The .375: A Once and Future Champion
January 04, 2011
A season's worth of experience shows the gold standard for African cartridges is still a great choice.
Holland & Holland's .375 goes clear back to 1912, but among Americans its real popularity starts in 1937 when it became one of the early offerings in the Winchester Model 70. For the next half-century it was America's favorite big bore--ready for Africa's big stuff, Alaska's biggest bears and all-around use as needed.
But something happened in 1988. In the space of barely a year, Remington brought out its .416 Remington Magnum, Weatherby its .416 Weatherby Magnum, and Ruger and Federal collaborated on the rebirth of the .416 Rigby. These .416s took much market away from the .375. Now, I like the .416s, have used them all and can tell you that the .416 is more dramatic than the .375 on buffalo, and certainly it's a great deal better for elephant. On the other hand, there is no buffalo on earth that will stand up to a good, modern 300-grain expanding .375 bullet, and I've taken plenty of buffalo with 270-grain bullets.
The .375 is marginal for elephant, but it's on the right side of the margin, and a 300-grain .375 solid will provide the necessary penetration. The caliber remains perfect for big bears, lion and large non-dangerous animals such as moose and eland. This window of perfection is limited, but that isn't what the .375 is all about.
It is the world's greatest jack-of-all-trades, powerful enough for the largest game, flat-shooting enough for open country, and light enough in recoil to allow accurate shooting on smaller game.
I have known all this for many years, and I have used most of the .375 cartridges--including the .375 Weatherby Magnum, .375 Remington Ultra Magnum and the relatively new .375 Ruger. My old .375 H&H, a left-hand-converted Model 70, is now on its second barrel. Even so, it has been a few years since I've done much hunting with any .375, but I fixed that last year when I used not one but three new .375 rifles on the kind of game they're intended for.
The Kimber Caprivi incorporates many features often found on custom rifles: good English walnut, beautifully classic styling, matte blue finish, good open sights and barrel band sling swivel.
The Ruger Hawkeye is, of course, chambered to the shorter, fatter .375 Ruger cartridge co-developed with Hornady. Able to fit into a .30-06-length action, the .375 Ruger is an unbelted cartridge with a .532-inch rim and case diameter, the same diameter as the .375 H&H's rim and belt. However, the .375 Ruger doesn't "step down" ahead of the belt; it's a very straight, sharp-shouldered case.
So even with a shorter case length, its capacity slightly exceeds the .375 H&H, and it's a bit faster-- maybe 100 to 150 fps, depending on bullet weight and load. This bonus velocity yields a bit more energy, and it does slightly flatten the trajectory--not enough that any buffalo will know the difference, though.
Last year I had one of the first factory Hawkeye rifles, the variation of the Ruger M77 designed around this cartridge. The .30-06 action length makes it a wonderfully tidy package. The .375 Ruger tends to burn its powder in a bit shorter barrel, so the "compromise" 23-inch barrel length adds to the handiness of the package. Total weight with a 3-9X Trijicon scope is a bit less than nine pounds.
The beauty of the .375 is that it's powerful enough for the biggest game but flat-shooting enough for open country.
This is light for a .375, and when you add the extra velocity the recoil is substantial but not uncontrollable. On the other hand, it's a joy to carry. Like any .375, it would be a perfectly suitable one-rifle African battery, and since it's based around the standard action size with essentially a standard stock, it is one of the most reasonable .375s.
Last May and June I carried it in Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa. I carried it a great deal more than I shot it. However, I did use it for quite a variety of animals, from plains game to buffalo. After all, that's what a .375 is really all about.
My buffalo was an old Zambezi Valley dagga bull, caught napping at midday in cool shaded sand in a riverbed. A brushy island in the middle of the river gave us cover to about 100 yards, and when we took a peek the buffalo was up and staring straight at us. This is a long shot on a buffalo, but with a scoped .375 I was still in the ballgame.
The buffalo was facing me, black animal in deep shadow, but I was steady on the sticks and the bright tritium post of the Trijicon scope was clear on the chest. The first shot rocked him back, but he gathered himself and ran toward the bank. Abandoning the sticks and swinging with him, I shot him three more times while he covered 30 yards. That is another attribute of a .375: With light recoil you can recover quickly.
I also used the Hawkeye on a hunt in the Eastern Cape that included fallow deer and lechwe. On the fallow deer, the cover was such that we set up on a hillside overlooking a thick river bottom where we'd seen a herd with a good buck. When they trooped out, I flattened the one I wanted at 230 yards. Later that same day I shot a fine lechwe at similar distance, and on the last day I shot a warthog at less than 20 yards. So the .375 Ruger definitely demonstrated the versatility that is the hallmark of any .375: big game and small, close shots and far.
In June I took part in the hunting debut of Kimber's new Caprivi rifle in northern Namibia. It was a long-awaited big-bore rifle from Kimber, and appropriately its initial chambering is .375 H&H.
The Empire Legacy's options include an aperture sight that fits into the scope mount milled into the rear receiver bridge.
We did our sight-in work the moment we arrived, on a shooting bench set up right alongside the airstrip, and my borrowed Caprivi, topped with Leupold's new VX-7 1.5-6X scope, put two softpoints and one solid in one ragged hole--dead on at 50 yards.
The Caprivi is designed as a classic African "express rifle," stocked in beautiful English walnut with wraparound checkering, pancake cheekpiece and ebony fore-end tip. Metalwork is equally classic: matte blue throughout with good iron sights, barrel band front swivel, two-screw rear swivel and steel bottom metal. The action is controlled-round-feed, and in .375 H&H the magazine holds four.
Regrettably, the Caprivi is available in right-hand action only, which gave me something to complain about, although it didn't slow me down too much.
The Empire Legacy the author borrowed not only has a left-hand action, but also has left-hand cast to the stock. It handled extremely well, fit like a dream and was very easy to shoot from any position.
The hunt presented a unique opportunity to use a .375 in almost every way and context that a .375 can or should be used. One morning I put a 300-grain solid through a beautiful little steenbok with very little meat or skin damage.
Later I killed a fantastic old eland bull. Eland is one of the things the .375 is perfect for. We got on the bull twice in heavy cover, but all I could see was the neck. The third time he was quartering away at a bit over 100 yards. The Trophy Bonded Bear Claw worked perfectly.
There were elephants on the place, and there had been continuing problems with two ill-tempered young bulls, so Federal's Anthony Acitelli and I had what were essentially animal-control permits for these troublemakers. Thus we put the Kimber Caprivi and the .375 H&H to its ultimate test, taking the two elephant bulls with frontal shots with 300-grain Sledge-hammer Solids. As I've said, the .375 is on the right side of the margin for elephants and has been used effectively on these big animals for almost a century.
I stretched the barrel out a bit on gemsbok, kudu and springbok. Obviously I didn't need a .375 for any of these animals, but with a .375 that isn't the point, is it? The point is that one day I could take a frontal brain shot on an elephant bull at six yards, and the next day I could take a kudu at 250 yards, all with the same rifle. I also used the gun to take a leopard, and while I don't rate the .375 as a great leopard round, the rifle and caliber acquitted themselves well.
These days most of my African hunts are more specialized, so it's rare to have the opportunity to really work out any rifle or cartridge on a wide range of game. This was a perfect opportunity for the Caprivi, and it proved once again what I have known for many years: If you have a good .375 with an equally good scope you really don't need anything else.
There are factory rifles and then there are factory rifles. Ruger's Hawkeye is a wonderful factory rifle offering .375 or better performance at almost no premium over a standard factory rifle.
The author expected an easy hunt for fallow deer, but this buck was tricky, finally offering a shot at about 225 yards and demonstrating the versatility of the .375 Ruger cartridge.
Kimber's Caprivi is a production gun that incorporates a host of features generally found only in custom rifles and commands a retail price more than three times that of the Ruger Hawkeye ($3,300 versus the Hawkeye at just a bit over $1,000).
And then there are custom rifles. A relatively new company that has really impressed me in recent years is Empire Rifles, run by attorney-gone-straight and rifle nut George Sandmann. Empire's growth has been dramatic, and I put that down to two critical factors: George is a good guy, and he makes a good rifle.
The new Ruger Hawkeye handles extremely well, and this one shot Hornady's fast 270-grain spitzer and 300-grain full metal jacket .375 Ruger bullets into one cluster.
Empire rifles are essentially built to order with a wide variety of options, but most custom firms occasionally have "shop" guns to show that incorporate the most-asked for features. Last year George sent me such a rifle, a fairly plain but really nice .375 H&H on a left-hand double-square-bridge Mauser-type action--his walnut stocked Legacy.
In addition to having a left-hand cast to the stock, it was stunningly accurate, and I really liked the sight arrangement. In addition to a detachable scope mount and classic express irons, George sent along a nifty aperture sight that mated into the rear receiver bridge.
I liked the rifle, and I knew I should have bought it. It was worth the money (not much more than Kimber's Caprivi), but as I've often complained, I don't spend near enough time with my own rifles these days, and I didn't want my old .375 H&H to get jealous. So I sent it back.
Then early last year I had the chance to hunt water buffalo at a place in Florida. I called George Sandmann and asked if that left-handed .375 was still around. It was.
Water buffalo are considerably bigger than Cape buffalo, and we were going to hunt them only on foot, often in swampy cover, so I left the scope at home and carefully checked the zero of that aperture sight.
After a bit of looking we found an old bull with heavy horns feeding along the edge of a tree line, and we made a good approach through the trees. It almost worked, but at close range a branch blocked the shot, and the bull ran out into open ground. The outfitter and I dashed to the edge, and the bull stood facing us at around 100 yards. My first shot with a Swift A-Frame caught the bull in the center of the chest, and the follow-up solids raked him as he ran. He never made it to the far side of the clearing.
True big bores are fun, and on the largest game they work wonderfully, but don't lose sight of the great value of versatility. To this day you get more of it with a .375 than with anything else.