African Caliber Rifles

By David Tong

Ruger M77RSM Mk. II
Ruger M77RSM Mk. II in .416 Rigby. Illustration courtesy of Sturm, Ruger & Co., Inc.

The author did way too much reading about the early 20th Century’s African hunters. While there were certainly Germans, Dutch, French, Portuguese and Italians on the Dark Continent, primarily it is the accounts of the British experience that are best known in the U.S.

While the Germans developed large-bore metric-caliber rounds in the first two decades of the 20th Century, such as 9.3x62mm and 9.3x74R that are still in widespread use today, they are numerically overwhelmed by the plethora of the British cartridges offered by the Kynoch firm. It did not hurt that most of the popular hunter-writers of the day were also British.

Men such as William D.M. Bell, Frederick Courtenay Selous, Reginald (R.J.) Cunninghame, Commander David Blunt, John Taylor, Harry Manners and Harry Selby were among the British naturalist/hunter/explorers who made names for themselves and wrote accounts of hunting the dangerous “Big Five.”

The British provided men of means with the necessary tools to hunt Cape buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion, and rhinoceros. These were usually single-shot falling block rifles, double-barreled rifles, or (later) bolt action magazine rifles. Lead bullets and large bore black powder cartridges from .450 to the infamous 4-bore were the norm. The introduction of smokeless powder allowed the development of smaller calibers, greatly improving bullet velocities and, most importantly, penetration.

Famous gun making firms, including Holland and Holland, James Purdey and Sons and John Rigby and Sons, were part of the London trade of best-quality arms that only the very wealthy could afford. These were (and are!) completely custom, bespoke arms, made to order for people who were usually avid sportsmen and knew what they wanted in terms of gun fit, finish, embellishment and caliber. These were mostly royalty, colonial magistrates, upper echelon military and wealthy business people.

However, with the introduction of the magazine rifle and the much cheaper to produce Mauser ’98 bolt action, African hunting became more attainable for less well-heeled folks. A factory made, safari grade, bolt rifle costs around $2000 in 2011 and a custom built bolt action might cost $20,000, but this pales in comparison to the six-figure investment for a London best double rifle. These relative costs have remained remarkably constant for generations, ensuring the continued dominance of the bolt action. Other advantages of the bolt action include its ability to fire higher pressure ammunition and greater cartridge capacity.

In favor of the double-rifle are its generally superior handiness in close quarters, balance and pointability, since (for the same barrel length) a double is generally about 4" shorter than a bolt action. Other advantages include faster reloading, the ability to chamber outsize cartridges of the largest calibers extant and the fact that doubles have two independent firing mechanisms and chambers for reliability.

Much ink has been spilt regarding stopping power. The best known proponent of this is undoubtedly the famous remittance man and poacher John “Pondoro” Taylor and his stopping power index. He wrote about these in British hunting journals from the 1920's onward, but is most well known in his 1940's book, African Rifles and Cartridges.

This shorthand formula for evaluating calibers and bullet construction favored the British thinking (go figure) for over .400” calibers and bullets of tough construction of 350 grain weight and more. While there are those who state with some accuracy that smaller cartridges with modern propellants and bullet construction can work just as well for killing, Taylor’s view was that the larger and heavier, parallel-sided and blunt-nosed bullets were more reliable in straight-line penetration needed to reach the vital organs or brain cavity to provide stopping.

This really isn’t much different from the handgun stopping power debate. The schism between the small / fast crowd and the large / slow bunch and the ability to stop a hostile opponent certainly has analogies with the similar fielding of the African dangerous game rifle over the past century. The author believes that while the high-velocity .300 calibers are fine for plains game at long distances, where their stretched-string velocities shine, the need for a short range “stopper” on the biggest and toughest customers means that the old desire for a .400”+ bore still has validity. Most of the remaining old hands in the professional hunting community agree that the legally mandated minimum .375 caliber (in most African countries) or its 9.3mm metric ballistic equivalent is adequate.

One has to keep in mind that the older British rounds were loaded with Cordite, a temperature sensitive, first generation smokeless propellant that did not provide high velocities. Its pressure curve became problematic in tropical heat. Tough-constructed bullets often with nickel-plated steel jackets at 2,300 fps or less were the norm, even for bolt-action rifles.

Of course, today’s hunter takes advantage of bullets of far better construction, such as bonded cores, divided dual cores and monolithic solids, as well as more conventional copper plated, steel jacketed bullets with mixed lead and steel penetrator cores. These traditional designs, first popularized by maker John Rigby, still work very well.

Recoil of the larger bore African calibers is a problem for most shooters, particularly those who lack the resources and time to master them. My own experience is with the .375 H&H Magnum, .416 Rigby and .458 Winchester Magnum in American, factory made, bolt action rifles.

The latter two rounds have equally heavy levels of recoil energy, something around 58-61 ft. lbs. in 10 pound rifles with full power loads, according to the "Rifle Recoil Table" on the Tables, Charts and Lists page. The .375 H&H runs in the 36-42 ft. lb. range in typical nine pound rifles. Generally this means a .375 rifle will be more or less tolerable if weighing about nine pounds, while the big bores should weigh between ten and eleven pounds. More than the usual deer rifle, a dangerous game rifle must fit its user very well; have excellent balance and instinctive pointing. The consequences of fluffing your first shot may have far more severe consequences than wounding a 200 lb. whitetail!

Said rifle must also work without fail, when rapidly manipulating the bolt and maintaining a cheek weld. Practice sessions should involve shooting under time constraints at realistic ranges for the animal involved.

For me, the .375 proved easier to shoot for extended range sessions from the bench, with the factory-loaded .458 in second place and the .416 coming in third. Even in the very muzzle heavy Ruger Magnum M77 Mark II, the .416’s kick felt more severe than that of the .458 M77 Mark I that I owned concurrently. The recoil velocity of the 10 pound big bores is 19.3 fps (.416/400/2400) and 19.8 fps (.458/500/2150). A nine pound .375/300/2530 comes back at 16.3 fps and, for comparison, an eight pound .30-06/180/2700 has a recoil energy of 20.3 ft. lbs. and a recoil velocity of 12.8 fps. The latter is widely considered the most powerful rifle the great majority of shooters can handle effectively. So much for the alleged "slow recoil push" of the big bores!

The medium bore .375 is a more versatile cartridge for general hunting purposes than the big bores, being a flatter shooting cartridge. For the one-rifle African safari, it can be used on all African plains game. It is also commonly recommended and used for Alaskan bears, moose and American buffalo by professional hunters on this continent.

In general, the medium bores have versatility in their favor, while the larger calibers are specialized for the hunter seeking buffalo, elephant and rhino (CXP4 thick-skinned game). These cartridges and the rifles to shoot them are somehow more popular than ever among the American shooting public, even though the sheer costs of licensing, game fees and import bans under the CITES treaty make hunting either of the latter two species impractical for most of us.

I have found a one-inch Pachmayr “Decelerator” recoil pad possibly the best way to tame the kick of these powerful calibers. The Simms Limb Saver is also good, but its patented synthetic rubber compound feels stickier to clothing and may not allow for as quick a gun mount. There are undoubtedly other manufacturers who make similarly good recoil pads, but these are the two with which I have the most experience. I cannot over stress the importance of ensuring that the rifle's length of pull must be correct for the shooter when wearing appropriate safari clothing. Stock fit is all-important for minimizing the recoil of these shoulder cannons.

One should keep in mind that handloads are generally frowned upon by the over-zealous authorities in Africa, who will usually inspect these rounds upon entry into the country. If head stamps or bullet types do not match within each box of ammunition, the ammunition may be confiscated, thus forcing the hunter to purchase whatever stock of the caliber is available from sources known to the PH or outfitter, usually at great expense. Remington, Winchester, Federal and Hornady all produce premium factory loads in the African calibers, so it is probably best to purchase these for safari use, reserving reloaded ammunition for practice at home and North American hunting.

There are no minimum caliber requirements for the pursuit of the largest North American game. The big Alaskan bears, in particular, are routinely hunted with the ubiquitous .30-06 and the various .300 Magnums. The most popular medium bore caliber among Alaskan guides and outfitters is the .338 Winchester Magnum, which was designed for the purpose.

I can state that among all the rifles I have owned and fired in nearly 40 years of shooting, the most interesting have been these big bruisers. Stunningly accurate to the uninitiated, for some reason these medium to large calibers simply shoot very well, if the shooter can master their recoil. I have personally clover leafed three shot groups at 75 yards from the bench, with both handloads and factory rounds. One MOA groups at 100 yards are not uncommon from properly tuned rifles.

While one does not necessarily need a safari caliber rifle to successfully hunt in Africa, let alone North America, there are a number of us (you know who you are!) that enjoy the notion of a classic round’s provenance and performance. This is probably one of those things speaking to the philosophical romance of hunting that Jose Ortega y Gasset stated so well: “One does not hunt in order to kill; one kills in order to have hunted.”

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Copyright 2011, 2015 by David Tong and/or All rights reserved.