W.D.M. Bell and His Elephants

By James Passmore


Walter D.M. Bell has become a legend among elephant hunters due to his great success in the ivory trade during the golden age of hunting in East Africa. He is known as “Karamojo” Bell due to his numerous safaris through this remote wilderness area in North Eastern Uganda. He is famous for perfecting the brain shot on elephants, dissecting their skulls and making a careful study of the anatomy of the skull, so he could predict paths of bullet travel from a shot at any angle in order to reach the brain. Using mostly 6.5mm and 7mm caliber rifles, he was an advocate of shot placement over big bore power for killing efficiently.

Modern writers on the internet and in magazine articles have tended to refer to him and his tally of elephants in this vein, “He shot all of his several hundred elephants with a 7x57mm rifle” or words to that effect. In fact, Walter Bell killed 1,011 elephants in the course of his career. Since most people refer to him for his small caliber prowess and his elephant tally I thought I would try and break it down, because there are a great number of people quoting what “Karamojo Bell” did or didn’t do and I have noted a common tendency in the last few years to play down what he did with small caliber rifles. Perhaps this is in direct relation to the resurgence in popularity of magnums and the larger safari rifles. Craig Boddington is quite apt to mention the "few hundred elephants" that Bell took. (Mr. Boddington, I believe, is an erstwhile heavy rifle enthusiast.)

Bell recorded all of his kills and shots fired. It was a business to him, not pleasure, and he needed to record expenditures.

  • He shot exactly 1,011 elephants; about 800 of them were shot with Rigby-made 7x57mm (.275 Rigby) rifles and round nose 173 grain military ammo.
  • He shot elephants with a Mannlicher-Schoenauer 6.5x54mm carbine using the long 159 grain FMJ bullets and noted that it was probably the most beautiful rifle he ever had, but gave it up due to faulty ammunition.
  • He shot his first safari with a Lee Enfield in .303 British and the 215 grain army bullet. Thereafter he kept a ten shot Army& Navy Lee Enfield as a sort of back up and in the hope he might find ten elephants silly enough to stand around long enough for him to use the whole magazine.
  • He went to rifles chambered in .318 Westley Richards for a while, which is a .32 caliber cartridge firing a 250 grain bullet at about 2400 fps, but found the ammunition unreliable and again returned to the 7x57mm. He later wrote that the .318 Westley Richards was more of a reliable killer for certain shots, while the 7x57 was a "surgeons" rifle.
  • He also recorded that one of the reasons why he favored the 7x57 was that the ammunition was more reliable and he could not recall ever having a fault with it; whereas British sporting ammunition, apart from the .303 military ammo, gave him endless trouble with splitting cases.
  • He owned a .450/400 Jeffrey double rifle made by Thomas Bland & Sons, but did not use it after his first safari, as he considered the action not rugged enough and the Mauser repeating action to be just as quick as a double for aimed shooting.
  • He wrote about being able to drop an elephant with a light caliber rifle if he shot it in the same place that he would have shot it with a heavy rifle and realised this fully when he saw that elephants shot with a .303 died just as quickly when shot in the same place as a .450/400 double rifle with both triggers wired together, so they went off at the same time.

To judge ammunition expenditure and his own shooting, he calculated an average. He discovered that with the .275 (7x57mm) he fired an average of 1.5 shots per kill. This means that half the time he only needed one shot. That is a fair performance for such a large number of elephants killed with a rifle and cartridge that was intended for deer hunting.

It is also interesting to note that, although Bell is the most famous proponent of using small caliber "nitro" rifles for large game, he did not discover the technique, nor was he its earliest advocate. Well known hunter Arthur Neumann, for example, had been shooting elephants with a .303 Lee Metford rifle for years before Walter Bell got into the business.

WDM Bell is forever associated with the John Rigby & Sons Mauser rifle and the .275 Rigby cartridge. ".275 Rigby" was the British designation for the German 7x57mm Mauser cartridge. This cartridge propelled a .284 caliber, 173 grain bullet at around 2300 fps and the bullets he used for elephant brain shots were full metal jacketed solids. He declared once that a soft point bullet had never sullied the bore of his rifle. It is interesting to compare these ballistics with what is commonly regarded as essential performance today.

The Rigby Mauser was just that, a Mauser 98 action rifle in sporting configuration, half stocked and finely finished. The actions were made by the Mauser Company in Germany and Rigby had the rights to sell them in England. The Mauser action was the darling of the sporting world at the time and Bell was obviously a man who appreciated fine rifles; he bought the best. For most of his life, he was an advocate of the bead front blade and express rear sights. However, in later years he used an aperture sight, as well as early telescopic sights. His take-down .275 Rigby rifle was sold by his widow (after his death in 1954) to the writer Robert Ruark, who later presented it to Mark Selby, son of the famous white hunter Harry Selby. A constellation of famous African names converged around the ownership of this rifle. Interestingly, it is a half stock, take down rifle with a trap made out of the grip cap to store cleaning gear. The floorplate is engraved WDMB. Harry Selby later had a scope fitted to it.

Shot placement for the tricky brain shot on elephants required good marksmanship. Bell constantly practiced by dry-firing his rifle. He always carried his own rifle, eschewing gun bearers (another plus for the lightweight Mauser) and picked pretend targets of opportunity as he traveled, dry firing at a distant rock or bird. He believed that this was the single practice most beneficial to a hunter.

He was a great proponent of the bead foresight and it was his drawings with which he illustrated his first book Wanderings of an Elephant Hunter that explained to me how to use a bead front sight properly. You should hold the bead low in the notch so that your elevation is constant and open both eyes so that you can see through your hand and rifle with your non-shooting eye. Bell sighted his rifles with the point of impact in the centre of the bead. When used like this, with both eyes open, it is much like a red dot sight and I shoot my open sighted rifles this way quite successfully.

As a further example of marksmanship (if brain shooting a great many elephants isn’t enough), Bell once used up the remainder of his unwanted .318 ammunition by shooting flying cormorants out of the air. Spectators believed that he was using a shotgun and were amazed to find that he was actually using a rifle. He was also observed shooting fish that were jumping from the surface of a lake.

I will make the point that unlike many African writers (Peter Capstick jumps to mind), Karamojo Bell doesn’t seem to have been particularly threatened by an elephant, rogue or otherwise. Nor did he have to turn a charge or anything like that. The prose in his books has none of the trumpeting about the manly virtues of facing grisly death upon which Capstick built his writing career and that has been popular ever since Hemingway went on a couple of hunting trips. (Hemingway was disappointed when he shot a lion and it simply died.)

In his opinion, a great many of the charges that one heard about were actually panicked animals who didn’t know in which direction danger lay and were fleeing towards the hunter. In his letters he wrote that he had probably shot between 600 and 700 buffalo in his time and had never been charged even once. However, he stated that he made it his business to never have to deal with a wounded buffalo.

A great many people have tried to explain away Bell’s elephant hunting success by asserting that he didn’t need to hunt in thick cover and could shoot elephants from long range, the implication being that somehow the behaviour of African elephants must have been different back then. This is untrue, as any reader of his books will find. Bell hunted hard, walked thousands of miles, ran down elephants and was a very cool marksman at extremely close range. He sighted his rifles in right on the nose at 80 yards and preferred to get within 30 to 40 yards of his elephants. He would drop the first one, then climb on top of it so as not to be trampled by the other members of the herd and so he could get clear shots.

One does not walk down an elephant in uncharted African wilderness with a tool one regards as marginal and Bell had complete confidence in his ability to harvest elephants with the Rigby Mauser. It was his business and also his hide at stake, especially considering that the amount of money to be made was considerable. To put his efforts into perspective, he wrote of one day when he tracked and shot nine elephants. He estimated that he had earned 877 pounds sterling from the ivory harvested from those nine kills. After one expedition he returned with ivory worth over 23,000 pounds sterling. That was a vast sum of money and converted to today’s currency equivalent it would make your eyes water. One does not risk that kind of money and effort on a questionable calibre.

Walter Bell left Scotland a young adventurer obsessed with hunting. He first travelled to East Africa and took a short lived job as a lion hunter at the age of sixteen, on the same stretch of railway that later became notorious for the Lions of Tsavo, the extraordinary man-eaters that plagued the railway workers. He travelled to the Yukon Territory to cash in on the gold rush and make his fortune. It did not pan out and he became a market hunter, shooting game for the Dawson markets with a Winchester single shot falling block rifle, until he was robbed by his partner. He joined the Canadian forces sent to fight alongside the British in the Boer War in South Africa at the turn of the 20th Century. Taken prisoner at one point by the Boers, he managed to escape. When the war was settled, he stayed on and bought his way into elephant hunting, outfitting his first safari on foot into East Africa.

Bell made himself into a successful elephant hunter not just because of his skill with a rifle, but also due to carefully maintained good relations with the local people in the territories through which he travelled. At that time vast areas of Africa had not yet been penetrated by settlers or traders. For many of the native encountered, he was the first white man they had seen. He was always ready with gifts for chiefs and kings. He bought permission to hunt from them. One of his best ideas was to post a reward of a heifer for any African who gave him information about the whereabouts of elephants that led to five bulls being shot. He soon had a flood of elephant sightings coming in and he was as good as his word, readily paying for the information. For recaltrant natives, a shooting display with his Mauser Broomhandle semi-auto pistol, during which he would often shoot stones thrown by his men out of the air (easy enough, he wrote, with some practice) was enough to quell any ideas of attacking his camp.

Shooting buck animals for meat and hides was a large part of his regular duties as an ivory hunter. His porters, camp guards and personal men and their family could number as many as 200 people, for whom he had to provide meat. He also would shoot for meat and hides that were used as trade goods with the villagers in the areas he passed through. He used another rifle for this purpose, a long barrelled Mannlicher in 6.5x54mm made by Gibbs, for which he had a supply of soft nosed bullets. He wrote that this rifle was very accurate and probably had the largest job of all. With meat shooting and supplying hundreds of hides for sandals, donkey saddles and trade goods, this rifle was probably the busiest of all and with it he shot everything from antelope to giraffe.

When the Great War (World War I) broke out, he immediately headed back to England and joined the fledgling Royal Flying Corps, becoming a pilot and flying in Tanganyika (Tanzania). He was known for flying without an observer, because the observer obstructed his view when he tried to shoot down enemy planes with his rifle. In the Balkans he once shot down a German Albatross fighter with a single round. His machine gun jammed after that first shot, but the one shot was enough. He later served in Greece and Italy, achieved the rank of Captain and was twice decorated with the Military Cross.

After the War, Bell returned to ivory hunting, traveling by canoe into then uncharted African wilds after legendary herds of large elephants. He made his last expedition in the early 1920’s.

He retired to Scotland a wealthy man and after marrying an aristocratic wife he bought an estate in Scotland called “Corriemollie.” There is no unhappy or overly dramatic ending to his story. He lived unscathed through all of his adventures to enjoy the wealth he had accumulated with his rifle.

Walter Bell spent his later years writing magazine article and books on his exploits in Africa. He created water color paintings and ink drawings of red stags in the Highland tussock, as well as paintings of splendidly depicted elephants on the savannah, made with an eye for anatomical detail and an appreciation of the body language of the African elephant. He used them to illustrate his books. With his wife he had a racing yacht built he called Trenchmer and successfully sailed it competitively. During World War Two, he was active in the home guard. This was now his third war.

He continued to keep abreast of shooting developments and hunted red deer in the Scottish hills with a Rigby Mauser in .22 Savage High Power (5.6x52R). In the 1930’s, he purchased a Winchester Model 70 in the then new .220 Swift caliber with a telescopic sight. He swore by this as the perfect round for red deer, due to its lightning kills with a neck shot.

He made it clear in a magazine article published in American Rifleman in 1954 what he would use if he returned to Africa. With his vast experience ivory hunting, he felt he could put his finger on the perfect caliber for the purpose, which he felt was the .318 Westley Richards, or the 8x57mm Mauser. However, if he had to do it all over again with a modern rifle he would choose a Winchester Model 70 in .308 Winchester loaded with homogenous bullets and sighted with a ghost ring rear aperture sight.

Like everyone, WDM Bell was a product of his times and to hunt the dangerous big game of Africa with such light caliber rifles would be illegal today. The legacy that WDM Bell leaves us is that perfect shot placement, coupled with proper bullet construction, trumps caliber every time. The best thing you can do to increase your hunting success is to understand the anatomy of your quarry and practice with your rifle until you can put your first shot exactly where it should go.




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