Rifles for Dangerous Game
By Chuck Hawks
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 not only kill the animal, but to turn or stop a charge. The best stoppers seem to be medium and big bore rifles firing bullets of good sectional density (SD).
Note that while under special circumstances almost any big game animal can become dangerous to the hunter, the game with which we are concerned in this article are the beasts widely recognized as habitually dangerous to hunt. These are basically the large predators and a few outsized herbivores whose frequent reaction to trouble is to try and run over it or gore and stomp it into the ground. Beyond the purview of this article are animals dangerous when encountered in packs, such as wolves and hyenas, and dangerous non-game animals, such as crocodiles and poisonous snakes.
Naturally, the size and vitality of the animal has a lot to do with the amount of stopping power required, as does the terrain and range at which the hunt is conducted. Dangerous game animals range is size from smaller than the average man to the largest creatures on earth. The game weights quoted here apply to mature males of the species and are based on research done by Edward A. Matunas and published in the Lyman 47th Reloading Handbook.
Clearly a 13,000 pound African elephant requires more stopping power than a 150 pound North American cougar. Therefore, before we discuss rifles and cartridges suitable for hunting dangerous game, let's start by listing the dangerous game animals of the world, the approximate size of the male of the species and the continents where they are hunted.
Africa is the home of the "Big 5" dangerous game animals. These are the elephant, rhino, Cape buffalo, lion and leopard. A very large male African elephant can weigh around 13,000 pounds. This is the largest game animal on earth.
The white rhino averages about 5,000 pounds and a very large specimen can weigh 8,000 pounds. The smaller black rhino averages about 2,100 pounds on the hoof and a very large animal might weigh 2,860 pounds.
The male Cape buffalo will average about 1,000 pounds and a female about 700 pounds. A very large male buff might go 1,600 pounds.
The African lion averages about 330 pounds, but a very large male might weigh 500 pounds. Many experts consider this to be the most dangerous animal in the world.
The African leopard is about the size of the North American cougar, that is to say averaging about 90 pounds (female) to 150 pounds (male), with very large examples weighing 225-250 pounds. Unlike the cougar, however, the leopard has earned the respect of even the most experienced dangerous game hunters and leopards have killed large numbers of human beings over the years.
Much of the once fruitful big game hunting in the Indian sub-continent and Southeast Asia has been destroyed or dramatically reduced. As I understand it, all big game hunting has been outlawed in India. This is not the because of sport hunting, but due to factors beyond the control of trophy hunters. It is human overpopulation, habitat destruction, poaching and war that have decimated Asian big game populations.
Red China is the most populous country in the world. India is the second most populous country and before long it may replace China as the most populous. Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world and the population there is climbing steadily. Thus, three of the four most populated countries of the world directly impact Asian hunting and none of them are known for their ecological awareness. Game is often viewed as a menace to domestic livestock, rather than a precious resource in its own right.
Once viable populations of big Asian predators, including tiger, lion, leopard and sloth bear (about the size of a North American black bear) have been exterminated or are threatened. The wild populations of large bovines, such as guar, yak and water buffalo have almost vanished; what remains is mostly domesticated livestock.
To the best of my knowledge, the premier dangerous game animal "down under" is the wild Asian water buffalo. This is a very large bovine with long horns that lives, and is hunted, in the tropical (northern) part of Australia. I have never hunted in Australia, but a friend who has shot water buffalo there (as well a lot of African Cape buffalo) tells me that they are less aggressive than Cape buffalo, although larger. Probably the same calibers used to take North American bison would be appropriate for water buffalo in Australia.
Europe, Greenland, and the Arctic
There are species of European black and brown bears still living in parts of Northern Europe. Above the Arctic Circle, fearsome polar bears still roam desolate places like Spitzbergen Island and Greenland. Any bear is potentially dangerous and polar bears are both huge and particularly aggressive. A fully grown male polar bear weighs about 900 pounds and very large examples can run from 1,100 to 1,550 pounds.
Another beast that can potentially cause the hunter harm is the wild European (Russian) boar. Some of these prehistoric-looking beasts grow to prodigious size and have personalities that are definitely unfriendly to anyone who tries to do them harm. Wild boar can average about 200 pounds in weight and very large individuals can attain weights of 350-450 pounds or more. They are widely scattered across parts of Europe.
Bison, the great bears (grizzly, brown, polar), plus black bear and cougar make up the potentially dangerous game of North America. Brown and polar bears are the largest predators on earth and must be taken very seriously. Grizzly bears, although the same species, are usually smaller than their brown bear brothers. A typical full grown male grizzly might average 700 pounds, while the giant browns of Kodiak Island can run 1,000 to 1,600 pounds.
Bison have made a big comeback and there are now huntable populations in several states. In fact, the herds must be culled or they will overgraze their range. The North American bison ("buffalo") is among the largest of the world's bovines. Fully grown males average about 1,600 pounds and females run around 900 pounds on the hoof. The largest examples can run 2,000-3,000 pounds!
These giant bovines kill and injure people every year, particularly in National Parks, where unarmed humans unwisely try to approach the great beasts. In such places they are more dangerous than grizzly bears. Buffalo were once slaughtered for their hides, much as African elephants were (and sometimes still are) slaughtered for their ivory, but that should not make the sport hunter seeking either species complacent!
By far the most common, and least dangerous, of the large North American predators are the black bear and the cougar. Black bear are found across most of the continent. Males average about 300 pounds and probably weigh no more than 150 pounds in some areas. On the other hand, very large black bears can weigh from 500 pounds up to as much as 650 pounds. Although normally shy and retiring, if aroused they have the potential to kill a human with one blow of a paw. If hunted with a pack of hounds and shot when treed, which is still legal in many areas, black bear hunting is not a dangerous pursuit. However, stalking a bear on the ground, one on one, can be a different proposition.
Cougar (also called puma, mountain lion and panther in various parts of North America) average about 150 pounds and even very large males seldom exceed 225-250 pounds. Cougar are usually even more shy and retiring than black bear, although, like any big cat, they have the potential to be very dangerous. In years past they were almost always hunted with hounds and shot when treed and helpless. This may be a form of "sport," but it hardly constitutes fair chase and there is very little danger to the hunter.
However, some states have unwisely granted cougars "protected" status, which is a bad idea. It is unwise to allow large predators to lose their fear of man. In many other jurisdictions they must now be hunted by fair chase methods, like mountain sheep, elk and other valuable big game animals, a change I regard as reasonable. This is vastly more difficult than using dogs. As a result, cougar populations have increased and cougar encounters are becoming more common.
The Jaguar is the premier dangerous game of South America. This is a large jungle cat, between the leopard and tiger in size. They are aggressive and can be extremely dangerous. Adult males average about 200 pounds and very large males can run 250 to as much as 310 pounds. At one time natives challenged these great cats with specially designed spears, much as some African natives challenged lions to prove their manhood. Unfortunately, jaguar populations have decreased, mostly due to loss of habitat and native poaching, and they are now protected in most jurisdictions.
Rifles for dangerous game
Rifles for all of the animals listed above must be adequately powerful and very reliable. The contemporary favorite choice, world-wide, is the bolt action repeating rifle. The traditional choice is the double rifle, still a viable option for those who can afford one. Hunters with a great deal of self-confidence might choose a classic single shot rifle. These three types are chambered for cartridges suitable for hunting even the largest dangerous game (elephant and rhino). Other types, including lever guns and autoloaders, are suitable for more limited applications.
Bolt action rifles are simple, reliable (if properly designed) and very strong. They can be adapted to very powerful cartridges and are easy to equip with a telescopic sight. They give the hunter three or more shots without reloading. Many companies, large and small, build bolt action rifles and most offer "Safari Grade" models, so there are a lot of choices.
On the minus side of the ledger, bolts are the slowest of all common repeating actions to operate for quick follow-up shots and oversize cartridges require an oversize action. For more about suitable bolt action rifles, see my article "Bolt Action Rifles for Dangerous Game" on the Rifle Information page.
In Europe and Africa, double barreled rifles are still fairly common. They probably handle faster than any other type, except the single shot, and provide two shots faster than any other type. They can be chambered for very large cartridges. Doubles can be adapted to telescopic sights, but usually are not. Their drawbacks are mediocre accuracy, limited capacity and great expense. It is principally this latter fact that has brought about their decline; very few hunters today can afford to purchase a new double rifle.
Single shot rifles of break-open or falling block type can be (and are) chambered for extremely powerful cartridges. Because they lack the long action of repeating rifles, they handle very nicely and they are easily adapted to telescopic sights. A fine example of such a rifle is the Ruger No. 1-H Tropical Rifle, which is available in several safari calibers up to .458 Lott. Like the double, the single shot can handle cartridges of practically any length. Unlike the double, however, there is no follow-up shot available without reloading. As much as I like hunting with a single shot rifle, for me, this would disqualify the type from consideration as a serious dangerous game rifle.
Modern lever action rifles offer faster repeat shots than bolt actions, they are more accurate than doubles, easy to scope and reliable. Lever action rifles are chambered for some powerful cartridges, but not as powerful as those adapted to bolt, double and single shot rifles. For this reason, I would exclude lever action rifles from consideration for hunting elephant, rhino and Cape buffalo.
When it comes to hunting other dangerous game, three lever action rifles stand out. They are the (new model) Marlin 1895 (.45-70 and .450 Marlin), Henry .45-70 and Browning BLR (.300 Win. Mag. and .450 Marlin). In such calibers, these lever actions are adequately powerful for all of the world's large predators within the range limitation of their cartridges. In the two .45 caliber cartridges, with appropriate loads, they should be satisfactory for most of the world's bovines.
Autoloading rifles are the fastest of all repeaters for second and subsequent shots. They are easy to scope. Gas operation definitely reduces the effects of recoil, an important consideration given the powerful cartridges recommended for hunting dangerous game. The best examples are almost as reliable as the better manually operated actions. If properly cared for, reliability should not be a problem. They can also be very accurate, roughly on a par with bolt action and single shot rifles for big game hunting purposes.
The biggest problem with autoloaders is that, with one popular exception, they are not chambered for the sort of powerful magnum cartridges generally regarded as the best medicine for dangerous game. The exception is the Browning BAR Mk. II Safari, which can be had in .300 Winchester Magnum and .338 Winchester Magnum. This makes the BAR Safari a viable choice for hunting any of the world's great predators. In .338 Magnum caliber it is also suitable for all of the world's bovines (where legal). A .338 Win. Mag. BAR may be the best of all possible worlds for stopping an angry predator.
Cartridges for dangerous game
Let me state at the outset that there are more dangerous game cartridges in the world than I wish to remember and any number of wildcats and marginal numbers that have their fans, as well. Thus, the cartridges that I name in this section are just examples of reasonably well known cartridges that have proven effective for the applications addressed below.
For hunting large, thick-skinned game, particularly the various bovines, experts usually recommend calibers starting at the 9.3x62mm and 9.3x74R in power and bullet diameter and go up from there, with the .375 H&H Magnum perhaps the most popular cartridge of all. Even more highly regarded for elephant, rhino and hippo are the big bore cartridges between .40 to .50 caliber, such as the .404 Jeffery, the various .416's, .450 Nitro Express, .458 Winchester Magnum, .458 Lott, .460 Weatherby Magnum, .470 Nitro Express and .500 Nitro Express.
North American bison have historically been taken with relatively low velocity, big bore cartridges. Today, the .405 Winchester, .45-70 and .450 Marlin are reasonable big bore choices for which factory loaded ammunition is available from the major North American ammo producers. These are available in modern single shot and repeating rifles.
For hunting the largest and most dangerous predators, including lion, tiger and the great bears, powerful medium bore calibers are usually recommended. The ultra-powerful elephant cartridges will surely do the job, but are not required. More reasonable choices are cartridges such as the .338 Magnums, .350 Remington Magnum, .358 Norma Magnum, 9.3x62mm, 9.3x64mm, 9.3x74R and the various .375 Magnums. The North American big bore "buffalo" cartridges are also suitable choices within their effective range. These include the .405 Winchester, .45-70 and .450 Marlin.
For the smaller bears, such as the European bruins and the North American black bear, the big cats ranging in size from cougar to jaguar and Russian boar, any of the powerful medium and large bore cartridges mentioned in the paragraph immediately above are more than adequate. However, because these are generally smaller animals, the list of appropriate calibers can be expanded. Standard calibers, including standbys such as the .308 Winchester, .30-06, 8x57, .358 Winchester and .444 Marlin have proven deadly on this class of game. The 7mm, .300, and 8mm belted magnums are even better. All will suffice if the rifleman places his bullet properly.
I would like to conclude this little piece with brief comments on the importance of bullet placement. As I have written in many articles, bullet placement is the crucial factor in killing power. You cannot miss fast enough to turn a charge, regardless of the power of your rifle.
Any reasonably adequate cartridge will suffice for even the largest game if the shooter can put the bullet into an immediately vital spot. This is why, in the early years of the 20th Century, a 7x57 (.275 Rigby) rifle in the hands of W.D.M. Bell proved an efficient elephant slayer and why the 6.5x55mm was used with deadly effect against polar bears by hardy Scandinavian explorers in the Arctic.
The 7x57mm and 6.5x55mm are fine hunting cartridges, to be sure, but they are not generally considered appropriate for dangerous game. Yet, because they were loaded with bullets of excellent sectional density (for deep penetration), and because the men pulling the trigger were able to place those bullets precisely, they got the job done.
These are lessons that no hunter, and particularly no hunter seeking dangerous game, should overlook. Yes, an adequately powerful rifle is requisite for the modern big game hunter. However, even more important is the skill, under field conditions, to place the bullets from that rifle with deadly precision. Good luck and good hunting!
Copyright 2004, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.