State gunsmiths made rifles for killing the big beasts.

On September 2, 1769, a small expedition of leatherjacket soldiers, missionaries and muleteers killed a large-but-lean grizzly bear on the shore of an ocean-side lake in Upper California about 80 miles north of today’s Santa Barbara. The half-starved band of 64 men led by Gaspar de Portola was on its way north to try to find the Bay of Monte Rey and claim California for Spain by right of possession. Because the bear was so thin, the expedition leaders named the lake Oso Flaco (“Skinny Bear Lake”). It was the first time that a white man had ever killed a California grizzly.

Ursus arctos horribilis californicus, the California grizzly, was a separate subspecies of Ursus horribilis, the North American grizzly that roamed most of the rest of the western United States. Ursus californicus was larger than its cousins, rivaling in size the Kodiak grizzles and polar bears of Alaska, and was even more ill-tempered. Some California grizzlies might have weighed as much as a ton. Most California Indians gave them a wide berth. During the Spanish colonial period, vaqueros tested their courage in California by roping a wild grizzly for sport. Bear-and-bull fights were staged in an enclosed arena, with the bear chained to a post.

The California grizzly population increased in the early 1800s because the bears found an endless walking buffet— the cattle herds of the Spanish and Mexican ranchos. But the tables were turned at midcentury during the California Gold Rush. Miners found grizzlies to be good sources of meat and fur coats and blankets. Ironically, at the same time, the California grizzly became so legendary in the gold camps that it was made a permanent part of the state flag, and it was also named the official state animal.

In those days of single-shot, muzzle-loading cap-and-ball rifles, killing a California grizzly with one shot was difficult. It took a brave (or foolish) man to get close enough to try to stop a grizzly in its tracks; it also took a big load of powder and a big-caliber bullet. Stories about the permanently maimed or dead bodies that angry grizzlies left in their wake are legend. California’s most famous bear hunter, John Capen “Grizzly” Adams, claimed that the “style” he developed for killing a grizzly was to first put a well-placed rifle shot into it; then empty his Navy Colt revolver into it as it charged him; and finally, if the animal still didn’t go down, to slit its throat with a bowie knife.

California had only two gunsmiths when the Gold Rush began in 1849, according to firearms historian Lawrence P. Shelton in his 1977 book California Gunsmiths, 1846-1900. So most of the rifles carried in California in those early days were made by Eastern gunsmiths. The heavy-barreled, large-caliber plains rifles made by St. Louis gun makers for the early professional buffalo hunters of the Great Plains also became highly prized to use as California grizzly bear guns.

Bringing down a buffalo was not the same as bringing down a California grizzly, though. A buffalo either dropped or ran, while a grizzly either dropped or came at you like a freight train with thrashing teeth and flailing claws. So, with their lives constantly at stake, the California bear hunters demanded the ultimate quality and accuracy that could be put into a big-bore rifle. From the 1850s to the 1870s, a whole first generation of California gun makers produced California bear rifles—large-caliber, muzzle-loading half stock “plains rifles” made expressly for killing grizzlies.

At first the basic parts—like “warranted” locks (the complete action) and barrels (especially those made by Remington)—were imported into the state and then assembled into complete rifles by the California gunsmiths. But as the demand for accurate and dependable guns increased, California gun makers began to make their best guns from their own scratch parts and cut their specialized rifling into the barrels themselves.

Because the California bear rifles were handmade, each gun had a unique appearance; there was no production-line conformity. Some hunters preferred smaller calibers and large powder charges, while others preferred larger calibers and smaller powder charges. The calibers ranged from .36 to .54, with the majority being .48, .49 or .50. The heavy, octagonal barrels ranged in length from 30 to 34 inches, seldom longer because maneuverability in heavy-forested areas could often be a matter of life or death for the hunter. Some rifles were even made in shorter, “carbine” lengths for easier carrying on horseback. Most of the rifles weighed from 10 to 14 pounds. Some of the California gun makers also made double-barreled rifles, with the barrels side-by-side or over-and-under, to give the bear hunter the rapid second shot that was so often desperately needed.

Set triggers (triggers that could be “set” off with a soft touch) were standard equipment for added accuracy. Stocks were usually made of walnut, some of maple and almost all had a cheek rest on the left side. Butt plates and trigger guards were usually iron—some were made of German silver, and a few of brass—but the fore-end caps were usually pewter. Overall, the California bear guns were made as deadly “workhorses,” and very few were engraved or embellished with inlays in the wood.

Cartridge rifles such as the big-caliber Sharps, Remington rolling-blocks and Model 1876 and 1886 Winchesters eventually replaced the California cap-and-ball bear rifles. But well into the 1880s, many California bear hunters still went with their dependable muzzleloaders. Shelton’s book lists more than 500 gunsmiths in California 1846-1900 (many of whom did not make their own guns), from such legendary San Francisco gun makers as Charles Curry and Liddle & Kaedding to lesser known gun makers such as G.A. Nordheim of Yreka, George Kingsley of Red Bluff and Joseph Craig of Weaverville.

The California-made bear rifles have become the cream of the crop for today’s antique firearms collectors. But the guns are now so rare that they are seldom found outside of museum collections.

The last captive California grizzly died in a state zoo in 1911. The last known documented specimen of a California grizzly was shot and killed in Fresno County in August 1922. In 1924 a huge grizzly was spotted several times in Sequoia National Park and then was never seen again. Although the California grizzly still flies on the state flag, it took the white man—with the help of the California bear rifle—only a little more than 150 years to make the official state animal extinct.

 

Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here