Maybe less is more!
In today’s Africa something like 70 percent of all safaris are for plains game only, but Africa’s the stuff dreams are made of, and those dreams include big guns, right? So a lot of folks on plains game safaris trundle along a .375 (or larger) as the only rifle. A .375 will get the job done, but over the years I have become increasingly convinced that a lighter, faster cartridge producing less recoil is at least as effective—and maybe better. There are several reasons for this.
1. While most full-sized adults can learn to shoot a .375 H&H, it produces more recoil than most shooters are accustomed to. A lighter caliber is easier to shoot more precisely, especially from weird shooting positions like prone and over natural rests. There’s also the factor that many of us don’t think about: It’s one thing to use a .375 once or twice on a safari; it’s another thing to shoot it every day, and on plains game safaris it isn’t unusual to shoot more than once a day.
2. Most .375 bullets are designed for larger game. On deer-sized antelope they will indeed hit with authority, always exit and do little meat damage. This is fine if shot placement is very good, but I submit that cartridges and bullets designed for ideal performance on deer and elk-sized game are likely to be more effective, especially if shot placement is off a wee bit.
3. Typically we mount a low-range variable “dangerous game scope” on a .375, but a scope with maximum magnification of 4X or 5X makes a 200-yard shot on a steenbok or 300-yard shot on a springbok much more difficult. A .375 can certainly handle those shots, so this is a more a matter of being under-scoped than over-gunned.
Okay, so what’s best? Chances are your favorite deer/elk cartridge will be darn near perfect. This could be one of the magnums from, say, the old .264 Winchester on up the fastest .30s, including all the fast 7mms. However, if you go with a .30-caliber magnum you haven’t really saved much in regard to recoil. In most African hunting, what we think of as “long range” is really unusual. Thornbush country doesn’t support it, and even in open country PHs have seen so much terrible shooting that they’re terrified of longer shots and work really hard to get you as close as possible. Generally they think of 200 yards as a pretty long poke, and anything past 300 yards is very unusual. So, although the fast magnums will provide good service, their reach is rarely needed—and it isn’t necessary to take the pounding.
Although I have used a lot of other cartridges in Africa, the .30-06 remains my absolute first choice for the general run of plains game under most conditions. Donna and I shared a .30-06 on a number of hunts, and the only time I ever felt outclassed was a few windy days in the mountains of the Eastern Cape when Donna was trying to get a Vaal rhebok. She finally got a nice one, but in such a specialized situation we would have been better off with something shooting a bit flatter.
More power is actually not needed, which is a lesson I’ve learned from Donna and my two daughters. Donna is very tough; she can shoot a .375 when she has to, but she doesn’t like it. She can shoot a .30-06 all day, but she is much more comfortable with a .270 Winchester, which remains every bit as good as Jack O’Connor said it was. She also likes the .308 Winchester, which is just a bit slower than the .30-06, so has less recoil—and also has the advantage of a shorter action and bolt throw, which makes a difference for people of smaller stature. Personally, in thornbush country I’d lean toward the .30-06 (or .308), but in more open country the .270 probably has the edge—and both will perform just fine on game up to sable, wildebeest, kudu, and zebra.
Another of my personal favorites, largely out of nostalgia, is the old 7×57 Mauser, a great cartridge that has minimal recoil and performs wonderfully. Ten years ago I got daughter Brittany a Kimber 7mm-08 for her first African hunt. That remains her favorite cartridge, and it has worked wonders for her. She can shoot a big gun when she has to, but isn’t ashamed to admit she doesn’t like recoil—and she shoots much better without it. Here’s another little tip: The ladies don’t like scope cuts!
Honestly, I don’t see much difference in effect on game between the mild 6.5s and the mild 7mms. The most common bullet weight today for all of them is 140 grains, so it’s the old argument of the 6.5mm’s greater sectional density versus the 7mm’s greater diameter. Since bullet weight and velocity are much the same, recoil is similar. I’ve seen the mild 6.5s do wonderful things, so I actually started my younger daughter, Caroline, with a .260 Remington. Unfortunately it had a bad barrel and we just couldn’t get it to shoot very well, so I rebarreled it to 7mm-08 primarily because of better ammo availability.
It wasn’t that particular rifle but a CZ550, also in 7mm-08, that she used on her first African hunt recently and performance was astounding. You would expect that on game like reedbuck and bushbuck, but once again the little 7mm-08 performed one-shot wonders on much larger animals.
Part of it is simply that the lighter cartridges are easier to shoot well. It is a matter of scale, so this is probably especially true of youngsters and both men and women of smaller stature. It is also a matter of experience—it takes a lot of shooting over time to become accustomed to heavy recoil, and I’m not sure anyone ever becomes totally impervious to it. I am no giant, and although I’ve shot large-caliber rifles for more than 40 years, I concede that I am more precise and consistent with light recoil than heavy.
Let’s go back to my point 2, bullet performance. Our hunting bullets today are better than ever before, and we have a huge array of great bullets to choose from. Now, this business of the effectiveness of lighter calibers is hardly new. At the turn of the previous century, when smokeless powder was new, light 6.5s were touted for game all the way up to elephant; a decade later the upstart American .30-06 made its bones in Africa. Back then those cartridges earned their reputations with extremely long, heavy-for-caliber bullets at modest velocity that provided unprecedented penetration: 160 grains in the 6.5; 175 grains in the 7×57; 220 in .30-06.
Today we have much better bullets, so less really is more in bullet weight—and we can have great bullet performance at considerably higher velocity. That said, cartridges like the .260 Remington, 7×57, 7mm-08, .308 Winchester and .30-06 actually produce relatively modest velocity by today’s standards. This depends on bullet weight and load, but normally between a low of 2,500 fps to possibly 2,900. At these speeds there really aren’t any “bad” bullets. In the African context “bad” means bullets that expand prematurely and fail to penetrate. Penetration is everything in Africa because of the tremendous variance in size of game, but provided you stick with standard hunting bullet weights (130 to 140 in 6.5mm; 140 to 150 in 7mm; 165 to 180 in .30-caliber) the world is pretty much your oyster for choosing bullets.
Over the years with mild cartridges I’ve had great results with plain old bullets like Hornady Interlock, Remington Core-Lokt, Sierra GameKing, and Winchester Power Point. That said, Africa is about penetration, and we have modern designs that do retain more weight and penetrate deeper while still expanding. The “tipped and bonded” bullets are all very fine choices. Good examples include: Federal Trophy Tip Bonded, Hornady InterBond, Nosler AccuBond, and Swift Scirocco. If you like, you can sacrifice some expansion and get even more penetration with the “homogenous alloy” expanding bullets: Barnes TSX and TTSX, Federal Trophy Copper, Hornady GMX, Nosler E-Tip, and so forth. It was a new Trophy Copper that dumped Caroline’s first gemsbok, also her zebra; both bullets exited, which says much about the penetration of both the bullet and the little 7mm-08 at its moderate velocity.
Although we have lots of brave new bullets, for use in Africa there’s still nothing wrong with the now 65-year-old Nosler Partition. Because of sheer mass I put the eland in
a different class from all the rest of the plains game. Generally speaking, if eland is to be hunted then a somewhat heavier cartridge is sensible. Although it’s perfect for eland, a .375 is not essential—but even the .30-calibers are on the light side. Therefore, I will never forget watching Brittany take a huge eland bull with her 7mm-08 and a 140-grain Nosler Partition. For that matter, Donna performed the same feat with a .30-06 and a then-new 180-grain Trophy Tip Bonded!
Velocity is the great enemy of bullet performance, so with faster cartridges you do need to be a bit more careful about bullet selection. That applies to all of the magnums, but it also applies to the .270 Winchester because it easily breaks 3,000 fps with many loads. You can maintain the penetration you need by simply going to heavier bullets–150 grains in .270, 160 to 175 in the fast 7mms, 180 to 200 in the fast .30s, or you can choose tougher, deeper-penetrating bullets like those mentioned above.
For instance, in the .270 Winchester I’ve often used 150-grain Nosler Partitions, both heavier and tougher than a 130-grain bullet I might choose for deer. But with modern bullets you actually can keep the velocity and still get the performance you need. More recently we’ve had wonderful results on a variety of game with both Barnes TSX and Hornady GMX in 130-grain, and on this recent trip Donna shot a big zebra stallion with a 130-grain Federal Trophy Tip Bonded. The zebra is always a good example because, at about 800 pounds, it’s bigger than any antelope except eland, and also very tough. In this situation the zebra was quartering slightly to us, and at the shot it dropped in its tracks. This is so rare on a zebra that both PH Carl van Zyl and I assumed Donna had fluffed the shot and hit neck or spine by mistake. Nope. The bullet entered on the point of the left shoulder exactly one-third up from the brisket and came to rest against the hide behind the right shoulder. A .375 could not have done a better job.
Problem 3, the scope, is easily solved by putting a larger scope on your .375. If you insist on using your .375 for plains game, perhaps you should consider a low-range variable that goes up to 6X, or perhaps a 2-7X. I have used 3-9X scopes on .375s with perfect satisfaction, but this is a compromise, and many PHs and hunters will be a bit nervous about dangerous game in thick cover with a scope that large. So you’re probably better off with a favorite deer/elk rifle wearing your favorite “general purpose” scope, something between, say, 2-7X and 4-12X. This includes America’s most popular 3-9X and 3.5-10X, which really are perfect for plains game.
Genuine long shooting is so rare in Africa that the increasingly popular “big scopes” aren’t really necessary. The need for close shooting is much more common than long, so it’s important that, whatever your highest power, your lowest power allows close shooting without seeing just a blur of hair in the scope. This suggests that the highest “low setting” should be absolutely no more than 4X—just in case you have to wade into the long grass after a wounded impala!– Craig Boddington