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What calibre for Cecil?

Public perception of African hunting over the past couple of years has been dominated by the mainstream media’s obsession with ‘Cecil’ the lion; legally hunted in Zimbabwe two years ago (coincidentally, while I was accompanying a lion hunt in Tanzania) and, more recently, the hunting of one of his offspring in July; again by a legally licensed hunter, operating within the laws of the land he was hunting in.

While I was in Tanzania, I sat in a grass blind at dawn and observed a friend shoot an old male lion with a 1912 Cogswell & Harrison side-lock ejector double rifle, in .375 flanged (not the H&H Magnum version). Media stories in July put lion hunting back into the spotlight. So, for this month’s article, I thought we could look at the three or four hundred years over which Europeans have hunted lions with firearms and see what sort of developments took place.

Lion Hunters in the 1700s.

In the 1600s lion hunting, like most hunting, was available only for aristocratic and royal households. However, we can trace European nobility’s lion hunts back to this period and earlier. A painting by Rubens dating from 1621 depicts a lion hunt, as commissioned by the Duke of Bavaria. In it, multiple hunters and lions struggle in close combat, with much gore and mayhem inflicted by either side. The weapons depicted are blades, but when Europeans started to explore further into Africa as the 18th Century progressed, firearms were increasingly carried. The first of these were muzzle-loading flintlocks.

Colonial Expansion

The British Empire expanded into Africa rapidly but for most of the 1700s interest was restricted to coastal regions, locals being relied upon to bring goods to the traders from the interior. Few Europeans saw much point in entering the deep, dark, beast, savage and disease infested, forests to seek their fortune. They were much more likely to find death; and pretty quickly.

As the British began to venture further inland, the weapons available to most were of the military type already issued and with readily available ammunition. For this reason, the Martini Henry .577 and the Lee Enfield .303 must have taken huge numbers of African game, lions included, while they were the service rifles of choice for the British Empire. However, let us look more closely at the sporting arms chosen by explorers and sportsmen.

The period of expansion into Africa coincided with a number of important developments in rifle design. Hunters witnessed the wares of London gunmakers go from muzzle-loading percussion guns to pinfire breech-loaders, to centre-fire breech-loading double rifles, or single shot falling block, tipping block and bolt action types. Choice was largely dependent on pocket, with doubles costing the most and bolt-actions the least.

The adventurer with a limited budget would perhaps have to choose a rifle/shotgun combination. There were a number of options, all variations on a theme, offered by different gun makers. The Holland & Holland ‘Paradox’ is the best known. Westley Richards offered a 12-bore ‘Explorer’ or a 20-bore ‘Fauneta’. Cogswell & Harrison had a version (‘The Collindian’), as did Greener, and Army & Navy offered their ‘Jungle Gun’. These were all what were loosely termed ‘Shot & Ball Guns’, which could fire a shotgun shell or a single projectile.

The lion is a soft skinned animal and one thinks of them as being easier to kill than hard skinned heavyweights like rhino, buffalo or elephant. Indian tiger hunters used shot and ball guns a great deal and the black powder express rifles in popular calibres, like .450, .500 and .577, of which several chamberings were available, were widely considered the best option there. For lion and tiger ‘at ease’, especially those offering a side-on shot, they appear to have been very effective.

However, the front-on shot at a large lion, especially one with muscles flexed and his mind on fighting, appears to have provided a tougher than expected barrier. John Taylor wrote of some smaller calibre nitro-propelled rounds failing to penetrate the large muscles, sometimes with dire consequences for the sportsman. He, therefore recommended larger, heavier bullets for lion. Today, the sportsmen heading in pursuit of Cecil, or his kind, will have to shoulder a .375 or larger calibre. Though strong, with nitro propellants and modern bullets, the lion is not a difficult animal to kill if shot placement is good. Therefore, accuracy trumps knock-down power for the considered first shot. 

Hopefully, this will be the only one needed. However, if things go wrong and a charge results, your back-up hunter will be better off with a double rifle, open sights and a calibre of .450 or more. In these circumstances, shotgun-like handling and charge-stopping grunt are the key requirements.