I am not a fundi on hunting rifles. I did not have a grandfather, father or older brother to teach me so, on the one hand, most of what I know, has come from books and articles written by men like Gregor Woods, Pierre van der Walt, Mauritz Coetzee, Kevin Robertson and Craig Boddington. On the other hand, I have probably learnt almost as much from the well known Hunting School of Hard Knocks, from friends and, still later, from professional hunters.
Recently and much to my surprise, I was flattered to be asked by a European firearms manufacturer to provide details of my ideal rifle assuming I could take only one weapon with me on a general bag, African plains game hunt and to substantiate the reasons behind my choices. Set out below is my reply. Given what I have said above about my limited knowledge, I hope you will find it interesting. I would like to hear from those of you who agree and disagree and why.
The first point I want to make is this – when you hunt plains game in the wild, open, unfenced areas of Africa (and the same can be said for some of the bigger game ranches and conservancies in South Africa), big game is usually also present and no-one has told them that you are only hunting plains game. In these circumstances, without a calibre of substance in my hands when hunting, I feel like someone who has pitched up at a black tie event wearing only a jock strap and running shoes.
Quite simply, you need to carry a rifle capable of dealing with both big and plains game when hunting in these areas and, by big game, I mean the Big Five plus hippopotamus, crocodile and hyena. Conversely, it may also happen that you come across one of the Tiny Ten (pygmy antelopes, duikers etc), Secret Seven (small cats) or other small canid species which you wish to shoot without destroying the trophy for taxidermy purposes and a solid from a heavy calibre is just the ticket in these situations.
In the ordinary course of events, I always take two rifles with me on a hunt, one as a back up for the other, as the places I like most are usually far from any gunsmithing services. If my primary quarry is big game, I take a custom made .416 Rigby built on a Brno action for me (by W.J.C. Ritchie Gunsmiths of Krugersdorp) and a customized, deluxe, Brno .375 H&H. If I am primarily looking for plains game, I swop the .416 for a custom made .300 Win. Mag., also built on a Brno action by the same gunsmiths. I usually load a 300 grain, premium, soft nosed bullet (for the last few years these have been Swift A Frames loaded by Norma), followed by three 300 grain solids (which are also loaded by Norma and group identically to the softs) in my .375 as this allows me to quickly adjust and adapt to any of the situations described in the preceding paragraph. I follow the same procedure in my .416 Rigby with 400 grain softs and solids although I only use 165 grain, premium, soft nosed bullets in my .300 Win. Mag. which, for my purposes, is used very much as a specialist, long range, plains game rifle. I should just mention in this regard that the stocks of all three rifles are identical and modeled on the .375 which, needless to say, fits me like a pair of old, worn, well loved and comfortable sheep skin slippers.
Having said this, if I am limited to only one rifle, it would definitely be the .375 H&H and I would then take some additional cartridges loaded with 235 grain softs. This would largely obviate the necessity for the .300 Win. Mag. as the ballistics of the .375 using these cartridges would be sufficiently close to the .300 so as not to need it.
I have been hunting in Africa since the age of nine and have been on hundreds of safaris over the last 53 years in 15 different African countries. During this time I have owned and used everything from an Army & Navy .500 double, to a Holland & Holland Royal .475 double, to a custom made .460 Weatherby built on a Brno action, to a deluxe Brno .458, to an ancient Brno .22. I have previously owned two "take down" rifles, namely, a Holland & Holland .275 and a Holland & Holland .375 (both fully cased) but sold them as they were not as accurate as my rifles in those calibres with a fixed barrel. In addition, after my first corporate management buy-out left me all but a pauper, the offer for these two rifles plus the .475 (of which only eight were built) was irresistible. It was school fees versus aesthetic appeal and romance and, unfortunately, reality won.
In my opinion, the perfect African rifle should have two interchangeable stocks, one a wooden one made from close grained English walnut for the aesthetic appeal and use in suitable conditions and the other, a synthetic stock, identical in specification, for use in the rain forests and other inhospitable conditions. I have twice seen rifle stocks broken in the field due to a fall and, personally, would be hesitant to hunt far from gunsmithing assistance with only one rifle or only one stock. For added strength, therefore, the wooden stock should be pinned to protect the pistol grip from cracking and both stocks should have detachable front and rear sling swivels to allow for the attachment and removal of a broad webbing sling.
I have a long neck and like a Monte Carlo style stock. I find that the raised and angled cheek piece slides my cheek away and off the stock under recoil so that the top of the stock does not jar against my cheek bone. None of my working rifles use fancy (and for fancy read expensive) wood but I do look for a hard wood with a tight grain that runs parallel to the barrel. I like a slim pistol grip that allows me to squeeze the trigger with the second digit of my forefinger. I know some people advocate using the tip of the finger but I have much more control over the squeeze when I use the second digit. Having hunted in hot and humid conditions on far too many occasions, I know the value of good chequering and like it crisp and sharp on both the pistol grip and fore-end.
In the early days I listened to people who advised against the use of a rifle sling. They said it was dangerous and could become entangled in vegetation at critical moments. Well, they were right, it can, but very infrequently in my experience, particularly when you are aware of the potential problem and, in these circumstances, hold the sling tight against the stock. Weighed against this advice are the many advantages a sling provides. For starters, it is much easier and less tiring to carry the rifle slung over your shoulder. It is out of the way and less likely to be bumped and I know of at least one PH whose safety catch on his double rifle (carried over his shoulder with the barrel to the front) was not only knocked to the fire position but one of whose triggers was also subsequently hooked by a passing branch. The resulting shot hit both trackers to his front, killing one and severely wounding the other. Secondly, it is far easier to use your binoculars, hold them steady and read off distances (where they provide this feature), when you can use both hands.
Then again, a sling can be used to steady the rifle when shooting offhand if you wrap it around the bicep and forearm holding the fore-end of the stock and, when crawling on all fours, can be used to sling the rifle under your body allowing you the use of both hands to crawl.
Up until six years ago, I always carried my own rifles as I have followed Walter Dalrymple Maitland Bell’s advice that the frequent handling, aiming and dry firing of his rifle made him a much more accurate shot and I adopted similar habits when it was safe to do so. Lately, however, I have followed Terry Irwin’s advice on the importance of being as rested as possible when the time comes to take what might be the one and only shot opportunity you have on the hunt. In this regard, I have noticed that, when I am tired at the end of a long day on the tracks, my hands start to shake ever so slightly and, as such, for the last seven years or so, have made use of the services of a gun bearer and have left my slings on as I believe that my rifles are safer being carried in this manner, especially as I walk in front of the gun bearer!
The rifle should be fitted with both a telescopic sight (with good eye relief especially for the heavy calibres to avoid joining the half moon club) and iron sights in case the telescopic sight should be damaged which can so easily happen in an unguarded moment. As regards iron sights, I prefer a small, round, front bead of brass and a rear leaf sight with separate leaves for 200 and 300 metres. A friend of mine has written that only a rich man can afford a poor telescopic sight and he is absolutely correct. In my case, I use 1 1/2 – 6 x 42 Zeiss Diavari low light telescopes on both the .375 and .416 and a 2 1/2 – 10 x 54 on the .300 and, while I confess that there are other well made scopes and names such as Swarovski, Schmidt und Bender and Leupold spring to mind, I have yet to find any telescopic sight better than Zeiss for African conditions. Fixed steel mounts for the telescopic sights are essential and, while I have experimented with "clip off" mounts, have again reverted to fixed amounts because of issues of accuracy, security and safety.
I will never forget the time that a close friend of mine wounded a buffalo, which subsequently took 11 shots before it was killed, after his front clip off mount came loose without him knowing it before he made the first shot. It was low, resulted in a flesh wound and, very nearly, an ugly, close range confrontation but for the great eyesight of his accompanying PH.
What is important to me is that I must be able to look through the telescopic sight while my cheek is resting firmly against the stock with the top of the stock nestled under my cheek bone to allow me to easily replicate my aiming position time and time again. In other words, I do not want to have to "chin" the stock as, given parallax and other aiming issues, this makes it extremely difficult to shoot accurately on a consistent basis and also wastes time in trying to settle into the first shot. I want to be able to look at a target, mount the rifle and find the target in the sight pattern without any unnecessary maneuvering.
I have never been hung up about barrel lengths and the three rifles I regularly use have the following lengths: 24 ½ inches for the .300, 24 1/2 inches for the .375 and 25 inches for the .416. I know that some writers recommend 22 inch barrels for use on rifles in the rain forest or other similar environments because of the confined circumstances but, despite having hunted in these habitats on many occasions, I have not found the length of my rifles to be a problem.
What I do recommend, however, is that the barrels, as well as all other metal parts, be a matte black to avoid reflection and, although it is merely personal preference, cannot stand ornate engraving, ostentatious gold inletting and such like. This is for "show and tell" at school on Monday mornings and for bragging rights, not for the working guns of serious hunters.
As for the barrel itself, I confess that I don’t have the technical expertise to comment on types of steel, rifling methods and degrees of twist, for example. I do know, however, that I like the barrels of my rifles to be free floating – they shoot more accurately on a more consistent basis – and I expect them to shoot an inch group or better at 100 metres. I also expect them to last. By my calculation, I have fired more than 6000 and less than 7000 rounds through my .375 over the 32 years that I have owned it and, on a still day, if I concentrate, it will still shoot groups of an inch or so off my bench rest. For "so" read one and a half inches.
I like a magazine which holds at least four cartridges and the magazine floor plate should be level with the bottom of the stock. If the magazine protrudes, it can catch and interfere when you try to find a rest for the rifle in order to steady your aim and, if I am honest with myself, it also detracts from the clean lines of a rifle and reminds of something used by the military in the Second World War. The magazine should provide a close fit for the cartridges to prevent them rattling around and making a noise and also to reduce the damage to soft nosed bullets under recoil.
I like a light, crisp, shoe trigger with a pull of 2 1/2 pounds. In my opinion, trigger creep and stiff triggers are major causes of inaccurate shooting. While I don’t like hair triggers, when I am ready I want the shot to go. I find 2 1/2 pounds "just right" as Goldilocks is reported to have said when last on the range.
I like Brno actions once they have been properly machined and polished to the correct specifications (when they are as smooth as far more expensive actions) and take comfort from their strength as I have never completely overcome the secret fear of a bolt tearing loose and lodging in my face, particularly when using heavy calibres. I also like their simple design which allows me to quickly and simply remove, check and clean the firing pin. In over 30 years of regular and substantial use, no Brno firing pin has ever let me down.
Although I am not recoil shy, I do use the same type of honeycombed recoil pad on all my rifles particularly as, if the situation allows, I like to shoot lying down behind a bipod attached to the reinforced front sling swivel (which must be and is a feature on all my rifles). In this position, my body cannot move to help absorb recoil and the pad is a definite help especially with the heavier calibres. For people less accustomed to recoil, the pads may also help prevent the development of a flinch. I actively dislike muzzle brakes, however, because of the noise and the potential for ear damage. If you have not done so already, you will only experience a rifle (fitted with one of these devices) being fired next to your ear once to agree with me. Muzzle brakes are anti-social full stop! On the other hand, I have used rifles with mercury compensators in the stock and been amazed at how much they have reduced felt recoil but, as I have said before, I am fortunately not recoil shy and have never felt the need for them. However, if I were ever to go back to using my .460 Weatherby on a regular basis, I would certainly consider having such a system retro fitted to this plaque remover of a rifle.
Finally, a well made wood and leather case always presents a good rifle properly even if it is no use when travelling on commercial aircraft these days. Somehow, for me, it is part of the romance of a proper African hunting rifle.