A Safari For Camilla

Six Safari Sisters initiated Camilla .308s on van Zwoll’s HCA safari

Had her PH not paused to take the call, we’d not have had the shot. It’s my only fond memory of cell service afield. A wink of sun on black horn caught my eye. Tall grass hid most of the springbok ram, a long poke away, on the hem of thick thorn. “There!”

Laurel is good at spotting game, but there wasn’t much to see. When the ram stretched for a twig, she nodded. Dries was off the phone in an instant. The two of them scurried forward, bent at the waist. I kept my glass trained, and waved them on as the animal moved.

In stages, we closed. The shot wasn’t easy, Laurel standing over sticks, the ram half-hidden 150 steps off. But at the clap of the .308, Dries turned, grinning. It was a dandy springbok, Laurel’s first kill on her first safari, the first game I’d seen taken with Weatherby’s Camilla rifle.

The Camilla belongs to Weatherby’s Vanguard series, hatched in 1970 on Howa’s stout, slick action.

The Camilla, named after Roy’s wife, was announced a year ago at this writing. Weatherby’s first rifle designed expressly for women, it differs in profile from the other 19 models in the Vanguard series. Shaping the stock, Weatherby consulted women for advice. Of course, women don’t come in regulation shapes and sizes. As the stocks Roy fashioned for men don’t fit all men perfectly, the Camilla’s won’t fit Serena Williams as well as it does women of more ordinary physique. But women I’ve talked with say they like the modest 6 1/2-pound heft, the slim 20-inch barrel that keeps center of balance close. They’re sweet on the walnut stock, with its abbreviated length of pull and exaggerated drop at comb and heel. The pull is 13 inches instead of the standard 13 1/2. Drop of 7/8 and 2 1/4 inches compares to 3/4 and 1 1/4 on 10 of the other 19 Vanguards.

Feel is one thing, performance on a hunt another. I asked Ed Weatherby and his son Adam (who in January 2017 succeeded his father as Weatherby’s COO) if they’d like to initiate the Camilla on a High Country Adventures (HCA) safari. This annual hunt, conducted with Jamy Traut of Namibia and Andrew Pringle in South Africa, came about to bring more women afield – especially those who might otherwise never take a hunting safari. Nothing better clarifies the link between hunting and conservation. For 12 years, HCA “Safari Sisters” had reported “Best trip ever!” “Experience of a lifetime.” I hoped Ed would think so.

He did. Weatherby supplied rifles for all six women on the 2016 HCA safari. Leupold graciously topped them with 3-9x scopes. The group included Adam’s wife Brenda, quickly gaining experience as an active member of Weatherby’s team. John McGillivray, an ace photographer who’s worked often with Weatherby, joined us in Frankfurt, and on to Namibia. At the rifle range below Jamy Traut’s Panorama camp, the women checked zeroes. I shouldered a Camilla and allowed the stock seemed short, the grip a bit tight. “If it fit your orangutan arms and oven-mitt paws, it wouldn’t fit anyone else,” smiled Janice.

Like her family, Brenda Weatherby finds hunting a joy. She took this springbok on her first safari.

All Vanguards are built on the smooth, strong Howa action Weatherby has used since the Tokyo-based firm supplied it for the first Vanguards in 1970. By the way, Howa Machinery, Ltd., established in 1967, was also tooling up at that time to produce Weatherby Mark V rifles. Howa rifles were distributed stateside by Interarms of Alexandria, VA until 1999 when Legacy Sports International of Reno, NV began receiving and selling them. Howa actions have appeared in rifles by Smith & Wesson and Mossberg – and on the rarest production-line Weatherby of all, a silhouette pistol.

Elgin Gates broached that idea in 1981. The pistol had a promising future when, after a run of just 200, Howa refused to ship “rifles whose barrels would be lopped to produce pistols.” In 2011, Weatherby’s Series 1 Vanguards were supplanted by Series II with an improved trigger, three-position safety and re-designed synthetic stock. Those rifles boasted a minute-of-angle accuracy guarantee.

Roy had ever been adamant that his rifles deliver fine accuracy. His stable of magnum cartridges birthed in the early 1940s, extended reach with higher bullet speeds and flatter arcs. As scopes replaced iron sights and hunters took longer shots, precision became as important as delivered energy. He tested both in Africa on his first safari in 1948. It spanned nearly two months. His daily observations shaped future Weatherby developments including design of the Mark V rifle in 1957.

Camilla was not an avid hunter, but without her, Roy likely would never have succeeded in his bid to build and market “tomorrow’s rifles today” or bring his fast-stepping wildcat cartridges from his basement to the shelves of sporting goods stores.

Short, with a lightweight barrel, the Camilla was easy to keep off the skyline-and handy in a crawl.

Roy Weatherby spent his childhood helping his family wrest a living from Kansas dirt. Before his teens he was hand-milking nine cows and turning the earth with a single plowshare behind three horses. He earned a BB gun peddling garden seed to neighbors who owned tractors, automobiles and washing machines. His threadbare youth may have fueled Roy’s drive to improve his lot, to stretch, sacrifice and risk — to excel.

He was 13 when, after a move to Salina, his father opened a one-pump service station and the eight Weatherby children were blessed with indoor plumbing. Later, Roy drew wages carrying bricks, then delivering newspapers and ice cream. He clerked in a dime store and a music store. He sold appliances. Returning to Kansas, he took night classes at the University of Wichita where, in 1934, he met Camilla Currie Jackman. Born December 2, 1914, she was four years his junior. When they tied the knot in 1936, she was not marrying money.

After long treks over Namibian dunes, hunters appreciate lighweight, nimble rifles like the Camilla.

The following year, Roy left the security of the job he held with Southwestern Bell Telephone to head west with Camilla at his side. Colorado yielded no work, so the couple continued to the coast. San Diego Gas & Electric hired Roy. A subsequent stint with the Automobile Club of Southern California that paid $200 a month was his “first good job.” With a lathe and a drill press from Sears, Roy set up a gun shop in his basement. A tide of surplus infantry rifles had started to wash ashore on the heels of WWII. They’d provide actions for the custom rifles he had in mind.

By 1945, Roy had designed several new cartridges on .300 H&H brass. They had less body taper and more powder capacity. Radiused shoulders distinguished them from other wildcats. Ever willing to take a chance, Roy left his insurance job and began hiring people for the rifle business. It floundered. In 1946 he sold half to friend Bill Wittman for $10,000 in venture capital. Was that enough? We can’t know, because shortly thereafter, Camilla inherited $21,000 from the sale of her family’s 160-acre Kansas farm. She gave it to Roy, who used it to buy back the stake he’d sold.

Still the company struggled, but the neon sign over the retail store Roy opened in 1945 on South Gate’s Long Beach Blvd. stayed bright. The company soon moved to Firestone Blvd. where for the next four decades Roy courted business tycoons, war heroes and Hollywood celebrities. They gave a face to his business. Sheldon Coleman, Joe Foss and Gary Cooper were customers. So too Elmer Keith and Jack O’Connor, Jimmy Doolittle, Roy Rogers and Robert Stack. Phil Sharpe put Weatherby rifles in his 1948 edition of “Complete Guide To Handloading.”

Weatherby’s (later Weatherby), Inc. was formed in May 1949. It drew $70,000 from investors. Texas oil man Herb Klein bought a $10,000 stake and, with Phil Sharpe, became a vice-president. In that day, women held few management posts, but Camilla’s support and counsel helped Weatherby prosper.  She accompanied Roy to meetings, driving as he shuffled papers and pondered paths to more profit. The couple had three children. Camilla would outlive her husband by 14 years, passing December 6, 2002.

Janice stalked this gemsbok in its bed and got it with one .308 bullet from her Leupold-scoped Camilla.

“Let’s hunt leopard country.” Cristy worked with Karen’s “Shoot Like A Girl” program. They’d both come to experience Africa. An experienced hunter in her native South, Cristy wanted a gemsbok, a plains antelope also at home on stony steeps. On a ridge that had produced for Karen, she battled gamely through concertina-wire thorn and ankle-twisting rock. In precipitous country, where one hand clutches the rifle as the other grabs at the hill, the short, agile Camilla proved a blessing. We paused to glass cross-canyon as well as ahead, though the opposite side was too far for a shot, all stalking routes too exposed.

“Up there!” Our PH, Lowe, kept his glass on the bull as Cristy dropped to the rocks for a steadier position. C-r-r-ack! Gemsbok are tough, and this one kept moving as Cristy ran her Camilla’s bolt. Two shots later, the animal’s legs gave way. “Good shooting!” We all celebrated, while eyeing the gauntlet of thorn we’d thread on the pack out.

Brenda shot five animals with her Camilla, not wanting for a longer, heavier rifle or the additional power sought by hunters who’d prefer one. Indeed, the .308 ranks among the top-selling cartridges in sub-Saharan Africa – if it’s not the most popular. Worldwide, more hunting rifles are bored for the .308 than for any other round. It’s a compact, efficient cartridge, delivering a ton of energy to 200 yards with a wide range of bullets from a short rifle action.

Janice had relinquished her favorite .300 WSM to use a Camilla. Jamie led one afternoon through broken dunes and spotty thorn. His persistent glassing turned up a gemsbok 300 yards on. “Bedded.” He shook his head. “We have the wind but scant cover. Let’s try.” Janice slid a cartridge up the spout. At half the distance, I dropped behind the last bush of any consequence. They reeled in 60 more yards. The sticks rose slowly. The thwuck of the hit followed close on the rifle’s report. The bull had died where it had lain.

Laurel took great care with her shooting, getting this wildebeest at 170 yards. Note the stock comb and grip.

Laurel and I shared a passion for longbows and had committed one morning to a bowhunt. Sadly, I failed to bring her within 25 yards of anything but a dung beetle. The animals were professionals, while we proved mere amateurs. She fared better with Lowe when, after several tries for a blue wildebeest, she bellied to within 170 yards. A 180-grain AccuBond loaded by Black Hills downed the animal. Laurel had a clear reticence to kill, but she understood hunting as predation, and its role in conservation. Quietly she made her peace after each shot, alone at the animal. To Laurel, hunting’s process mattered more than the product, a view I much appreciate in any hunting partner.

Sadly, a rabies epidemic, specific to spiral-horned antelope, had decimated local kudu numbers, so Laurel focused on zebra. Like me, she was amazed a black and white beast as big as a horse became a dust-smudge at distance, a blur of shadows in bush. Lowe’s keen young eyes were always looking long, because “zebra are never close.” Spooling up yardage proved tough. When the zebra didn’t spot or wind us, springbok or gemsbok did. At last we found a loafing herd alone. I perched as Lowe engineered the sneak and duck-walked across a pan, Laurel behind. The zebras sifted in and out of sight, fluid in mid-day mirage. An hour later, dust rose from the thorn, followed by the Camilla’s snap. A shot well placed!

Rabies mad kudu scarce, but Carmen found this one at last light and made a tough shot look easy!

You can succeed with just about any rifle on a plains-game hunt. But for most hunters, rifles that carry easily and recoil gently trump long-range artillery. Stocks that naturally come to cheek and instantly bring the sight picture to eye make first shots easier and follow-ups faster. Weatherby’s Camilla is sure to help women become more effective hunters.

Now available in .243, 6.5 Creedmoor or 7mm-08, as well as .308, the Camilla retails for $849. Compared to a rifle custom-stocked to fit someone of slight build with arms shorter than an orangutan’s, that’s a bargain.–Wayne Van Zwoll

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