|October - November 1999
Volume 0, Number
©1999 John R. Ford
A Dangerous Game Rifle
Hunting large dangerous game is not a lot
different than hunting any other game except for the fact the beast might, at some point,
decide to attack the hunter. When that happens the bigger the gun one is carrying the
better. If bore size were the only consideration, though, everyone would be carrying some
sort of portable field artillery piece. Bore size, however, is not, and never has been, a
substitute for precise bullet placement, and light rifles and smaller calibers are more
comfortable to carry and easier to shoot accurately.
This fact has posed a conundrum for hunters for over a century. D.W.M.
"Karomojo" Bell is undoubtedly the most famous hunter whom advocates of light,
smallbore rifles and precise bullet placement bring into any argument of bore size. Bell
is credited with killing over 1,000 elephants with solid 160-grain bullets in the 6.5
Mannlicher-Schönauer and 175-grain bullets in the 7mm Mauser. He was undoubtedly a superb
shot, capable of hitting flying birds with his rifle and, by his own accounts, exceedingly
lucky. The argument that since Bell did it on elephants then anyone can do it is hardly
convincing. People have fallen from airplanes without parachutes and survived, but the
practice is hardly to be recommended.
On the other side of the equation are the large bore fanatics and their paragon Elmer
Keith, who once stated the .375 H&H was a pretty good deer rifle. I actually believe
there was a bit of tongue-in-cheek to some of Elmer's stories, but he was an
honest-to-gosh believer in large bores. Heavy bullets and stupefying energies are directly
correlated with brutal recoil, however, and most of us mere mortals cannot shoot to our
best abilities knowing each time we close our eyes and yank the trigger we're going to get
hammered. Eventually we all migrate toward some sort of compromise caliber depending upon
our ability to handle recoil.
I have been hunting dangerous game and experimenting with large caliber rifles for nearly
three decades. In this time I have hunted on four continents and, at one time or another,
been a firm subscriber to each theory. I have experienced a few spitting distance, blood
and thunder, kill or be killed charges, but they were usually a result of poor tactics or
planning on someone's part - usually mine.
As a professional hunting guide I get to see numerous hunters shooting various rifles,
calibers and bullets. A majority are competent if not good shots, but each year one or two
can be counted on to misplace their bullets. I am then required to use my rifle either to
assure a humane kill or to prevent the animal from escaping or charging. Very early in my
career I learned if I were ready, attentive and in range, I could usually hit the animal
solidly before it had recovered, thereby settling the matter. Any caliber and bullet
satisfactory for hunting the animal worked fine for this. I completely subscribed to
Karomojo Bell's placement-is-all-it-takes theory. I used a .30-06 and 200-grain Nosler
Partition pushed to 2,700 fps and was completely satisfied. Experience, however, often has
a way of dispelling even the best theory.
Bell hunted by himself and was
experienced enough to wait until he was absolutely certain where the bullet was going. He
did not have to allow an inexperienced, out-of-shape novice the first shot. Surprise and
the unexpected are a main attraction in any form of hunting, but on dangerous game the
unexpected can have serious repercussions. When large, dangerous animals are hunted in
thick brush or undulating terrain, places where they can disappear with one step, a poorly
placed bullet can make life downright fascinating in a hurry. There is nothing
intrinsically wrong with the accurate placement theory. I have painfully learned, however,
that accurately placing a bullet on an erratic, rapidly advancing nightmare with your body
pumped full of adrenaline can be problematic at best and fatal at worst. Bore size, bullet
weight and kinetic energy (stopping power) might not equal the "killing power"
of an accurately placed bullet, but under these circumstances it can be a close, and much
There have been all sorts of theories
postulated on how to measure stopping power. I don't have any new formulas. The simple
fact is hunters bring about the death of an animal by one of two means. Either a bullet
disrupts the brain or spinal cord (central nervous system) and causes instantaneous death
or else the animal dies of shock caused by massive blood loss, which results in the brain
shutting down. Precise bullet placement will cause this, but so will very large holes. It
is an irrefutable fact that large holes bleed more than smaller ones and two holes more
than one. Large, heavy bullets are also better at breaking down heavy bones and
immobilizing large beasts. Elmer Keith knew this. So do most professional hunters around
Fifteen years ago I built a serious stopping rifle for use in Alaska. Reliability and
dependability, of course, were paramount, but power, accuracy, weight, fit and feel were
also important factors. I used a .458 Winchester Interarms Mk X Mauser barreled action, a
modified fiberglass stock and a Leupold 2x compact scope. The rifle has served me well,
but in the past few years there has been a plethora of new calibers, rifles, bullets,
sights, mounts and stocks introduced, options that weren't available when the rifle was
assembled. I decided to see what was available and to build another rifle.
Other rifles besides the .458 are occasionally used; I have a reproduction Model 1886
Browning/Winchester .45-70 carbine and a Bauska actioned .505 Gibbs. Both are powerful,
reliable short-range stoppers, and I see no reason to scope either of them. They are used
for special purposes: the Browning daily when guiding salmon fishermen and bear
photographers and the Gibbs when someone wants to get up close and personal and stick an
arrow in a massive brown bear.
When the .458 was originally built, extensive range testing of the speed and accuracy of
various iron and scope sights was done and a low-power scope was settled on. Electronic
red dot sights were not then available, and I wanted to try them. My 17-year-old son Taj
and I spent an afternoon switching various sights back and forth between our rifles
testing for speed and accuracy.
In order to be purely scientific, I suppose we should have used only one rifle and
switched the sights on it, but our times and results were consistent with a similar test I
did in 1984 with only the .458. My son's younger reflexes resulted in faster times with
most sights, but I think familiarity with individual rifles and scopes might have affected
We conducted our tests with the shooter facing sideways to the target and, on command from
the timer with a stopwatch, turning and firing as quickly as possible and hitting a paper
plate 25 yards away. We used open V iron sights, large "ghost ring" peep sights,
low-power scopes (Leupold 2x and 1-4x variable set at 1x) and Bushnell's red dot
Holosight. We each fired five times with each sight and computed the average. Holosight
and open V tests were done with a Mauser actioned .375 Scovill. The peep sight and 21/2x
scope were with our individual Mauser actioned .458s. The 1x scope test was fired with a
Mauser .35 Whelen. Following are the results of our testing for speed (in seconds).
The Bushnell Holosight proved to be
rugged, extremely fast and accurate on target acquisition. It cannot, however, be mounted
low over the receiver, which forced us to shoot without our cheeks firmly on the stock. On
a heavy recoiling rifle this can be painful. Many states (Alaska included) have also made
it illegal to hunt big game with any electronic sight. The Holosight is a remarkable piece
of technology and is proving ideal for handgun target shooting. It would also be great for
certain specialized operations, such as nighttime culling operations, but I am a firm
believer in the K.I.S.S. (keep it simple, stupid) principle for backup rifles, and if the
battery fails you have no sight.
In the iron sight category, the open V was marginally faster than the peep on large, close
targets, but the peep was noticeably more accurate, especially as the range increased. If
I were using iron sights only I would definitely choose a peep. For me a low-power scope
proved to be the fastest by far. Scopes also proved to be the most accurate for both of
us. Besides speed, a scope allows one to see and identify the target better. At dusk or in
thick brush, it enables the hunter the ability to accurately place a killing shot. A scope
also facilitates bullet placement at longer ranges, and most wounded game will initially
try to run away rather than attack. Being able to stop a fleeing animal is the best way to
avoid having to wrinkle them out of the pucker brush.
My first choice of action type for a dangerous game rifle is still one form or another of
the rugged, tried and true Mauser Model 98. That said, I have no problem with Winchester
lever actions, good double guns, Springfields, Enfields, Winchester Model 70s or the new
Ruger MKII. When Winchester offered the new Model 70 classic in stainless steel I
immediately ordered one. I had always thought stainless steel would offer some very real
advantages around saltwater and in wet environs.
Caliber choice was the area I had agonized over the longest when I built my .458
Winchester Magnum. I previously had used a .375 H&H and found little to criticize. My
favorite bullets back then were the Nosler Partition, and when Nosler dropped the .375
during the 1970s, I was unable to acquire a suitable substitute. The next logical step up,
caliber-wise, at that time was the .458 Winchester Magnum. With it I discovered bullet
weight and bore size really do matter. I missed the versatility and trajectory of the .375
When Remington introduced its .416 magnum and Ruger the .416 Rigby, there was a slow
ground swell of Alaskan guides, especially on Kodiak Island and the Alaskan Peninsula, who
traded in their .338s, .375s, .404s, .458s and even one .500 Nitro for the new .416s.
Brown bears in these areas can reach 1,500 pounds in body weight, and while they might
hide in thick willow and alder patches, they are just as commonly seen on beaches and open
grassy flats. The .416s offered both the trajectory of the wonderful .375 H&H yet with
a bit more horsepower.
I sent my Winchester action off to Dick Nickel (Ridgetop Sporting Goods, PO Box 306,
Eatonville WA 98328) for installation of a Douglas premium stainless .416 Remington
barrel. As an experiment I also added a KDF slimline muzzle brake, which reduced recoil of
the .416 to that of a .30-06.
Reliability should not be compromised in a
rifle for dangerous game. Having heard from numerous sources that the original cast steel
Winchester extractor was prone to breaking, I installed Jim Wisner's (P.M. Enterprises,
146 Curtis Hill Rd., Chehalis WA 98532) extra rugged Model 70 extractor. Jim also makes a
stronger magazine spring that makes for more positive and reliable feeding, which was also
I still cannot imagine why anyone would want to utilize a wooden stock on a serious using
rifle. One look at the world's current assault rifles, target and benchrest rifles leaves
little doubt to the practical superiority of synthetic stocks. I have recognized their
benefits since acquiring a Stevens .22/410 over and under with a Tennite stock in the
1950s. A decade with Remington Nylon 66s and Uncle Sam's M-16s did nothing to dissuade my
opinion. The early Brown precision fiberglass stock that I modified to fit my .458 has
been the most rugged and stable stock I have ever used.
I have always been a firm believer in the axiom "beauty is as beauty does," but
early glass stocks (and to be honest many modern ones as well) suffered from a terminal
case of ugliness. One glowing exception is the Pacific Research Rimrock stock. It is a
clean, sophisticated design that compares favorably with the very best custom stocks and
comes fully inletted and finished with sharp, attractive moulded checkering. It is
lightweight, stable and strong with ropes of fiberglass imbedded in high stress areas. It
comes with a standard matte black finish but can also be ordered with your choice of
patterned material under the top gel coat layer. I ordered one in a fall foliage
camouflage pattern for the .416. The sighting system on my old .458 utilizes a Redfield
dovetail type scope mount with a Pilkington lever for fast, easy removal of the little
Leupold 21/2x compact scope. The system has worked well over the years, and I have removed
and installed it hundreds of times; however, the solid dovetail mounts and bases are
beginning to show signs of wear. It does not have wear adjustments like the similar but
expensive European mounts. The scope does not return to point of impact as reliably as it
Leupold now makes a detachable set of rings and bases they call QR (quick release), which
was ordered for the .416 and was found to be excellent. The stout cylindrical stud
projecting below the rings drops easily into the receptacle in the bases. Levers are
mounted on the base and simply and securely lock the rings down with only a half turn. On
a trip to Africa where the .416 would be used, two previously sighted-in scopes (a Leupold
1.5-5x Vari-X III and a Nikon 2-7x) were transported in my carryon luggage. Both were
sighted in prior to leaving, and upon arrival in Zimbabwe both were spot on. I am not
fully convinced a dangerous game rifle has to have a fast detachable scope, but the
ruggedness and repeatability of the Leupold QR system does offer a definite advantage for
the world traveler.
One of the hoped for benefits of the .416 was
its versatility by virtue of a relatively flat trajectory. Once the rifle was assembled, I
set out to work up a single load, being a firm believer in using a rifle for its intended
purpose and using one load for everything. My choice of bullets for the .45-70, .458 and
.505 is pretty much limited to roundnose projectiles. With the .416 there were numerous
The selection of bullets today is a far cry
from even 10 years ago. Besides the standard production bullets, we have a plethora of
premium "carriage trade" bullets. I have used, or seen used, virtually all of
them, and most are truly outstanding. For heavy, large game I am a fan of the Barnes
X-Bullet. I hear complaints occasionally about them fouling rifle bores, but on a hunting
rifle that is a minor complaint, especially in light of their performance. I obtained a
batch of the new XLC-coated, 325-grain .416 bullets, and 83 grains of Reloder 15 pushed
them along at 2,600 fps in my rifle. Three-shot, 100-yard groups clustered around an inch,
and the bore showed no sign of copper fouling.
I finished the rifle just before the spring brown bear season, and after feeding more than
100 rounds through the action to check for function, I decided to take it on the hunt. I
was guiding a bow hunter who was hoping for an honest 10-foot boar. We passed up a few
smaller ones and couldn't get within range on one monster, so by day 10 he decided to use
his rifle. Since he had not planned on using it, he had given no thought to his
ammunition. When we opened the case to his .300 Winchester Magnum, we found the only
ammunition was 150-grain Nosler Ballistic Tips - a great bullet for long-range shooting of
whitetail deer but definitely a poor choice for shooting a 1,000-pound bear at 50 yards,
which is exactly what happened the following day.
We were stalking a large boar meandering through chest-high willows. Realizing we could
get no closer due to noise, the hunter put his bow aside and unslung the rifle. When the
bear stood up to scratch its back on a tree, the hunter fired, and the bear immediately
dropped to all fours and took off uphill for thicker brush. All I could see was a rippling
wake through the willows as it ran, and I had no idea where or how hard it was hit. There
was a small patch of open tundra between the willows and the heavy alders; when the bear
reached it, I placed one 325-grain X-Bullet on the point of its shoulder. The boar's front
end collapsed, and he slid to a stop at the edge of the alders. The bullet had broken both
shoulders and was perfectly mushroomed in the outside leg. Later we discovered the hunter
had placed his bullet well centered in the chest, but penetration was only 6 inches.
A month later I accompanied my friend Pat Acciavatti on safari to Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
He brought a .338 Winchester Magnum, and I took the new .416. As it turned out Pat liked
the .416 so well we both used it for everything. Cape buffalo, kudu, sable, crocodile,
leopard, no matter what the game or the range, a single, well-placed X-Bullet was all that
was required. The .416 had the energy required to pile up a Cape buffalo at 50 feet, the
accuracy to brain shoot a crocodile at 150 yards and the trajectory to hit impala at 250
yards. Pat even used it to snipe a few baboons at over 300 yards for use as leopard bait.
In all, 33 animals fell to the .416 in 16 days. Doug Kok, our PH, was impressed with both
the rifle and the bullets. In talking to other PHs and local hunters, I discovered the
.416 Remington Magnum and Barnes X-Bullets had sterling reputations in Zimbabwe and
The rifle has a few quirks I did not anticipate though. I discovered stainless steel
actions do not operate as slick as carbon steel actions. Any moving parts that rub must
receive lubrication or else galling can occur. Also the recoil reducing "sissy
slots" cause severe and painful muzzle blast.
Any way you look at it, however, the .416 Remington Magnum, the Barnes X-Bullets, the
stainless steel Model 70 action, the new Rimrock stock and the Leupold QR scope mounts all
offer some benefits over rifles I have used in the past. The .416 combines the versatility
and trajectory of the .375 H&H with the energy levels of the .458 Winchester Magnum.
It is one great rifle.