Musings on the Elephant Rifle

By David Tong

Ruger M77 Hawkeye Safari Rifle
Ruger M77 Safari Rifle. Illustration courtesy of Sturm, Ruger.

I have enjoyed well over twenty years of shooting the medium and large bore rifles carried by intrepid souls in the African bush over a century ago. I blame most of this on the writings of the late Peter Hathaway Capstick. His first book, Death in the Long Grass did me in. Granted, he was an American and a stockbroker by profession when he discovered he did not want to do that for the rest of his life. He went to Central America for jaguar hunting and later to Africa to hunt the Big Five, where he eventually became a licensed professional hunter (PH).

Later, his monthly articles in Guns & Ammo magazine were comedic expositions of the dangers one faces hunting game that can claw, gore, or stomp you into red Jell-O. For an American, he sure had a British sense of dry humor!

I bought a .375 H&H caliber Remington Safari Grade in 1978. Due to the cost of ammo on a college students income (near nil), I decided to start handloading for the cartridge. I soon discovered why the caliber had been revered for nearly a century. It is supremely accurate with all three standard bullet weights (235 grain, 270 grain and 300 grain) and they shoot to nearly the same point of aim in many rifles.

Reading my old Speer #9 load manual, I settled on 78 to 80 grains of DuPont IMR-4350 powder over a Federal 215 Magnum rifle primer in new Winchester cases for all three bullet weights. Mostly I loaded Hornady bullets, as they were least expensive and shot just as well as anything else.

I took Mojave jackrabbits and squirrels (!) with this rifle. I even took it to a Pennsylvania whitetail deer camp. It was a shooter.

Full length sizing of that long, tapered case without shoulder headspace meant brass lasted maybe four shots before incipient head separation just above the belt would be apparent. I changed to neck sizing and the problem went away, but after firing you still had to trim the cases to the correct overall length.

My next pachyderm rifle was an early Ruger M77 with a Leupold 3x riflescope in .458 Winchester Magnum. My only previous experience shooting a .458 was one round through a Browning Safari Grade FN Mauser about 15 years earlier. Since I was already inured to the .375's recoil, the .458 did not take me by surprise, although it did kick quite a bit more. Still, I was able to keep three (factory) 500 grain JSP bullet holes touching at 75 yards from a bench rest.

The issue with this rifle was feeding. It simply would not feed cartridges reliably from the three shot magazine. The blunt nosed bullets always jammed at some point against the rear of the chamber edge. I quickly sold that rifle. It was a good shooter, but useless for repeat shots.

My final excursion into large bore rifles was Ruger's updated Mark II African, in the mighty .416 Rigby caliber. As some of you know, a belted version of this case was the basis of the .378 Weatherby Magnum cartridge, after Jack O'Connor showed Roy Weatherby a case from his custom .416 rifle. The parent Rigby brass lacked a belt. However, it had a small, but very sharp, 45-degree shoulder that provided adequate headspace control. The bottleneck cartridge shape and the Ruger M77 Mk. II's controlled feeding meant that functioning was flawless.

I purchased one box of factory loaded Federal Premium 400 grain JSP cartridges for the princely sum of $85. I also managed to buy a slew of once-fired .416 brass from a friend and immediately starting learning to reload this caliber.

One of the things that endear me to the large calibers is the relative ease to handload for them. The cases are big (and expensive) and the bullets are big (and expensive). They are easier to handle, inspect and the finished cartridges have a reassuring heft. I find them easier to reload than smaller cartridges.

These large calibers sure consume powder, though! When I thought 80 grains of slow burning powder was a lot, it was sobering to see the .416 use about 100 grains. I typically used Hornady 400 grain bullets, although I also loaded some 350 grain slugs for a tad less recoil.

Recoil she did, too, despite weighing a little more than a pound heavier than the .458; 400 grains at a muzzle velocity of 2,400 fps is no trifling matter! I found the recoil of the .416 to be more onerous than even the .458. It was a sharper and faster shove, right at the limit of what I could stand. Despite shooting that rifle only sporadically, it would rattle my cage.

Of the three, I prefer the .375 H&H. If one wanted to use one rifle all around the world on any kind of game, it offers a good combination of flat trajectory, accuracy, wide bullet selection and load density. It has abundant power for any game that walks.

There has been a significant and continuing decrease in the African elephant population. This is not due to sport hunting; indeed, the very high price of hunting licenses helps to pay for game rangers and conservation efforts.

Part of the problem is human overpopulation and the consequent loss of elephant habitat. However, the major cause of elephant decline is the Chinese ivory trade. This encourages poachers to machine gun these magnificent and intelligent creatures with AK-47s and to murder them with poison arrows. They then saw off the dead animal's tusks and leave the carcass to rot. It is said that over 100,000 African elephants have been killed by poachers in the past 15 years.

I got into shooting elephant rifles because of the romantic lure of their history and the exploits of the men who wielded them in the pre-WWII days of the Colonial Empires. I still love the rifles and their cartridges, but I believe that even if I could afford to legally take an African bull elephant, I would refrain from doing so.

At this point, it is far more important to preserve their habitat, put a stop to poaching and let their numbers stabilize. We humans, who have done so much to destroy both elephants and their habitat, now need to be proper stewards of both.

The greed of the illegal trade in ivory, horn and hides is the cause of much suffering in Africa for the elephant, rhinoceros and the big cats. It is time to put an end to this root cause once and for all.

Visit the Tsavo Trust website ( in Kenya for more information about this depressing subject. They are on the frontline of elephant husbandry and habitat protection efforts.

The Big Life Foundation ( was the first organization in East Africa with coordinated, cross-border, anti-poaching operations. Big life now employs 315 rangers with 15 vehicles at 31 outposts protecting elephants, big cats and other wildlife in the Amboseli-Tsavo eco system from poisoning and poaching.

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