Russ Gould

Much has been written about this topic and unfortunately much of it is baloney. Some of it was good when it was written but bullet technology has changed dramatically in the last five years or so, so even that belongs in the trash.

Before getting into types and brands, we can make some general observations. The first and main observation is that most African hunting today is for plains game, not the Big Five. For every hunter that takes one of the Big Five, I would guess that there are twenty whose pocket books or level of experience limits their quarry to common species. From smallest to largest, these are the Steenbok, Grey Duiker, Springbok, Impala, Warthog, Blesbok, Kudu, Hartebeest, Oryx, Kudu, Blue Wildebeest, Zebra and Eland. Of these, the Blue Wildebeest, while not the biggest, is probably the hardest to kill. Many landowners insist on the use of a 375H&H on these beasts, and they have a reputation for absorbing lead without succumbing to it. The Eland is thought by some to be hard to kill because of its massive size (up to 2000 lbs) but in my experience they go down easily if hit in the vitals, like Moose. I would put the Zebra ahead of the Eland in terms of tenacity of life. For the minority that do hunt dangerous game, the Cape Buffalo accounts for most of the action, with a small but growing number of Elephant being taken as well. Rhino are not worth mentioning, as only a handful are taken each year. The same applies to cats, Lions because of their rarity, Leopard because of their cunning. So when we talk about African game, there are three classes: plains game up to Kudu accounting for the majority of game taken; Eland/Zebra/Blue Wildebeest accounting for a good portion; and as a special case, not because of the number taken but because of the number of hunters gored and/or stomped, Buffalo.

Let’s mention terrain. Most hunting in Africa is done in the “bushveld”, ie Acacia or Mopane forest. Visibility is limited to 50 yards for the most part, with 100 plus yard shots being the exception. Even in relatively dry Namibia and Botswana, most of the hunting areas are covered with fairly dense thorn scrub and shots are not that long. Exceptions might be Oryx in the very dry dune deserts; and Kudu when hunted in rocky areas with ridges and valley. Even there, a hunter can be successful if he limits his shots to 200 yards. It’s not necessary to take 300 and 400 yard shots even in this terrain. And Buffalo are inevitably hunted in close cover, be it Jesse or reeds. So a lot of bullet savvy that has been accumulated in the American West and Alaska is flat out not applicable.

Then there’s the law. Most countries have some kind of law regarding calibers that are legal for hunting, or for hunting certain species. You should follow the rules even though some hunters don’t and most of the time they get away with it. You don’t want to see your guns confiscated or worse while on the hunt of a lifetime. This table summarizes those that one will encounter most often:

Now down to the theories on bullets and calibers. There are three main theories today: the first, espoused by a lot of experienced Africa hands, is that a medium caliber loaded with a slow, heavy bullet is best. The slow/heavy crowd cringe when a hunter pulls a Weatherby from its case, and almost pass out if that turns out to be a 30-378. Their darlings are the 9.3x62 Mauser and the 6.5x55. In their view, a 30-06 is a high velocity round. The theory says the long heavy bullet is at modest velocity is less likely to blow up and will pass right through the animal, leaving a good blood trail. And if it’s a solid, even a 264 caliber solid, it will kill elephant! (Which “Karamojo” Bell proved over and over again). The second theory says you need a 375 H&H or heavier for all your African hunting, and it should be loaded with the toughest bullets made. This “he-man” school says bring two rifles, a 375 for your light rifle, and a 460 Weatherby or a 470NE double for your serious work. Those African beasts have cast iron vitals, and you need a howitzer to put them down! This school espouses the use of solids on small antelope as well as Buffalo and Elephant. This theory developed in the early days when soft bullets were unreliable and not to be trusted. If these hunters use a soft, it had better be a Trophy Bonded Bear Claw or a Combined Technology Gold bullet, nothing less will do. This theory made the 375 H&H the legend that it is today, even though early softnose ammunition in this caliber proved to be very ineffective due to bullet failure. The final theory, popular with visiting hunters, is that you need a high velocity 30 caliber or 338 magnum loaded with modern tough bullets for plains game, with the Barnes X being one of the favorites of this crowd. These guys have hunted Alaska and Colorado, and they have seen what this combination does to Elk, Caribou and Moose, and they believe in Roy Weatherby (and Mr. Short, more recently).

I say all these theories are generally wrong and only right in specific circumstances. Like management theories, each has its merit but is not universally applicable. For example, the “slow heavy bullet” camp is based on the myth that these bullets buck brush better than most, and that these bullets kill faster because they make two holes from which the animal’s lifeblood can leak. As one who has tried this theory, I can point to two flaws: first, a lot of really honest empirical work has shown that all bullets are badly deflected by limbs and brush, and the only conclusion one can really draw from this work is to hold one’s fire if there is any kind of brush between the muzzle and the target. There is plenty of plains game in Africa, one doesn’t have to shoot the first trophy one sees. And if one waits five minutes, provided the wind is good, a clear shot will in most cases be offered. The second flaw is that this theory only works with old-fashioned soft bullets. Loaded with a highly engineered modern bullet, these slow calibers shoot softs like solids…they pass right through the animal, sometimes from stem to stern, and while they do exit, there is very little bleeding at all. I have spent many hours on my hands and knees looking for blood from animals that were shot with a 375 JDJ rifle using bullets that were supposed to expand but did not. When recovered, these animals showed no meat damage to speak of, just surgical holes. Even when heart shot, these animals ran a good distance before going down. In one case, a Blue Wildebeest took a 235 gr Speer 375 caliber bullet at point blank range frontally. Lung tissue was found, as well as pieces of intestine some 500 yards later, pointing to the bullet exiting the flank. But the animal was never found, despite being enclosed in a high-fenced ranch of modest size, and is thought to have recovered. Apart from the first 50 yards, where lung tissue was found along with bright lung blood, there was virtually no sign. A fleeting visual sighting confirmed the lung hit. The piece of intestine was found on the tracks on day 2, and was probably bitten off while protruding from the exit wound. Note, this is NOT a super tough bullet, in fact it has a reputation for blowing up at 2600-2750 fps (H&H velocities). But at 2250 fps, it acts like a solid unless a large bone is hit. Nor is it a long-for-caliber bullet, but despite that the penetration was phenomenal. So by all means hunt in the bushveld with a 9.3x62, or a 35 Whelen for that matter, but please, use old-fashioned softs without bonded cores, partitions, solid copper shanks, or other advanced design features. And when using these bullets, avoid the heavy bones in the Eland/Zebra/BWB class game. You can shoot Buffalo with this recipe, and they will die if you reach the vitals, but they will also get really really mad if you hit their shoulder joints in which case you had better have someone from another school with you as backup, and that person had better be good at taking snap shots because that’s what it will take to end the fight. And don’t try to emulate Bell, he was a superb shot who had the nerve to get really really close and the skill to thread a bullet into the brain from any angle. In that case, he wanted a solid that would penetrate (the 6.5 bullets he used were steel jacketed), but he wasn’t using this formula on heart/lung shots. A small hole in the brain works. A small hole through the chest doesn’t work nearly as well.

Now for the “he-man” theory. There is a very big flaw in this theory. Not all hunters, even big ones, can handle the recoil of the heavy calibers. And a buffalo shot in the gut with a 470NE may as well have been shot with a 22lr. It’s not going to die anytime soon…and that’s critical because it will live long enough to have a good go at you and your PH. To handle a rifle shooting a 250grain or heavier bullet at velocities exceeding 2250 fps, one needs to practice a lot, and to keep practicing. Almost none of the trophy hunters going to Africa can do this, and thus most of us can’t handle a big rifle. The 375 H&H is affectionately called the “Ouch and Ouch” in Africa, and it’s pretty tame compared to any of the 416s! Now, if you are up to the task, there’s nothing wrong with the extra insurance, but realistically you only need a big rifle for Buffalo. You can’t tell, from the picture or from the mounted trophy, that you didn’t shoot it with a real he-man rifle. So it it’s important to you to impress your colleagues with the size of the hole in your barrel, tell them you shot it with your 500NE (and pose with it if you like), but do your plains game shooting with a 7mm (any of them) or a 30-06. There will be more left to eat. You‘ll find that an occasional shot with the big stick will make the recoil of the moderate calibers seem insignificant…this being the best argument for owning such a rifle, for most of us. It’s a training aid!

Now let’s deal with the magnum crowd. The problem with magnums is you had better use the best bullet you can buy, otherwise you will find that the bullet will make a nasty superficial wound without mortally wounding the animal. Use a Barnes or an A-frame, please. However, why suffer that kind of muzzle-blast unnecessarily? My comments about flinching apply equally to loud rifles. They are harder to shoot well because your brain tells your eyes to shut before the trigger breaks; and even if your eye is open when the trigger breaks, you can’t observe your target because your senses are in tilt mode for seconds after the shot, nor can you make a quick follow-up shot if necessary. (Even if it proves to be unnecessary, it’s a good idea to keep shooting if presented with the opportunity).

So in conclusion, here is what I think. I am going to disappoint you. There is no one answer. But whichever answer works for you, make sure you pick the right bullet to match the velocity at the distance at which game is likely to be taken, and don‘t take shots outside the sweet spot of the bullet. There is also no one brand or caliber or weight or style of bullet that works perfectly. But there is an appropriate bullet for each caliber and class of game. Go ahead and shoot a magnum if you like…but make sure the bullet will hold together at 50 yards when hitting bone and muscle. Go ahead and shoot a 416 with solids or Barnes X bullets if you like, but make sure you can handle it. Go ahead and shoot a 35 Whelen or a 35 Remington, but please don’t use Trophy Bonded Bear Claws in that one. Remington PSPs or even Winchester Silvertips are a better choice. Hell, if you like the 250 Savage and can shoot well with it, load it with 100 grain Partitions or Accubonds. (I do, and I have successfully taken “tough” Blue Wildebeest with a single shot with it. Why not 117 or 120 grainers?….the twist on most 250‘s won‘t stabilize that bullet, but a 257 Roberts will!).

There are just two rules that are universal, when thinking about loads and cartridges for Africa. First, if you only take one gun, and that’s really the most practical way to go, it and your bullet must be up to the biggest quarry you plan to hunt. For most of us, that means a 308 or 30-06 loaded with 180 or 220 grain bonded bullets, eg Sciroccos, Accubonds, or Interbonds. For the buffalo hunters, take a 375H&H with the toughest pills you can get…Bear Claws, Barnes, or A Frames (see this article for some field comparisons of the performance of these different "tough" softs. (You can take two loads, but that’s tricky to manage in the field, but your tough bullet that will work on the biggest quarry will probably also work on the little ones, even if it does not expand at all. Just make sure, in those cases, that you puncture both lungs.) That’s also a good reason NOT to hunt Buffalo and plains game on the same hunt, apart from the fact that your Buff hunt will naturally overshadow any other hunting. Second, and most important of all, please remember that where you shoot the animal is much more important than what you shoot it with! Buffalo have been taken with the Hornet, and many, many have been wounded by poor hits from a 458. Kinetic energy is not a substitute for bullet placement. Before taking the shot, all three conditions must be green: a clear shot at the vitals; a steady stance or rest; and not too far. I wish I could come up with a nifty acronym for that…the best I can do is CSC…Clear, Steady, Close. Remember that and you will avoid a lot of pain and suffering…on both your’s and the animal’s part.