A colleague has accepted a position with the Salt Mines' Alaska division. I jokingly told her she needed to sell her Taurus Judge and get a real revolver and shotgun. She texted me she already had, and what did I recommend? I replied "LOL", thinking that was sufficient.
The problem with being known as a Gun Guy is that everyone thinks you know everything there is to know about guns. She has asked me several times since that exchange of text messages for my advice.
See, there are so many variables. And, frankly, I'm just a guy who likes guns and shooting, but has never worked in the industry, is not a gun writer or reviewer, and has a lot less experience than a lot of others I know. There are soooo many guns I've never shot.
And the longer this post gets the less I think I know about the subject...
For a general, mostly defensive use, shotgun I'd generally recommend a Remington 870 or Mossberg 500; if strictly defensive, I might suggest spending the few extra dollars on a Mossberg 590. The differences are few enough to boil down to a matter of taste, although the Remington probably has more accessories and after-market parts available.
Personally, I like the Mossy's. The safety button on top of the receiver seems better placed, certainly more ambidextrous. (A possible disadvantage with pistol grip stocks, though. Fine by me, I don't care for them anyway.) The shell elevator may be more robust, although I've never heard of any problems with that aspect of the 870. It can be easier to swap out the barrel of a Mossberg than a Remington, and on higher end models (NOT a Maverick) the forend can be swapped with little difficulty, as well. And the 590 is available with a bayonet stud as standard equipment... :-)
I'm pretty sure Sally can handle a 12 gauge; her wife is smaller and a little slighter, and I've never discussed guns and shooting with her, i don't know what her or background or experience are, so I just don't know, a 20 may be in order. For use against homo ferox, a 20 will probably suffice anyway. (If it's going to be used in the bush against brown bear, get the really good ammo...)
As for a revolver, I like Smith & Wesson's products, although you can't go wrong with Ruger, either.
A .357 Magnum will probably suffice. If planning on spending a lot of time in the woods, camping, hunting, fishing, hunting for berries, whatever, especially where those pesky bears are likely to be found, a .44 Magnum or .45 "Long" Colt might be preferred. make sure you can shoot the thing well beforehand, especially with whatever load of ammo you're using; a "bear load" is liable to be kind of sporty.
If a .44 or .45 is preferred, a S&W 629
For a smaller caliber, there are far more choices just with either Smith and Wesson or Ruger. Will the revolver be carried concealed, or openly? This will impact the barrel length; you also have the opportunity to "go small" (5 shot J-Frame size) or large (6, 7, or 8 shots.)
In the smaller size revolvers, Smith & Wesson designates their products by frame size by letters, from "J" (smallest) through "K", "L", and "N". The .500 S&W is an "X" frame, and I'm not sure why there's no "M" frame.
For the purposes discussed here4, Ruger's smaller revolvers are the SP101 (basically a J Frame equivalent) and the GP100.
A J Frame sized revolver is generally maximized for concealed carry and defensive use, has a very short barrel and very light weight, and can be very punishing to shoot. Generally speaking, the larger the revolver the heavier it will be, the longer the barrel will be, and consequently, the lighter the recoil will be with the same load, and the more accurate it will be.
My usual advice for someone looking to buy a new gun is to try out what is available, either borrowing guns form a friend, neighbor, or co-worker (assuming borrowing guns is legal where you live, that is), or renting them at an indoor range. Of course, that may limit you as far as what's available. Remember that, just because friend, co-worker, neighbor was in the military or is/was a cop, or even works at a gun store, doesn't mean they are actually knowledgeable about guns, and especially they are not knowledgeable about what you want and/or need.
Also, as Tamara pointed out, um, somewhere (her blog? someone else's blog? forum? magazine article?) just because the pistol feels good in your hand doesn't mean it will feel good to shoot. One advantage to most revolver designs over most semi-autos, by the way, is that it's far easier to replace the grips, and there are usually far more options available, some of which will can actually change the size and shape of the grip to better suit your hand.
Also also, for a handgun you need to consider how to tote the thing, unless it will only leave the house in a gun rug heading for the range. A good holster and belt are critical. Skimp on either and you'll find yourself leaving your heater at home, which means you may not have it when you need it, whether for a two or four legged varmint. And that would make me sad, after I spent all this time rendering my two cents' worth.
***1. For given definitions of "can't go wrong", of course. Any manufacturer is going to have a dud now and then. And you have to do your part, buy a gun suitable for it's expected use. That's part of the problem I'm having here...
2. Found here. Despite my misgivings about short barreled .44 magnums, I really want one of these, although this would be nice, too. Then there's the Model 329PD Alaska Backpacker.
3. Here; for general purposes, I'd go with the 4.2 or 5 inch barrel. There are also the Ruger® Super Redhawk Alaskan®, again with the short barrels.
4. For the purposes of this post, I don't recommend the Ruger LCR or Smith & Wesson Bodyguard .38. I don't actually recommend a J Frame, either, in case you missed that...
5. Some possibly related posts: