We American riflemen (and women) traditionally crave velocity…whether we need it or not. There’s a long-standing belief among African hunters, not just professionals, but experienced sport hunters, and meat hunters, that performance on game is actually better at moderate velocities.
It’s obvious that, given equal bullet aerodynamics, higher velocity flattens trajectories, and also increases energy yield. The “extreme range” fad, primarily (but not exclusively) an American phenomenon, generally adds to the thirst for speed. With the amazing array of great modern hunting bullets that we have today, I’m not convinced that performance is “better” at lower velocities, although bullets may perform more consistently. For sure, higher velocities increase recoil and muzzle blast. And, despite all the hype, not everybody shoots at long range.
Shooting game at seriously long distances is frowned on in Africa, where making a careful stalk to close or moderate range is considered part of the art. Also, from a purely practical standpoint, the standard rule in Africa is one drop of blood equals a license filled and a trophy fee payable. So, it behooves one to get close enough to be sure of the shot!
Even so, over the past 40 years the “light rifle” in my African battery has often been a fast cartridge with significant ranging ability…whether I needed the capability or not. Favorite choices have been fast 7mms and .30-caliber magnums, and a few times a 6.5mm or 8mm magnum. I’ve also often used the .270 Winchester and .30-06, both with consistently excellent results. Neither of these old-timers are considered “fast magnums”—but they cannot be considered “slow.”
I just got back from a two-week hunt in northwestern Namibia’s Kaokoland with Jamy Traut, followed by a few days near Kimberley in South Africa’s Northern Cape with Mike Birch. Both areas are fairly open, where visibility is good and long shooting is certainly possible. Interestingly, we didn’t have any fast magnums…and the most recent cartridge in use was a .270 Winchester (1925), in Jamy’s “camp rifle” in case we needed a spare. The other three cartridges in use were older and slower.
In Namibia I accompanied Dan Baker and Gladys Taggart, who had purchased Jamy’s donated safari at the SCI auction in Reno. They shared a gorgeous .275 Rigby on the pattern of Jim Corbett’s famous .275, except Dan’s rifle was magnificently engraved and was topped with a
Swarovski V6 2-12X scope. .275 Rigby is the British designation for 7×57 Mauser, introduced in 1892; John Rigby “anglicized” it to .275 Rigby in 1899, but the .275 Rigby and 7×57 Mauser are identical and completely interchangeable. Dan and Gladys were using Norma’s 156-grain Oryx bonded-core 7×57 load, velocity about 2500 fps.
I brought a Montana Rifles Model 99 in 9.3x62mm Mauser, topped with a Leupold 1.75-6X scope. The 9.3x62mm is another classic Mauser cartridge introduced in 1905, with similar case dimensions to the .30-06 necked up to 9.3mm. The 9.3mm, caliber .366, is the European equivalent to the .375, still popular in Africa and widely used for driven boar in Europe. The traditional bullet weight is 286 grains, but I was using Hornady’s 250-grain GMX homogenous-alloy bullet, a bit faster at about 2500 fps.
My South African stopover was short, really just a visit. I still had my 9.3×62 and used it, but Mike needed to do some culling, so he had a favorite “camp rifle” on hand: A Sako in 6.5×55 Swedish Mauser. Adopted by the Swedish military in 1894, the 6.5×55 is very similar to the currently popular
6.5mm Creedmoor in ballistics, although it pre-dates the Creedmoor by 114 years. Mike was also using a very modern 6.5×55 load, a 140-grain Nosler AccuBond at 2660 fps.
Jamy had a couple of young American interns in camp, recent college graduates in hard science disciplines, who had never hunted. We took them to the range with Jamy’s .270, which had a suppressor to reduce recoil and blast. They caught on fast, at the time I departed each had taken zebras with the .270 using Hornady’s 140-grain American Whitetail load…no problem. Among the three older cartridges I think about 15 animals were taken, an eclectic mix of gemsbok, hartebeest, kudu, springbok, warthog, and zebra.
A couple of animals required follow-up shots that might not have been necessary. Only one, a zebra I shot with the 9.3mm, required tracking. In my defense, the animal took a step as the shot went and I knew the hit was a bit far back. It was, but the big bullet exited and we followed a clear trail for a couple hundred yards and found it dead. All other animals were either down on the spot or went down in sight.
Since the Namibian hunt was Dan and Gladys’s safari, the majority of this work was done with the .275 Rigby. Southern Africa, especially Namibia, is hard-hit by drought this year, so country that’s normally fairly open was wide-open: There was no “long grass,” and flats that are normally grassy looked like the Sahara instead of the Serengeti. With minimal vegetation stalking was difficult, but both areas have lots of rocky hills, ideal for glassing but also good for stalking.
As always, what constitutes “short” or “long” depends on one’s perspective. We did no long shooting at all, but due to lack of cover close shots were hard to come by. I’d call most of our shots “medium,” from 150 yards to 300 yards. All three “old and slow” cartridges proved perfectly capable for such shooting: On pronghorn-sized springbok, where precision is essential; and on large, tough animals like zebra, where shot placement and penetration come to the fore.
One of the longest and most difficult shots was on an unusually big-bodied gemsbok bull, 250 yards in a vicious crosswind, made with the 6.5×55 by 13-year-old Kayleigh Birch, her first gemsbok, anchored nicely on the spot.
Perhaps the prettiest shot was made by Gladys Taggart on a mountain zebra one afternoon just past sunset. Zebras are large, heavy, and tough; taking a zebra at last light is worrisome, but on that afternoon, we badly needed a zebra for leopard bait, and that was our chance. The shot was about 200 yards, facing, always a tough shot off sticks. Gladys was sure…and the little .275 Rigby dropped it in its tracks. Straight down!
As with the tortoise and the hare, the race isn’t always to the swift! Velocity isn’t a bad thing, but shot placement and bullet performance are more important. Those same African hunters who believe in moderate velocities also tend to believe in bullet weight, which sacrifices speed, but also enhances penetration. This is mitigated by bullet design, but all of the bullets we used were fairly heavy: By definition a 140-grain 6.5mm bullet, whether in the old 6.5×55 or new Creedmoor, is fairly heavy for caliber. A 140-grain .270 bullet is at least “medium,” likewise a 140-grain 7mm bullet. Today the 7×57 (.275 Rigby) is fairly standard with a 140-grain bullet.
That’s the bullet weight I usually use in my 7x57s and I would have had no qualms about using the 140-grain load on any shot taken on this safari. Even so, I was very impressed by the performance of the heavier 156-grain bullet on zebras and larger antelopes. A difference of 16 grains in bullet weight is a ten percent increase and the effects were noticeable. As for my 9.3×62, well, it isn’t fast, but that’s a big, heavy bullet with a lot of frontal area, a horse of a different color. I have yet to recover one of those 250-grain GMX bullets.
A dozen or so animals proves absolutely nothing. However, mild, soft-recoiling cartridges like those we used have been performing well for generations—and with modern bullets, they perform even better. Velocity is fine if you need it. On this safari—and in many hunting situations—you don’t need to reach out. There are similar modern cartridges that are equally effective, including 6.5mm Creedmoor and 7mm-08 Remington…but the old classics still work just fine!