Surviving the Adventure – the Alaskan Guns Question

Part 2 – Continued from “Homesteadin’ Ain’t Easy”

Asking a Southerner about the guns needed in Alaska for homesteading may not be the best idea. There is a different type of wilderness there. The best advice will come from someone who lives in the wilds of Alaska or nearby in Canada. They should certainly know what is needed. But people have differing views and preferences for an Alabama deer rifle, so I’m sure it’s the same for the weaponry used in Alaska. Perhaps others with a more intimate knowledge on the subject will chime-in under the comments sections.

The Ruger Alaskan, a .454 Casull 2.5" barrel version of the Super Redhawk.
The Ruger Alaskan, a .454 Casull 2.5″ barrel version
of the Super Redhawk.

Assuming one avoids choosing a bear-prone location for homesteading, here are this Southern boy’s suggestions and thoughts for what a person might want to have:

I suggest having a sidearm capable of killing a bear to be kept on your person anytime you’re outside at your remote homestead and at other places where it seems prudent. The .44 Mag is a starting point, with heavier calibers available to choose from. (Jeremy and Mr. Bane make excellent suggestions regarding those.) Since the excitement of a bear attack might cause one’s brain to freeze-up, the double-action variety of handguns seems the way to go, though single-action revolvers in the same calibers are just as powerful and cost significantly less. That cost factor (and how it looks and feels) was why I bought a Super Blackhawk. But I don’t live or often go where a bear might kill and eat me.

Many brands and sizes of Bear Spray are on the market. Most range from about $30-70 per can, such as this "Magnum" sized canister that comes with a holster for $65.
Many brands and sizes of Bear Spray are on the market.
Most range from about $30-70 per can, such as this “Magnum”
sized canister that comes with a holster for $65.

I also suggest having bear-repellent spray handy, since some wildlife experts claim it is more effective at warding off bear attacks than a gun. (See link under comments on my article about the .44 Mag) Perhaps the spray could be kept in various places that you frequent, such as your house and outhouse, sheds, a feeding or milking stall for livestock, a chicken pen, etc.

Also of high importance is that the spray is something a little old lady can use. If you have a wife or children or parent there, they should be taught to use the spray as well as a firearm that’s within their capability to shoot accurately. And they should be taught where to aim for various critters, especially for bear. That firearm may have to be something simple and intuitive. That’s why my wife grabbed my break-action, exposed hammer .410 during the rattlesnake crisis. Her child was endangered and she knew she could handle that little .410 without thinking – without having to remember how to load it or how to make it shoot. And I had her practice using it before the incident. It was simply apparent; intuitive. IMO, that pretty much rules out pumps and semi-autos for this group of people – the gun-shy, young, or frail people. They may someday need to defend themselves or the kids, alone.

The best choice for a powerful and intuitive weapon is a
double-barreled shotgun, perhaps with exposed hammers for the added intrinsic safety. Go as powerful as the person can handle proficiently since they may be attempting to ward off a bear. Are there too few shots available? Maybe, but the alternative could well be that nothing gets fired downrange when a person in panic mode tries to remember how to work that pump-action, or where the safety is, or how to rack a semi-auto rifle or shotgun. Practice might overcome all that in time, but some people avoid guns and won’t put in the time to gain the automatic “muscle memory” needed to begin shooting without thinking about the gun. If you drive, you apply brakes and turn corners without thinking about it. That only comes with experience. And unlike brake pedals and steering wheels, gun controls vary from gun to gun. Keep it simple for those who need “simple.” Consider a dedicated gun for each person so they will become very accustomed to using it and gain that so-called muscle memory. There are many Youth Model weapons made today to consider. And let the kids graduate to heavier weapons as they grow. When Jeremy was a kid, he always wanted to shoot my guns. He found out why they were for my use, not his, after letting him have a go with my more powerful guns a time or two. He learned to wait until he was able to handle them safely. But still, living out where we lived, I made sure he knew how they worked.

Maverick HS12, a 12ga Over-and-Under Defensive Shotgun
Maverick HS12, a 12ga Over-and-Under Defensive Shotgun

A Maverick HS12 (12-ga O/U) might be worth considering for a new gun that won’t break the bank, for the gun-shy or for almost anyone. Moreover, purchased with the choked barrels option, this double can double as a sporting weapon. And I read that 12-ga. 00-buckshot will dispatch a bear that’s too close – though a buckshot load does kick pretty darn hard for someone small or frail.

If a 12-ga. buckshot load has too much recoil, consider 20-ga. buckshot in a double barrel. For economy (the Maverick comes only in 12-ga.), you might consider Yildiz’s O/U (Academy Sports) or Stoeger’s pretty Condor Outback (Gander Mountain, Dick’s, and elsewhere), neither of which are terribly expensive ($500ish, but I have no idea as to any of these brand’s long-term reliability, so don’t consider this an endorsement).

Note that I favor Over/Under shotguns, especially for novice and gun-shy shooters. That’s because in using an O/U double-barrel shotgun, there is no decision to make regarding which barrel to sight down, something an infrequent user of a side-by-side will unconsciously do, hesitating and often missing the mark or the shot opportunity. And, IMO, the side-by-side does not lend itself well to slug shooting since the barrels converge and are factory built to hit a mark at a given distance, usually about 40-yards. But that does not preclude using slugs in one, as for self defense. And I’ve only seen exposed hammers on side-by-side’s, which is a plus in their column for being intuitive and knowing when they are ready to fire. That said, with the familiarity that comes with practice, the single-trigger O/U with shell ejectors, not extractors, is the best choice because it allows fast firing and reloading. Unfortunately, I’ve not seen any that fills these requirements that aren’t in the higher priced ranges. Overall, the double barrel shotgun is simple and reliable — not much to go wrong, mechanically. And reliability is what I want in a life-or-death situation.

The most popular long gun for self defense seems to be the pump-action shotgun. There are many reasons to choose it for a primary gun, and a wide variety of them on the market. However, for a pump to be your go-to gun may require frequent practice to build that muscle memory to use it quickly and effectively in a crisis. Since I cut my shooting teeth on a semi-auto .22 rifle, using a pump never worked well for me. Choose a weapon you are comfortable using. Master it. For a shotgun, I chose a 12-ga semi-auto for general use.

We seem to recommend the .44mag Marlin 1894 a lot on AFG. That should probably tell you something.
We seem to recommend the .44mag Marlin 1894 a lot on AFG.
That should probably tell you something.

Another reduced recoil alternative for wife and kids are lever guns, which are pretty intuitive as well and offered in a wide range of calibers. (Perhaps their intuitiveness comes from the Red Ryder BB-gun culture of our country?) I own a Marlin 1894, which shoots .44 RemMag and .44 Special, and can handle hot loads. My only reservation with this rifle in Alaska is the smallish hand opening in the lever itself. I think that could make it difficult to hold and operate correctly when wearing Alaska style, extra-thick winter gloves with sub-zero ratings. But I have fairly large hands and it’s not always that cold there. For ladies and children the size of the lever opening should not be a problem. As to recoil, that gun soaks it up pretty good, even with a hot magnum. The .44 Special, loaded with the ammo selected to deeply penetrate a bear and large game should certainly have a good chance of stopping or discouraging a direct attack. The long barrel of the lever carbine or rifle gives a good boost to the bullet’s velocity and energy over that published for pistol calibers, which are customarily based upon their use in a pistol. And lever guns come in rifle calibers that don’t produce a pounding recoil, like the 30-30; readily available ammo in most places.

For those who can’t handle heavy recoil, there’s the also-intuitive revolver-action long gun, namely the Rossi Circuit Judge, which shoots .45LC or .410 shotgun shells – if you can find one (apparently discontinued). Though having something that will shoot bird shot as well as a full-sized pistol bullet has a lot of appeal, I would probably opt for using .44 Specials in a lever rifle over the Circuit Judge.

There are more options to consider for this low-recoil category of shooters. After all, if your kid encountered a bear in the yard and had nowhere close to retreat, I’d rather they have a .375 Magnum carbine than nothing; or possibly even better, a canister of bear-repellent spray to administer.

Now if you’re a pig-raising dirt farmer with chickens who is constantly fixing sheds and fences, AKA: a homesteader, you probably won’t have time to go hunting for bear unless it’s being a nuisance at your place, which makes it part of your job. If you hunt, and you likely will, it will be for better tasting, less gnarly, less dangerous and easier-to-chew critters. They can all be had with a 30-06, which has a very wide range of factory ammo loadings that are designed for various game categories. Even Mr. Bear can be had with a single, well-placed shot. Research the ammo-for-game selections at the various manufacturers’ websites applicable to whatever caliber you select or may be considering.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game recommends using a rifle that you can shoot accurately for hunting big game, emphasizing shot placement over massive power. They even provide information showing the vital areas. Their point is: If you flinch so much with every shot that you cannot hit your game in its vital area, you have missed it or worse, wounded it — something that can make dangerous game much more dangerous. So if a 30-06 is your customary rifle, bring it, they say.

Face it; some of those powerhouse calibers have got to make you flinch in anticipation of the pain you’re about to receive. But if you can handle it, shoot accurately, and afford it, go for the .300 WinMag or other large magnum caliber; one that has wide ammo availability. The more powerful rifle provides an extra margin of safety in the event of a bear or moose attack, and will reach out for those long hunting shots. Again, Mr. Bane’s and Jeremy’s comments are very informative on choosing a caliber, but they do deviate from the ADFG advice.

I believe the ADFG advice is somewhat tainted; i.e., slanted for tourist or non-resident hunters. Their regulations require non-residents to use a guide for big game hunting. So, their imaginary guy or gal with the 30-06 has someone with a magnum rifle backing them up – just in case. That is probably why the deaths-by-Kodiak are so low when compared to grizzlies getting folks who are just going about their business, often unarmed, within the interior of the state. I say again, go as heavy as you can reasonably handle, even if it’s uncomfortable. You may recall my account of my painful experience with my powerhouse .444 Marlin rifle. Notwithstanding the pain, with practice I did overcome the flinch when shooting it. But it always hurt and I eventually sold it. However, I would have kept it if I planned to ever deer hunt in bear country. As a bonus for reloading, the .444 Marlin can use the same bullet as a .44 Rem Mag.

A week ago when going in and out of the cold here in North Alabama, I was bothered with fogged eyeglasses and found that my car doors and windows were frozen shut. That’s something not uncommon in cold, wet weather. But not taking Old Man Winter into account for your firearm and gun sight could be deadly for you in Alaska where you frequently see the temperature drop far below zero. Based upon my recollection of reading hunting lore for the coldest areas in the world, I believe it was the Sako gun makers in Finland who perfected a modern rifle for that. They live it. I doubt their rifles will freeze up due to cold or inclement weather. And they are not shy about putting iron sights on a fine hunting rifle. IMO, the simple open-rifle-sight is a must for a rifle used in any area with dangerous game, even if your primary sight is a fine rifle scope. Scopes can be rendered useless by dropping your gun, falling on a rock, etc., and you may be days from finding a replacement. If your pockets are deep enough, you may want to consider a stainless, bolt-action Sako Model 85 Hunter, which are made in a wide range of calibers. If you ever hold a Sako, you may be hooked, as I was over 50 years ago. But I could never afford one, even at $300 in 1962.

Let us not forget the pot-filling small game guns. If you can afford only one gun, make it a shotgun to put meat on the table and to defend the homestead. The shotgun is so devastatingly effective and useful to harvest game of all types and sizes that I almost consider it non-sporting (except for things in flight and maybe a scampering rabbit). But if your survival depends upon bringing home the meat, that’s your weapon. With the multiple choke tube systems and a barrel that’s not overly long, one shotgun can be used for almost all North American game, including grizzly and black bear that’s within range. There is, of course, the exception of game that’s far, far away. In a pinch, I would not hesitate to defend myself with one against a giant Kodiak bear. But hey, we’re not within their range anyway. Or are we? Guess that’s why we keep the big-bore thunder machine on our belt or in our shoulder holster. BTW: Hunter-style shoulder holsters, like Uncle Mike’s vertical carry model, are really great for toting heavy handguns in the wild. I always had trouble keeping my pants up with my .44 Mag on my belt. And since winter coats are often quite long, they interfere with accessing the gun whereas a shoulder holster can be worn on the outside to provide immediate access.

It’s likely that you will be bothered with rodents and other pests around your homestead. A .22 rifle is suggested as an economical remedy. They are also fun to shoot and useful to help train kids in gun safety and marksmanship. For hunting, they can be used to take hare, squirrel, or other small game, and to finish off the critters caught in your traps.

There will be many things to consider with a move to Alaska, especially if one is planning a homestead-lifestyle. My advice: Since you get what you pay for, buy the best you can afford — even if it’s a lone shotgun. Better advice for guns and ammo will be waiting for you — from your new friend and neighbors who actually live there.

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