Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Reviewing "Buffalo!" by Craig Boddington

I’m feeling a bit under the weather today.  I think I still have some lingering crud that I picked up at the SCI show.  Compared to what some of my friends came down with at SHOT this year, I count myself lucky.  But since I’ll be away from the blog for a few days next week while I attend some work training, I should probably get around to discussing that Boddington book to which I alluded earlier.

As I mentioned earlier, I first got interested in African hunting by reading Peter Capstick’s classic “Death in the Long Grass” when I was just a lad in short pants, as they say.  Capstick’s wild tales and colorful turns of phrase riveted my attention in the way that no non-fiction could at that point.  I tore through that book (and every other Capstick book in Dad’s library) like a starving leopard through a particularly pungent warthog bait.  I think it helped that it worried my fairly liberal reading/English teacher at the time; I felt somewhat subversive.

So Capstick whetted my appetite, and I continued to read his stuff as it came out (or, more accurately, as Dad acquired them).  When the Capstick Library editions of classic books came out, I started on them as well.  I read Man-Eaters of Tsavo and enjoyed it, though I thought the writing wasn’t quite as elegant and readable as Capstick.  I felt the same about Jim Corbett.  In fact, I tended to measure every African safari book against “Death in the Long Grass”. But eventually I ran out of Capstick to read, and he is sadly no longer able to write more.  So I branched out.  I read some Hunter, some Cooper, some Hemingway.  All had their merits.

The first time I read Boddington was a few years ago when I decided that an African safari was both within my reach and something I wanted to spend the time, effort and money to do.  On the advice of several folks, my grandmother gave me a copy of “Safari Rifles II” for Christmas that year and Iwas impressed with the honesty and pragmatism tempering his appreciation for some of the odd-ball cartridges.  He had a very real thing for the 8mm Remington Magnum and the .358 Winchester, the latter of which I had been looking at in a Browning BLR levergun to use on feral pigs. 

So fast forward to the Safari Club International show earlier this month, where I saw Boddington autographing books.  I already had a copy of Safari Rifles II, so what to get?  Despite the fact that I won’t be going after one on this trip, I chose “Buffalo!” because it seemed to be one of his favorite game species, based on what I had read previously.  I figured if a man is passionate about a thing, his writing will show it.  In that assumption, I was correct.

Boddington’s passion shows from the start, as he describes why he hunts buffalo.  The first chapter is dedicated to the reasons to hunt these big beasts, from his first encounter nearly three decades earlier to his pragmatic reasoning of cost, availability, and meat supply compared to the other members of the Big Five.  Like Capstick before him, he cites Ruark’s immortal description that the buffalo “looks at you like you owe him money”, and he says it with reverence to both the animal and the writer.  He openly expresses his admiration and cautious respect for the creatures, contrasted with the fear he feels towards lion, cow elephant and leopards.

That’s a theme to which Boddington returns time and again in this book:  his respect for the game and the rules of fair chase.  Like the great conservationists of old, he understands that there has to be a balance; that game must be protected and shepherded, and in order for that to happen, there must be a financial incentive to doing so.  Boddington is very clear that the only way for game to survive in modern Africa is through the deliberate and measured use of sport hunting to generate sufficient value from the animals to both landowners and governments.  This eye towards conservation continues in his self-imposed criteria for a ‘shootable’ bull.  Several times in the course of the book, he states that he tries to shoot bulls that are past breeding age, even if their horns are less of a trophy than the younger bulls.  I mentioned I got a signed copy; the inscription reads:  “Matt – shoot old bulls!”  That kind of commitment to ethical hunting is a far better representation of our people to the outside world than, say, Ted Nugent.

The book continues on with discussion on the various subspecies of African buffalo, from the well-known Cape buff to the smaller forest buffalo of Western Africa.  The bulk of the book, however, consists of some very pragmatic advice regarding tracking, stalking, estimating horn size, shot placement, guns/cartridges/bullets (this chapter is basically a re-hash of part of “Safari Rifles II”, which is fine because this is a perfectly valid subject), and what happens when things go sideways.  There is a lot of experience at work here, and yet Boddington remains humble and defers to both his PH’s and his trackers.  One bit of advice struck home:  make a set of shooting sticks and practice with them.  A bit of research shows that Home Depot sells bamboo poles for very little money; three poles and some old bicycle inner tube can make a very useable set of shooting sticks.  Given my lackluster performance on the sticks at the last safari match (the plains game stage was by far my weakest, and the only one where I shot from shooting sticks).  Perhaps this could be a subject for a later post...

The book wraps up with a reasonably in-depth treatise on the other game buffalo of the world, focusing on the various types of water buffalo found in India, Asia and Australia.  He then moves into a fitting coda:  recounting the ‘perfect’ Cape buffalo hunt.

All in all, I found “Buffalo!” to be an enjoyable and satisfying read.  I don’t think Boddington is the same level of wordsmith as Ruark or Capstick, but his advice is very down-to-earth and pragmatic without sacrificing an obvious passion for the animal and the hunt.  He’s certainly got far more experience than Ruark (at least, Ruark at the time of “Horn of the Hunter”), and he is far less likely to sensationalize and embellish than Capstick.  I intend to look into more of Boddington’s work, and I think he’ll have a place in my library for some time to come.


  1. I need to make me some shooting sticks. Joe C

  2. My wife and I made some bamboo shooting sticks and practiced off of them every 2 weeks for the year before our safari. They have some quirks that are NOT intuititive. Consequently, we missed ZERO shots on safari, with my wife being given the nickname "Sniper-Woman" by the trackers, which she is very proud of.

    A good friend of mine had his first hunt on sticks this fall for Elk in the Rocky Mountains. He is an amazing field shooter, probably the finest I have ever known. But he didn't know how to shoot off of sticks, and he missed 3 layup shots on trophy elk, and was FURIOUS with himself.

    Practice, Practice, Practice.


    1. I've fired a grand total of 10 rounds off shooting sticks so far, all of them in competition. I noticed that I shot about 6" high @ 50 yards while doing so, until I looped a finger over the barrel and held the gun down on the sticks.

      Do you have any recommendations for stick-shooting techniques or tricks?

  3. Remember the code of the rifleman. "If you can get closer, get closer. If you can get steadier, get steadier." Whenever support is available, USE IT. But know how to use it, or you are in for a shock.

    I never tried looping my finger over the barrel. Most rifles will "bounce" their shot away from any hard surface the forend is touching. If you're sighted in with sandbags or similar, and then use a horizontal or vertical support that is hard (cement, wood, truck hood, etc.) most rifles will throw the shot AWAY from the support, hence your experience that your rifle flung shots high when supported from below by a hard support (sticks). I like using a vertical post rest when I can find one (tree, pole, fence post, etc.) and without proper technique it throws bullets right or left away from the support.

    Proper technique to avoid this problem is to make sure that your rifle has something soft or organic between itself and the support. Simplest is to put your hand on the support, and put your rifle on your hand. This will usually eliminate the problem.

    Alternative method is to make the support out of something soft. I attached a piece of leather to the top of the two sticks, above the thong that acted as the pivot, and when separated the sticks would turn the top leather into a hammoc of sorts, and that completely eliminated the problem. Some commercial sticks and tripods come with a soft rubber or urethane rest that accomplishes the same thing. After the experiment with the strap, I just started making my off hand into a fist and putting it into the crook of the sticks and rested the rifle on top of it. Worked like a charm.

    Sticks are easier for a good shooter than a tripod (in my experience) but tripods are easier for the PH to set up for average shooters because they stand on their own. I found that I loved sticks and hated tripods. On sticks, I could easily control them myself, could grab one and move it a few inches, or could just scoot backwards to lower the sticks if elevation wasn't right. I had none of that flexability with tripods. I found out our PH used sticks, and that's all we practiced with. Find out what yours uses, and practice accordingly.

    Some shooters have big problems with shot placement in the horizontal plane when shooting off of sticks, and I believe it is primarily due to their stance. When shooting from the sticks, square up your stance behind them quite a bit. .Most shooting is done with your feet either at a 45 degree angle to the target, or possibly even aligned with it. Your stability will improve dramatically if your feet are 90 degrees to the target, so that your feet and the sticks make a 4 legged square structure. You will have MUCH better azimuth control this way.

    Make some sticks yourself, try to make them similar to the PH's, and practice, practice, practice. You will thank yourself afterword.


  4. Thanks for the advice. I'm going to try to hit Home Depot this Saturday to get some bamboo and see what I can come up with.

    I'll give the little sling a try, as well as supporting the rifle with my hand in between it and the sticks, and see how it goes. I didn't want to loop a finger over the barrel in case it would disrupt the harmonics, but I figured at 50 yards something had to be done and harmonics wouldn't cause that big of an issue at that range. Turns out I was right. My last shots were dead on the money.

    There's another safari rifle match on 30 March, I'll definitely be doing a post about how that goes. I plan to use my new sticks there (assuming Home Depot has bamboo) If nothing else, I'll have more cases to reload afterwards, and hopefully some pictures as well.

  5. if they don't have bamboo then use dowel rods. You really don't care about size or weight for practice sticks for the range, so don't sweat it if they're a bit thick or heavy.