Bigbore rifles for the world’s largest game have long fascinated riflemen. In years gone by, when there was a lot more elephant hunting, gallons of ink were spilled over the nuances of quite similar cartridges and equally similar solid bullets. In today’s world even greater volumes of ink have been spilled over the right rifles and cartridges for hunting buffalo, primarily the African variety. I have personally used up at least many quarts of this ink.
It seems to me that the other dangerous game, the thin-skinned varieties, have gotten short shrift. Fulfilling that obligation, this piece will touch on the bears, but I’m going to spend much more time on the great cats: lion and leopard. Both present unique situations, both are extremely dangerous, and both deserve significant care in choosing the right armament, as do the bruins.
Leopard hunting is actually an anomaly. Every other animal I can think of that might bite, claw, gore, toss, trample or eat you is at least somewhat dangerous all of the time. The leopard is not. He is a wary, crafty and extremely skilled nocturnal predator, but despite historic instances of man-eating, when you are deliberately hunting leopard you are usually in no danger at all. The leopard is non-confrontational, especially in daylight hours, and he will go to great lengths to avoid you.
On the other hand, if you provoke him enough he is the most likely of all the dangerous game to hurt you. This is because he is the smallest and fastest, and he wears the best camouflage. His charge is likely to come from the closest quarters, and because of his size and speed he is the most difficult to hit.
The most common provocation–and it is definitely enough–is to fail to hit him properly with the first shot. Not all wounded leopards will charge, and not all will even lie in wait, but I believe the percentage is far higher than with any other dangerous species.
Wounding a leopard is not the only adequate provocation. Tracking hunts–once common in the Kalahari region–are unusual today, but a high percentage of them end in charges. The leopard, like all cats, is short-winded and somewhat short-tempered. You will only jump him from so many patches of bush before he has had enough, and then he will come.
Dog hunting–very popular a century ago–is once again readily available in some parts of southern Africa. This, too, offers enough provocation. Some leopards run and others tree, but many fight the dogs on the ground. The dogs are the immediate menace, but when the hunters approach, the leopard often seems to understand the source of his real troubles. Eye contact can and often will trigger a charge like a bullet.
I have seen this. In fact, I’ve seen two leopard charges. Both were fast, frightening and extremely noisy. A leopard on the charge roars like thunder, a series of deep-throated thunderclaps all the way in. The sound alone is enough to make you turn and run.
While an angry leopard is extremely dangerous and somewhat likely to hurt you, the most important thing to keep in mind when choosing your rifle, cartridge and bullet is the leopard’s small size. A big, fully mature tom will weigh around 150 pounds. A cat 20 pounds lighter may be eminently shootable in some areas, and there are very few areas where cats over 180 pounds might be encountered. But even the rare 200-pound monster is not a large animal compared with elk, moose, buffalo and big bears.
There remain some African jurisdictions where a .375 is the minimum allowed by law for leopard. If this is the case, obey the law. There are other circumstances where a .375, or even larger, is the only rifle at hand and a leopard becomes available. If this is the case, use what you have. But in consciously choosing your leopard rifle, ignore what the wounded leopard might do to you and think about the ideal rifle, cartridge and bullet for a deer-size animal.
Bigger is not necessarily better. This is because first-shot accuracy is far more important than raw power and because deer-size animals are more effectively taken with deer cartridges and bullets than with cartridges shooting tough bullets designed for game many times larger.
I have personally shot six leopards–not a large number but enough to have opinions. It’s a fact I’m not proud of, but nearly 30 years ago I lost the first leopard I shot. I hit him too high with a .375 H&H, and the next morning we lost the spoor. Had I hit him properly, of course, we would have recovered him.
Back then I thought a bigger hammer was always better. Today I’m much less sure of that. My .375 bullet apparently burned right through, doing little damage. Since we didn’t recover him we don’t know exactly where I hit him, but since he dropped to the shot and lay still for several seconds I can deduce that I creased the spine and stunned him, possibly doing little real damage. I have often wondered if the outcome would have been different if I’d been using a smaller caliber with a fast-opening deer bullet.
Your favorite deer rifle, whether it’s a .270, 7mm, .30-06 or a fast .30, is a much better choice for leopard than a big gun. Nor do you need or want an extra-tough bullet. Plain old deer bullets in plain old deer cartridges work just fine. Africa being Africa, you probably want to choose a bullet that is tough enough for some range of game, but you still want that bullet to open up. Good choices, to my thinking, include the Nosler Partition and the new group of tipped and bonded bullets: Hornady InterBond, Nosler AccuBond and Swift Scirocco.
On a baited hunt in 2005 I used a .30-06 with a Scirocco and performance was perfect. The cat came in at very last light, and I took the safest shot at the largest target, the lung shot. The bullet was placed perfectly and expanded well, but the cat still went 30 yards. A couple of weeks later, in South Africa, another hunter wounded a leopard and I was invited on the follow-up with dogs. It ended in a charge, and we got the leopard stopped without injury.
The experience made me want to try a leopard hunt with dogs, but after that charge I was nervous about it and I probably made an odd choice. I used a .416 Taylor with 400-grain Hornady softpoints. It worked well, but that’s an awful lot of gun for leopard, even up close and personal. My professional hunter, Cornè Kruger, has done a couple of dozen dog hunts and has taken several charges without a scratch. He carries a .243(!) because on a frontal shot he can keep the bullet inside the leopard, reducing risk to the hounds.
FOLLOW-UP IS DIFFERENT
A baited hunt is different than a dog hunt. For the former you must have accuracy and you must have a clear, bright scope. For the latter, handling characteristics are everything, and, depending on the way you shoot, you might be better off with open sights rather than a scope. Of course, that depends on what the leopard does, which is totally random.
Following up a leopard is different yet, but unlike many situations there is usually time to regroup after the first shot is fired. Regrouping includes bringing in the trackers, and at this point many experienced hunters change guns. Some prefer a shotgun for following up leopard, while others prefer an open-sighted bigbore. For me, I saw buckshot fail the first time I caught a leopard charge. I’ll have nothing to do with it ever again, and I’m perfectly comfortable with a low-powered scope at close quarters. Whatever you choose, most important is that the rifle comes up fast and on target, like a good shotgun.
IF I’M LION, I’M DYIN’
Hunters tend to exaggerate the size of most animals, but few figures are inflated as much as the weight of lions. Not long ago, on television, a show host took a very scrawny lion and bragged on camera about his “600-pound lion.” Half that number would have been pushing it. The most-quoted figure is that a wild lion weighs 500 pounds, and I think that is possible, but only rarely. Most mature wild lions probably weigh much closer to 350 pounds, and anything over 400 is unusual.
This suggests that a lion could be taken cleanly with the same .270, 7mm or .30 caliber. Yes, you could. Certainly a .338 or a .35 would be a very good choice. Except that, almost universally, .375 H&H is the minimum legal caliber. In this case I fully agree with the minimum.
There are two reasons for this. First, you must always keep in mind what a lion can do to you if you don’t hit him right. Second, unlike leopard hunting, the circumstances are such that it’s much more unusual to be able to regroup and change guns.
Remember, lions are always dangerous, and a wounded lion is at least somewhat likely to charge immediately. So you need to start with a rifle that is adequate for finishing the job, even if things go completely to hell.
I cannot claim much recent experience with lions. And given the current cost of a lion safari, who can? I was fortunate to do my lion hunting back in the ’70s and ’80s, when it was less specialized, more available and much less expensive.
A lot of new rifles and cartridges have come along since then. Even so, my opinion remains unchanged: The ideal lion rifle is a scoped .375. It is plenty of gun to start with and enough gun to end with. Note that I didn’t say which .375 because I don’t think it makes much difference. The .375 H&H is the classic lion rifle, but the .375 Remington Ultra Mag, the new .375 Ruger, the .375 Weatherby and all the rest are perfectly suitable.
One important note: Lions are thin-skinned animals, and you want a bullet that will get in there, open up and really wreck the vitals. The toughest bullets are not called for and may well be dangerous. I shot my best lion with a .375 H&H, but I was using a tough, extra-heavy 350-grain bullet. It didn’t open up, and we had to follow up farther than should have been necessary.
Another time we chanced across a fine lion while buffalo hunting. I was carrying a .416 Rigby–certainly a good choice but the softpoint up the spout misfired. I worked the bolt and shot the now-alerted lion with the first cartridge in the magazine, which was a 400-grain solid. The shot was perfectly placed, but we still had a wild melee to sort out. It is unlikely that I will ever hunt lion again. If I do I may or may not stick with the .375, but I will absolutely use a bullet that is certain to open with minimal resistance.
A lion is not bulletproof, but even though the size is consistently exaggerated, a lion is a lot of cat. He is also extremely courageous in the charge, and if he has enough strength left to kill you he will, no matter how severe his injuries. A .375 is enough gun to stop
a charge, and a scoped rifle is a far better choice for the opening salvo. Only an idiot would take a longish shot at a lion, but a 100-shot is not excessive. It may be in poor light, dawn or dusk, so a scoped .375 is a fine choice.
In the case of a charge, no rifle is too big, but if the shot is well placed, an expanding bullet from a .375 will stop him. The trick is to hit him and hit him right, and this is very difficult. I have stood two lion charges–not a lot but two more than I ever needed. The lion is a much bigger target than a leopard, but he comes low and fast, often tacking as he comes, until the last moment. Cool hands hold their fire until the end, but you can’t wait too long or he will still hit you. Optimally, I suppose, a bigbore double would be the best choice. But it is probably not the best choice to start with, and there may not be the option to switch.
A good young PH with whom I have hunted, Zimbabwean Cliff Walker, was hunting in Ethiopia last year when his client had a chance to take a problem lion that was harassing workers on a sugar plantation. His client wounded the lion, and it went into uncut sugarcane. I cannot imagine a more nightmarish situation, but I know Cliff, and I know he went in with a smile.
As I understand it, he and his hunter were back-to-back, scooting through the cane, when the lion charged from point-blank range. The lion was hit again inbound, but it mauled both men severely, then fell over dead. Cliff normally carries a double .577, but he was unable to bring it into Ethiopia so he had a borrowed bolt gun of much lesser caliber. Just perhaps that .577 would have saved a lot of stitches and orthopedic surgery–but that’s a question that can never be answered.
The prevailing theory on bear rifles is that black bears are properly hunted with deer calibers, albeit with heavier, tougher bullets; grizzly, brown and polar bears require heavier cartridges and even tougher and heavier bullets. Aye to the latter, nay to the former. I’ve taken a number of black bears with .270s, 7mms and .30 calibers, and plenty of the big bears have been taken with these same cartridges. Yes, you can. Except all bears are constructed similarly, with corded muscles and heavy shoulders, and all bears are tenacious.
Alaskan brown and polar bears aren’t as thick-skinned as a buffalo, but they can weigh as much. They are certainly several times heavier than a lion. Grizzlies are generally much smaller, and on average black bears are smaller yet. It’s that “on average” that gets you. None of us goes on a black bear hunt hoping to take an average-size bear. We all hope for one of the big boys, and extra-large black bears can be found wherever black bears range. A really big black bear can be larger than most grizzlies. So why wouldn’t you arm yourself for the bear you hope to encounter rather than the bear you will probably see?
With black bear, the hunting technique tends to dictate the shot. When hunting over bait or with hounds, you know that the shot will be close, and my nod goes to large-caliber brush busters like the .35 Remington, .348 Winchester, .444 Marlin, .45-70 and .450 Marlin. In spot-and-stalk hunting you might need a bit more reach, so I like more versatile cartridges like the .325 WSM, 8mm Remington Magnum, .338 Federal, .338 Winchester Magnum, .358 Winchester and .35 Whelen.
Now to the big bears. The big lever guns are cool and have made a resurgence among Alaskan hunters. But, with apologies to Marlin, the problem is that you can’t always pick your shot, and a tough, expensive hunt for a brown or grizzly bear might come down to one chance. Long-range shooting at bears is just as stupid as long-range shooting at lions, but you might need to reach out a couple hundred yards or go home empty.
I had just such a situation in the spring of 2005. It was my third attempt for one of those big, beautifully furred Arctic grizzlies, and this was the first chance I’d had at the kind of bear I was looking for. A stiff crosswind was blowing snow to near whiteout conditions, and the bear was on a moose kill across a broad expanse of clean snow.
We got as close as we could, but there were ravens and they would surely give us away if we tried to cross that open snow. No rangefinder can work under such conditions, so I have no idea what the range really was–at least 200 yards, possibly 250, probably 225.
I was shooting a Kimber in .325 WSM. This was probably minimal for the job at hand, but it was powerful enough and flat-shooting enough. It was not a one-shot kill, but the bear was anchored short of timber. There are many cartridges that would have done as well and a few that might have done better, but if I hadn’t been using a versatile, flat-shooting cartridge I couldn’t have taken the shot at all.
All of the big bears may be taken at bayonet range or may require a bit of reach. A cartridge with the ranging capability and hitting power of the .35 Whelen is a good place to start. Better are the medium magnums from .325 WSM all the way up to .375. But with the strong possibility of a “take it or leave it” shot, my personal favorites for the biggest bears are the fast .33s: .338 Winchester Magnum, .338 Remington Ultra Mag, .340 Weatherby Magnum. And don’t forget to choose a tough, heavy-for-caliber bullet.
AGAIN, FOLLOW-UP IS DIFFERENT
On a baited hunt for lion or leopard there may be a chance to change guns before taking the tracks. This is not likely with bear hunting. You will carry what you have, and it better be enough. Which is another rationale for going a bit heavier than is absolutely necessary.
If you have the ill fortune to have to follow a brown bear into the alder thickets you would probably be best-served by (again) a bigbore double, and a few Alaskan guides carry such cannons. Many others carry open-sighted .458s.
These are for backup, and they make sense, but you as the hunter need more reach than an open-sighted bigbore provides, so you’re stuck. You will carry what you have, and what you have may be the only thing keeping you from getting munched. Keep this in mind when you choose your rifle for a bear hunt–any bear hunt. I personally know a lot more people who have been chewed by black bears than by all the rest put together. I’m sure it’s a most unpleasant experience.