Is Bigger Better?

The battle over big-bore versus hypervelocity has raged for nearly 200 years. Despite its ponderous title, The Hunting and Spoor of Central African Game is one of the most readable and instructive hunting books ever written. Its author, Denis D. Lyell, was among the last of Africa’s hunter-adventurers who could, and did, hunt for both profit and the sheer pleasure and excitement of it. Unlike the legendary African hunter-writers of a generation or two before, such as Frederick C. Selous and Samu

From that perspective his observations and opinions are especially applicable to the rifles and cartridges we hunt with today. All the more so because his use of a rifle was not the once-a-year event that modern-day hunters enjoy but an almost daily task. Whereas our romantic image of an ivory-for-profit hunter is a Stewart Granger-type hero staring down a pair of charging pachyderms with flinty-eyed sangfroid and neatly dispatching each with a right and a left from his Holland double, the real face of professional hunting was hot, dirty and exhausting. Lyell hunted on foot and, in addition to the business of finding and killing elephants, faced the daily chore of bagging enough game to feed what amounted to a small army of porters. By his reckoning, Lyell owned and used something like 40 rifles during his years in Africa, and he used them so much that wearing out the barrels was a constant concern. (Try to imagine killing so much big game today as to actually wear out the barrel of a favorite rifle--we should live so long.) Yet by his own admission, Lyell was not a hard-core firearms or ballistics nut. For Lyell, a rifle was a tool, and like any skilled craftsman, he learned from experience which tool worked best. Lyell writes that for African hunting he "would just as soon use a .256 Gibbs rifle he had previously owned as any other rifle." Other rifles he mentions as being favorites were chambered for the .275 Rigby and the .303 British. For comparison's sake, the .256 Gibbs that Lyell preferred, which could dispatch a 145-grain, 6.5mm bullet at 2,600 feet per second, is similar in size and shape to the .260 Remington we use today, though slightly less powerful. The .275 Rigby is virtually identical to the 7x57 Mauser, and when loaded with a 140-grain bullet with a velocity of 2,800 fps, it's comparable to a loaded-down .280 Rem. The performance of the old .303 workhorse is well-known, of course. One other caliber favored by Lyell was a 7.9mm (bolt rifle) built by Rigby, which he said was the "best-killing" among his favorite rifles. More telling, however, is that Lyell was not all that dogmatic in his choice of calibers. Rather, the ones he favored earned that distinction because they happened to be chambered in relatively lightweight rifles that, in his words, provided "good service." Experience taught him that "it did not seem to matter what bore I used if the bullet was properly aligned." In other words, if his rifles were ones he could carry and aim well, their caliber didn't much matter. He preferred bolt rifles weighing no more than 71⁄2 pounds, due to a polo injury that left him with a weak shoulder. He was distrustful of double rifles, and even more so of native gun bearers. Lyell's book was published in England in 1920 and has remained relatively un-known in the U.S., as has Lyell himself. Fueling The Fire
A book much better known here is John Taylor's African Rifles and Cartridges. A rather tragic figure and personality, Taylor was a great believer in heavy-caliber rifles, and his much-quoted book has become the bible of like-minded spirits. Though the veracity of his hunting accounts has been on occasion questioned by those who knew him, or by those who know someone who knew him (such folks tend to roll their eyes at the mention of his name), Taylor had an appealing writing style. His "KO" system of comparing the knockout value of different calibers is still used by some writers and hunters when evaluating the potential performance of various cartridges. Taylor's accounts also can be held responsible, however inadvertently, for fostering the now mostly debunked myth that African animals are harder to kill than North American game of similar size. Taylor was also an agent provocateur in the big-bore vs. small-bore wars waged by writers and gunmakers during the 1950s, leaving no doubt as to his leanings when he wrote that he shared the opinion of a fellow big-bore devotee that men who hunt with small-bore rifles "need their heads examined" and are of questionable sportsmanship. Such sentiments caused tempers to flare and typewriters to chatter like machine guns back during the "punkin' rollin'" battles of the 1950s. No one was seriously wounded during these almost monthly skirmishes, and baby boomers were enthralled by wordplay that was often more entertaining than informative. Even so, opinions were embedded in impressionable young minds that linger on and influence cartridge development even today. The Velocity Wars
Standard bearer on one side of the debate was Roy Weatherby, a wildcatter with a penchant for flashy neckties and a genius for promotion. On the other side was Elmer Keith, a camp cook turned gun writer who preferred a six-shooter on his hip to a tie around his neck and left few doubts as to his passion for big "punkin' rollin'" calibers and his opinions about certain other gun writers. Back in those innocent years, the name Weatherby had yet to earn the universal recognition it now enjoys, but Roy Weatherby was determined to make it so. Magazine after magazine featured articles about Weatherby's scorching-fast magnum cartridges and sumptuously embellished rifles. "Speed kills" was his motto, and his claims were supported by endless pictures of himself and big game done in with relatively small, lightweight bullets that struck like lightning. On the other side of the battlefield, Elmer Keith took to his pulpit to preach the gospel of heavy bullets that make big holes and save misguided souls from wandering down the forbidden path of high velocity. Both men are now gone, but there are still plenty such skirmishes, with gun and ammo makers always raising a wet finger to test the winds of these wars. This, no doubt, accounts for the plethora of cartridges introduced in recent times that would charm both Roy and Elmer. Remington's .376 Ultra Mag comes to mind, but almost all of these contenders claim bragging rights for velocity, bullet weight and energy with scant regard for the fierce recoil and fractured marksmanship that can result therefrom. The unspoken yet widely understood tenet being that plenty of power makes up for a bad hit. Lyell's view of such sentiment was, "There is a fallacy that a man has only to use a large bore to get everything he hits, but this is wrong, for an animal struck in the wrong place with, say, a .470 bullet, can escape. Then, having sustained a larger wound, it is more liable to die than if it had received a smaller bullet in the same place." Another writer certainly worth listening to was George Hoffman. He was an American who became an African professional hunter and one of the very few Americans I've known who took up the trade and was actually good at it. In addition to having excellent hunting skills, George was a first-class gun crank and ballistics nut, with his .416 Hoffman becoming the .416 Rem. Mag. Bigger isn't Better
George's rifle and cartridge know-how, along with his experience guiding hunters, put him in the unique position to observe not only how different calibers performed on big game but also how different rifles and calibers affected the performance of his clients. And what he saw, he didn't always like. In his memoir A Country Boy in Africa, he reckons that even the relatively mild-mannered .338 Win. Mag. is more gun than many hunters can shoot well and recommends the .30/06 as "a good all-around choice." I expect he and Lyell have found much to agree upon as they sit around that big campfire in the sky. As for myself, I come down a cowardly foursquare in the middle of the 
little-versus-big debate. One reason is that I have become increasingly sissified regarding recoil in recent years, having had a number of hard-shooting pals suffer torn or detached retinas. On my last three safaris, I've taken only one rifle with me: a .30/06 on one and a 7x57 Mauser on the other two. The supposedly tough-to-kill game I shot with them could not have been done asunder any quicker if poleaxed by a .600 Nitro. But to be candid, if I were ever to hunt elephant again, I'd take along a gorgeous Westley Richards drop-lock double rifle that followed me home only a week before writing this. Not because the big slugs from its paired muzzles would kill a tusker any deader than my hunting pal Fred Huntington did with his .300 Win. Mag. bolt rifle, but as a tribute to hunters who took big rifles to the plains and forests of Africa a century ago and before, and perhaps to be remembered as a bit player on the great stage of Africa before its final curtain falls.
Jim Carmichel