Our man gives you the ultimate bullet selection plan for Dark Continent big game that requires a big rifle.
In the last days of the British Empire--and the great British gun trade--a "big bore" rifle was defined as caliber .450 and larger. Cartridges above .30 and below .40 were considered "medium bores," and the lower .40s were called "large mediums." I don't want to fly against the Union Jack, but for our discussion we're going to consider anything from 9.3mm (caliber .366) on up as a big bore. These are the bullet diameters that, depending on the country, are the minimums that are "street legal" for thick-skinned dangerous game in most African jurisdiction. Also, from a North American standpoint, these calibers and larger are on the very edge of sensible utility on this continent.
Let's also define "really big game." I'm generally thinking about the big nasties: Large bovines, including bison, African buffalo, water buffalo, and banteng; and obviously elephant, rhino, and hippo. The biggest bears could also be included, and although the lion rarely weighs 500 pounds (and averages 25 percent less) he can be included because he's very dangerous and is usually included in the prescribed caliber minimums. Leopard we will leave out because they're never half the size of a lion. Although the largest calibers aren't needed, if you wish to include big moose and eland, feel free. An Alaska-Yukon moose is as big as many buffalo, and there's no buffalo ever calved that weighs as much as a big eland bull.
Bullet selection isn't much different with the big bores than with "general purpose" cartridges for smaller game…except your life may depend on a proper choice. As the game gets bigger, you need tougher bullets. With the exception of lion, however, cleanly taking really big game increasingly becomes a matter of straight-line penetration. Sectional Density (SD), the relationship of weight to caliber, is important…and when the game gets big enough, as in elephant, rhino, and hippo you will switch from expanding bullets to non-expanding solids. Velocity also counts. You might not select the same bullet for a .458 Winchester Magnum at 2100 feet per second (fps) that you might choose for a .460 Weatherby at possibly 500 fps more. As with bullets of smaller caliber, the bullets available today are a whole bunch better than just a couple of decades ago, and there are very few "bad bullets" remaining on the market. However, some choices are better than others. Let's start with the 9.3s.
Within broad parameters taking really big game is more about shot placement than the cartridge, caliber, or bullet you select. When you get great presentation at close range any cartridge from 9.3mm on up with a good bullet will do just fine.
The 9.3mm is a traditional European bullet diameter. It has never been popular in North America, but seems to be gaining a little steam, with good bullets available from most manufacturers. Traditional "heavy bullets" weigh 286 or 293 grains and are available in both solids and expanding bullets. These are probably the best choices for thick-skinned game, although lighter, faster expanding bullets can be used for lion and other thin-skinned game.
While the 9.3mm is often the legal minimum for dangerous game, it's important to remember that not all 9.3mm cartridges are created equal. Old timers like the 9.3x74R and 9.3x62 Mauser are fairly slow, and must be considered marginal. The .370 Sako Magnum, although similar to the 9.3x62, is loaded a bit hotter, and the fast, fat-cased 9.3x64 Brenneke is at least the equal of the .375 H&H. Remembering that penetration is the most important factor in cleanly taking the really big stuff, this is borne out by the numbers: The 286-grain 9.3mm bullet has Sectional Density (SD) of .305…exactly the same as the 300-grain .375. So, if bullet construction and velocity are similar, the two bullets will provide about the same penetration. Actually, at the same velocity the 9.3mm will probably penetrate better, since its smaller-diameter bullet will encounter less resistance.
Ron Bird, PH Michel Mantheakis, and Boddington with Bird's 2010 lion, taken with a .375 H&H firing 300-grain softpoints. The .375 is an ideal choice for lion, and so long as you use a good expanding bullet there really aren't any bad choices.
I have taken quite a few buffalo with 270-grain .375 bullets, and certainly the lighter, faster bullets are good choices for lion and other thin-skinned game that might be hunted with a .375. In general, however, I am a staunch proponent of the 300-grain bullet both for general use in Africa, and for use on dangerous game. This has been the standard since 1912, and has been considered adequate since 1912. My rationale is that dangerous game is neither bigger nor more dangerous today than a hundred years ago…but we have available today bullets that are a whole lot better than anything available in 1912!
Extra-heavy .375 bullets, up to at least 350 grains in factory loads and 380 grains in component bullets, are now available and there is some shift in that direction. With a much higher SD of .356 for a .350-grain bullet the extra-heavies penetrate very well. Considering that a .375, though legal everywhere, is at best marginal for elephant, the extra-heavy bullets may have a place there. My concern with them is threefold: First, they're pretty slow, especially in smaller-cased .375s like the H&H and .375 Ruger--so what you gain in bullet weight you might lose in velocity and resultant energy. Second, one of the great strengths of the .375 is its marvelous versatility. Reduce the velocity and steepen the trajectory arc, and you are losing some of that versatility. If you really needed the extra bullet weight, who cares…but I don't think it's necessary. Third, and this is important, many .375s aren't very accurate with the extra-heavies simply because the rifling twist is a bit slow to properly stabilize them. If your rifle groups them and they give you more confidence, then by all means use them. But I'm perfectly happy with the traditional 300-grain bullet!
Hornady's first run of .450/.400-3", with a softpoint and a solid, both recovered from a buffalo. Load and bullet selection is very limited in the few true .40-caliber cartridges, but the .40-caliber with a 400-grain bullet is extremely effective on the largest game.
We don't have much selection in true .40-caliber dangerous game cartridges. The selection in "traditional .40's," using a (nominally) .410-inch bullet is pretty much limited to the old .450/.400 in both 3" and 3 ¼" case lengths; and Holland & Holland's new proprietary .400 H&H. Bullet selection is equally limited: 400 grains, take it or leave it. Perhaps oddly, the .411 bullet diameter offers a lot more choice. This is the proper diameter for the .405 Winchester, and there are some .411 wildcats, including the .411 KDF. Any way you slice it, for the really big stuff the 400-grain bullet is the way to go. With an SD averaging .339 penetration is going to be just fine…even at the modest velocity of the .450/.400s and heavy handloads for the .405.
Boddington used a 400-grain Hornady in the .416 Rigby to take his best-ever buffalo clear back in 1993. Although heavier .416 bullets are now available, the 400-grain bullet is the traditional choice and provides all the penetration and power required.
The various .416s have become exceedingly popular in the last 20 years, undoubtedly cutting into traditional markets for both the .375s and the .450-plus cartridges. There is good reason for this. A 400-grain .416 at the "Rigby/Remington" velocity of 2400 fps will penetrate better than a 500-grain .458 at the same velocity…and if the larger bullet is slower, then the .416 will penetrate a lot better. The 400-grain .416 has SD of .330, not quite as high a 500-grain .458 (.341), but considerably higher than a 300-grain .375 (.305). You could up the ante by going to a 450-grain .416 bullet, which has an amazing SD of .371…but I have pretty much the same reservations about the extra-heavy .416 bullets as I do the extra-heavy .375 bullets. Honestly, I don't get it. A 400-grain .416 solid at a muzzle velocity of 2400 fps will penetrate an elephant's skull to the brain from any angle…and will exit the opposite side from many angles. At that velocity there is still much versatility. Obviously you can go much lighter (and faster) for thin-skinned game, but for general use I remain very comfortable with the standard 400-grain (or, to split hairs, the original 410-grain weight, still offered by Woodleigh).
The .404 Jeffery is one of many older cartridges recently resurrected, with modern factory loads featuring good, modern bullets. Hornady loads the traditional 400-grain load in both solids and softs, while Norma offers an extra-heavy 450-grain load. Take your pick!
For those of us who like to be a bit different, this bullet diameter is the alternative to the .416, best represented by the .404 Jeffery. There are also a few wildcats, including the .425 Express. Once again bullet weights range from light to extra heavy, but the standard remains 400 grains. And, once again I'm perfectly happy with the standard 400-grain bullet. As originally loaded the .404 Jeffery was a much milder cartridge than the .416 Rigby, but today most factory loads have taken advantage of the generous case capacity and increased the velocity. I have a .404 Jeffery and I love it. It's probably at least 97.5 percent as effective as the .416 (which is not damning with faint praise)…but it has a bit less recoil. My rifle has iron sights, so I could go to the extra-heavy 450-grain bullet without sacrificing versatility...but my rifle groups them horribly. Some will shoot them, some won't, but you have to check this out yourself.
Boddington used his .450-3 1/4" Nitro Express double on this 2007 Botswana tusker. Older cartridges like this with velocity of about 2100 fps work just fine--but the reality is that .416s at about 2400 fps actually penetrate better.
Unlike the other calibers so far discussed, which have quite a bit of versatility, the .45s and larger are very specialized, genuinely suitable and primarily useful only for the largest and most dangerous game. This should make things very simple, but actually it isn't quite that easy because there are a lot of cartridges that use the .458-inch bullet diameter. Bullet weight is important (construction is probably more important), but it's also important to understand that velocity is essential in overcoming resistance. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to say precisely how much velocity is required to obtain the necessary penetration on large animals. That depends on what the bullet encounters and the exact construction of the bullet.
However, having seen as many failures to penetrate as I wish to see, I'm pretty sure there's a magic number somewhere between 2000 and 2100 fps, at least in the .45s and upwards. Today we have the wonderful luxury not only of better bullets than our forebears, but also an amazing selection of bullets. I am certainly not discounting Sectional Density--the higher the better! However, this is just one factor, and if you can't achieve enough velocity to provide adequate penetration, then the highest SD in the world remains just a number. So, if you want to hunt buffalo or (God help us!) elephant with a .45-70, you need to step down in bullet weight so that you can attain enough velocity to overcome resistance. Thanks to the great modern bullets we have, you can actually do this: There are 400-grain .458 bullets that will absolutely do the job. Perhaps not quite as well as heavier bullets, but well enough.
Okay, that said, the "standard" in .458 remains a 500-grain bullet, SD of .341. Not bad, and certainly good enough. Better is the 550-grain bullet with an SD of .375. Better still is a 600-grain bullet, off the charts with an SD of .409…but only if you can push them fast enough. With its limited case capacity, the .458 Winchester Magnum is practically limited to a 500-grain bullet, because you just can't get the heavier bullets to go fast enough. With larger-cased .458-inch cartridges, including the .458 Lott, .450 Dakota, .450 Rigby Rimless, .460 Weatherby Magnum, and so forth, you can go to heavier bullets if you desire. I am sure that penetration on elephant is enhanced. On the other hand, enough is enough, and recoil is also enhanced when bullet weight goes up 10 or 20 percent. The 500-grain .458-inch bullet has been a gold standard for many years, and for those of us who shoot the old .450-3 1/4", this cartridge made its bones (and continues to make them today) with 480-grain bullets.
.468 AND UP
Boddington and Bill Jones with an old Mozambique buffalo bull. This buffalo was literally knocked off its feet by Jones' .500 Jeffery, firing Norma's 570-grain load.
From .468, which is the actual bullet diameter of Holland & Holland's .500/.465, on up to .700 there is a bewildering array of bullet diameters and cartridges supported by a decreasing number of rifles. Some of the bullet diameters are primarily for double rifle cartridges, which pretty much means that you need to stay close to the bullet weight (and velocity) for which the rifle was regulated: 500 grains in the .500/.465, .470 (.474), and .475 No. 2 Jeffery (.488)…but 520 grains in the .476 Westley Richards (.476) and 480 grains in the .475 No. 2 (.483), 750 in the .577 (.585), and 900 in the .600 (.620).
In the .500s you have a grab bag. The great old .500 Nitro Express was generally regulated for a 570-grain bullet (nominally .509-inch), SD of .313. It works. The .505 Gibbs uses a .505-inch bullet, standard at 525-grains with an unimpressive SD of .294. The .500 Jeffery was originally loaded with a 535-grain .510-inch bullet, also a bit light for caliber with the same SD of .294. As originally loaded these cartridges are very impressive. However, these are large-cased bolt action cartridges intended only for the largest of game. Both of them are even better with heavier bullets…if you can stand the recoil!