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  • Writer's pictureKev Thomas Writes

What Caliber to Bring on a One-Gun Safari?


 



 With heightened security being the order of the day across the globe and not likely to disappear anytime in the future – in fact with the passage of time airline security will probably become more stringent – visiting clientele often end up in a bit of a quandary as to what rifle(s) to bring to Africa. My own feeling as a PH (recently retired) is that now more than at any time in the past it is wiser and far less hassle for an inbound sport hunter to just travel with one caliber, suitable for use on all of the trophy species you’ll want to shoot.


Most safari companies have rifles that can be hired by a visiting sport hunter, however, and I’m sure most will agree a true dedicated hunter likes to use his own rifle(s) for whatever reason and there are many. With that in mind and in order to avoid a lot of unnecessary stress whilst trying to fly internationally with a bunch of guns and ammunition, what then is the ideal caliber for a one rifle safari? It must be understood that the one-gun scenario I am writing about is for an inbound sport hunter to Africa, and not for a working PH.


Important too is that the one absolute essential for an all round rifle is that the caliber has a wide variety of bullet types. Using the .375 H&H solid bullets don’t only work on the biggest game; 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, and whilst it will do the same on an impala, with them being herd animals after exiting the bullet may travel on to wound or kill others, thus when used in a herd or bachelor groupings caution should prevail. Other bullet weights for the .375 H&H like 235gr and 270gr soft-points allow the caliber 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.   


Obviously though, the first hunt related issue a visiting hunter should consider is what is on their ‘Bucket List’ trophy wise? Does it involve a mix of non-dangerous plains game trophies up to the size of eland only, or are dangerous game species included? If dangerous game is included with plains game up to eland, my caliber recommendation would automatically be the .375 H&H. I used a .375 H&H for over four decades for sport hunting, problem animal control, and culling, and am a firm disciple of this all-time great bullet.


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 caliber 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.


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 caliber. 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, and chose it as the most effective all-round cartridge (in fact he was so impressed by it he somewhat exaggerated its penetration & killing abilities). He wrote the book back in 1948, all of seventy-nine years ago, and yet now, in 2023 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.


Respected Botswana PH Tony Henley once wrote an enlightening article on his preferred calibers for hunting African big game. It was titled Some Notes on Big Rifles Suitable for Hunting in Africa. He starts off by quite correctly explaining how 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.


During the mid-nineteen nineties, a now deceased Zimbabwean PH colleague, Paul Kruger, and I, experienced some of the aforementioned when we had two clients with us on safari in Zimbabwe’s Matetsi. For their buffalo both were using .450 Watts and each shot a buffalo early in the safari. We then changed areas for the plains game segment of the safari and it was here where both clients produced their plains game rifles. They were carrying identical .340 Weatherby Magnums. To cut a long story short we ended up with both of our clients having problems whilst trying to kill trophy animals. At times, and after an easy shot the trophy just loped off unscathed. It happened at least three times with good quality sable, unwounded, they just showed us their heels after the shot.


Initially we were totally baffled until we looked very carefully at what the clients were shooting ‘through.’ A veil of waist high dry grass & scrawny scrub which was hardly noticeable – unless you look closely. It wasn’t really discernable through the scope of a rifle aside from a slight blur and particularly so if total concentration was on the target animal. The grass and scrub was obviously causing the .340 bullets of the type they were using to deflect. I have nothing against the .340 Weatherby, it is a popular proven caliber, however, with its high velocity bullets it definitely wasn’t suited to the vegetation and terrain we were hunting in. Our suggestion to the clients that they revert to using their .450 Watts changed the equation and animals started going into the salt – although the .450 Watts certainly isn’t your ideal all round plains game caliber!


Getting back to the .375 H&H, if we look at some of the bullet weights and velocities, they also help reinforce the argument for it being the finest all-round caliber for Africa for a visiting sport hunter.

235gr @ 2,800fps

270gr @ 2,650fps

300gr @ 2,500fps

380gr @ 2,200fps (Rhino are a South African manufactured bullet 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 and the bullet variations available to the hand loader and factory loads in this day and age are awesome, witness the Barnes-TTSX line, Swift A-Frame, Nosler, Rhino, North Fork, Hornady, and Federal’s Premium Safari Cape Shok to name but a few. 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”. 


For elephant one obviously only uses solid bullets and nothing else, and as 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 points out the 270gr bullet is sufficiently fast enough to obviate sight adjustment out to 300yds. LaGrange goes on to explain how throughout the history of the .375 H&H opinions have continued to promote its cause.


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/caliber. Again, in S.A. Magnum 1980/81 a similar article put 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 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 ivory and safari hunting career. And although he also used a 9.3mm Mauser, 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 caliber’s field performance.


Another professional ivory hunter turned PH 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. Manners mentions in his book how when he and Wally both started out in Mozambique as ivory hunters, circa 1937, he was carrying a 10.75 x 68mm Mauser and Wally a 9.3mm Brennecke (interestingly, in The Last Ivory Hunter Wally refers to it as a 9.3mm Mauser). On this, their first elephant hunting excursion, Manner’s was only 17 years old. 


In 1945 Manners acquired his first .375 H&H Magnum, a Winchester Model 70, and he wrote, ‘I had tried various calibers 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.’


During their lengthy ivory hunting and safari guiding careers, Johnson and Manners never used anything bigger than the .375 H&H Magnum, and yet the opportunity was there because they were living the life of the hunt in Africa during the heyday of the large calibers, in both bolt and double. Other PHs who used and favoured the .375 H&H were the late John Osborne, an ex-Rhodesian (Zimbabwe) game ranger turned PH, and doyen ex-Rhodesian regional game warden turned PH, the late Bruce Austen, who used a .375 H&H throughout his lengthy wildlife career.               


Rhino Bullets in East London, South Africa, produce an extremely efficient .375 H&H bullet in 380gr which I have personally used fairly extensively and seen used fairly frequently. It has been well tested in the field and is now a popular bullet choice for buffalo and all of Africa’s larger soft skinned game. The production of this bullet certainly elevates the .375 H&H even more as the ideal all-round caliber for an African safari. I have witnessed it being used with impressive terminal ballistics on numerous buffalo, eland, and giraffe.


In many African countries the .375 H&H is by law the minimum caliber that can be used on dangerous game, with the exception of leopard. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend if a visiting hunter is stuck for choice but only wants to bring one rifle to Africa, he think seriously about making it the .375 H&H. I do not believe it would 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, ensuring the scope can be removed when hunting in the very thick stuff, would also be a wise choice.


Having been a PH for over four decades 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, but 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 he is in the correct position to make a killing shot. If things do inadvertently go ‘pear-shaped’ the PH will be carrying a heavier caliber than the .375 H&H, and it is part of his job to rectify the situation.


In conclusion, my recommendation of the .375 H&H as the ideal and most suitable caliber 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 incredibly hard, eliciting shouts of delight and handclapping from the trackers! 


Moving away from the .375 H&H, I’d like to touch on a caliber of old, now enjoying a huge resurge of interest, the .404 Jeffery, which undoubtedly became the most popular ‘general purpose’ choice rifle for hunting dangerous and non-dangerous game in Africa after it was first introduced to the hunting fraternity by W.J. Jeffery in 1909. It was only when the .375 H&H came off the production line in 1912, a mere three years after the .404 that this latter caliber was somewhat eclipsed as the ideal ‘all-round rifle’ by the .375 H&H.


The .404 has, however, developed a remarkable and enviable reputation as a sound caliber for both dangerous game and large non-dangerous game hunting. Some of the great game wardens of East and Central Africa used it regularly as their weapon of choice for elephant, buffalo, rhino, and lion control, plus for general ration shooting. Again, in East & Central Africa, the standard 400gr solid bullet in the .404 was a popular choice for issue to the highly efficient black African game scouts and government employed African hunters doing elephant control and crop protection. Without doubt had the British colonial government of the day thought game department staff lives may have been in danger by using the .404 as exhaustively as they did, they would have issued them with a heavier caliber. 


Like the .416 Rigby the .404 Jeffery’s popularity has endured over the decades and quite rightly so. Both calibres have well-deserved reputations, but we must remember they are classified ‘large-medium bores’. In this day and age, the dedicated handloader can find all of the flatness they could wish for, thus negating the question about the .404 Jeffery possibly lacking trajectory and long-range potential. During the early 1970s when I was a young government game ranger in the Rhodesia of old (Zimbabwe) I served for a number of years in the Zambezi Valley, managing various Controlled Hunting Areas (now referred to as Safari Areas). Many of the old school Rhodesian’s who booked an annual hunt to shoot for meat, trophies, and sport, continued to use the .416 Rigby and the .404 Jeffery, and this was the correct role for both of those calibers; they were being used by hunters who annually shot elephant and buffalo (including buffalo cows) plus a selection of larger plains game like kudu and zebra for farm labor rations.


Few international clients hunt elephant and buffalo annually, and tend to mostly hunt non-dangerous game and only occasionally hunt large dangerous game. Thus for the visiting client intent on an occasional large dangerous animal I’d still go with the .375 H&H. Other calibers which I like for plains game only, and also make for the ideal one-gun safari if no dangerous game is to be hunted, are the .338 Winchester Magnum, an excellent choice, although I haven’t seen it being used in Africa as a plains game rifle as often as would be expected. Then there’s the .300 H&H, a superb flat shooting rifle rated way up the scale by dedicated users and non-users alike, also the .300 Winchester Magnum, a very popular plains game rifle amongst International clients and South African PHs alike. The 30-06 too is an extremely popular caliber seen and used throughout Africa, and it works well.


When I was still an active PH before retiring, a regular hunting colleague and client from Denver, Brian Spradling, once quipped during safari, “The ‘odd six’ is tried and tested through two World Wars, plus the Korean conflict and on hunting fields scattered across the entire globe.” The 30-06 has been around for 117 years with a proven reputation for reliability, and a well-deserved one at that. Another popular plains game choice is the tried and tested .308 Winchester, and although not the ideal, this bullet in the military ball type 7,62mm NATO killed a lot of game in Zimbabwe – both legally and illegally – during the conflict years. The range of factory and hand loaded .308 soft points are great shooting bullets and give extreme accuracy.


The .270 Winchester is another popular choice seen here in Southern Africa, although I’d hesitate to recommend it for a one-gun safari if larger species like eland, kudu, zebra, blue wildebeest, and gemsbok etc. are on the want list. It is a little too marginal although not incapable with say a good brand 150gr bullet and in the hands of a competent shooter. It is a devastating caliber on the likes of springbok, blesbok, impala, warthog etc. if using 130gr Nosler Partitions. During the years I managed Ciskei Safaris I also culled a lot of game including black wildebeest, and hartebeest while using a Ciskei government issue .270, although I’ve never owned one. Even with 160gr and 180gr bullets I still don’t feel the .270 is up to being an ‘ideal’ for killing the bigger African soft-skinned species, and I’d put the animal weight limitation for a .270 bullet before it becomes a bit iffy at a max of about 180kg. In other words it is a great caliber for small and medium sized African antelope. I’ve also had a client drop a leopard in its tracks using a .270 it was totally pole-axed from about 95yds and although I cannot recall the bullet used I think it was a Nosler.


Around the safari campfire I’ve often heard hunters’ debate comparisons between the .30-06 and the .270. Realistically it is a bit of a silly debate because the two calibers actually slot into two different hunting categories. A .270 comes into its own with lighter 130gr and 150gr bullets at long range on open plains like those found in the Karoo and other parts of South Africa, including the grassed mountainous areas (think springbok, blesbok, mountain reedbuck, impala, lechwe, black wildebeest, hartebeest, fallow deer etc.). The .30-06 shooting 180gr to 220gr bullets is an ideal bushveld caliber for the kind of close-range shooting that goes with that kind of terrain and vegetation (think eland, kudu, zebra, blue wildebeest, impala, warthog etc.) and although both calibers can be called upon to do each other’s work they are not ideally suited to it.


Another proven bushveld caliber in Southern Africa that has also seen a few wars and still endures with a dedicated fan club since when as a military cartridge, it was first developed in 1892 is the venerable 7x57mm Mauser. I’ve been around this caliber since boyhood and it was a firm favorite of mine for much of my own recreational hunting and normal plains game guiding. It has excellent killing powers and very moderate recoil, but again, and although over the previous four decades I’ve shot a lot of kudu, gemsbok and wildebeest with the 7x57mm, I wouldn’t recommend it be the one-gun choice on safari for Africa’s bigger plains game species weighing 250 to 300kg.


Ethically, the intention of every sport hunter should be to take absolutely no chances which could lead to their trophy suffering a wound. By way of example the 7x57mm works beautifully for side-on heart/lung shots on kudu, and similar sized species, however, if you are beyond the point of no return on trigger squeeze and the animal suddenly turns obliquely away with the bullet then entering too far back, it now has to penetrate intestines or a full paunch, and it may not reach and do the needed damage to the vital organs. Your .338 and .30-06 would have a better chance of driving through that mass and into the vitals; the .375 H&H on the other hand will get there. There is nothing wrong with ‘using enough gun.’ All ethical sport hunters should automatically aspire to that, and if we all did so, there’d be far less wounding and when it does happen the follow-up wouldn’t be so lengthy. As a game ranger in my younger days and when still a young wildlife manager/PH I also shot several eland using my 7x57mm, however, I wouldn’t recommend it and although they were all clean kills I firmly believe the minimum caliber for eland and giraffe for that matter is the .375 H&H or a 9.3x62.         


In this overview I’ve stayed away from wildcat cartridges and only covered the traditional popular calibers I witnessed being brought along regularly on safari. Even if dangerous game is not being hunted, first time visiting clientele often arrive with three varying calibers – sure, it’s all great fun but they aren’t all needed. When still a PH if I wasn’t guiding on dangerous game I’d only take my .375 H&H and my 7mm Mauser on plains game safaris, and there was a reason for my taking the two rifles. One was always available as a replacement in case of something going wrong with the client’s rifle (or one of my own).


One wildcat cartridge which has impressed me in Africa as an ideal plains game caliber provided the correct bullets and loads are used, is the .330 Dakota. The design idea having been to offer a factory alternative to the .338 Winchester Magnum but provide .340 Weatherby Magnum performance, and the .330 Dakota functions properly through a 30-06 length action (3.35”). It has about a 15% case capacity over the .338 Winchester Magnum which is fairly significant and allows it to come close to duplicating the performance of the .340 Weatherby Magnum. In his book mentioned earlier, Frank C. Barnes points out that the .330 Dakota if using the right bullets can deliver more energy to targets a quarter-mile away than factory .270 ammunition produces at muzzle!


My Denver friend Brian Spradling brought his .330 Dakota over on all of his African safaris and we’ve hunted South Africa and Zimbabwe a number of times. This is a bullet that impressed me immensely on all of the soft-skin game we hunted. Brian’s .330 is custom built on a Ruger 77mk11 action with a 25-inch medium weight fluted barrel, and a brown/tan laminated stock. He dressed it with a Weaver V-10, 2-10 x 38mm scope. His only load on his first hunt with me was with 275gr Swift A-Frame bullets loaded to 2680fps with H4831SC powder and carrying 4387ft lbs. of energy. This bullet and load put down kudu, zebra, and a host of other stuff with no fuss, and awesome terminal ballistics. On his next safari which would include gemsbok in the Karoo and the tough Cape bushbuck in the Eastern Cape dune forests, he again used H4831SC powder behind a 225gr Swift A-Frame and loaded to 2998fps carrying 4492ft lbs. of energy. Despite the .330 Dakota’s devastating terminal velocity on plains game Brian stays away from using lightweight bullets due to excessive velocity, coupled to poor sectional density.


On our first safari in Zimbabwe, he brought out a .416 Rigby for his buffalo, and the .330 Dakota for the plains game. He used one round for each of the calibers on the zeroing range in camp, killed his buffalo with a single chest shot using the .416 Rigby, and his 8 plains game animals with one shot each from the .330 Dakota, including his zebra which dropped at 300 paces without moving an inch. As a single rifle on safari for plains game and with the correct load/bullet combination, the .330 Dakota will step up to the plate admirably.                     


Due to South Africa’s gun ownership laws getting more and more stringent and for convenience sake when I was still a working PH crossing borders in Africa with guns, my personal battery was whittled down over the years to a .458 Lott, .375 H&H, 7x57mm Mauser and a pump-action 12ga 3” Magnum with a game barrel. This choice of firearms was more than adequate for anything I may have been called upon to do hunting or guiding wise on the African continent.


Getting back to the ideal all-round caliber for an African safari for those who will probably only hunt Africa once or twice, and not necessarily specialize on say elephant only, in summing up I will stay with the .375 H&H as at this stage of cartridge evolution and development it has to be the choice. In Africa it has been well-written up and recommended by internationally recognized hunter/writer names like Gregor Woods, the late Don Heath, Koos Barnard to mention a few, and in the US John Barsness and many others. Gregor Woods, respected South African editor, outdoor writer, and author, once wrote although he has owned the gamut of rifles from .22 to .458 he has through hard learned experience in the field, 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 is 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 veteran Rhodesian and Zimbabwean game warden turned PH now retired, once quipped to a potential client who asked what caliber to bring on safari, “Bring anything you want as long as it is a .375 H&H Magnum.”

 

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