"What gun do you use?" That is the most common question that I get from hunters, clients, and people interested in what I do for a living. It's a bit of a unique situation to make your living with a gun in your hand. This privilege is reserved for a hand full of professional hunters, certain law enforcement agents, the military elite, and unfortunately, criminals. Each profession has its own specific needs when it comes to firepower. Being a Professional Hunter I can provide some valuable knowledge from the hunting side that may save hunters quite a bit of money and disappointment when it comes to wounded and lost animals. This knowledge may also save them, me, and my staff from injury – especially when it comes to the pursuit of dangerous game.
For hunters and gun enthusiast alike, the variety of firearms and calibers as well as the stories and time frames in which they were used and who handled them has a definite allure. Much of our history was carved out with a good rifle in hand – from the old west to WWII. Guns are a part of our culture and the stuff from which legends are made.
When it comes to hunting there are two things that one needs to think about. The first is the tool itself – your rifle. The second is the projectile that comes out of that rifle. There have been thousands of articles written on these topics. Many composed by true experts in physics, ballistic, and rifles. I cannot cover these topics in more detail than the ones before me – but, what I can do is to outline the basics and tell you what I have seen perform in the field under real hunting conditions. See this as more of a 'what really works' article than a dissertation on sectional densities, feet per second, and caliber statistics.
Start with the gun. The gun is where accuracy comes from and accuracy is everything. The gun holds the potential energy to release the projectile and send it down range to the target. Without the delivery system being in correct working order the bullet can't strike the target. A gun needs to be the right size for you. The weight and barrel length needs to fit you and the terrain you will be hunting. In Africa the bush is thick, and you may have to take your shot quickly. This calls for a shorter, medium weight rifle that shoulders well. You should be measured for your length of pull so the gun shoulders correctly. The rifle must also have a stock and grip that you are comfortable with. There are many stocks and styles out there, try as many as you can to see what works best for you. A gun that feels right and is steady in your grip will lead to better accuracy and more kills. Another decision is whether you should get a bolt action, semi-auto, or double rifle. Semi-automatic rifles are not allowed in Africa, only the people in power have the right to these types of arms. Most hunters are best served with a bolt action rifle. A double is usually not the best option for a client. If you have or are considering getting a double, please don't put a scope on it – that has always confused me. Doubles are for close encounters and are not the best hunting tool. You do not need a scope at 20 steps unless you are visually impaired. More than likely you do not need a custom gun either. There are lots of variations in moderately priced mass-produced guns. Save that money for ammunition and shooting practice. Having a trigger job done on your rifle can increase accuracy; a short crisp trigger is an asset. Not all scopes and sighting systems are good. If you're putting a scope on the gun, which most clients do, it needs to be a variable power scope that collects enough light. Most hunting situations take place at dusk and dawn where visibility can be an issue. For an all around scope I recommend a Leupold or Zeiss, somewhere around a 4-10 power with a 30mm tube (bigger is better here as the tube transmits light to your eye). The scope needs a medium sized bell for collecting light. Too big is just too big when it comes to scopes in Africa. The shots are usually not that far and you can't see or judge an animal from 500 meters – so what good is a scope magnifies too much – it ends up just being in the way. Have a medium to heavy reticle or crosshair. There is no need for multiple crosshairs and other distractions in your field of view. Put the crosshair on the shoulder and squeeze. Iron sights are a matter of preference, but practice with them; know how they work and know that they are zeroed. I am amazed at how many hunters do not know how to shoot with regular iron sights. Make sure to buy the highest quality scope mounts that you can afford. I prefer detachable scope mounts as there are many instances when a scope will not do you much good. It is handy to be able to detach it quickly for following up a wounded animal. Iron sights allow for much faster shooting and are a must a close range.
Provided you can hit you target correctly - the projectile that comes out of your rifle is what tows the line at the end of the day. This topic needs to be divided into the size of the bullet, the speed of the bullet, and the construction of the bullet.
Caliber is the size of your bullet and you need to match it to the animal you are hunting. Bigger is not always better – especially if you become inaccurate due to the heavy recoil and flinching before the shot. Ever seen someone pull the trigger when they mistakenly thought there was a bullet in the chamber? They move a lot don't they!
Speed only kills if the bullet can handle it. I have seen fast bullets disintegrate on impact, resulting in poor penetration and wounded animals. I have also seen bullets zip through an animal so fast that it results in a long retrieval and a prolonged death. In these cases the hunter's 'ultra so-and-so short magnum' left too much potential killing power on the table and delivered that power to the dirt on the other side of the animal instead of within the animal. In Africa I have seen the heavier slower caliber outperform the ultra fast calibers. Meaning I will take a 30-06 to the bush over a 270 ultra magnum.
Construction of the bullet is very important and must be matched to the animal you are hunting. There are different bullets for various applications; applying the right bullet makes a huge difference. Basically the types of bullet have to do with the rate of expansion which is inversely related to penetration. Expandable bullets obviously do more damage due to their increased diameter as the head opens up inside the animal. This slows a bullet down and leads to less penetration. In Africa the animals are very hard and generally speaking a harder bullet is needed to get to the animals vitals. Plastic tipped or hollow pointed bullets are the fastest expanding and least penetrating bullets; they are basically useless in Africa. Soft nosed bullets are expanding bullets with a lead core. The best of these bullets are bonded bullets, which means that the metal jacket is bonded to the lead core which helps to retains bullet mass and leads to controlled expansion. These bullets are great for Africa and are used on most game. The last category is solid bullets. They do not expand and are not suppose to deform in any way. They can be made out of one piece of metal (monolithic solids) or they can have a lead core with a full metal jacket. The best of these bullets are monolithic solids as they have the least chance of failure. The idea with a solid bullet is to penetrate at all costs; they are typically used on dangerous game and shot out of large calibers.
For the record I carry a Merkel double .470 Nitro Express when I am hunting with clients. I load it with 500 grain Barnes Banded Solids. I am very thankful for this rifle and such a great bullet; they have delivered me from various sticky situations. I could have never have afforded the luxury of such a nice gun. It is the perfect gun for my work and I thank Jim Lightsey, a great friend and client for that rifle. When I am hunting I shoot a left hand Dakota 76 in a .375 H and H, with a 3.5 – 14 power detachable Leopold Scope and Barnes X or Swift A-frame bullets.
A .416 Remington, in a Dakota Model, controlled feed action with a detachable scope – a perfect set up for Africa's Dangerous Game.
My favorite - .470 Nitro Express, quick to aim and hard hitting.
My .375 with a detachable scope; arguably the best all around rifle for Africa.