Many books have been written about which rifles to bring along on an African safari. I will attempt to uncomplicated the discussion and give you some practical advice based on my experience in Africa and the research that I have done on this subject.
The traditional African safari from past years was generally longer ( 3 to 4 weeks or more ), allowed for the taking of dozens of different species and generally included several of the big five animals. Those safaris called for a three rifle battery and were generally composed of a light, medium and heavy rifle to allow for the taking of everything from the small duiker to trophy bull elephants.
Those types of extended safaris are pretty much a thing of the past; although you may still l take three buffalo, a lion, a leopard, and two each of the more common plains game species and one each of the rarer antelopes on a 21 day Tanzanian safari. Three week safaris still exist, but are generally becoming more specialized hunts such as a hunt for a trophy bull elephant that may also include a buffalo and several plains game species.
Big 5 hunts have become more of a single or dual purpose endeavor and depending on which of these dangerous game species are targeted, require a different approach to choosing the relevant firearms.
The typical safari today is of approximately a 10 day duration, may include a buffalo, and 5–10 plains game species. Whether you will be hunting big game during this safari determines how your selection of rifles should be made. I will try to provide you with general guidelines below based on your targeted species. When in doubt, contact the PH you will be hunting with and ask for his advice. He will have likely watched the performance of hundreds of hunters shooting various calibers under typical conditions for the area you will be hunting and will certainly be able to advise you accordingly. My recommendations are as follows:
375 is the minimum caliber that may legally be used, but you should use the heaviest caliber that you can shoot comfortably. Calibers of .450 and above are recommended for these beasts! Only solid bullets should be used for elephant hunting!
Again, 375 H&H is the minimum caliber that should be used. Larger calibers such as the .416 or .450 calibers are better, as the rhino’s skin is incredibly thick! Only good quality solid bullets should be used for rhinoceros hunting!
The minimum caliber that should be used for lion hunting is .338, but in many countries the law sets the minimum at .375 calibers. A .375 or a .416 are good choices for hunting the king of the jungle! Good quality softpoint bullets that will expand rather quickly are the bullet of choice for lion hunting. A good scope is essential for many of the low light shots that occur over bait when lion hunting. Follow-up of a wounded lion is a different story. Calibers heavier than .400 are recommended and you may notice that your PH will likely have an express sighted heavy caliber double barrel as his weapon of choice for backup.
Again, .375 is the minimum set by law in several African countries. A .375 or .416 is the recommended caliber for leopard. There are two schools of thought when it comes to leopard hunting bullet selection. One school sides with using a light and fragile bullet so as to quickly dissipate energy into the leopard and dispatch him via hydrostatic shock. The other school thinks that a solid should be used to minimize the damage done to the leopards beautiful but rather short haired skin. Either way, a good shot is called for in typically low-light conditions. A good scope with a readily discernable reticle or lighted reticle is preferred for these difficult shots. Nobody wants to experience tracking a wounded leopard in tall grass at night. Or even in the daytime, for that matter!
The .375 H&H is the minimum caliber that is allowed for buffalo hunting. A better choice is the .416 or larger. Proper caliber and double vs. bolt has been and will continue to be the source of many campfire debates. One thing you can be sure of. When “black death” erupts from the nearby bush and is headed your way, you will want the largest caliber that you can comfortably shoot. Many buffalo hunts have ended with the buffalo dropping immediately in front of you, almost within reach. You cannot have too much stopping power in this circumstance! Whether your rifle has a scope or not should be dictated by the density of the terrain that most of your hunt will occur in. Ask your PH for his recommendation on whether to use a scope or not. Most will advise using the scope, as there is nothing like a well-placed lethal first shot when buffalo hunting. My 44” SCI top 100 buffalo was initially shot at 250 yards with a .375 H&H. His final breaths came while inhaling a barrage of .416 and .458 bullets at close range. Having the ability to switch from a scoped rifle to open sights for the follow-up is priceless! Buffalo hunting bullet choice should consist of heavy grained solids!
My Cape Buffalo taken in Zimbabwe near Kruger
This type of hunt calls for the modern day “classic” 2 rifle battery. The large rifle should be a minimum of .375 or larger. This rifle will also serve as your firearm of choice should you decide to take an eland, giraffe, or other large bodied animal. Your smaller rifle could consist of anything from a .270 to a .300 Winchester Magnum. The .300 Win Mag or your trusty 30/06 will take all of the other animals. If you are not taking the larger bodied plains game on this safari, your .270 or 7 mm deer rifle will suffice. This second rifle should have a good quality scope on it.
The two rifle battery for this hunt is similar to the buffalo hunt combo battery, but the larger rifle can be a 30/06 or a 300 caliber firearm. The smaller rifle can then consist of your favorite deer rifle such as a .270 or 7mm. You do not necessarily have to take two rifles to Africa. One rifle will suffice if necessary. If shooting larger plains game such as eland or sitatungua your rifle should be a minimum of .300 caliber. The 300 Win Mag is ideal if you are hunting plains game that includes the larger animals and are only taking one rifle.
If I was going after buffalo and plains game and could only take 1 rifle, it would be the 375 H&H. This rifle will suffice for most big game hunts including buffalo, will take all of the large and medium plains game and by shooting solids you can take the smaller duikers and antelopes. Solids for many of the common deer rifle calibers used in the US are almost impossible to find and require hand loading to get an adequate supply of them. While trying to get a black-backed jackal to mount, I have blown large holes in several specimens and the next shot I take will be with a scoped 375 shooting solids!
If you choose not to travel to Africa with firearms, most outfitters offer the use of rental rifles and shotguns for a fee of $20-$35/day. My experience has been that the quality of these rifles (especially the scopes) varies greatly. If you are big game hunting, your odds of getting a better rifle/scope combination go up significantly, as the PH will have to deal with any wounded dangerous game situations. Your best bet is to carefully question them as to the availability and condition of rental firearms before you decide whether to take your own. Don’t let the lack of a firearm keep you from hunting in Africa! Ammunition is expensive in Africa and don’t be surprised if you are charged $2-$3/bullet in South Africa and significantly more in the other African countries. And be sure to sight in the rifles you will be using prior to hunting with it. In Africa, IF YOU WOUND IT, YOU OWN IT and will have to pay any associated trophy fees.
Always sight in your firearm before hunting with it! Don’t take the PH’s word that it was just used yesterday. By doing this, you will have the confidence to make that good first shot that will start your safari on the right foot. Would you rather spend your afternoon searching for another trophy or following a wounded animal for miles? Your tracker’s skills are extraordinary, but your chance to observe him at work will come soon enough!
You should spend time at the range before departing for Africa. Make sure your rifles are sighted in and that all parts are functioning. Clean the barrels and then fire a fouling shot or two before packing it for the trip. Several of your shots in Africa may be made using shooting sticks. If possible, try to practice shooting off of sticks before you depart for Africa. You will be much more confident when the PH spreads the sticks and motions for you to take the shot. You may find yourself integrating them into your hunting techniques back home. They increase your accuracy over shooting freehand significantly.