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Carved Polar Bear Skull Shows Where to Aim when Attacked

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Details of .22 Pistol Defense Failure against Polar Bear in Norway; AndreAnita, iStock-940461304
Details of .22 Pistol Defense Failure against Polar Bear in Norway; iStock-940461304

U.S.A.-( I suspect much of the mythology about the difficulty of penetrating bear skulls with bullets is based on the position of a bear’s brain inside of those skulls. The volume of a large bear’s brain is a little more or less than a pint (473 ml). The volume of a large bear’s head is about 2 1/2  gallons (9.46 l) or more. The brain, to many, is unexpectedly low and narrow. It is easy to shoot a bear in the head and miss the brain. It is easy to shoot a bear in the eye and miss the brain. It is easy to shoot a bear between the eyes and miss the brain if you are a little bit above the mark.

There is quite a bit of fur, skin, muscle, and fat surrounding a bear’s skull.

Some detailed pictures of a carved polar bear skull from Nunavut have been posted on facebook. The pictures make it relatively easy to show where a polar bear’s brain lies, and how to aim to hit it.

In this photograph of the skull, taken from above, you can see how narrow the brain case is. It lies entirely in back of the eye sockets.   It is narrow enough, that viewed from above, you can see it does not extend to the area directly behind each eye socket.

Carved Polar Bear Skull Shows Where to Aim
Carved Polar Bear Skull Shows Where to Aim

From the front, if the bear is looking directly at you, if you shoot it in the eye, or above or below the eye, you will miss the brain. Notice the bone of the brain case is not especially thick. The bone between the eyes just above and in front of the brain case is very thick. With tough hide, and some muscle, a bullet that hits  just above the eyes, and centered, from the front, could be deflected. It can easily miss the skull entirely, hitting only fur, skin, muscle or fat. But a hunter could say, with considerable veracity, “I shot him right between the eyes!”

I recall one account, where the shooter related, with astonishment: I shot the bear right above the eye, but it did not stop! A shot above the eye misses the brain, but not because the bullet is deflected. It misses the brain because it is aimed at the wrong place.

Bullets from handguns, including the .45 ACP, have been deflected from human skulls, if they hit at enough of an angle.

The side view shows how slight the angle of the skull between the eyes to a shot fired from the front would be.

It shows that shots anywhere from the side that hit forward of a line drawn behind the eye sockets, will miss the brain and the spinal column. A shot under the eye, from the side, will miss the brain. To hit the brain from the side, you have to aim half way between the eye and the ear opening. There are large muscles on each side of the brain. They power the bear’s jaws. A bullet has to penetrate the skin and about 2 – 4 inches (5-10 cm) of muscle to reach the skull. .22 bullets can easily do this on a straight side shot.

Carved Polar Bear Skull Shows Where to Aim
Carved Polar Bear Skull Shows Where to Aim

Bella Twin shot a world record grizzly bear in 1953. She killed it with one shot from a .22 Cooey Ace 1, single shot rifle, using .22 long cartridges. The other seven or eight shots were to make sure it was dead. Bella Twin had been a hunter and trapper her whole life. She had skinned hundreds or thousands of animals. She understood the anatomy of a bear head and skull very well. She aimed for and hit exactly the right spot.  One of her under-powered, .22 long, 29 grain bullets, penetrated completely through the brain and the skull on the other side of the enormous grizzly. She killed the bear from less than 30 feet away. The bullet that penetrated both sides of the brain case likely entered a hole that had been made on the left side by a previous bullet.

Bella Twin world record Grizzly Bear skull at North Shore Homestead, Slave Lake, Alberta, Canada

The picture of the carved polar bear skull, from the front, with the mouth open, shows this is a prime target to reach the brain. Aim for the back of the mouth, between the teeth. A shot there will almost certainly hit the brain or the spinal column. I recall reading one account where a prospector in Alaska killed a grizzly bear with a .22 short, fired to the brain, through the bear’s open mouth.

If you can see the bottom of the bears head, aim under the bear’s chin, toward the back where the brain and spine are. There is very little bone between the brain and the bottom of the bear’s head. Penetrate the skin and tongue, and the back of the bear’s mouth, and the bullet is in the brain. A little lower, and it hits the spinal column.

Carved Polar Bear Skull Shows Where to Aim
Carved Polar Bear Skull Shows Where to Aim

If the bear’s nose is pointed at you, shooting directly up the nose puts the bullet into the brain. Notice how the interior of the nose opening is weak, thin, bone. The nasal passages lead directly back toward the brain. A shot into the nose is guided toward the brain, or a little lower, toward the spinal column. With the nose pointed mostly at you, as in this picture from Twitter, a shot above the nose misses the brain entirely. You might hit some muscle, skin, fur and fat, but not the brain.

Carved Polar Bear Skull Shows Where to Aim

One easy way to remember where a bear’s brain is located, is to imagine lines between the eyes and the opposite ear openings. The intersection of those lines is very close to the center of the bears brain. In the picture below, those lines would intersect a couple of inches under the bear’s skin, inside the skull.

Carved Polar Bear Skull Shows Where to Aim

When hunters are looking to harvest an animal, they consider the animal in three dimensions. They use their knowledge of animal anatomy to determine where the organs they are looking to destroy are situated inside the animal. Then they aim for a point where the projectile’s trajectory will travel through the animal’s body to reach the organ(s) they intend to break/destroy/stop from functioning.  An understanding of anatomy is essential for a competent hunter.

Higher powered firearm and cartridge combinations can easily penetrate a large bear’s hide, fat, muscle and bone to reach the heart and lungs in the chest cavity, or break the large shoulder, hip, or spinal column bones. Those are larger targets than the brain.

A .22 cannot be relied on to destroy those targets. Most centerfire pistol cartridges, 10 mm and above can do so, if heavy for caliber, deep penetrating bullets are used. Most centerfire rifle cartridges can do so, with good bullet construction.

Only central nervous system hits to the brain or spine are reliable, near instant incapacitating shots. Heart/lung shots will kill a bear, but it may take a little time. Shots that break the spine behind the shoulders, shoulders, hips, or the pelvic girdle will slow down a bear, making follow-up shots easier. Shots to the abdominal cavity may well kill a bear, but it may take days to die.

Sport and trophy hunters generally avoid brain shots on bears, because the bear’s skull is an important part of the trophy. It is what is measured for the record books. A high powered rifle bullet to a bear’s brain will destroy the skull, leaving the hunter with a sack of bones for his trophy. The brain is a small target to hit at most hunting ranges.

If a person is shooting at a bear in defense of self and others, the bear is usually much closer, a trophy is not important, and the brain becomes a viable target.

Many subsistence hunters above the arctic circle in Alaska favor the .22-250 with full metal jacketed bullets. It is flat shooting, has an excellent reputation for accuracy, has good penetration and does not damage pelts much.  The .223 in the AR-15 platform rifles are also popular in Alaska. Most animals shot are not polar bears.

I am not suggesting the .223 or the .22-250 are ideal bear cartridges. The subsistence hunters are superb hunters who understand the limitations of their equipment, have a long tradition and knowledge of bears and their habits, and know their territory and bear anatomy intimately. They are subject matter experts in their field.

Most published authorities recommend .308 or .30-06 cartridges or larger for defense against polar bears.

About Dean Weingarten:Dean Weingarten

Dean Weingarten has been a peace officer, a military officer, was on the University of Wisconsin Pistol Team for four years, and was first certified to teach firearms safety in 1973. He taught the Arizona concealed carry course for fifteen years until the goal of constitutional carry was attained. He has degrees in meteorology and mining engineering, and recently retired from the Department of Defense after a 30 year career in Army Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation.

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