What Calibre to Bring on a One-Gun Safari?
What Calibre to Bring on a One-Gun Safari?; With a heavy personal bias towards the .375 H&H
by Kevin Thomas
With heightened security being the order of the day across the globe, and not likely to disappear anytime in the future – in fact with the passage of time, airline security will probably become more stringent – visiting clientele often end up in a bit of a quandary as to what rifle(s) to bring to Africa. My own feeling as a PH is that now more than at any time in the past, it is wiser and far less hassle for an inbound sport hunter to just travel with one calibre, suitable for use on all of the trophy species you’ll want to shoot.
Most safari companies have rifles that can be hired by a visiting sport hunter, however, and I’m sure most will agree, a true dedicated hunter likes to use his own rifle(s) for whatever reason, and there are many. With that in mind and in order to avoid a lot of unnecessary stress, whilst trying to fly internationally with a bunch of guns and ammunition, what is the ideal calibre for a one rifle safari? It must be understood that the one-gun scenario I am writing about is for an inbound sport hunter to Africa, not a working PH.
Important is that one absolute essential for an all round rifle is that the calibre has a wide variety of bullet types. Using the .375 H&H, solid bullets don’t only work on the biggest game; they do a good job on the small stuff too. A 300gr solid will punch a neat hole through a duiker without doing much damage to the skin, and whilst it will do the same on an impala, with them being herd animals, after exiting the bullet may travel on to wound or kill others, thus when used in a herd or bachelor groupings, caution should prevail. Other bullet weights for the .375 H&H like 235gr and 270gr soft-points allow the calibre to kill everything up to eland, whilst the 300gr premium softs and solids do the job adequately on buffalo and elephant.
Obviously though the first question a visiting hunter should ask themselves is what is on their “Want List” trophy wise? Does it involve a mix of non-dangerous plains game trophies up to the size of eland only, or is there dangerous game species included? If dangerous game is included with plains game up to eland, my calibre recommendation would automatically be the .375 H&H. I have used a .375 H&H for decades now for sport hunting, problem animal control, and culling, and am a firm disciple of this all time great bullet.
When Holland & Holland gave the hunting world the .375 Magnum in 1912, they gave us something very special indeed. At time of launch, the only other calibres that could compete with it and with slight limitations, were the .404 Jeffery and .350 Rigby Magnum as magazine rifles, and the 450/400 doubles. The .375 H&H might be classified as a “Medium Bore Calibre” but it offers extremely flat trajectory, adequate bullet weight and performance in the field that is hard to beat.
Since the .375 H&H was first used in Africa it has proven itself a great success story and continues to retain its excellent reputation as the most popular, if not the best all-round African calibre. Ivory hunter of yore, John ‘Pondoro’ Taylor in his book African Rifles and Cartridges rated it as the best of the medium bores for African hunting (in fact he was so impressed by it he did exaggerate somewhat its penetration & killing abilities), and chose it as the most effective all-round cartridge – he wrote the book way back in 1948 – now in 2009 I don’t think much has changed, aside from us having a far wider range of quality bullet types to choose from. Frank Barnes in his Cartridges of the World says of the .375 H&H, “This cartridge was the basis for H&H’s later .300 H&H Magnum and is therefore the great-grandfather of almost all modern belted magnum chamberings. It can certainly be said that it inspired the entire genre” – a truism if ever.
Respected PH Tony Henley once wrote an enlightening article on his preferred calibres for hunting African big game, it was titled Some Notes on Big Rifles Suitable for Hunting in Africa. He starts off by quite correctly saying that with the introduction of the ultra high velocity rifle, many sport hunters got carried away by the publicity put out about these firearms by the manufacturers. His field observations in Botswana of the outcome of hunter(s) using rifles delivering velocities of 3,000 foot and more per second were that the hunt usually ended in many hours of following a wounded and suffering animal. The tendency of some ultra high velocity bullets is to disintegrate on impact, leaving a large surface wound, or worse still if the bullet strikes a twig or other vegetation before reaching the intended target, it disintegrates or deflects.
During the mid-nineties a now deceased PH colleague and I experienced some of the aforementioned when we had two clients with us on safari in Zimbabwe’s Matetsi. For their buffalo, both were using .450 Watt’s and each shot a buffalo early in the safari. We then changed areas for the plains game segment of the safari and it was here that both clients produced their plains game rifles; they were identical .340 Weatherby Magnums. To cut a long story short, we ended up with both of our clients having problems whilst trying to kill trophy animals. At times, and after an easy shot the trophy just loped off unscathed – it happened at least three times with good quality sable – unwounded they just showed us their heels after the shot.
Initially we were totally baffled until we looked very carefully at what the clients were shooting “through” – a veil of waist high dry grass & scrawny scrub that is hardly noticeable – unless you look closely. It wasn’t really discernable through the scope of a rifle and more particularly so if total concentration was on the target animal. That grass and scrub however, was obviously causing the .340 bullets of the type they were using to deflect. I have nothing against the .340 Weatherby, it is a popular proven calibre, but with its high velocity bullets it wasn’t suited to the vegetation and terrain we were hunting in. My suggestion to the clients that they revert to using their .450 Watt’s changed the equation and animals started going into the salt – although the .450 Watt’s certainly isn’t your ideal all round plains game calibre!
Getting back to the .375 H&H, if we look at some of the bullet weights and velocities, they also help reinforce the argument for it being the finest all-round calibre for Africa for a visiting sport hunter.
235grs @ 2,800fps
270grs @ 2,650fps
300grs @ 2,500fps
The above range allows a hunter to safely shoot an elephant and anything else in between, down to a common duiker and the bullet variations available to the hand loader and factory loads in this day and age are awesome, the Barnes-X line, Swift A-Frame, Nosler line, to name but a few. Tony Henley finished his written observations on the .375 H&H by stating “I always recommend any sportsman coming on safari to Africa to include a .375 in his battery, or better still, just to bring the one rifle”.
For elephant, one obviously only uses solid bullets and nothing else, and as Mike LaGrange an ex Rhodesian National Parks warden and highly experienced elephant hunter, wrote in his superb treatise Ballistics in Perspective (Professional Hunter Supplies Publishing Division 1990), when using the 300gr Hornady solid, the .375 H&H produces sufficient penetration to kill even the largest elephant instantly through the brain. He also points out that the 270gr bullet is sufficiently fast enough to obviate sight adjustment out to 300yds.
LaGrange goes on to point out that throughout the history of the .375 H&H opinions have continued to promote its cause. Back in 1979 the respected South African outdoor and hunting magazine Magnum ran an article titled “Sporting Rifle Cartridge” and put the .375 H&H as the worlds (my italics) all round weapon. Again in Magnum 1980/81 a similar article puts the .375 H&H as the world all round peer. In the 1982 March edition of the S.A. Man magazine well-known gun writer the late Tudor Howard Davies, wrote a lengthy article on the .375 where he puts forward arguments for the all round title.
Rhino Bullets in East London, South Africa, produce an extremely efficient .375 H&H bullet in 380gr; it has been well tested in the field and is now a popular bullet choice for buffalo and all of our larger soft skinned game. The production of this bullet in fact elevates the .375 H&H even more as the ideal all-round calibre for an African safari.
In many African countries, the .375 H&H is by law the minimum calibre that can be used on dangerous game, with the exception of leopard. Thus, I would recommend that if a visiting hunter is stuck for choice but only wants to bring one rifle to Africa, he think very seriously about making it the .375 H&H. I do not believe that it would be the wrong choice because it has too much of a respected and proven pedigree since 1912 for that to be the case, and dressing it with a good quality detachable variable scope, mounted over British Express type iron sites, or a ghost ring, so that the scope can be removed when hunting in the very thick stuff, would also be a wise choice.
As a PH I obviously concur fully with the logic of bullets of not less than 400 grains being used in thick bush for the hunting of elephant and buffalo, but if a visitor to Africa brings his .375 H&H on safari as his only rifle, and he only intends ever shooting one elephant or buffalo in his life, the 400 grain limitation need not worry him too much because his PH will ensure that he is in the correct position to make a killing shot, and if things do inadvertently go ‘pear-shaped’ the PH will be carrying a heavier calibre than the .375 H&H, and it is part of his job to rectify the situation.
Thus, my recommendation of the .375 H&H as the ideal and most suitable calibre is hinged around a suitable single rifle for a “mixed bag” safari which includes dangerous game, and with the bulk of the trophies comprising non-dangerous plains game. Over the years and when using a .375 H&H, I have shot many buffalo and when correctly hit by a 300gr H&H solid they have invariably gone down incredibly hard, eliciting shouts of delight and handclapping from the trackers!
Moving away from the .375 H&H, I’d like to touch on a calibre of old, now enjoying a huge resurge of interest, the .404 Jeffery which undoubtedly became the most popular “general purpose” choice rifle for hunting dangerous and non-dangerous game in Africa after it was first introduced to the hunting fraternity by W.J. Jeffery in 1909. It was only when the .375 H&H came off the production line in 1912, a mere three years after the .404 that this latter calibre was somewhat eclipsed as the ideal “all-round rifle”, by the .375 H&H.
The .404 has however developed a remarkable and enviable reputation as a sound calibre for dangerous game and large non-dangerous game hunting. Some of the great game wardens of East and Central Africa used it regularly as their weapon of choice for elephant, buffalo, rhino, and lion control, plus for general ration shooting. Again, in East & Central Africa the standard 400gr solid bullet in the .404 was a popular choice for issue to the highly efficient black African game scouts and government employed African hunters doing elephant control and crop protection. Without doubt had the British colonial government of the day thought that game department staff lives may have been in danger by using the .404 as exhaustively as they did, they would have issued them with a heavier calibre.
Like the .416 Rigby, the .404 Jeffery’s popularity has endured over the decades and quite rightly so, for it is well deserved, although we must remember they are classified “large-medium bores”. In this day and age, the dedicated handloader can find all of the flatness they could wish for, thus negating the question about it possibly lacking trajectory and long range potential.
During the early 1970s when I was a young government game ranger in the Rhodesia of old (now Zimbabwe), I served for a number of years in the Zambezi Valley, managing various Controlled Hunting Areas (now referred to as Safari Areas). Many of the old school Rhodesian’s who booked an annual hunt to shoot for meat, trophies and sport, continued to use the .416 Rigby and the .404 Jeffery and this was the correct role for both of those calibres; they were being used by hunters who annually shot elephant and buffalo (including buffalo cows) plus a selection of larger plains game like kudu and zebra. Few international clients hunt elephant and buffalo annually, and tend to mostly hunt non-dangerous game and only occasionally hunt large dangerous game. Thus for the visiting client intent on an occasional large dangerous animal, I’d still go with the .375 H&H.
Other calibres that I like for plains game only, and also make for the ideal one-gun safari if no dangerous game is to be hunted, are the .338 Winchester Magnum, an excellent choice, although I haven’t seen it being used in Africa as a plains game rifle as often as would be expected, then there’s the .300 H&H, a superb flat shooting rifle rated way up the scale by dedicated users and non-users alike, also the .300 Winchester Magnum, a very popular plains game rifle amongst International clients and South African PHs alike, the 30-06 too is an extremely popular calibre seen and used in Africa, and it works well. A regular hunting buddy and client from Denver, Brian Spradling once quipped during safari, “The ‘odd six’ is tried and tested through two World Wars, plus the Korean conflict and on hunting fields scattered across the entire globe”. This year the 30-06 is having its 103rd birthday, and with its reputation for reliability, a well deserved one at that. Another popular plains game choice is the proven .308 Winchester, and whilst not the ideal, this bullet in the military ball type 7,62mm NATO killed a lot of game in Zimbabwe – both legally and illegally – during the conflict years. The range of factory and hand loaded .308 soft points are great shooting bullets and give extreme accuracy.
The .270 Winchester is another popular choice seen here in Southern Africa, but I’d hesitate to recommend it for a one gun safari if larger species like eland, kudu, zebra, blue wildebeest and gemsbok etc are on the want list. It is a little too marginal, although not incapable with say 150gr Barnes-X bullets and in the hands of a competent shooter. It is a devastating calibre on the likes of springbok, blesbok, impala, warthog etc if using 130gr Nosler Partitions, and during the years I ran Ciskei Safaris, I also put a bunch of culled game including black wildebeest and hartebeest into the meat shed, when using a Ciskei govt issue .270, although I’ve never owned one. Even with 160gr and 180gr bullets, I still don’t feel the .270 is up to being an ‘ideal’ for killing our bigger African soft-skinned species, and I’d put the animal weight limitation for a .270 bullet before it becomes a bit iffy at a max of about 180kg. In other words it is a great calibre for small and medium sized African antelope. I’ve also had a client drop a leopard in its tracks using a .270, it was totally pole axed from about 95yds, although I cannot recall the bullet used, although I think it was a Nosler.
Around the campfire I’ve often heard hunters here in South Africa argue comparisons between the .30-06 and the .270. Realistically it is a bit of a silly debate because the two calibres actually slot into two different hunting categories. A .270 comes into its own with lighter 130gr and 150gr bullets at long range on our open plains like are found in the Karoo and other parts of South Africa, including our grassed mountainous areas (think springbok, blesbok, mountain reedbuck, impala, lechwe, black wildebeest, hartebeest, fallow deer etc). The .30-06 shooting 180gr to 220gr bullets is an ideal bushveld calibre, for the kind of close range shooting that goes with that kind of terrain and vegetation (think eland, kudu, zebra, blue wildebeest etc) and although both calibres can be called upon to do each others work, they are not ideally suited to it.
Another proven bushveld calibre here in Southern Africa, that has also seen a few wars and still endures with a dedicated fan club, since it was first developed as a military cartridge in 1892, is the 7x57mm Mauser. I’ve been around this calibre since boyhood, and it is still a firm favourite of mine for much of my own recreational hunting. It has excellent killing powers and very moderate recoil, but again, and although over the previous three decades I’ve shot a lot of kudu, gemsbok and wildebeest with the 7x57mm, I wouldn’t recommend that it be the one-gun choice on safari for these bigger plains game species weighing 250 to 300kg.
Ethically the intention of every sport hunter should be to take absolutely no chances that could lead to his trophy suffering a wound. As an example, the 7x57mm works beautifully for side-on lung shots on kudu etc, but if as you are beyond the point of no return on trigger pressure, the animal suddenly turns obliquely away and the bullet entering too far back has to now penetrate intestines or a full paunch, it may not reach and do needed damage to the vital organs. Your .338 and .30-06 would have a better chance of driving through that mass and into the vitals; the .375 H&H on the other hand will get there. There is nothing wrong with “using enough gun” – in fact ethical sport hunters should automatically aspire to that, and if we all did so, there would be far less wounding, and when it does happen the follow-up wouldn’t be so lengthy.
As a game ranger in my younger days, and when still a young wildlife manager/PH I also shot quite a number of eland using my 7x57mm, but I wouldn’t recommend it and although they were all clean kills, I firmly believe the minimum calibre for eland, and giraffe for that matter is the .375 H&H or a 9.3x62.
In this brief overview I’ve stayed away from wildcat cartridges and only covered the traditional popular calibres that I see being brought along regularly on safari. Even if dangerous game is not being hunted, first time visiting clientele often arrive with three varying calibres – sure, its all great fun, but they aren’t all needed. As a PH if I’m not guiding on dangerous game I take my .375 H&H and my 7mm Mauser on plains game safaris, but there is a reason for my taking the two rifles. One is always available as a replacement in case of something going wrong with the client’s rifle (or one of my own) because as we all know – sh*t happens.
In wrapping up, I’m going to talk about one wildcat cartridge that does impress me here in Africa as an ideal plains game calibre, provided the correct bullets and loads are used. That is the .330 Dakota, with the design idea having been to offer a factory alternative to the .338 Winchester Magnum but provide .340 Weatherby Magnum performance, and the .330 Dakota functions properly through a 30-06 length action (3.35”). It has about a 15% case capacity over the .338 Winchester Magnum, which is fairly significant and allows it to come close to duplicating the performance of the .340 Weatherby Magnum. Frank C. Barnes in his book mentioned earlier, points out that the .330 Dakota if using the right bullets, can deliver more energy to targets a quarter-mile away than factory .270 ammunition produces at muzzle!
Brian Spradling has brought his .330 Dakota over on all of his African safaris and we’ve hunted South Africa and Zimbabwe a number of times. This is a bullet that impresses me immensely on all of our soft-skin game. Brian’s .330 is custom built on a Ruger 77mk11 action with a 25-inch medium weight, fluted barrel, and a brown/tan laminated stock. He dressed it with a Weaver V-10, 2-10 x 38mm scope. His only load on his first hunt with me was with 275gr Swift A-Frame bullets, loaded to 2680fps with H4831SC powder and carrying 4387ft lbs of energy. This bullet and load put down kudu, zebra, and a host of other stuff with no fuss and awesome terminal ballistics. On his next safari which would include gemsbok in the Karoo and the tough Cape bushbuck in the Eastern Cape forests, he again used H4831SC powder behind a 225gr Swift A-Frame and loaded to 2998fps carrying 4492ft lbs of energy. Despite the .330 Dakota’s devastating terminal velocity on our plains game, Brian stays away from using lightweight bullets due to excessive velocity, coupled to poor sectional density.
On that first safari in Zimbabwe, he brought out a .416 Rigby for his buffalo, and the .330 Dakota for the plains game. He used one round for each of the calibres on the zeroing range in camp, killed his buffalo with a single chest shot using the .416 Rigby, and his 8 plains game animals with one shot each from the .330 Dakota, including his zebra, dropped at 300 paces without moving an inch. As a single rifle on safari for plains game and with the correct load/bullet combination, the .330 Dakota will step up to the plate admirably.
With our gun ownership laws getting more and more stringent here in Africa, for convenience sake and as a working PH, my personal battery has been whittled down over the years, to a .458 Lott, .375 H&H, 7x57mm Mauser and a pump-action 12ga 3” Magnum with a game barrel. This choice of firearms is more than adequate for anything I may be called upon to do, hunting or guiding wise on this continent.
However, to get back to the ideal all-round calibre for an African safari for those who will probably only hunt Africa once or twice, and not necessarily specialise on say elephant only, in summing up I will stay with the .375 H&H as at this stage of cartridge evolution and development, it has to be the choice. Here in Africa it has been well-written up and recommended by internationally recognised hunter/writer names like Gregor Woods, Don Heath, Koos Barnard to mention a few, and in the US John Barsness and many others. Gregor Woods once wrote that although he has owned the gamut of rifles from .22 to .458 he has through hard learned experience in the field, settled on the .375 H&H, and when he arrives at a kudu or gemsbok hunt carrying his .375 if other hunters scoff at him and ask why he is bringing a rifle more suited to buffalo and elephant on an antelope hunt. His stock reply is, “Because everything I shoot with it falls down” – I fully concur.