Big Bore Hunting Cartridges for the Biggest Wild Game
August 28, 2018
When it comes to hunting truly big game — game that can and will turn the tables and make you the hunted instead of the hunter — a cartridge of suitable size and power is most certainly called for. While the "standard" calibers — especially with modern bullets — can handle 90 percent or more of the world's game, these cartridges are usually reserved for the big beasts. Whether it's the buffalo, elephant and hippo of Africa, Australia's banteng and water buffalo, or the giant brown bears of the north, a worthy cartridge is like a good insurance policy. Let's take a look at some of the big guys and their performance.
Considering that most African nations have established the .375-inch bore diameter as a minimum for the big guys, we'll start there and go up in size.
The .375 Holland & Holland Belted Magnum was released in 1912, and though it wasn't the first .375 to hit the market, it did set the bar for the caliber. Driving a 300-grain bullet to a muzzle velocity just north of 2,500 fps, the .375 H&H offered a wonderful blend of striking power, penetration and moderate recoil. Lighter bullets were made available for hunting smaller game, and they certainly work fine for deer, impala, kudu, elk and the like. But the .375 H&H made its reputation using the 300-grain slugs, both soft point and solid. It will handle the African elephant — both Harry Manners and Wally Johnson used it to rack up some impressive totals — and it may be just about perfect for lion and large brown bear. It does require a magnum-length action, but that's not a problem. Looking at the ballistic performance of the .375 H&H, you'll find a trajectory highly reminiscent of the .30-06 Springfield, especially with some of the modern bullet developments. For a hunter looking to expand his or her rifle collection, wanting a cartridge that will mate up well with a .300 Magnum, .30-06 or 7mm, I'd highly recommend the .375 H&H as the bigger version of the "all-around" cartridge. Bullets from 235 grains to 350 grains are readily available, and the cartridge is extremely versatile.
Just over a decade ago, Ruger and Hornady teamed up to create the ballistic twin of the H&H design, one that would fit well in the long-action rifles. The .375 Ruger uses the same case head diameter as the .375 H&H, looses the belt, and uses a wider body to keep the case capacity in the same ballpark as the H&H design. The exterior ballistics are virtually identical, and anything that can be said about the .375 H&H can be said about the .375 Ruger, minus the nostalgia.
Weatherby offers a couple cartridges in this bore diameter, and both are faster than the H&H velocity. The .375 Weatherby is essentially a .375 Improved, but with the trademark Weatherby double radius shoulder. The .375 Weatherby has a muzzle velocity of 2,800 fps with the 300-grain bullets, but that most definitely comes with additional recoil. The .378 Weatherby is a different animal altogether, and will really get those 300-grain slugs moving, driving them to a muzzle velocity of 2,950 fps. I have heard the recoil of the .378 Weatherby Magnum described as "soul crushing," and I'm not one to argue with that statement. This one is definitely not for the faint of heart.
Sliding up the scale to the .410/.411-inch bore diameter, we find a couple of choices. The .405 Winchester was one of Teddy Roosevelt's favorites, one he called his "medicine gun for lions" while on his famous safari across East Africa. A rimmed, straight-walled cartridge, the .405 was introduced in the Model 1895 Winchester, though the Ruger No. 1 has been offered in .405 as well. It has been used to take the tough Cape buffalo, with good success, but I personally feel there are better choices. One caveat regarding the .405 Winchester: it was, and is, designed for a 300-grain bullet at a muzzle velocity of 2,200 fps, and that bullet has a relatively low Sectional Density (.252), so please be aware that can have a significant effect on penetration.
The .450/400 3-inch Nitro Express (or .400 Jeffery) was introduced in 1902 and was an update of the blackpowder .450/400 3 ¼-inch cartridge. Driving a 400-grain bullet to a muzzle velocity of 2,125 fps, the .450/400 3-inch immediately gained an excellent reputation, as it could be housed in a lightweight double rifle, offering low recoil and a quick second shot. It's a neat, rimmed, bottle-neck cartridge, which slides into the chambers of a double rifle like they were greased. Though the muzzle velocity may be rather sedate in comparison to some cartridges, the .450/400 3-inch is a wonderful cartridge for buffalo — I took one in Mozambique in a trim Heym 89B double — and even for elephant.
John Rigby & Company introduced the .416 Rigby in 1911, as an all-around choice for big game hunting, and what an excellent design it is. Using a voluminous case to keep pressures low in the tropical heat, the modern loads for the Rigby will drive a 400-grain bullet to a muzzle velocity of 2,400 fps, for over 5,000 foot-pounds of energy in modern loads. The high Sectional Density of the 400-grain slugs gives phenomenal penetration, and over a century later, the .416 Rigby is perfectly suited to any game animal on earth.
In 1988, Remington modified its 8mm Remington Magnum case (a derivative of the .375 H&H case) to hold .416" diameter bullets, resulting in the .416 Remington Magnum. Though the case is nearly identical (though not interchangeable) with the wildcat .416 Hoffman, the .416 Remington Magnum is the ballistic twin of the .416 Rigby, albeit at a higher pressure. The belted case takes up less room in the magazine, and is a bit more affordable than the Rigby variant, but no game animal would ever know the difference between the two. I've used it to cleanly take Cape buffalo, with rather impressive results.
Two decades later, Ruger added its own .416 to the mix, necking the .375 Ruger up to .416, for Rigby performance from a long-action receiver. Housed in their Ruger Hawkeye African rifle, the .416 Ruger makes a good choice for the budget-minded hunter who wants the excellent performance of the 400-grain .416 bullets in a handy rifle.
The .416 Weatherby Magnum bumps up the muzzle velocity about 300 fps over the trio I've just mentioned. Introduced in 1989 — there was a definite resurgence of the 416s in the late 80s — the huge Weatherby case launches a 400-grain bullet at a whopping 2,700 fps, with recoil to let you know you're alive. If you like fast, and you enjoy heave bullets, the .416 Weatherby may be for you.
The .404 Jeffery
This one is a particular favorite of mine, as it blends classic Africana with a slick-feeding, hard hitting cartridge. While Robert Ruark made the .416 Rigby famous in the hands of Harry Selby in his "Horn of the Hunter," it was the .404 Jeffery that did the lion's share of the work in the hands of numerous Game Departments across Africa. The original loads pushed a .423-inch diameter bullet at 2,150 fps — mimicking the .450/400 3-inch performance level — for a cartridge fully capable of doing elephant control work, yet in a package that was relatively easy on the shoulder. Modern loads will drive the same 400-grainer to 2,350 fps, putting this cartridge in the same realm as the 416s; my own favorite handloads run at a muzzle velocity of 2,280 fps, and in my Heym Express bolt-action rifle, it's one of my favorite rifle/cartridge combinations ever. Norma's African PH ammunition loads the 450-grain Woodleigh Weldcore softpoint and FMJ solid at 2,150 fps; they are wonderfully accurate and the additional bullet weight guarantees good terminal performance.
Now, we're getting into the realm of the true stopping rifles. John Rigby & Co. released the .450 Nitro Express in 1898, to improve the performance of the old .450 Black Powder Express by using modern, smokeless powder. It worked so well it became the standard for large game, including both African and Asian elephants, buffalo, tigers, lions, and rhinoceros. Using a rimmed, 3 ¼-inch straight-wall case, the .450 Nitro Express sent a 480-grain .458-inch diameter bullet at a muzzle velocity of 2,150 fps. It made the professional ivory hunters very happy, as well as the visiting sportsmen. It was at the top of the heap, until insurrections in both India and Sudan resulted in the English ban of all .45 caliber ammunition, resulting in the development of many replacement cartridges, but more about that in a minute.
After WWII, when the supplies of British ammunition began to dry up, Winchester saw an opportunity to fill the void, introducing their .458 Winchester Magnum in 1956. It was a straight-walled case based on a shortened .375 H&H Magnum, driving a 500-grain bullet at an advertized velocity of 2,150 fps, matching the ballistics of the .450 Nitro. Initially, the velocities didn't make that figure, and many hunters complained of a lack in terminal performance. Things have been ironed out, and the modern loads for the .458 Winchester Magnum operate as they were designed to.
Jack Lott's experiences with the .458 Winchester Magnum in Mozambique in 1959 left him wanting more, as a Cape buffalo roughed him up a bit. He looked to improve the performance of the .458 Winchester, and his .458 Lott did just that. Where the Winchester cartridge uses a 2.500" case, Lott used the .375 H&H-length 2.850-inch case for additional powder capacity, and it obtains a muzzle velocity of 2,300 fps with the 500-grain bullets. It makes a great all-around dangerous game cartridge.
Weatherby also entered the .458 game in 1957, with their .460 Weatherby Magnum. Necking up the .378 Weatherby to hold .458-inch bullets, Weatherby surpassed the energy figures of the largest cartridges, to create the most powerful cartridge of all. It drives a 500-grain bullet to 2,600 fps, for over 7,500 ft.-lbs. of energy.
Into this mix — especially for North American hunting — we should include the .45-70 Government and the .450 Marlin Express. The .45-70 dates back to 1873, and while it is loaded to appreciable velocities in the modern, strong actions, the case itself is rather thin. The 400-grain bullets can be pushed to 1,900 or even 2,000 fps in modern loads, making it a good choice for the North American heavyweights, namely the brown bear and bison. Released in 2000, the .450 Marlin was developed by Hornady to offer the ballistics of the hottest .45-70 loads, but in a belted cartridge that would feed easier than the rimmed .45-70. It wasn't a huge success, but the design is sound.
Back to that British ammo ban in the early 20th century, many of the cartridges for double rifles saw the light of day because of the scramble to fill the void left by the .450 Nitro Express. The .475 NE. the .475 No. 2 Jeffery, and most importantly, Joseph Lang's .470 Nitro Express, were brought about as a result of the ammo ban. They all essentially replicate the .450 NE's ballistic formula of a 500-grain bullet at 2,150 fps. The .470 NE, while no better or worse than the .450 NE (it offers a bigger frontal diameter, yet less Sectional Density), was put into production again in the late 1980s by Federal Premium, cementing its place as the most popular of the double rifle cartridges. The .470 is one of my favorites, and it works perfectly. The bottle-necked, rimmed 3 ¼-inch case will achieve the magical velocity of 2,150 fps, and among the bigger cartridges, the recoil poses no problem, especially in the 10- to 11-pound double rifles.
When you cross the .500-caliber line, things rapidly change. The .500 Nitro Express offers plenty of stopping power, driving a 570-grain bullet to 2,150 fps for over 5,800 ft.-lbs. of energy. The .500 Jeffery drives that 570-grain bullet to 2,300 fps, and it was — until the advent of the .460 Weatherby — the most powerful shoulder-fired rifle cartridge. It uses a rebated rim (it needed to fit on a 98 Mauser bolt face), and kicks like the hammers of hell, but it stops things, all things, anywhere. Both the .500 NE and .500 Jeffery use a .510-inch diameter bullet. The .505 Gibbs Magnum, with its huge case, was introduced by George Gibbs in 1911. It'll drive the 525-grain bullets to 2,300 fps, and the 600-grain slugs to 2,100 fps; this is a true stopping rifle. While there are some hunters that enjoy hunting with these .500s, but often they are reserved for the Professional Hunters who need to pursue wounded game at very close distances.
If you're in the market for one of these cartridges, test a few of them to find your own personal recoil limit. It is imperative that you shoot your big bore rifle accurately and without a flinch, so it's one of those situations where being honest with yourself will result in a happier — and safer — hunting experience. The good thing is that with the developments in modern bullets, many of the cartridges will perform much better than when they were first released. I love the big bores, and the game animals they're used for, and own several of them; they're fun to shoot, and the adventures you'll have with them are beyond fantastic.