The Essential Plains Game Rifle
September 23, 2010
Think Africa's all about giant magnums? What if we told you your .270 would be a better choice?
The plains game safari remains one of the greatest bargains in the hunting world, which is why it has become so popular. Even so, bag limits keep shrinking, and licenses and trophy fees keep going up, and on the typical 10-day plains game safari, there will not be unlimited opportunities at the most prized animals such as kudu, gemsbok, sable and nyala--and finding really good specimens of even the most common animals is far from a slam dunk. All this means you need to choose the plains game rifle wisely.
If you count subspecies and races, Africa holds more than 100 varieties of antelope, plus zebras, warthogs, bushpigs and such. Non-dangerous game ranges from 10-pound dik diks up to 2,000-pound eland. You can't take a rifle ideally suited for each animal you wish to hunt, and even if you could you can't predict what you might encounter on a given day. Therefore, the primary requirement in a plains game rifle must be versatility.
The plains game rifle must be powerful enough for the largest animal you have even the slightest interest in taking. It must also be accurate enough for the smallest animals. And then it must be flat-shooting enough and versatile enough for the longest likely shots.
During the past 30 years I have been on many African hunts, sometimes for plains game only, and in 1989 and again in 2007 I conducted a survey of African professional hunters regarding their preferences in rifles and their recommendations to clients.
The PHs and I are in total agreement: The best all-around choice for African hunting is a .375. Okay, but "all-around" is a general term, and if there's no dangerous game on the menu, I am convinced that the vast majority of African plains game are best and most easily taken with a hunter's favorite deer cartridge, be it a .270, a 7mm or a .30 caliber.
Yes, I know, African game has the legend of being extra-tough. Mostly this is hogwash. Animals such as wildebeest are tougher than others, and some such as zebra can be both bigger and tougher. But there is no African antelope, pig or equine that will not succumb to a well-placed, well-constructed bullet from any of these calibers.
The eland is a special case because it's more than twice the size of any other antelope. A big bull of any of the several races can weigh as much as a ton. I believe in a .375 for eland, but if you've read any of my stuff you know I'm a heavy-caliber, heavy-bullet sort of guy.
Honestly, even for eland you don't need a .375. Perhaps a better and more versatile choice would be any of the fast .33s, a fast 8mm (.325 WSM or 8mm Remington Magnum) or a fast .35 if you can find one (like the .358 Shooting Times Alaskan).
If you have such a rifle, and if it's accurate and you shoot it well, you really don't need anything else. On the other hand, if eland is not of interest to you, you probably don't need anything larger than a .30 caliber--and most of us will shoot better at a sustained rate with cartridges that produce a bit less recoil. So if the largest antelope is on the game list, perhaps you should mate a fast .33 with something smaller and more manageable, perhaps a .25 or 6.5mm, or your favorite .270, 7mm or .30 caliber.
If I had to choose the perfect single rifle for plains game, it would be my 8mm Remington Magnum. It's a rifle I have used in Namibia, South Africa, Ethiopia, Zambia and Chad, several times as a one-rifle battery. I have used it on eland, no problems, and I've also used it for longer shooting in wide-open country, including gemsbok in the Kalahari and the tiny dorcas gazelle on the edge of the Sahara.
But if I decided to take two rifles I would probably go a bit larger on the upper end, perhaps to a .338 Winchester Magnum, and drop down a whole bunch on the other end to something like the 7x57 in brush country or a fast 6.5mm or .270 in more open ground.
But that's me, and I'm a rifle nut, always trying to get things exactly right. Most people are better off with whatever they shoot best. I have used the .270, 7x57, 7mm Remington Magnum, 7mm Remington Ultra Mag and several different fast .30 calibers on a wide variety of plains game, and all have done well. However, over the past 30 years the cartridge that has done the best work for me is the plain old .30-06. Recoil is mild, bullet performance is wonderful, and in Africa there is very little long-range shooting as we think of it in North America.
I have never shot any African game larger than a zebra with a .30-06, but my wife, Donna, shoots a .30-06 very well and has used it to take the same range of plains game that I have taken with this cartridge--plus a fine eland bull.
My daughter Brittany is a bit more sensitive to recoil. She doesn't like to go beyond her 7mm-08 unless absolutely necessary. Last year, using a 140-grain Nosler Partition, she took a monstrous eland cleanly with her 7mm-08. Again, shot placement is almost everything, and I fear guys like me make too much of the perfect caliber and cartridge selection.
Based not only on my experience, but what I've observed, I'd be perfectly happy to recommend a .30-06 as an ideal plains game rifle. Or, for that matter, a 7x57 or .270 if that's what you shoot best. But some African areas are more open than others, so if you can handle the increased recoil there is a strong argument for somewhat faster, flatter-shooting cartridges.
Earlier I mentioned that I have done two surveys of licensed African professional hunters nearly 20 years apart, in 1989 and 2007. Both times I received more than 100 responses, so there is a wealth of information representing many cumulative centuries of African hunting.
I didn't specifically ask for the "perfect plains game rifle," so to some extent the professional hunters' info must be extrapolated, but their responses remain invaluable. After all, I have often written that if there's a choice to be made, follow your PH's advice. He has seen more African game taken (and missed and wounded) than most of us will ever see.
In 1989 the 7mm magnums were extremely popular both as a professional hunter's personal choice and as a recommendation to a client. The .30-06 also did well, but there was little support for the .270 and the most popular fast .30 caliber was the great old .300 H&H.
In 2007 this changed dramatically. The 7mm magnums and the .300 H&H were almost missing from both personal choices and recommendations to clients. Interestingly, the old 7x57 was much stronger among professional hunters for "light plains game," but the winner in this category was the .270 Winchester.
The .30-06 remained popular both in the "light" and "medium" category, but the big change was increased support for fast .30s. The .300 magnums were strong among PH's personal choices for both "medium" and "large" plains game. Generally this was expressed either as ".300 magnum" or specifically as ".300 Winchester Magnum," with only a few specific references to other fast .30s.
I cannot explain why the 7mm magnums slipped so badly or why there seemed to be a resurgence of interest in the 7x57--or, for that matter, why the .270 has become more popular among African hunters. All were good cartridges in 1989 and just as good in 2007
On the other hand, it makes perfect sense to me for the .300 H&H to slip and the .300 Winchester Magnum to take over. Modern factory loads for the .300 H&H are few and far between, and most current loads are anemic. The .300 Winchester Magnum is extremely available. Today's professional hunters, in surprising numbers, believe it does the job.
Optics selection for the plains game rifle is fairly simple. A 200-yard shot is considered fairly long, and shots past 300 yards are rare. Conversely, close shots--well within 50 yards--are not uncommon.
However, a 200-yard shot at a small gazelle, springbok or steenbok is aided by magnification, so I believe in using bigger glass on the plains game rifle--but only to a point. In my view, a minimal plains game scope is probably about 2.5-8X, with the ever popular 3-9X or 3.5-10X about right.
The ideal reticle is something fast and simple. Historically I've used the plex-type reticle more than anything, but in recent seasons I've hunted a lot with Trijicon's tritium-tipped post. It is not a long-range reticle, but it's done me great service in Africa.
I can't properly explain why today's professional hunters (or at least the ones who responded to my 2007 survey) seem to have drifted away from the fast 7mms, but I think I can explain their great confidence in the fast .30s (especially the .300 Winchester Magnum) in two words: better bullets.
In theory, increased velocity is a good thing because it reduces the guesswork on longer shots and delivers more energy. In practice, however, none of this means anything unless the bullet holds together and reaches the vitals. Historically, African professional hunters were leery of fast cartridges because, after all, most African game is shot at modest ranges, and these guys have seen too many instances of premature expansion and lack of penetration. Today we have bullets that hold together and penetrate even at high velocities.
In Africa you must keep in mind that your bullet needs to be tough enough to ensure adequate penetration on the largest game you intend to hunt. There are a number of ways to accomplish this.
Our really tough modern bullets, typified by the Barnes Triple Shock or Swift A-Frame, are good options for the largest plains game and/or the fastest cartridges.
You could also choose a medium-tough bullet such as a Nosler Partition or one of the "tipped and bonded" bullets such as the Hornady InterBond, Nosler AccuBond or Swift Scirocco. In both situations you are probably best served by a bullet that is at least of medium weight for caliber--140-grain 6.5mm, 140-grain .270, 160-grain 7mm or 180-grain .30, for example.
Or you can shoot "plain old bullets," pointed softpoints of traditional jacket/core construction. Again, this is velocity dependent. In milder cartridges such as the .308 and .30-06 there is almost no such thing as poor bullet performance. In the .30-06 I shoot mostly 180-grain Hornady InterLocks and get wonderful results. My .300 H&H loves 200-grain Sierra GameKings, and with the extra bullet weight performance is spectacular.
Come to think of it, a fast .30 with a good bullet will do the job on darn near anything short of the thick-skinned dangerous game. This is undoubtedly one reason why so many modern professional hunters have swung toward the .300 Winchester Magnum. I haven't used it nearly as much as several other fast .30s, but I have to agree that its great availability and effectiveness without extreme recoil make it a fine choice.
Absent special circumstances, given a reasonably flat-shooting cartridge, a versatile scope and well-chosen bullets, your favorite deer rifle from 6.5mm to .30 caliber will handle almost all of Africa's incredibly varied non-dangerous game. Whatever you choose, keep in mind that there are many suitable cartridges and lots of good bullets--and that how well you shoot will be far more important than the exact cartridge you're shooting.