What’s the “proper” barrel length for a dangerous game rifle? That’s a question that often comes up around the fire in safari camps across Africa and among gun cranks everywhere. And it’s one that can easily morph into a heated debate, because it can be a very polarizing subject.
I of course have my own opinion, but before I venture out on that limb, let’s look at the things to be considered. First and foremost, are we talking a bolt action or a double rifle? That’s a critical factor because a big bore double will normally have 24-inch barrels, but lacking the long receiver of a bolt gun, it’s still about four inches shorter in overall length. Whenever discussing the nifty handling virtues of the double rifle, the fact that it is the gun’s inherently shorter overall length that makes it so is often unstated.
Handiness in a DGR is all-important; how quickly can the gun be brought to bear and how fast does it swing? The shorter the gun, the handier it is, period. It is the length of the gun that determines its swing arc. On two occasions I’ve helped track wounded buffalo in thickets and tall grass where things can happen quickly and from any direction. Under those circumstances, a gun can never be too handy, i. e., too short!
Not all agree of course, and a friend and colleague of mine, the late Finn Aagaard, was one. Finn was a long-time PH in Kenya, where he was born, and had extensive experience hunting dangerous game, so his opinions are not to be taken lightly. When Kenya closed hunting in 1977, Finn moved to Texas and became a gun writer; a damn good one whose opinions were based on real-world experience and thorough research. I recall one article of his, as well as a conversation I had with him during a stay at his home, that he favored a 26-inch barrel on a bolt action DGR. He maintained that a longer barrel was better for hitting running game. No argument there. A longer-barreled gun does swing and track more smoothly, and if using open sights, can be shot a bit more accurately.
The one of only two circumstances under which a PH should shoot then, is if the client has wounded a non-dangerous animal that’s running away. Most pros will ask the client how they feel about that before venturing afield, because some hunters refuse to allow the PH to shoot under any circumstance except in a life-threatening one. Personally, I don’t agree with that kind of thinking; any help that could end the suffering of an animal should be welcome. It’s called sportsmanship.
The second circumstance of course is that rare instance when a dangerous animal is charging. And under that scenario, what do want in your hands? Me, I want a 20, or at most a 22-inch-barreled gun. Forget the marginal ballistic downside that you lose maybe 80 fps or so (big bores lose less velocity per inch of barrel than smaller calibers), because even the .375 H&H — the smallest of “acceptable” dangerous game cartridges, delivers two tons of energy at close range.
My lion and elephant hunting days are over, but if I ever get to shoot another Cape buffalo, I’ll be there with a 20-inch-barreled bolt action .416 Ruger in my hands. And if it comes down to the PH having to save my bacon, I’d want a fast-handling gun in his hands, too!–Jon R. Sundra