3 Rifles to Hunt the World

OL's Shooting Editor talks about his favorites for deer, elk and elephants.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Whenever I'm with a group of hunters, someone always asks me to name my favorite rifle and caliber. This may sound like an innocent request, but experience has taught me it isn't. Naming your favorite guns and cartridges is loaded with booby traps. As with talking politics during an election year, naming a favorite gun will lead some people to assume you do not favor (or even oppose) other makes and models, and have no use for other calibers. Invariably, someone will be offended because I haven't named his personal favorite, and a verbal fistfight will ensue. Also, anyone who is convinced that any rifle or caliber is the absolute best is woefully short on imagination, experience or both.

Having said that, I've chosen three rifles from my rack as my favorites, not because I'm convinced they're the three absolute perfect choices to take all game that walks the earth, but because I've hunted with them more than all the other models and calibers put together. Although they are archetypical representatives of the three classes of big-game calibers, I didn't plan it that way. They were acquired at different times for entirely different reasons. And surprisingly, perhaps, it was the .458 Win. Mag. that came first.

My First "Big Gun"
The story of that much-used .458, which I've told before, goes back to my college days, when I fancied myself an up-and-coming stockmaker and Jack-of-all-gunsmithing. Back then I never met a gun that I didn't think needed one of my stocks, which resulted in the disfigurement of several otherwise fine firearms. In time, however, my stockmaking skills escalated to a level of solid mediocrity, so I decided to build the Big Daddy of all rifles: nothing less than a .458 Magnum, which at some date in the unknown future I would take to Africa to slay elephants and other mighty beasts.

Of course, my buddies made a big joke of such ambitions because they figured my prospects of ever going to Africa were about the same as someone walking on the moon. The rifle was built on a surplus Mauser action I picked up for a few dollars and sent to the Douglas works for the fitting and chambering of one of their barrels. The stock was whittled from a rather plain piece of claro walnut, which was all I could afford at the time. As it turned out, the choice of wood was a good, albeit lucky, one. It has sustained a lot of use and abuse, but it still looks pretty good, as you can see in the recent picture (above).

Back in those days, everything I read about dangerous-game rifles said they should be fitted with express, wide-V, open sights. According to those supposedly first-hand accounts, wherein the storytellers made little effort to restrain their virility, every encounter with a buffalo or elephant was a life-or-death struggle, with blood and testosterone flowing by the buckets. This was why they said that if a scope was to be used on heavy-caliber rifles, it should be set only in detachable mounts, so that it could be quickly removed in tedious situations and the express sights brought into play.

And so I mounted express sights on my .458, the same rear sight, in fact, that Winchester used on its .458 "African" Model 70. But in addition I mounted a 1.5X scope in a quick-detachable system that mounts on the side of the receiver. With the scope removed, the side-mounted base gave a clean, unobstructed view of the open sights, and I figured I was ready for any emergency.

Keeping a promise that I'd made to myself many years before, I brought the homemade .458 with me on my first African safari and used it to take a lion, two Cape buffalo and a couple of elephants.

The following year the .458 and I were back in Africa, where I had the great luck of being invited by the game offices of what was then Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to take part in a Cape-buffalo culling operation. In a single day I got a lifetime of eerience killing buffalo and put enough meat on the ground to feed several native villages for weeks. A few days later I went over to Botswana and took a pair of tuskers with what by then had become my ever-faithful .458, and, for the record, never once did I have cause to take the scope off and resort to the express sights, including a couple of times when I was eyeball to eyeball with elephants in a cranky mood. More recently, I've hunted Africa's dangerous game with other rifles in many other calibers, but if I had to hunt the big stuff with only one rifle, it would be my old homemade .458, loaded with handloaded 500-grain Hornady solids. It's the stuff dreams are made of.


**.458 Win. Mag. **
The homemade .458 that Carmichel built back in his college days still looks pretty good, considering the many years of safaris it's been on. Carmichel built the rifle on a surplus Mauser action he paid a few dollars for. He had Douglas fit and chamber one of its premium barrels for the action but did all the stock work himself. A detachable scope mount allows quick access to the express sights, which are the same ones Winchester used on its .458 "African" Model 70.

[pagebreak] A Deer Rifle to Die For
It's been said that I've championed the .280 Remington cartridge much as Jack O'Connor did the .270 Winchester on these pages before me. If it appears that way, it's more by accident than intent. The simple truth of my assumed love affair with the .280 Remington dates back over a quarter century, when I met ace stockmaker Clayton Nelson at a swanky hunting conference in San Antonio. Jack O'Connor was also there, and it wasn't long before the three of us found the bar and fell into a thunderous discussion about hunting rifles.

Nelson was the stockmaking guru who designed and made the beautiful stocks on the elegant Champlin rifles, and he had just opened his own shop. I happened to be in the market for a new hunting rifle about then, so after a second round of drinks-and considerable encouragement from O'Connor- I arrived at the conclusion that a rifle by Nelson would be about perfect for several sheep hunts I had planned and the African game I would be hunting about three months hence.

The rifle we agreed on was to be stocked in Nelson's classic style and built around a pre-1964 M-70 Winchester action. The logical caliber choices for such a rifle were any of the "three sisters": the .270 Win, .30/06 or .280 Rem. Since I already owned and had hunted with the first two, the .280 was an easy choice. Besides, despite the .280's rather paltry factory ballistics, it was a handloader's dream because of the wide assortment of excellent bullets available. With Nelson and O'Connor concurring, the caliber was decided, with a proviso that the rifle had to be delivered in time for my rapidly approaching first safari.

The rifle arrived with a couple of days to spare, and I'd never laid eyes on anything prettier. The stock was a gorgeous piece of real French walnut Nelson had been saving for a special project and was checkered with his distinctive fleur-de-lis and point pattern. It's the kind of rifle some people look at and say, "That gun is too beautiful to take hunting." But I did-many, many times over the years to come.

On that first safari, along with my homemade .458 Mag. I took a rifle in 7mm Rem. Mag., which I intended to use for the bigger plains game such as kudu, sable and gemsbuck. But as it turned out, I shot only two species with the 7mm Mag., a zebra and a roan antelope. It seemed that every time I had a shot at a good trophy the Nelson .280 happened to be in my hands, and with every shot I became more impressed with how the .280 and the 140-grain Nosler Partition handloads performed.

[pagebreak] During the years I lived in northern Arizona and was feeding a growing family on whatever game the hunting seasons offered, the .280 Nelson rifle became a staple tool for everything from pronghorn to elk. Only once did I vary from my handloaded 140-grain Noslers. That was for a safari into the snake-infested jungles of the southern Sudan in search of the reclusive bongo.

A bongo bull is a thick-bodied antelope weighing about 500 pounds. It is so tough to hunt in its element that the hunter-success ratio is only about 30 percent, even among experienced hunters mad enough to hunt them. Given the rarity of spotting one, most hunters opt for a heavy-caliber rifle, usually in the .375 H&H; class, to make sure the animal stays down if they're lucky enough to get a shot.

My approach to the caliber-vs.-bongo question was simply to load some .280 Remington ammo with the then-new 160-grain Speer Grand Slam bullets. Perhaps I was luckier than I deserved to be, because the full-body-mounted bongo that now stands in my trophy room never took a step after one shot from the .280.

My worst day with the Nelson .280 was on an elk hunt in Idaho's Selway wilderness. My hunting pal and I tied our horses to a tree while we glassed some open meadows. While we were gone, my pal's horse decided to scratch his chin on the unprotected butt of the rifle in my scabbard. There was a steel bridle bit in the nag's mouth, and as he scratched it dug deep slashes into the beautiful French walnut. Never again have I left a rifle in a scabbard when I've gone for a stroll.

My Nelson .280 rifle made more trips to Africa and was slung over my shoulder on many climbs up the sheep mountains of Alaska, British Columbia and the Yukon.

Nowadays when I read about the turmoil in the Middle East I think of a time when Fred Huntington and I set out on a New Year's day to hunt our way around the world. Our main goal was to take what has become known as the Iranian "Grand Slam" of ibex plus the Armenian, red and Ural varieties of wild sheep.

About midway through the hunt a blizzard hit and we were stranded in a sheepherder's hut with nothing much to do except look at each other and nothing to eat but greasy mutton boiled over a sheep-dung fire. On the third day of this idyllic isolation, the weather began to clear a bit and I noticed a flock of crows squawking in a snaggy tree about 200 yards distant. So why not ease the boredom a little by taking a shot at them with my .280?

Our Iranian guides and the interpreter thought it was ridiculous that I would shoot so far at such a tiny target and made it quite clear, with much laughter, that I could only make a fool of myself by trying. But I took a solid rest, and when the crow on the uppermost branch disappeared in a puff of black feathers the Iranians' jeers were replaced by dark scowls. They remained sullars I lived in northern Arizona and was feeding a growing family on whatever game the hunting seasons offered, the .280 Nelson rifle became a staple tool for everything from pronghorn to elk. Only once did I vary from my handloaded 140-grain Noslers. That was for a safari into the snake-infested jungles of the southern Sudan in search of the reclusive bongo.

A bongo bull is a thick-bodied antelope weighing about 500 pounds. It is so tough to hunt in its element that the hunter-success ratio is only about 30 percent, even among experienced hunters mad enough to hunt them. Given the rarity of spotting one, most hunters opt for a heavy-caliber rifle, usually in the .375 H&H; class, to make sure the animal stays down if they're lucky enough to get a shot.

My approach to the caliber-vs.-bongo question was simply to load some .280 Remington ammo with the then-new 160-grain Speer Grand Slam bullets. Perhaps I was luckier than I deserved to be, because the full-body-mounted bongo that now stands in my trophy room never took a step after one shot from the .280.

My worst day with the Nelson .280 was on an elk hunt in Idaho's Selway wilderness. My hunting pal and I tied our horses to a tree while we glassed some open meadows. While we were gone, my pal's horse decided to scratch his chin on the unprotected butt of the rifle in my scabbard. There was a steel bridle bit in the nag's mouth, and as he scratched it dug deep slashes into the beautiful French walnut. Never again have I left a rifle in a scabbard when I've gone for a stroll.

My Nelson .280 rifle made more trips to Africa and was slung over my shoulder on many climbs up the sheep mountains of Alaska, British Columbia and the Yukon.

Nowadays when I read about the turmoil in the Middle East I think of a time when Fred Huntington and I set out on a New Year's day to hunt our way around the world. Our main goal was to take what has become known as the Iranian "Grand Slam" of ibex plus the Armenian, red and Ural varieties of wild sheep.

About midway through the hunt a blizzard hit and we were stranded in a sheepherder's hut with nothing much to do except look at each other and nothing to eat but greasy mutton boiled over a sheep-dung fire. On the third day of this idyllic isolation, the weather began to clear a bit and I noticed a flock of crows squawking in a snaggy tree about 200 yards distant. So why not ease the boredom a little by taking a shot at them with my .280?

Our Iranian guides and the interpreter thought it was ridiculous that I would shoot so far at such a tiny target and made it quite clear, with much laughter, that I could only make a fool of myself by trying. But I took a solid rest, and when the crow on the uppermost branch disappeared in a puff of black feathers the Iranians' jeers were replaced by dark scowls. They remained sull