Ah, Safari! Images of acacia trees dotting the wide open plain, the thick mopane forests that buffalo love to haunt, great rivers with names like Zambezi, Ruaha and Limpopo, as well as the large caliber rifles that are required to hunt the larger beasts; all these bring a broad smile to my face. While our common deer calibers, say from 6.5mm up to .30 caliber will definitely suffice for the various antelope and other plains game, the big sticks are called upon for animals that can be measured in tons, as well as being used for the smaller game when a target of opportunity arises. Let’s take a look at some of the best choices for a heavy rifle for African hunting.
Mr. Robert Ruark sealed the deal for the then-proprietary .416 Rigby, when he was fortunate enough to hunt with a young man by the name of Harry Selby in 1952. Selby’s double rifle had suffered an unfortunate accident and the young PH had to rely on a backup rifle: a bolt-action. 416 Rigby. Having a huge case—the Rigby can easily use over 100 grains of powder—this steep shouldered case proved to be a true gem. It drives a 400-grain slug at right around 2,400 fps, for 5,000 ft.-lbs. of energy at the muzzle. This combination makes it perfect for any African game, including elephants. The huge case was designed for low pressures—and easy extraction in the Tropics—when cordite was the chosen propellant. Today’s bullets make it an even better cartridge: easy on the shoulder (when compared to some other behemoths!) and it’ll give you penetration for days. Want to beef up the already wonderful Rigby? Try Norma’s 450-grain load at 2,150 fps. Thumper, for certain. For plains game I really like the 325-grain Cutting Edge Bullets Safari Raptor hollowpoint, driven to 2.550 fps; worked wonderfully for Dave deMoulpied on impala, wildebeest and zebra.
.458 Winchester Mag.
This was Winchester’s attempt at obtaining the ballistics of the venerable .450 Nitro Express in a bolt action rifle that was both affordable and reliable, and it still does the job today. Winchester took the .375 H&H case, shortened it to 2.500” to fit in a standard length receiver, and removed the shoulder, so you have a tapered straight-wall belted case. Velocities were advertised at 2,150 fps, but many of the initial loads had a hard time obtaining that figure. The problems have been rectified today—although I still feel the Lott is a superior choice in .458” diameter—and the .458 Winchester is a good cartridge for the heavyweights. It does give up some trajectory to the smaller calibers, but the greater frontal diameter of the 480 and 500-grain bullets can dramatically stop a charge. Make sure the rifle fits you very well; .458 Winchester recoil can be severe.
Debuting in 1909, the .404 Jeffery was the standard issue cartridge for most African Game departments throughout eastern and southern Africa. Using a .423” diameter bullet of 400 grains, the original Jeffery load travelled at 2,150 fps, and that low velocity made for a sweet-shooting rifle that still penetrated very well. The loads have been ramped up these days, to push the 400-grain bullets at 2,350 fps, for just under 5,000 ft.-lbs., bringing the .404 into the realm of the .416s. I recently used a beautiful Heym Express in .404 with 400-grain Woodleigh Hydrostatically Stabilized Solids to take, very cleanly, a huge bodied Zimbabwe elephant. Those bullets penetrated the entire width of the elephant, and he didn’t go more than 20 yards from a heart/lung shot. That’s made a believer out of me; I’m a huge .404 fan these days. Easy to shoot and to load for, the .404 feeds like a dream and can be very accurate.
.416 Remington Mag.
The youngest of the bunch, the .416 Remington Magnum was released in 1988. It uses the belted case of the .375 H&H, maintaining the 2.850” length, but necked up to hold .416” bullets (Remington maintains that the case is derived from the 8mm Rem. Mag., but you can easily form .375 H&H brass into .416 Rem brass). It obtains the same velocities and energies as the .416 Rigby, but with 20-25 percent less powder, and with less felt recoil. I’ve used this cartridge rather extensively, and it has never let me down. I would recommend that you use a rifle with a large extractor, as the pressures generated by the .416 Remington greatly exceed those of the Rigby case. Cape buffalo, bushbuck, puku, warthog; my .416 Remington took them all cleanly, at a variety of ranges, including a Lichtenstein’s Hartebeest at 300 yards. Closely resembling the wildcat .416 Hoffman, Remington has a winner here.
.375 Holland & Holland Mag.
You’re probably frothing at the bit because I haven’t mentioned the three-seven-five until now, and with good reason. The .375 H&H is, in my opinion, the most useful cartridge ever invented. It will do anything you ask of it, whether the game hunted is steenbok or elephant. Bullets weights range from 235 grains (the Barnes TSX in this weight makes a great long-range bullet) to the big-honkin’ 350-grain Woodleigh Weldcore and Solid, as loaded by Norma; the latter being serious elephant/buffalo medicine. It is easy to shoot, and still readily available across most of Africa. The reason the .375 H&H is still the king of the hill: it works, time and time again. I’ve had many PH’s give the same advice: “When in doubt, bring a .375.” I don’t think that is going to change anytime soon! I recently purchased a sweet Winchester Model 70, and my wife Suzie claimed it as her own before I had time to realize what happened. Thankfully, she shoots it very well.