penetrate both lungs and then exit through the bear’s far side, you’ll be in a great position to kill the bear and be able to track it down.
Having both an entrance and an exit wound will increase the size of the blood trail you have to track. Additionally, hitting both lungs will ensure the bear can’t run far.
The lungs are comparatively large on a bear. This is part of why such a shot is recommended.
Another reason is the proximity of other vital organs to the lungs.
A bear’s heart is just below its lungs. Though that organ is hard to aim for normally, it being close means you have a larger margin of error when aiming for the lungs.
The liver and front of the gut are also right next to the lungs. Though a gut shot is not ideal, putting an arrow through a bear’s liver is better than barely penetrating the animal’s thick shoulder.
When taking a broadside shot to a bear’s lungs, the main consideration is to wait for just the right part of their stride.
You want to take the shot when the bear’s front leg is far forward. That’s because the upper leg and shoulder have a lot of dense muscle and can otherwise block a shot from penetrating the lungs.
You can find this area by observing the bear as it walks. Find the rearmost area of its shoulder (with the leg straight down) and aim about six inches rearward.
With perfect aim, this will put your projectile in the middle of the bear’s lungs, ensuring a quick kill.
2. Broadside Shot: Middle of the Middle
A phrase most commonly used by Canadian hunting guides is to aim for the “middle of the middle” of the bear.
This puts your sights farther behind the shoulder, reducing your chances of striking the muscles without getting through to the lungs.
However, aiming for this point is not recommended by some hunters for two reasons:
1. This puts your aim at the rear of the lungs, lowering your chances of a double-lung hit and increasing your chances of a gut shot.
2. It’s confusing! Where exactly is the middle of the middle of a bear? The answer changes as the bear moves and angles toward or away from you.
However, if the bear is perfectly perpendicular or broadside to you, then you can identify the middle area of the bear as being between its legs. Then aim for about six inches forward of the point halfway from one leg to the other.
This isn’t exactly the middle of the middle but it’ll get you more into the lungs for a better shot.
3. High Shoulder: Break Their Bones
Another tactic by some rifle hunters is to purposefully aim for the shoulder.
There is a lot of blood flow through this area. If your rifle is powerful enough, you can penetrate through these blood vessels and pass your bullet through both lungs.
This works best in a quartering-toward shot, so you have the angle for the bullet to hit the shoulder and lungs.
This does require a bullet with greater than average mass, though.
For example, I would feel comfortable hunting a black bear with my 6.5 Grendel rifle, but only with a broadside shot.
However, with my .45-70 Government Marlin 1895 and a hard cast 500-grain bullet? I’d feel comfortable taking the high-shoulder shot.
Not with the lighter 350-gr bullets, though.
Another reason to take the high shoulder shot is to shatter the shoulder bone.
The thought here is that doing so immobilizes the bear. This prevents it from running away and causes a large amount of blood loss, making recovery easy.
Shattering the shoulder bone also means the bear cannot attack you in reprisal.
However, this is more of a brown bear hunting technique, not a black bear technique. Black bears are not nearly as likely to attack humans.
Note: If you’re an archer, never aim for the shoulder!
4. Facing Presentation: Square Shot to the Sternum
Another rifle-only place to shoot a black bear is to put a bullet into its heart through its sternum as it faces you.
Bear hearts are lower than you think. To complicate matters, a bear has a lot of loose skin and fur under its chest so if you aim too low you won’t cause any real damage.
However, sometimes a bear will notice something odd and stand up to try to see or smell you better.
This gives you a nearly perfect shot at its heart.
Its lungs will be between its shoulder and elbows and its heart just a bit above its elbows.
Aim at the bear’s midline above its elbows, but below the middle of its bicep, and you’ll break through its sternum and into its heart.
I wouldn’t take a sternum shot with the bear on all fours, though.
Black Bear Angles and Shot Placements to Avoid (Most of the Time)
Now that we’ve covered the best angles and places to shoot a bear, let’s go over some places that seem tempting but are a bad idea to aim at when hunting a black bear.
5. Quartering Shots
If you’re an archer, then it’s a bad idea to aim at a black bear that’s quartering away from you. If you have a particularly heavy arrow, then you may be able to hit both lungs. However, you’ll likely fail to pass through and cause an exit wound, reducing the blood trail.
A rifle hunter can take a quartering-away shot but it’s not as sure a shot as the good ol’ broadside double-lung hit.
A bow hunter should never take a quartering-toward shot. The muscles are too thick and the bones too big to guarantee you’ll be able to penetrate through to both lungs.
Bears have large heads. This means that it’s easy to shatter their skull and lethally damage their brain, right?
Not so fast.
Whether black or brown, any bear has an excessively thick skull.
I know a hunter who took a shot at a bear that was facing directly toward him at close range. It was an easy headshot.
He pulled the trigger and the bear charged. His second shot broke the bear’s shoulder, causing it to stumble. He put his third bullet through the bear’s lungs.
Once he started cleaning the bear, he investigated his entry wounds to see why the headshot didn’t knock the bear down.
He found that the bullet had struck the bear in the forehead, directly in line with the brain. Then it curved over the skull through the fat layer, passed along the neck, and exited over the bear’s left shoulder bone.
Don’t try to headshot a bear. Take out its lungs or shoulder.
Arrow and Bullet Construction Considerations
Because bears are tougher than deer, you don’t want to use the same projectile against both animals.
You want to prioritize penetration over expansion when choosing your weapon for bear hunting. Black bears are smaller and lighter than brown bears, but because of their tough anatomy, it’s still a good idea to err on the side of penetration.
For Rifle Hunters
Generally, you want to use a heavy bullet for the caliber. More mass means more penetration, even if you’re using hollow point bullets.
And you can use hollow points against black bears. However, remember that HP hunting bullets will reduce the angles you can use to put down a bear confidently.
Controlled expansion hunting bullets are great for black bear hunting as they let you take both broadside shots and quartering-away shots.
Maximum penetration bullets, however, let you shoot through the shoulder and into the lungs. Examples include hard-cast lead and all-copper bullets that don’t have petal cuts.
These are sometimes called “dangerous game” loads.
For Bow Hunters
If you’re hunting a black bear with a bow and arrow, you want to maximize penetration.
Use the heaviest arrows you can for your bow’s draw weight and length to get as much mass behind the arrowhead as possible.
Also, use a fixed broadhead instead of an expanding mechanical broadhead.
A black bear’s thick fur can gunk up a mechanical broadhead’s works and prevent it from swinging out the blades properly. This will cause you to lose much killing power, potentially letting the bear live.
Or allow it to escape and then die slowly, far from where you’ll give up even after you search for a tiny blood trail into the wee hours of the morning.
Where to Shoot a Bear in Self Defense
Circumstances are different when a bear is charging you.
Even if you’re not bear hunting, you may find yourself facing down a hungry or irate bear.
These animals can learn that gunshots mean dead deer. So what if you’re between them and having that deer carcass as dinner? Everyone enjoys an appetizer.
What are usually good targets when hunting bears, the lungs and heart, are a poor choice when you have to stop a bear in a matter of seconds. That’s because even a heart shot won’t drop a big bear.
And your priority during an attack is to stop the bear from moving toward you.
Generally, a bear charges straight at its prey, whether it’s hunting or trying to defend itself.
There are two places you can shoot a bear to get it to stop moving: the nervous system and the shoulders.
The best way to neutralize a bear is to kill it instantly and the only way to do so is to deliver a bullet into its skull.
I’ve already covered why it’s a bad idea to go for a headshot, but there is a difference when the bear is looking straight at you:
Its nose hides an opening to its brain covered by cartilage, not bone.
A bear’s nose is a tiny target that bounces up and down as it comes at you, but this is generally regarded as the best place to aim to put down a bear.
Another option is to break its shoulder so it can no longer run toward you. This is also a hard target against a charging bear.
Your best chance to defend against a bear attack with a firearm is to use highly-penetrating ammo and lots of it. Take aimed shots but get them out as quickly as possible.
10mm Glocks are common in Alaska because they can be worn in a chest harness. When drawn, you have 15 or more rounds of 220-gr hard cast lead to throw at the aggravated beast.
Even if you don’t hit the bear’s nose, enough lead will injure it to dissuade it from continuing the attack or break a bone and prevent it from moving toward you.
Semi-automatic hunting rifles and shotguns loaded with slugs also make great bear-defense firearms.
And if you’re ever deer hunting in bear country, never set your rifle outside of arm’s reach when cleaning a deer.
A black bear is a mighty predator but it’s no match for you.
With a good projectile and smart shot placement, you can put down your dream bear with a single shot.
Your best chances are waiting for it to go broadside and to take a step forward so you have a direct line through both lungs.
Have patience and you, too, can snack on bear sausage and show off your new bear rug!
Bear Shot Placement FAQs
Where Do You Aim at a Charging Bear?
The best place to aim at a charging bear is its nose, and the second place is its shoulder. Putting a bullet through its nose, into its brain, will kill it. Whereas shattering the shoulder blade will immobilize the bear.
How Far Will a Bear Run after Being Shot?
A black bear can easily run at over thirty miles per hour. It’ll likely drop within fifty to one hundred fifty yards with a double lung shot. But with a less lethal shot, a black bear can travel for miles before dying.
Where Do You Shoot a Bear with a Bow from a Tree Stand?
The best area to place an arrow is through one or both lungs. Aim behind its leg, to the side of its spine, and you can angle that arrow through a lung and into its lower chest, potentially striking the heart.
Can You Shoot a Bear in the Head?
Thick bones protect a black bear’s brain and spine. It’s recommended to aim at the lungs instead.