Stopping Power Revisited

African Hunter Vol.5 No.1 February 1999

There has been considerable debate in hunting magazines of late on “stopping power” for dangerous game, and “ideal” calibres for elephant and buff. Much of this debate though has centred purely around the professional hunter. No thought has been given to the client, or the “Citizen Hunter”, whose mission in life is something other than swatting large nasty beasties on a regular basis. Tony Sanchez-Arino (in African Sporting Gazette) gave an excellent run down on the most famous Professional Elephant Hunters’ rifles, and opined that nothing less than the .404 was actually really safe to carry, and that with factory ammunition the .458 was decidedly marginal. Brian Marsh in Magnum (Feb’98) noted that the .458 was decidedly lacking in steam, and that to guarantee satisfaction something in the order of the .458 Lott or Ackley is needed. For a professional guide, I would concur, but not otherwise.

I use the term ‘Guide’ loosely. By this I mean anyone who’s JOB it is to take people into dangerous game areas, whether hunting with a rifle or camera. Here you have fee-paying clients who expect to see or shoot the animals they are paying you to guide them to. The client cares nothing for the thickness of the bush, and if a little “discretion is the better part of valour” on the part of the PH costs the client his trophy, then the guide is labelled a fool, incompetent or worse. This invariably means that the guide is put in awkward situations where, when things go wrong, they go wrong in a big way and usually at unpleasantly close range. A buffalo charge in open country where you can see more than 30 metres is no problem to anyone who can shoot straight. The same charge at 10 metres in jesse is a very different story. In short, the guide is carrying a “charge stopping rifle”. Whether the animal is killed instantly or simply turned, is irrelevant: the name of a guide’s game is to stop something large from stepping/chewing on his clients or himself. For this specific job, horsepower is essential. The corollary though, is that the horsepower must be accurately placed. A charging lion, elephant or buffalo all give the hunter a 4 to 8 inch target for an instant kill, and an area of about 12 inches in diameter for a disabling hit that will turn the charge. I have seen men with .460 Weatherby’s that would be far more likely to turn a charge with a .303 than they are with their present cannons, simply because they cannot shoot them straight.

“As big as you can manage” is therefore probably a fair maxim for the professional ‘guide’. Hunting is his job, so the cost of a custom stock, the ammunition to practice and become proficient with, and tolerant to, a hard-kicking, heavy calibre rifle shouldn’t be a factor. As a professional he should also be fit enough to carry a 12lb rifle all day. Chances are though, that none of the above applies to the client or citizen hunter. Even if you are superbly fit, a heavy rifle quickly wears you down if you’re not used to carrying it. So the citizen hunter’s rifle must be reasonably light-weight and one that can be comfortably carried all day in a 40°C heat.

For a client or a citizen hunter, it is a must that the rifle’s recoil be easily controlled. There are four ways of achieving this: you can increase the rifle’s weight; improve the fit of the stock; fit recoil reducing devices, and most logically, go to a cartridge that produces less recoil. If you are a PH and your client gets tired, a tracker can always carry his rifle for him. If you are a citizen hunter you don’t have that luxury. If you give your rifle to the tracker you can just about guarantee that you will be charged by something and that your tracker will depart at speed with your rifle. You therefore have to carry your own rifle, so we are back to needing a light-weight one. There isn’t a lot to say about stock fitting: if a rifle doesn’t fit, even a relatively mild cartridge like a .308 will hurt and snap-shooting with such a rifle is almost impossible. The stock simply must fit.

What about fitting a muzzle brake? Great piece of kit for use on the range when zeroing the rifle, or practising snap-shooting, and in fact, every heavy rifle should be fitted with one: BUT a detachable one. If you have ever had the misfortune of firing a rifle fitted with any effective muzzle brake whilst not wearing earmuffs you will know what I mean when I say you cannot hear anything for at least a minute afterwards. This may not seem to be a big problem, but when hunting elephant or lion, sound plays an important part in keeping your hide intact. Over half the fatalities in elephant hunting in Zimbabwe are caused, not by the target elephant, but by another member of the herd that takes the hunter from the flank or rear. Your only defence is your hearing. If you are deaf from the muzzle blast you are at a very grave disadvantage. So, moral of the story, take the brake off before you go out after real game. This still leaves you, however, needing a rifle with manageable recoil.

Another option is to fit some other recoil reducing system to the rifle. Sorbathane recoil pads work better than the standard ones, and I have been favourably impressed with those nifty mercury filled recoil reducers that fit into the rifle butt. Bill McBride has a four bore fitted with these and it is definitely more manageable than my six bore. They do, however, affect the balance and this is something that shouldn’t be compromised, as balance and fit are vital considerations for a rifle, which, if one needs it, will be used for unaimed (but well pointed) snap-shooting. The addition of a little lead in front of the stock may return the balance, but this is something that has to be carefully worked out. If I thought that I really needed something bigger than a .404 I would be tempted to go for a custom stock, fitted with mercury recoil reducers, and a nice wide butt plate, complete with sorbathane pad, but retaining a comfortable sized forend and weighted to give a perfect balance. Of course if you're not Mr Average (which for British guns appears to be someone of about 5’9" tall and of lean build, since most British rifles or model ‘A’ Mausers fit me perfectly, but they don’t fit most of my larger friends) you may well have to go for a custom stock simply to get a rifle that fits well enough to allow snap-shooting. The Americans also seem fond of building heavy rifles with stocks suited for scopes. On a .375 maybe: on anything larger you must be mad! So again, a custom stock is the only solution.

The last option is to move to a smaller calibre that produces less recoil. This though is a double edged sword. I suspect that the reason many new hunters buy cannons is that they fail to realise just how easy it is to kill even the toughest game with a well-placed bullet. This would imply that the ‘ideal’ dangerous game rifle for a citizen hunter is either a .375 H&H or a 9.3 x 62. My personal choice is the 9.3 x 62. The 286 grain Woodleigh solids will exit on a buffalo from any angle including a Free State (Texas) heart shot. They will comfortably break the shoulder of an elephant and still reach the vitals and will exit on all head shots. The premium soft points available, particularly some excellent flat-pointed ones produced by Ken Stewart, are more than adequate for lion or an initial shot on buffalo. In short, the 9.3 will cleanly kill any animal, and do so with surprisingly mild recoil in an 8lb rifle.

In comparing the 9.3 to a .375 H&H, I’ve personally never noticed any difference where good quality solids are used, since bullets from both whistle straight through an elephant or buffalo making approximately the same sized hole. The only difference I can think of is that the .375 exits 200fps faster than the 9.3 and so has more energy to expand on the environment (and do so whilst producing more recoil and considerably more muzzle blast). Both have enough horsepower to turn a charging elephant with a headshot, but both will fail miserably if the elephant is on top of you and you have to shoot upwards through the jaw or into the chest. Such an upward raking shot is surprisingly common in jesse especially when an elephant other than the one being hunted decides to join the fray. In all the sitreps I have been able to look up where a hunter has been surprised by an elephant in thick bush, the 11 cases where the hunter has been armed with a .375 he has been either injured or killed. As the rifles become more powerful, the odds improve remarkably. A .470 (or .465, 476 etc.) gives the hunter better than 50/50 odds of escaping unscathed (eight records: one killed, two injured). With buffalo it’s a similar story. A .375 solid on a frontal chest shot will seldom stop a charge dead. Both barrels from a .500 are virtually guaranteed to.

This then is the down side in the argument for smaller calibres; when things go wrong and you get charged, you always wish that you had a rifle at least twice as powerful as the one you are holding. The debate then for carrying a cannon is one of ethics and safety and so we come back to the argument for having a rifle that possesses some real stopping power. A client being guided by a PH certainly doesn’t need one, but does a citizen hunter?

The first thing to remember is that big game hunting is a sport. Like mountaineering or Formula 1 racing you can get killed or injured if you make a mistake. If there is no danger, then the activity is not a true sport but simply a game. The statistics show that big game hunting is a sport, so you must accept the risks. These risks are minimal if a few basic procedures are followed. For any citizen hunter out after dangerous game, there are three basic requirements: 1) Never hunt without a partner (even if you have an awful lot of experience); 2) Don’t put yourself into a position where you can be ambushed. Remember that on one’s own hunt, when you don’t have some git with you who insists on putting you in an awkward spot, you don’t have to venture into potentially dangerous thickets; and 3) Do not get charged.

This is all well and good, until you have a wounded animal on your hands, since they are the most likely to charge and frequently retire into very thick bush to wait for you. It is in this area of wounded animals that the question of stopping power comes to the fore, and a person's true character and moral standards are revealed. If you wound something you have a legal and moral responsibility to find it and finish it off, and no bush can be considered too thick for a follow up. It’s your mistake so you sort it out. A man who chickens out from following up a wounded animal should never be allowed to go hunting again. The more powerful the rifle, the greater the chance of stopping a charge at close range (as noted above even a 7 x 57 is adequate if there is enough space to give you time to aim).

The obvious thing of course, is to ensure that you don’t get charged. Even if you are armed with a .700 nitro, things can still go very wrong if your shot placement isn’t at least reasonable. When facing one’s first charge, one’s shot placement is liable to be erratic, especially if it is from close range. Therefore only fire the first shot when you are absolutely sure of a (quickly) fatal hit. This means that first of all you have to know exactly where to aim, then you have to get close enough to be 100% sure of putting your bullet within 2" of where you were aiming and do so in the face of “buck fever”, nervousness, sweaty hands from the heat etc. If your rifle produces so much recoil that you haven’t practised sufficiently with it to have supreme confidence in your shooting ability with that rifle, you have added another variable that is virtually impossible to overcome. I watched a fairly experienced (plains game) hunter miss a buffalo at 20m. It wasn’t the buffalo that scared him, but sighting his .460 Weatherby had given him a flinch from hell:- well certainly one big enough to cause the bullet to be 50cm low at 20m. No, for a citizen hunter or a client who actually wishes to kill his own trophies on his own (ie he doesn’t want to shoot at his trophies, but have them brought down by the PH), the only sensible option is to use a rifle that one can actually practice with, and consequently shoot well. Most PH’s I’ve spoken to would rather see a client pulling an old .375 out of his gun bag than any new .450 magnum any day. In fact, most PH’s would rather have the client use a rifle smaller than the legal minimum (9.3 x 62 in Zimbabwe) if that is all he can shoot straight with. A 220 grain solid from a 30-06 through an elephant’s brain or a buffalo’s shoulder is a thousand times more lethal than a 900 grain bullet from a .600 express that misses the brain or hits the buff in the guts. There is no substitute for shot placement!

In summary then: use a rifle that you can shoot well with and use premium bullets and you will very seldom get charged. If you are unlucky, and another elephant or lioness rushes to their mate’s rescue, or you follow up your buff too soon and you do get charged, if you have not wandered into very thick bush, you will have sufficient time to shoot straight, and so end the attack before you are in any danger. If you insist on putting yourself in very thick bush or are an inexperienced hunter (or poor shot, not that anyone would admit to this) you would be well advised to beg, borrow or otherwise acquire a heavy rifle in the .450 Lott range as a spare back up rifle that your tracker can carry, and that you can take over if you have to enter thick bush. All things considered though, the risks are negligible if you shoot straight and think before you walk.