Tom Leoni

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Africa
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Some use a rifle so they can hunt. Others hunt so they can use specific rifles. Like me, for example.

1655773241711.jpeg


It was 1995 or thereabouts when NRA launched a publication program featuring reprints of hunting and firearm classics, all nicely bound in pigskin and gold accents and complete with matching silk bookmarks. The first title they republished—and the only one I’ve read multiple times cover to cover—was John Taylor’s African Rifles and Cartridges, a Bible of sorts for British ordnance and terminal ballistics for the Dark Continent. Back then, I was a semi-starving student finishing his MBA at Texas Christian University in Ft. Worth—as far (geographically and financially) from African big-game hunting as any 20-something-year-old will ever be. Yet, this book changed my life.

1655772571480.png


I saved money each month so I could buy myself a .416 Rigby Ruger No. 1 (which I have since sold)—bought just in case Babar would escape from the local zoo and turn rogue in my white-picket-fenced neighborhood—and got my hands on anything I could read about the Africa of yore. Stigand, Bell, Selous, Patterson—I devoured it all with a zest that only a youthful heart can bestow.

Fast forward more years than I care to count, and safaris have become a reality for me. This year, in particular, I was determined to finish my spiral-horned slam in South Africa with @KAROO WILD Safaris, a tremendous outfit with whom I’ve already hunted and that has treated me like royalty while giving me the memories of a lifetime. Karoo Wild is based in the Eastern cape and has access to hundreds of thousands of wild acres teeming with (among other animals) over 40 species of plains game with the highest kudu density in Africa.

Besides the game, obviously a focus of any hunt, my goal was to use my classic rifles. In particular, two rifles that are perhaps (albeit in different ways) the pinnacle of my collection. My passion for hunting has in time turned into a profession within the firearm industry, so I’ve been able to elevate myself a bit higher than eating Ramen noodles and lollypops to save for a whimsical purchase. So a few years ago I decided to buy myself the ultimate rifle—one with which I could hunt anything that walks while experiencing the sweet inebriation of pride of ownership and the joy of giving a soul back to an old classic. This is what I took—for the second time—to South Africa, along with a brand-new (yet older) comrade of which I’ll speak momentarily.


Rifle No. 1: Holland & Holland Falling Block, .375 Flanged Magnum


When it appeared on Gunsinternational, it simply screamed to me. I knew nothing about the seller, but the rifle’s maker, its lines, its description, its caliber, its apparent usability, truly commanded me “make me yours.” And I did. All that I learned afterwards about this incredible rifle, I learned after making the commitment to buy.

1655772774045.png


The rifle is a Holland & Holland falling block—one of the many variants of the Farquharson action—made in 1925, when this system was well on the wane. The specific design of the action is a Webley & Scott patent (1902), a particularly-strong version of this single-shot system with an automatic shotgun-style tang safety and a perfectly quiet lever operation. The rifle is chambered for the .375 Flanged Magnum Nitro Express, i.e., the rimmed version of the 1912-vintage .375 H&H known to most hunters to this day. It sports a 26” barrel with ramp front and single-leaf rear sight foldable to 50 or 200 yards--and it tips the scales at just shy of 10lbs.

Sometimes after the second world war, this rifle was outfitted with German-style claw mounts, and came to me with a very usable—and nearly 100% ideal—Zeiss Diatal-C 6x32 scope. Alas, the Lyman tang sight with which it was originally sold did not come with the rifle as it arrived to me. One of my missions is to find the correct model and have it re-fitted in the pre-drilled holes behind the safety catch. The original H&H ledger from 1925, of which I have a photocopy, specified that it was custom made for someone named Harper.

1655772856684.png


One of the many amazing features of this rifles is that it liked the very first handload that I tested it with. A 270-gr Speer boat-tail spitzer pushed at a chronographed 2,430 fps atop 68 grains of Alliant RL-15 delivered just under an inch at 100 yards—and without me even having to touch the scope settings! Five shots grouped nicely about 1 ½” above the bull, giving me a dead-on zero at 200 yards and a mere -3” at 250. Mild, accurate, and in that “magic” zone between 2,000 and 2,400 fps that somehow makes bullets stay together and penetrate.

1655773108039.png


Lastly, Mr. Wal Winfer, author of British Single Shot Rifles, Vol. 5 – Holland & Holland, thought this rifle noteworthy enough to be listed in his book. As a small concession to personal vanity, I had the silver oval engraved with my initials—otherwise the H&H is 100% unaltered from how I received it.

1655773297277.jpeg


This is the first rifle I ever took to Africa. It will accompany me there every time. But perhaps it will have to share at least part of the glory with a friend...



Rifle No. 2: Watson Brothers Martini Sporter, .303 British

If you’re like me, you can probably relate. “This is the last rifle I’ll buy because it’s the last rifle I’ll ever need.” And yet, just a few weeks later here you are writing a check to another seller, salivating at the prospect of owning the next “last rifle” in your collection. Such was the case for me when, here on the very pages of AH, a very kind gentleman advertised a Martini-action Watson Brothers sporter in the super-classic caliber .303 British. I knew it had to be mine.

1655773350976.jpeg


This 1896-vintage rifle has all the features of a classic British stalking rifle—proportions as sexy to me as the measurements of the Venus de Milo. A pistolgrip stock with a trim forend with horn tip, a 23.5” barrel with a full-length rib topped by express leaves graduated to 300 yards and a military ladder-style sight for longer-range shooting—the whole weighing a scant 6.5lbs.

This rifle had to come to Africa with me. Two small issues that would affect my ability to apply for a temporary export license: no serial number and no caliber designation. I decided to solve these problems by having the two numbers etched, tastefully and in the same font as the existing lettering, on the barrel and receiver. The caliber designation now reads. .303 next to the original “nitro proved” wording, while my own birthday, the twentyseventh of August—2708--is inscribed just ahead of the trigger guard as a way of a serial number.

1655773603309.png


The much harder obstacle to face was the scarcity of components for reloading. I had figured out it liked Federal Power-Shok 174gr factory loads, but the problem was that I only had a box of 20 left and week after week, no matter how hard I searched, I could not find any more. I longed for Hornady’s 174gr round nose Interlock (.312” instead of the more common .311”), but it was sold out even from the factory, with no lots forthcoming prior to my safari. I lucked into three boxes of Hawk 215gr spitzers, but I had scant time to play with different loads before leaving—so I ended up having three boxes of custom-loaded Hornadys expedited from Colorado Custom Cartridge Co., which grouped decently about 1” above the bull at 100 yards. Fingers crossed.

1655773629907.png


Both my rifles came with the quintessentially-English large swivel eyes—one mounted on the buttstock, one soldered to the barrel—and I furnished them with appropriate tong-style slings tied in the classic three-turn clinch knot. Besides the modern propellants in lieu of cordite, my ordnance for this safari could very well have seen action 100 years ago under the guidance of a Bill Judd or a Philip Percival.

As I locked the Pelican case in preparation for my trip from Virginia to the Eastern Cape, I had designated the H&H as my primary rifle and the Martini as my open-sighted specialty number for bushbuck. What seemed like an eternity later, the South Africa Airlink plane was slowly descending into Port Elizabeth and even the mother of all jet lags could not dampen my enthusiasm and anticipation.

1655773738488.jpeg


Under that blanket of early-morning clouds, my adventure was about to begin. And my PH—Victor “Iron-Man” Watson of Karoo Wild safaris would be there to collect me for the second time in less than a year. I knew I would love this hunt. What I didn't know (yet) was that one particular day on this hunt would be the absolute best so far in my lifetime.

1655773817759.jpeg


End of part 1.
 
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This is going to be good!
 
Great Report! I can't wait for part 2.
 
Outstanding start Sir. Looking forward to the upcoming chapters.
 
Some use a rifle so they can hunt. Others hunt so they can use specific rifles. Like me, for example.

View attachment 472544

It was 1995 or thereabouts when NRA launched a publication program featuring reprints of hunting and firearm classics, all nicely bound in pigskin and gold accents and complete with matching silk bookmarks. The first title they republished—and the only one I’ve read multiple times cover to cover—was John Taylor’s African Rifles and Cartridges, a Bible of sorts for British ordnance and terminal ballistics for the Dark Continent. Back then, I was a semi-starving student finishing his MBA at Texas Christian University in Ft. Worth—as far (geographically and financially) from African big-game hunting as any 20-something-year-old will ever be. Yet, this book changed my life.

View attachment 472539

I saved money each month so I could buy myself a .416 Rigby Ruger No. 1 (which I have since sold)—bought just in case Babar would escape from the local zoo and turn rogue in my white-picket-fenced neighborhood—and got my hands on anything I could read about the Africa of yore. Stigand, Bell, Selous, Patterson—I devoured it all with a zest that only a youthful heart can bestow.

Fast forward more years than I care to count, and safaris have become a reality for me. This year, in particular, I was determined to finish my spiral-horned slam in South Africa with @KAROO WILD Safaris, a tremendous outfit with whom I’ve already hunted and that has treated me like royalty while giving me the memories of a lifetime. Karoo Wild is based in the Eastern cape and has access to hundreds of thousands of wild acres teeming with (among other animals) over 40 species of plains game with the highest kudu density in Africa.

Besides the game, obviously a focus of any hunt, my goal was to use my classic rifles. In particular, two rifles that are perhaps (albeit in different ways) the pinnacle of my collection. My passion for hunting has in time turned into a profession within the firearm industry, so I’ve been able to elevate myself a bit higher than eating Ramen noodles and lollypops to save for a whimsical purchase. So a few years ago I decided to buy myself the ultimate rifle—one with which I could hunt anything that walks while experiencing the sweet inebriation of pride of ownership and the joy of giving a soul back to an old classic. This is what I took—for the second time—to South Africa, along with a brand-new (yet older) comrade of which I’ll speak momentarily.


Rifle No. 1: Holland & Holland Falling Block, .375 Flanged Magnum


When it appeared on Gunsinternational, it simply screamed to me. I knew nothing about the seller, but the rifle’s maker, its lines, its description, its caliber, its apparent usability, truly commanded me “make me yours.” And I did. All that I learned afterwards about this incredible rifle, I learned after making the commitment to buy.

View attachment 472541

The rifle is a Holland & Holland falling block—one of the many variants of the Farquharson action—made in 1925, when this system was well on the wane. The specific design of the action is a Webley & Scott patent (1902), a particularly-strong version of this single-shot system with an automatic shotgun-style tang safety and a perfectly quiet lever operation. The rifle is chambered for the .375 Flanged Magnum Nitro Express, i.e., the rimmed version of the 1912-vintage .375 H&H known to most hunters to this day. It sports a 26” barrel with ramp front and single-leaf rear sight foldable to 50 or 200 yards--and it tips the scales at just shy of 10lbs.

Sometimes after the second world war, this rifle was outfitted with German-style claw mounts, and came to me with a very usable—and nearly 100% ideal—Zeiss Diatal-C 6x32 scope. Alas, the Lyman tang sight with which it was originally sold did not come with the rifle as it arrived to me. One of my missions is to find the correct model and have it re-fitted in the pre-drilled holes behind the safety catch. The original H&H ledger from 1925, of which I have a photocopy, specified that it was custom made for someone named Harper.

View attachment 472542

One of the many amazing features of this rifles is that it liked the very first handload that I tested it with. A 270-gr Speer boat-tail spitzer pushed at a chronographed 2,430 fps atop 68 grains of Alliant RL-15 delivered just under an inch at 100 yards—and without me even having to touch the scope settings! Five shots grouped nicely about 1 ½” above the bull, giving me a dead-on zero at 200 yards and a mere -3” at 250. Mild, accurate, and in that “magic” zone between 2,000 and 2,400 fps that somehow makes bullets stay together and penetrate.

View attachment 472543

Lastly, Mr. Wal Winfer, author of British Single Shot Rifles, Vol. 5 – Holland & Holland, thought this rifle noteworthy enough to be listed in his book. As a small concession to personal vanity, I had the silver oval engraved with my initials—otherwise the H&H is 100% unaltered from how I received it.

View attachment 472545

This is the first rifle I ever took to Africa. It will accompany me there every time. But perhaps it will have to share at least part of the glory with a friend...



Rifle No. 2: Watson Brothers Martini Sporter, .303 British

If you’re like me, you can probably relate. “This is the last rifle I’ll buy because it’s the last rifle I’ll ever need.” And yet, just a few weeks later here you are writing a check to another seller, salivating at the prospect of owning the next “last rifle” in your collection. Such was the case for me when, here on the very pages of AH, a very kind gentleman advertised a Martini-action Watson Brothers sporter in the super-classic caliber .303 British. I knew it had to be mine.

View attachment 472546

This 1896-vintage rifle has all the features of a classic British stalking rifle—proportions as sexy to me as the measurements of the Venus de Milo. A pistolgrip stock with a trim forend with horn tip, a 23.5” barrel with a full-length rib topped by express leaves graduated to 300 yards and a military ladder-style sight for longer-range shooting—the whole weighing a scant 6.5lbs.

This rifle had to come to Africa with me. Two small issues that would affect my ability to apply for a temporary export license: no serial number and no caliber designation. I decided to solve these problems by having the two numbers etched, tastefully and in the same font as the existing lettering, on the barrel and receiver. The caliber designation now reads. .303 next to the original “nitro proved” wording, while my own birthday, the twentyseventh of August—2708--is inscribed just ahead of the trigger guard as a way of a serial number.

View attachment 472547

The much harder obstacle to face was the scarcity of components for reloading. I had figured out it liked Federal Power-Shok 174gr factory loads, but the problem was that I only had a box of 20 left and week after week, no matter how hard I searched, I could not find any more. I longed for Hornady’s 174gr round nose Interlock (.312” instead of the more common .311”), but it was sold out even from the factory, with no lots forthcoming prior to my safari. I lucked into three boxes of Hawk 215gr spitzers, but I had scant time to play with different loads before leaving—so I ended up having three boxes of custom-loaded Hornadys expedited from Colorado Custom Cartridge Co., which grouped decently about 1” above the bull at 100 yards. Fingers crossed.

View attachment 472548

Both my rifles came with the quintessentially-English large swivel eyes—one mounted on the buttstock, one soldered to the barrel—and I furnished them with appropriate tong-style slings tied in the classic three-turn clinch knot. Besides the modern propellants in lieu of cordite, my ordnance for this safari could very well have seen action 100 years ago under the guidance of a Bill Judd or a Philip Percival.

As I locked the Pelican case in preparation for my trip from Virginia to the Eastern Cape, I had designated the H&H as my primary rifle and the Martini as my open-sighted specialty number for bushbuck. What seemed like an eternity later, the South Africa Airlink plane was slowly descending into Port Elizabeth and even the mother of all jet lags could not dampen my enthusiasm and anticipation.

View attachment 472549

Under that blanket of early-morning clouds, my adventure was about to begin. And my PH—Victor “Iron-Man” Watson of Karoo Wild safaris would be there to collect me for the second time in less than a year. I knew I would love this hunt. What I didn't know (yet) was that one particular day on this hunt would be the absolute best so far in my lifetime.

View attachment 472550

End of part 1.
What wonderful rifles and a nice set up to the story!
 
Great story and great writing, oh, and very nice rifles of course.
 
Thank for the classic rifle story. It was fascinating. Looking forward to the actual hunt. It will be great! What kind of gaiters are you wearing? Thanks. Your friend, Brian
 
I can definitely relate to hunting in order to use a specific rifle. I’ve told many people throughout the years that it would certainly hurt my enthusiasm for hunting if I had to carry a gun that didn’t appeal to me.
I’ve planned trips around my choice of gun as well as taking trips I probably wouldn’t have otherwise just so this old dog or that could have one more go before they passed.
I love your taste in guns and appreciate your appreciation for the history belonging to them. Don’t you wish they could share their story with you.
 
What a delightful piece of writing. I'm hooked!

FN
 
Beautiful guns !

Now, waiting for the hunt :A Popcorn:
 
Even the boots are correct Tom, I know this is going to be a great hunt.
 
Thank for the classic rifle story. It was fascinating. Looking forward to the actual hunt. It will be great! What kind of gaiters are you wearing? Thanks. Your friend, Brian

Hello, Brian, the cotton duck gaiters are US Model 1894 (I believe) replica that I picked up years ago. While in South Africa, I had a talented leatherworker from Graaff-Reinet use them as a pattern to make me a pair in calfskin. Really looking forward to seeing the result!
 
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Beautiful rifles. Can't wait for part 2!
 
Magnificent rifles from a grand period!
As a teenager I looked for a time for a Martini conversion in 219 Donaldson Wasp. A dream varmint rifle IMO.
Looking forward to your hunt report!
 
Part 2: The Martini .303 Gets Its Day

Africa. I couldn't believe I was there again, and back in my "old" cottage from last year too. Cloud nine doesn't begin to describe how I was feeling. But time eventually came to get down to business: one of the first things we did was head to the 100 yard range to check the zero on my rifles. A piece of advice to the readers: never, ever skip this step. Besides the obvious possibility of scopes moving or getting knocked out of zero during flight, the variations in altitude, temperature, and humidity will affect your point of impact, no matter how scientific you were in zeroing your rifle at home. Both of my rifles were shooting 1” to 1 ½” above the bull at 100 yards in Washington, DC. Once I arrived in the Karoo, both were shooting considerably higher. I am fairly scientific about not cleaning and not oiling the bore between my last zeroing session at home and my hunt, so I knew that this difference had to do with other factors—as it is often to be expected.

While with the H&H the problem was easily and quickly corrected with a few clicks of the Zeiss scope, the iron-sighted Martini presented a more unique problem that called for a somewhat creative solution.

1656356652334.jpeg


Namely, I was shooting with the sights at their lowest-possible setting. These consist of a standing 100-yard shallow express “V” with two folding leaves marked 200 and 300 yards, plus a military-style ladder sight graduated from 300 to 1000 yards. I had therefore only two options: either use the elevation equivalent of “Kentucky windage” by placing the front sight lower in the rear “V” or by deliberately aiming lower on the animal; or build up the front sight by attaching an object of some thickness to it. We decided to perform some good old-fashioned bush gunsmithing and build up the front sight.

1656356776951.png


Victor had a length of metal wire and some strong glue. I had my multiplex Swiss Army knife with a good metal file. Eureka! We cut a small length of this wire, roughly matching the size of the flat-tipped front sight; I carefully filed a flat bottom on this length of wire, and we glued it on. After heading back to the range and firing a few shots, I established that the 300 yard leaf—or safer yet for walking through acacia thornbush, the military-style ladder at its lowest setting—gave me the same point of impact that I had back at home, namely 1” high at 100 yards. Victor gave it a go as well to make sure we were both on the same page, and we called the experiment a success.

1656356823604.jpeg


On the way back to the lodge or Lapa, Victor gave me an interesting insight as to what the old timers would do. There is an indigenous shrub called milk bush (Euphorbia trigona), which looks like an explosion of asparagus spears. As Victor explained, in the old days shooters and hunters would break off a spear from this bush and use the thick milky substance it contains “to whiten the front sight of their .303.” Not just of any rifle, but “of their .303.” As I diligently proceeded to whiten the recently-fashioned front sight “of my .303” with the same time-honored procedure, I somehow felt more authentic and more in the spirit of the hunt I was about to embark on.

1656356945926.jpeg
1656356941790.jpeg


That night I had the pleasure to see the lovely Mrs. Watson, who had been on an errand during my arrival. Lindsay Watson is synonym of “hospitality” in my book. An ever-interesting conversation partner with a wonderful sense of humor, a thoughtful and considerate hostess that treats you like family, a fantastic cook and someone with whom it is genuinely nice to spend time—I was very happy to see her again.

1656357282132.png


The morning after, as I had told the Watsons, I did not want a big breakfast because I just couldn’t wait to hunt. After a cup of coffee, Victor, our tracker Mitchell—whom since last year’s adventure I had nicknamed “Infallible”--my Martini and I were on the Toyota heading for a property where bushbuck is known to appear at given times of the day. The early-morning drive gave me an opportunity to delight myself in an African sunrise--always one of God's pictorial masterpieces, even when viewed through a windshield.

1656357415586.jpeg


The property is a vast series of alfalfa fields running along the Little Fish river. The fields slope gently towards the water, which is bordered on both sides by rather dense bush in which the animals lay up. While on the way, Victor was telling me that we had probably missed the early window in which these habit-driven animals come out to feed, and that we probably would have to wait a few hours for them to hopefully show themselves again. No matter, I was so excited to be there and to be hunting that I would have waited motionless until dark that evening if that meant... well, if that meant continuing to hunt. As we were parking and getting out of the truck, I remembered the wonderful words of philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, words that I live by when I'm in the field—“One does not hunt in order to kill; one kills in order to have hunted.”

But on that day, goddess Artemis had decreed that I wouldn’t have to wait long for my bushbuck. We were walking the dirt road roughly 100 yards parallel to the river, on our left, when Mitchell abruptly halted, dropped to a crouching position and pointed: there was a fantastic bushbuck ram exploring the edges of the thickets bordering the river. I quickly loaded the .303 as Victor was setting up the shooting sticks. The ram was starting to walk back into the bush, presenting me with a quartering-away shot. The Martini’s trigger broke crisply and the thwack! of the 174gr Hornady round nose was unmistakable.

We ran to the animal, and sure enough it was a beautiful one. It had fallen exactly where I had hit him. The bullet had penetrated his left flank and exited just shy of the right shoulder, leaving an exit hole through which I could comfortably insert my index finger.

1656357465177.jpeg


This gorgeous ram was not only my third spiral horned animal after last year’s nyala and kudu. But it was a wonderful way to bloody the old 1896 Watson Brothers Martini .303 that I had only recently purchased—and that I had gotten to shoot after so many problems with finding ammunition, as well as after the adventure with the high point of impact and the improvised front sight. Here is a well-deserved posed picture with the bushbuck, myself and Victor "The Iron Man," with whom all this wouldn't have been possible.

1656357598000.jpeg


On the way back, Victor told me that they would let the meat hang for a few days and that it would be very likely that by the end of my hunt, I would be able to taste the bushbuck. The idea of this bushbuck plus one of Lindsay Watson’s magic recipes made me even giddier—if that was at all possible after the day’s adventure. That evening, some fantastic kudu biltong washed down by some crisp South African Chardonnay was the overture of the festivities, which consisted in a trio of meats from kudu, bushbuck and springbuck.

1656357661698.jpeg


1656357787390.png



In the morning, I would hopefully be able to catch up to the zebra that had eluded me the year before. I knew it would be an arduous hunt, since in this area they tend to stay at higher elevations and outside of rifle range. This would be a job for the H&H, which I readied for the next day’s hunt.

End of part 2.
 
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I love the build up @Tom Leoni and I have the impression that the two main characters are going to get quite their moment in the spot light in the next few installments!

I hope to do the same type of hunts as well, taking along beautiful pieces of art into the African wilderness, where they are at home.
 

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