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Africa's court of last resort: what calibers do professional hunters recommend when dangerous game's on the docket?

Rifles and cartridges for dangerous game still fascinate hunters despite their dwindling utility in our 21st century. Partly this is because the sheer power of the bigbores is captivating, and partly it's because big, blunt-nose cartridges and rifles that fire them are the stuff of which dreams are made. Although few of us need a "stopping rifle" very often, when one is needed, it's needed badly.

Relatively few hunters today have in-depth experience with dangerous game, and none has the credentials of the old-time African hands. Unfortunately, much of the great old literature, though sound in theory, has limited applicability today. Dangerous-game rifles have changed little in the past century, but cartridges--and especially bullets--have, so it does little good to take a recommendation from great old hands like J.A. Hunter or Pondoro Taylor because the loads they used are probably not available and hunting conditions have changed.

What to do? Well, pay careful attention to the advice of your professional hunter. There are two reasons for this, one practical and one pragmatic.

The practical: African PHs have extensive experience in their own hunting areas. They know what works.

The pragmatic: Part of safari politics is that although you arc paying the freight, your PH is in charge. If you go against his recommendations, you're being politically incorrect. And If there are any problems, you'll have to gracefully accept the "I told you so" sermon.

But if it's your PH (or a gunwriter, for that matter), you're still getting one man's opinion. And as the great Ned Crossman once wrote, "After all, the digest of the experience of a hundred men--picked men, not chaps who once killed a buck in the Adirondacks and know all about game rifles--is the best way to reach a decision."


Nearly 25 years ago I started writing a book that would become Safari Rifles, actually published in 1990. At the time, I'd done quite a lot of ' African hunting and thought I knew my stuff, but I feared treading on the ghosts of African hands long gone--or on the toes of current PHs. My publisher, Ludo Wurfbain, talked me into it. One caveat we agreed upon at the start was that I would survey as many African PHs as I could find and include both what they use and what they recommend to their clients.


In time I received more than 100 responses. Fast-forward 20 years--lots of new cartridges and better bullets. Again Ludo convinced me it was time for an update, which became Safari Rifles II, released in 2009. We agreed again that the update should include a new survey of licensed African PHs. Thanks to email, and generous assistance from groups like the African Professional Hunters Association (APHA)and their regional counterparts, the process was a bit simpler.

The survey was basically in three parts: the PH's personal choice for various classes of game; recommendations to clients for one-, two-and three-rifle safari batteries; and "other comments." Also included, were; specific bullet recommendations, use of scopes, "solid or soft" for buffalo and, of course, the elusive "all around rifle." But here we'll narrow down things and concentrate on "the professional's choice for dangerous; game."


This question had perhaps the widest spread. Some PHs clearly stated what they would use for a personal leopard hunt, while others were obviously thinking "backup." Eighteen cartridges were mentioned, from .243 Winchester to .500 Jeffery, with several votes for buckshot-loaded shotguns, Obviously, the latter two were thinking of backup, while Joe Coogan. echoing his mentor Harry Selby, wanted perfect shot placement with a cartridge designed for leopard-size game. They both think the .243 is enough gun, at least for the first shot on leopard.

Not everyone agreed.

The most cited single caliber was 375 (actual cartridge either unspecified or ".375 H&H"), with 36 mentions. Some of these included the caveat that this was the legal minimum in their area. However, if you add up all the mentions of lighter cartridges for leopard.(.243,.270, 7mm,.30), there were 39 altogether, barely exceeding support for the .375. I don't agree with the use of the .375 for an animal as small as a leopard. I think lighter. cartridges with bullets deigned for lighter game work better. But when in doubt, listen to .your PH. The other recommendations were all over the map, from.338 to .500 Jeffery, with several specific mentions of 3 1/2-inch 10 gauge,


This one had the same dichotomy between what a PH might use for a personal lion hunt against what he might carry when guiding. There were 16 different cartridges, mentioned, from 7mm magnum to .500 Jeffery, with one holdout for the 10-gauge magnum (clearly for backup). Not surprisingly, the .375 was the top gun, with 38 recommendations. The .416 (again, exact cartridge generally unspecified) followed with 21 mentions. Surprisingly (to me), the rest included 14 mentions of light cartridges (7mm to .300 magnum). Equally surprising, no PHs mentioned the .338, although one cited the great old 9.3x62. Eight calibers above .416 were cited. For us cartridge freaks, these were .470 (seven votes), .458 Lott (seven), .458 Winchester Magnum (six), .500 Jeffery (two), .450 Dakota Magnum (two), .450 3V4-inch (two) and one vote each for the .475 No. 2 Jeffery and .505 Gibbs.,


I tend to think that the lighter cartridges are what some PHs would choose for their own use, while at least some of the bigbores are the backup rifles the PHs carry every day of their working lives. In general, however, the consensus is pretty clear: For lions, the various .375s remain the preferred choices, followed fairly closely by the .416s. Of the several .375s, excepting a couple of mentions of the new .375 Roger, the only specific .375 referenced was the H&H, but the majority of respondents just voted ".375."



The PHs mentioned just 15 calibers for buffalo, elephant, hippo and rhino. This is the first time that the .375 slipped from first place to tie for fourth. The single most mentioned cartridge was also a big surprise, the .470 Nitro Express, with 20 mentions. The .416 (cartridge unspecified) followed closely with 16, followed by the .458 Lott, with 14 mentions. Then came the .458 Winchester Magnum and .375, with 10 each.


The rest were on down from there: .500 three-inch and .500 Jeffery (eight), .450 3 1/4-inch (five), .505 Gibbs (four), .450 Dakota Magnum (two) and one vote each for the .475 No. 2 Jeffery, .450 Rigby Rimless Magnum, .450 Ackley, .450 No. 2 and .425 Westley-Richards. No cartridge below .375 was mentioned.


I was surprised to see that the .458 Lott is now more popular than the .458 Winchester Magnum, and I was even more surprised at the strong showing of doubles, with five classic rimmed Nitro Express cartridges cited with a total of 35 mentions. But again, these are the cartridges the PHs use for dangerous game, not necessarily what they recommend for clients.


One question I asked in the latest survey that I didn't ask back in 1989 was whether the PHs preferred solids or expanding bullets for buffalo. Of 75 PHs who answered this question, 40 wrote "first soft, then solid." Another 20 wrote "softpoints," and several hedged their bet, offering advice like, "softpoints in herds, solids for bachelor bulls." Only six clung to the old traditional standard of solids for buffalo, which seems to be a pretty good endorsement for the improved expanding bullets we have today.


In 1989 I received a wealth of data from old Kenya hands. By now most of these stalwarts are no longer in the field, with a greater proportion of responses from Namibia and South Africa (where the largest safari markets are today). Twenty years ago I was astounded to see an average of 16 years in the field among my 100-plus respondents. In 2007 this number went up to an average of 19 1/2 years across the 107 PHs who answered the survey. This represents more than 2,000 years of African hunting.

Some of my South African and Namibian respondents hunted plains game only, but the majority of respondents hunted some mix of dangerous game. Even though the plains-game safari is far and away the most common African hunt today, the percentage of PHs who hunt dangerous game didn't change much in 20 years.


The biggest changes, however, were in the calibers cited. The .375 was the clear winner for lion, leopard and all-around use; no change there. But for thick-skinned game the .458 Winchester Magnum ruled the roost, followed by the .375. Interestingly, in 1989 a whole lot of PHs added a caveat to the .458 Winchester Magnum, something like "only with handloads." That perhaps explains why the .458 Lott has succeeded it as the premier bolt-action cartridge.


In 1989 the .416 was strong, coming in third with 18 entries (and always described as ".416 Rigby"), and the .470 was also strong, coming in fourth with 15 mentions. From a historical standpoint these last two are striking. This was about the same time Federal released the first American factory loads for both cartridges. Ammo would still have been a problem, but even so, a fair number of PHs clung to their old-time cartridges.

They weren't alone; five other double-rifle cartridges were mentioned (.450 3 1/4-inch, .475 No. 2, .500/.465, .500 three-inch and .577). There were also two .500 Jeffery bolt actions and three, 404s. In the later survey, double rifles made a considerably stronger showing, clearly reflecting their comeback in popularity. But I find it interesting that nobody mentioned the .577 in 2007 and equally interesting that the mighty .505 Gibbs--absent in 1989--made a showing in the more recent survey. And why did the great .404 Jeffery vanish from the later survey? I can't answer that.


Recommendations to clients were actually very similar to the first survey. For a one-rifle battery the .375 remained the clear winner, with just a few mentions of the .416 Rigby and one for the .416 Hoffman. For a two-rifle battery only three cartridges were recommended as the second, heavier rifle: .375, .458 and .416, in that order of popularity. Only in the three-rifle category did the double rifle make an appearance, and it was minimal: two recommendations for the .470 and a couple of PHs who recommended the .458, adding words like "a double over .450 if available."

In both surveys the message was clear. PHs tend to carry large-caliber stopping rifles but usually recommend a .375 or .416 for clients. They want their hunters to use rifles they're comfortable with, and a common thread was concern over poor shooting because of unfamiliarity and excessive recoil. Without question, the most prevalent advice was to practice from sticks and field positions, especially offhand. The PH takes the term "stopping rifle" literally--it's his tool of last resort--but it isn't necessarily the tool he expects you to carry.

The complete 1989 and 2007 surveys are included in Safari Rifles II, published by Safari Press. Autographed copies are available from

Photo by Mike Schoby
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Title Annotation:STOPPERS
Author:Boddington, Craig
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Feb 1, 2010
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