Over the last century, too many writers have used Walter Dalrymple Maitland “Karamojo” Bell as an example of how big, big game can be successfully hunted with light, light rifles.

Bell undoubtedly did take thousands of elephants with rifles like the .303 British, 6.5×54 Mannlicher and, most famously, the 7×57.  Undoubtedly, he also compared their performance against big doubles of the day, such as the .450/.400 NE, and found them every bit as effective when the bullet was put in the right place.  None of this can be argued with.

Bell’s success with the 7×57 on elephants, however, is not living proof that light bullets at high velocity are a better formula for all kinds of game.  Far from it.

What is usually ignored are the facts that Bell was a superb hunter who could get in close, and also a top-notch rifle shot who could place bullets exactly (and knew exactly where to place them).  Finally, he was not using light bullets at high velocity.  In fact, he was using bullets that by today’s standards are heavy-for-caliber, and launched at very modest (again, by today’s standards) velocities.

The .303 British employed a 215-grain round-nosed bullet; the 6.5×54 was 160 grains, while the 7×57 standard was a 175-grain bullet at 2,300 fps.  What’s more, Bell never “polluted” (his word) his rifle barrels with soft-nosed bullets; he used only solids, for everything.  With their excellent sectional density, such bullets penetrated very deeply and rarely deviated from their line of impact.

Less often cited is Werner von Alvensleben, who killed more than a thousand Cape buffalo, shooting on control in Mozambique, using a 6.5×54 Mannlicher-Schönauer.  Like Bell, von Alvensleben shot for the brain, and sportsmanship didn’t come into it.

Neither of these gentlemen would have been so unwise as to attempt all this using light, frangible bullets at high velocity, as George Grey did, with his .280 Ross, hunting lions in Kenya in 1911.  He hit a big male several times, failed to stop it, and was fatally mauled.  Before he died in a Nairobi hospital, Grey admitted it was his own fault for getting too close.  This, too, is often taken out of context to prove the inadequacy of high-velocity rifles for dangerous game.  In fact, the rifle was more than adequate (although not recommended) if used carefully under the right conditions.

As you can see, the 7×57 benefited greatly from Bell’s example, while the Ross suffered from Grey’s.  Yet both are excellent cartridges, when used properly, with the right bullets, under appropriate conditions.

Ironically, it was Sir Charles Ross more than anyone else who discovered and promoted the use of highly streamlined, long-for-caliber bullets for long-distance match shooting.  Ross’s match ammunition, in both .280 Ross and .303 British, dominated the 1,000- and 1,200-yard matches on both sides of the Atlantic between 1910 and 1913.  His .280 Ross bullet was 180 grains, with a form like a racing yacht.  Had the Great War not intervened, who knows where Ross might have taken that principle, for both match shooting and hunting?

Today, match shooters have rediscovered these principles, with ultra-low drag and extended-ogive bullets used for shooting at extreme ranges.  Where before the heaviest bullet you could get in .308-diameter was 220 grains, we now have 250-grain match bullets; in 7mm (.284), 180- or even 190-grain bullets are available.

In long-range shooting, bullets with high sectional density both retain velocity and resist wind better than lighter bullets.  When you think about it, these are exactly the same qualities Bell found with heavy bullets in hunting — good penetration and straight-line performance.  After all, penetration is nothing more than retained velocity:  When a bullet stops moving, it stops penetrating.

In all kinds of shooting, it would appear, high sectional density trumps higher velocity, whether it’s an elephant at 15 yards or a steel plate at 1,500.  Occasionally, the opposite combination will deliver a spectacular kill, when a light bullet at high velocity strikes exactly the right place at exactly the right time.  But these, I suggest, are anomalies.  The one thing the heavy-bullet, lower-velocity combination delivers is dependability, shot after shot after shot.

One other thing is obvious, too:  You can go too far, either way.  A 400-grain .308 at 1,100 fps would be useless, as would a 68-grain .308 at 5,100 fps.  Somewhere between those two extremes lies the perfect combination for any application to which you might put your favorite .30-06, .300 Norma, or whatever.  Chances are, the best combination will be a little heavier bullet at a little lower velocity.