• Kev Thomas Writes

A Single Calibre For African Safari

Above: The Mauser action on my Musgrave .375 H&H. This rifle served me well throughout much of my professional hunting career, and never failed me. Although I seldom used the scope, I'd had it fitted with detachable mounts so visiting clients could hire and use the rifle.

With heightened security being the order of the day across the globe, and not likely to disappear anytime in the future, visiting clientele often end up in a bit of a quandary as to what rifle(s) to take to Africa. With that in mind and in order to avoid a lot of unnecessary stress while trying to fly internationally with a bunch of guns and ammunition, what then is the ideal calibre for a one rifle safari? Bearing in mind I'm posing the question for those sport-hunters who'll be hunting dangerous game while on safari, even if it's only one buffalo in their mix of plains game. After all, buffalo are the most common and popular species of dangerous game hunted each year on African safari.

Above: Glassing in the Sijarira Safari Area in Zimbabwe, the tracker at extreme right is carrying my .375 H&H.

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 calibre 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. Granted, the .375 H&H might be classified as a ‘Medium Bore Calibre’ however, it offers extremely flat trajectory coupled to adequate bullet weight and performance in the field, which is hard to beat.

Above: As a young professional hunter and prior to that as a game ranger, I only ever used a .375 H&H. The crop raiding hippo in this photo had been lying up in dense bush off the water, and at night attacking irrigation staff. Placing a bullet at the base of a hippo's ear brings instant death.

Probably the most important factor to consider when it comes to taking one gun on an African safari, is bullets. Your all-round rifle choice must be able to use a wide variety of bullet weights. Although if you’re using a .375 H&H, the 300gr solid bullets don’t only work on the biggest game Africa can throw at you, 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. It’ll do the same on an impala, although with them being herd animals, after exiting the bullet may travel on to wound or kill others. This simply means caution should prevail when you’re hunting out of a herd, or bachelor groupings. Other bullet weights for the .375 H&H like the 235gr and 270gr soft-points allow the calibre to kill everything up to eland, whilst the 300gr premium expanding bullets and solids do the job adequately on buffalo, and with the solids, on elephant.

Above: A .375 H&H 286grn PMP (South African) Super Monolithic solid recovered from the skull of an elephant cow shows some erosion on the shank, probably from contact with bone

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 feet 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.

With regards the .375 H&H, if we look at some of the bullet weights and velocities, they certainly help reinforce the argument for it being one of the finest all-round calibres to take to Africa for a visiting sport hunter.

235gr @ 2,800fps

270gr @ 2,650fps

300gr @ 2,500fps

380gr @ 2,200fps (Rhino are a South African bullet manufacturer, and their 380gr solid shank core bonded .375 H&H bullets are ideal for use on buffalo)

The above bullet weight range allows a hunter to safely shoot an elephant and anything else in between, down to a common duiker. Bullet variations and brands available to the hand loader, and factory load brands in this day and age are excellent. 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’. Sage advice.

Above: Because of the range of bullet weights available, the .375 H&H is adequate for use on all of Africa's game, and solid bullets punch a neat hole through most soft-skinned smaller antelope like impala, unless bone is met.

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 somewhat exaggerated its penetration & killing abilities), and chose it as the most effective all-round cartridge. Taylor wrote the book way back in 1948, and now in 2020 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.

When hunting elephant one obviously only uses solid bullets and nothing else. 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 using the brain shot. He also mentions 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.

Above: A well constructed .375 H&H 300gr solid bullet produces sufficient penetration to kill even the largest elephant bull.

Back in 1979 the respected South African outdoor and hunting magazine S.A. Magnum ran an article titled ‘Sporting Rifle Cartridge’ and put the .375 H&H as the world’s (my italics) all round hunting cartridge/calibre. Again, in S.A. 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 H&H where he too puts forward arguments for the all-round title.

The late Wally Johnson, surely the doyen of Southern African PHs whose life was written up by Capstick in his book The Last Ivory Hunter was a dyed in the wool .375 H&H disciple throughout his professional and safari hunting career. In Capstick’s book Wally had this to say about the .375 H&H and I quote, I still consider and always will consider the .375 Holland & Holland Magnum as ‘the only gun’. In fact, I shot many hundreds of buffalo with the 9.3mm Mauser to save .375 ammo. I had no problems, but I would have preferred the .375 if I could have spared the ammo. Wally Johnson’s ivory hunting career spanned half a century, certainly enough time to form an opinion of a particular calibre's field performance.

Another professional ivory hunter from that era who believed in the .375 H&H was Wally Johnson’s friend and one-time ivory hunting partner, the late Harry Manners author of Kambaku. In 1945 Manners acquired his first .375 H&H Magnum, a Winchester Model 70, and he wrote, ‘I had tried various calibres and makes of firearms throughout the first few years of hunting – American, British and German, but as time passed, my favourite became the .375 H&H Magnum, using the ‘full-patch’ type solid bullet (slightly flattened at the point) which, when striking solid bone in big game, spreads out to almost double its width at the point without disintegration. On another occasion after stopping a determined elephant charge, Manners reflected. Wiping the sweat from my face, I breathed deeply, thankfully, then rubbed the stock of my .375 Winchester, almost affectionately. It had proved itself truly reliable. At a later stage he wrote. Twelve bull elephants had fallen to the .375 during the confusion and pandemonium. Throughout their lengthy hunting careers, Johnson and Manners never used anything bigger than the .375 H&H Magnum.

Above: A South African Rhino 380gr Solid Shank .375 H&H core bonded bullet recovered from a buffalo. The bullet had come to rest under the skin on the opposite side after a killing heart/lung shot, from about 85m.

Rhino Bullets in East London, South Africa, produce an extremely efficient .375 H&H bullet in 380gr which I have personally used fairly extensively. It’s also been extensively tested in the field and the production of this bullet possibly 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 for use on dangerous game, with the exception of leopard. With this in mind, and if a visiting hunter only wants to bring one rifle to Africa, I’d suggest he seriously consider the .375 H&H. I honestly don’t believe it’d be the wrong choice because it has too much of a respected and proven pedigree since 1912, for that to be the case. Dressing it with a good quality detachable variable scope, mounted over British Express type iron sites, or a ghost ring, so the scope can be removed when hunting in the very thick stuff, would also be wise.

Above: It goes without saying that if you're going to visit Africa for a hunting safari, only the best grade premium bullets should be used. Irrespective of whether they're handloads or factory loads.

Having been a PH of long standing 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. However, 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’s in the correct position to make a killing shot. 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 for a ‘one-gun safari’ is hinged around a suitable single rifle for a ‘mixed bag’ safari which includes dangerous game, but 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 without fuss.

In closure, Gregor Woods, respected South African editor, outdoor writer, and author, once wrote that although he’s owned the gamut of rifles from .22 to .458, through hard learned field experience, he’s settled on the .375 H&H. When he arrives at a kudu or gemsbok hunt carrying his .375 H&H if other hunters scoff at him and ask why he’s 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. My good friend Mike Fynn, another retired veteran Rhodesian and Zimbabwean game warden turned PH once quipped to a potential client who asked what calibre to bring on safari, ‘Bring anything you want as long as it is a .375 H&H Magnum’.

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