How to Kill a Mountain Lion with Your Bare Hands

mountain lion cougar puma

No guns, no explosives. You and me, let’s do it. Photo by nbennato at

[Let me simplify, 11/3/2016. Point of the throat, just above the collarbones. Barehanded, that’s your only chance. If you are smart enough to carry weapons, read on.]

A couple of years ago I wrote a piece for my website Jimmy’s Backpacking Page called “Defense Against Animals.” The pages there covered some useful topics like what to do to avoid alligators and tactics for bear country. I wrote a part of that about “Defense Against Mountain Lions.” I can’t link to it here because that site is gone now. Spammers and hackers made it impossible for me to keep anything but this one site running. I’ve always felt that I didn’t finish the topic sufficiently since I steered clear of what to do if you’re actually in a fight with a mountain lion. I felt that those people willing to fight would probably be prepared to fight and those who wouldn’t, won’t want to. They’d either be lucky enough to get away or wind up as lion food. I don’t particularly want to argue the morality of fighting back or the necessity of fighting back, so I just included a suggestion, that if you’re going to scare off a cougar by brandishing a stick or throwing a rock (which is the advice that the park rangers give you), carry some good rocks and sticks with you. They’re seldom at hand when you really need them, and you can bring better equipment than you can pick up on the ground. A good trail staff or a collapsible baton gives you a good shot at reasonable self defense. Actually poking is better than swinging so I wouldn’t personally carry the collapsible sort. They collapse when you poke something.

(Today (12/18/2017) I thought I would add something about passive defense that was in my original article. This is based upon lion and other big cat habits and is very effective. Probably it’s the reason more people aren’t attacked and we don’t even comprehend that we are doing the right thing. In national parks in India, people are allowed to collect wood. Woodcutters suffer an unusual number of deaths due to tigers, yet tigers are an important and endangered species, so ways had to be found to let the two coexist without undue bloodshed. Two simple solutions were found.

Since tigers like to attack from behind (as do mountain lions) and the target was usually the neck, one of the more effective defenses was for the woodcutters to wear cheap Halloween masks on the backs of their heads. That way, no matter how the tiger approached, the victim was always looking at the tiger and the tiger never found the sweet spot. Beautiful solution! but it wasn’t the simplest one. Even if the woodcutters simply strung a wooden club across their shoulders, so the butt of the club hung behind their necks, the tigers kept their distance. They didn’t have a clear shot at the neck.

With this in mind, you can look at the people in North America who have disappeared in the woods and hmm, there’s a pattern there. If you are carrying a backpack, you’re pretty safe, the neck is protected. People who disappear are the ones who aren’t carrying packs, or they have daypacks that ride low.)


So, we see here two knives I made. Top is a functional skean dubh, good for all sorts of camp work. Botttom is the lion killer. Double-edged, I ground it from a file and made tweaks. Cuts both ways. That’s what you need if you want to kill something.

If you’re planning to throw stuff at a critter you’d better be a good shot, because I’ve dealt with a lot of animals that just snicker at you if you throw and miss. I doubt that cougars are any more cooperative. A missed throw is just reinforcement of the idea that you’re defenseless and ineffective. My suggestion, taken from a modern Japanese martial artist, was to carry a small pouch of golf balls to throw. They’re hard, symmetrical and accurate, and don’t weigh much or take up much room. You’d still have to throw hard and hit the target to make an impression, but hey, if all you’re going to do is throw rocks and yell, golf balls are the best rocks you’ll find.

If you’re going to throw
rocks, throw the best rocks.

Personally, I’d never carry them. Having studied a large number of case histories of actual mountain lions attacks on humans, I will not recommend golf balls to anyone except those whose last option in a confrontation happens to be feeding parts of your own body to the lion. If that’s your choice, I respect that. I’ve known people who thought that was the noble decision, and there’s a story that in one of his previous lives Gotama Siddhartha fed himself to a starving tigress. It’s good karma probably. I personally believe that I also have a right to life and in peacetime situations I will make it very difficult for anything to kill me. Most of the people who find themselves facing mountain lions today haven’t pondered the moral issues. They’re just unprepared, never having expected it to happen. Being prepared is much better, if you’re not opposed to an occasional killing.

In real life, people attacked by lions often miss out completely on the part where you get to brandish sticks and throw things. Lions who are hungry and serious about their business attack from behind like most other big cats do, and the first hint of trouble you note is when you’re knocked to the ground by a hundred or so pounds of lethal cat. Mountain lions target the head and the throat, usually killing or disabling their prey by strangulation or a broken neck. Knocking you down is the first step to that.

Good stuff for bears.
Try it on a pit bull
before you use it on
a lion. Hospitalization
probably required.

Some people have wrestled their way out of that first bad position. Others have faced off a lion that’s just testing the waters, but failed to intimidate them. Either way, the people who survived wound up face to face with the lion, being ripped up by claws and bitten by very large teeth, without any doubts that the cats were trying to kill them. When bears attack, it’s usually a territorial thing, but when lions attack, they mean to kill you. Playing dead often satisfies a grizzly bear, which then wanders off to its regular business. Playing dead for a mountain lion just lets them finish the job. If you’re attacked and you want to live, you have to fight.

In cases where people have wrestled cougars, about half the time people lose. Animals are tougher than we are, and even starving cougars have done things that would earn a human the Medal of Honor. Many people who survived cougar attacks had help. Some found tools like rocks, or had something useful with them like a pocket knife, but small weapons don’t have much effect on lions. One lady had a pair of surgical forceps with her and drove them into the lion’s eye socket. The lion kept to its business, you have good days and bad days if you hunt for a living but you don’t just stop. In another incident, a lumberjack attacked a lion that was mauling a fellow worker, expecting to stop the cat with an axe blow to the back. It required two axe blows. Cougars are tough and persistent.

If you never really liked
Swiss Army Knives,
God bless you.

Survivors of cougar attacks seldom do more than wound the cat and escape. Hunting parties go back later, with dogs, and execute the animal if it’s still around. If you lose a fight with a cougar, the hunting party might find most of your body if they’re quick. The cats can’t eat everything in one day, and often lose the battle by lolling about until they’re ready for a refill.

On rare occasions, people survive a cougar attack by actually killing the animal in hand to hand combat. Of the cases I studied, I found two of these. One man bashed the cougar with a large rock that happened to be within reach, and a woman involved in a group melee dispatched a cougar with a kitchen knife, in one account described as “a bread knife a foot long.”

If you get upset by descriptions of violence, stop here. I grew up on a farm, where we did things in the old way. If you grow up in those circumstances you learn the things people used to know, like how to kill something cleanly. In most ways I’d rather not know these things, and it doesn’t make me feel better to know that I didn’t learn much that was new during my time in the military. I don’t like killing and never have. Some people enjoy it. I enjoy everything that leads up to it. I’d lots rather poke a lion with a spear or a staff and convince it to move along, and in most cases that will work, if the lion is facing you and checking you out to see if you’re an easy mark. If you have some “teeth and claws” with you, you’re not an easy mark.

Real fighting gets personal and it’s messy and done in tight circumstances. In lion fights, people often find themselves with one hand in the lion’s mouth and the other trying to do something useful, like choking the beast. Choking anything isn’t really easy. The neck muscles of a strong animal resist that pressure. It’s an irritation, but unless you’re unusually strong it’s not lethal against something like a big cat. The throat does have weak points, but they’re behind those muscles.

Good hunting knife or survival
knife. Don’t carry less.

Some people armed with pocket knives tried to cut the lion’s jugular vein and were not successful. Unless you know exactly what you’re doing, it’s not easy to even find a jugular vein. The muscles above that vein are tough and most people today don’t carry sharp knives. Even if the lion held still it would take several passes with the average pocket knife, applied in a slicing movement, to even get down to the vein. When I was a kid, if we were killing hogs we called for the local expert, Jake. Jake knew how to work with hogs and how to use a knife. Jake never slashed a hog, knowing it would do no good. Jake stuck them in the jugular vein, quick and clean. That worked every time, because Jake knew his business. Chances are good that you don’t, and sticking a mountain lion that’s chomping on your arm would be a tough job even for Jake.

The center of the throat just above above the collarbone notch makes a better target, vulnerable even to thumb pressure. Push on that spot and in only a few seconds the lion is going to have to move and think of something different. It might not kill them, although they’ll be hacking and coughing for a few days if you do it lightly. Don’t do it lightly if you want useful results. Poke and crunch things, be mean.

Add a sheath so you don’t
scare people.

If you’ve come to the festival with the right equipment, you’re much more likely to go home the winner. For this animal, either a good trail spear or a good Bowie knife qualifies as the right equipment. You won’t find many trail spears for sale these days. The only options you have today are spears you make yourself, or trail staffs with emergency spears built into them. They require time-consuming disassembly and reassembly before they’re usable as spears, and even when put together they’re all wrong in many ways. You might think of spears as long distance weapons, but actually some of the old advice about how to use them involves gripping them at the hilt and using them as knives. If you have strong wrists that’s very practical. A trail staff doesn’t offer the same lethality as a spear unless you’re really good. Forget the collapsible hiking sticks people carry today, they won’t impress anything. Get something solid, and learn to poke instead of swing. Poking works lots better.

A good knife does well up close. By “good” I mean big enough to be useful. Of the case studies I found, only one person managed to kill a mountain lion with a knife. That was the lady with the bread knife, twelve inches long. Seems about right, although you can definitely do better than a bread knife. She’s lucky the blade didn’t just bend.

Gerber’s bare minimum

Probably the reason right-handed people dominate the population is that when you face an opponent of any species, their heart is on your right. That makes it a target for the dominant hand. Left-handed people, you poor bastards . . . . No wonder there aren’t many of you left. A strike to the heart is almost automatic if you have the knife for it. Today, few people do. Against a mountain lion you’ll need at least a six-inch blade if you know what you’re doing and you’re strong. More than that is better. If you have an eight-inch blade (not counting handle) you should be good from either side. A mountain lion is long and lean. Eight inches and some punch should cross the chest cavity easily.

Problem is, people miss. The heart is a small target. You can stab the heart area multiple times without actually hitting the heart. If you do hit it, fight’s over. The animal goes down immediately, like a punctured balloon. Works on large animals as well as small ones, even easier on large animals because the target is bigger. With today’s short and dull knives you can stab repeatedly and might even poke the heart without doing real damage to it. There’s a grisly old hunter’s trick you might find handy for such situations.

Keep it sharp.
Local laws apply.

The instinctive thing people do is stab and withdraw and stab again. What hunters do is all about business. I’ve seen this demonstrated many times in films of other indigenous hunters working with “primitive” weapons. If you spear an elephant, or a walrus, you don’t pull the spear out and back away. You keep the blade in place and you stir. It’s a horrible process but it works really well. If you’re working with a long blade and you stab a mountain lion in the left side of the chest or on the side behind the shoulder blade, you’re at least in the area of the heart. Lever the blade back and forth with the ribs as a fulcrum and you slash everything. Make a mess in there, and then pull out and try again. With a short blade, well, you just made the cat really mad. If you look at museum pieces, you see lots of leaf-blade daggers. Double-edged, sharp on both sides, with the belly of the blade swelling near the point, where in that interior zone it will do the most damage.

Good weapons, ready at hand, prevent most fights. It doesn’t matter what attacks you, they know if you’re confident. If a mountain lion confronts you and you brandish a weak branch and throw a pebble and yell, a weak mountain lion might back away. A strong one won’t. Good weapons make confidence. With a trail spear or a staff in your hands, and a good knife on your belt, don’t yell and flail about. Bring the tools to the ready, and tell the kitty, bring it on. If you know you can kill them, they’ll know it, too. Kitties understand these things.

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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses -- Arctic and Jungle.

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