The .458 Lott: More Than Enough Gun
Above: After a hard day's hunting while on safari, my .458 Lott gets its daily clean.
During the mid-1980s I guided an American sport hunter, ‘Jacques’ P. (Jack) Lott, on a plains game safari. High on his bucket list was a good black wildebeest and a red hartebeest. At the time Jack was already well into his seventies and had several African safaris under his belt. During a 1959 safari with the late doyen Mozambique PH, Wally Johnson, Lott was carrying a new .458 Winchester Magnum. He’d wounded a buffalo and while following it he and Johnson were both gored. The incident put PH Johnson and Lott into the Umtali Hospital in what was then Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).
Lott’s close buffalo encounter convinced him a more powerful cartridge than the .458 Winchester Magnum was a must when hunting Africa’s heavy boned dangerous game. During the buffalo incident Wally Johnson had been carrying his favourite rifle, a shelf bought .375 H&H originally purchased in 1937. It was a calibre he used throughout his professional hunting career. Wally Johnson had also been a successful professional ivory hunter for many years. When Mozambique closed to commercial ivory hunting in the early 1950s, he turned to guiding foreign hunting clientele on safari. Johnson’s business partner, ivory hunter Harry Manners, was also a dedicated fan of the .375 H&H using 300 grain Kynoch solids. Certainly, a well-constructed and proven bullet across the hunting fields of Africa.
Above: Standing watching an elephant cowherd in a jesse thicket in Zimbabwe's Chirisa Safari Area. My .458 Lott in hand.
After the .458 Winchester Magnum was brought into production in 1956 it was an immediate commercial success. And certainly, a more economical alternative to expensive English double rifles, which at the time, were considered the standard type rifle for dangerous game hunting in Africa. Many of the British colonial governments in Africa, and a few recently independent African countries of that era, also adopted the .458 Winchester Magnum as their preferred calibre. It was at a time when dangerous game control work by their Game and Tsetse Fly departments was at a peak. Prior to the launch of the .458 Winchester most African nations had been using the .404 Jeffery, .425 Westley Richards and .416 Rigby. This switch to the .458 Winchester Magnum was more about economics, than actual field performance of the calibre itself.
At its inception the .458 Winchester Magnum promised to emulate the performance of the .450 Nitro Express cartridge. It was designed for a standard-length bolt-action rifle. Out in the field however, it soon became apparent the .458 Winchester Magnums being used in Africa were not always meeting with their expectations. One of the main problems in those early days was the clumping of powder due to being compressed in the short cartridge case. Shelf life too, an important factor with compressed loads wasn’t considered an issue. Thus, no thought was ever given to pulling bullets on an annual basis to check for powder clumping, or possible reloading with fresh powder. I have clear recall how when I was a young Rhodesian government game ranger in the late 1960s our .458 bullets were often left on vehicle dashboards in the sun for hours at a time. No thought was ever given to possible pressure problems arising.
Getting back to Jack Lott, after he’d returned to the US following his release from hospital in Rhodesia, he began his search for a big bore cartridge which would suit his needs for hunting dangerous game in Africa. Not finding anything he felt met his requirements, he set about designing his own dangerous game cartridge. His original drawings were done on a serviette in a diner. Jack’s .458 Lott is simply a .458 belted hunting cartridge designed as a replacement for the less powerful .458 Winchester Magnum. It’s based on the full length .375 H&H Magnum blown out and shortened to 2.800 inches (71.1mm). And it’s designed specifically for the purpose of hunting African dangerous game.
Above: Throughout my safari career my two favourite carry guns when hunting dangerous game were always my .375 H&H at left in the above photo, and on the right my .458 Lott.
Lott’s first cases for the new rifle cartridge were fire-formed from .375 H&H Magnum brass into a chamber by using .458 calibre (11.6mm) bullets which had their bases re-sized .375-inch (9.5mm) to fit in the mouth of the .375 H&H Magnum. This fire-forming method left the newly formed cases slightly shorter than the parent cases. The resultant cartridge was named the .458 Lott in Jack’s honour. David Miller and Curt Crum used a similar method to create cases for their early custom .458 Lott rifles.
The objective of the .458 Lott design was to provide a greater case capacity than the standard .458 Winchester Magnum. Which in turn provided better field performance and less compression of the powder charge. Because of the .458 Lott’s lengthened cartridge case both objectives were achieved. An additional consideration on the plus side, was with the Lott cartridge in essence being a lengthened .458 Winchester Magnum, in most cases converting a standard .458 Winchester Magnum to a .458 Lott involves no more than a simple re-boring of the chamber. And if required, a lengthening of the magazine.
Although the .458 Lott was designed in response to perceived inadequacies and problems encountered with the .458 Winchester Magnum, it was initially slow in gaining popularity but has now become one of the standards by which dangerous game cartridges are judged. It certainly provides a step up in performance over the .458 Winchester Magnum, and companies like A-Square, Hornady, Ruger and Ceská Zbrojovka/Brno have been instrumental in the cartridges rise in popularity.
Because Lott was himself a somewhat influential big-game hunter and prolific writer, in time, the cartridge also gained a following amongst African professional hunters and was soon commercialised by A-Square as a propriety cartridge. CZ also chambered the cartridge in their BRNO ZKK 602 rifles based on the Mauser Magnum action. In the US however, the Lott had remained obscure until in 2002 Ruger offered the cartridge to the American public in their Ruger M77RSM MII rifles. Since then, there has been a steady increase of Africa bound US sport hunters opting for the .458 Lott as their cartridge of choice for Africa’s heavy-boned dangerous game.
The .458 Winchester Magnum will forever remain ubiquitous in Africa, where it is still a popular cartridge amongst sport hunters and PHs alike. Several respected ex Rhodesian game rangers turned PHs like Barrie Duckworth and Richard Harland used the .458 Winchester Magnum extensively for elephant culling and control. This popularity of the .458 Winchester Magnum has a positive side, because whilst it may be difficult in some parts of Africa to source ammunition for the big Weatherby or Nitro Express cartridges. In an emergency the standard .458 Winchester Magnum cartridges can be fired in the chamber of the .458 Lott.
In 1995 the .458 Lott was standardized by SAAMI, based on specification provided by Arthur ‘Art’ Alphin and A-Square LLC. According to Alphin the cartridge length was standardized at 2.800-inch (71.1mm) and the chamber length at 2.810-inch (71.4mm). This was done because there were many converted rifles in the field chambered for the original Jack Lott length and the specifications by SAAMI reflect this fact. Specifications for the .458 Lott call for a cartridge which gradually tapers, however, A-Square and a few other ammunition manufacturers provide a ghost shoulder for the cartridge, although this was not included in the specification as standardized by SAAMI. Art Alphin chose not to include the ghost shoulder quite simply because he wanted to remain true to Jack Lott’s wishes and to honour his memory. The ghost shoulder serves to provide better retention of the bullet in the case under recoil, and like A-Square’s 458 Lott cartridges, the Barnes .458 Lott brass also bears a ghost shoulder for the same reason.
By 1970 Winchester had little option but to address the issue of the clumping of compressed powder charges in their .458 Winchester Magnum, which had in turn often resulted in improper ignition and poor performance. Winchester’s remedy was to reduce the compression of the powder column, which then resulted in the .458 Winchester Magnum only attaining about 1,950fps (590m/s) making it 200fps (61m/s) below what Winchester’s original design specifications had intended. The .458 Winchester Magnum was supposed to have duplicated the performance of the .450 Nitro Express which could fire a 500gr (32gr) bullet at 2,150fps (660m/s).
The .458 Lott by way of comparison had been designed to provide about 200-300fps (61-91m/s) more velocity than the .458 Winchester Magnum. This performance goal well exceeds the original performance specifications of the .458 Winchester Magnum. The Lott cartridge is fully capable of firing a 500-grain (32g) bullet at 2,300fps (700m/s) from a 23-inch barrel.
This capability easily exceeds the performance expected of the .450 Nitro Express and the .458 Winchester Magnum. It also immediately places the Lott cartridge a notch above the .458 Winchester Magnum and the .450 Nitro Express cartridges. Amongst some experienced hunters too, the .458 Lott when judged by its infield performance on dangerous game is considered a better choice than the .470 Nitro Express.
As a direct result of its evolution and purpose as a cartridge, the performance of the .458 Lott will inevitably always be compared with that of the .458 Winchester Magnum. This is to be fully expected given that the .458 Lott was originally designed to replace the .458 Winchester Magnum. Over the four decades I spent as a PH, and prior to that as a game ranger, I’ve always been a huge fan of the .375 H&H. However, years back I realised I needed a heavier calibre for use in the thick stuff, and particularly so if I had a possible confrontation looming with a heavy boned wounded dangerous animal. A situation which periodically arose when guiding on safari. As a result, I opted for the .458 Lott and it certainly saved my bacon on more than a few occasions. Another plus for a working PH and amateur alike, is the fact purchasing a .458 Lott won’t break the bank. It’s a budget friendly calibre to buy off the shelf in several respected gun brands.
Rather than using factory loaded .458 Lott ammunition, I’ve always opted to reload (which I prefer doing). Hornady’s .458 Lott brass has always served me well. Initially, my preferred bullet was the South African PMP 475gr monolithic solids in front of 68gr of Somchen S335 propellant (South African). However, in 2011 while guiding a safari in Zimbabwe, I was introduced to North Fork bullets. Their excellent field performances on several safaris thereafter was impressive. As a result, it wasn’t long before I began using their 500gr solids and 500gr cup points in front of 75gr of S335, and they proved ideal for my .458 Lott.
Above: It wasn’t long before I began using North Fork 500gr solids and 500gr cup points in front of 75gr of S335, and they proved ideal for my .458 Lott.