African Safari Cartridges: CXP4 Game

By Chuck Hawks

.458 Win. Mag.
.458 Win. Mag. Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

A few African species are huge. A large mature bull elephant might weigh 13,000 pounds! A very large white rhinoceros can go 8,000 pounds and a very large black rhinoceros can go over 2,800 pounds. A hippopotamus might average 5,800 pounds. A mature giraffe weighs around 2,600 pounds and an average Cape buffalo probably weighs around 1,000 pounds.

By any measure these are huge beasts and, except for the giraffe (why would you want to shoot a giraffe?), they are considered dangerous game. For these monsters the 9.3x62mm and/or .375 H&H Magnum are commonly regarded as the minimum calibers and the big bore (over .40) safari calibers come into their own.

"Solid" (non-expanding) bullets, whether of heavy full metal jacket design (Hornady, Woodleigh, Speer) or homogeneous (Barnes, A-Square) are considered the best choice for elephant, hippo and rhino by most professionals. A premium controlled expansion bullet such as the A-Square Dead Tough, Barnes X-Bullet, Hornady Dangerous Game, Nosler Partition, Speer Trophy Bonded Bear Claw, Swift A-Frame or Woodleigh Weldcore is probably the best all-around bullet choice for the others.

Like all "minimums," there is some flexibility here, depending on local regulations. The various 9.3mm (.366") cartridges (9.3x62, 9.3x64, 9.3x66 and 9.3x74) have been used to take all of these animals and in some jurisdictions serve as the minimum legal calibers. Perhaps the majority of African game departments specify the .375 Magnum as the minimum lion, buffalo, rhino and elephant cartridge.

Where permitted, other medium bore calibers have served well. I have read specific accounts that praised the .350 Rem. Mag. on Cape buffalo and the .338 Win. Mag. is well thought of by those who have used it on heavy game. Other .33 and .35 Magnums should serve equally well, as long as adequate bullets are used.

All of which goes to show the fallibility of relying on caliber alone as an indication of killing power. Simple-minded regulations appeal to government bureaucrats, but often have little basis in fact in the real world. Can anyone rationally argue, for example, that the .444 Marlin shooting a 250 grain bullet is more powerful than the .338 Win. Magnum shooting the same weight bullet? Yet the former is a "big bore" and the latter merely a "medium bore."

The simple reliance on bullet diameter (caliber) ignores the more important factors of energy and, most of all, sectional density (SD). SD is a bullet's weight divided by the square of its diameter. The higher the SD number the better. The fact is that, other things being equal, a long skinny bullet penetrates deeper than a short fat bullet of the same weight. And deep penetration, along with precise bullet placement, are the keys to clean kills on CXP4 game.

It is generally recognized that a SD of around .220 (about 100 grains in .25 caliber and 150 grains in .30 caliber) is entirely adequate for shooting CXP2 game. The hunter after CXP3 game is well served by a bullet with a SD on the order of .270 (about 180 grains in .30 caliber and 250 grains in .35 caliber). The hunter pursuing dangerous CXP4 game should look for a SD of .300 or more. That is why the 220 grain .30-06 bullet (SD .331) or 250 grain .338 bullet (SD .313) are far better choices for brain shots on elephants than the 240 grain .444 Marlin bullet (SD .185).

Many elephants have been killed by 220 grain .30 caliber solids; also by 6.5mm 160 grain solids (SD .328), 7mm 175 grain solids (SD .310), .303 caliber 215 grain solids (SD .316) and 8mm 220 grain solids (SD .301). These are not recommended elephant calibers by any means, but the deep penetration due to the high SD of round nose, non-expanding bullets in these calibers and weights makes them far deadlier on very large game than their small caliber would indicate.

I am not recommending small bore rifle cartridges for use on CXP4 game. What I am suggesting is medium and large bore cartridges shooting bullets with a SD in excess of .300. Combine a bullet diameter of .33 caliber or larger with a SD of .300+ and around 4,000 ft. lbs. of ME and you probably have a viable CXP4 game cartridge.

Of course, said cartridge also has to comply with the laws and regulations in the area in which you are hunting. That tends to eliminate calibers below 9.3mm or .375 in most African countries. Reasonably popular caliber choices that are legal practically everywhere in Africa for CXP4 game include the various .375 Magnums, the .400-.404 calibers, the .416 calibers and the classic .450-.470 "elephant" cartridges. The list of .375 and larger caliber CXP4 game cartridges for which ammo is most commonly available to North American hunters includes the .375 Ruger, .375 H&H Mag., .375 Wby. Mag., .375 Rem. Ultra Mag, .378 Wby. Mag., .416 Rem. Mag., .416 Rigby, .416 Wby. Mag., .458 Win. Mag., .458 Lott, .460 Wby. Mag. and .470 Nitro Express.

The late Larry Brace probably shot more CXP4 game than anyone else of my immediate acquaintance and he mostly relied on a .375 H&H Magnum rifle shooting a 300 grain bullet. The SD of that bullet is .305 and the ME of typical factory loads is 4,265 ft. lbs. That combination has been proven all over Africa. Larry liked it because it had adequate killing power and kicked less than the big bore safari cartridges, allowing better shot placement. I find it hard to fault his reasoning.

The legendary Jack O'Connor's favorite heavy game cartridge was also the .375 H&H and he wrote glowingly about the caliber. He also used the .416 Rigby and the .450 Watts Magnum (a wildcat virtually identical to the .458 Lott) on one or another of his numerous African safaris.

Among the classic elephant cartridges, the .458 Winchester Magnum is both representative and the most popular. As commonly factory loaded, it throws a 500 grain bullet (SD .341) at a MV of about 2,090 fps with ME of 4,850 ft. lbs. (Federal figures). The .458 Win. Mag. was the late Finn Aagard's favorite "stopping" caliber during his African PH days. For what it's worth, my personal FN/Browning Safari Grade rifle is a .458 Win. Mag. The killing power is very high and so is the recoil!

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Copyright 2006, 2010 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.