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 caliber. But prior to actually suit the action to the word, he spent many hours contemplating what a true South African hunting caliber would be.
This discussion made me realize that I was not alone in the desire to continue hunting in the spirit of bygone eras. Owning, shooting and actually stalking the African veldt with a rifle chambered for a cartridge that represents a particular era in Africa’s hunting history gives a certain fulfillment (for lack of a better word) which is hard to explain to an “unbeliever”. Cameron Hopkins wrote in a piece titled, African Plains Game Rifles, “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, in my turn, 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 for why his favorite caliber is a real representative of THE classic African era.
How would one come to an honest decision without pondering upon your favorites 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 favorites 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 scrutinize and eventually distinguish the best contenders to the point of being able to arrive at a final conclusion:
- Obvious favorites during their time.
- Reason for conception.
- It’s African (hunting) History (of cause).
- Continuous application in the field.
In a struggle of mixing and matching abovementioned guidelines I came up with “finalist” cartridges that comply favorably with 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 and others for example. As a rule, when “classic Africa” gets contemplated, some would get stuck at 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 it each can only be afforded a few paragraphs of harsh screening at most and together share a chapter.
In order to save space I willfully steer clear of discussing stereo typical technical comparisons and let circumstantial evidence decide.
For no real apparent reason I start with one of my all-time favorites that will forever hold a special place in many an old timer’s heart, the .22 Long Rifle. Mostly considered a midget amongst giants by today’s standards, I wonder if there is anyone out there with even the remotest hunting history in his past that 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 legally allowed rifles for South African citizens to own, besides for the 12ga shotgun. Lots of various animals met its fate by this underestimated little giant. From snakes, vermin, sheep and cattle to the old and lived-out farm dog was also dispatched with it. Not to mention all the game animals whose meat was hanged on the line. Stories and reminiscences of the legendary “seloon” in Africa are numerous, if I can make an understatement.
Conceived in America during 1887, it soon became a favorite all over the world. Many European arms manufacturers built excellent .22 rifles too. 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 looses out on the upper ranks on the podium. However, it was only in Africa that it saw serious action where it dwelled at the extreme outer limits of the African frontiers where it performed tasks that are more suitable for far bigger cartridges. I rank it into 3rd place though.
This brings me at the .303 British which is yet another great old classic and dogged per severer amongst all cartridges out there. It’s African and especially its South African flavor is not to be doubted by anyone. Not many South African hunters are there whose hunting career was not shaped in some way or another by this one. Great names from the past adhere to this old favorite. Names like P.J. Schoeman, Harry Wolhuter, Stevenson Hamilton, Col. Patterson, Dennis D. Lyell and just about every old farmer/hunter and poacher, springs to mind.
There is not a farm out there that was not regarded as frontier at some time or another and all of those farms were walked upon by hunters and hunter-farmers alike who carried a “lemetfird”, “bulldog”, “poenskop” or “drie-nul-drie” in his hand. Except for some British sporting rifles back in its heyday, rifles in this cartridge usually were robust ex-military ; affordable and ammunition very available. This is a cartridge that helped tame the African frontiers and I cannot think of anyone that can deny this. This is the very caliber that the hunter at the show chose for his custom rifle and a good choice it was. However, it has a few conditions counting against it receiving a place in the contest as the “true African Classic”.
Being developed during 1887 as a military cartridge, it “intruded” African soil by force in exactly that role in 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 over the world from India to Africa to Canada and Australia and then some. In Africa it started its life as a military cartridge and a very successful one at that. Contemplating soberly about its initial years one cannot but to realize 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 its 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.
The .303 British’s Boer War rival is my personal favorite. Its African fame was conceived in the hands of Boers who also hunted the South African plains with it even while at war. What little advantage it may have had over the .303 during the war was lost at the end of the war. Most 7 x 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 under its new designation as the .275 Rigby for short, it became a favorite sporting cartridge in English built rifles used in Africa. It received its final endorsement by W.D.M. Bell after he successfully hunted many elephant with it and wrote about it. Bell’s testimonies is held against the 7mm by known ‘gun writers’ of today but they could not hurt its reputation one bit.
Although it is not a hot ballistic number by today’s standards, some will try but 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 derived from it since, with the 7mm Remington Magnum being the most successful. But Holland & Holland had beaten them all to it when they conceived the .275 H&H in 1912 already with Wilhelm Brennecke soon to follow in 1917 with the very successful 7 x 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, either. 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 the 1st July of that year when an unexpected amount of American soldiers, 1400 in all, died in a spate of 7mm carnage.
As my hearts favorite it could step up and receive the honors but it grieves me to say, that its military conception gives enough reason for it to fall out on further consideration as the true African cartridge.
Along with the .350 Rigby, the 318 Wesley Richards enjoyed fair popularity in the African veldt 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. Rumor 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 thereof the .318 WR is the strongest candidate for the title. Known names like George Rushby and James Sutherland adheres to this cartridge.
Both the 350 Rigby and .318 WR competed in the medium caliber segment and apparently some hunters even preferred the .350 Rigby above their larger, younger cousin, the .375 H&H.
However, I believe that although bolt actioned rifles was way 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 calibers was 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 loose out against their bigger cousin that was by some regarded as the “best all-round African cartridge”, namely, the .375 H&H. The post World War Two era saw a lot of good cartridges being culled because of political and financial circumstances and that these two cartridges were amongst those, is tragic. I believe there still are a few original rifles chambered in these two African calibers 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. Nevertheless the .318 WR achieves 2nd place because of its “made for Africa” credentials.
For their bigger H&H cousin though, the coin fell the right way up. The .375 H&H is an all time favorite cartridge with many hunters since its introduction in 1912 as a proprietary cartridge and it complies favorably with all my pre-requisites. 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. Also like its “lesser” cousins, it was manufactured in more expensive rifles firing more expensive British ammunition aimed at the wealthier ‘sportsman’ market, making it more of a ‘sporting cartridge’ rather than a ‘working cartridge’. Thus the .375 H&H was endorsed by many known ‘sporting’ writers of the past and present of whom John Taylor being regarded the highest. But sadly it 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 rangers in South African game departments with names like old timers, André Engelbrecht and Pieter van der Hyde as prime examples. 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 much ness, especially with softnosed bullets. Its fame also became its biggest downfall in this quest for the ‘true African’ because it was not conceived for Africa only but it was also widely used in all British colonies over the world, including the USA and North America. During the “big cull” of post WW II, it was the American firearm manufacturer, Winchester who “adopted” the .375 H&H, giving it a more American flavor than an African flavor, afterwards. It soon lost its proprietary ‘status’ and rifles was built by almost all known manufacturers in the USA and Europe and its ammunition was manufactured accordingly.
To me the most known name adhering to this cartridge is that of ivory hunter, Harry Manners, who used it extensively as a working cartridge. However, not 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 that only by a razor’s margin.
Having mentioned what I did about expensive British rifles brings me to some great Mauser cartridges with excellent African credentials. The 7.9 X57, 8 X57 and 8 X 60 all are rather unknown cartridges by today’s standards and very unfairly so because they all are truly fine working cartridges preferred by many pioneer farmers in many African countries. Developed in 1888 already, the 7.9 or “Sewe-nege” as it is more commonly known amongst the 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 WW1, it even saw use in the USA. Though, in the hands of many African farmer-hunters the 7.9, and in later years the 8mm, was successfully used as hunting tools par excellence. Bell too used a 7.9 extensively. So did old time lion-slayer and Kruger Park ranger, Harry Kirkman also use it on elephant and lion control, which gives it good credibility. The 7.9/8mm handled whatever this Dark Continent could muster and as working cartridges their history is hard to beat.
It was by the hand of a Boer hunter cum scout cum sniper with a 7.9 x 57 Mauser during the East African Campaign, that the famous F.C. Selous met his fate near the Rufiji River in German East Africa (now Tanzania). Regardless of them being military cartridges at birth this powerful piece of African history tips the scale immensely in its favor for a special place on Africa’s hunting stage. However, with both being military cartridges, the best ever conceived mind you, and them being used in two World wars, one has to regard them as weighed and found wanted in our quest for the true “cartridge for Africa”.
The 7.9 and 8mm shared the same fate the 7 X 57 Mauser suffered after the Boer War, being denied ammunition for it to be manufactured after WW I through WW II. This is where the 8 x 60 Mauser steps into the picture. German hunters not being allowed to own rifles in the (military) 7.9 x 57 cartridge, many of them had the chambers of their rifles lengthened from 57mm to 60mm. A truly great cartridge was born, one of my all time favorites. Whosoever used this cartridge in Africa had nothing but praise for it and I know of no ‘gun-writer out there who can criticize it. As a true working cartridge on the South African frontiers, it was my father’s favorite too. He had killed any bush dwelling creature from buffalo and lion downwards with it successfully. 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 regard his opinion very high.
However the 8 x 60 Mauser was mostly 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’ caliber’ 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 is a victim of the post WW II “cull” but it survived better in Europe where it enjoys limited popularity against “hotter” American cartridges today. But as much as I romanticize this classic, it was conceived to be used in Europe first resulting in some rifles trickling down 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 falls out on a ridiculously small margin in the tug of war for a place as the “African Classic”.
In almost the same caliber class and the actual cartridge to cunningly replace most cartridges that succumbed to the big “culling epidemic” of post WW II, lies the 30-06 Springfield. Previously an odd and obscure cartridge before the 1980’s in South Africa, it rapidly rose to fame since then to step into the position as the most popular cartridge in Africa today. Famous names of American sporthunters like former American president Theodore Rooseveldt, Hemmingway and Ruark adhere to 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, but not all. While many will spend disproportionate time and effort to promote the 30-06, this is my favorite cartridge to hate. Because this is the cartridge that was forced down my throat too many times without consideration of the finer elements for a suitable cartridge, I will in contrast, make time to invalidate it. But I don’t have to draw on my pet hate for it to discredit this fine cartridge in an “all Africa” contest.
As a hunting cartridge no other cartridge was fiddled with more and modified more in order to “Improve” it, than this one. Yet, it remains a favorite in its original form for many, and it should, because in essence, it’s a 7mm Mauser, only a bigger version of it.
After intense studying of the humble 7 x57 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 birthed 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 honor. Yes, the 30-06 was successfully used in WW I, WW II, the Korean War and in Vietnam, only because the 7.62 x 51 NATO was still freshly conceived 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 lacks. It is an American cartridge first and foremost but a very popular cartridge internationally and so too in Africa, I must say. It does not grieve me that it fails two of my pre requisite conditions with ease. It passes the last condition of continuous use in Africa but that only because it’s an “easy” choice with most of its owners in past and present. It does not even come close to be considered worthy as runner-up for the title because this is a cartridge with the least classic African appeal amongst the rest of the worthy contenders.
Last, but not least, we arrive at the 9.3 x 62 Mauser. So much has been said about this cartridge yet so much remains unsaid. According to some reports it was a cartridge favored by farmer/settler hunters in Africa after its introduction in 1905. This cartridge was distinctly requested “from Africa, for Africa”. The 9.3x62 was the trusty and less expensive medicine prescribed for the need for a hard hitting meat getter with the aptitude to slay dragons if the need arise. And countless amounts indeed fell before this mighty midget that is 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”. In the face of other cartridges, 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 civilization in a hostile environment, those people who stay behind after the sporthunter went home.
The 9.3 x 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 intimate experience with the 9.3x62 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 Thompson and former Head of Etosha Nature Conservation, Jack van der Spuy, too used the 9.3x62 successfully but to a lesser extent.
The 9.3 never had a military foundation to develop upon, like most favorites had, and it never was praised in hunting literature by a ‘famous’ international sportsman/hunter reporting on it. 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 know its honest ability.
Right now the 9.3 x 62 has already resurfaced from obsolescence like a wave from the deep end. And it is endorsed by famous modern day hunters like Kevin ‘Doctari” Robertson as the “best all round African Rifle”, by Pierre v.d. Walt as “close to the elusive, non existing “all-round” cartridge” and by Mauritz Coetsee as “the most Versatile Bushveld cartridge”. It is even described by American hunting writer, Al Miller, as “the Indomitable 9.3 x62”. Worthy titles bestowed upon a worthy contender.
After its “long walk” to the top through jungle and veldt, through two world wars, through obsolescence to modern day acceptance during the last 106 years, the 9.3 x 62 Mauser receives the 1st 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 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 fulfillment 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 Thompson 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