I'm a gun guy. I love guns. I love shooting guns. I love reading about guns. I memorize gun facts like Ken Jennings on Jeopardy. Thus, it may come as a shocker that I'm doing the first real post about *gasp* calibers.
There are a ton of classic calibers for African hunting. Theodore Roosevelt took a .30-'03 (yes, you read that right) and a .405 Winchester, among others. The .375 H&H Magnum has a well deserved reputation as an all-around African cartridge, capable of (if not exactly perfect for) taking any critter on the continent (and, probably, the land surface of the Earth). The big Nitro Express double rifle cartridges have a cachet all their own, and have been making a big comeback after decades of decline.
Choosing a caliber for your African safari is a matter of logic in many ways: what game do I plan to hunt? In what kind of terrain will I be hunting? What kind of rifle (double, bolt action, single shot, lever action) do I use? Do I even use a rifle, or do I use a handgun (revolver, single-shot)? Is the cartridge readily available in gun shops or stores, or is it a handloading-only proposition? These questions will narrow down your choices.
But safaris aren't exclusively practical. There's definitely something to be said for the cachet of history. For me, a big part of the excitement of going on safari is walking in places where giants have walked previously, and I hear the call of the old calibers strongly. So how does one balance the two?
First thing's first: game and terrain. I plan to hunt in South Africa along the Limpopo river, where there is moderate to heavy thornbush. Most shots will be 100 yards or less, and a 200 yard shot is about the longest I can reasonably expect. So I don't need a super-flat-shooting wunderpatron. That's good, because those new supercartridges tend to be hard-kicking, barrel-eating, wallet-raping bastards. Whatever I pick can have reasonable velocities and good versatility.
I plan to hunt plains game, from the tiny Steinbok up to the kudu and possibly eland, but mostly things like gemsbok, warthog, impala and wildebeest. Most of these are deer-sized, so I can use a deer rifle. The bigger critters like eland, kudu and wildebeest (and possibly zebra) might call for a bigger gun with a bit more oomph. So, I'm looking at taking two rifles. I want a 'light' (what most hunters in the US would generally term a 'medium' rifle, or full-power deer rifle) and a 'medium' (which most hunters in the US would term an 'elephant gun', even though I'll not shoot any elephants or even buffalo on this first trip). There are a lot of modern, high-performance cartridges in both categories, but let's start with the 'light' rifle.
The first cartridge I looked at was the 7x57mm Mauser. It's got a long history of use in Africa, it's got decent bullet selection, and it can be had in light and handy rifles. But to my mind, it's a bit light for most of the larger plains game, and I want something that I can use in a pinch on most anything I see (within reason). Plus, it's hard to find in an inexpensive, US-made rifle. So, that's out for now.
The next cartridge I looked at was the .318 Westley Richards. This is a classic cartridge, but one I don't see very often anymore. Turns out almost nobody makes it. Westley Richards will build you a new bolt-gun in this caliber, but you'll pay out the nose for it. So that's out too, along with the .300 H&H Magnum for the same reasons.
The more I looked, the more I saw similar issues with just about every 'light' cartridge with any significant historical cachet. And then it hit me: there is one classic American hunting cartridge that has a long history of use in Africa: the venerable .30-'06 Springfield. It's always been a versatile, excellent cartridge with decent trajectory and a plethora of bullet options, but with the newer powders and advanced bullet designs, it's become even better. For what I need, I figure a passel of 168gr Barnes TTSX handloads will do nicely. I've used this bullet in my .308 for whitetail, and it's incredible. It blows my old 150gr Nosler BTs out of the water. The BTs would occasionally fail to expand when they hit bone, and didn't do well in the brushy country where I hunt back in West Virginia. The Barnes bullet is just amazing. It blows through bone, tissue, and hide like it wasn't there. It's the perfect bullet for deep penetration with good expansion.
So that's settled, now what rifle? There are a ton of .30-'06 rifles on the market, it's just about the universal deer caliber and every maker produces one. I'd like a bolt-action, because of the intrinsic strength and accuracy of the design, and my familiarity with it from years of deer hunting. But do I go for a Remington? Winchester? Ruger? CZ? Custom? I've already got a Ruger bolt-action in a larger caliber (which I'll touch on in the next segment), and I've used a Remington Model 7 in .308 for years on whitetail. This is something I'm still trying to decide, and I may not choose for some time. But in any event, I've got a set of reloading dies so that I can start working up loads as soon as I get a rifle. And if worst comes to worst, I'll take that little Model 7 and I'm sure it'll do just fine.