There’s no better way to liven up any conversation about guns and hunting than to bring up the subject of dangerous game rifles and calibers. Over the years I’ve hunted with at least 30 African PHs, and have either participated in, or overheard, countless discussions – and downright arguments, regarding DGRs.
It is natural, therefore, for me to have formed my own opinions based on the distillation of my own experiences along with the opinions of respected professionals.
I suppose the argument about the best rifle type – bolt gun vs. double – is the most discussed sub-topic, and like all the other perspectives, it’s mostly subjective. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the question this subject poses – Is it better to have the two instantly available shots that the double gun offers, or a magazine rifle where you have three – or in the case of a dropped box, four back-up rounds?
The case made for the double rifle is that, in effect, you have two separate guns with two independent fire control systems, so the chances of both becoming inoperative at any given moment is remote. And to get off that instant follow-up shot all one has to do is switch triggers.
With a bolt gun, on the other hand, we have four shots at our disposal, but it requires manipulating the bolt. Not only does that take 2 to 3 seconds, but it’s far from an infallible operation, particularly in a panic situation where you have a buffalo, lion or jumbo coming at you. I’ve seen many highly excited hunters screw up trying to cycle a bolt-action rifle, especially when trying it with the rifle shouldered as it should be.
Even with the extra couple of seconds it takes to lower the gun to the port arms position to cycle the bolt as most hunters do, it doesn’t always work. I mean, how many movies have you seen where it shows soldiers unable to cycle a bolt rifle? I realize those people are movie extras and probably never operated a bolt gun in their life, but it does make my point. So with a bolt gun you may have twice as many rounds at your disposal – but then again, maybe not.
There’s no question as to which gun type in “classier.” It’s like comparing a Honda Accord to a Lamborghini; both will get you to the grocery store, but how you get there makes all the difference. There’s just so much romantic imagery and tradition to a double rifle, plus the fact it represents the pinnacle of gun making skills. To hunt dangerous game with a double rifle is simply the height of panache! The fact that you can buy 10 bolt actions for the price of a double — and an average-priced one at that — is not a legitimate criticism. It’s just the way things are.
As cool as a double rifle is, the fact is that probably 90 percent or more of the buffaloes and elephants taken each year in Africa are with bolt-actions. Which begs the question – What features, if any, distinguish a DGR from your average game rifle other than caliber?
By far the preferred action is one that features Mauser-type controlled-round feed a la Model 70 Winchester, Ruger 77, Dakota 76, Montana 1999, and similar because they’re more reliable under adverse conditions and more forgiving when operated ineptly. Be that as it may, plenty of hunters show up each year with push-feed actions such as the Remington 700 and do just fine on dangerous game. It’s really minor technical points that separate the two systems, and in the real world they rarely come into play.
Other desirable features are sturdy open sights, assuming you’re comfortable not having them at all and relying entirely on a scope. I’m talking a robust standing-leaf rear blade machined from steel that can withstand being banged against a Mopani tree or the steel pipes that comprise the roll bar and side rails on a typical safari car.
With guns constantly being handed up and down from the back or cab of the car several times a day, there’s a good chance that a cheapie sight will be bent or snapped off. A shallow “V” with a vertical white line, and a white bead up front, provides the fastest sight acquisition. Obviously, you want the front sight to be as indestructible as the rear, and without a hood of any sort.
Again, if there are no back-up iron sights, the comb should be of the right height for scope use, and parallel with the bore. If back-up irons are present, the comb must be of compromise height so that it’s fairly compatible with either sight plane, which will vary by at least an inch. There should also be a drop of about 3/4-inch from the point of the comb to the heel of the butt, which allows height adjustment to either sight planes by simply moving one’s face fore and aft.
Obviously, the best arrangement is to have both irons and a scope, in which case QD rings are essential. The idea is to get the scope as low as possible, so the lowest rings should be sought, and the scope itself should not have an objective bell, i.e., of scope tube diameter, either one inch or 30mm. The lower the scope, the stronger the mount system. We’re of course talking scopes of low magnification range, such as 1.5-4.5x. There is simply no need for more power than that on a DGR. Of course, with today’s scopes having 1:5 and even 1:6 zoom ratios, you can actually have a 1-6x or 1.5-9x scope. In any case, though, the scope should not have, nor does one need, an objective bell. At the lowest power settings, there’s all the twilight performance the human eye can use. The field of view is huge, so that close-in and coming animals are easily picked up.
Other features favored on the DGR are a more open grip curve, which helps reduce or eliminate the bruising of the middle finger by the rear of the trigger guard, which can happen with the heaviest-recoiling calibers. Also, because of recoil, the forward sling swivel base should be of the barrel band type rather than on the stock. However, in any kind of situation you’re likely to be, or to come into, close contact with nasty critters, having a sling on your rifle is insane.
What about barrel length? My late friend and colleague, Finn Aagaard, believed that a 26-inch barrel was about right for a DGR. His rationale was that the longer barrel tracked moving game better than a shorter barrel.
Finn was a PH in Tanzania for decades and had infinitely more experience hunting dangerous game than I, but I have to disagree. There’s no question that he’s correct about the tracking thing, but the only time a PH should be shooting is as a last resort to save his client’s bacon. That means that at short to point-blank range where a gun’s tracking characteristics on game running at a distance are meaningless.
I want a short, fast-handling, fast-swinging gun–period. For me, 21 or 22 inches is as much barrel as I want, and to hell with the 60 to 75 fps I’m losing because with any suitable caliber I’m still delivering more than two tons of energy inside 50 yards.
Lastly, we come to caliber choice. Too many hunters return from their first African safari thinking they need a rifle similar to what their PH was carrying (first-timers are extremely impressionable!). If I were a PH backing up clients on dangerous game, I’d want a real stopping caliber, something with a lot of frontal area like a .458 Lott or .505 Gibbs in a bolt gun, or a .470 in a double. But as a client, you don’t have to risk detaching a retina shooting such punishing calibers, not when you have a PH with you, and you’re always going to have a PH with you if you’re hunting dangerous game.
More such beasties have been taken with the century-old .375 H&H than any other, even though it’s considered a “medium bore” in African parlance. On my four elephant hunts, and for all but one buffalo hunt, I used an Improved .375, the ballistics of which are identical to the new .375 Ruger. If I’m lucky enough to hunt either again, it will be with a .416 of some sort–either the Remington, Ruger, or Rigby version–though at this moment in time I’m liking the Ruger.–Jon R. Sundra