BIG STICKS AND SMALL CRITTERS
By Johan van Wyk
A classic big-bore rifle is certainly a legendary thing to contemplate, dream about, and use in action on Africa’s big and dangerous animals. Depending on the circumstances one might find oneself in, a big rifle may also be a very necessary accessory to have close by, especially when the big tracks and the thin blood trail starts to head for the thickest patch of mopane around. At other times, though, shooting a rifle that throws out a bullet the size of a man’s thumb is just plain enjoyable, and not necessarily because of the recoil factor, either.
Recoil, I have found, is a very subjective thing. Some folks can handle it very well while others cannot handle it at all. I’m somewhere in the middle on the subject. I have probably fired more than my fair share of heavy-recoiling rifles up to the .577 NE, and I’m still alive to tell a few tall tales, so I’m not overly bothered by recoil. However, I have also found that the biggest factor influencing almost everyone’s proficiency with a big rifle is the amount of practise they do with their rifles. And by practise I am not solely referring to spending some quality time on the range, but rather actual use in the field, hunting.
As dangerous game hunting tends to be an expensive undertaking at the best of times, there is a cheaper alternative available for most of us in the form of plains game. While some may balk at the idea of carrying a big rifle in pursuit of a smallish critter such as a warthog or an impala, there is actually a lot of merit in the idea. The first and most obvious benefit is that it instils familiarity with your big rifle, and that familiarity may just pay handsome dividends when things turn sour when some armoured beast intent on bodily harm is heading your way, and your prowess with your big bore rifle suddenly takes centre stage.
Another benefit is the fact that stalking something with a big rifle tends to be just plain fun, especially when some of the plains-game species that tend to favour more open terrain are on the menu. A few months ago I found myself crawling after a wary herd of blesbok in the mountains of a remote farm in northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. My chosen rifle for the hunt was a .416 Rigby topped with a low-magnification variable-power scope and loaded with 400-grain soft-nose bullets. I’ve hunted the area previously as well, and found that picking off a few blesbok for the larder with a flat-shooting light-calibre rifle was relatively easy. With the .416 as my chosen weapon, though, the odds were suddenly slightly different.
Even with the use of shooting sticks I couldn’t really shoot the big rifle accurately enough much farther than 100 metres or so, but this distance was well outside the animals’ comfort zone so most of the day was spent in long, fruitless stalks. This in itself was a pleasure as well, as we encountered many other species along the way and saw some spectacular scenery as a bonus. Eventually, in the early afternoon, we used some dead ground to move closer to a small herd of blesbok, and a ram on the outskirts of the herd made the mistake of waiting a second or two too long before bolting with the rest of the herd. The crosshairs settled on his chest briefly and I pulled the trigger, sending a 400-grain bullet on its merry way. There was no sound of the bullet hitting the animal but the ram was down and out in his tracks. Great fun and a good end to a challenging hunt. The venison tasted great as well.
Another time I was sitting among the rocks of a small hill, contemplating a nice red hartebeest bull standing with his nose pointed into the breeze on an open Karoo plain stretched out below me. I was armed with a Heym 88B .470 NE, double loaded with 500-grain solids, so I was certainly in no danger of being undergunned for the hartebeest. The bull eventually solved my problem by climbing the very hill I was hiding on, and when he finally noticed me it was too late. At the shot he took off like a scalded cat, straight down the hill again and headed for the only patch of thornbush for miles.
I reloaded the big rifle and made my way down the hill as well. As I entered the patch of thorn the wounded bull erupted virtually at my feet, making space between us at a rate of knots. The double came up in a flash and I had the fleeting thought that it was much like shooting a flushing francolin as I swung the rifle and touched the front trigger. The result was nothing short of spectacular, with the bull somersaulting to a halt in a cloud of dust, stone dead. Like I said, great fun and very good practise at the same time.
Take your big rifles hunting!