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. Hell 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...
Hunting rifles that are legal in Africa fall into 4 basic categories....
Theres 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 Blaser make) and then the famous double rifles made by such distinguished companies as Holland & Holland and Westley Richards in the UK and Heym in Germany.
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.
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!
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 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 those 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 real 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 youre aiming, slacken off the rearsight and move it slightly to the left.
For the purpose of this discussion on rifles, African hunting can be split into 3 basic categories:
Whatever rifle and calibre you opt for you should also think hard about your choice of bullet design.
Once you have bought you 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 youre 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 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 arrestor fitted and hadn't test fired. 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 and hopefully we'll get to share a campfire together somewhere down the road.