This very topic came under discussion once at an AIM Show some years ago when a hunter told me about his custom-built rifle. Even when his decision to have a custom rifle built was conceived, his mind was made up that it would be in a true South African calibre. But prior to actually suit the action to the word, he spent many hours contemplating what a true South African hunting calibre would be.
This discussion made me realise that I was not the only one with a desire to continue hunting in the spirit of bygone eras. Owning and shooting a rifle chambered for a cartridge that represents a particular era in Africa’s hunting history offers a certain fulfilment (for lack of a better word), which is hard to explain to an “unbeliever”. In a piece titled African Plains Game Rifles Cameron Hopkins wrote the following:
“African rifles are more than just wood and steel. The genre is rich in romance, tradition and history including the several important milestones of firearms developments.”
With an avid interest in cartridges, I gave this very issue much thought over the years since the conversation with that hunter. Quite a few cartridges stand in line for this sometimes sought-after title and quite a few hunters out there would try to fabricate a reason why his favourite calibre is a real representative of the classic African era.
How would one come to an honest decision without pondering on your favourites and in the process, try to manufacture justification to bestow upon it the “title”? I don’t think one can start anywhere else but with obvious favourites as a launching platform. But expect your blood pressure to roller-coast through these opinions of an ardent student of hunting cartridges, a strong sentimentalist and a hopeless romantic.
In the end I put together a few requisites that would help me to scrutinise and eventually distinguish the best contenders to the point of being able to arrive at a final conclusion:
- Obvious favourites during their time
- Reason for conception
- Its African (hunting) history
- Continuous application in the field
In a struggle of mixing and matching abovementioned guidelines I came up with “finalist” cartridges that comply favourably with the abovementioned prerequisites. It was difficult enough to reach these conclusions without even mentioning other great cartridges such as the several 6.5mm cartridges, .300 H&H, .577 Martini Henry or any other big bore for that matter. As a rule, when “classic Africa” is contemplated, some would get stuck on so-called “big bore” cartridges. Such a notion is just plain unfair. What is worse is that each cartridge deserves its own chapter but in this instance each one can only be afforded a few paragraphs of harsh screening at most and together share a chapter.
In order to save space I purposefully steer clear of discussing stereotypical technical comparisons and let circumstantial evidence decide.
.22 Long Rifle
For no apparent reason I am starting with one of my all-time favourites that will forever hold a special place in many an old-timer’s heart – the .22 Long Rifle. Largely considered a midget amongst giants by today’s standards, I wonder if there is anyone who would not remember the “two-two” (pronounced “tu-tu”, exactly like the famous archbishop’s name).
During the Second World War the “two-two” was one of the only legal rifles that South African citizens were allowed to own besides the 12ga shotgun. Many animals were dispatched with this underestimated little giant, from snakes, vermin, sheep and cattle to the old farm dog who had reached the end of its life. Of course it was also used to hunt game animals for biltong. Stories and reminiscences of the legendary “saloon” in Africa abound.
Developed in America in 1887, it soon became a favourite all over the world. Many European arms manufacturers also built excellent .22 rifles. Germany even used .22 rifles for pre-war training. It has universal appeal and it just so happens to be a match cartridge par excellence and by these points alone, it sadly loses out on the upper ranks on the podium. However, it was only in Africa that it saw serious action at the extreme outer limits of the country’s frontiers where it performed tasks that are more suitable for much bigger cartridges. I would put it in third place though.
This brings me to the .303 British, yet another great old classic. Its African and especially its South African flavour is not to be doubted by anyone. There aren’t many South African hunters whose hunting careers were not shaped in some way or another by this cartridge. Many great hunters of yesteryear swore by this old favourite, men like PJ Schoeman, Harry Wolhuter, Stevenson Hamilton, Col Patterson and Dennis D Lyell, as did just about every old farmer/hunter and poacher out there.
In the olden days most farmers and hunters carried a “Lemetford”, “bulldog”, “poenskop” or “drie-nul-drie”. Except for some British sporting rifles back then, rifles in this cartridge were usually robust ex-military, affordable and ammunition was readily available. This is a cartridge that helped tame the African frontiers and I am sure no one will deny this. This is the very calibre that the hunter at the show chose for his custom rifle and a fine choice it was. However, it has a few factors counting against it as a contender for the true African classic.
Developed in 1887 as a military cartridge, it “intruded” African soil by force during the Second Boer War. It was later issued as the primary firearm to all British soldiers, game rangers and law officials in all their colonies worldwide, from India to Africa and from Canada and Australia. In Africa it started its life as a military cartridge and a very successful one at that. Taking into consideration its initial years, one realises that this cartridge, regarded by some as the “all-African”, was used to “hunt” and kill more African-born hunters on African soil than any other cartridge. Its rise to overwhelming fame was forced upon the rest of the contenders by political circumstances, which gave it an unfair advantage. These reasons disqualify it in the quest as the true African classic.
The Boer War rival of the .303 British is my personal favourite. Its African fame was conceived in the hands of Boers who also hunted the South African plains with it even during wartime. What little advantage it may have had over the .303 during the war was lost at the end of the war. Most 7×57 Mauser rifles were destroyed and/or taken as trophies and very few rifles actually survived for the 7mm to naturally develop as a hunting cartridge the way military cartridges tend to do. The 7mm had to build its hunting reputation in obscurity, one shot at a time. Due to political and diplomatic laws imposed on it after the war, it never had the wide distribution the .303 enjoyed but in the end it became a true legend in the African bush and it remains so until today.
The British firm Rigby adopted it in 1907 and with its new designation as the .275 Rigby for short it became a favourite sporting cartridge in English-built rifles used in Africa. It received its final endorsement by WDM Bell after he successfully hunted many elephant with it and wrote about it. Bell’s testimony was held against the 7mm by known gun writers of today but they could not damage its reputation one bit.
Although it is not a hot ballistic number by today’s standards, no one can deny its adequacy in just about anything you can throw at it. This insignificant little cartridge triggered the “velocity race” and lots of so-called “wildcat” cartridges have been derived from it since, with the 7mm Remington Magnum being the most successful. But Holland & Holland had beaten them all to it when they developed the .275 H&H in 1912 already, followed by Wilhelm Brennecke in 1917 with the very successful 7×64 Brennecke.
But it is by the handicap forced upon it alone that I consider the 7mm a true African contender, and a great one to boot. Unfortunately the primary reason for its initial conception in 1893 was not as a hunting cartridge but as a tool of war and it was no stranger to war by the time it reached African shores. By then the 7mm Mauser has already seen serious action in the Spanish American war during 1889. The world, especially the Americans, took serious notice of this cartridge at the Battle of San Juan on 1 July of that year when an unexpected number of American soldiers, 1 400 in all, died in a spate of 7mm carnage.
As my heart’s favourite it could step up and receive the honours but it grieves me to say that its military conception is sufficient reason for it not to be considered as the true African cartridge.
.350 Rigby and .318 Wesley Richards
Along with the .350 Rigby, the .318 Wesley Richards was fairly popular in the African veld since their conception in 1908 and 1910 respectively. Any custom rifle intended for African use chambered for any of these two excellent cartridges would be a mighty fine choice in the true African hunting spirit. Rumour has it that the “Buffalo hunter of Marromeu” in the former Portuguese East Africa, Gustave Guex, made extensive use of the .350 Rigby and literally killed thousands of buffalo with it.
While the .350 Rigby enjoyed a fair following in African colonies, it was popular in Asia too, while the .318 Wesley Richards was “made for Africa”. Because of this the .318 WR is the strongest candidate for the title. Known names like George Rushby and James Sutherland favoured this cartridge.
Both the .350 Rigby and .318 WR competed in the medium-calibre sector and apparently some hunters even preferred the .350 Rigby above its larger, younger cousin, the .375 H&H.
However, I believe that although bolt-action rifles were far less expensive than double rifles during their time, any British-made sporting rifle was intended for wealthier “sportsmen” who wanted to hunt in any of the British colonies. Less expensive European rifles in various European working calibres were more sought-after by poorer settler/farmer-hunters of the time, which limited the popularity of these two greats.
But in the end both the .318 and .350 would lose against their bigger cousin that was regarded by some as the “best all-round African cartridge”, namely, the .375 H&H. The post-Second World War era saw a lot of good cartridges being discontinued because of political and financial circumstances; that these two cartridges were amongst those, is really tragic. I believe there still are a few original rifles chambered in these two African calibres kept alive by collectors and enthusiasts today but sadly both these very fine African cartridges are regarded as obsolescent to the point of being obsolete. The .318 WR nevertheless gets second place because of its “made for Africa” credentials.
For their bigger H&H cousin though, the coin landed the right way up. The .375 H&H is an all-time favourite cartridge with many hunters since its introduction in 1912 as a proprietary cartridge and it complies with all my prerequisites. A lot of game of a “mixed bag”, big and small, fell before this one. Like its “lesser” cousins, it was initially built on Mauser actions by British manufacturers. Like its “lesser” cousins, it was also manufactured in more expensive rifles firing more expensive British ammunition. It was aimed at the wealthier “sportsman” market, making it more of a “sporting cartridge” than a “working cartridge”. Thus the .375 H&H was endorsed by many known sporting writers of the past and present, of which John Taylor is regarded as the most esteemed. Sadly this all resulted in this H&H being more of a “fashion statement” in the English-speaking world today rather than the excellent cartridge it was intended to be.
The .375 H&H was issued to game rangers in South African game departments, old-timers like André Engelbrecht and Pieter van der Hyde. While some honest old hands swore by it with the right ammunition, others regarded its performance as temperamental to the point of too much of a muchness, especially with soft-nosed bullets. Its fame also became its biggest downfall in the quest for being the true African cartridge because it was not developed for Africa only but was also widely used in all British colonies worldwide, including the USA and North America. When certain cartridges were being discontinued after the Second World War, the American firearms manufacturer Winchester “adopted” the .375 H&H, giving it a more American than African flavour. It soon lost its proprietary “status” and rifles were built by almost all known manufacturers in the USA and Europe and its ammunition was manufactured accordingly.
For me the most well-known hunter who favoured this cartridge was Harry Manners, an ivory hunter who used it extensively as a working cartridge. However, he did not use it with an original Holland & Holland rifle but with a Winchester rifle shooting only Winchester FMJ ammunition. It is hard for me to drop this true classic at this stage of the race but it is only by a razor’s margin.
7.9×57, 8×57 and 8×60 Mauser
Having mentioned the expensive British rifles I now come to some great Mauser cartridges with excellent African credentials. The 7.9×57, 8×57 and 8×60 are all rather unknown cartridges by today’s standards and very unfairly so because they are all truly fine working cartridges preferred by many pioneer farmers in numerous African countries. Developed as early as 1888, the 7.9 or “sewe-nege”, as it is more commonly known amongst older generations, was the pioneer amongst these three. The 7.9 and the 8mm being identical cartridges except for some small technical difference, their popularity is equally shared. Taken as trophies after the First World War it was even used in the USA. Many African farmer-hunters successfully used the 7.9, and in later years the 8mm, as hunting tools par excellence. Bell also used a 7.9 extensively, as did old-time lion slayer and Kruger Park ranger, Harry Kirkman, who also used it for elephant and lion control, which gives it good credibility. The 7.9/8mm handled whatever this Dark Continent could come up with and as working cartridges their history is hard to beat.
It was at the hands of a Boer hunter-cum-scout-cum-sniper with a 7.9×57 Mauser during the East African Campaign, that the famous FC Selous met his fate near the Rufiji River in German East Africa (now Tanzania). Although originally a military cartridge, this powerful piece of African history definitely tips the scale in its favour, giving it a special place on Africa’s hunting stage. However, with both being military cartridges that were used in two world wars, they were weighed in the balance and found wanting in our quest for the true cartridge for Africa.
The 7.9 and 8mm shared the same fate that the 7×57 Mauser suffered after the Boer War, as no ammunition was allowed to be manufactured for it after the First World War until the Second World War. This is where the 8×60 Mauser steps into the picture. As German hunters were not allowed to own rifles in the (military) 7.9×57 cartridge, many had the chambers of their rifles lengthened from 57 mm to 60 mm. Thus a truly great cartridge was born, one of my all-time favourites. Those who used this cartridge in Africa had nothing but praise for it and I know of no gun writer who can criticise it. As a true working cartridge on the South African frontiers, it was my father’s favourite too. He had successfully killed many game animals with it, including buffalo and lion. It never lacked sufficient power or penetration and he had nothing but praise for it. Having shot and killed thousands of animals during his career, I hold his opinion in high regard.
However, the 8×60 Mauser was most popular in former German colonies and surrounds and mostly used by Afrikaans-speaking farmer/hunters. Thus, its popularity was not as widespread and its hunting life in Africa was brief where it survives only as an “enthusiast’s” calibre today. Still, one can buy factory ammunition for it over the counter, which says a lot about its current relevance and continued use. In Africa, it too was discontinued after the Second World War but survived better in Europe where it enjoys limited popularity compared to the “hotter” American cartridges of today. But as much as I romanticise this classic, it was developed for use in Europe, with some rifles finding their way into Africa through former German colonies. This does not make it a lesser choice for an African rifle; on the contrary, it is one of the better cartridges for an African rifle. It only loses its place in the competition for the African classic by a ridiculously small margin.
The .30-06 Springfield is in almost the same calibre class and cunningly replaced most cartridges that were discontinued after the Second World War. An odd and obscure cartridge before the 1980s in South Africa, it rapidly rose to fame since then to step into the position as the most popular cartridge in Africa today. Famous American sport hunters like former American president Theodore Roosevelt, Hemingway and Ruark all favoured this cartridge.
Due to the wide availability of factory ammunition for this cartridge and aggressive American-style hunting reporting locally, it is popular with many except some. While many will spend disproportionate time and effort to promote the .30-06, this is my favourite cartridge to hate – it was forced down my throat too many times without consideration of the finer elements for a suitable cartridge.
As a hunting cartridge no other cartridge was fiddled with and modified more to “improve” it than this one. Yet it remains a favourite in its original form for many, and so it should because in essence it is a 7mm Mauser, only a bigger version of it.
After an intense study of the humble 7×57 cartridge after the Battle of San Juan, the best of American arms designers came up with a virtual copy of the 7mm Mauser. The .30-06 Springfield cartridge is an exact bigger version of the 7mm and it too was developed primarily as a military cartridge back in 1906. But it did not even perform that role as a great cartridge. The even bigger exact version of the “little 7”, namely the .50 Browning, receives this honour. Yes, the .30-06 was successfully used in the First and Second World War, the Korean War and in Vietnam only because the 7.62×51 NATO was still freshly developed during the latter wars and not “ready” yet.
Considering the .30-06’s African history in the presence of the true greatness of the other contenders, it was found lacking. It is an American cartridge first and foremost but a very popular cartridge internationally and so too in Africa. It does not grieve me that it fails two of my prerequisites. It passes the last prerequisite of continuous use in Africa but only because it is an “easy” choice with most of its owners past and present. It does not even come close to be considered a worthy runner-up for the title because it is a cartridge with the least classic African appeal among the rest of the contenders.
9.3 x 62 Mauser
Last but not least, we look at the 9.3×62 Mauser. So much has been said about this cartridge yet so much remains unsaid. According to some reports it was a cartridge favoured by farmer/settler-hunters in Africa after its introduction in 1905. This cartridge was distinctly requested “from Africa, for Africa”. The 9.3×62 was the trusty and less expensive medicine prescribed for the need for a hard-hitting meat-getter with the aptitude to slay dragons should the need arise. And countless animals did indeed fall before this mighty midget regarded by some as “nothing but a fly swat” and by others as only “adequate with no stopping power” and yet by others as “marginal”. Many gun writers spent time to discredit this humble performer as a sporting cartridge but they could not dent its credibility as a working cartridge in both Europe and Africa. Truth is, African hunting is not only represented by the sporting side of it but largely so by the nameless and faceless farmer-hunters who shaped civilisation in a hostile environment, those who stayed behind after the sport hunters returned home.
The 9.3×62 Mauser was never intended as a fun cartridge but for hard work and that it did and still does without missing a stride. Old-timer Kruger Park ranger Piet van der Hyde had first-hand experience with the 9.3×62 while culling and controlling buffalo and elephant during his career and even preferred it above his issue .375 H&H. Regular African Outfitter contributor, Ron Thomson, and former Head of Etosha Nature Conservation, Jack van der Spuy, also used the 9.3×62 successfully but to a lesser extent.
The 9.3 never had a military foundation to develop upon, like most favourites had, and it never was praised in hunting literature by “famous” international sportsmen/hunters. During hard times it was not “adopted” by a wealthy hunting nation, neither was it “introduced” by a wealthy hunting nation as an easier alternative. No, it was kept alive by those many faceless and nameless hunters who intimately knew its honest ability.
Right now the 9.3×62 has already resurfaced from obsolescence. And it is endorsed by famous modern-day hunters like Kevin “Doctari” Robertson as the “best all-round African rifle”, by Pierre van der Walt as “close to the elusive, non-existing ‘all-round’ cartridge” and by Mauritz Coetzee as “the most versatile Bushveld cartridge”. It is even described by American hunting writer Al Miller as “the indomitable 9.3×62”. Worthy titles bestowed upon a worthy contender.
After its “long walk” to the top through jungle and veld, through two world wars, through obsolescence to modern-day acceptance during the last 106 years, the 9.3×62 Mauser receives the first place on the podium as the true classic African cartridge.
Having come to this conclusion it doesn’t mean that a rifle in any other of the abovementioned cartridges is demoted to insignificance. In the end it is the rifle’s owner who must come to grips with his own set of prerequisites that would make his fulfilment complete.
Any Shot You Want – A-Square
Man and Beast in Africa – Francois Sommer
Cartridges of the World, 3rd Edition – Frank Barnes
Cartridges of the World, 12th Edition – Frank Barnes
Guns, Recognition Guide – Ian Hogg
Big Bore Rifles and Cartridges – Wolfe Publishing
The African Elephant and its Hunters – Denis D Lyell (Books of Zimbabwe Publishing Co)
Thanks to André Engelbrecht, Piet van der Hyde, Ron Thomson and Don Forrester for their personal opinions.
- Cartridges of the World, 3rd Edition for two pictures of rifles
- Books of Zimbabwe Publishing Co for picture of big tusker showing .303 falling block Martini rifle