|July - August 2001
Volume 33, Number
Beretta Mato features a muzzle brake, walnut stock with cut checkering and Swarovski variable scope. Cape buffalo photo by Gary Kramer.
Both gladiators knew the enemy was
nearby, but neither knew the others exact position. The jungle was so thick
visibility was limited to a few feet, turning the battle into hand-to-hand combat. To one
of the warriors, the choking thorns and seething heat were no obstacle, for he was 12 feet
tall and weighed 6 tons. He did not bother to look because his sight was poor, instead he
searched with his sense of smell and radarlike ears. His opponent was puny and harmless.
Yes, he could see better, but compared to the elephant, he could not smell nor hear. They
both stood in absolute silence, sensing and thinking. One or the other, or both, were
about to die.
The battle did not begin with the
rising sun, instead a breeze too small to feel brought the tainted air to the bull
elephants trunk and told him where the hated man stood. That was all he needed. He
did not trumpet or perform but literally laid his head back and charged - and roared as
only a killing bull elephant can roar. Under normal circumstances the insignificant man
would become a red mess in the dust; it would have been that way even if hed had a
normal rifle. There was a small edge: He held the most powerful rifle known.
Gray elephant skin appeared at 20
feet, mixed with rending timber, boiling dust and a roar that shook the fibers of his
soul. The 22-pound rifle boomed like a thunderclap. It burned 400 grains of powder and
drove 2,000 grains of lead toward the center of the locomotive. A blinding cloud of white
smoke enveloped both the man and the elephant; for seconds everything hung in a
fog-shrouded balance. Mayhem was replaced by the original silence, silence as deep and
quiet as the smoke itself.
The hunter knew he was still alive,
but that was about all he could discern. The bull was somewhere close enough to touch. As
the smoke began to clear he could make out a shadowy outline, the swaying head of the
monster that towered over him. The gigantic rifle had made the match even; it delivered a
blow that made the bull stop and sway from side to side. The hunter needed to move from
beneath the stunned bull and finish the war. Huge barrels, pointed nearly vertically,
drove their recoil down onto his shoulder. The blow was just short of damaging to the man
and fatal to the elephant. The bulls hind quarters settled first before his head and
massive shoulders rolled over.
And so it has been since men first
began to travel to Africa and India to hunt the big game of the world. There were hunts
and there were wars. The game was immensely powerful and determined. Elephant, rhino,
buffalo, seledang and gaur needed all the power a human being could control. To that end
there were four great rifles - two from the black-powder era and two nitros. They had one
thing in common: They were the most powerful rifles men could handle. They pushed the very
edges of human ability.
The weakling of the lot,
believe it or not, was an 8 gauge. It used only 250 to 275 grains of powder and 2- or
3-ounce bullets. Its big brother, the 4 gauge, was perhaps the mightiest rifle of all
time, but it was not as effective as either of its modern counterparts. With
the perfection of nitro powders and jacketed bullets the .577 and .600 nitros became the
ultimate fight stoppers. Before we go on this wonderful ride with the super-powers, we
should pause for a moment to understand why many other rifles are not part of the story.
Many shooters will immediately ask
why the really powerful things like the various .475 belted whattzits, my own
.585 Nyati or even the .700 Nitro are not on the list. In the case of the many big-bore
wildcat cartridges, we give them credit for being very powerful and effective but dismiss
them because they gain fame with paper energy. They drive relatively small (600 grains or
less) bullets at high velocity. Their kinetic energy (KE) numbers are impressive, but in a
pitched battle with a bull elephant, they simply lack the sledgehammer blow of the big
bores. The .700 Nitro and things like my Nyati are immediately disqualified, not on the
grounds of power, but experience. They have not been there and done that. The
four big rounds in question fought the battles over a century of time, while the others
are just pretenders.
We begin in the black-powder era with the 4
and 8. They both began life as muzzleloaders and were readily adopted into centerfire,
breech-loading rifles. No, these are not shotguns, but rifles with rifled bores just like
our familiar smallbores. The only real difference is one of size.
The gauge designation
refers to the number of round, pure lead balls the exact size of the bore it would take to
weigh a pound. Here there was a bit of literary license and a good bit of variation. The 8
was pretty close to true. The most common 8-gauge rifle used paper cases, like shotgun
cases, and .835 inch diameter bullets or balls. It was a true 8 bore. A larger version,
using thin brass cases wanted .875-inch bullets and was in reality a 7 bore. There are
really very few actual 4-bore rifles, because it takes a colossal 1.035-inch bore to
create the quarter-pound ball. Instead most are paper-cased and use a bullet
around .975 inch, which really makes them 5 gauges, but who is to argue. In this realm
there is plenty of horsepower to go around.
The 8 gauge was, believe it or not,
a pretty common working rifle in the mid- to late-1800s. One old hunter even used a big 8
as a general duty rifle, hunting mountain game and everything else. He used it like we
would a .30-06 today. The most common kind was a double with hammers. Lighter rifles
weighed 12 pounds, and normal ones were in the 15- to 17-pound range. The lightest bullets
available were roundballs, 2 ounces or about 875 grains. Some rifles used heavier conical bullets,
weighing around 1,200 grains.
Cases varied also, but normal was 3
1/4 inches, with some being as long as 4 inches. The big cases held a lot of powder, with
a normal charge being 10 drams or 275 grains! As you can imagine, the horsepower output
was significant. The roundballs approached 1,600 fps with the big conicals rumbling along
at 1,300 to 1,500 fps, depending on the charge.
The 8-gauge rifles were near the
limit of most hunters. That is, the weight of the rifles made carrying them all day
tiring. Of course, it was not enough just to carry the rifle; a hunter needed to be able
to handle it quickly and accurately even after many miles under broiling African or Indian
sun. Recoil also approached the limits of most. While they did not hurt the
shooter, the sheer force made a quick second shot difficult for all but the most capable.
But, the 8 bore was just a baby. It had a big brother, a rifle that was almost twice as
powerful and effective!
Four-gauge rifles stood and still
stand in a league all their own. It takes a powerful man just to shoulder and sight one,
let alone manage it. The 4 bores are very rare - surely less than 100 exist. Most are
doubles weighing from 20 to 24 pounds. Singles are incredibly rare, perhaps less than 10
on earth. They are, in their own way, delightful because they are lighter and more
manageable than the huge doubles, weighing in around 18 pounds. These, the greatest of all
rifles, are monumental in every way. They have a chunky appearance because the barrels are
usually short, between 20 and 26 inches. The short barrels, combined with the thick (often
nearly 4-inch) receivers, make the 4s look a lot like a Sumo wrestler.
They are heavy for a reason; they
are powerful! The metal must contain the tremendous strain of the charge and breech
thrust, and they must have enough mass to keep the recoil from crushing the shooter. As it
is, they generate well over 200 foot-pounds, something special when you realize that a
.458 Winchester only backs up with a gentle 56-pound shove.
While we are on the subject of
recoil, the unknowing will tell you that the big rifles recoil is only a big
push. Those soothsayers have not fired a heavy. Note that the 4 bore has at least 10
times the recoil of a .30-06 moving at twice the velocity! Perhaps they push, but they
push a lot like a freight train.
4-bore rifles use a 4 inch long case, and the light load was 12 drams of
strong powder. The heavy load was 14 drams and occasionally rifles were regulated for a
full ounce, or 16 drams, of black gunpowder. When that charge is behind bullets of 1,500
to 2,000 grains, we begin to grasp the meaning of real power.
It is difficult to correctly
describe firing a 4-bore rifle. My best description is monumental, almost frightening. The
blast from the powder charge is noticeable as is the jarring heave of the recoil. The
recoil cycle is long and heavy, forcing almost every shooter I know to take a step
backward. You do not try to overpower a 4, doing so would almost certainly cause something
to break. Instead, you must roll with the punch. Firing one is - a lot of fun!
In its working days, the 4 bore was
usually a reserve rifle, used to do the backup work behind a double 8 bore.
Also, when especially valuable, tough and dangerous game, like the gigantic Indian gaur (a
bison of more than a ton, 6 feet at the shoulders and double mean) was the prize, hunters
saluted them with the 4 bore right away. By all accounts, any reasonable hit made the
Hunting with the black-powder giants
is a treat few have experienced. Many years ago I took a light single 8 bore to Australia.
It was loaded with heat-treated roundballs at 1,500 fps. The little 12-pound Gibbs was
wonderful, because along with its serious power, it was light enough to carry easily. The
first shot was at a feral bull. The fellow I was with warned me they had a bad attitude,
something this first beast proved quickly. I saw him run into the bush and gave chase, but
before I had run 100 yards, he met me in the middle. It was wonderful feeling the strength
of the recoil, watching the ball cave in his shoulder and stand the brute on his nose. A
few days later, I would find out that, unlike a renegade Hereford, a ton of unhappy water
buffalo could stand toe to toe with an 8 bore just like they had a century earlier.
We jumped the huge bull out of a
little ravine, the guide shouting that he was as big as they got. Get him anyway you
can. My Cape buffalo hunting experience gave me the answer to that question; you
simply run them down. I legged it behind the bull as hard as I could run, and just like
his African cousins, the old fellow pulled up after about 200 yards to see what was after
him. I slid to a stop and planted a 900-grain ball on his shoulders. To my disbelief, he
took no notice and ran hard again. We repeated the performance twice more, and after a
half-mile in the sand and 100-degree heat, I was beginning to wonder who was toughest. At
last the monster turned to fight. This time instead of an ordinary roundball, the bullet
was a 1,200 grain high-explosive Forsyth shell. It brought matters to a spectacular end. I
knew then, just as they had in the good old days, that at times an 8 was not enough. That
is why there were 4 gauges!
Some years later I returned to
Australia determined to take revenge and to see if the great buffalo had his limits. This
time the rifle was a single 4 bore by William Evans, weighing 18 pounds. Two kinds of
ammunition seemed in order - pure lead balls weighing 1,380 grains driven by 14 drams and
a powder-scale crushing shell of 1,600 grains weight pushed by 12 drams. We tried the ball
loads on lesser beasts, and it hammered them much like a Mack truck.
The time had come to wade into an
old buffalo bull. As luck would have it he was moving, trotting slowly from left to right
at about 30 yards - lucky because he was clear of the smoke cloud when the shell hit, and
I got to see the show. The huge missile landed in the center of his chest, a classic lung
shot. The rifle roared and the shell made a similar report with a jet of smoke shooting
from the entrance. At the same time the bull simply quit, collapsed and rolled as if the
bullet had struck his brain. The guide said it was the only one, in many thousands he had
seen shot, that fell to the shot without the brain or spine being hit.
Reading the old journals tells a similar story. Usually the great 4 caused the game
to quit. But the black-powder giants were not without their shortfalls. Often, especially
African elephants did not succumb immediately because the soft balls used then did not
penetrate deeply enough. Then the horrendous cloud of smoke made follow-up shots nearly
impossible. As grand as they were, the huge black-powder rifles were about to be replaced
with even more effective arms. The nitro era was dawning.
The glorious black-powder rifles had
three major drawbacks: smoke, recoil and weight. These combined with the fact that, at
times, they ran out of penetration, made gunmakers and hunters look for a better
super-power. It came with the advent of nitro powder, combined with jacketed bullets.
The baby of our four giant rifles
is perhaps the best. It was originally a smallbore of only 24 gauge. The .577
began as a muzzleloader, progressed through the short Snider and 3-inch black-powder
versions to the glorious conclusion of the .577 Nitro Express, or .577-100-570 Cordite.
This rifle must have seemed like a dream to men who fought monsters for a living. Suddenly
the smoke was gone, their rifles weighed only 13 pounds and penetration had perhaps
doubled. The long, sleek 750-grain, .585-inch bullets, screaming along at 2,050 fps, were
almost unstoppable. Here was a rifle that could match up with a big African bull elephant
and floor him from almost any angle. It could break both shoulders just like a deer rifle
does on a deer, or it could drive through the brain from extreme angles.
The late Truman Fowler told me about
one of the last big bulls he shot with his Lancaster. The bull was walking almost straight
away. To reach the brain the bullet would have to start well back in the neck. The ivory
was heavy and the big rifle had always answered, so he gave the very difficult shot a try.
While the rifle recoiled, he saw the bulls trunk come up over the top of his back
and the contents of his skull shoot out both ears. He said it was the most impressive
demonstration of rifle power he had ever witnessed.
So that you might understand my
fascination with elephant rifles and the .577 in particular, you should know that at the
tender age of four I was placed at the mercy of an old ivory hunter from Tanganika. His
stories, great ivory over his office door and the Holland & Holland rifles warped me
forever. Thus, I spent my youth searching for an elephant gun.
It came in the guise of a Rigby .577
Nitro. I unwrapped the registered-mail package, assembled the rifle, pocketed a box of the
monstrous cartridges and rushed to a place where I could shoot. I will never forget that
first shot. I had previously fired a .458, but this was a big rifle, and the
first shot is a memory that lingers. The only plan seemed to be to hold it like grim
death. When it went off, tendons stretched and snapped, my thumb bloodied my nose and a
huge black hole appeared dead center in the target.
The lesson was quick and meaningful:
You cannot stop a .577 - it is better to relax and go where it pushes you. With the right
technique the rifle became friendly and a very impressive jackrabbit rifle. Even the big
steel jacket solids would scatter them for 30 yards across the snow. Their little hides
just could not contain the hydraulic displacement!
To my chagrin it has not had an
elephant under its sights in my hands, although it is reputed to have taken several
hundred for others. But, we have seen the buffalo. My first was as memorable as it should
be for anyone. Yes, there was trepidation; many had written about how bad they
were. Fortunately the Capstick novels had not surfaced yet, so my view was mostly
The bull broke and ran through the
thick timber at about 60 yards. Imagine my surprise when Bill shouted, Go for it!
Well, when in Rome. I pulled the big ivory bead out in front and loosed the right barrel.
No effect. An instant later the left boomed, and the bull rolled over like a rabbit. Bill
strolled up to the buffalo in a very casual way, armed with only an FN .308. I yelled to
be careful, and he replied that caution was not necessary; he was shot with a
cannon. The first shot clipped the edge of a big tree and was deflected. The second
dead centered a large ebony, bored through the 12 inches of iron-like wood, traveled down
the buffalos neck, exited just behind his ear and stuck in the base of his horn.
There is no substitute for horsepower.
As I carried the .577 in later
years, I noticed I had become careless. It simply crushed every buffalo I asked. I began
to take almost silly chances, knowing the great rifle would always win the day, and it
always did. It was like carrying the hammer of Thor. But even as stupendous as the .577
was, hunters still wanted more. To answer, W.J. Jeffery turned out the .600.
The earliest drawings I have seen
for the .600 Nitro date to 1899, with its formal release in Jeffery catalogs in 1903. This
was, on paper at least, the most powerful rifle ever devised. The 3-inch case held 110
grains of cordite and drove the huge, 900-grain, almost flatpoint bullet 1,950 fps. It was
a devil-stopper to be sure.
A double rifle would normally weigh
15 pounds; yes, heavy, but 5 or 6 pounds lighter than the 4 bores. Once again, like the
.577, the nightmarish cloud of smoke was gone. It is one thing to wonder if the grouse has
fallen, when he is hidden behind the smoke; it is quite another to ponder whether or not
the elephant or buffalo has stopped. With the big nitro rifle a small yellow ball of flame
is all that bursts from the muzzle.
The .600 seems to fill about the
same niche as the 4 bore. It was often a backup for the very worst conditions or the most
coveted trophy. There were a few men who carried them as a primary rifle, but they were a
rare breed. The .600 is the only one of the big rifles I have not hunted, but the
wonderful single waits. One day it might pick a fight with a hippo, or maybe it will just
floor a big bull elk.
Sadly, when we look at these
monumental arms, it is only in our rear view mirror. Yes, some of us hunt with them today,
but the great game fields and the glorious days where powerful rifles were a way of life
are gone forever. For me it is a wonderful thing to know men and rifles that were bigger
than life existed. Once upon a time hunting big game was a supreme test of human strength
and nerves, and the most powerful rifles made were part of it.