Black Powder Behemoths
David E. Petzal does a deep dive big-bore, black powder rifles from a bygone era of British big game hunting
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They are some of the most highly specialized rifles on earth, relics of a time that is gone forever. There are not many of them around, and for good reason. Their price is often equal to that of a luxury automobile, their ammunition costs a fortune, and their recoil is so violent that most people can’t–or won’t–shoot them. Only a few places are left where their use is justified. And there is nothing else like them.
The British had hunted tigers and various wild buffalo in India as early as the 17th century. By the time they reached the game fields of Africa in the mid-1800s, they had learned a very important lesson: If you are going to hunt large, dangerous animals, you had better carry a large, dangerous rifle. The Brits arrived in what they referred to as the Dark Continent with 10-, 8-, and even 4-gauge muzzleloaders firing round balls. Although these would do the job, they were slow to reload, which could sometimes prove fatal.
And so when bullet-shaped projectiles came into use, and cartridges evolved, word went back to England that it would certainly be nice to have something that offered two shots and did not load from the muzzle, if it’s not too much of a bother, old boy.
It was not too much of a bother, and gunmakers–whose names were Purdey and Westly Richards and Holland & Holland and Lang–developed what we now know as the double rifle. These massive side-by-side breech-loading rifles, based on heavily reinforced shotgun actions, were the only mechanism that would withstand the horrendous strain put upon them by the loads they were designed to fire.
The purpose of these blackpowder, lead-bullet cartridges was to flatten–not merely to kill–the biggest of big game. They were so huge that the diameter of their bullets was given in “bore,” the English equivalent of gauge. They ranged from 10-bore up through 4-bore, and even a few 2-bores were made. (Sir Samuel Baker had a 2-bore muzzleloader, which he called “Baby.” Its recoil spun him around and gave him a nosebleed and a headache every time he pulled the trigger.)
Most common was the 8-bore, which fired a 1,250-grain conical bullet at about 1500 fps. For the recoil to be survivable, such a gun had to weigh at least 12 pounds, and many examples went as high as 18. A friend of mine owns an 8-bore, and shooting it is, in a word, frightful. The recoil is 120 foot-pounds, roughly 10 times that of a .30/06, and it is accompanied by an earsplitting crack and a 10-foot streak of whitish-yellow flame, followed by billowing clouds of sulfurous smoke.
Double rifles were two-shot propositions, but sometimes two shots are not enough for African megafauna (sometimes 10 shots are insufficient), so most hunters owned two double guns. One was carried by a gun bearer. When you had emptied the first rifle, you reached behind you, and if your gun bearer was still there, he would take the No. 1 gun and hand you No. 2–all this while whatever you had shot was heading your way, looking for payback.
At the end of the 19th century, lead slugs gave way to jacketed bullets, and black powder was replaced by a smokeless powder called cordite. A new generation of cartridges appeared, ranging in caliber from .400 to .600. They offered less recoil and higher velocity and could be fired in lighter rifles. These were called proprietary cartridges because they were designed and sold by the small companies that built the rifles. If, for example, you owned a .505 Gibbs and needed ammo, you contacted Gibbs and the firm would send you a case of cartridges, sealed in tin against the ravages of a tropical climate.
The most popular of all these rounds was probably the .470, designed by the firm of Grant & Lang. It fired a 500-grain bullet at 2100 fps and was so effective that it enjoys a fair degree of popularity even today, despite the fact that it is 103 years old.
Robert Ruark took a .470 double rifle on his first safari to Kenya, and while he was in the process of shooting a Cape buffalo, the two barrels fired simultaneously. Both the buff and Ruark were knocked flat. Harry Selby, Ruark’s professional hunter, waited a moment and then said, “Really, one of you ought to get up.”
If you were really serious, you got yourself a .577. A favorite of elephant hunters, it fired a 720-grain bullet at just over 2000 fps. I’ve fired a .577, and although it didn’t hurt particularly–the rifle weighed 15 pounds– it was like trying to stand up to one of the NFL’s 340-pound linemen.
ENTER THE BOLT ACTION
Double rifles had their drawbacks. They were expensive (they still are; the good ones range from $20,000 to $50,000, and an occasional treasure will set you back $200,000) and fairly fussy mechanically. So as Mauser bolt actions grew in popularity, British and German gunsmiths began chambering them for big cartridges. An instant success–highly reliable and comparatively affordable, and a hunter could fire five shots without reloading–they are still made today.
Big-bore bolt-action rifles look as alike as peas in a pod because they share a number of common features, the need for which has been spelled out in spilled guts and splintered bones–human guts and bones. Perhaps the most obvious is the “dropped” magazine, which makes room for four cartridges instead of three. It forms a distinctive bulge below the rifle’s receiver.
The front sling swivel stud is on the barrel rather than the stock. Were it in the standard position, it would gouge your hand. Usually there are two sights on the front ramp–a small bead for shooting at long distances (if you’re smart, you’ll never shoot at over 100 yards at African dangerous game; if you can, you get close enough to give the animal powder burns) and a large flip-up ivory bead, or “night sight.”
At the rear is an “express” sight, which consists of a single fixed open sight, and two or three flip-up sight blades all in a row, mounted on a rib on the barrel. The fixed sight is regulated for the shortest distance at which you will shoot, and the flip-up blades are for ranges beyond 100 yards. They are silly and extraneous, but traditional.
Trigger pulls are rarely less than 4 pounds. You really do not want to set a dangerous-game rifle off until you are good and ready to shoot.
The stock is given special consideration because it must hold up under enormous strain. To start with, there are transverse steel reinforcing bolts set in the inlet for the receiver and magazine, and sometimes the grip is reinforced with a steel rod or rib. Normally, a rifle has a single recoil lug where the barrel joins the receiver, but a good heavy rifle has a second lug brazed halfway up the barrel, and the recesses where these lugs fit into the wood are reinforced with steel.
Despite the fact that all dangerous-game rifles come with iron sights, a scope is better because you very often find yourself shooting in poor light at a target that is partially obscured. What you want is a low-power scope that will not come unglued, because a big rifle will wreck a weak one in short order. You also must have plenty of eye relief. Getting whacked in the head by an ocular-lens bell that has 60 foot-pounds of recoil behind it is no joke.
SOME MODERN BIG BORES
Despite the fact that there is very limited use for them, there is no shortage of dangerous-game rifles. Remington, Savage, Ruger, Winchester, Weatherby, and Dakota Arms make excellent versions. The choice depends on what you like and how much you can afford. It is in the matter of cartridges where I can be helpful.
.416 REMINGTON, .416 DAKOTA, .416 RIGBY, .416 WEATHERBY: The Remington, Dakota, and Rigby cartridges all employ 400-grain bullets at around 2400 fps and are the standout choices for someone who is looking for a big rifle but doesn’t want to get killed by recoil. The Weatherby is in a different category with 300 fps more muzzle velocity, and it’s a real handful. However, there is no argument about its effectiveness.
.458 WINCHESTER, .458 DAKOTA, .458 LOTT, .460 WEATHERBY: By far the most popular big bore around is the .458 Winchester, even though it is often knocked for being underloaded–a 510-grain bullet at a real-world velocity of 1900 fps or so. However, I’ve shot critters ranging from zebra to hippo to buffalo with it, and none of them seemed to have any complaints.
The .458 Dakota and .458 Lott are a distinct step up, shooting the same bullets but at 2300 to 2400 fps. They kick harder and from what I have seen are distinctly more effective than the .458 Win. The buffalo I shot with my Lott was literally slammed to the ground, with all the fight knocked out of him. I found this very encouraging.
Like the other three cartridges, the .460 Weatherby has a .458 bore, but it’s in a class by itself because it shoots 510-grain bullets at 2700 fps. It’s a brutal rifle, manageable by only the most experienced shooters, and I’ve been told by more than one professional hunter that it’s what you carry when you want something to go down right now. John Knowles, a PH with whom I hunted in Zambia in 1981, once had to shoot a buffalo from the hip with his .460 because there was no time to bring the rifle to his shoulder. The beast died drooling blood on his shoes.
AND THE BIGGEST OF ALL: If none of these seems adequate, Holland & Holland will build you an exquisite double rifle for its .700 Nitro Express cartridge, which fires a 1,000-grain bullet at 2000 fps. The price for the rifle is approximately $200,000, and it takes H&H three and a half to four years to build one. The cartridges cost about $100 apiece.
THE SKINNY ON BIG BORES
If you’d like to learn more about big bores, I commend unto you African Rifles and Cartridges by John Taylor ($35; Gun Room Press; www.rutgersgunbooks.com). Taylor hunted what was pretty much wild Africa, and I doubt if there are any 20 men today who, combined, can equal the depth of his knowledge. Much of his advice is moot because conditions have changed so much, but his book is just plain fascinating.
Safari Rifles: Doubles, Magazine Rifles and Cartridges for African Hunting by Craig Boddington ($37.50; Safari Press; www.safaripress.com) is the bible on the subject as far as I’m concerned. Boddington has more African experience than any living man I know of; you can take his word as gospel. –D.E.P.