Dangerous game demands specialized cartridges with lots of stopping power and that are capable of penetrating thick hides. So which are the best dangerous game cartridges of all time?
Dangerous game—those two words pique my curiosity like a kitten at the sight of a laser-pointer. Hunting dangerous game requires a rifle cartridge larger than most of us use regularly, one with the ability to save your bacon and to end a confrontation quickly and without anyone getting hurt. There have been many designs over the years. Some are more than a century old; some came about in my lifetime. When the game animal has enough weight, strength and tenacity to send your mortal remains home in a mayonnaise jar, you’ll need a cartridge that you can handle effectively yet will get the job done. Let’s take a look at some of those cartridges that fit the bill.
The .375 Holland & Holland Belted Magnum
The Three-Seven-Five is undoubtedly the most popular choice for dangerous game, on any continent, for good reasons. It is a cartridge that can use bullets up to 350 grains, and the recoil of the .375 H&H is mild enough that just about anyone can shoot it with a bit of practice. The classic recipe is a 300-grain slug at 2,550 feet per second (fps), generating just over 4,000 ft.-lbs. of energy at the muzzle, but the main selling point of the .375 is the versatility. Want to use it on elk, moose or plains game? There are many good bullets in the 230- to 270-grain range that will make for a flat-shooting load. Want to pursue the heavyweights? The premium 300-grainers and the Woodleigh 350-grain bullets in the Norma African PH line of ammo will get the job done. For a sportsman who travels the world, the .375 H&H Magnum is a solid investment, one he or she can use for bears in America or buffalo in Southern Africa. My wife shoots one, in a Legendary Arms Works Big Five rifle, and she shoots it very well. When an African Professional Hunter tells you a .375 H&H is all you need, he means it; it’ll take any game animal on earth.
The .450/400 3-inch Nitro Express
This rimmed, bottle-necked cartridge was developed in the early 20th century by W. J. Jeffery, and was a redesign of the earlier 3¼-inch version. The beauty of the .450/400 NE is that it has the mildest recoil of all the valid dangerous game cartridges—many shooters find the .450/400 even easier to shoot than the .375 H&H. Driving a 400-grain bullet to 2,050 fps, the .411-inch diameter bullets will give excellent penetration, making it a perfectly viable cartridge, even for elephant. While it doesn’t feed very well in a bolt-action rifle, there are many double rifles available in this chambering, and Ruger chambers its fantastic No. 1 single-shot rifle for it. There are good, modern loads available from Hornady, using the DGX and DGS bullets, and plenty of good brass for the handloader.
The .416 Rigby
John Rigby & Co. released their proprietary big game cartridge in 1911, and it gained much favor among those who used it extensively. Certainly, it received a huge shot in the arm when Robert Ruark released “Horn of the Hunter” in 1953, immortalizing the cartridge in the hands of PH Harry Selby. The huge case was designed to give positive extraction to matter how hot the temperatures got (cordite, the common propellant in 1911, was extremely temperature sensitive), and the 400-grain soft points and solids, pushed at 2,400 fps, made for a great combination, and it still does today. While the Rigby does give a considerable increase in recoil, compared to the .375 H&H, it delivers another 1,000 ft.-lbs. of energy, with a larger frontal diameter. Because of the length of the cartridge—3.75 inches—it requires a magnum-length receiver. For those hunters who want to approach the energy figures of the .45-calibers, but who still want a trajectory that can make the longer shots, the Rigby is a good choice. Bullet weights range from 325 grains up to 450 grains, with the heavier weights being best for dangerous game work.
The .416 Remington Magnum
When the supply of ammunition for the British safari guns began to dry up in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, wildcatters took matters into their own hands. An American Professional Hunter named George Hoffman mated the .416-inch bullets of the Rigby with the case of the .375 H&H; the result was the .416 Hoffman, and it was and still is a good cartridge. Remington changed the design slightly, using their 8mm Remington Magnum case as a basis, and in 1988 released the .416 Remington Magnum. It delivers Rigby ballistics in a smaller cartridge, albeit at a higher chamber pressure. While that higher pressure was initially an issue because of extraction issues in extreme heat (I lay the blame on the small extractor used on Remington’s rifles), any controlled round feed rifle will give no issues when chambered to .416 Remington. I have used a Winchester Model 70 in .416 Rem. all over Africa and North America, with stellar results. It is accurate, as hard-hitting as the Rigby, and the recoil is noticeably less than the Rigby case. It can be produced in an affordable rifle, and ammunition and component brass is much more affordable than the Rigby stuff. I’ve used this cartridge to take Cape buffalo, and wouldn’t hesitate to do so again.
The .404 Jeffery
While the .416 Rigby took the lion’s share of the popularity, the .404 Jeffery was quietly doing the majority of the dirty work. The game rangers of Tanzania, Kenya, and North and South Rhodesia were issued .404 Jeffery bolt-action rifles for game control work. The Jeffery design saw the light of day around 1909 (accounts vary), to mirror the ballistics of the earlier .450/400, but in a repeating rifle. The original “.404 Rimless Nitro Express” used a 400-grain .423-inch bullet at 2,150 fps and was not only effective on all game—including elephant and rhino—but was also very easy to shoot well. Modern steel has resulted in a more potent, modern load: a 400-grain bullet at 2,350 fps, putting today’s .404 Jeffery in the same league as the .416s. I absolutely love this cartridge; its sloping shoulder allows the cartridges to feed as smooth as silk, and the versatility of the loads will let it purr like a kitten or roar like a lion. As a handloader, I like the premium 400-grain bullets—like the Woodleigh Hydrostatically Stabilized solids—at around 2,275 fps. My Heym Express prints them into sub-MOA groups, and my, is it effective. I took a huge-bodied Zimbabwe bull elephant with my .404 Jeffery, giving complete penetration and exiting on two body shots. You really can’t ask for any more than that from a dangerous game cartridge.
The .450 3¼-inch Nitro Express
This is one of the original success stories, coming at the end of the 19th century, setting the benchmark for the performance of dangerous game cartridges for decades to come. The John Rigby design from 1898 uses a 480-grain bullet at 2,150 fps for just under 5,000 ft.-lbs. of energy at the muzzle. In a good double rifle, the .450 Nitro makes a great choice for elephant, hippo and buffalo, effectively taking all three for well over a century. I’ve seen its effects first-hand, and it is a true stopping rifle. While the trajectory is less than desirable at ranges over 150 yards, consider that most dangerous game is taken well within the 100-yard mark, so there’s no real handicap if you choose the .450 NE when picking a dedicated dangerous game rifle. Being a rimmed case, it doesn’t translate well to a bolt-action gun, but in a single-shot or double it’s a true classic.
The .458 Winchester Magnum
Remember I told you that supplies of ammunition for the British cartridges dried up in the ‘50s? The same fate befell the .450 Nitro; ammo became more rare than hen’s teeth. To solve the problem, and gobble up a huge share of the market, Winchester developed a cartridge that would mimic the ballistics of the .450 NE, but in a bolt-action rifle of American make, which would be both affordable and available. Winchester engineers opened up the .375 H&H belted case to hold .458-inch diameter bullets, in a straight walled configuration, and cut the case length down to 2.500 inches, so as to fit in a .30-’06-length action. The .458 Winchester was born, claiming to drive a 510-grain bullet at 2,150 fps from the muzzle of the Model 70. It looked good on paper, but there were immediate problems. The case—being cut down—didn’t have the capacity to get those big bullets moving at the advertised speed. That, combined with the fact that the ball powder Winchester used to fuel the .458 had a tendency to clump, resulting in squib loads, almost equaled disaster for the .458 Winchester Magnum. The load and bullet were revised, and things were set right; however, I feel that there are still flaws in the .458 Winchester. The first is the case capacity. Should you try and handload your safari ammunition, you’ll find that there are only a handful of powders that will give you good velocity without having to be heavily compressed. Secondly, most of the factory loads are using a 500-grain pill and are struggling to get the velocity without generating really high pressures. I think the .458 would be best served with a premium 465- or 480-grain bullet to give a bit of room in the case. Nonetheless, many visiting sportsmen and Professional Hunters use the .458 Winchester with good effect.
The .458 Lott
Jack Lott, a veteran African hunter, had experienced those issues I outlined regarding the .458 Winchester Magnum—I’ve heard the story of how he was nearly killed—and decided to fix the issue. He thought the full-length case of the .375 H&H (2.850 inches versus 2.500 inches for the .458 Winchester) would alleviate the case capacity problem and maybe even give a bit more velocity, and Mr. Lott was absolutely correct. The 0.350-inch difference in length changed the entire game, and the belted Lott case will push a 500-grain bullet to 2,300 fps, for over 5,900 ft.-lbs of energy. As a handloader, I can use the Lott in a couple of ways. First, and most obvious, I can load it to its full-house specs for an extremely potent dangerous game cartridge. Secondly, and because I’m all about flexibility, I can very easily load the Lott down to the original .458 Winchester ballistics. This keeps the pressures very low, and the century-plus history of the .450 Nitro should alleviate any concerns about that ballistic formula. The Lott also has another really cool feature: Because the .458 Lott is nothing more (and nothing less) than an elongated .458 Winchester case, any .458 Lott rifle can and will shoot factory .458 Winchester Magnum ammunition without issue. If I were to choose a bolt-action .45-caliber dangerous game rifle, it would undoubtedly be a .458 Lott.
The .470 Nitro Express
An insurgence in India resulted in the British Empire banning all .45-caliber ammunition in the early 1900s, so as a result, gun makers needed to replicate the ballistics of the dangerous-game-proven .450 Nitro Express, yet in a different bore diameter. Joseph Lang took the .500 Nitro—a beast of a cartridge—and necked it down to hold 0.475-inch bullets, and the .470 Nitro Express was born. Mind you, the recipe is a familiar one: 500-grain bullet at 2,150 fps, but with a bit more frontal diameter and yet enough sectional density to penetrate even the honeycombed bone of an elephant skull. Among the diverse selection of Nitro Express cartridges that came along to replace the .450 NE—the .475 NE, the .475 No. 2 Jeffery, the .500/465 NE, and the .476 NE were others—the .470 became the industry standard as a Professional Hunter’s stopping rifle. It remains a popular choice to this day, with factory ammunition readily available, and many great double rifles being produced annually in this caliber.
The .505 Gibbs Magnum
Let’s make this simple: Any cartridge over .50-caliber that will push 525-, 570- and 600-grain bullets over 2,000 fps will make a good stopping rifle. Some of them are reserved for the double guns—like the rimmed .500 Nitro Express—and others designed for the repeating rifles—like the .500 Jeffery—but my favorite among these is the .505 Gibbs Magnum. The big Gibbs case will need 130 to 145 grains of powder to push those huge bullets, and it pushes the big 570- and 600-grain slugs to 2,100 fps, for just under 5,900 ft.-lbs. at the muzzle. Couple that with the huge frontal diameter (.505-inch) and you’ve got an elephant stopper that isn’t all that terrible on the shoulder. While it’s rather obvious that the .505 isn’t a long-range rifle, it has what it takes when the distances are measured in feet, not in yards. CZ makes a fine rifle, and Montana Rifle Company makes their DGR with a nice big muzzle brake that actually makes it quite comfortable to shoot. The .505 Gibbs is a specialty cartridge that is designed for the heavyweights; it really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to use it on lighter game, as there are much better tools for that job. But, if you want to put an exclamation point at the end of the hunting sentence, the .505 Gibbs will do just that.