A Rifle with Soul

Wally-Johnson-Rifle-1-120915I was fortunate to have worked with some of Africa’s best-known and most notable professional hunters. Wally Johnson is certainly among those who I feel privileged and honored to have called a friend and colleague. During the times I hunted with Wally, I never heard him utter a negative word about anything or anyone, even when it was deserved.

And what a sense of humor Wally had—he could find and enjoy the humorous aspects of any situation. One incident that comes to mind happened in Botswana’s Okavango Delta back in the late 1970s. Safari South and Ker, Downey & Selby (KDS) Safaris had recently amalgamated and we were all learning each others’ hunting concession areas, which involved a steep learning curve for some of us, trackers and gunbearers included.

At the time, having made the transition from Mozambique, Wally was a senior professional hunter (PH) with Safari South. The first year of the amalgamation found Wally hunting elephant in one of the KDS areas with his client. It was early season on a cloudy day when Wally came across a large elephant track. He and his client followed the track with the vehicle for a mile or so into the bush before Wally stopped the vehicle and continued tracking the bull on foot.

They followed the tracks for several hours before eventually giving it up. It was late afternoon and because of the cloud cover and lack of sun, it was nearly impossible to determine direction in the monotonous mopane bush where everything looks the same. When darkness came, Wally, his client and the trackers, started a fire and spent the night in the bush. For Wally, this was not a big deal, for he knew they would eventually find their way back to the vehicle the next day.

The next morning, Safari South headquarters in Maun, concerned about not hearing from Wally via shortwave radio, alerted Daryl Dandridge, a KDS PH who was hunting from a nearby camp. Daryl hunted his way toward the area where he thought Wally might be, watching for any sign of the lost party.

Wally Johnson made a living from hunting for more than 60 years.
Wally Johnson made a living from hunting for more than 60 years.

Daryl eventually located Wally and his party walking along one of the area’s many hunting tracks. Being unfamiliar with the area, Wally was not sure where his vehicle was located. Daryl gave them a lift to where Wally thought it might be. They eventually found the tire tracks from the day before and followed them to the vehicle.

Daryl’s client, a highly-strung individual who was not too pleased about devoting several hours of his hunting day to tracking something he couldn’t shoot was muttering to himself when they finally found Wally’s Toyota. Once stopped, Daryl’s client jumped out of the vehicle and announced that when he tracks something he expects to shoot it, so he was now going to shoot. Everyone assumed he was going to shoot up in the air, but he promptly loaded his rifle, leveled it at Wally’s Toyota and fired a round straight through it. Now, most PHs I know, including myself, would have been highly incensed by this, but not Wally. He threw his head back and laughed out loud at what the Italian had done, then he walked over to his vehicle and pointing at the bullet hole said, “Jolly good shot, old chap. You got it with one shot!” Wally was absolutely unflappable!

In 1926 at the age of 14, Wally began his lifelong pursuit of big game hunting. By the mid-1940s, he was primarily hunting ivory and often took friends and acquaintances along with him on his hunts. Drawing on his vast experience with dangerous game, most particularly elephants, Wally began taking clients on hunting safaris in the mid-1950s.

Wally Johnson with an elephant taken early in his career.
Wally Johnson with an elephant taken early in his career.

In 1960, Wally joined Mozambique’s largest and most renowned outfitter, Mozambique Safarilandia. By the late 1960s Mozambique was becoming unstable politically and economically with the impending departure of the Portuguese. That’s when Wally moved to Botswana to join Safari South where his son, Walter was already established.

During his professional hunting career, Wally guided many notable clients, including Field & Stream’s Warren Page, RCBS’s Fred Huntington, Fawcett Publications’ Peter Barrett, famed archer Fred Bear, TV and radio personality Arthur Godfrey, gun aficionado and ballistician Jack Lott, and novelist Robert Ruark. Many of his clients, including Ruark and Lott hunted numerous times with the highly popular Johnson who was often booked several years in advance.

Besides Mozambique and Botswana, Wally also conducted safaris in Central Africa and Zambia into the early 1980s. In 1982, when he was 70 years old, Wally conducted his last professional safari in Zambia with his client, country singer, Hank Williams Jr. Wally hunted for a living, both for ivory, as well as guiding visiting hunters for a period spanning more than 50 years.

In addition to his superb hunting skills, Wally was also a master mechanic. He thoroughly enjoyed fixing any problem concerning a vehicle. Once when faced with having to get a vehicle across the Save river without a pontoon, Wally and Walter promptly disassembled the vehicle and crossed the river in several dug-out canoe trips with the vehicle in parts. They then reassembled the parts on the other side and continued on their way with the vehicle in fine running order.

Wally Johnson's well used and reliable Winchester Model 70 in .375 H&H Magnum.
Wally Johnson’s well used and reliable Winchester Model 70 in .375 H&H Magnum.

Quality tools were important to Wally. Among those tools he considered critical to his lifestyle and survival in the bush were his rifles. He owned many, but the one that stood out was a Winchester Model 70 .375 H&H Magnum, truly a “working” rifle that he regarded and used as a tool in the finest sense of the word. That was the rifle he used the longest, relied on the most, and in which he had the utmost confidence. He carried that Model 70 from before World War II right through to the end of his hunting career in the 1980s.

Based on its serial number, Wally’s Winchester Model 70 .375 (Ser. No. 13997) was produced during the first week of December 1938. Wally expected reliable performance from his Model 70, and it never let him down. That rifle never wore a scope, enduring a hunting career that few if any Model 70s of any caliber could match.

It’s a pity that more is not known of the early history of Wally’s 75-year old rifle. Walter believes his father acquired the rifle sometime before the War in the early 1940s, but he is not certain whether it was purchased new or used. There were few if any gun shops in Mozambique in those days, so it may have been a rifle brought out to Africa by someone on a hunting trip, or, as was the practice in the early war days, purchased off a ship docked in the seaport of Lourenco Marques.

Novelist Robert Ruark (left) hunted in Mozambique several times with Wally Johnson and his son Walter (kneeling right). Eva Monley (kneeling left) admires one of Ruark's greater kudus.
Novelist Robert Ruark (left) hunted in Mozambique several times with Wally Johnson and his son Walter (kneeling right). Eva Monley (kneeling left) admires one of Ruark’s greater kudus.

Walter provides fascinating glimpses of the incredible life he and his family experienced in Mozambique—a time of hunting and adventure that will never be repeated. Back then, it was common for Wally to be afield for a month or more, return home for a few days to drop off ivory he’d collected, re-supply and head out again. He did that year after year for many years.

The conditions under which his rifle was used are hard to imagine. The hunting was physically demanding with lots of heat and dust and miles of walking. On a good day of hunting, several elephants might be taken with much of the shooting done at 30 or 40 yards in thick bush. Although the signs of honest, long-term use are very obvious on Wally’s rifle, Walt can’t ever recall any functional problems with it even given its prolonged use in dirty, dusty conditions.

Then there was the occasion when Wally accidently lost his rifle in the Pungue River. Wally and young Walter were hunting crocs at night in a dugout canoe that started leaking and eventually went under. When they started swimming to shore Wally regrettably couldn’t hang on to his rifle and let it go. The next day repeated dragging of the bottom with a large magnet failed to retrieve the rifle.

Wally was out of time and had to return home. He left the magnet with a native who spent many more days dragging the bottom until he finally found the rifle. Weeks later, at considerable personal risk, he walked many miles carrying the rifle wrapped in grass to deliver it to Wally. Delighted at the return of his rifle, Wally rewarded the man handsomely before driving him back to his village.

Percy Rowe, an old hunting friend of Wally’s and author of Walking with Legends in old Africa, pretty much sums up the rifle’s reliability. “The Winchester was a superb hunting rifle,” Percy writes. “It was also much cheaper than a Holland & Holland or the humbler and bulkier Cogswell and Harrison. It was reliable and trouble free under the most trying conditions. In rain and mud, or in swirling dust and debris, I don’t recall Wally paying too much attention to it while we hunted by way of cleaning, apart from a dash of Singer sewing machine oil on the bolt now and then.”

According to author and Winchester Model 70 historian, Dan Peterson, “The pre-war Model 70s like Johnson’s are considered the most sought after of all 70s to collectors. While collectors lust over ‘minty’ pre-64 Model 70s, serious hunters find a rifle such as Wally’s has the ‘soul’ that even the few new-in-the-box originals don’t. The rifle is both common and unique for that era of Model 70s.

Wally-Johnson-Rifle-1-120915“In 1936 Winchester was the first American company to chamber a factory rifle in .375 H&H Magnum. This was also the year they introduced the first Model 70. A deep well-established tradition of fine craftsmanship at Winchester determined the quality of the early rifles. Some of the pre-War Model 70s were even “charcoal blued,” which was an expensive process. One of the distinctive features of the early Model 70s is the safety lever, which is pushed towards the left side of the bolt sleeve to engage safe. This appears to be backward in comparison to the transition and post-War safeties.

“The Model 70s were very well made, as evidenced by their long histories of sterling performance in some of the world’s wildest game-fields. Winchester used only the best materials for the old 70s—the actions were 100% steel and almost all of the parts were machined-steel. They came with solid bolt handle knobs, and had front sight bases that were integral with the barrel.“

Walter quotes his father as saying, “I consider, and always will consider, the .375 Holland & Holland Magnum as ‘the only caliber.’ In fact, I shot many hundreds of buffalo with the 9.3 Mauser to save .375 ammo, and I had no problems, but I would have preferred the .375 if I could have spared the ammo.”

Walter recalls .375 ammo as being almost non-existent in Mozambique during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. “We used anything we could get—mostly Kynoch and some Winchester—but we couldn’t be fussy. Handloading for us was out of the question, because the components were not only impossible to obtain, but were also illegal to possess. However, it was common for hunting clients to bring a significant amount of ammo, both handloaded and factory ammo, and leave us the remaining rounds at the end of the trip.”

In 1983, Jack Lott authored a special publication by Petersen Publishing Co. called Big Bore Rifles. In that publication Lott mentioned Wally Johnson and his Winchester Model 70 .375, claiming it was Johnson’s “favorite rifle.” It would be fascinating to know exactly how many rounds that rifle has fired and the number of game it has taken, but those are numbers that one can only guess. Considering the number of years Wally used it for ivory hunting, for shooting buffalo for meat, for a myriad of plains game and for safari work, the statistics for this rifle would be impressive, indeed.

Wally’s rifle wasn’t the only thing enduring a harsh life in the bush. Wally is one of the few people known to have survived the bite of a Gaboon viper. This is one of Africa’s deadliest snakes with a very characteristic triangular head and long 2-inch fangs, capable of delivering a massive dose of venom.

Famed archer Fred Bear (second from right) is shown with Wally Johnson (middle) and Walter Johnson (right) with a Mozambique buffalo that Bear took with a Bear Archery 80-pound recurve bow. Also pictured are Dick Mauch (far left) and Bill Wright (second from left)
Famed archer Fred Bear (second from right) is shown with Wally Johnson (middle) and Walter Johnson (right) with a Mozambique buffalo that Bear took with a Bear Archery 80-pound recurve bow. Also pictured are Dick Mauch (far left) and Bill Wright (second from left)

Wally was hunting alone in Mozambique and had just finished off a wounded buffalo with his .375. He was walking back to camp through some very thick bush when he felt the prick of what he thought were thorns digging into his left ankle. He looked down and was shocked to see a Gaboon viper still attached to his leg. He shook if off and told his tracker, Luis, to kill the snake for ID purposes. Then he got himself back to camp.

Fortunately, Wally had an antivenin kit, which he normally didn’t carry. He injected himself with the antivenin, of which two out of four ampules were out of date, but he was suffering such excruciating pain and incredible swelling that he felt he had nothing to lose.

Wally’s crew was convinced he was a goner and didn’t want to be there to see him die, so they were of little or no help in getting him to medical attention. Not ready to succumb to a “bloody” snake, Wally was able to drive himself to a sawmill about 20 miles away. From there, he was driven to a small hospital about 120 miles further on where Walter and his mother met him.

By then his condition was more serious than the hospital could treat, so Walter and his mother drove Wally to a larger hospital several hours away in Umtali, Rhodesia where Dr. Wessels treated him. For several days, Dr. Wessels thought Wally’s leg would have to be amputated. Wally insisted that they not do that. His leg eventually healed, taking nearly 9 months before Wally recovered well enough to go back to hunting.

Wally was known for never being without his pipe or his rifle, but longtime professional hunter, Soren Lindstrom remembers one memorable and amusing incident when Wally was caught without his rifle. It happened during a 30-day safari they did together back in 1980 with a family from Mexico. They were camped in Safari South’s Khwai Concession along the northern edge of the Okavango Delta. After dinner one night, Wally and Soren bid the family “goodnight” and retired to their individual tents located some distance away from the main camp close to thick bush. They were already in bed when they heard a rustling noise near their tents.

“Did you hear that?” Soren asked Wally.

“Yes, I did,” Wally answered. “What was it?”

“I don’t know,” Soren said. “Grab your torch and lets have a look.”

They both eased out of their tents dressed only in skivvies and crept forward shoulder to shoulder, shining the light in nearby bushes. They hadn’t gone more than 10 or 15 feet when they stopped to listen. From what seemed like only a foot or two away came an almighty lion roar, giving them the fright of their lives. Feeling very naked standing there in their underwear they both turned in a flash and dove headlong back into their tents, certain they would be chomped by a lion. Silence ensued for several minutes before Soren eventually whispered over to Wally.

“Hey Wally.”


“Are you in bed?”

“Hell no, I’m under it—with my rifle!”

That Model 70 .375 had the versatility and reliability that endeared it to the legendary ivory hunter during a lifetime spent in the African bush. Nobody knew that better than Wally Johnson.–Joe Coogan


Following careful consideration, the Johnson family has decided to part with Wally’s rifle. Sportsman’s Legacy, a new company specializing in fine firearms and sporting collectibles, will conduct the sale. Those interested may contact Dwight Van Brunt at tuskhunter@gmail.com or (406) 212-0344 for details.

2 thoughts on “A Rifle with Soul”

  1. This interesting and very well written article brought back many memories of the days I spent with Wally Johnson in Mocambique. But I must make one correction, It was Wally and I that dismantled my Land Rover and used a bark made canoe to transport the pieces across the swollen Save River (Sabi River) I have given a rather detailed account of the crossing in my book Walking with Legends in old Africa

Leave a Reply