A Guide to Guns for Africa’s Dangerous Game

Three of Africa’s dangerous-game animals require different rifles, ammunition, and means of aiming. Here’s a summary.

Loads for Africa's Dangerous Game
The smallest legal rifle for Cape buffalo is a .375 H&H. The .375 ammunition shown here is from Federal Premium and is loaded with the Woodleigh Hydro Solid, a bullet engineered to offer the penetration of a conventional solid bullet, but with a concave nose and flared pressure ring that creates massive hydrostatic shock.

CAPE BUFFALO

The smallest legal rifle for Cape buffalo is a .375 H&H but, based on my own experience, I prefer something bigger. The first four Cape buffalo I killed were shot with a .375 and did not at first appear to be bothered much by it. Since then, I’ve used a .458 Winchester, .458 Lott, and .416 Remington and prefer them by a wide margin. I have also shot, but not hunted with, the .404 Jeffrey, an old cartridge that’s enjoying a renaissance because it offers more power than the .375 but without recoil that will curdle your milk.

You’ll need both solid and soft point bullets, and the soft points must be tough. A good solid should shoot clear through a buffalo, and a good softpoint should stop under the hide on the far side. Hornady solids work fine, and Swift A-Frames are the way to go for soft points.

One tip: When you load your magazine, have your soft point bullets on top and save the solids for finishing the animal off. Your first shot at a buffalo will almost always come while it’s in the herd, and the one thing you don’t want is that slug zipping through and wounding a second animal, who will, unbeknownst to you, run off and wait for a chance at payback.

Use a low-power scope. Picking out a gray animal in the half-light of heavy cover is more than I can do with open sights, and probably more than you can do, too. And remember to bring plenty of ammunition. Carry no fewer than 15 rounds on your person, in a place where you can reach it quickly. Sooner or later, you’re going to need to use all of it.

The Cape buffalo is, by far, the most commonly hunted dangerous game species on Earth. A good-sized bull weighs between 1,400 and 1,600 pounds. Ordinarily, they just want to stay as far from you as possible, but if you wound one, it will do its very best to even the score.

The beast’s ability to take repeated hits from big rifles and keep coming is legendary. As a professional hunter with 60 years’ experience put it, “It’s like you’re feeding them vitamin pills instead of shooting them.” Also, this is one of two African animals—the other is the elephant—that will probably kill you if they get you down.

Hunting Cape buffalo is difficult because they’re herd animals, very spooky, and have superb hearing, smell, and sight. If you get close, there will be lots of eyes, ears, and noses working to detect you. You'll almost always have to hunt them in heavy brush. I’ve killed a fair number of buffalo and have taken only one that was out in the open. Mostly, you go after them in places where the visibility ranges from a few feet to 50 yards.

You will also have to walk a lot, as well as run and crawl. I’ve done plenty of all three in a single day. Also: I’ve had a number of very bad scares in the course of 10 safaris, and every one has been caused by Cape buffalo.

Aside from the elephant, the Cape buffalo is the only African species that justifies the use of a double-barreled rifle, so if you have the money and are willing to practice with the thing, why, have at it. But I still prefer a rifle that holds four or five shots instead.

Solid Bullets
For elephants, and other big African game, solid bullets are used to penetrate thick hide and bone. This is a solid from Barnes.

ELEPHANT

Elephant guns come in two varieties—bolt-actions and double rifles. Bolt-actions offer four or five shots, are highly reliable, and cost less than doubles, which cost a great deal. Doubles offer only two shots before you have to reload, but they are two very fast shots. I opt for the bolt-action.

It’s not as hard to stop a charging elephant as, say, a Cape buffalo or a lion. The elephant is a big target, and it lacks both the lion’s speed and the buffalo’s adrenaline-fueled kamikaze tactics. The smallest ammunition you can use, by law, where elephants are hunted is the .375 H&H. This is one of the world’s great hunting cartridges, because it combines excellent effectiveness without recoil that will detach your retinas.

The .416 Remington and the .416 Rigby are a cut above the .375 H&H, both in recoil and effectiveness. They throw considerably bigger bullets and can still be managed by shooters who are willing to practice with them.

Next up are the .458 Winchester, the .458 Lott, and the .470 Nitro Express. The first two use the same bullets, but the Lott is considerably more powerful and is about the limit of what even an experienced shooter can handle. The .470 is a superb cartridge but is available only in double rifles.

A low-power scope is a good idea, but not all scopes will withstand repeated recoil from cartridges in the .458 Lott class. For this reason, iron sights make sense, either as a backup or as a primary sight. You want a big ivory bead up front and an express rear sight that regulated for 50 yards.

You need both solid and soft-nosed bullets, depending on the kind of shot you are going to take. Ask your professional hunter, well in advance of the hunt, what he recommends. And when you see the price of a box of ammo that can slay an elephant, try not to swoon.

LION

The lion is classed as dangerous game, and so in most places you’re required to hunt it with a .375 H&H or bigger. You can, however, kill lions with a smaller cartridge. Lions lack thick hides, heavy bones, and massive muscles. What you want is a quick-expanding bullet that does a maximum amount of damage. Solid bullets or very tough soft points will get you into a world of trouble with lions because they’ll punch right through, doing little damage. The bullets that work on big antelope are what you want for lions. I recommend the Nosler Partition, which is guaranteed to expand violently.

You can use a double rifle, but everyone I know who hunts lions uses a scoped bolt-action. Iron sights are useful, as they are on any dangerous-game rifle, but unless you can pick up your sight picture quickly—remember, it's a tan cat against a tan background—don’t count on using them. Try a scope in the 1X–4X range instead.

Never try to head-shoot a lion. If you hit, you’ll ruin the trophy, and a male lion has practically no skull above his eyes; there’s nothing there but mane.

A big male lion that’s been eating regularly weighs in at 450 pounds or so, which is not especially big as dangerous animals go, but it has other gifts, foremost among them being blinding speed. An adult lion can run 100 yards in 3 to 6 seconds. You can't.