African Hunting Rifles

'African Hunting Rifles' by Steve Robinson

A first time hunter to Africa will have often have selected his rifle by walking into a gun shop in his hometown and told the man the shop he needs a rifle for African hunting. He will probably walk out with a rifle that may or may not be the ideal calibre and/or finish but it may well be the rifle that gives the shop owner (who could well have never been on an African hunting safari) the highest profit margin.

First, let's look at the basics...

  • Africa is mostly bright sunny, dry and hot. This means that a gloss finished rifle is a step in the wrong direction. Any rifle that gleams is the wrong rifle for an African hunting safari. You need to try to buy something that has a matt or parkerised finish on the metalwork and telescopic sight and either a dullish, oiled finish wood stock or if you prefer, a synthetic (but still non-reflective) stock.
  • Long barrels can also be a drawback in Africa. This is due to the fact that you will spend a fair amount of time carrying it on your shoulder, and a long barrel sticks up higher and reflects more than a short barrel. One way to get over this is to get into the habit of carrying a long barrelled rifle in the muzzle down position. ItÂ’s also a good idea to put a piece of insulating tape over the end of the barrel to keep the dust out. Shorter barrels also make for faster target acquisition and pointability.

Legal Hunting rifles for Africa fall into 4 basic categories...

There's the single shot actions such as the famous 'falling block'. These can be discounted straight away as being far from ideal by dint of their being too slow to reload.

Then comes the underlever actions, the bolt actions (including the straight pull bolts such as made by Blaser) and then the double rifles made by such distinguished companies as Holland & Holland and Westley Richards in the UK and Heym in Germany.

African Hunting Rifles Image
This double rifle was made for East African PH Alan Black by John Rigby & Co of London and is now owned by a good friend and client of mine and I'd sell my soul to own it! Image by kind permission of Mr J Nixon III

Any of these action types are ideal for Africa. Although most underlever rifles rarely come in suitable calibres for most dangerous game species and should therefore be discounted for dangerous game hunting with the exception perhaps of the big cats.

The bolt action rifles are by far the most popular choice of hunters worldwide. Probably one of the most popular and reliable types of bolt action rifles are the Mauser controlled feed variants. We use these actions in .404 Jeffery on our company loaner rifles. Don't feel that push feed rifles should be ruled out though, my own dangerous game rifle is a push feed action made by Sabi Rifles in South Africa. It's a bit battered nowadays, but it's never let me down, shoots as straight as a die and I love it dearly. The straight pull bolt rifles are an excellent choice, particularly for left-handed shooters as left and right-handed bolts can often be used in the same rifle.

Removable magazines are an arguable point. Personally I don't like them much at all, as they can fall out if not correctly located and some hunters (especially in moments of excitement) drop them from time to time. This means that they end up covered in dust and then have to brushed off before they can be replaced in the rifle...Murphy's law decrees that this will always happen at the worst possible moment!

Double rifles, although a little on the heavy side are a pleasure to own and use and more often than not, a great investment to boot. Having said that they are considerably more expensive than a bolt action rifle and in my opinion somewhat restricting in their use due to their design. Doubles really only come into their own when hunting dangerous game at close range as they do, without a doubt, allow for a faster second shot than any other action type. The drawback of these rifles is that they need a lot of practice before you can shoot them really well. From my personal experience, at least 50% of hunting clients who use double rifles can't shoot them as accurately as they should be able to, or as accurately as they think they can. Some modern doubles now have a cocking lever instead of the more traditional safety catch. I personally don't like these at all, as in my opinion, the very point of having a double is speed of use. The cocking lever removes some of that speed. It's fairly rare to see a double rifle fitted with a scope but personally, I think it's a good idea to fit a low power scope with QD mounts. It makes the rifle a lot more versatile and often helps dramatically with the essential placement of that first shot.

When choosing any of the larger calibres one factor that needs special attention is recoil. You should never buy a rifle that you can't learn to shoot confidently and competently. If you flinch at the shot then you need to either think about buying a smaller calibre or consider a muzzle brake or better still, a mercury tube or tungsten bead recoil arrester fitted into the stock. I personally shoot a short barrelled .500 Jeffrey with a mercury tube in the stock that tames the rifle down from a teeth-rattling demon to a pussycat...well, almost!

African Hunting Rifles Image
Author's dangerous game rifle

Most African countries have some kind of minimum requirement to hunt any dangerous game. Excepting leopard, this commonly translates to around 4000 foot pounds and a bullet weight of 300 grains or so. That, in turn, translates to a minimum calibre of .375 H&H magnum. However, in my opinion, a .416 kills better than a .375 and a .458 better than a .416, and so on.

Telescopic sights are a very personal issue and most hunters will tell you to spend more money on this than on their rifles. I'm not completely sure that I agree with this. Technology has advanced so much nowadays that a reasonably priced good quality Tasco scope, for example, will perform pretty well on all but the heaviest recoiling rifles. When buying a scope for the long range hunting safaris such as in the Kalahari then something like a 6-10 power scope is a good choice and something like a 3-6 power for the closer bushveldt hunting. If you want a scope on your dangerous game rifle then a 1.5-4 is about right. It seems to be very popular to buy scopes with straight tubes for Africa. I don't agree with this. Sure they look 'classic Africa' but they don't give you any light advantage in early or late light conditions. The scopes we fit on our own .404 Jeffery rifles are Swarovski 1.5 - 6 x 42. The unrelenting march of technology has seen recent introductions of many improvements to scopes such as illuminated reticules. If you're going to go on this route, you either need to learn how to get the scope set to the right setting in plenty of time before the shot, or you need to be able to set it quickly. If you take too long messing around with all the switches etc, you'll miss your shooting opportunity. Personally, I prefer to keep it simple and use a traditional scope.

Good quality QD scope mounts on the plains game rifles are a good idea and if you put a scope on your dangerous game rifle, and I recommend you do, they should be considered as absolutely mandatory. Your dangerous game rifle should also be fitted with your choice of open sights, but remember you need to see as much of what's trying to stamp on you as possible. My own 'charge stopper' is fitted with a shallow vee rear sight and a big red fibre optic foresight. The sights are set to what I was taught to refer to as 'six o clock hold', which means the shooter sees as much of what's trying to nail him as possible. This set up works like a dream for me, especially in low light conditions such as are found in the really thick bush that wounded game like to hide in. Those silly little pop-off scope protectors should be avoided like the plague as they always make a noise when you open them thus alerting the game and if your scope can't cope with the rigours of the African bush without these things then you have the wrong scope on your rifle.

Open sights should be considered essential on an African rifle. Plains game rifles usually have a scope, but a scope can go wrong. If you have open sights as well, you can always take the scope off and shoot with open sights. For dangerous game, they're even more essential for the obvious reason. As to which style of open sights, I personally like a shallow vee rearsight and a red fibre optic foresight, but there are plenty of choices out there for you to choose from. If you have a military background, you might like to consider a peep sight. If you're unsure of how to adjust open sights, the simple rule is to move the rearsight into the error. Therefore, if the rifle shoots to the left of where you're aiming, slacken off the rearsight and move it slightly to the left.

Regarding rifles, African hunting can be split into 3 categories...

Firstly there's the open, long range shooting for species such as springbuck, oryx and other desert animals. This type of hunting obviously requires a flat shooting calibre with a higher power scope. I won't go into calibre choice here other than to say that I would personally suggest that for any African hunting whatsoever, you view a .30 calibre as your absolute minimum. Although it's possible to use smaller calibres than this they leave a lot less margin for error and as you're spending so much money on your safari it's worth using the best tool for the job.

The second category is the most common. This is bushveldt hunting where the majority of your shots will be 50-100 yards or so. 150-200 yards would be the exception.

The third category is dangerous game hunting where you can be pretty sure that all shots will be no further than 60 yards and often closer than 20 yards. I've been hunting dangerous game for 28 years now and with one exception, the longest first shot any client of mine has ever taken at dangerous game is 60 yards. The closest was an unexpected distance of just 4 yards. Charges, should they happen, can often be measured in feet rather than yards.

Choice of bullet design

As a rule of thumb you should use a fast expanding bullet for lion and leopard and all but the largest of plains game. My personal choice in a .30 calibre rifle is Winchester Silvertip or Woodleigh Soft Point.

A slower expanding bullet for Eland and Cape Buffalo. I like Barnes X, Barnes TSX or Woodleigh Protected Soft Point.

A good quality solid, preferably a monolithic solid for elephant, hippo & rhino and for following up anything big & wounded. Clients with double rifles will prefer to use a full metal jacket solid rather than a monolithic, but from my experience they don't generally perform or penetrate quite so well and are more inclined to distort. My personal choice of monolithic solid for my own dangerous game rifle is the GS Custom flat nosed monolithic solid which from my experience has phenomenal penetration.

After you've bought your African hunting rifle

It's a good idea to practice with it as often as possible before bringing it on safari. Bench rest shooting is a good start, but try to also practice shooting it from a variety of other shooting positions such as standing with shooting sticks, kneeling and, dare I say it, freehand. Try also to vary the range at which you practice. The more experience you can gain about the bullet drop of your particular calibre the less you'll have to worry about during your hunting safari.

You'll also want to consider rifle hygiene. A small compact rifle cleaning kit is a good idea. Although I'm not a believer in overdoing the rifle cleaning whilst on safari, it a good idea to give it the odd going over, especially if it's been out in the rain. Just make sure that you don't overdo the oiling part of the job. Oil in the barrel, as you probably know, causes a different point of impact on the first shot and oil on the outside makes for more shine and acts as a magnet to dust. So if you do feel the need for a daily spring clean try to make sure that there is no oil left on the rifle when you're finished.

Last but by no means least, you should only bring rifles on safari that you are prepared to accept the odd scratch and light damage on. If you consider the rifle so precious to you that you want to keep it wrapped up in a rifle slip whilst on the hunting truck, then you're bringing the wrong rifle on safari with you. The place for your rifle whilst in the hunting truck is either in the rifle rack or in your hands, and when you're hunting on foot (as you will be for a large part of the time) it should be on your shoulder or in your hands.

Just before I close, let me tell you about a few of the many problems some of my clients have suffered with their rifles over the years. You should note that they all have one thing in common - lack of preparation before their safari.

Hunter 1, arrived with a brand new rifle he'd never shot. When we checked the zero, the rifle had been fitted with the wrong scope mounts and wouldn't zero. As the rifle didn't have open sights, we had to drive to the nearest gun shop (in South Africa) to buy new mounts. We got the rifle shooting straight but it cost us a whole days hunting.

Hunter 2, arrived with a rifle he'd just has a mercury tube recoil suppressor fitted. He hadn't test fired the rifle afterwards. When we did, the stock split after the third shot and the rifle was unusable for the rest of the hunt. Fortunately, I had a spare rifle in camp he could use.

Hunter 3, hadn't even fitted the scope to his new rifle by the time he arrived and when we tried to do it in camp the allen screws didn't fit the threads on the mounts. This one was easily cured though. All it took was a few spare allen screws I had in my kit.

I hope this helps you in your selection of a good African hunting rifle.

Steve Robinson

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