Gentle Rifles For Africa?

By Wayne van Zwoll

Dozens of recoil-sensitive hunters return from safaris with the same verdict on rifles and tough game.

When Hemingway and Ruark brought Africa to the page, you’d have taken two or three rifles on safari. A heavy double or bolt-action, perhaps in .500 NE or .416 Rigby, would have seen action only on “big game.” You’d probably have carried a medium-bore bolt rifle, say, a .375, less than your lightweight, scoped 7mm or .30-bore.

These days, few hunters bring three rifles. Doubles are frightfully expensive; bolt rifles dominate for big game. With modern loads, the .375 (in many places the legal minimum for thick-skinned animals) has become a popular “heavy” round. For plains game, you don’t need that horsepower.

Having visited Africa 20 times, I agree with hunters of greater experience that some animals there can be hard to kill. But tenacity is not a function of place; North America has tough animals too. Genetics play into an animal’s ability to endure. So does adrenaline. Gemsbok can take extraordinary punishment, so too blue wildebeest. Pursuit ups the ante, as the will to survive kicks in. But accurate shots always kill.

Gemsbok are tough, but this one folded to a well-placed shot from Cristi’s .308, a Weatherby Camilla.-Wayne van Zwoll

Over the past 13 years I’ve hosted groups of women on their first African hunts, under my High Country Adventures shingle. “Safari Sisters” who otherwise might never afford such a trip learn of the role of hunting in wildlife conservation. Many “discover” hunting and return as enthusiastic ambassadors.

These safari-bound women include some who’ve never fired a rifle. What to use? “A scoped deer rifle works fine,” they’re told. “If you don’t have a rifle, we’ll provide one.” Usually it’s a .308 or a .270.

Is that really enough? Yes. A chest or shoulder hit with those rounds will kill gemsbok and other heavy antelopes as surely as it will deer or elk. To ensure a well-placed shot, Safari Sisters stalk to within 200 yards – and closer. In open country, some sneaks fail. But that’s hunting! The .260, .270 and 7mm-08 routinely drop hardy wildebeest and gemsbok bulls.

Cartridges like the .270 excel on plains game. Safari Sisters also use the .260, 7mm-08, .308, .30-06.-Wayne van Zwoll

Amber brought her 7mm-08, a family gift for the safari. With us, she refined the zero over sticks at paper targets. Her chance at a big warthog required quick shooting. She hit the animal quartering away. It ran just a few yards; but wisely, Amber approached with caution to finish it.

Amber took this tenacious – and trophy-class – warthog with a 7mm-08. Pigs don’t get any tougher!-Wayne van Zwoll

Though a wildlife biologist by profession, Leslie had never shot an animal. Her first kill came at dusk on the hem of thick bush. Suddenly a huge kudu bull ghosted into a gap. Offhand, from sticks, she triggered the .270. The bull leaped, scrambled, and nosed into the sand.

Our youngest Safari Sister, Thea, was slight of build, so borrowed a .270 with a suppressor. She took three animals with three shots, including a fine kudu and a tough blue wildebeest. Her one-shot-kill record was matched by Cathy with a .30-06 and Sara with her .260.

Thea downed this fine kudu with one bullet from a suppressed .270. Gentle recoil! Precise shooting!-Wayne van Zwoll

Tamar liked Africa so much after her first HCA Safari, she’s returned four times, last year taking her husband and son on their first safari. She’s carried her Kimber rifles in .270 and .308 for all the game she’s taken, including an eland that approached a ton in weight.

Lightweight, light-recoiling rifles help hunters get close and fire without flinching. Center hits result!-Wayne van Zwoll

Lightweight, light-recoiling rifles help hunters get close and fire without flinching. Center hits result!These women have in common what most men share but won’t admit: an aversion to recoil. The blast and thrust of a powerful rifle causes flinching. Though I’ve fired rounds as violent as the .338/378 Weatherby and .505 Gibbs from unbraked rifles, I don’t like recoil! No matter your physical build or will to resist flinching, recoil induces reactions you can’t fully erase.

A last-day prize! Emily’s magnificent Namibian kudu fell to a .270 bullet from a Browning rifle.-Wayne van Zwoll

Because they favor rifles gentle in recoil, Safari Sisters can fire without flinching. And they send bullets through the vitals.

W.D.M. Bell, who famously killed elephants by surgically directing bullets from the likes of the 7×57 and .303 British, would have understood – and applauded!

Wayne Van Zwoll
Journalist, Gun Writer
The Outdoor Line 
710 ESPN Seattle

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Making Lightweight Hunting Rifles Behave

By Wayne Van Zwoll

If your bullets wander about the target, and game inexplicably runs off, maybe you lack ounces.

The lure of the lightweight: comfort on the trail, speed for the shot. Note hand well ahead on for end. Photo by Wayne Van Zwoll

The lighter your burden, the more you enjoy walking, climbing, hunting. Many early bolt-action hunting rifles weighed over 8 pounds. In the 1950s Winchester introduced its Featherweight Model 70 at 6 ¾ pounds. Now 6-pound rifles are common. Kimber’s walnut-stocked 84M weighs 5 ¾ pounds and its Montana 5 ¼ pounds. The Adirondack and Mountain Ascent scale just 4 ¾ pounds. Yes, these last three wear carbon-fiber stocks.

Weights bump up for longer actions and barrels. But Kimbers aren’t skeletonized or stubby. They look good and balance well. In my experience, they shoot well too, if shot properly. But any rifle becomes less manageable as you pare ounces. That’s because mass reduces the bounce of your pulse and twitching muscles as you aim, the nudge of your hand and shoulder and trigger finger as you fire. Trigger resistance compounds the problem. The heavier the trigger, the more muscle you must tap, and the more movement you’ll see in the sight. Recently I fired a 6-pound rifle whose trigger broke at 6 ½ pounds. The muscle required to loose a shot was sure to move the rifle off target first! Such imbalance is woefully common in handguns.

Stiff triggers handicap lightweight rifles. Adjust so break weight is a small percentage of rifle weight. Photo by Wayne Van Zwoll

I’m not in the camp that insists lightweight rifles require special shooting technique. Still, from the bench some rifles perform best when left to recoil freely, while others excel with hand pressure on the forend or even down on the scope. These “preferences” seem to depend as much on bedding as on rifle weight or barrel diameter. By the way, barrel stiffness, has greater effect on group size than does its mass. A short, relatively slim barrel can be stiffer than a long heavy one. A Remington XP-100 pistol was one of the most inherently accurate guns I’ve yet fired. Very little flex in its .17 barrel!

Of course, accuracy is most closely tied to the quality of the bore.

At the bench with a lightweight rifle, I make sure the front rest contacts the forend adequately. On a hard rest, a slim, rounded forend has essentially single-point contact. I prefer a soft rest that better limits bounce. A bit of side support helps steady the rifle. Often I pull the front of the forend down into the rest while aiming. I also use a toe rest. My trigger hand grasps the rifle firmly, tugging it into my shoulder and against my cheek. Without firm support front, rear and center, a lightweight rifle will almost surely move as you press the trigger. To deliver tight groups, all rifles must be held the same way each shot, no matter your shooting style. A lightweight rifle is more sensitive to slight changes in technique.

On the bench or prone, use a toe bag. Or as here, grasp the toe to steady it. Note supporting cheek pad. Photo by Wayne Van Zwoll

Do lightweight barrels heat faster? Well, their reaction to heat is often quicker and more evident than that of heavier barrels. A given bullet at a given speed imposes on a given bore a measure of friction. Thick barrel walls act as heat sinks, and their stiffness resists the bending and lengthening that can change the impact points of subsequent bullets. Still, the value of a lightweight hunting rifle has little to do with the size of warm-barrel groups.

Wayne Van Zwoll
Journalist, Gun Writer
The Outdoor Line
710 ESPN Seattle

EXO Mountain Gear Backcountry Hunting Packs - Boise, Idaho