If I have to describe the perfect season, it would be a season where the Professional Hunter never needed to fire one shot at a client's wounded animal or out of self defence saving the skin on his client, trackers or his own. Now for me the 3rd season with my mighty .550 magnum was not there yet, but as close as I could hope for. Actual fact season 3 is two seasons combined.
It all started with my dear friend, Uncle Jack and his grandson Mathew joining me for a multiple buffalo cow hunt in the lowveldt Limpopo Province of South Africa. A beautiful area, rich in history, bordering the famous Kruger National Park. First off was Mathew using my trusty .375 H&H with .300 grain Nostler partitions. Now and again I have been changing the rules and only allowed Mathew to put softs down into the magazine. The reason is simple. After years of hunting buffalo and using all different ways and combinations, I found it to be the safest option in a hunt where there is more than one animal. Too many times I have seen an over-excited client firing a back-up shot at a wounded animal using solids and the bullet kicks dust up off the ground not too far from other animals. It is amazing to see what change in direction even a solid can take after hitting an animal. I have more than enough responsibility, than to to be dealing with a second wounded animal.
Well, we managed to get to about 40 yards from a cow standing in the open, slightly angling away. Mathew hit her on the shoulder! If she was 100% broadside to us it would have been the perfect shot, but unfortunately for Mathew, it only broke her shoulder. Luckily it was quite an open spot and as the herd took off she straggled behind giving Mathew a second shot. In the excitement the shot missed the cow and kicked dust up right in front of her, turning her 180 degrees. She now started to recover and build up speed. I knew there was not much space left before she would disappear and I took a kneeling shot, aiming at her neck hoping the shot will hit, at the worst, the shoulder, if my calculations were out. As I squeezed the trigger, she stopped! The bullet hit her square in the neck, dropping her. I was kneeling and not really balanced so I fell back on to by behind....quite embarrassing to say the least! At the post-mortem was it discovered that the GS flat point solid of 700 grains travelling at 2240ft/s, broke the neck and was lodged under the skin on the far side. Not the ideal performance, I thought. I was understandably quite concerned with this bullet performance until I started thinking. A few years back I shot an impala in the neck with my .375 H&H using a 300grain Swift A-frame bullet. That bullet did not exit either. I have also shot right through elephant with the .550 Magnum using GS Custom solids and through buffalo with a .375 H&H, 300 grain A Frame. It must be that the spinal mass, combined with the elasticity of the neck, made for less than optimum bullet performance. (This is open for discussion).
Next up was Uncle Jack. As luck would have it, he made the same mistake as Mathew, breaking the right front shoulder. The cow ran into the herd, making a safe follow-up shot impossible. Luckily Uncle Jack is a very good, controlled hunter and held back. We followed the tracks and discovered she broke away from the herd no more than 200 paces on. Good news for us indeed. However, that's where it started to get really exciting. The cow entered an endless mass of Sickle bush. For those who don't know this horrible bush, it's best described as a bush that even when it is dry and has no leaves, can still completely make a buffalo blend into it, almost invisible to the human eye. An hunter can be staring at a buffalo that he knows is there, 15 paces away behind such a bush. If the beast doesn't move or the hunter doesn't get a glimpse of the sun reflecting of a horn, he will not see it.
At one point we crawled to within 10 paces of a cow lying down, but I could not see any blood or a sign of her being the wounded buffalo. It was only after she jumped up and disappeared behind a bush, we went in to investigate and saw a pool of blood confirming that she was, indeed, our wounded buffalo. For the next two hours we played a cat and mouse game in the Sickle bush. She then jumped up about 8 paces from me and once again disappeared behind another Sickle bush. This time I anticipated the direction she was moving and squeezed a shot off. With the shot a branch from the Sickle bush, about two inches in diameter, snapped off. I ran to get a better view of what was going on behind the bush and no more than 17 paces from me, the buffalo was lying dead! The GS Custom 700 grain bullet entered about 4 inches below her tail and penetrated to underneath her skin just behind her ear. Full length penetration on a buffalo, after the bullet flew through a piece of Sickle bush. Not bad!
I would like to say a bit more about this follow-up shot, which is also the video. I had a split second to kneel down, shoulder the rifle and squeeze the trigger and I did so with same speed and accuracy as I would have using my 8.5lbs .458 Lott. It gives me more trust in the .550 Magnum, as this ability to handle the heavy 11.5lbs rifle fast was always a worry for me.....until now!
Next, was a multiple buffalo bowhunt. I was not the main Professional Hunter, but the back-up PH for a very good friend and PH, Jess de Klerk of Witkop Safaris. The hunting client was a friend as well, but his importance made it imperative we have 2 PHs for his safety. The whole safari was videoed by our friend, Martin Muller of African Sun Productions who is the best videographer I ever had the privilege to work with. What could be better than sharing a campfire with 3 friends?
The first buffalo took an arrow a bit low but it still managed to pierce the bottom of the heart. I had just returned from the bush after recovering a monster eland that was wounded the evening before. I had dispatched it with the .550 Magnum when Jess called on the radio asking for my assistance. Following the blood trail left by the buffalo bull was easy and to our surprise we found him no more than 200 paces from where he was shot, in relatively open country. He was lying down facing us and instantly jumped up and started to come, when Jess shot him with his .500 Nitro Blaser Double using 570 grain Rhino Solids. That shot did not completely change the bull's mind but the second shot from Jess did. He now turned, running to our right on a path that would lead him no more than 9 paces past us. As he cleared some brush I squeezed of a shot. The effect was impressive to say the least - he went down in a cloud of dust that completely covered him.
The second buffalo also took the arrow too low, without any vitals being hit. Luckily for us we caught him before he could cover a lot of ground. This time the landowner was with us using a .470 double. He and Jess almost shot at the same time which stopped the bull but did not put him down. I fired a 700 grain GS a second later and the bull dropped instantly.
And then I had a new 'first' for the .550 Magnum when taking clients to hunt 2 hippo. One hippo ended up giving us some hassle. The client's shot just missed the brain and we ended up chasing it up and down a river system. We must have been on it for almost an hour when the local PH managed to shoot the hippo in the nose. This made the hippo rear up out of the water and as it was going away from us, gave me most of the hippo's backside to shoot at. We must have been no more than 40 paces from it and I hit it about 9 inches to the right of the base of the tail with a 700 grain Cutting Edge flat point solid. The shot definitely had a serious impact on the hippo but I cannot be certain if it was my shot that killed it as more than one gun was shooting at the time. What was impressive though is that my bullet penetrated all the way to the left front shoulder and was stuck in the skin pointing forward, that all the way from the tail. This proves once again, that a flat point solid such as the Cutting Edge and GS Custom work, keep a straight line through an animal and do not tumble.
Buffalo was the last animal that the .550 Magnum took in the 3rd season. After my client took his first buffalo with my .375 H&H with one shot, he decided to use the mighty .550 Magnum with 650 grain hollow point Cutting Edge bullets for his second and last buffalo. Luck, however, was at first not on our side. We had 2 days left and it started raining, making tracking almost impossible. We would find tracks and start tracking and then it would start raining and we would lose them, leaving us no choice but to start all over again. It was on the last day and already past 3 o'clock in the afternoon but we were not prepared to give up. The rain by now had subsided to a gentle drizzle but still there was no tracks to follow as all the buffalo were sitting tight in the thick bush, not moving.
We were getting desperate and all I could think we could do was to go and find them were they were holed up, in the thick stuff.... and that is bamboo and lots of it. This is where our luck changed, as no more than a 100 paces in, there were fresh tracks in the mud. Yes, it was still raining but not enough to wash the tracks away. We were just on the riverbank with Tumo tracking and myself scanning the thickets ahead. It was really pretty with all the short green grass in between all the patches of bamboo. That is where Tumo saw the bull first, 20 paces just below a ridge, feeding back towards us. We could have easily shot him from there but what is more fun than getting really close to a buffalo on a hunt? Our approach was straightforward, one step back and right and we were out of sight all the way around a bush to a spot about 9 paces from him.
When I peeked around he was still feeding head down towards us. I now indicated to my client to stay low and move past me so that the ridge will cover his movements and when he is ready get up slowly with the rifle shouldered so to limit all movements. It's always a pleasure hunting with clients who are good natural hunters. He did as I said and as he stood up the bull was still feeding head down. I was hoping for a better shot, but my hunter told me he can take him if he aimed over the head into the chest hoping to also break the spine in the process. I nodded and he took the shot. To our surprise the bull did not drop. The bullet just missed the spine to his right but went into the lung. The impact from the bullet momentarily paralyzed the bull's back legs as he dragged them for 3 paces before he recovered and ran about 4 paces past us. The .550 boomed again and took him on the shoulder. Momentum took him another 4 paces or so before he died.
It was only when we cut him open that we could see the real effect of the Cutting Edge 650 grain hollow point bullets on the buffalo. The first shot completely destroyed the right lung with pieces stuck on the ribs. The second shot into the shoulder as he ran past, blew the heart chamber completely off. That was the first time I ever seen such devastation by two bullets.
I have now used the .550 magnum now for 4 years and have to admit that I'm just growing more and more fond of it every year. I could not have asked for a better rifle calibre combination.
My thanks to Neal Shirley, the mastermind behind the .550 Magnum and .550 Express, and the owner of www.custombrassandbullets.com who supplied me with all my cases (Jamison) and bullets ( Cutting Edge Bullets, 700 grain flat point solids and 650grain hollow point bullets) for testing.