Very Large bodied Cape Buffalo taken with a .300 Win Mag shooting standard Remington 180gr Core Lokt
WHAT RIFLE FOR AFRICA?
The answer is as varied as the species of the African continent yet some basic rules were established about 100 years ago, based upon the experiences and mostly mishaps of those we now call the great ivory hunters or the last white hunters, the ones who lived in the golden age of the safari era when everything was still unknown and they were still discovering new species and still used the old powder guns with hardened lead balls as the go to gun for Elephant and Buffalo.
Capt William Cornwallis – Harris, an English army officer undertook one of the earliest hunting expeditions into the southern African interior from the Cape colony in 1836 before the advent of breech loaders and nitro express powder and settled, like so many others of the time, on the smooth barrelled 4 bore black powder gun firing 2 ounce (875 grain) lead balls hardened with tin and “quicksilver”. The success of the 4 bore can be attributed to the early boers and their forays into the interior from the Cape colony and those that followed from this testing ground wrote and claimed fame for their experience by trial and error of this gun.
Not so many decades ago rifle choice for Africa used to be simple, you had the good old boy calibers like the .375 H&H magnum, the .458 Winchester magnum, you had the German Mauser calibers that so many of the African farmers carried and then you had the new Magnums, the .300 Winchester and 7mm magnums AND then you had the Weatherby’s, the fast super pumped hard hitting, jaw breaking shiny Weatherby magnums. This I remember as clearly as the day I got my first rifle, everyone in Zambia wanted one of those new, high gloss gold inlaid rifles that had fatser bullets than the rest, you simply were not important if you did not have a Weatherby rifle and the ultimate was the .378 Weatherby and the .460 Weatherby
You see, it was naturally accepted that because the new offerings were fast and hotter and a tad more shiny than the old Boer war mausers, they obviously shot better than the old. These days it turns out that these faster rifles did not really make a big difference in the number of successful kills – in fact the contrary is true. I have personally followed more wounded game shot with a Weatherby rifle than all others combined – I’m not blaming the rifle here, Weatherby make fine rifles and their ballistics are very impressive, what I’m saying is that the recoil from these super magnums frightens the daylights out of the hunter making them afraid to fire their rifles. So too is it with the very heavy double guns, the .500’s, the .577’s and the monster .600 Nitro Express.
Many first time hunters to Africa will see the need to buy a new more powerful rifle than what they already own – heck a new rifle is always a fun acquisition – but what they do not know is that most hunters already do have a suitable African caliber amongst their collection.
This has led me to try and answer the age old question: what caliber is suitable for Africa? in a manner many will understand – by taking the lowly and most unsuitable rifle (according to popular press) – a Marlin 1895 in 45 70 caliber, a short lever action big bore – and using it in the field in Africa on ALL the game one would encounter on a safari. I love these classic leverguns, who doesn’t remember the first time they saw a Red Rider or Rooster Cogburn with both hands a shooting?
Is this the best rifle for an African Safari? No probably not, although it is quite capable of taking all of the Dangerous game we have and comes as a small package in a big bore caliber making a perfect carrying rifle that does penetrate as well as any of the bigger African calibers. These “Guide Guns” were designed right from the start and the fact that they were intended to take on 1000lbs Kodiak bears does make one think about their suitability for African game.
These confiscated powder guns using home made fertiliser powder and lead sinkers take down more buffalo and elephant each year than any high powered fancy rifle.
One of my clients out of Turin who owns a specialty reloading store said that you needed a 400 grain bullet travelling in excess of 2000 feet per second to have any real success on the large thick skinned game animals of Africa and with this I concur – IF we lived back in golden safari era days and used the rifles, powders and bullets they had back then – I agree this formula does make sense. The times that we have seen this regurgitated by everyone from the accounts of all those famous white hunters, down to the modern day ‘African hunting experts and writers’. They all go back to those established rules, when apparently the Buffalo and Elephant were tougher and far more dangerous.
Go a step further and open this mass of informative historical hubbub to the popular internet forums such as the Adolescents Review (or Accurate Reloader) and see what you get – as one well known forum writer put it to me – ‘ didn’t you know, we are a nation of armchair experts and no one, especially a born and bred African transplant like yourself is going to tell us differently!’
The bottom line is this – there is no perfect caliber to take to Africa, there are some that perform perfectly for some people and some situations, but there is not one true contender that checks all the boxes for everyone. Rifle and caliber choice is very much a personal affair and will differ – and rightly so – from one hunter to the next. You can kill an Elephant stone dead with a 7×57 Mauser shooting a 170 grain solid projectile! So too can you literally club one to death with 700 grains of monolithic solid travelling at under 1900 feet per second. How each rifle is going to perform in your hands and whether you are going hit the target or more importantly the vitals is another story – the essence of an African gun – how YOU shoot it.
Frederick Selous had this to say about the Hollis smooth bore duck guns he used on his first travel into the African interior:
“With these two guns…., using nothing but the common trade powder sold to the locals in 5lb bags, I killed in three seasons, seventy eight Elephants, all but one of which I shot on foot. Since then I have shot with very expensive large-bore breech-loaders and Curtis and Harvey’s best powder, but I have never used or seen used a rifle which drove better than these common made old muzzle-loaders.” (from his book: A Hunters Wanderings in Africa)
These 4 bore guns shot a 875 grain round ball cast next to the open fire, a mixture of lead, tin and “quicksilver” for hardness, and loaded using a handful of black powder (probably around 150 grains). I’m no expert at ballistics and black powder guns BUT these projectiles could not have been travelling faster than 1200 feet per second – yet achieved massive penetration. It also resulted in Selous admitting some form of nerve damage in his later years due to the massive recoil from these short bruisers.
Elephant shot with a 30-06 – western Zambia 1976
Certainly there are rifles that are considered as the great all rounders, one caliber that you can take everything with from Elephant down to the little cat sized critters and these are the calibers that are most often thrown around when talking about African Safari hunting rifles. The .375 H&H Magnum and the .416 Rigby and more recently the .458 Lott has made an impression and proven themselves in the field. Yet before these became popular, the 9.3×62 Mauser was perfectly popular as was the older .404 Jeffery. The great elephant hunter, WDM Bell used a 7×57 Mauser with full metal jacket bullets. Sure, I agree, if you can have a bigger better caliber that shoots harder and faster then go for it, but what I do not ascribe to is the common belief that you need a bigger bullet, travelling as fast as they can possibly go in a massive caliber – a kind of knock their socks off mentality. In my opinion it simply creates a false sense of security, it creates a person who is scared of firing their rifle and it creates wounded animals.
Here’s what I have learned over the years – shoot a rifle well and it will do you far more justice than choosing a massive heavy ‘knock a buffalo’s teeth loose’ caliber. Add to this the massive advent and improvement in powder, brass and bullets and you certainly do not need to specifically go out and buy a caliber that has been endorsed by the beloved short panted colonel and his entourage of film crews and groupies. Most folks already have a suitable caliber in their arsenal, if you’ve hunted Elk and Moose and Alaska or the Canadian north, you probably already own a rifle that will fit the African bill.
Your quarry in Africa will decide your rifle choice, sometimes because of the older British laws that regulated the minimum caliber required for the hunting of dangerous game by tourist hunters to the continent. Most African countries do have this type of larger caliber regulation, usually centered around the heavyweights, the thick skinned beasts and Lion, leaving Leopard to lesser calibers although by no means disqualifying it as any less dangerous.
This is often the first misconception – and being law abiding folks – this misconception immediately negates other perfectly good hunting rifles as possible suitable African calibers. To be sure, the beasts considered as dangerous do require a certain measure of rifle, yet it does not have to be a canon as many want you to believe. Most countries have settled upon the .375 H&H magnum as the minimum required caliber / rifle for Buffalo, Elephant and Hippo.
Some still say that 400 grains travelling at 2000 plus feet per second will have the measure of them yet I have seen 180 grains at 2900 fps and 300 grains at 2400 fps do the exact same work, on the big stuff perhaps not as visibly at impact but still as effective. Yet one has to reach a level where comfort, price and power meet and there are many qualifying calibers that reside at this level.
When thinking of a gun for the beasts of the dark continent REMEMBER this – I have clients coming out in pursuit of the dangerous beasts with nothing more than a carbon arrow and bow, so what does this say for the must have Tyrannosaur caliber, one without which you are certainly dead? There are too many writers that make their living off the vilification of Africas dangerous game, species which are wild of heart but never intent on evil unless provoked and hurt. They become monsters and unstoppable beasts only tamed by massive dollops of machined brass or copper traveling at light speed – I have no time for these jokers and their BS.