African Safari Cartridges: Class 4 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. 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. Other African game departments specify the .375 Magnum as the minimum lion, buffalo, rhino, hippo and elephant cartridge and the big bore (over .40 caliber) safari cartridges come into their own for Class 4 (CXP4) animals.

The list of 9.3mm and larger caliber Class 4 game cartridges for which ammo is most commonly available to North American hunters includes the 9.3x62, 9.3x74R, .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.

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 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 265 grain bullet is more powerful than the .338 Win. Magnum shooting a 250 grain 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. Deep penetration, along with precise bullet placement and adequate energy, are the keys to clean kills on Class 4 animals.

The hunter pursuing dangerous Class 4 game should look for a bullet with a SD of .300 or more. "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 TSX, Hornady DGX, Nosler Partition, Speer Trophy Bonded Bear Claw, Swift A-Frame or Woodleigh Weldcore is probably a good bullet choice for the first shot at Cape buffalo, with solids in the magazine for repeat shots or to stop a charge.

The late Larry Brace probably shot more Class 4 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!

Good advice for traveling hunters is to choose a cartridge for which ammunition is available in the area you intend to hunt. That way, if the airline loses the bag containing your ammo, you can buy factory loads where you land.

Note: Full length articles about all of the cartridges mentioned above can be found on the Rifle Cartridges page.

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Copyright 2006, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.