Cape Buffalo Hunt: A Bullet that Saved the Day

By Miguel �ngelo Salema (M.D.)

We had planned this African Safari for about year. Several months earlier, I had met with the outfitter, who was a renowned PH, so at the time of departure all was settled. However, the Dark Continent is often tricky, as it would prove again. In the airport, after we had checked-in, our flight was announced delayed. After a long delay, it was canceled for technical reasons. The passengers were placed in a nearby hotel for the night and we finally departed early the following morning.

After an uneventful flight, we were met by a representative of the outfitter. Unfortunately, my rifle case did not arrive with the rest of my luggage. Since we still had to take another plane next morning, another night was spent in a hotel. There, after a quick supper, a few hours of rest and a shower, we took a domestic flight.

When we arrived at the final airport; representatives of the Company picked up our party. Since it was not advisable to travel by road during the night, we stayed in a hotel, this time a very African establishment. My gun case remained missing.

Early in the morning, before dawn, we departed in a double cab pickup for six hours of travel. After a very picturesque journey, we were greeted by the large camp staff and got settled in our quarters. Everything was very nice, except that my rifle was still missing.

After lunch the PH's set some targets so that my two buddies could check their rifles. As I had no rifle, the head PH loaned me a Remington .375 H&H rifle and some ammo. Since I prefer the Barnes X-Bullets, I borrowed some cartridges so loaded from one of my friends. I�ve gotten splendid results with X-Bullets. I had encouraged my friend to use them and he followed my advice. At the target range on my family estate, they proved accurate in his Blaser rifle and devastating in ballistic media.

At last, I started sighting-in the Remington rifle. It became amusing, because there were two targets: one at 50 and the second at 100 yards. I expected that the point of impact would not suffer significantly from the change of cartridges, so I aimed directly at the 100 yard target. Everybody said I missed the paper. My Leica binocular showed me otherwise, but since the target had various previous holes, I fired another shot. The spectators called another clear miss. I was somewhat annoyed that two close friends and tree PHs were joking and even the gun bearers were smiling at each other. Hints came from everyone and every kind of possibilities advanced, so an altercation almost broke developed. A new target was provided to replace the 50 yard one. This solved the mystery of the missing holes, because I proudly said that my target was not that one, but the target at 100 yards. With some minor adjustment of the scope's windage and elevation knobs, I got the zero that suited me and afterwards we all retired for a cold bear.

The next morning, we looked for Buffalo in Mopane forest, but they were very wary. Looking for tracks and fresh droppings, crawling and avoiding all those nasty branches, kept us busy. On more than one occasion I managed to get very close to buffalo, but none was the trophy I wanted. Sometimes they spooked and ran off, breaking everything in their path. They resembled a train out of control, leaving behind clouds of dust and a trail of broken branches. Once they greatly annoyed some nearby Elephants.

I was not pleased, not because the difficulty or danger, but because I thought a new approach would be advisable. One night after dinner, while enjoying a drink around the camp fire, I took an opportunity to discuss a new strategy with my PH. I suggested we depart earlier than usual, trying to pick up fresh spoor closer to the camp and doing the tracking with the soft light of the new dawn, hoping to find buffalo still moving in a relaxed way.

As our party woke up the camp was a delightful scene. Everything was dark with the still burning fire casting moving shadows. A perfect silence enveloped everything, the night fauna was already silent. The only sound that I could ear was some snoring from the other PHs or my buddies, which made me a little bit envious. Small yellow-green lights occasionally shone through the air as fire-flies searched for their meals. We had breakfast by candle light, since the generator was not roaring at the time. My trackers and gun bearer appeared with a sleepy smile and helped take the gear to the 4X4.

It was very early, about two hours before sunrise, so that we could look for buffalo as they began to move. We did, but the buffalo moved in such a way that the trackers became confused and lost them. It seemed that Plan B might be called for. We were dismayed, hungry and out of water. A tracker was dispatched to get the vehicle, which was some miles away. In the meantime, our thirst was slacked by a native who cut some branches of a vine full of sap, which I most appreciated. It tasted like water after boiling vegetables. Suddenly, the native we had sent for the truck reappeared, saying that on his way to the 4x4 he had spotted buffalo. We quickly got organized and carefully moved out. The buffalo had not moved far and we found them.

It was a small herd, as usual in the forest. With some maneuvering and a crawling stalk, we finally saw two bulls. Using our binoculars, we could see that one was promising. After creeping to within about 50 yards, and with a glance at my PH and a nodded yes in return, I put the crosshair of the Burris scope slightly lower than and behind the point of the shoulder. I squeezed the Remington's trigger and the rifle roared. I saw the buff react to the bullet's impact and quickly chambered another round, but did not have time for a second shot. The buffalo ran off and disappeared in the vegetation. Oops! Had I wounded a buffalo or was he dead some yards away?

We followed cautiously, since a charge could happen and in the dense woods it was nothing that any sensible hunter would enjoy. At the spot, we somewhat unexpectedly found little blood, since Barnes-X bullets have very good penetration and a tendency to exit on the far side. However, we had very knowledgeable trackers and they picked up the trail.

After some hundred yards, my concern was very great. Was it a lost animal that may became a nuisance, or was he waiting for the right moment to charge from an unpredictable direction? Making things worse, the light was fading and in Africa the sunset occurs very quickly.

There we were, miles from nowhere in a very unpleasant scenario. Those were my thoughts, and I was bathed in perspiration.

The leading tracker suddenly halted, our bodies so close that my left hand made him kneel down. I shouldered the rifle and saw the dark mass of a buffalo lying on the ground. Due to the distance, the intervening foliage and poor light, I could not even guess where the chest was, nor could the PH. Suddenly the buffalo got up and left.

When we arrived at the spot he had bedded down we saw considerable blood and while escaping he had left a more visible trail. It was time to have a G2 meeting and a conclusion was rapidly reached, greatly cheered by the natives. The conditions were very poor to pursue a wounded buffalo and we would have little chance of surviving a charge. We decided, let me say with difficulty, to return to our starting point and again sent the tracker fetch the vehicle. The driver had to do some hard driving to reach us and we all got aboard just in time to have a flat tire. No real problem, because there were several spares and the wheel was changed very rapidly. In spite of the distance, the drive back to camp seemed short; everyone was very talkative.

Back at camp, we found the others around the fire and we joined them for supper. Our conversation that night emphasized the danger involved and the annoyance of having an animal that could be dead or severely incapacitated. He might be attacked by lions, hyenas or other scavengers that would destroy the trophy.

As they talked about the dangers of wounded buffalo, I recalled a very nasty situation with a buffalo that had been shot several times. Not all of the bullets were perfectly placed, but he had taken two in his chest and others in the abdomen and rump, with a leg broken in two places. When I made the final approach, inconveniently from the front, because there was no other way, it charged. Since it was coming down hill with its head up, no brain shot was possible. A frontal chest shot had no apparent effect and it continued coming. Another shot to the same spot and an enormous amount of accumulated blood poured from the wounds, like a hole in a red wine cask. It dropped about five yards away from the muzzle of my rifle, which was ready to fire again, but not needed.

Next morning the hunt continued and we departed at the usual time, since the location was known. We used the extra time to sleep, rest and recover from a very hard previous day. My PH carried a double-barreled Merkel in .470 Nitro Express that he had borrowed from another PH, instead of his Winchester .458 Magnum, and we would use only solids.

Arriving at the scene, our nerves and adrenalin levels were high. They became higher when I pointed out that there were no vultures in the air. Simply, the Buff was not dead or he was miles way. The temperature was already high and getting higher as the sun rose. A very intense stalk ensued. We used just one tracker, to minimize noise and, in case of a violent encounter, to enable us to shoot without endangering others.

As we came round a large tree we saw a buffalo lying between some bushes, facing us. I quickly dropped to a kneeling position to stabilize and get a better view. To my left I saw the PH pointing his big double express rifle. I shot at the bridge of the buff's nose and he didn�t move or made any noise. We waited some moments and then started to move to the rear of the beast. An obit was declared, but a postmortem examination was needed to clarify what happened. Since CSI doesn�t operate in the African Bushveld, I did it myself in a forest clearing.

The buffalo was stone dead when I fired. The hair was crisp, the body still retained some heat and there was no obvious rigor mortis, so I estimated that death had occurred about an hour or so previously. If we had continued the chase the day before, from the position we found him in, a charge would had been likely, getting us as we come around the big tree.

The examination showed a keyhole in the belly as the bullet entrance, several inches back from the point at which I had aimed. The Barnes X-Bullet had traveled sideways and perforated the thick skin, making the keyhole. It then moved forward through his stomach, a huge sac full of dense green mass, continued somewhat upwards severely damaging the liver, and finally stopped under the skin in the lower rib area on the opposite side. None of the great abdominal blood vessels was damaged, but the hepatic trauma caused a substantial peritoneal hemorrhage was the cause of death.

Examination of the bullet showed markings that strongly indicated a deflection. Its curved tip led us to conclude it had hit a hard branch en route to the target, turned sideways, hit the buffalo's body and penetrated as described.

I think that the reason for the success of the hunt was that the solid copper Barnes X-Bullet had performed as a solid, traveling sideways with great destructive power and deep penetration. Would another brand of expanding bullet accomplish the same, or would a lost animal have been the result? I don�t have the answer, nor do I wish to do any experimentation on the subject, since this episode was more than enough!

Back at camp all were pleased and I had a gift. My Sako .416 Rem. Magnum, topped with a Zeiss 2.5-6x42mm scope and my ammo (some with Swift A-Frame bullets and others with Barnes Solid bullets) had arrived, enabling me to continue the Safari with my own gear.

Some days later in a swampy area several miles away, I got another nice buffalo. This time it was one heart shot followed by a 15 yard run and the beast was dead, but the PH demanded an insurance shot. In the back of my mind echoed the old African saying that, �the dead ones are the ones that kill you.� When applicable, my motto is to keep shooting and make sure. The fatal bullet, a Swift A-Frame, was recovered from the hide on the other side. In this area there was only tall grass and papyrus, so bullet deflection was not an issue.

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Copyright 2012, 2016 by Miguel Salema and/or All rights reserved.