Best Dangerous Game Cartridges for Bolt-Action Rifles: A Virtual Shootout
The words, “Dangerous Game,” evoke a classic image: well-heeled hunters who scour Africa’s vastness for “The Big Five.” To others, it is a week spent in the rain to find a thousand pound brown bear amidst Kodiak Island’s infamous, tangled alders, or a stand-off with an irate moose on a narrow trail carved into three-foot deep snow in Montana.
Regardless the setting, hunters and outdoor adventurers have a need for powerful guns which can stop a large, dangerous animal in its tracks. While exquisite double rifles have been seen as the ultimate solution to this problem, most people, even those who can afford a two week hunt in Africa, most often choose a bolt-action, magazine fed rifle.
The author analyzed the 9.3x62 Mauser, .375 H&H Magnum, .416 Remington Magnum, .404 Jeffery, .458 Winchester Magnum, .458 Lott, and .505 Gibbs for trajectory, effective range, and recoil with modern ballistic software available free online from shooterscalculator.com. Calculations were corrected to standard temperature (59F/15C) and pressure (29.92 inHg/1013 mbar) at sea level.
It’s inevitable someone’s favorite has been left out. This test did not include such cartridges as the .375 Ruger and .416 Ruger, or the big-bore Weatherby Magnums, to name just a few. Either they are not popular or they duplicate at least one, or more, tested cartridge’s performance. In some cases, a particular cartridge is included just because the author thinks it’s interesting.
Trajectory in this test is defined as Maximum Point Blank Range (MPBR): the distance over which a bullet rises three inches above sight line and then drops three inches below to hit within a six-inch kill box. Imagine a bullet arcing through a six-inch diameter pipe for a certain distance and you have the idea.
Effective range in this test is the minimum impact energy recommended for a humane kill on medium game (1200 ft-lbs.), large game (1500 ft-lbs), and dangerous game (3000 ft-lbs.). Plus, the minimum velocity most hunting bullets require for reliable expansion (1800 fps). If the minimum energy range exceeds the minimum expansion range, the minimum expansion range becomes the maximum effective range since unexpanded bullets are much less effective regardless how much energy they possess.
Recoil calculations were based on a ten pound, scoped bolt-action rifle (10.5 lbs. for the Gibbs). As a general rule, more than 15 ft-lbsf is considered enough recoil to affect most shooters’ accuracy. The less recoil, the more accurate the shooter, and hence, the more effective the cartridge. These cartridges produce so much recoil though, the more fair measure is to compare them to a .30-06 (25 ft-lbsf) which most shooters can tolerate.
All calculations were based on the Swift A-Frame™ bullet. The A-Frame penetrates deep into heavy, tough animals such as Cape buffalo, yet expands well enough for use against large, non-dangerous game (elk, moose, kudu, etc.). Their spitzer shape provides reasonable ballistic coefficients (BC) which gives them a flatter trajectory than traditional round-nose dangerous game bullets. Both BC and sectional density (SD) are noted for each bullet tested. BC quantifies a bullet’s aerodynamic efficiency, and SD predicts relative ability to penetrate into a game animal; the larger each number, the better. Most experts agree BCs around .400, or larger, make bullets fly flatter and drift less in cross-winds. SDs greater than .300 are preferred for dangerous game.
Solid bullets were not tested. They are specialized projectiles used at close quarters to either stop a charge or follow up on a wounded animal. In these circumstances, trajectory is irrelevant. Since they do not expand, a solid’s weight, diameter, and impact energy are the main factors which determine effectiveness. Most commercial ammunition makers offer at least one solid load for each cartridge tested, and all the cartridges here have a good reputation in the field with these bullets.
Muzzle velocities are the nominal industry standard for the tested bullet weight in each caliber for factory loaded ammunition. Hand loaders can achieve much better performance in many instances.
Points were awarded as follows:
- One point for every 10 yards MPBR beyond 150 yards and one point deducted for every 10 yards less than 150.
- One point for every 10 yards beyond 150 yards for maximum effective range on non-dangerous, medium and large game, respectively, and one point deducted for every 10 yards less than 150 yards.
- One point for every 10 yards beyond 50 yards for effective range on dangerous game and one point deducted for every 10 yards less than 50.
- One point for every 10 yards beyond 150 yards for minimum expansion velocity, one point deducted for every 10 yards less.
- One point for each foot-pound (force) recoil less than 25, and one point deducted for every ft-lbsf greater than 25.
Here’s how each cartridge ranked. Detailed performance figures are summarized in the table at the article’s end.
First Place: .375 Holland & Holland Magnum, 47.8 Points
300 gr. A-Frame (.325 BC/.305 SD) at 2500 fps. The .375 H&H is perhaps the most versatile rifle cartridge ever developed. It won this test because it is so well balanced. It has power, reach, and tolerable (for a dangerous game round) recoil.
Second Place: .416 Remington Magnum, 35.4 Points
400 gr A-Frame (.367 BC/.330 SD) at 2400 fps. The .416 Remington Magnum has become the most popular .416 because unlike the one which started it all, the .416 Rigby, it is the same length as the .375 H&H so more rifle makers offer a model chambered for it. It too has power and reach, but recoil much higher than the .375 put it into second place.
Third Place: 9.3x62mm Mauser, 22.0 Points
286 gr. A-Frame (.285 BC/.305 SD) at 2360 fps. Not well known in the States, the 9.3x62 is popular in Africa and Europe. It has less recoil than the .375 H&H, but its lower velocity limits its range.
Fourth Place: .404 Jeffery, 11.8 Points
400 gr. A-Frame (.375 BC/.319 SD) at 2300 fps. Once almost obsolete, this wonderful old cartridge has made a big comeback in recent years.
Fifth Place: .458 Lott, 9.3 Points
500 gr. A-Frame (.361 BC/.341 SD) at 2300 fps. What do you get when you neck a .375 H&H case up to .458? A .458 Lott: lots of power and lots of recoil.
Sixth Place: .458 Winchester Magnum, - 22.2 Points
500 gr. A-Frame (.361 BC/.341 SD) at 2100 fps. The .458 Win. Mag. is a favorite among African PHs and Alaskan bear guides.
Seventh Place: .505 Gibbs, - 69.6 Points
535 gr. A-Frame (.285 BC/.300 SD) at 2275 fps. The .505 Gibbs is just more. More power, more muzzle blast, and gobs more recoil than almost any other dangerous game cartridge on the market today.
Few, if any, cartridges are as versatile as the .375 H&H. It won this test by a wide margin because it delivers tremendous power a useful distance with tolerable recoil. The 300 grain A-Frame bullet has a mediocre BC, but it still delivers the longest max point blank range here. When paired with a more aerodynamic bullet, the “Three-Seven-Five” becomes a genuine 400 yard hammer for large African plains game or North American elk. This is the cartridge most African PHs advise their clients to bring on safari, especially if they bring just one gun.
The .416 caliber has made a resurgence with shooters since the mid-1990s for one big reason, the .416 Remington Magnum. An 8mm Remington Magnum case necked up to .416, this cartridge duplicates the .416 Rigby made famous by African PH, Harry Selby. It doesn’t require a magnum-length action and has a bit less recoil than the Rigby. With a high-BC bullet, the .416 Rem. Mag. reaches out almost as far as the .375 H&H, but it does have much more recoil. It, along with the .375, is a great choice for Alaskan bear hunting where shots are sometimes on the long side, and it is a better choice if you have to dive into the alders after a wounded bear.
The unpretentious 9.3x62 Mauser is the working farmer and game warden’s rifle in Africa. Its 286 grain bullets have the same sectional density as a 300 grain, .375 which means they penetrate deep into big, tough animals. In this test, the A-Frame’s low BC did this cartridge few favors, but it is the one to bring if your antelope hunt just turned into a close fight with an irate Cape buffalo. Loaded with more aerodynamic bullets, the 9.3x62 will do anything a .30-06 can, and with more “thump” on the business end. It has the lowest recoil among dangerous game rounds.
Another come back kid is the .404 Jeffery. When first introduced in the early 20th century, it fired 400 grain bullets at 2125 fps, which proved effective on elephant but with less recoil than the big-bore Nitro-Express rounds. It would have scored higher in this test, but ammo makers have increased the standard velocity to 2300 fps in recent years for some unknown reason. When coupled with the large powder charge needed for this unnecessary speed, the recoil jumps to .458 Win. Mag. levels. Best bet with the “Jeff” is load your own and keep velocity where it belongs: between 2100 and 2200 fps.
The .458 Lott exists because one man, John Lott, almost met his death in the late 1950s on a wounded Cape buffalo’s horns. A buff which a .458 Win. Mag. had failed to stop. Lott became convinced Winchester’s cartridge needed more velocity. He necked up the .375 H&H’s cases to take .458 caliber bullets, and voila! A .458 which fires 500 grain bullets at 2300 fps and fits into most rifle actions. At first deemed “over-kill,” dangerous game hunters have warmed to this beast.
When introduced in the mid-1950s, the .458 Winchester Magnum held much promise. However, hunters, including the hapless Mr. Lott, found the new cartridge unreliable in hot weather. Sometimes you got the full 2150 fps behind your 510 grain bullet and sometimes you didn’t. The culprit? The powder Winchester had selected—it clumped inside the case in hot weather. A switch to temperature stable powder in the 70s, made the .458 Win. Mag. the work-a-day African cartridge we know today. It’s more versatile than people think. Loaded to lower pressures with a 400 grain bullet, it becomes an instant .45-70 clone. If fed higher-BC bullets than the A-Frame, it’s reasonable for medium and large game to 250 yards.
The .505 Gibbs has few peers for power. It is at its best up close and personal with the largest and most dangerous animals. It still has an MPBR just beyond 200 yards and a 175 yard dangerous game effective range. The Gibbs exacts a heavy price for such power—off the chart recoil. Plus, it requires a magnum length action. It’s a special cartridge, housed in special guns, made for special, perhaps fear-filled, moments.
Recoil for both the 9.3x62 and .404 Jeffery are noticeably less than the .458 Win. Mag.
All the cartridges tested are similar in many ways, yet each is unique. With the A-Frame, all these rounds have an MPBR between 200 and 240 yards, which places them in the same trajectory envelop as the .30-30, .308, and .30-06. This means they are all suitable for average hunting ranges. Bullets with a higher BC than the A-Frame increase their reach across the board.
Given their power, however, just the 9.3x62, .375 H&H, and perhaps the .416 Rem. Mag. would get the nod for a mule deer hunt. Although, the .458 Win. Mag. and Lott are viable close range deer and elk cartridges if loaded to lower pressures with lighter bullets.
Which one is best then? It depends on your needs. If you are on a plains game hunt in Africa, but decide to get a cull license for a Cape buffalo while in the field, either the .375 H&H or .416 Rem. Mag. are good rifles to have along. While the 9.3x62 will get the job done, many African countries require a minimum .375 caliber round. These three are also great choices for the big bears.
If your main goal is an elephant, buff, or hippo, or you need a no nonsense bear defense gun, the .458s or .505 would serve better if you can handle them well. Many African PHs and Alaskan guides would rather you show up in camp with the .375 you can drive tacks with than the .505 Gibbs which gives you the shakes.
.505 Gibbs Penetration Test.
All these cartridges will stop ferocious beasts at close range. With the right bullets, one can use them to hunt everything from pronghorn and Thompson’s gazelle up through elk and kudu, plus every dangerous animal which walks the planet.
I chose a .375 Holland & Holland Magnum decades ago. I have never regretted the decision. It is the one cartridge most African PH’s recommend for their clients. It has enough power to stop an elephant, yet it won’t disintegrate a whitetail deer. It applies its power with grace and efficiency. It is about as much gun as I care to shoot from the bench, however in the penultimate moment during a hunt, the recoil seems to vanish.
I like the other rounds here, in particular the 9.3x62, .416 Rem. Mag., and .404 Jeffery. If I lived in Africa or Europe, I wouldn’t hesitate to get a 9.3x62. The “Jeff” is my choice if I were after the biggest of the Big Five. If I found a .416 Rem. Mag. in good nick for reasonable money, I’d give it a try.
However, I stand by my .375 H&H as it has stood by me all these years. None other than famed African hunter and .416 Rigby devote’, Harry Selby, once remarked about it, “No finer cartridge has ever been developed.” I couldn’t agree more.
The .375 H&H: power, reach, accuracy, and reasonable recoil. Handled properly, it's a match for any animal on the planet.
Dangerous Game Cartridges for Bolt-Actions Test Results
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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© 2018 LJ Bonham