First Dangerous Game Rifle
By Chuck Hawks
Potentially dangerous game (Class 4) covers a lot of territory. The term could refer to leopard hunting, a lightning fast cat that weighs maybe 150 pounds for an average adult male of the species, up to an African elephant weighing 13,000 pounds.
Along the way we have such animals as European (Russian) wild boar (200 pounds), jaguar (200 pounds), lion (330 pounds), grizzly and brown bear (700-900 pounds), polar bear (900 pounds), the various wild bovines (1000-1600 pounds), hippopotamus (3300 pounds) and rhinoceros (2100-5000 pounds, depending on species). Other animals, such as North American bull moose (600-1000 pounds), can be dangerous under certain circumstances. These are approximate average live weights for the males of the various species.
Obviously, no one rifle cartridge can be optimum for hunting such a diverse range of game, so let's delete the largest thick-skinned species, which include hippopotamus, rhinoceros and elephant. Those are the largest animals on our list and also the least likely to be hunted.
Therefore, a hunter looking for his or her first dangerous game rifle (DGR) can think in terms of bovines (bison and buffalo) in the 1000-1600 pound class and thin-skinned animals, mostly large predators, averaging around 1000 pounds or less. This is still a lot of tooth, claw, horn and hoof, so no potentially dangerous game animal should be taken likely.
Bear in mind that the recommended range for shots at dangerous game is under 50 to 150 yards and most dangerous game in killed inside of 100 yards. Experienced professional hunters do not generally recommend shooting at a dangerous game animal that is over 150 yards away. The chances of poor bullet placement rise rapidly as the range increases, as does the difficulty of finding an animal that has been wounded and must be followed-up. (Once a shot has been fired, a potentially dangerous animal must always be followed-up.)
As I wrote in my article Rifles for Dangerous Game:
"When hunting dangerous game (meaning an animal that may attack the hunter when fired on) a quality known loosely as 'stopping power' becomes very important. This refers to the rifle's ability to transmit enough force to the target to turn or stop a charge. The best stoppers seem to be medium and big bore rifles firing bullets of good sectional density (SD)."
Dangerous game rifles must therefore be chambered for powerful cartridges. The average hunter, accustomed to .270-.308 level recoil (less than 20 ft. lbs. of recoil energy in medium weight rifles), will find that DGRs kick much harder (around 30-50 ft. lbs. in rifles of typical weight). Of course, some cartridges suitable for hunting dangerous game kick harder than others, so choose wisely. Remember that accurate bullet placement is always more important than raw power. Heavy recoil quickly leads to flinching and flinching is poisonous to accuracy.
For our purposes (a first dangerous game rifle) it would be wise to avoid big bore rifles (over .40 caliber). These are typically intended for hunting the largest thick-skinned game, including elephant. The recoil of such cartridges is very violent and they are not required for hunting bovines and the largest predators. (In Africa, your PH will carry a big bore back-up rifle, if he feels it is necessary.)
This means we are considering cartridges from .338 to .375 caliber. Typical dangerous game bullet weights would be 225 and 250 grains in .338 caliber, 250 grains in .358 caliber, 286 grains in 9.3mm (.366 caliber) and 270-300 grains in .375 caliber. Note that the game laws in some African countries require at least 9.3mm or .375 caliber rifles for hunting lion and Cape buffalo.
I would also suggest avoiding cartridges based on outsized elephant cartridge cases necked-down to medium bore calibers. These cartridges kick like the devil in order to extend their maximum point blank range well beyond the 150 yard maximum required for hunting dangerous game. They are, therefore, counter productive for our purpose. Examples would include the .338 Rem. Ultra Mag, .338 Lapua, .338-378 Weatherby Magnum, .375 Rem. Ultra Mag and .378 Weatherby Magnum.
It is always wise to own rifles chambered for factory loaded cartridges, especially if one must travel by commercial carrier to reach a hunting destination. Avoid proprietary and wildcat cartridges.
Perusing the Federal, Hornady, Norma, Nosler, Remington, Weatherby and Winchester loading lists, these are the medium bore cartridges for magazine rifles available in North America and much of the world that meet our requirements and are potentially suitable for hunting Class 4 game: .338 RCM, .338 Winchester Magnum, .340 Weatherby Magnum, .358 Norma Magnum, 9.3x62mm Mauser, .370 Sako Magnum, .376 Steyr, .375 Ruger, .375 H&H Belted Magnum and .375 Weatherby Magnum. Rimmed cartridges suitable for double rifles include the 9.3x74R and .375 H&H Flanged Magnum.
The .338-06 A-Square, .35 Whelen and .350 Remington Magnum could be added to the list if shooting custom or reloaded ammunition using 250 grain bullets at a muzzle velocity of at least 2400 fps. All of these cartridges score at least 1501 in Hornady H.I.T.S. at 100 yards (the minimum number of points for hunting dangerous game according to Hornady). The maximum point blank ranges (+/- 3") of these cartridges extends from 234 to 297 yards, depending on cartridge and load; thus they all have a much flatter trajectory than necessary for hunting dangerous game.
Let's start by eliminating single shot rifles from consideration. As much as I appreciate a good falling block rifle, for hunting dangerous game a repeating rifle, or at least a double-barreled rifle, is the way to go. No less than two shots on tap makes sense, in case a follow-up shot is required. In a life threatening emergency where every second counts, reloading a single shot rifle does not seem appealing.
The dangerous game rifle's weight should be proportional to the power of the cartridge, so the more powerful the cartridge the heavier the rifle. All dangerous game rifles must be chambered for powerful cartridges, so recoil and weight are important considerations.
Double rifles, usually of the side-by-side (SxS) persuasion, are the classic African safari rifle. SxS rifles are preferred to over/under (O/U) rifles, as they are faster to reload; the gun does not have to be opened as far to access the chambers.
Any dangerous game double rifle should have selective ejectors and double triggers. Selective ejectors are absolutely necessary for fast reloads and with double triggers you essentially have two separate rifles on a common frame. If one malfunctions, the other is available. With a single trigger gun, a malfunction in the complex trigger mechanism can take both barrels out of service.
Lacking a magazine action, double rifles are short and handy for any given barrel length. They point like a (very heavy) shotgun and offer two shots faster than any other type of action. They can be chambered for long cartridges that are not available in other actions, such as the 9.3x74R, .375 H&H Flanged Magnum, .450 3-1/4" Nitro Express and .470 Nitro Express. These are rimmed cartridges loaded to moderate pressure to facilitate extraction and ejection, as the extractors in doubles do not have the caming power to extract stuck cases that a turn-bolt action does.
Their drawbacks include awkward scope mounting, only two cartridge capacity and typically poor accuracy compared to other types. "Minute of pie plate" is an apt description of typical groups from both barrels of double rifles at 100 yards. For this reason, doubles are often zeroed at 50 yards and almost never beyond 100 yards. They are often used with the supplied express sights, as a scope is thought to interfere with their shotgun like point-ability and express sights are about as accurate as most double rifles can shoot, anyway.
However, the biggest drawback to a good double rifle (and nobody hunting Class 4 game wants a questionable rifle) is their very high price. A good double rifle costs as much as a new car and in some cases as much as an average house. This puts double rifles beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest hunters.
The most prestigious double rifles come from the classic British firms, such as Boss, Holland & Holland and Purdey, and can be had in many classic cartridges. Several Continental gunmakers also offer double rifles, including Chapius, Grulla, J.P. Sauer & Sohn, Krieghoff, Merkel, Piotti and others. For more on double rifles, see Double Rifles.
Repeating rifles in dangerous game calibers are mostly bolt actions. An exception to this general rule is the semi-automatic Browning Safari Grade BAR Mk. II, which can be had in .338 Winchester Magnum. This is an interesting alternative, as it is accurate, reliable, powerful and offers fast follow-up shots. It is priced competitively with a good bolt action rifle. Because it uses a gas operated action, it kicks noticeably less than .338 Win. Mag. bolt action rifles of the same weight. Like all autoloaders, it does require more careful cleaning and maintenance than a bolt action.
If, like most experienced dangerous game hunters, you prefer a manual action, a bolt action rifle is the obvious choice. Bolt actions can be divided into two categories, depending on how they move cartridges from the magazine to the chamber. These are push feed and controlled feed.
When a push feed action chambers a cartridge, the bolt face simply pushes the cartridge from the magazine into the chamber. The extractor does not snap over the cartridge rim to hold the cartridge securely against the bolt face until the cartridge has been chambered. This means if the rifle is suddenly and rapidly swung away from the ejection port opening (to the left in the case of a bolt action that ejects to the right) as the cartridge comes free from the magazine, the unsecured cartridge could possibly be flung from the open action.
I have only heard of this actually happening once. The hunter had fired at an animal in front of him and was in the process of chambering a second round when he was suddenly charged by another animal from his left. He pivoted sharply to his left to engage the new threat and the fresh cartridge was thrown from his push feed rifle.
Another possible operator error with a push feed rifle is a double stroke jam. This can happen if the hunter pushes one cartridge from the magazine without completely chambering it and then operates the bolt again, jamming the second cartridge against the first and preventing the bolt from being closed.
On the other hand, if the magazine is empty, a single cartridge can simply be dropped into the loading port of a push feed action and the bolt closed. It is not necessary to feed cartridges from the magazine, as it is with many controlled feed rifles that use a long, Mauser type extractor.
A number of popular bolt action rifles chambered for one or more potential dangerous game cartridges use push feed actions. These include the Blaser R8 and R93, Browning A-Bolt and X-Bolt, Cooper Model 56, E.R. Shaw Mk. VII, Howa, Mauser M 12, Mossberg Patriot, Nosler Model 48, Remington Model 700, Sako Model 75 and 85, Sauer 100/101 and S404, Savage 110/116, Steyr Mannlicher SM12 and CL II, Tikka T3, Weatherby Mark V and Vanguard.
Several of these manufacturers offer special safari or African models intended for hunting dangerous game. There is no functional difference, but safari model rifles are usually supplied with iron sights and the front sling swivel may be mounted on a barrel band, rather than the forend. The reason is to prevent the swivel bruising the hand under extreme recoil. In addition, the stock may have supporting cross-bolts under the action, again to counter extreme recoil. Since we are avoiding the most extreme cartridges for our first dangerous game rifle, this should not be a problem.
Controlled feed actions chambered for one or more potential dangerous game cartridges include the CZ 550, Dakota Models 76 and 96, Husqvarna HVA, Kimber Model 8400, Mannlicher-Schoenauer, Mauser M 98, Ruger M77 Mark II and Hawkeye, and Winchester Model 70 (except the discontinued post-'64 push feed models). Most of these outfits offer safari or African models specifically for dangerous game hunting. Controlled feed actions are generally preferred by traditionalists and most African professional hunters, with the CZ 550 (Bruno), Mauser 98 and Winchester Model 70 actions probably being the most popular choices.
Rifles chambered for the most powerful cartridges on our list should be heavy to help control their heavy recoil. For example, the Weatherby Mark V DGR weighs 8.75 to 9.0 pounds out of the box, which means about 10.5 to 10.75 pounds in the field with a scope, sling and fully loaded. This tends to make them one trick ponies, in the same way bench rest rifles and heavy varmint rifles lack versatility. They do what they were designed to do very well and not much else.
Medium bore DGRs in more moderate calibers, such as 9.3x62mm and .338 Win. Magnum, can be chambered in 9.0 to 9.5 pound rifles (field weight), making them more versatile. They can also serve usefully as red stag, elk, moose and general Class 3 game rifles without being too much of a burden, an important consideration for many big game hunters. Reviews of many of the rifles mentioned in this article can be found on the Rifle Information - Reviews and Product Reviews index pages.
Express sights (a very shallow "V" rear sight and a large bead front sight) are a traditional type of open iron sights for hunting dangerous game at short range (typically less than 50 yards). Express sights are usually supplied on double rifles, as well as on some bolt action safari rifles.
This is a reasonably fast, but not particularly accurate, sighting system. The rationale for express sights is that, in a very short range emergency, express sights on a double rifle can be ignored and the rifle simply pointed like a shotgun. Express sights are probably best left to double rifles and shooters with excellent eyesight and a lot of practice using them.
Conventional open sights use a smaller, narrower "V," "U," or square notch combined with a ramp mounted bead or post front sight. These are more precise than express sights, although slower to align. Open sights used to be supplied on virtually all factory made rifles, although they are often omitted today, since the manufacturers know the great majority of customers will mount optical sights on their hunting rifles.
These are the slowest type of sights to align on the target and precise use requires excellent eyesight and excellent accommodation, as the aiming eye must be able to rapidly focus sequentially on the rear sight, front sight and target. Eyeglass wearers and older shooters simply cannot do this very well.
Aperture sights, also called peep sights and ghost ring sights, are easier to use and more accurate than any type of open sights. They allow accurate shot placement at 150 yards (or more) if the shooter knows what he or she is doing and has good eyesight. Less eye accommodation is required, as the shooter must focus only on the front sight and the target. Unfortunately, not many shooters these days are skilled in the use of aperture sights, or for that matter any type of iron sights.
Simply stated, optical sights are the fastest and most accurate type of sights for the vast majority of shooters. A low power telescopic sight is the best sighting choice for use on a magazine fed DGR.
A 2x or 2.5x fixed power scope will work nicely. More popular today are low magnification variable power scopes and several scope manufacturers offer special safari or dangerous game models. Look for minimum magnification in the 1x to 2x range and maximum magnification in the 3x to 6x range.
A lower maximum magnification is safer, as it allows a wider field of view for faster target acquisition should you be surprised with your scope set at its maximum magnification. Always carry your rifle in the field with the scope set at low power. Turn it up only when taking a long shot and remember to turn the magnification down immediately after shooting.
Most dangerous game scopes have straight 25mm or 30mm diameter main tubes without a front bell. The front objective lens is usually 20mm to 25mm diameter, all that is needed for a low power scope. This allows low scope mounting to put the line of sight close to the centerline of the bore and a compact, low mounted scope has less negative affect on the rifle's balance.
Simple reticles, such as the Duplex or German #4 are best and they often come with an optional illuminated center dot for use in dim light. Avoid distracting, complicated and "ballistic" reticles (KISS). See the article Compared: Dangerous Game Riflescopes from Zeiss, Weaver, Leupold and Nikon for further details and a comparison of some typical dangerous game scopes.
For most of us a good, reasonably affordable, first dangerous game rifle of which we can be proud is probably a bolt action "safari" model. If you also want to use your DGR for general Class 3 game hunting it should be chambered for one of the more moderate medium bore calibers; 9.3x62mm and .338 Win. Mag. being the standouts. A low power riflescope will provide fast, accurate target acquisition and usefully increase your rifle's versatility.
Copyright 2017 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.