African Hunter Magazine

All Round Rifle

Page Updated: June 2020

'The "All Round Rifle" And Other Slippery Shibboleths'
by Don Heath

"The question as to the most efficient and generally useful rifles for shooting the various kinds of game is a wide one, and a matter upon which it is difficult to attempt to give entirely unprejudiced advice, seeing that the very fact of one's having formed an opinion implies a certain prejudice in favour of the style of weapon upon the efficiency of which he bases those opinions" F Vaughan Kirby (In the Haunts of Wild Game, Blackwood, 1906)

One of the first things I learned at university was to be sceptical of old and established ideas, and to be especially wary of neat, tidy concepts that sounded great but in reality were too simple to describe the world. Ecology is a huge subject and we still do not understand who all the facets of nature combine to give us an observed result. Carrying capacity was the shibboleth of the day - we had to be able to work out the exact carrying capacity for each large mammal in an area so that we could manage our parks and safari areas to maximum benefit. It didn't take long to realise that in a multi species environment like the African bush, carrying capacity was just a neat idea, and of no practical help to the man in the field. In fact, our park planning would have progressed far more smoothly if the whole concept had never been proposed. It might be a valuable tool in the management of a single major species, like deer in the United States, or cattle on a ranch but not in the African bush where nothing is constant except change itself.

But man loves to compartmentalise. To put ideas into neat packages so that those concepts are easy to understand and can be discussed even by those who lack an in-depth knowledge of the topic. And so it is with rifles...

The ideal of an "All Round Rifle" for African use is as old as the first settlements in the Cape. Just as the short ornate German rifles became the long slim Kentucky rifles in the States, and that evolved into the Hawken style for the western plains, so African rifles developed to suit local conditions. Perhaps the first definitive "African Rifle" style was the overly long Roer, developed by the Dutch colonialists. Designed so that a man could reload it, sitting on a horse, with the butt resting on the ground. This length meant a fair weight of rifle, which made for absorption of recoil, and so permitted a healthy bore and powder charge. Eight bore was considered light. Elephant, rhino, hippo, eland and giraffe took some killing with the inefficient round balls and coarse powder of the day. A century later, the "Cape Gun" came into vogue. This was a doubled barrelled weapon, with one rifled barrel and one smoothbore. Initially these were flintlock, becoming percussion fired and standardised as the official weapon of the Cape Mounted Rifles in 1853, with the design perpetuating itself into the cartridge era as the perfect gentleman's sporting gun. Since one could never be sure of what one will see when out for a stroll in Africa, a combination rifle/shotgun makes a lot of sense. In all the settled parts the really big game had all long since either been hunted out or driven off, so a twelve gauge shotgun and a .577/.450 would nicely account for anything that the gentleman might encounter. On highveld farms to this day a drilling or similar combination gun would make a fair "all round" rifle. The other alternative is a fast handling, easy pointing carbine like a good old fashioned Winchester '94, Marlin '95 or Savage '99. There are few short, fast shooting rifles that can compete with the American lever actions for bushvelt hunting anything up to the size of kudu. The old Mannlicher carbines were great, but sadly they have faded with time. In desert areas where shots tend to be longer, intrinsic accuracy of the rifle needs to be better than is acceptable in bushvelt conditions and 'scope sight makes good sense. A 'scope does nothing for the usability of a shotgun so a specialised "medium" calibre rifle - 7x64, 7mm magnum, any of the .30 cal magnums, and built on a good bolt or single shot action is the order of the day.

Where dangerous game can be encountered though, the whole equation changes, and the concept of an "all round rifle" begins to hit a slippery slope. In days gone by, the professional ivory or meat hunter carried a 'general purpose' medium bore like an 8mm Mauser, whilst his gun bearer and/or serval porters carried his heavy rifle, a small bore, a shotgun and perhaps even a super heavy like a .577 or .600 NE. As conditions dictated the hunter would take over the appropriate armament for whatever he was going to hunt, be it a duiker for dinner or an elephant for the next months wages. The visiting sportsman arrived in Africa with a similar battery, and most of the books on African Hunting from the years prior to World War II will contain a "Recommended Battery" based on the author's experiences. The all round rifle was a myth. For dangerous game in thick cover a .400 bore was (and still is) the accepted minimum, with .450 recommended, whilst a high velocity medium bore was practical for the larger soft skinned game up to eland. Today many men accept the two rifle battery (plus a shotgun)as the minimum for all round African hunting, but even that is flawed. We no longer have a trail of gun bearers standing patiently in line waiting to hand us the appropriate "iron" for the shot, baggage weight is limited on all airlines and so the search for the one "all round rifle" has been vigorously renewed, except that these days it is probably best described as an "Optimal Third-generation Hardware Piece".

All Round Rifle Image
The classic contenders and two that didn’t make it. L-R .376, 9.3 x 62, 9.3 x 64, .375 H&H. The 10.75 x68 and 9.5 MS lacked sufficient penetration to be safe for use on elephant.

John 'Pondoro' Taylor was the first to really expound upon the idea. The one rifle that a man could use and carry that was suitable for all game he was likely to encounter from elephant down to impala. In 1948 there were four contenders as far as public opinion and Taylor were concerned: the 10.75x68, the .404, the 9.3 Mauser and the .375H&H. Taylor immediately dismissed the 10.75 as it lacked sufficient penetration for a frontal shot on an elephant, gave considerable thought to the .404, particularly as it was available in two loadings, a 400 grain soft and solid for dangerous game and a high velocity 300grain load for plains game at longer range. The 9,3 was briefly summed up with the words... "it is so generally satisfactory that there isn’t actually much to say about it". Holland & Holland’s .375 he waxed lyrical on, going a little too far in stretching the stories in its praise. None-the-less, he made a good case for it.

My personal interest in an 'all round' rifle was prompted last year by the chore of going out to shoot an impala for educational dissection. What rifle? Well, there were three 'scoped rifles to choose from, my own little 7mm Mauser, a .308 Brno and a 9.3 Husqvarna. Come to mention it there was also a nifty little .223. For an impala, which needs to be taken with a head or neck shot so you actually have something to show the kids when you open it up, that .233 was probably ideal. The only problem was that a pride of lions had been hanging around and had tried to take an elephant calf the previous evening and failed. The elephants and lions had a serious punch up and the lions went home hungry. They were unlikely to be in the best of moods and consequently I took the 9.3. I didn't run into the lion, but had a close confrontation with a cow elephant who was obviously also still on edge. A screaming, angry elephant is not what you want on an impala hunt - it scares the impala off if nothing else. Besides that, this cow made a fair impression of scaring me, and the three kids I had along. She just wouldn't let up, following us as we ran down wind of her, and then following our scent like a bloodhound when we managed to duck out of sight. Eventually we lost her, and an hour later I was just lining up on an impala when with a shrill trumpet she burst from the bush behind us. The game scout fired a burst from his AK over her head, I put one through the ear, more running, more "warning" shots. I really thought it would end with me shooting her. Now a 'scope sighted rifle isn't really the tool for a charging elephant at close quarters but at least I had some Woodleigh solids along which would have done the job adequately. Even so, that 9.3 felt very small. It brought back memories of walking into a herd of elephants near Sengwa one rainy night when I had broken down and was walking back to the station. Elephants in the dark are very, very large, and very frightening. The lioness that stood her ground on the path an hour later did a fair job of giving the elephants a run for their money in the "scariness" department.

Often in the past I had carried my 7mm or an issue F.N. (in 7.62 cal), as a general purpose rifle for dealing with all eventualities in the bush from poachers to recalcitrant elephants. A few good round nosed solids for elephant and soft points or military ball for all other eventualities. The real problem is, that although a 7mm with solids will comfortably drop the biggest elephant, the margin for error is minute, and when facing a charge with dust billowing, vegetation in the way, the elephants head moving up and down, never mind any nerves on the shooters part, precision shot placement contains a fair element of luck. The same can be said for buffalo, and lion are two different animals, easily taken with a 7mm when just showing off, but a devil to stop when the charge is real. Firepower from the F.N. made up for some of the shortcomings but not really with 20/20 hindsight. No, the all round, general purpose, African rifle must be suitable for use on elephant to qualify. But that is not the only criteria or you could call your .460 Weatherby your ideal "all round" rifle.

All Round Rifle Image
The .400s - .450/400, .416 Rem, .416 Weatherby, .416 Rigby, .404 and .425 W-R.

Let us consider in detail what is required, and here is where the concept instantly moves onto slippery ground. A visiting client backed up by a PH may well have different requirements from the local hunter who carries a rifle for general purpose hunting and protection.

  • The rifle must be able to drive a bullet through to an elephant brain from any angle;
  • The rifle must be accurate enough and flat shooting enough for use on plainsgame under local prevailing conditions;
  • The rifle must be easy to shoot and absolutely reliable;
  • A selection of bullet types must be available that are suitable for taking all size classes of game from dik dik to elephant efficiently;
  • The cartridge chosen must be easy to reload, and economical to practice with;
  • The scope should have a setting of 2x or below for use on dangerous game;
  • The ammunition should not be so bulky as to preclude easily carrying 20 or 30 rounds;
  • The rifle design should facilitate rapid follow up shots.

1) This requirement rules out a great many potential candidates. A Marlin lever action in .45-70 or .450 Marlin fits all other criteria nicely, and is fine for a side brain shot. Like the 10.75 of yesteryear though, it is not safe to carry for protection against elephants - you simply cannot push a 480grn solid fast enough (at reasonable pressures) for a frontal brain shot. Most of your modern cartridges from 7mm Mauser up will fulfil this requirement adequately given good steel jacketed or monolith solids. Bear in mind though that bullet penetration with solids decreases rapidly as velocity goes above 2600fps and bullet failure is common.

2) Accurate and flat shooting enough for...who? Here in Zimbabwe I would be content with any rifle that can hold 3 MOA out to 150 metres. In Namibia that may well read 1 MOA out to 300 metres. Entirely depends where and what country.

3) A user friendly, fun, reliable rifle is the basis for any truly successful firearm. Just look at how the Winchester M94, or the little .30M1 carbines keep going long after all logic says that they are time expired. A rifle that is too heavy is no fun at all, but equally a rifle that is too light and kicks the bejabbers out of you, splitting your lip and giving you a nose bleed after a few rounds is no fun either. That minimum power requirement to be able to deal with elephant puts limitations on how light a rifle can be considered. A muzzle brake isn't an option either. They are absolutely no fun without first rate ear protection. Reliability is a must, for this is essentially a dangerous game rifle - whether that game is three cow elephant ganging up on you or a gang of poachers that feel they should have the tusks from your freshly shot bull.

4) A wide variety of bullet types is essential for an all round rifle. To be sure, solids often work well on the smaller animals as well as the biggest, but you do need to cater pretty precisely for the stuff in between. A 300grn solid from a .375 is perfect for all the solitary buck from dik dik to bushbuck, but over penetration is a distinct problem with herd animals like impala. The 235 grn and 270 grain softs that are available in this caliber though make it suitable for everything up to eland, whilst the 300grn premium softs and solids are there for buff and elephant. Any other contender for the title of "all round" rifle must show similar versatility. The 9.3 does and so do the .416's . A 300grn soft can be launched at a respectable velocity for long range shooting on soft skinned game with 350 and 400grain bullets at more moderate velocities for the bigger stuff. In .45 calibre there are plenty of good bullets from 350 grain right up to 600 for those that want. The only trouble is that none are really designed for high velocities, and recoil is beginning to be a serious factor with any suitable cartridge in this caliber. If you are hunting at bushveld ranges, and are content with velocities in the 2000fps range the .458 Win, has much to recommend it. A 350grn soft or cast bullet at 2000fps is perfect medicine for everything from impala to eland and will cause less meat damage than a 30-06.

5) Easy to reload and cheap to practice with. A 350 Rigby magnum may well perfectly fit all the criteria for the perfect general purpose cartridge in open terrain, but factory ammo prices are prohibitive, and it is finicky to reload. Practice is the only way to get good enough so that an "unspecialised" rifle can be made to easily perform all the tasks that ideally should be carried out with a selection of three or four more specialised rifles. Being fun to shoot is one component of making practice enjoyable, but the other is being economical enough so as not to cause 'wallet flinch' (that tremendous curse of good shooting which invariably leads to rifle flinch in the field through lack of practice). At the end of the day, for us normal mortals, the obvious solution is cast bullets. With the right lube and gas checks cast bullets can be driven at speeds of up to 2400fps without causing leading, but are probably at their best at velocities between 1800 and 2100fps. It is mighty convenient if your cast bullets shoot to the same point of impact as your most commonly used jacketed ones, and with a little patience a load can usually be developed that will achieve this. Not all rifles though like cast bullets, and in some calibres (like 9.3) finding moulds, sizing dies, gas checks etc. is a true quest that would have gladdened the hearts of King Arthur's knights. The larger bore sizes lend themselves to hunting plains game with cast bullets. .40 and .45 cast bullets at moderate velocities are wonderful for hunting for the pot as well as being good practice. In .375 and 9.3, getting the bullet hardness just right so as to shoot well and yet not splinter and break up on impact, or behave like a solid and whistle straight through can be very trying (haven't got there yet).

6) 'Scope. I grew up shooting open sighted rifles in competition and using a fine peep sight on the military F.N. Then I worked for Government and affording a decent 'scope was impossible. Also almost all of my hunting was in thick bushveld or Zambezi Valley terrain. Fifty metres was a pretty long shot and one hundred exceptional, but well within the limits of what I could achieve with the peep sights which I had fitted to all my hunting rifles. With hindsight, those were fairly rare and localised conditions, and the reality is that a telescopic sight is an integral part of the all round rifle. To this day I am not entirely happy with 'scopes. They are too fragile for my liking, especially on any hard recoiling rifle that can possibly be a contender for the "all round" rifle title. Even top brands with lifetime guarantees don't seem to survive thousands of rounds of heavy recoil or African corrugated dirt roads. The budget priced models don't have a hope! In fact - choosing the right 'scope and mount is an article all on its own. Suffice to say, that the mounts must be sturdy, the 'scope sturdy, and it must have 1x to 1.5x to facilitate its' use against dangerous game. This invariably means a variable 1-4 or 1.5-6 or something in that range as even a 1.5x ’scope is pretty limited in aiding accurate shot placement on that tsetse 200 metres away that you want for dinner!

7) It is a requirement for any 'all round' rifle that you can conveniently carry sufficient ammo easily to cater for all eventualities. A .416 Rigby might fill all the other requirements but sufficient ammo for one is a mission. Why do you need so much - well as outlined in the introduction, the two occasions when you are going to use a lot of ammo is in any engagement with poachers or, far more likely, you are desperately trying not to shoot a dangerous animal that you don't have on licence, while it is showing an unhealthy interest in you! Holding a pride of hungry lions off your nice sable burns ammo at wallet wrenching rate. Similarly when an elephant decides to get agro for free. You don't want a dead elephant to cope with but she (funny how it is always she, lion or elephant!) wants you. As with the lions, you can shout, throw stones, counter-demonstrate, but eventually warning shots will have to be fired. Usually one or two does the trick but there are times when the ladies have got a malicious idea in their heads and there is just no shifting it. At such times the ten or fifteen rounds carried by some hunters just isn't enough.

8) The all round rifle must be capable of rapid fire - why? Well, the usual scenario is... You have a large aggressive animal that is not on licence that decides to put in a charge. Mock or real? Mock becoming real? You shout, whistle...and at ten paces fire a warning shot...which is ignored. Elephant and hippo are the slowest of the big meanies that may put you in this predicament and even they can manage 40 mph (64km/h) - that is 17 metres per second! Lion and buff are a bit quicker! Even if you fire a warning shot at 20 metres you had better be carrying a double or be very fast on the reload!

So what is the ideal "all round" rifle and cartridge? Haven't seen it yet!

All Round Rifle Image
The Sub-Calibre contenders. L-R .338 Win, .333 Jeffery, .350 Rigby, 8 x 68 S and .375 Flanged.

A friend is having a Winchester model 71 built into a .375 wildcat. That model 71 is the finest leaver actioned rifle I have ever handled and as the basic action for an 'all round' rifle has much to recommend it. I will be fascinated to see what the cartridge delivers. Promised is a 300grn bullet at 2350fps and the 270grn at 2450fps. If that is the reality at moderate pressures that rifle will be one mean contender!

The only other option really is a bolt action. Krieghoff's double rifle in .375 H&H flanged or .500/.416 might crack the nod of you are feeling very wealthy but otherwise lets stick to what is available. To my mind, none of the cartridges currently available fit the bill perfectly. The 9.3x62 is just adequate in the power department, but requires loading to the limit to achieve that. Bullet selection is rather limited and casting bullets for practice is a real trouble. The .338 Winchester is probably also a fair contender for the title in more open country. While under the legal minimum caliber for use on elephant anywhere in Africa, it will do the job perfectly well with the right bullets, especially if you have time to see trouble coming - in the jesse it falls a bit short! The 9.3x64 and the .375 H&H are unnecessarily long and the .375 isn't the most reloader-friendly cartridge on the block. The .416 Rem is handicapped by problems with some of the factory 400grn ammo. Used with 300 and 350 grn bullets it is a superb cartridge for medium game, and to be honest a 400 grn bullet at 2250fps is perfectly adequate. The published 2400fps isn't really necessary. It is also though a full magnum length cartridge. The .404? Well. apart from the fact that bullets for it are not as cheap, common or plentiful as .416s' it is a trouble to get the feeding right and rifles need to be built by a top grade gunsmith to be reliable.

Steyr's new .376? Sorry, they wasted the best opportunity to create the ultimate GP cartridge for Africa. If it had been designed to fit in a standard 30-06 length action instead of being squeezed into a short action, it would have been a winner. A 300grn bullet at 2400fps would have handled all dangerous game safely and a 270grn spitzer/boat-tail bullet at 2500fps would have been sufficiently flat shooting for most medium game, while a .235grn bullet of the same construction at say 2700fps would have been great for small stuff at long range. Steyr just didn't do it. A 9.3x62 is the better round, and something just a little bit bigger and more powerful is needed for the 'all round' crown.

At this stage of cartridge development the title must stay with the .375 H&H. It is not the magical round that Taylor made it out to be, but it does everything adequately. Still it could be much improved upon. A .404 case with the neck shortened so that the round will comfortably fit a standard length action, shoulder angle increased to 30° and necked down to take .416 bullets? The 9.3x64 case necked up to take .375 bullets and if necessary shortened by a millimetre or two so as to allow standard .375 bullets to be used and crimped in the cannelure provided (ie a .376 Steyr lengthened 3-5mm and the bullets loaded out a bit). The possibilities are there, but even if a new cartridge is developed that is theoretically ideal, hunters are individualists at heart. When the chips are down they stand alone and consequently every mans idea of the 'all round' rifle will be a little different. That "all round" rifle can exist only in one man's mind at a time - the concept is delightful but it is indeed a slippery shibboleth!

Don Heath

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