In big game hunting circles today one hears talk of appropriate calibre cartridges for dangerous game. The ubiquitous .375 H&H is generally the base from which discussion emerges. It can, without doubt, and does, tackle the big beasts of the world’s remote places with dependable certainty.
In the hands of a decent shot, familiar with his rifle and his quarry, the ‘one cartridge for the world’ proves its worth time and again, whether housed in a ‘scoped bolt-action rifle or an open sighted double. Few can argue that it is the most versatile round ever devised.
When tackling big, often angry and unpredictable, animals at close quarters in poor visibility or dense cover, many, myself included, would argue the merits of a big modern double with the reassuring knockdown capabilities of a .500 or .577 nitro express. We are fortunate to have these very powerful and practical options at our disposal.
Origins of the .375 H&H Magnum.
What Jack O’Connor called “The Queen of the medium bores” was the result of the influence on British rifle makers of German bolt-rifle rounds, notably the Mauser 9.3×62, which were gaining popularity in the early twentieth century. Holland & Holland introduced it in a new, belted, tapered case and loaded it with Cordite. The cartridge, introduced in 1912 and becoming popular between the wars set a new standard for flexibility and reliability. Modern powders have improved performance and today a .300 grain bullet can be pushed at 2,630 ft/s.
Origins of the Express Rifle.
Before the .375 H&H offered a practical, modern solution to the hunter of dangerous game, most favoured what James Purdey had christened ‘express rifles’. They were so-called as the flat trajectory and increased speed delivered the bullet ‘like an express train’. Express rifles in .500 and .577 with black powder propellants became available in breech loading rifles from the 1860s. They gained popularity for soft skinned dangerous game, like tigers in India, but when dealing with large animals with thick skin, huge muscle mass and large, dense bones, something more brutal was required, especially to stop wounded beasts at close range.
What Came Before.
The Victorian explorers and hunters had huge, untamed expanses of native jungle, savannah, forest and mountain to wander at will, encountering animals unused to the presence of Europeans and their activities. Tales of expeditions being slowed by the column experiencing frequent, un-announced, charges from black rhino abound. Lions preyed on camp cattle and pack animals at night and when elephants were encountered, ignorance of their anatomy dictated that recourse to power, or the ‘bigger hammer’ was the common approach.
Nineteenth century gun makers furnished their colonial customers with huge ‘stopping rifles’ based on double shotguns and graded in shotgun nomenclature: the so-called ‘bore rifles’; in four, eight and ten-bore, fully rifled, short barrelled and open sighted.
Frederick Courtney Selous describes using a single 10-bore rifle in 1877 to hunt buffalo. For buffalo, a 10-bore seems at the lighter end of acceptable but Selous had plenty of experience of bigger kit and it had affected him. He used a pair of 4-bores in his early days in Africa and later wrote “…the 4-bore guns kicked most frightfully and, in my case, the punishment received has effected my nerves to such an extent as to have materially influenced my shooting ever since, and I am heartily sorry I ever had anything to do with them.”
To have an idea of what he was talking about, we can consider the ballistics involved. To launch a 4 oz greased ball at 1,500 fp/s and with a muzzle energy of around 7,500 ft-lbs requires 12-14 drams of black powder, though some 4-bores were regulated to handle a 16 dram charge. Even with their huge weight, they kick hard and long and if not held hard and steady can do the shooter no good at all. A few of these old bore rifles still exist and examination shows us just what they were. Often beautifully constructed, they had to be of the best workmanship and materials to withstand the strain of firing such powerful loads.
R. B. Rodda & Co. 4-bore hammer rifle.
This example of a classic big stopper is cased with all the necessary tools and loading equipment. It is a non-rebounding back-action hammer rifle. Built in 1885, it weighs 21 lbs and fires a conical lead bullet at 1,200 fp-s from 24 1/4” damascus barrels, which are fully rifled. Leaf sights are for 50, 100 and 150 yards, which seems optimistic. It is Jones screw-grip operated and the forend also features a lever grip catch. These are more secure and stable than spring-operated bolts.
Using the Rodda 4-bore as a reference, even the modern .577 N.E seems civilised and manageable, which, if properly constructed and loaded, it is. The .375 H&H, by comparison, seems like a magic wand delivering lightning bolts, while the 4-bore is a canon, bashing down the walls. Dropping down a measure, the next popular bore-rifle was the 8-bore.
Holland & Holland 8-bore hammer rifle.
This rifle weighs 15 lbs 15 oz, making it a heavy prospect to carry all day long in the African heat and more likely to be used either as a ‘finisher’ when approaching a wounded animal at close range, or something carried by a gun bearer and handed to the ‘bwana’ only when the time for use approached. One can appreciate the dangers of this policy, having to rely on the bearer to stand firm in the case of an unexpected charge and not run-off, leaving you un-armed. The barrels are 25 1/2” long and secured to the action by a Jones under-lever and screw grip.
Back action locks are chosen, as they often were for big bore guns and rifles, on account of the placement of the mainspring allowing for a stronger action in a gun of any given weight. They are bolted to prevent accidental cocking or firing. The stock has a pistol hand with extended top strap, providing added strength. The charge is 8 to 10 drams of black powder in a brass case 3 1/4” long. It fires a ball of 8-bore through fully rifled damascus barrels, sighted for 50 yards. Rifles of this type were favoured by hunters in Asia, searching the swampy jungles for Gaur or for stopping the charge of a Cape Buffalo at short range in the African bush.
Greener contends that the accuracy of an 8-bore rifle up to 60 yards was very good, with eight shots place in a square measuring 2 3/8” x 1 9/16” at the 1883 Field Rifle Trials. He also quotes a ‘Mr A. Henry of Saigon’ as placing 147 out of 163 shots of 8-bore spherical ball fired into a 12-inch circle at 110 yards from a Greener double. Far more powerful than a 10-bore and far more manageable than a 4-bore, the double 8-bore rifle, weighing around 15 lbs was the popular choice for big game hunters.
The smaller bore rifles, in 10-bore and 12-bore are far more manageable, typically weighing 11 lbs and still quite destructive at short range. A 10-bore ball was 700 grains and conical bullets could weigh up to 875 grains, delivered with a muzzle velocity of up to 1,550 fps. Anecdotal accounts suggest that they were still rather light for heavy dangerous game but effective as all-round ‘jungle guns’.
Today, bore rifles have given way to faster, harder-punching big nitro express rifles. They are easier to wield, more accurate and superior in almost every way. However, given the chance, who would not relish the opportunity to step into the long grass on the trail of buffalo or elephant with a shoulder-mounted canon, loaded with a handful of black powder and a bullet the size of an eye ball? Or maybe it’s just me.