Ward French grinned at me as my brother Robert cocked the right hammer of the Holland & Holland double 4-bore. Muscling the 19 ½ pound cannon to his shoulder, he aimed some 50 yards downrange and began to squeeze the trigger. Nothing happened. He looked at Ward quizzically.
“You have to pull it hard, it’s over a ten pound pull,” Ward said.
Robert nodded in acknowledgement, took another deep breath, and began to squeeze off again. Still nothing. The tension was high and understandably so. It wasn’t every day that one gets to shoot the granddaddy elephant gun of them all.
Getting a better grip on the rifle, he began the aiming process once again. One could tell he wasn’t worried at this point whether or not he hit the target, he just wanted the darn thing to go off. And off it finally went with a loud roar belching smoke from its muzzle like a Civil War field cannon. The muzzles began to push back and rise in a never-ending shove. Robert had to take two steps backward in order to counteract the rifle’s inertia. It was really quite dramatic.
“It wasn’t too bad,” Robert told us. He hadn’t even hit the paper at all.
After the first shot, a crowd began to appear, all gaping at the massive rifle. Ward began to load another quarter-pound spherical ball into one of his homemade brass cases.
“That was an 8-dram load. These six are 12-dram and the other one is a 14-drammer,” he said pointing to the various loadings. “Care to try John?” he asked.
“Nope,” I said shaking my head. “I want to see a 12-dram go off first. No sense messing around with the smaller 8-dram loads,” I said hiding my inner fears. “Go ahead, Robert,” I said. After all, what are younger brothers for, anyway?
Once again he hoisted the 4-bore to his shoulder and began the long process of squeezing off, or should I say, pulling off. The gun belched smoke and the muzzles began their never-ending rise backward. Once again he had to take a step back. He managed to hit the top of the paper that time, and I suddenly began to get brave.
“Mind if I try?” I asked sheepishly.
“Heck no. Go right ahead,” Ward said with a grin as he handed me one of the huge brass cases. I could now see why the old-time hunters wrote that at times they would carry only five to ten shells at any one time. God, they were heavy.
I opened the action with the under lever and inserted the shell into the right barrel. I cocked the right hammer back and let the left one down on the empty chamber. Getting a firm grip on the massive fore-end and twin tubes I threw the heavy gun to my shoulder and with a prayer tried to squeeze the darn thing off. Nothing happened. I looked at Ward and Robert.
“The trigger,” they said. “Pull it.”
Once again I mounted the gun to my shoulder and tried to aim. I pulled hard and the mighty rifle boomed. I saw a flash and lots of smoke as the gun slugged me, pushing me back with a shove that never seemed to quit. When the smoke cleared I realized that the shot had hit the paper eight inches high at twelve o’clock. Now that it was over, I thought it wasn’t really that bad at all. Rather a bit like fun. Some fun.
I thanked Ward and felt awfully stupid. Thanking him was as backhanded a compliment as thanking Muhammad Ali for slugging you in the face, just to have the experience of being hit by him.
I had some anxiety when Ward called me a week before to arrange the shoot with his new toy. We would also fire several other double guns: a .450, .500, .577, 12-bore Paradox, 12-bore rifle, and my own .460 Weatherby bolt gun. These were more or less to be shot for comparison purposes.
Ward French is one of those rare people who likes to collect quality firearms and actually learn about them and use them. He has close to fifteen double rifles, one prettier than the next. With understandable pride, he gave some history on each piece. I was very impressed with his vast knowledge of these firearms. After visiting his basement workshop/gunshop, I realized that my first impressions were all well founded. There were enough tools and equipment to make a gun from scratch. In fact, he was doing just that. One of his projects was building a long-barreled flintlock. Others included more modern pieces as well as various loading experiments with British cordite cartridges.
We drove to the Blue Trail Rifle Range near New Haven, CT, and began to take out our assortment of large bore rifles. It looked mighty impressive when you consider the largest other gun at the range was in the .30-caliber class.
We were about ready to begin shooting when the wind picked up several knots. Instinctively, I wondered about the wind deflection until I saw the size of the large 4-bore case and 4-ounce spherical ball–a cartridge that large must have inspired confidence in the meekest of hunters.
I remembered reading about these large guns some time back and was not surprised to learn that they were the last word as an elephant stopper in the 1800s. The first muzzleloading 4-bores were either smoothbore, or at most, two-grooved to facilitate easy reloading when stalking big game afield. The need for pinpoint accuracy wasn’t needed, as most shots were well under fifty yards and rifling made little sense. The pewter or mercury hardened balls would blast down the barrels, ignoring the rifling. At times, they would even strip the rifling from the barrel.
The first breechloading guns were made up on large shotgun-type actions that were massively reinforced to handle the heavy 12-, 14- and 16-dram loads. Early hunters such as Cummings, Harris and later on, Selous, used these large guns for the most of their ivory and rhino hunting, leaving the 10- and later on the 12-bores for the lighter game.
“…the 4-bore guns kicked most frightfully and, in my case, the punishment received has effected my nerves to such an extent as to have materially influenced my shooting ever since, and I am heartily sorry I ever had anything to do with them.”
Using the hardened 4-ounce balls and firing a 15-dram load, Selous wrote of sometimes having to shoot an elephant several times before they expired with the behemoth 4-bore. No wonder his marksmanship suffered! Telling about being knocked off of large anthills by the recoil I wondered what effects Cumming and Harris endured while firing from the saddle in pursuit of elephant.
Ward’s own double 4-bore was an English Holland & Holland with fully rifled barrels, hammers, non-ejectors and underlever. Sporting 24-inch barrels and a well-proportioned stock, the rifle appeared to be well balanced. That is, I didn’t notice it to be either muzzle- or stock-heavy. In fact, the gun just seemed to be heavy in general. I could see why the old hunters didn’t carry the guns themselves and had gun bearers to carry for them.
The rifle was fitted and finished with English good quality and taste, as are most double guns. I did have two questionable objections to the design and layout of the gun–specifically the rear folding leaf sights and the twin barrels.
The rear sights were of the folding variety, common on many of the lighter and later express rifles, but were extremely fine in size. They were sighted at 50, 100, 200 and 300 yards and why this was so is beyond my comprehension. It seemed to me that the guns could only be used at 50 yards at the most with any accuracy, and 100 if you wanted to stretch things. Besides, from my own experience, elephant hunting was a close-range proposition anyway.
My other gripe concerned the use and practicality of the double barrels. A fast follow up shot is fine when using guns on the .450 to .600 class, even the 12- and 10-bore doubles. I couldn’t see how a man could physically fire two shots in immediate succession. It took just about as much time to fire one barrel, recover from the recoil and reload, cock and fire, as it would to load a double charge, fire, recover and cock and fire again. Also, there was the likely possibility of the big gun doubling, that is, the first charge sets off the second immediately due to the extreme recoil. Take pity on the man who had the excruciatingly painful experience of having a double discharge while facing a wounded and enraged elephant. It was for that very same reason that we only loaded one barrel at a time.
Ward saw me marvel at the size of the bore as I felt the rifling with my finger. He told me he has a friend, a fellow big-bore enthusiast, who won’t shoot any large bore unless he can feel the rifling with his finger–meaning an 8-bore or larger. I laughed out loud and wondered if the recoil from those guns had any effect on his mental faculties.
Ammunition for the gun was all but impossible to find. Being as skilled as he is, Ward had to resort to making his own cases. He used a 20mm shell as a start, which was slid into a specifically cut length of brass curtain rod, and epoxied to a machined base with primer hole. The shell was then loaded with 12 drams of F-grade blackpowder, wad and greased ball. The shell was primed with ordinary CCI large rifle or large pistol primers. The shell would then be fire-formed in the chamber of the big gun.
There was only one bullet mold available and Ward had to borrow it from a fellow shooter for a period of time to mold enough balls to last him a while. Casting at a ratio of one tin to fifteen lead, I don’t’ think he will fire so very many balls that he will have to worry about running out. He did tell me that the first time he took the gun to the range, he shot some thirty or so rounds in the course of a day. Even with his imposing size of 6-foot four-inches, and more than 200 pounds, Ward still must have been considerably shaken up after that shooting.
We had no chronograph to measure the velocity, but reliable estimates gave it somewhere in the region of 1,500 fps for the 4- ounce ball. Proportionately, the muzzle energy must have been in the neighborhood of 7,500 to almost 8,000 ft.-lbs. depending upon the dram loading. That’s almost 3,000 ft.-lbs. more than the .458 Win. Mag. We fired the front trigger once more and now felt that we could shoot the gun with some confidence of hitting what we were aiming at. Naturally, we began to wonder what kind of accuracy could be obtained and how well regulated the barrels were. Due to range restrictions, we were then forced to fire at the 100-yard mark and, with some reservation, reluctantly agreed. It was either that or nothing.
The first few shots had been fired standing and now that the range was increased, and we were shooting for groups, I tried to adopt a crude form of sitting position. I didn’t want my elbows to be resting on anything too solid and though the position was somewhat bastardized, we thought it would work reasonably well for our purposes. I held the gun away from my head; a precautionary measure of necessity when one realizes that the rebounding hammer could strike with enough force to crack your skull.
I was now psyched and prepared to fire the first of six shots at the hundred yard mark. The rifle boomed with the first shot and I almost lost the gun as it flew from my left hand, which had been the only solidly braced limb. I was still alive when the smoked cleared, at least I thought I was.
Ward called out the shot, “Twelve o’clock, but nearly a foot high.”
Satisfied, I loaded the left barrel for the first time and determined to hold exactly where I held the first time, as it was a group I was shooting for anyway. As I lined up the sights, Ward called out to watch out for the lighter pull on the rear trigger. He didn’t want me to be surprised by having the gun fire before I was completely ready for it. The trigger pull had to be hard on the first trigger in order to prevent the locks from jolting and discharging the second barrel. You pulled the front trigger hard, like a shotgun and squeezed the rear trigger like a normal rifle, he told me. Normal?, I thought.
Cocking the rear hammer again, I quickly aimed and fired the left barrel. The gun boomed its familiar deep voiced song and I experienced the most unpleasantness I had experienced that day. One of the hammers cracked me across the forehead. I was dumfounded and somewhat temporarily dizzy. Numbed would be a better word. Thinking I needed stitches, I was surprised to feel no blood. This was getting ridiculous. One needed to be made of steel or iron to fire one of these things. Either that or I was losing my marbles. With some apprehension, I fired the remaining shells, alternating shots with my brother. My nerves were the worse for wear and each time I had to fire the gun, I became more and more aware of the recoil. My weight, at 165, didn’t help any either. At least Robert was a good 20 pounds heavier and some three inches taller. It was all I could do to muster the courage to concentrate on the shot without thinking of getting slugged or just yanking the trigger to get the shot off and be done with it.
I was surprised to say the least with the results. Though the group was a good foot higher than the paper, printing on the cardboard backstop, the group measured no more than seven inches at the widest with some actually cutting each other! Respectable shooting and grouping in anyone’s book when you consider the circumstances. Off the record, I thought the gun would have driven a bench rest shooter running to the nearest gin mill.
I declined shooting the 4-bore any more that afternoon as I did want to shoot the other guns as a comparison.
Robert became brave and gallantly rose to the occasion of firing the last load for the 4-bore–the 14-dram.
The gathering crowd fell to a hush and watched in awe as Robert boldly stepped up to the firing point and loaded the brass cartridge into the breech. I prepared myself to photograph the event and Ward took a position behind me. Robert double checked his grip on the massive stock, and sighted downrange for the shot.
Rain clouds were gathering and the sky was getting ominously black. I wondered if he was treading on sacred ground and someone was trying to tell us something. Then, the silence was broken by the familiar boom and the belching smoke. I clicked the camera and was surprised to see my brother fly right out of the viewfinder in slow motion as he gave with the mighty recoil. But it didn’t stop there. He kept moving backward and I could tell from his wincing and pathetic visage that he wished he could stop, but had no way to stop. The tremendous momentum kept coming and he found himself literally tail-over-teacup with his legs sprawling in the air and the rifle about to fly out of his hands.
It was really funny, like a Marx Brothers movie. Everyone was laughing in amazement when he managed to get to his feet. It was unbelievable that a gun could really do that to a person. I couldn’t believe the nerve it took to fire away cold-bloodedly at a paper target. At game, the recoil wouldn’t be nearly as noticeable.
I mentioned to Ward afterward the tremendous increase in recoil with another 2 drams of powder and wondered why. He didn’t answer my question but told me about another friend of his, Gary Herman of Safari Outfitters, and his experience with a 4-bore. Gary’s was regulated with the heavy 16-dram load. That’s almost 440 grains of blackpowder behind a quarter-pound projectile. Ward was asked to fire first but luckily declined the generous offer. Herman fired it and the recoil was so brutal that the barrels flew into the air and dented the corrugated aluminum roof above their firing position!
Increasing wind and rain forced us to stop shooting for the day, thus eliminating our chance to really compare the 4-bore with its later, more modern contemporaries. It was just as well as my ability to seriously concentrate was somewhat destroyed by the jarring I received from the 4-bore. I could see how constant shooting of so large a gun could damage one’s marksmanship. I really began to feel for Selous’ injured nerves.
I was pleased that I was able to fire the 4-bore and to have had a chance to savor both the experience of actually shooting and the romance of a gun that belonged to an era long gone. I wondered how many elephant had been brought to bag with this mighty shoulder cannon. As we talked over a much-needed scotch, the guns were put away, and we entertained thoughts of using the gun on our next African jaunt. I was curious to see how it would compare on game against its more modern counterparts. But more than that, I wanted to relive a time that is forever gone and experience the shooting of big game with the granddaddy of all elephant guns, the mighty 4-bore.—John Del Savio (SAFARI Magazine, March/April 1977)