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African Hunter Magazine

.458 Caliber Rifle

.458 Caliber Rifle - 'The .458 As A PH's Weapon'
by Brian Marsh

458 Caliber Rifle Image
Photo by Dave Christensen. Are two fast shots from a double better in our more open bushveld conditions than four slower but reasonably fast shots from a magazine rifle?

A newly licensed PH asked if I would recommend the .458 Win Mag as his one-gun safari back-up rifle, saying he agreed with assertions I had previously made about my preference of having a single all around safari weapon. I told him firstly that this of course depended on where he was going to mostly hunt with it - in bushveld conditions or the close jesse thickets. I used only a .458 all my safari hunting days, commencing in 1967 which was nine years after it had been introduced, and found it quite adequate for all our bushveld conditions which was only where I hunted.

During my game cropping days prior to the commencement of hunting safaris being introduced in Rhodesia when it became legal to sport hunt for profit in 1967, I had the game management rights over three large areas of game land measuring nearly a million acres. On these I had large quotas of elephant and buffalo to crop for which I used a double .470 NE double-ejector by FP Baker of Birmingham, not a class gun but one that I shot well with and vowed I would never change. But when safari hunting came into being I had to have a second think about a double rifle as a PH’s all-purpose follow-up weapon when the PH did not have the first and most important shot and follow-ups of dangerous game became an obvious possibility. Were two fast shots from a double better in our more open bushveld conditions than four slower but reasonably fast shots from a magazine rifle?

Hunting friends I discussed this with asked why I didn’t have both rifles, my .470 double and a magazine .458 which effectively have the same ballistics - the .470 bullet leaves the barrel at 2150fps giving 5140ft/lbs of muzzle energy while the .458 figures are 2130 and 5040 respectively. But during my game cropping days I got married to the one hunter/one-gun concept - stick with the rifle you use every day and are thoroughly comfortable and familiar with. I know from experience that every PH has moments when he has to fire his rifle instinctively and I believe when this happens that a one-gun hunter has a better chance of his rifle putting its bullet in the right place, even when the hunter doesn’t remember firing the instant before jumping out of the way.

There was a period which lasted a few years after the introduction of the .458 when hunters did experience a lack of penetration problem - in one case when a Rhodesian game ranger at Mana Pools on the Zambezi named Tim Wellington was killed by an elephant his .458 bullet failed to stop. The elephant was followed up and shot, when it was found that the ranger’s 500gn solid bullet had only penetrated about four inches into the skull.

Of interest was the fact that the bull continued its charge when every opinion I’ve heard in the game ranging field is that a shot into the face of a charging elephant, whether it be from the blast of the charge or the impact of the bullet, will always make a charging elephant turn. In this case the bull continued its charge after receiving both the blast of the charge and the impact of the bullet, which makes one wonder if both these were too feeble to affect the bull at all!

During one of my early safaris I had a Winchester .458 bullet do a strange thing on a buffalo. My client, Julius ‘Glo’ Glogovcsan from California, wounded a buffalo that ran into a thicket. We followed, and when close the bull made no effort to charge but ran across us and I fired a shot for the shoulder, which went high. The bullet struck a rib on the curve and bounced off it, making only a jagged wound in the skin, and Glo’s .375 bullet taken from obliquely behind into the shoulder brought it down. Glo took a number of photos of the wound and took the incident up with the boss man of Winchester when he got back. He admitted there had been a problem which had long since been rectified, and said that I must have been using old ammunition.

458 Caliber Rifle Image
Photo by Richard Harland. Bottom: .458, 480gr by Woodleigh. Centre: .458, 500gr by Winchester - note excellent jacket thickness. Top: .458, 500gr by Remington.

The availability of .458 ammunition at that time was a contributing factor why I chose the calibre. The popularity of the .458 then was at its height with clients and practically every client I had brought a .458 as his heavy and a lighter rifle for plains game. It has always been customary in the safari field for a client to leave any unused ammunition of his PH’s calibre behind when he left, and such was the popularity of the .458 all through my day, which came to an end when I retired from the safari field at the end of 1986, that I never once bought .458 ammunition to replenish my supply

458 Caliber Rifle Image
Photo by Richard Harland..458 bullets recovered from elephants, fired by four different rifles. The majority are Winchester factory loads, a few are Remingtons, used about 1965- 1968. Note how few are deformed and none have split or broken open. The Winchester bullets could hardly be improved upon for elephants.

Another contributing factor was that Kynoch had by then ceased making cartridges for the heavy doubles and rebel Rhodesia was under world sanctions, so what .470 ammo that was still available worldwide quickly disappeared from our shelves. Everything pointed to the .458 and I traded my .470 with my Salisbury gunsmith, the late Cyril Davies, who fitted a new .458 barrel onto a Rigby .350 Rimless Magnum action and stock - a decision I never regretted. The rifle fitted me extremely well and when I threw it up it was always pointing to where I wanted it to be, and the only time it failed me was when the magazine plate flew open on one occasion when I fired.

458 Caliber Rifle Image
The .458 Win (left) with the cartridges, replaced the .470 and .450 NE. The .458 Lott which is increasingly replacing the .458 is on the extreme right.

My client, Paul Sheshal from Germany, was a neck-shot man, and every time he fired and his quarry went straight down he would shout, “One beer for the neck-shot!” He was an excellent shot and I had no qualms about it, although I always advised my clients against it, the shoulder being a much larger and safer target, but I did warn him about the dangers of neck-shots on buffalo. A buffalo’s spine does not go straight down the middle of the neck from the skull to the body as in most antelope. In order to support the massive weight of its horns the spine drops sharply downwards after leaving the skull before angling into the horizontal before entering the rib cage, so is several inches below the centre mark on the spine. However ...

He and I had crept into the remains of a lonely burnt out hut which still had the poles standing and some of the mud plaster still attached to the walls, giving us slots to look and shoot through, which acted also as an ambush position for a herd of buffalo that was grazing slowly towards us. When in range my client fired at a bull with his .375 Mag, and I backed him with a shot at its shoulder. I had insisted that if he went for a neck shot I would back him if the bull did not go straight down, firing as it turned to run and placing my bullet too far back. On firing we both discovered our magazine plates had flipped open, depositing their charges around our feet, which, as neither of our rifles had ever done so before, gave us both a rather spooky feeling.

The bull fell, but only by tripping over its feet from the impact of receiving our two closely fired bullets, when Paul and I bent hastily down to recover another bullet each before it stood up again. He grabbed a .458 round lying at the toe of his shoe, and I a .375 round lying at the toe of mine, which resulted in a needlessly long hard walk after the bull, which was up and gone before we had sorted ourselves out. My rifle never pulled that trick again and never again failed me in any way, even on the rare occasions when I did get into a ‘no time to aim’ situation and had to rely on my trusty rifle to do that for me. I did thereafter make the point however of regularly cleaning the magazine-catch with a toothbrush to remove any dirt it may have accumulated.

I did tell my questioner that account must be taken of the fact that all my safari hunting, both in what is now Zimbabwe and later in Botswana, was done in what we call ‘bushveld’ conditions, in the main ‘relatively’ open country. East African PHs I met in Botswana, who came to the country when hunting was closed in Kenya in the 1960s, all used a heavy calibre double rifle for the very close hunting conditions they often had to hunt in - vis the bamboo forests of the Aberdares where visibility is measured in feet. A number of the East African PHs in Botswana had a heavy double and a .375 for their safari weapons, but I preferred to stick with just my .458, so, having had experience of hunting with both rifle patterns, what can I say about them?

Firstly, although my double had shorter barrels, it was heavier than my .458, and as I was never parted from my rifle when we were hunting, even when on long tiring hikes after elephant that we knew were a long way ahead for us and when the client would quickly give his rifle to his bearer, I was never parted from mine. You sometimes get nasty surprises in the African bush, which are bad enough when you have your rifle handy, but obviously much worse when your gun bearer flees with it.

An example of ‘nasty surprises’ happened to me with clients in Botswana. We were a couple of hundred yards behind a herd of buffalo, following them by the cloud of dust they kicked up so we knew exactly where they were. I was leading and walking around the side of a termite mound I nearly walked into a buffalo cow, now well inside in her ‘circle of instantaneous attack’, and she came straight for me. I had my rifle at the trail in my right hand and throwing it into both my hands I had time only to snap off the safety catch and pointing from the hip at her chest, yanked on the trigger.

This was very much ‘an instinctive shot’ and my bullet went straight to where I was looking when I fired, and although the oft-quoted story is that a buffalo cannot be turned she wheeled sideways away from me, when I shot her in the shoulder and she went down. We found she had a bullet wound in her hip, and on butchering the carcass found a .375 soft-nose imbedded in it, which had no doubt been placed there by a poacher. It had not broken the bone but slowed her down, and was no doubt was why she was following slowly behind the herd.

What about the Botswana hunters who were born and bred and grew up hunting in that country? What did they prefer? I am very friendly with the Blackbeard family and was privileged to edit their combined book, The Hunting Blackbeards of Botswana, which is currently being published by Rowland Ward in Johannesburg. The late Dennis Blackbeard used a .458 during his safari days, as did his sons, Gavin and Ronny, and his grandson, Luke, son of Gavin. Ronny and Luke are both PHs in Botswana today and both tell of hairy incidents when their .458s proved adequate.

The famed American gun-writer, the late Jack O’Connor who I had on safari in 1973, told me that the .458 bullet had the best design of any bullet yet made with its parallel sides and rounded nose, and Richard Harland, a one time game ranger employed to eliminate elephant and buffalo in the tsetse fly corridors in Gonarezhou, echoed Jack’s words in his book, The Hunting Imperative (Rowland Ward 2001) He wrote: “Whatever the failings of the factory loading, the construction of the 500-grain solid bullet with its thick steel jacket and long, non-tapering shape was, in my opinion, unbeatable and streets ahead of any of the nitro express heavy calibre projectiles of the day...”

There are of course souped-up wildcat variants of the .458 Win Mag, using the same bullet but built on a longer case, like the Ackley, the Watt and the Lott, which gives them some 400 more foot pounds of energy, and of course, more of Taylor’s ‘knock-down power’. These are options, but only to my knowledge if you are a hand-loader or have a guaranteed supply of ammunition. When my .470 started double discharging, which Cyril Davies said was entirely due to my over-care by sloshing .303 gun oil on the wood every time I cleaned it, which swelled it inside the action and caused both barrels to fire together when the right trigger was pulled, I was able to borrow an Ackley from him while my double was being repaired.

458 Caliber Rifle Image
Photo by Richard Harland (The Art of Hunting the African Elephant). Elephant shot during tsetse fly operations by Richard Harland in the 1960's

Having limited ammunition I used it sparingly when trying it out, and got caught short by it on my first shot at an elephant. My most used light rifle at this time was a 7x57 Mauser, which had a short bolt action, and when I took a shoulder shot at one of two elephant bulls, not wanting to risk a brain shot with an unfamiliar rifle, I did not pull the bolt of the Ackley back far enough, which had a long bolt action, and got a smoke-stacked case when trying to reload for a back-up shot.

Buffalo
Photo by Dave Christensen

Buffalo
A buffalo's spine does not go straight down the middle of the neck from the skull to the body as in most antelope, it rather drops sharply downwards after leaving the skull before angling to the horizontal, before entering the rib cage. This means it is several inches below the centre mark on the neck.

All would have been well if I had not cleared it in time to fire a Texas heart shot at 'my' bull, not realizing that the two bulls had changed sides while they were running away, and I shot the wrong bull! The first bull shortly went down, the other did not. But such was the penetration of the Ackley bullet that after entering the body just forward of the left rear leg it travelled its full length to puncture the right lung, and we shortly found and dispatched it.

My questioner asked me what I thought of the .505 Gibbs for a PH’s one-gun back-up weapon. I don’t have an opinion as I have never used one. Ballistically it is superior to the .458, having a muzzle velocity of 2300fps with a 525gr bullet giving 6180ft/lbs of muzzle energy against the .458’s 500gr bullet having a muzzle velocity of 2130fps giving 5040ft/lbs of muzzle energy. As a game ranger I would certainly take a look at it with its faster and heavier bullet, but I do not know if the trajectory would be the same as the .458’s as an ‘all species one-gun safari rifle’. It could be an option but I have never found anything wanting in the .458 in this respect.

I did not advise my young questioner to go for a .458 for his safari rifle. If I did and his first dangerous animal nailed him I would likely be in deep trouble with his girl friend. All I said to him was, read what I have said, and if you are still not completely happy with it, then consider the .505 Gibbs. But first ask ex-game ranger Richard Harland what he thinks, who highly praises the .458 while also owning a .505 Gibbs.

Brian Marsh

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