Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Today's subject: calibers.

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.


  1. Oh, and another thing to consider with cartridges: "If my ammo is lost en route to my hunt, can I find more locally?" You can likely find .30-'06 or .375 H&H in Africa. 7.4mm WildcatHipsterBoomer, not so much.

  2. Personally, I would go with the Ruger. They are built hell for strong. I used a MKII in 243 on white tail for years.

  3. My wife and I went to South Africa last May, I rented a CZ 550 in 30-06 from the PH, it performed beautifully on Impala and Blesbuck. I would definitely recommend the '06.

  4. (Tamalanche)

    Yes, you're on the right track. Nothing wrong with a 308 or 30-06. Yes, you need something bigger for Eland although I have seen one killed with a 270.

    Actually, you can go far with a 270 and a 375, if you can put the 270 holes where they need to be.

    Take the rifle you can shoot, that's much more important than the caliber.

    1. That's actually one of my considerations. I've long been a shotgun guy, and I've hunted deer all my life, but I don't have a lot of experience with the mongo rifle calibers. I've never needed something that will shoot flat out to 500 yards like a Lazzeroni. Where I grew up, your choices were generally .270 Win, .30-'06 or .30-30 Win. I knew a couple of people with .308s like me or a cheap SKS in 7.62x39mm, but mostly you shot what your dad shot, which was one of the three cartridges mentioned above. My grandpa shoots .30-'06, so my dad had a bias towards .30-caliber rounds, and I do too. I'm comfortable shooting a .308 or .30-'06, and I know what the cartridge can do. I reckon I'll do better with the old familiar standby rounds than trying to rely on the latest 7mm Loudenboomer.

      Similarly, the mild recoil and solid accuracy of the 9.3x62mm have lured me away from the .375 H&H as much as the lesser cost of the rifles and ammo. The fact of the matter is that I don't need the .375's potency on this trip. If I ever do a buffalo hunt, I might change my mind, but then again I might not. There have been a whole lot of buff taken with 9.3mm bullets trucking along at 2350fps or so, and with the new developments in bullet construction and powder technology, I think it's all I'll need until I win the lottery and buy a Holland & Holland .470 NE double :)

  5. You'll have a professional hunter backing you up I presume, but one consideration, if theres sharp edged critters, it may be worth taking a rifle that's capable of dealing with the largest thing that may be a problem, rather than appropriate for the specific game.

    Best of luck on the hunt, and will look forward to reading more.

    1. That's a good point, and one I've thought about. My professional will be toting a large-caliber dangerous game rifle, and I'll be carrying my 9.3x62mm Ruger as a general rule. I'll use the lighter rifle only if I need a longer shot.