LJ Bonham is a semi-subsistence hunter, hunting magazine editor, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.
Dangerous Game Calibers
Dangerous game cartridges are designed to do one thing: stop a charge from an animal intent on killing a hunter. The dangerous game includes Africa’s Big Five (lion, leopard, Cape buffalo, hippo, and Elephant) as well as the great bears (Polar, Grizzly, and Kodiak). These cartridges all have one thing in common. They fire wide, long, heavy bullets at moderate velocity. Long, heavy bullets have a high sectional density (SD) which is the ratio between their diameter and weight. A high SD is anything above .270. High SD bullets penetrate better than low or mid-range SD bullets and do not require high velocity to penetrate deep into large, tough animals. Dangerous game cartridges fire bullets with SDs above .300.
Many dangerous game cartridges have come and gone over the decades, but five have proved the best. Let’s see what makes them special.
.375 Holland and Holland Magnum
Introduced in 1912 for bolt-action rifles, the .375 H&H became a worldwide favorite. Although considered a medium bore, the .375 performs much more like a true big bore. It is also the smoothest feeding cartridge in the world, a big asset when hunting dangerous game with a magazine-fed, bolt-action rifle.
The .375 H&H’s biggest strength is versatility. It accepts bullets from 230 to 350 grains. When stoked with 300 – 350 grain bullets, it is a giant killer. The .375 is also the smallest legal caliber for hunting dangerous game in many African countries which gives it the edge over smaller calibers.
The .375 H&H is perhaps the best cartridge for African lions when loaded with 270 through 300-grain bullets which expand quickly. Lion loads will also perform well on leopards.
Tough 300 grain, controlled expansion bullets such as the Nosler Partition, Swift A-Frame, Barnes Triple-Shock X, Hornady DGX, Trophy Bonded Bear Claw, and Woodleigh Weld Core are the world standard for animals such as Cape buffalo, hippo, and bear.
While not considered an ideal elephant cartridge, the .375 will do the job if loaded with 300 or 350 grain solids, and the hunter places shots with precision. Woodleigh’s 350 grain solid has a good reputation for this application.
Several other .375 cartridges have appeared in the last decade, but the H&H is still the best when feed reliability and worldwide ammunition availability are considered.
Here some performance figures for factory .375 H&H ammunition:
- 270 grain: 2700 fps/4370 ft-lbs, SD .274 (Hornady InterLock)
- 300 grain: 2530 fps/4263 ft-lbs, SD .305 (Hornady DGX)
- 350 grain: 2300 fps/4112 ft-lbs, SD .356 (Norma PH)
.375 H&H vs. Big Black Bear
English gun maker Rigby introduced this great cartridge in 1911 for its proprietary magazine rifles. Unlike its contemporary, the .375 H&H, the .416 is a true big-bore. It received much publicity as famed African hunter Harry Selby’s preferred round.
While the .375 is a bit more versatile, the .416 Rigby’s trajectory is similar, and it can reach out to 300 yards with ease—unusual for a big-bore. Unlike the .375, it is not considered marginal for Cape buffalo and elephants. It will drop any animal on the planet, with proper bullet placement.
Its long case is its only drawback since it only fits in magnum length Mauser-style actions, which means it is only available in expensive limited production or custom rifles. It also has about thirty percent more recoil than the .375, and some shooters can’t handle it well. However, it still has much less recoil than heavyweights such as the .470 Nitro Express.
The .416 Rigby has always used a 400 or 410 grain bullet, although Woodleigh has introduced a 450 grain in both soft-nose and solid. Use solids for elephant and follow-up shots on buffalo; and expanding bullets for anything smaller.
There are other .416s on the market which fit into standard length actions, but the Rigby works at much lower pressures and is less likely to stick in the chamber after firing on a hot day.
Here are some performance numbers for the .416 Rigby
- 400 grain: 2300 fps/4905 ft-lbs, SD .330 (Federal TBBC)
- 400 grain: 2400 fps/5115 ft-lbs, SD .330 (Federal Woodleigh Hydro Solid)
- 450 grain: 2150 fps/4620 ft-lbs, SD .371 (Norma PH)
The Jeffery gun company introduced the .404 in 1905. It competed directly against the .416 Rigby and .375 H&H, and is considered superior to both in many respects. The “Jeff” fits in standard length actions, has sufficient power for elephants, and recoils a bit less than the .416s. Its only major drawback is a lackluster trajectory compared to the .416 and .375, although this is a minor consideration since dangerous game cartridges are often used inside fifty yards.
The Jeff has an actual bore diameter of .423 inches which is larger than the .416. An advantage when solid bullets are used since bore diameter and bullet weight are the prime factors in “knock out power” with solids.
The .404 enjoyed favor with colonial game wardens in Africa who culled elephant herds that were deforesting the landscape and damaging crops. They appreciated the Jeff’s lower recoil after firing dozens of rounds at a time.
The .404 Jeffery almost disappeared but has made a comeback in the last decade as hunters have rediscovered its manners and effectiveness. Today, several companies offer production bolt-action rifles chambered for the cartridge and factory ammunition is again available in good quantities. This grizzled veteran deserves a place on any hunter’s gun rack.
Here are factory ballistics for the Jeff:
- 400 grain: 2300 fps/4698 ft-lbs, SD .321 (Hornady DGX)
- 450 grain: 2150 fps/4620 ft-lbs, SD .361 (Norma PH)
.458 Winchester Magnum
In 1956, Winchester saw an opportunity. After World War Two, Americans flocked to Africa to hunt, but the only suitable dangerous game rifles were either special, magnum length bolt-actions chambered for cartridges such as the .416 Rigby or expensive double rifles which fired hard to come by Nitro Express rounds.
Winchester reasoned these American hunters would buy a cartridge that hit like the old .450 Nitro Express but fit into a .30-06 length bolt-action like Winchester's Model 70. They took the proven .375 H&H’s case, shortened it, and necked it up to .458 caliber.
American adventurers and African professional hunters took notice, and the .458 Win Mag created quite a stir. It fired a 510 grain bullet at a claimed 2150 feet per second and over 5000-foot pounds of energy. The cartridge proved effective on Africa’s Big Five.
Unfortunately, Winchester chose a temperature-sensitive powder for the propellant and reports surfaced about the cartridge’s unpredictable performance, particularly in hot climates such as Africa. This included famous gun writer and hunter Jack Lott who blamed the .458 Win Mag for not stopping a Cape buffalo that almost killed him in 1959.
Lott’s condemnation lead to decreased sales for the .458 Win Mag until Winchester switched to a more temperature stable powder in the 1970s. Since then, the .458 has become the work-a-day dangerous game cartridge in Africa. It is also used by some Alaskan guides when hunting the enormous Kodiak brown bears.
Here are some performance figures for modern .458 Win Mag factory ammunition.
- 400 grain: 2250 fps/4496 ft-lbs, SD .272 (Federal TBBC)
- 500 grain: 2090 fps/4849 ft-lbs, SD .341 (Federal TBBC)
.470 Nitro Express
The only traditional, rimmed cartridge to make this list, the .470 is perhaps the best double rifle round ever produced. In the early twentieth century, double rifles dominated African hunting and were chambered for cartridges from .333 to .700 caliber, but as the double waned in popularity after the war, only a few cartridges survived in the market.
The .470 NE appeared in 1907. It used a .474 caliber bullet to circumvent bans on .458 bullets in many British colonies. The .458s had been prohibited to prevent them from falling into the hands of native liberation movements who often used older .458 caliber Martini rifles. Joseph Lang, the .470’s designer, didn’t realize at the time he had created something better than the .450 NE whose performance he intended to equal.
The .470 is a well-balanced cartridge. It is perfect for elephants but will take lions and anything in between, all without the severe recoil generated by the .500 and larger caliber Nitro Express cartridges. The .470 NE’s recoil is similar to the .458 Win Mag, but it has a better reputation as a stopper than the .458. Like all double rifle cartridges, the .470’s trajectory drops fast past one hundred yards, but this is inconsequential. It is a purpose-built tool for life or death circumstances at close quarters and excels at the job.
Factory ammunition is still available, here are the performance numbers:
- 500 grain: 2150 fps/5132 ft-lbs., SD .318 (Federal Swift A-frame)
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.
© 2017 LJ Bonham
Imoukhuede Oise on May 24, 2020:
In the write up, the bans were on the various .450 calibers (not 458s) like the 450 nitro express, 450 black powder, 450 no2 even though the bullet diameter was .458 the British called them .450s.
Navaratna Rajaram on June 05, 2018:
I would go with the .416 Rigby, A proven cartridge with low chamber pressure.Today it is possible to get loadings with 300 and 350 grain bullets. Only I would insist in 101/2 pounds for the rifle and no scope. I find open sights make for for faster shooting than scope sights up to 100 yards. I would take that and a .300 Winchester Magnum on an African Safari. I was planning such a trip until I was laid low by a stroke.