Editor’s Note: On Friday we scour the Safari Club archives and dust off a story from a previous issue. This week we join Richard C. Latham as he challenges himself to collect a wide range of African game with a single rifle. This story originally appeared in the September/October 1993 issue of Safari Magazine. Enjoy!
Back in 1982 I planned a safari to Botswana and decided to take only one rifle to use on animals ranging in size from the little steenbok to gemsbok, eland and Cape buffalo. I would be hunting the Kalahari with its wide open spaces and comparatively long ranges and the Okovango Delta that because of terrain and vegetation, should provide shots of much closer range.
In the Kalahari I would hunt steenbok, duiker, springbok, kudu, gemsbok, hartebeest, wildebeest, eland and lion. These animals range in weight from 15 to 1,500 pounds; and, in particular, gemsbok, wildebeest and eland have a reputation for toughness and tenacity of life. The steenbok, duiker, springbok and kudu are wary, shy and elusive or some combination of all three requiring in all probability, a long shot of 200-300 yards.
In the Okovango, Botswana’s emerald paradise, the game animals would be sitatunga, impala tsessebe, lechwe, kudu, warthog, zebra, Cape buffalo and sable. Ranges would not be so long as in the desert but some of these animals were known to be tough – especially buffalo -and shooting sitatunga from a mokoro (platform boat) in thick papyrus would test both bullets and loads.
The idea of using one rifle on safari is not new nor was I to be the first to try it. Elgin Gates had shot everything on the SAfrican continent with a .300 Weatherby, thereby helping create that caliber’s reputation as a great stopper; and, others had used one rifle in calibers ranging from 7×57 to .500 Nitros – the latter probably through necessity rather than choice, however.
At the time of this trip, I had several 7mm rifles in various configurations (.30-06, .270s, .338, .375 HCH, .300 H&H, .458 Winchester and some smaller calibers). While any 7 mm would work on the lesser antelopes, I considered them a little light for lion, eland and gemsbok – certainly for Cape buffalo. Ditto the .270 and .30-06. The .300 HCH is one of my favorites and I have a wonderful custom rifle chambered for it built by Scott & Lide of Marble Falls, Texas. I have taken many African and North American game animals – leopard, zebra, roan, sable, oryx, elk and grizzly – with this rifle using 180-grain Nosler bullets with a muzzle velocity of about 2,850 feet per second and found it to be a sure killer. I wouldn’t hesitate to use it for everything on the Botswana list except Cape buffalo.
This brought the choice down to the .338 Winchester Magnum, .375 H&H or .458 Winchester magnum. I toyed with trying the .458, using 300-grain bullets for longer ranges and smaller animals. But,after dabbling with a few loads I decide against that route. This left me with the two most logical choices – and the ones I knew I would decide between from the outset – the .338 Winchester Magnum and the .375 H&H Magnum.
Both have excellent ballistics and in many ways are quite similar in performance. Of course, because of its larger diameter, heavier bullets may be loaded into the .375 and it is a respected African cartridge of long standing. With proper handloads, it will deliver a reasonable trajectory at long range and with 300-grain solids is a proven killer on tough, dangerous game like Cape buffalo. My .375 was a Sako Safari Grade with a 2-7/2X Leupold scope and this was a fine shooting rig.
My .338 was Ruger barreled action/glass bedded in a Fajen classic stock, topped with a Leupold 1.5-5X scope. This, too, would produce excellent accuracy.
After a lot of experimenting with various loads for both rifles, I finally decided to go with the .338. My reasons were threefold: the .338 is just enough flatter in trajectory to make the longer shots a little more precise, the rifle is just enough lighter to make it more pleasant to carry on long stalks and last, but by no means least, while the .375 has proven itself in Africa for decades, the .338 was a lesser known quantity. I wanted to see if it would do the job.
With 250-grain Nosler bullets backed by 71 grains of 4360, I could get about 2,630 fps muzzle velocity and sighted in at 2 inches high and at 100 yards I could hold dead on out to 300 yards without worrying about holding over the target. I also loaded up some Barnes 300-grain solids that produced 2,440 fps and 3,675-foot/pounds of energy in front of 69 grains of 4360. I planned on using the solids on Cape buffalo and, if possible, on the little antelope such as steenbok and duiker as they would go right through these small animals without damaging the meat.
When PH Willie Engelbrecht met me in Maun, he was surprised to know of my plan to hunt with just one rifle and a bit skeptical. However, we set off for the Kalahari for 10 days and very soon he began to appreciate the capability of the .338.
I made one-shot kills on two springbok at well over 200 yards, as well as wildebeest and steenbok. It took a pair of shots on a hartebeest and a gemsbok. The .338 also performed well on a heavy, black-maned lion finally tracked up on our last day in the desert.
The .338 continued to perform well in the Kalahari at short and long ranges and had now accounted for eight animals with no more than two shots each, including a big eland bull. Willie was impressed, especially when it knocked the eland down with the first shot and the second was just a finisher.
We moved north to the Okovango and settled in for 10 days there. The .338 did its job very well, dropping sable, lechwe, impala and tsessebe with just one shot each at ranges out to 250yards. It also did a beautiful job on a big zebra stallion at just over 300 paces with a one-shot kill.
With everything on license collected except buffalo, kudu and sitatunga we decided to devote the next three or four days to tracking buffalo. Signs indicated two large herds had just moved into the area.
The next morning, we were tracking on foot a herd of perhaps 300 buffalo when suddenly from thick brush just 1.5 yards ahead of us a grey blur broke cover at a dead run. Willie shouted,”Kudu! Shoot!” I shouldered the .338,got the hind quarter in the scope (all I could see as the animal bolted straightaway from us) and fired. The trackers immediately chorused, “Good shot, good shot.” Willie said, “You hit him good, he’s gone just over that rise and into a thicket. Come on!” We rapidly covered the 50 or so yards to a dense thicket and there laying almost hidden was a very nice kudu bull. I quickly finished it, after which we examined the first shot. Since we were after buff I had the .338 charged with solids and the 300-grain Barnes bullets had hit the kudu in the right ham, traversed the entire length of its body and lodged just under the skin of the chest.
The next day we were back after buffalo and by mid-morning had found a sizable herd. The herd split up and we took off on foot after a group of perhaps 60 animals that contained several nice bulls. After an hour, we got a smaller group of these bulls isolated and selected one. I sat down and fired at the bull’s shoulder as it stood broad-side about 70 yards away. The first shot had no apparent effect; the bull just ambled into a patch of scrub where we could not see it. Willie cautioned me to wait. In a few minutes the bull wandered into view and I shot it again. With this hit, the bull spun around and
took off in the opposite direction. I fired twice more as it raced past, which only caused it to stumble then keep going. We ran around in front of where the bull was heading; it slowed and then stopped in mopane cover. We eased up. I had reloaded and Willie had his .458 double rifle ready. As it took off again, I held on its neck and fired. With this shot, the bull went down as though pole-axed. We approached gingerly and when we were about 20 yards away the bull suddenly rose. It made no move toward us, but enough was enough. Willie and I both fired and it toppled over dead.
With great interest we examined the carcass to see where the first five shots had gone. The first was too high, the second a little too far back. The next two were also too far back. The fifth, a neck shot, had entered the animal’s neck, just missed breaking the spine, and exited behind an ear before ranging upward into a horn. All five bullets had gone completely through the buffalo, showing again the great penetration of the Barnes solids.
While disappointed that it had taken seven shots to kill this beast, I was once again made aware of the importance of bullet placement. Only my first shot had touched a lung; the next three were too far back to be quick killers. Once again, I was reminded of the tenacious nature of the Cape buffalo. Once I saw one survive four well-placed .458 bullets. On another occasion it took seven rounds from a .375 to bring one down. These animals are tough.
Overall, I found the .338 to be an excellent, all-around African cartridge. I wouldn’t hesitate to use it as my only rifle for all game – except, of course, rhino and elephant. I would want a back-up on buffalo, but I believe the .338 with proper bullets and good shot placement will handle them. I’d prefer a heavier caliber – a .416 or larger – but the .338 will do. On plains game, even big, tough stuff such as eland and gemsbok, the .338 is perfect medicine.
The .338 has a place in any African battery – as the light rifle, the medium rifle or the only rifle of choice.—Richard C. Latham