Hardcore Hardware: Choosing A Dangerous-Game Rifle
September 23, 2010
Asking and answering these four critical questions will help you make the right choice.
Few subjects are as frequently argued in African hunting circles as what constitutes the perfect dangerous-game rifle. I never cease to be amazed at the vehemence with which those opinions are damned or praised, despite the fact that, many times, the person pontificating has little, if any, experience with dangerous game.
I spend 30 to 60 days hunting in Africa each year. I've taken the Big Five and come out on the winning side of charges from leopard and elephant. But I am no expert on dangerous-game rifles. However, despite my wife's protestations to the contrary, I am a darn good listener, and I make it a point to pay attention when the professional hunters I know start talking guns. After all, they see more dangerous game hit the ground in a single year than even the most experienced among us will take in a lifetime.
Over the years, I've combined the knowledge gleaned from those PHs' experiences and my own to form some pretty definite opinions on dangerous-game rifles.
Professional hunters have a wealth of valuable experience, but their needs are vastly different than yours and mine. Our job is to make a clean kill on an animal that is probably standing still at well under 100 yards. The PH's job is to stop that animal when things go south. The shot they'll take and the equipment they need to pull it off are a lot different than ours.
This Searcy sidelock in .470 NE belongs to professional hunter Johan Calitz. Johan prefers double rifles and iron sights, but he believes most safari hunters are better off with scoped bolt-action rifles.
Regardless of what type of rifle you choose and what brand of ammunition you stoke it with, dangerous-game rifles share some common traits. Chief among them are sufficient power to get the job done, reasonable accuracy, and unfailing reliability. Your dangerous game gun must also be an easy-carrying, fast-handling piece that fits you like a glove and comes to the shoulder smooth and easy when the you-know-what hits the fan. Those requirements are fairly specific, but they're broad enough to allow a great deal of latitude in the selection process.
1. Double Gun Or Bolt Action?
Deciding on a rifle type is the first step in picking a dangerous-game rifle. Nothing beats a double for romance and nostalgia, but a decent double rifle can easily surpass the price of a nice new truck. Truthfully, unless you are committed to practicing with them enough to become proficient and plan to do a great deal of elephant and buffalo hunting, doubles are best left to collectors and professional hunters. But if you can afford one and have good enough vision to shoot it well, the double is tough to beat for walking up elephants in the thick jess or rooting old dugga boys out of the thick, brush-choked hidey holes in which they like to pass their golden years.
For those of us who can't afford a double or see well enough to use one, a scoped magazine rifle is the obvious choice. Bolt actions are affordable, powerful, reliable, and easily scoped, making them ideally suited to the types of shots you'll most often encounter on a hunt for any of the Big Five.
When it comes to bolt actions, many old African hands swear by the classic Mauser-type controlled-round feed (CRF) and claw extractor. I must confess that I've never had a push-feed rifle fail to extract, but I do find that beefy claw extractor comforting. Consequently, the majority of my dangerous-game rifles are custom numbers built on Winchester Model 70 actions. Ruger, Kimber, Dakota, Empire Rifle, Remington (in its Model 798 line), and Montana Rifle also offer rifles with CRF actions.
My only nonCRF dangerous-game rifle is a Professional Hunter model from Jarrett Rifles. The super-accurate .416 Remington Magnum is built on Jarrett's proprietary push-feed action that has a Sako-style extractor for insurance. It functions as reliably as any CRF gun, and it is crazy accurate. In fact, it works so well that I took it on elephant hunts in Botswana and Zimbabwe this past season. When a big Botswana bull I was after charged me in thick brush, the rifle performed flawlessly.
Whether you choose a magazine or a double rifle, make sure it fits you. The correct amount of cast-on or cast-off and the right length of pull will ensure your rifle comes to your shoulder easily and that your eye lines up with your scope or sights immediately. Drop will vary depending on whether you use iron sights or a scope. Iron sights require more drop, while a scope will require a higher comb. Some stocks work okay with both, but most require that you use the type of sight for which that stock was designed if you want to maintain a decent cheek-weld and see the target automatically through your scope or sights.
2. The Right Cartridge?
Once you decide on a type and brand of rifle, you must choose a cartridge. In many countries, the .375 H&H is the minimum legal caliber for dangerous game. It and the newer .375 Ruger are excellent choices when loaded with quality bullets because they'll get the job done handily with a minimum of recoil.
The .375s are perfect lion medicine. In fact, I don't think it gets any better for old simba than Holland & Holland's magical medium-bore. It works splendidly on leopards if the law requires it, though I prefer something smaller and faster in the .270 Winchester to .300 Weatherby range for chui.
The .375 also works well on buffalo. In fact, I've shot seven Cape buffalos with the .375 H&H and have never had one run more than 50 yards. I frequently hunt along with clients of my booking agency (Global Adventure Outfitters, www.mbogo.net) and they have fared equally well with it when they hit their bulls properly. I've never taken an elephant with a .375, but many of my clients have, and it worked splendidly when they did their part. Old-time ivory hunters Harry Manners and Wally Johnson dropped hundreds of elephants with their .375s and never had issues with their "underpowered" rifles.
That being said, when it comes to elephant and buffalo, bigger is better--if you can handle the recoil and shoot the big gun well. But you don't have to go over the top with your cartridge selection. Cartridges like the .416 Rem. Mag., .416 Rigby, .404 Jeffery, and .458 Winchester Magnum
will flat-out hammer a buffalo or elephant. They do kick an awful lot, but not so much that a dedicated shooter can't learn to manage them with a bit of practice. In double-rifle cartridges, the .470 Nitro is tough to beat for a manageable stopping rifle, while the .450/400 is a fine, light-recoiling double-rifle cartridge that is hell on buffalo and more than adequate for elephant if you do your part.
Be honest with yourself when selecting your cartridge. Stick with a cartridge you feel comfortable shooting and don't get caught up in the current craze of toting rifles that fire Robusto-sized cartridges to hunt buffalo. Big guns are certainly effective, but an accurate first shot is the best way to stop a charge. Shot placement matters far more than a little extra frontal area or velocity.
The author shot an elephant with a Jarrett Professional Hunter in .416 Rem. Mag. topped with Nikon's African 1.1-4X scope. Both Nosler solids exited, including the insurance shot he fired between the fallen bull's shoulder blades. The solid blew completely through the spine, chest, and sternum before flying off into the brush, exactly the type of bone-crushing penetration you need for elephants.
This 400-grain .416 Sledgehammer solid was recovered in the waddle of an elephant the author harvested. It passed through 40+ inches of elephant skull and muscle before lodging in the fatty area under the elephant's jaw.
3. Optimum Bullet Type?
Whichever cartridge you choose, be sure to use premium-quality bullets designed for the type of game you're hunting. For lion, leopard, and buffalo, that means a tough, controlled-expansion bullet such as a Barnes TSX, Nosler Partition, Federal Trophy Bonded Bear Claw, Swift A-Frame, or Hornady DGX. For elephant and for follow-up shots on buffalo, if your PH recommends a solid, it's tough to beat the Federal Sledgehammer solid, Barnes Banded Solid, Nosler solid, or Hornady DGS.
4. Scope Or Sights?
Your PH's rifle will probably not wear a scope. Don't let that influence your decision. Most professional hunters have a tremendous amount of time behind iron sights and shoot them very well. Their shots are usually hasty and taken at much closer range than yours, too. Plus, their rifle gets beaten up day in and day out in the Land Cruiser--I wouldn't trust my life to a scope that had been subjected to such treatment either. Of course, irons can get knocked off, too, and I know some scopes would survive the season just fine, but irons are sturdier, and you never know if your scope is off until the moment of truth.
It's easy to understand why PHs prefer iron sights, but your job is to make your first shot count. Your first shot will be a little farther than your PH's last-second charge-stopper, and you'll probably have a bit more time to make it count. If you shoot iron sights a lot and shoot them well, they're just fine. But for most hunters, a good, low-powered variable scope with a wide field of view and plenty of eye relief is a better choice for the shots you are most likely to encounter.
Your PH may disagree, but a scope with a 1X or 1.1X low end and a wide field of view is faster and more precise than iron sights because your eyes only have to focus on one plane. Iron sights are slower and tougher to shoot well because they require your eyes to focus on the rear sight, the front sight, and the target at the same time. No one can get a sharp focus on all three, and the older you get, the more difficult achieving any degree of focus with iron sights becomes.
A tough, quality solid is essential. These 400-grain Trophy Bonded Sledgehammers were recovered from three Botswana elephant bulls. Average penetration was over 40 inches. All three were recovered just under the skin after driving through the brain and thick, honeycombed skull.
A good ghost-ring sight is the wild card in the optics versus sights debate. Though not quite as precise as a scope, the eye automatically centers the front sight in the rear sight aperture, which means you only have to worry about sticking the front sight on your target. They offer the speed and situational awareness of iron sights (shooters who close one eye when they aim often get lost in the scope) and a greater degree of precision.
Ghost-ring sights won't replace my scopes, but I like them so much I recently ordered a ghost-ring-sighted .404 Jeffery from custom-rifle maestro Lon Paul. I plan to carry the rifle when I accompany clients on dangerous-game hunts. Ghost-ring sights will be more accurate in the unlikely event I have to fire my rifle, and they don't add any weight or bulk to a rifle that will be carried far more than it's fired.
Bolt action or double? Iron sights or glass? .375 H&H or .470 Nitro? They are all tough choices, but only you can decide which is right for you. Regardless of which rifle type, cartridge, and sighting system you choose, your dangerous-game gun had better fit you properly and you'd better shoot it well because you only get one chance to make a good first shot. Botch it, and you'll learn the hard way that they don't call it dangerous game for nothing.
The author prefers receiver sights like this one from Lon Paul over standard express-style sights. They are far more precise than standard irons and equally fast.