The past few months have seen a rash of deaths and serious injuries among African professional hunters. At least two have been killed by Cape buffalo, one young PH had his arm shot off by a client, and another client shot himself in the foot with an elephant gun.
This is not an anomaly. The incidence of serious injuries resulting from clients’ lack of skill, especially with big rifles, appears to be rising. This is ironic, when you consider that you now find an instruction academy around every corner, offering courses lasting from a day to a week, teaching the use of “safari” rifles.
Don Heath, a Zimbabwe professional hunter and now a consultant to Norma ammunition, has suggested a number of reasons. One is that, with safari prices at a relatively all-time low, more inexperienced hunters are buying big rifles and heading for Africa.
Instructors at shooting academies tell me that too many students arrive with rifles they have never shot before, and some with rifles they have not even taken out of the box. In one case, this occurred exactly one week before the student was catching a plane for Africa. The client, a very busy man, decided it was more cost-effective to schedule everything as one trip, in order to minimize time away from the office.
There is absolutely no way on earth that you can learn to shoot a big rifle, and become familiar with every aspect of its use, in three or four days. Sessions at a shooting academy should be viewed either as merely a beginning, to be followed by a long period of practice at home, using what you’ve learned, or as a refresher.
The idea that, with a few days’ instruction and practice, you can go from being a complete novice with a rifle to being expert enough to hunt dangerous game for real is absurd. You wouldn’t go to a Walter-Mitty racecar academy for three days and then expect to enter the Indianapolis 500, but that is what hunters now seem to be doing.
Graduates from the old school were accustomed to clients coming out who were long on money and short on experience, and they learned to watch their clients almost as closely as a wounded lion, realizing that in some cases a client with a rifle was the more dangerous of the two. Hunters like Tony Henley and Lionel Palmer would not tolerate poor gun handling, and said so. The clients may not have liked it, but they either changed their ways or went home.
Today, a young hunter may be intimidated by a wealthy client who is twice his age, and be reluctant to say anything, fearing it will cost him his tip. Many successful men are used to people taking orders from them, not the reverse, and it doesn’t sit well. Or, the PH may be the kind of cowboy who comes close to getting either himself or a client killed before he learns some discretion. Either way, it sets up a dangerous situation.
In the end, though, it always comes back to one thing: The client’s incompetence with his rifle.
The only way to get to know a rifle well is to handle it a lot and shoot it regularly. Heavy-recoiling rifles can only be taken in small doses–six to 12 full-power shots at a session, usually–and so to get in any meaningful amount of practice requires many such sessions, spread over as many months as you can manage. As well, you should burn up a rail-car load of low-power practice ammunition.
In an age when we expect instant results from everything, hunting dangerous game with a heavy rifle is one area where it just doesn’t happen. The recent news from Zimbabwe and Tanzania is proof.—Terry Wieland