The Rifles That Killed the Man-Eaters of Tsavo

New evidence has been uncovered supporting claims that the lions depicted in The Ghost and the Darkness regularly ate humans.

The real lions of Tsavo were two maneless males who were likely too injured to hunt their regular prey.
The real lions of Tsavo were two maneless males who were likely too injured to hunt their regular prey.photo from smithsonianmag.com

It turns out, the story behind one of the better hunting movies to come out of Hollywood (in that hunters aren't depicted as the bad guys), The Ghost in the Darkness (1996) has been further confirmed as truth.

According to this story from smithsonian.com, the remains of two of the most notorious man-eating lions, the Lions of Tsavo, which were a pair of maneless male lions implicated in dozens of deaths in 1898, have shed new light on the predators' diets leading up to their death.

Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson, the British engineer in charge of building a bridge across the River Tsavo who eventually shot and killed both lions, reported that the lions had killed and consumed, at least partially, 135 people, but that number has long been questioned.

A 2009 study of chemical traces in the lions’ teeth estimated that the two consumed about 35 people—but the lions still had human on their menu often enough for it to show up in their teeth about 120 years later.

But there was more to uncover.

A new study of the lions’ teeth shows that the Tsavo lions had wear patterns that more closely matched lions in captivity that are fed a diet of softer meat like ground beef than their wild counterparts. In the case of the Tsavo beasts, the diet was long pork.

Lt. Col. Henry James Patterson ultimately killed the man-eaters of Tsavo, and recounted the story in a book based on his journals.
Lt. Col. Henry James Patterson ultimately killed the man-eaters of Tsavo, and recounted the story in a book based on his journals.web photo

The study also confirmed what has long bee suspected, that at least one of the Tsavo lions had a severe jaw injury, which likely prevented it from hunting their typical prey. They therefore resorted to the comparatively soft and easy-to-take-down humans, who were in abundance at the work camp for the bridge and railroad construction.

“Even then, DeSantis says, humans were a food of last resort and the lions were primarily focused on the soft parts. These were not devilish skeleton crunchers, but injured cats doing what they could to survive.”

Regardless of the actual death tally for the Tsavo lions, we do know what kind of guns the real Patterson used while in Africa.

From his book, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, which you can get as an e-book for free, Patterson says of his firearms, "the battery, to be sufficient for all needs, should consist of a .450 express, a .303 sporting rifle, and a 12-bore shot gun; and I should consider 250 rounds of .450 (50 hard and 200 soft), 300 rounds of .303 (100 hard and 200 soft), and 500 12-bore shot cartridges of say, the 6 and 8 sizes, sufficient for a three months' trip. Leather bandoliers to carry 50 each of these different cartridges would also prove very useful."

In modern terms, that translates to a .450 Nitro Express, a .303 British, and a 12 gauge shotgun.

Val Kilmer as Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson in *The Ghost and the Darkness* (1996) with his BSA Lee-Speed Sporter in .303 British.
Val Kilmer as Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson in The Ghost and the Darkness (1996) with his BSA Lee-Speed Sporter in .303 British.photo from imfdb.org

In the book, he doesn’t say what gun he used to shoot the first lion, only that he was on a hunting platform and his first shot entered in the area of the shoulder and penetrated to the heart.

On the second lion, he got six hits. The first three were from the .303 rifle. The next shot he fired from the .450 from a tree, and the final two he fired head on into the lion’s head and body, also with the .450, during its final charge. He said the rounds that killed it were loaded with Martini bullets.

In the film, Patterson (Val Kilmer), used a BSA Lee-Speed Sporter rifle as his primary firearm. It looks to have a 26-inch barrel and is likely chambered for .303 British, which is in keeping with Patterson’s writings. The rifle was a popular option for British officers and hunters who couldn’t afford expensive double-barrel rifles. The Lee-Speeds used the same action and ammunition as the Lee-Enfield bolt action, the British service rifle at the time.

Another shot of Patterson (Kilmer) with the Lee-Speed rifle.
Another shot of Patterson (Kilmer) with the Lee-Speed rifle.photo from imfdb.org

During the first organized hunt for the lions with the fictional character of Remington, the film version of Patterson carries a Farquarharsen rifle, likely chambered in .400 Nitro Express, which was another popular gun with 19th century British hunters.

The Farquharson Rifle is a single-shot hammerless falling-block action rifle that was patented in Scotland in 1872. Today, the rifles are prized by collectors for their rarity. In 1967 Ruger introduced their No. 1 single-shot rifle, which is a falling-block design based loosely on the Farquharson. It’s one of Ruger’s best sellers.

The rifle is infamous in the movie, because it’s lent to Patterson for the hunt by Doctor Hawthorne (Bernard Hill), and the rifle that misfires when Patterson is only a few yards away from one of the man-eaters.

Patterson with the borrowed single-shot, falling-block Farquharson Rifle, which misfires at a critical moment.
Patterson with the borrowed single-shot, falling-block Farquharson Rifle, which misfires at a critical moment.photo from imfdb.org

At the end of the film, in the final showdown with the second lion, Patterson uses what is likely a Holland & Holland double-barreled rifle, which were commonly chambered in .450 Nitro Express at the time, and Remington’s Howdah pistol.

Howdah pistols were powerful double-barrel handguns, often built from shotguns, that were developed by British hunters in India for close range, last-ditch defense weapons against attacking tigers and other dangerous game. It gets it’s name from a Howdah, which was a basket in which hunters rode atop elephants. Tigers were known to climb the elephant to reach the hunters, hence the design and the name.

They were intended to deliver a massive amount of shot at close range, which is precisely how Patterson uses the gun in the film’s climax on the bridge, though it is ultimately ineffective.

Remington's Howdah Pistol, which later ends up with Patterson. The short guns were meant to fire a big payload at short range and were developed by hunters for defense against tigers in India.
Remington's Howdah Pistol, which later ends up with Patterson. The short guns were meant to fire a big payload at short range and were developed by hunters for defense against tigers in India.photo from imfdb.org