The ram was dead when he hit the ground, killed instantly by good bullet placement and incredibly effective terminal ballistics of the 7mm Hornady ELD-X. Americans might call it a bang-flop. In South Africa they say, “Switch off.”
We were returning for lunch, having no luck in our hunt for bushbuck among the steep hills, when we bumped a herd of impala in a pecan grove. When Shaun suggested we take a poke I obliged. After a short stalk uphill through the trees my professional hunter bobbed and weaved then set up the sticks and motioned ahead with his chin. I saw our quarry, set the Mossberg in the sticks then adjusted my stance to thread a bullet through the trees to my target somewhat less than a hundred yards away.
I squeezed the trigger, felt the recoil, saw the ram fall and followed through, worked the bolt and sought the ram again in the scope, but I knew he was down. I heard and felt my PH and my tracker let down their guard, and I did, too, putting the rifle on safe for a short walk.
Three thousand feet per second is incredibly fast. I looked it up; it’s exactly 2,045.455 mph, which is fast by anybody’s standards. It’s all the more impressive when you consider such velocity is slinging a 175-grain bullet. That’s heavy for caliber in the 7mm world, which doesn’t normally work so well. But this cartridge uses a 1:8-inch barrel twist rate to stabilize heavy-for-caliber 7mm bullets. And with that speed so handily controlled, this cartridge also delivers plenty of terminal energy. My shot at the ram was 80 yards. At that range, the bullet carried about 3,203 ft.-lbs. of energy to its target. This is wicked fast and wicked powerful. This is the Hornady 7mm PRC, a new match-accurate cartridge, and I was hunting Africa for the first time in nine years to give it a thorough indoctrination.
This was late July 2022, months before Hornady released its addition to the 7mm scene. I’d received the Mossberg Patriot Predator chambered in 7mm PRC only weeks prior, same as everyone else in camp. So yeah, the timing was tight. In a handful of weeks before departing for South Africa I’d had time only to mount a Leupold scope atop the rifle and sight in the combo on the range in Virginia then fire a box of ammo for some familiarization. Then here in camp along with everyone else I checked zero. The ram was my first real-world test of the cartridge. So far so good, as they say.
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When I stepped off the airliner days earlier in Johannesburg I drew a deep breath and smiled. I’d taken my first safari 20 years prior, in 2002. This safari marked my ninth overall in southern Africa, and my first in nine years. The numbers were cause for celebration, I figured. Only two years prior amid a pandemic I wondered whether any of us would ever again leave home. It all seemed like some twisted joke. Now that I had just flown across the Atlantic without a mask, you’re darn tootin’ I was smiling.
A day later we flew east to KwaZulu Natal, a province in South Africa I had never seen despite the majority of my safaris having taken place in the country.
Here there is plenty of agriculture and cattle ranching. Really, locals across South Africa call it all farming; everything is a farm regardless what Americans may call it; everyone who owns and works the land is called a farmer.
Here I see trees I have encountered before—sweet thorn acacia, jacaranda, aloe and stinkwood and cabbage—and some I have never seen like the euphorbia candelabra, part tree and mostly cactus, apparently. As I glass birds with my Leupold binocular, I remind myself that long ago I should have started a bird watcher’s log. I see the jackal buzzard, the purple crested loerie and a rare Narina trogon. I tiptoe near and snap a photo of a crowned eagle in its nest before it flies away. As we tread quietly across the hillsides I hear the mourning dove and the laughing dove and the red-eyed dove’s rhythmic melody that reminds me of the drummer’s rudiments I played as a kid.
With a handful of others at the invitation of Hornady, Mossberg and Leupold, I hunt with Andrew Pringle’s Crusader Safaris. If it lives somewhere in southern Africa and you’d like to hunt it, chances are you can do so with Andrew’s crew. But we are here to hunt plains game. In South Africa Crusader hunts three large free-range conservancies. That’s right: I said free-range. There are no high fences to keep in game. It is indigenous and has always been here. Solid conservation including hunting now ensures its survival. We enter many farms, open and close many gates, but I never see high fences.
In the Umkomaas Valley Conservancy less than two hours from Durban, our group hunts plains game: southern greater kudu, nyala, eland, zebra, Cape bushbuck, blesbok, impala, duiker and reedbuck.
Our tent camp along the Umkomaas River includes thatched huts with en suites, electric blankets for cold nights and indoor and outdoor showers. In the morning before we depart or in the evening as we await dinner, we gather amid trophies on the wall of an open-air “family room” built into a hill next to a campfire, beneath a thatched roof that ensconces a coffee station and a wet bar, as the time of day may dictate. Meals include game shot on the hunt and fine South African wine.
My PH is Shaun Higgs, 31 and a native of this region. He studied not far from here to become a manager of all things farm-related. Not long ago Andrew Pringle hired him to run the Umkomaas farm, and the choice continues to pay dividends—Shaun planted the pecan grove, after all. Like many South Africans I have met, Shaun is a lifelong hunter. He knows this region, its fauna and flora. I realize I am in good hands as we continue our hunt for spiral-horned bushbuck and nyala.
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Did I say this is plains game hunting? Think again.
These mountains are steep and tall. The only plains I see are riparian areas where agriculture exists, and they’re hardly covered by amber waves of grain. The game we seek may be found in the ag fields but mostly it lives in the hills. It feels to me like we’re hunting the Smoky Mountains minus their great overstory. Oh, there is plenty of overstory—it covers the hills but none of it is more than 20 feet tall. The vegetation makes it difficult to see game. Mostly we hike hillsides so choked with brush it seems at times impossible to see game.
Professional hunter Shaun Higgs grew up nearby and now manages the Umkomaas Valley Conservancy for Crusader. He periodically burns off brush to keep trash trees from taking root in what are effectively wildlife pastures.
Plenty of rain this year has made the two-tracks that wind up and down these hills greasy. We slide a bit. It always seems the steepest drops appear below my window on the left side of the truck, as here they drive on the left side of the road. Sometimes I pucker when I feel the rear end shimmy. I resist the urge to buckle up. What good would it do when we roll downhill 300 feet? Maybe I’d rather be “thrown clear,” I think. Well, it’s not that bad, but I’m not the nut behind the wheel; I’m only the nut behind the trigger. The lack of control creates anxiety.
It’s at a moment like this when Shaun stops the HiLux and says he’d like to hike up the road in silence. We haven’t gone far when he spies a bushbuck to our left, across a chasm of green. We slip and slide downhill through the brush to set up and glass the ram, a dandy feeding alone amid an opening hundreds of yards away on the mountain opposite us. “I want you to take this ram,” Shaun says.
I begin to build my house: a solid, supported seated shooting position. I set up my shooting sticks, settle the rifle on them and dig into solid footing then build support for my “chicken wing,” the elbow of my right arm, on my right knee. “Four hundred ten yards,” Shaun breathes. I check the distance with my rangefinder—408 yards—and dial in the distance on the Leupold’s CDS-ZL2 turret.
“I’m gonna dry-fire one,” I whisper. “He doesn’t know we’re here.”
This is what I call a “jackass drill,” a chance to get the yips out of my swing, or in this case the jerks out of my trigger squeeze. So I focus and breathe and squeeze and the gun goes click. Satisfied, I chamber a round then focus, breathe and begin to squeeze … and my foot slips and my chicken wing drops and the barrel of my rifle points skyward. Whoa—time to build anew, and to focus, breathe and squeeze …
The 175-grain ELD-X speeds over 410 yards of valley floor to slam the ram in the chest. At the shot the critter lurches, and I slip again from a solid shooting position thanks to our precarious purchase on the steep hill. This time I do not see the animal’s reaction—I am too busy rebuilding my house. But Shaun does. He sees it lunge downhill then crash.
It takes us 20 minutes to drive down our mountain, cross the creek bottom then climb the opposite mountain then another 20 minutes to hike down to the ram. Entrance and exit wounds indicate he was shot cleanly through the chest. He is an old bugger, clearly past his prime and a fine trophy, I think—each horn displaying the sinewy twists this member of the spiral-horned club is known for. Interestingly, he has no hair on his neck, likely because he has spent his last days trying to rub off the ticks that live there.
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As I said this was my ninth safari exactly nine years since my last safari. All told I have hunted five continents. Compared to other hunters with similar experience I may not possess a large collection of taxidermy, but to many it is impressive. Long ago I decided to slow my roll; I haven’t mounted a head of game in years; just don’t have the room for it in my modest suburban home in Northern Virginia.
I’ve held out a number of years now, but I knew exactly what was going down when some days later Shaun came unglued the instant he spotted the big nyala bull.
On a tip from other hunters, we’ve quit the side of the ranch we’d plied all week, hills thick with brush, a cattle ranch run to weeds so to speak. There we’d been in nyala but nothing had worked. This morning we have poked into what looks to me like steep cattle pastures. Here, hills covered in native grass slope down into brushy pockets and tree groves. The only cattle in this area are far, far away.
“Shoot this bull,” Shaun hisses.
In a grove a hundred yards below us I can see the bull, but just barely. I set up the Patriot on the sticks as Shaun presents them and peer through the scope. The bull is quartering away from us, feeding, his head buried in bush. Man, it is dark down there. Through the Leupold I can see his brown hide better but I can’t make out his head. I can see neck and a spot high on the shoulder … .
“Shoot him,” advises Shaun. “This is a good bull. Can you see him? Shoot him!”
He’s emphatic. I crank up the Leupold to 10X, settle the FireDot Duplex high on his shoulder then focus, breath and squeeze. The bullet, we learn later, blasts through the bull’s scapula, through the bottom of his spine and the top of the opposite lung then exits. Upon impact, the bull crashes downhill and I chamber another round then throw on the safety and pull my head out of the scope as I can’t see another shot. Shaun runs.
“Come,” he shouts. “We must finish him.”
Indeed I do have to shoot the old bull again. If he had been able to run perhaps he would have pumped out blood faster and bled to death. But he is paralyzed. He isn’t going anywhere, and he is lying on the exit wound. It isn’t fair to wait for him to bleed out. When we pull him from the brush and I get my first good look at him it takes my breath.
“Holy cow!” I exclaim. “Look at him!”
His horns bow outward in the shape of a lyre before twisting in then out again to stretch to ivory tips. They measure 28.5 inches long each—not a monster but, honestly, a trophy in my mind. I have two nyala bulls on my wall, and I thought they were pretty good when I put them there, but both will be diminished next to this old bull.
So, yeah, you guessed it—I think I’ll hang at least one more beautiful creature on the wall in my game room. Maybe I’ll call this old boy the “Pandemic Bull.” One thing’s for sure, his presence will signal to me the end to one long, twisted chapter in history.
Hornady 7mm PRC
If you’re looking for an elk cartridge, our 2023 Golden Bullseye Hunting Ammunition Product of the Year is it. In North America it’s good for everything up to and including moose and in Africa it’s good for the largest plains game.
The 7mm Precision Rifle Cartridge is Hornady’s latest addition to its collection of non-belted, magnum-type cartridges that headspace off the shoulder of the case rather than a belt. Also used in the 6.5 PRC and .300 PRC, this design factor provides excellent chamber alignment, so the bullet “starts life” just about perfectly when it is pushed from the case mouth and engages the rifling in the barrel.
Muzzle velocity is 3000 fps, incredibly fast considering it’s slinging heavy-for-caliber bullets but not so fast as to be a barrel burner. Zeroed at 200 yards, a 175-grain ELD-X drops only 6 inches at 300 yards; 17.2 inches at 400 yards.
In Africa I used Hornady Precision Hunter ammo firing a 175-grain ELD-X bullet. Another nontoxic hunting load Hornady also offers is an Outfitter load with a 160-grain CX bullet. Finally, the company offers a Match load with a 180-grain ELD Match bullet. Besides the Mossberg Patriot Predator rifles we used in Africa, 24 other makers market rifles chambered in this cartridge including AllTerra Arms, Gunwerks, Savage and, soon, Ruger and Springfield Armory.
Mossberg Patriot Predator
Three cheers for Mossberg for coming through on firearms for this trip. We sweated the timing but it all worked out. Built on the proven Patriot chassis, the Predator features a fluted, 24-inch barrel threaded and ready for a suppressor. A drop box magazine holds three rounds. The spiral-fluted bolt is worked by an oversized bolt handle, which is easy to find. An installed Picatinny rail makes for easy scope mounting—just buy rings. Its patented LBA trigger is adjustable from 2-7 pounds’ pull.
Metalwork is matte blue, and the synthetic stock is flat dark earth. Behind a stout recoil pad length of pull is 13.75 inches. In 7mm PRC the rifle weighs 6.5 pounds. MSRP is $536.
Africa would not be half as fun without a good binocular. This time, for the first time, I carried a 50mm binocular. In the past I have always shied away from “big glass” as I don’t want the size and weight around my neck. But Leupold’s BX-5 Santiam HD 10x50 is built on a polycarbonate body with an open bridge design to lighten weight to only 31.5 ounces. That’s not bad considering what you get in return—maximum field of view and maximum light gathering with 50mm objective lenses.
Leupold’s Professional Grade Optical System includes a fully multi-coated lens system with the company’s DiamondCoat 2 for fabulous light transmission and glare reduction. Waterproof and fogproof construction ensures the Santiam will function from minus 40 to 160 degrees. It’s tripod-ready with a built-in ¼-20 port. MSRP is $1,099.
The glorious feature about the VX-6HD riflescope is a 6:1 zoom factor. So with a scope like the 3-18x50mm that sat atop my rifle you can do it all from close range in thick bush to long distance at dusk. Other features include Leupold’s Professional Grade Optical System with Guard-Ion lens coating to deliver high-definition performance. The FireDot reticle is dimmable so it does not overpower your field of view in low light, and it sits in the second focal plane. Best of all, a VX-6HD comes with Leupold’s CDS-ZL2 turret. The Custom Dial System provides two revolutions of elevation adjustment and locks against accidental movement with the push-button ZeroLock. Hunters may order laser-marked bullet-drop turret dials to match their exact ballistics. MSRP is $1,899.
The Leupold RX-2800 TBR/W laser rangefinder provided the most important number I needed all week: a 410-yard reading so I could create a cross-canyon shooting solution on a bushbuck. It offers half-yard accuracy out to 2,800 yards, 7X magnification and an easy-to-read LED display. Leupold’s True Ballistic Range/Wind technology presents 25 selectable ballistics groups to account for your favorite cartridge and built-in 10 mph wind holds. MSRP is $599.99.