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Handloading the Biggest Cartridges

by Lane Pearce   |  February 8th, 2011 0

“You’re crazy!” exclaimed my friend David Emary at Hornady Manufacturing. I’d called from the range to say thanks for loading their .470 Nitro Express factory Dangerous Game Series ammo conservatively. I’d just finished shooting a three-shot group and needed to recover a bit before firing yet another string of test loads for record.


It may require twice as long to “unload” the safari cartridges that take you a couple of hours to assemble at the loading bench.

“You’re crazy!” exclaimed my friend David Emary at Hornady Manufacturing. I’d called from the range to say thanks for loading their .470 Nitro Express factory Dangerous Game Series ammo conservatively. I’d just finished shooting a three-shot group and needed to recover a bit before firing yet another string of test loads for record.

“Well, I can’t recall anyone else writing a column about reloading African game cartridges, so I decided to,” I told him.

“Like I said, you must be crazy to do something like that,” said Emary.

“It’s not so bad if you mix it up. I’m shooting five-shot groups of .375 Ruger handloads between each .470 group to give my shoulder a break. (No pun was intended–seriously.) I’m waiting on a Trijicon AccuPoint scope before I begin testing my .416 Rigby handloads.”

He closed the conversation with saying once again, “…you’re crazy!” and I returned to shooting another group.

The chronograph recorded an average velocity for the 500-grain Hornady Dangerous Game Solids at just over 2,000 fps. Some old Federal .470 NE factory solids achieved their advertised velocity (2,150 fps) with a little margin to spare. At another session, handloads comprised of 500-grain Nosler Solids or Barnes TSXs atop 110 grains of IMR-7828 SSC registered a few fps faster than the Federal ammo.

That’s a lot of killing power in anybody’s book.

If you believe my wife’s adamant proclamation, I’ll never get to hunt Africa. She barely tolerates my shooting and handloading endeavors and almost objected to me going to northern Alaska to hunt caribou a few years ago. But she definitely draws the line at any suggestion that I go to Africa.

Even so, over the years we’ve been married, I’ve acquired several rifles suitable for the occasion. How many other fellows in north Alabama have .470-, .416-, and .375-caliber rifles and ammo ready to hunt eland and kudu in Namibia, Cape buffalo in Zimbabwe’s Zambezi Valley, lion and zebra on the Serengeti, or elephant in Botswana?


The author used Ruger rifles for test-firing his safari-cartridge handloads. His .375 Ruger Hawkeye African (Top Left) has an aftermarket Hogue stock. His MKII Magnum in .416 Rigby (Middle) is topped with a Trijicon AccuPoint scope. And his No. 1 in .470 NE (Bottom Right) is a custom job by Hamilton Bowen.

Maybe one day.

As I’ve related in other columns, I reload more than 80 cartridges, ranging from the .204 Ruger to the .500 S&W. For this report, I used a Ruger No. 1 Tropical model converted by Hamilton Bowen from .458 Winchester Magnum to .470 NE, a Ruger Mark II Magnum .416 Rigby, and a .375 Ruger Hawkeye African model.

The iron-sighted Ruger single shot weighs about 9 pounds, and unfortunately, the custom-fitted Pachmayr Decelerator pad only attempts to attenuate the rifle’s violent recoil. The Mark II bolt action weighs in at 10.5 pounds, including the Trijicon TR24 1-4X scope. The thin rubber factory buttplate also contributes little to tame this rifle’s kick. In contrast, the .375 Ruger Hawkeye is, relatively speaking, a pussycat. I refitted it with a pea green Hogue overmolded stock with pillar bedding and a wonderfully thick/relatively soft recoil pad. I can shoot about 40 or so rounds in one session without risking a severe case of “flinchitis.”

Why do I have these rifles if I’m not going to ever hunt with them?

Basically, it comes down to this: I simply enjoy shooting nice rifles chambered in other than run-of-the-mill cartridges that I handload. Besides, you don’t need a lot of components to feed these rifles as many rounds as you may care to shoot.


The “old fashioned” way of trimming .470 NE brass is with a file and an RCBS trim die.

.375 Ruger
The difference between reloading the .22-250 or the .30-06 and the .375 Ruger is minimal. You still have to lube and size the fired brass and trim to length, if necessary. Of course, there are fewer bullets to choose from, and they’re quite a bit more expensive. You typically load up to twice as much propellant and always use Large Rifle Magnum instead of standard Large Rifle primers. Magnum rifle cartridge boxes will readily accommodate storing your handloads. The Hawkeye’s magazine capacity is only three rounds versus four or five, but you’ll soon acknowledge it’s quite acceptable to shoot three-shot groups with this rifle.

The Ruger African model came from the factory with a nicely figured, walnut stock. I fired 128 rounds when I reviewed the rifle for ST several years ago. It was almost too painful to shoot, and I barely survived three shooting sessions. Several months after I’d had time to recover, I obtained a Hogue stock like the one that comes on the Ruger Alaskan model. Now the factory stock permanently resides in the Hogue packaging, and the refitted rifle kicks no more than my lightweight .300 WSM Kimber Montana.

.416 Rigby
Loading the .416 Rigby is similar to the .375, but scaled up a bit. Bullet selection is just as sparse, and typical propellant charges hover around 100 grains. That means you’ll only get 60 to 70 loads from that $30 pound of powder. Typical bullets weigh 350 or 400 grains, so the component cost for each round can run up to $3 or more.

My Ruger MKII Magnum is topped with a Trijicon TR24 1-4X scope with a green illuminated AccuPoint on a post. I was able to shoot several groups that measured well under 2 inches, but due to the cumulative recoil effect, often just one round increased the group size by half. This rifle/cartridge combo is about my limit for shooting on the bench, so
I only shot three or four, five-shot groups during each range session.

.470 Nitro Express
I initially loaded a few .470 NE reduced loads using Accurate Arms .50-140 Sharps recipes as a go-by. Fifty to 55 grains of XMR 5744 and a 425-grain LBT cast or 400-grain Speer Gold Dot softpoint bullet essentially duplicates the buffalo cartridge ballistics. Both loads are relatively pleasant to shoot; however, four or five, five-shot groups of each is my limit.

Using load data from Nosler, Hornady, and A-Square, I assembled several full-power .470 NE handloads. The accompanying chart on page 28 reflects the results of two or three, three-shot groups with the best of these. I shot the .470 at 50 yards so I could readily align the No. 1′s open sights with the target. If I did my part, the rifle performed quite satisfactorily, and groups stayed under 2 inches.

Later, another industry friend and I were discussing my project, and he related that his experience suggested the larger the caliber, the better the ballistic performance, e.g., lower velocity variations, which can mean optimum accuracy. He chuckled and added, “However, the shooter doesn’t often realize this advantage because the extraordinary recoil quickly interferes with his concentration, which typically adversely affects the resulting group size.”

You may have noticed that the number of handloads listed in the chart is about inversely proportional to the caliber. The reason is obvious if you note the corresponding muzzle energy and recoil values. There’s just so much joy shooting these big bores that even I can handle. Of course, none of my Alabama good ol’ boy shooting buddies offered to help.

Hey, look on the bright side. The increased recoil and cost per round will curtail the number of rounds you’ll need to shoot to satisfy any potential big-bore shooting itch, right? Especially for the .470 NE. It will take much longer to shoot your handloads than it takes to load them.

I guess I don’t really expect to ever go on safari in Africa, but I can still dream about it when I’m loading and shooting these big-bore cartridges.


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