A HUNTER’S RIFLE
Johan van Wyk
If ever there was a hall of fame for famous African hunters, the first entry would no doubt be the name of Frederick Courteney Selous. Selous was born in London in 1851, and first arrived on African shores as a 19-year-old, in South Africa, intent on making a name for himself as a hunter of big game. At the time, muzzle-loading rifles were still the primary weapon of choice for the hunter in search of dangerous game, and Selous used various muzzle-loading big-bore rifles on beasts big and small, although he complained bitterly about their excessive recoil and claimed that they made him recoil-shy for the rest of his life.
The 1870s saw the start of the breech-loading era, however, and Selous was quick to grasp the advantage offered by the newer technology firearms then being developed by various British makers. He quickly built up a good relationship with George Gibbs of Bristol, one of the premier riflemakers in Britain at the time, especially renowned for their accurate match rifles. The Gibbs-Farquharson falling-block single-shot action (a joint development by Gibbs and Scottish gamekeeper John Farquharson) was initially developed for military and target shooting purposes, but it didn’t take long for the sporting potential of the action to be recognised, and it was quickly made up in sporting rifles and later chambered as well for a host of Nitro cartridges such as the .303 British and .256 Gibbs Flanged (or 6,5x53R, if you prefer). Selous, however, ordered his Gibbs-Farquharsons in a proprietary Gibbs chambering: the .461 Gibbs No 2.
Both the No 1 and No 2 versions of the .461 Gibbs cartridge were initially developed for target shooting, and used heavy, paper-patched bullets that gave good accuracy from the Metford rifling in the bores of the Gibbs-Farquharson rifles. The .461 No 1 fired a 540-grain bullet at 1 300 fps with the help of 75 grains of black powder. The slightly later No 2 version of the .461 was introduced in the late 1870s and was created by lengthening the neck of the cartridge to make space for a heavier 570-grain bullet and 90 grains of black powder. Bullet diameter for both versions of the .461 was identical. The ballistic performance of both was broadly similar to the .577/450 Martini-Henry cartridge, the British military cartridge of the day.
Gibbs no doubt derived great publicity and enjoyed increased sales as a result of Selous’ writings. For some reason Selous referred to his beloved falling-block hunting rifles as a “.450” on several occasions, notably in A Hunter’s Wanderings in Africa which was published in 1882. The Gibbs rifle plays such a central part in the recounting of Selous’ adventures, however, that the reader is left in no doubt that a Gibbs falling-block rifle was the weapon of choice for anybody wishing to indulge in a bit of sport in Africa. Selous used a number of Gibbs .461 rifles throughout his travels in what is today Zimbabwe, and the effectiveness of both rifle and cartridge no doubt played a big part in his hunting success.
With the advent of the Nitro era and a host of more efficient and powerful cartridges, the .461 slowly disappeared from the scene to be replaced by more modern contenders. Likewise was the case with the great old British falling-block single-shot rifles; they were effectively killed off by the readily available and reasonably priced M98 Mauser bolt-action. Selous himself also eventually discarded the single-shot rifle for the bolt-action, and towards the end of his hunting days used cartridges such as the .425 Westley Richards and .275 Holland&Holland Magnum. The much-lamented falling-blocks were to a large extent relegated to the safes of collectors and die-hards.
Probably as a result of the writings of Selous (and in spite of the fact that less than a thousand Gibbs-Farquharson rifles were ever made), the odd Gibbs-Farquharson .461 pops up here in Africa from time to time. If memory serves, I have seen half a dozen or so, including a very rare double on a Gibbs & Pitt action. Some were engraved, others not. One was even a very early example with an external cocking arm which resembles a hammer. Another example was fitted with what is known as Selous sideplates. Selous sideplates are often attributed to Selous himself, and certainly his own Gibbs-Farquharsons were fitted with them, but whether he actually had a hand in designing them is unknown. The sideplates themselves are made from sheet steel and are a skin-tight fit on both sides of the grip, extending all the way from the action body, contoured to the wrist and pistol grip of the stock. They are held in place by means of dozens of small screws, and on the example I have seen, these little screws were neatly aligned. The amount of work that must have gone into shaping and fitting a pair of Selous sideplates is truly staggering.
A friend of mine who also happens to be a keen collector of vintage British guns and rifles is the lucky owner of a near-mint Gibbs-Farquharson chambered for the .461 No 2 cartridge. The rifle itself spent many years on display in a gunshop here in South Africa, unfired and unmolested as a result of the fact that .461 ammunition has for long been but a distant memory. When the gunshop changed hands the new owners decided to sell the old Gibbs, and my friend did what was necessary to put the rifle in his collection, where it now resides in the company of a number of pristine examples of some of the finest firearms ever made. Another Gibbs .461 spent many years on display in the public library of a small town in South Africa, simply gathering dust as it hung from the wall on a set of rusty nails. When the powers-that-be decided to demolish the library, the rifle was destined to be destroyed until a gunsmith who recognised it for what it was saved it. It is fitted with Selous side-plates and is a treasure by any yardstick.
Being a practical sort of fellow, however, my friend soon turned his attention to getting the old Gibbs shooting again, and thus kicked off a practical doctorate thesis in handloading. The first order of business was to determine the exact bore diameter, and for this purpose a soft copper plug was gently squeezed through the barrel from the breech end. Next up was a set of reloading dies from the United States, and here Hunting Die Specialties were glad to oblige. Cases for the .461 No 2 are made by Bertram in Australia, and Bruce Bertram had a package in the mail in no time.
As the original ammunition was loaded with paper-patched bullets, the next step was not as simple as just having a mold made that would turn out .461” diameter lead bullets. The reason for this is that a lot of further research revealed the fact that Gibbs preferred the bullets to be slightly undersized in order to allow them to “bump up” to the bore diameter to ensure a snug fit. This was done for the sake of better accuracy, and is a perfectly safe and acceptable way to go about things with a soft lead bullet. Thus, a mold that turned out a round-nosed 570-grain lead slug of .458” diameter was ordered from a South African mold maker. Next step was paper-patching the bullets to ensure a tight fit in the mouth of the case and the shallow Metford rifling. This is a time-consuming process calling for more than just a little bit of skill by the patcher, but my friend eventually mastered the art, and the first batch of paper-patched, lubed bullets were, apart for a few last details, at long last ready for Bruce Bertram’s cases.
With a case capacity slightly greater than that of the .458 Winchester Magnum, it was logical to use a Magnum primer to load the .461 No 2, and as black powder can sometimes be a pain to obtain here in South Africa, a Nitro-for-black load was the obvious way forward, but this route presented challenges of its own as well. Those of us who reload here at the southern tip of the African continent sometimes have to do with what we can get, so the only sensible choice left was a South African propellant called S265, a close copy of the US-made IMR-4227, a fast-burning propellant normally used for loading handgun cartridges but usable for loads with cast bullets in some rifle cartridges as well. With the propellant selected, a prodigious amount of experimentation ensued to arrive at a load, but with this done, along with a handful of Dacron filler to ensure that the air gap between the base of the bullet and the powder charge was tightly filled, the old Gibbs and its owner set off to the shooting range with an air of nervous expectation.
To make a long story short, it wasn’t long before the Gibbs-Farquharson shot the way it was supposed to. What was also apparent was that Gibbs itself certainly deserved their reputation as a maker of fine rifles. The old rifle with its newly constituted loads shot right on the sights, and getting nice and tight groups with the wide-V backsight and the tiny bead up-front was a relatively simple matter.
A great many hunters over the years cut their hunting teeth on the .577/450 Martini-Henry rifle in Africa and, with its virtually similar ballistics, the .461 was in the same league – certainly a useful starting point from a ballistic point of view. Due to cost, however, the Gibbs would probably have been the choice of the better-heeled sportsmen of the day who could afford something slightly more upmarket than a military-surplus Martini-Henry carbine. Whereas the Gibbs rifle and cartridge is synonymous with Selous, another interesting character who also used one was Dr Leander Starr Jameson, leader of the ill-fated Jameson Raid into the Transvaal in 1896 and confidant of Cecil John Rhodes. During the course of an expedition down the Pungwe River in Mozambique in 1890, accompanied by his co-explorer and friend Frank Johnson, Jameson, managed to set fire to a grass hut they were sleeping in.
As the dry grass caught alight, in a frenzy they had to grab what they could and run for their lives. Ahead of them lay a very treacherous journey through some of the wildest country Africa had to offer, to reach a rendezvous with a ship called the Lady May that would wait for them at anchor at the mouth of the Pungwe River. They made it with mere minutes to spare and scrambled aboard as the ship was about to cast off. Interestingly enough, Johnson later recalled that among the possessions salvaged from the fire were a rifle and bandolier and 26 Gibbs-Metford .450 cartridges. It was undoubtedly a Gibbs-Farquharson .461 rifle of sorts. As Selous himself was active in Rhodesia at the time, it is probably a fair assumption that he was consulted on the question of suitable armament by Jameson and Johnson before the onset of their trip.
After going through the immense trouble of getting his own .461 No 2 shooting again, my friend decided that a hunting trip with the Gibbs in hand was a fitting finale to the saga. With a number of carefully assembled cartridges, he traveled to a remote farm in South Africa’s Limpopo Province. He set off with the old rifle balanced over his shoulder, in much the same fashion as Selous would have done more than a century ago in the untamed country to the north of where my friend was hunting. Soon, a suitable quarry in the form of a blue wildebeest bull showed itself, and with the bead of the foresight low on the animal’s shoulder, 570 grains of what used to be wheel weights were sent on its way.
At the shot, something strange happened. The bull he had aimed at was down in its tracks, pole-axed. Behind him, though, lay another hitherto unseen wildebeest, also down and out for the count! The solid lead bullet had killed two of the toughest antelope Africa has to offer, cleanly, with one shot, and the bullet was found under the skin on the far side of the second wildebeest. It was slightly deformed, but with that type of performance, even if wholly unintentional, any doubts about a lack of penetration was certainly laid to rest in a clearing in the bush by the accidental death of a wildebeest.
I suspect that it was this same quality that endeared the Gibbs-Farquharson and the .461 No 2 cartridge to Selous as well. The rifles were very well made, shot straight, and got the job done with a minimum of fuss: essential qualities for a hunter’s rifle.