Page Updated: June 2020
No animal is more central to the African safari industry than the African buffalo. Occurring across the continent, it is the primary big game trophy for local and visiting hunters alike.
There is only one thing more frustrating than watching a fine animal that you have carefully stalked and shot at, rushing off, apparently unharmed, and that is finding a few small flecks of blood. That sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach and the desperate hope that you, or your tracker are up to following and finding the animal. The only worse feeling comes hours or even days later when you finally concede defeat.
Over the years I have been positively astounded by the wounds which game seem to survive. The only hartebeest I have ever shot had three other bullets in it. A.303 lodged in one lung, A 7.62 military ball recovered under the skin near the rump and a 'pot leg' from a an old muzzle loader lodged in the shoulder. The animal was in perfect health as far as I could tell when I shot it. I have seen buffalo on their feet putting in a determined charge twelve hours after being hit through both lungs with a .375 solid. A buffalo cow got really otherwise with a friend's client and afterwards in the skinning shed we found out that she had a 'pot leg' in her chest that had perforated the bottom of both lungs. The wound was festering but I suspect she was actually on her way to recovery. I could go on for pages, but the fact remains that animals seem to survive the most remarkable hits from all manner of bullets and recover just fine when it just doesn't seem possible.
For The Uninitiated...
Lead is a fairly scarce commodity in Africa, so making suitable bullets for your muzzle loader can be quite tricky. The legs off the cast iron pots that are widely used for cooking are easily cut up to make projectile and at one time were so widely used for this purpose that the chartered company forbade the sale of cast iron pots with legs to natives. These days bolts with the heads cut off most common 'bullets' used by tribal hunters, but genuine pot legs are still used and the term has become generic for any lump of iron cut and beaten so as to be usable in a muzzle loader.
Which brings me onto Gunshot Injuries by Colonel Louis La Garde, United States Army Medical Corps. It is a book every hunter should read and it certainly opened my eyes. The colonel was in charge of the Army medical school and professor of surgery, and his work spans the period from 1860 to 1916, ie. from the days of the large bore muzzle loaders through to the modern, high velocity cartridges like the 30-06 that we see today. It was though, all in the days before antibiotics. Antiseptic techniques only became common practice after the American Civil war and the Franco Prussian war of 1870. Most of the period covered by La Garde's work was in what were essentially the dark ages of medicine. And yet he makes some starting revelations about wounds and their survivability, both with the old heavy black powder loads and the high velocity smokeless ones.
Man is hardly a tough resilient animal. We tend to think too much and make assumptions about the severity of the injury which dictate our actions. In days gone by I suspect that lack of knowledge helped people to keep going longer, but we are still small, thin skinned and light boned animals.
La Garde notes, with 'modern' rounds (ie. 30-06 & 7mm Mauser) that lung injuries are the most survivable of all 'dangerous' wounds, and that if a man was alive more than five minutes or so after being hit in the chest then he had a 72% chance of survival, and with minimal medical intervention. If the man was still alive an hour after being hit through the lungs he had a 96% chance of survival. One lung was considered no problem at all, and even if both lungs had been hit the good surgeon considered that this was no crisis. Unless the pulmonary artery or vein had been hit, the person generally only needed a sterile dressing over the wound!! If, of course, the artery had been hit the person would be dead within five minutes and so never reach a dressing station.
This got me thinking. If a frail man can survive such wounds with ease, why cannot game? To be sure, we generally use expanding bullets and try and place our shots so that they rake more than just one lung, but it doesn't always work out. Both La Garde, and Blair-Brown, the military surgeon who attended to many of the British wounded in the Zulu war of 1879, noted that lungs healed quicker than any other tissue and even tended to re-inflate themselves if bleeding had caused one of them to collapse. The entry of air into the chest cavity was more complicated and tended to require medical intervention. Small diameter bullets seldom made a wound large enough to admit significant quantities of air and the .45-70's and .577/.450's were the smallest bore weapons that usually caused this kind of problem. Hippo, buffalo and particularly elephant have very thick elastic skin, with a thick fat underlayer that moves independent of the surface layer. The moment the animal moves, the wound is essentially closed unless it is a large one. Quite often a hunter, (or as I did in the Parks Department) will find an elephant that has been riddled with bullets from a poachers AK47. Ulcers and occasionally screw worm mark the wounds but these heal in a matter of weeks and the elephant is fine. I often wondered how they survived with so many bullets through the lungs but now I know!
What about shots through the heart? Anybody who has long hunted buffalo know that even a direct hit on the heart sometimes fails to produce the required result within an acceptable period of time. Relatively small diameter solids from rifles like a 9.3 or .375 are the usual culprits but occasionally there are stories about bigger bullets 'almost' failing. The heart is a fascinating muscle and trauma surgeons in some of the less salubrious City hospitals are fairly adept at treating heart wounds and expecting the patient to survive. The bottom two thirds of the heart (the ventricles) are composed of thick muscle with a small opening inside for blood. As the heart pumps it contracts and tends to seal the wound. In humans, knife wounds are remarkably survivable, but so are hits with full metal jacket round nosed bullets such as hunters often choose for buffalo hunting...A round nosed solid from a 9,3 makes a hole less than 3mm in size when it passes through the ventricles on a buffalo's heart (unless they are full, when hydrostatic shock causes an explosive wound). When the heart begins to pump, the contraction of the muscles will seal such a small wound, so blood loss will only occur when the muscles are relaxed and the heart is filling. Small wonder then, that occasionally you get a buffalo that keeps going far longer with a 'fatal' hit than most people believe possible. It was experience of this and just how small a wound the 9.3 makes that converted me onto soft points for buff, with flat nosed solids for back up. Elephant are a bit different with extremely high blood pressure and it appears that any damage to the heart muscles causes the heart to rupture and is very quickly fatal. On most other animals we tend to almost exclusively use soft points so achieve a much larger, ragged edged wound that cannot seal itself. You do however have to hit the heart!
The other very note-worthy fact to come out of La Garde's book is just how often round nosed bullets push organs out of the way without damaging them. From both the Spanish American war and Anglo-Boer wars, he documents several hundred instances of 7mm Mauser bullets whistling straight through men without causing any damage. Arteries and intestines were frequently moved aside, but also the heart, liver etc. La Garde estimates that 30% of the abdominal wounds received by American troops in the Spanish American war actually failed to perforate the intestines. If a 7mm has that little success on man how much more so a .375 (which has less than double the frontal area of a 7mm) on an animal more than ten times our size? Even where organs such as the stomach, intestines or liver had been hit, fit men in a reasonably clean environment had a 30+% chance of surviving without medical intervention. I always thought that liver hits were invariably fatal, but both La Garde and Blair-Brown note that liver wounds were amongst the most survivable of all abdominal wounds provided a major blood vessel hadn't been hit (if it was, then the person usually failed to live long enough to reach a dressing station).
Even the brain is not a dead certainty (excuse the pun). Photo below is an X-ray, taken thirteen years after he was shot, of a troopers head (Co D, 1st Neb Vol infantry), clearly showing the 7mm caliber bullet lodged in the back of his brain. The bullet entered his head just off centre above the left eye, although it caused him some inconvenience, the only medical treatment he received was a sterile wound dressing. La Garde cites other instances supported with photographs and X-rays, while more recently there was a well documented case of a journalist covering a dockyard strike who was knocked unconscious in a scuffle. He thought it was the brick that he saw lying next to him when he came round, but some years later when he went for a check up on eye trouble they found the .45 bullet in his brain. Certainly the frontal lobes are not vital to life, as the old system of 'frontal lobotomy' for criminals shows. It is only the back third of the brain which is essential for life support functions. I wonder how many of the elephants that have regained consciousness after a brain shot and wondered off actually had bullets through the brain. 'Pondoro' Taylor always reckoned that it was concussion from a near miss that knocked the animal unconscious, but I wonder... Whatever the reality, it simply reinforces the contention that any animal that falls to a brain shot must be assumed to be only concussed and a heart shot put in to be sure...to be very sure.
The last category of wounds that require our attention are neck wounds, which are so favoured by meat hunters. Even .577 musket balls or .45 Martini Henry bullets were generally pretty harmless on neck shots, provided the spine wasnt broken. Hits on the spiny processes, cause spinal concussion but even large bullets usually failed to break the neck on a man. True, today's high velocity soft points are far more effective than either a round nosed 7mm solid or low velocity .45 lead slug, but it is still cause for thought. On delicate, lightly boned animals like impala, springbok or gazelles the neck shot is a very viable option but on larger more heavily boned animals I have seen it fail too often to be even contemplated, and the findings on humans simply bears this out.
All in all, La Garde's fascinating book, and to a lesser extent, Blair-Brown's detailed Zulu war report tells us a lot about survivability of wounds and make a very real case for premium bullets and accurate shot placement. They also make a good case against neck shots and general lung shots on the larger game - the whole lung is not a target, only the blood vessels within it. Since you cannot know the position of those arteries and veins from all angles it is better to aim for something like the heart, a much larger target, whose position remains constant. The more buffalo I shoot or see shot, the more I am convinced that the first shot must be with a good soft point bullet. Solid's place in hunting should be restricted to elephant and back up shots on buffalo unless it is a clear over-kill, eg. a .458 on impala or a .375 H&H on duiker. Even then, for a client who is taking an elephant with a heart/lung shot, a good case can be made for using a premium monolithic hollow point like the Barnes X or GS custom. Come to think of it, the lung shot should be dropped from the hunter's choices for a first shot, especially if a solid is used. If a jumbo can survive 20 AK rounds in the lungs, your solitary .375 has far too good a chance of not being fatal. Even going up in power doesn't solve the problem. A .460 Weatherby is to an elephant what a .22LR is to a man. A good illustration of this occurred in one of our safari areas a decade back. A well known and respected PH finally caught up with a well known bull that had that unique knack of only being seen when the client was definitely not hunting elephant! The client put in a frontal chest shot and as the elephant raced off, the PH put two lung shots in with his .460 Weatherby. Five days later the follow-up was abandoned. Six months later that bull made his second mistake and another client shot him. I was consulted because the operator contended that he had already paid for that elephant six months earlier when it had been initially wounded and now he was merely finishing the business. Two of the bullets were recovered as proof that it was indeed the same elephant, but our decision was that since it had recovered completely from the bullet wounds, it was a fresh hunt, so, nice try, but just pay.
The foregoing could be regarded as an interesting account, except for the client, who not only paid for a trip to Africa, a dangerous game safari, but also paid the trophy fee for a wounded and lost elephant. As hunters we owe it, firstly to the quarry, and secondly to our wallets to ensure a quick, clean kill. I once regarded shot placement as the whole story, but experience has proven that the design of the bullet is also critical. Not only does the bullet have to land in the right place but it must also expand optimally for the size of animal being hunted.