Many writers and other professionals have suggested their own ideas and preferences in answer to that question. Obviously, the question is very open-ended as many good options are available, and have been suggested, so why should I pretend to have anything to say on the subject that has not already been said a few hundred times — perhaps even a few thousand?
First off, hunting has changed to a significant degree over the past one-half century in many parts of the world, and so has the availability of good rifles at affordable prices for that chore. In addition, more hunters load their own from the best components available, and it seems that the ammo companies have caught on to that fact and are now manufacturing better products for a broader array of BG rifles. Even factory products for old standbys like the .30-06 have significantly improved in bullet choices, MV, accuracy and reliable performance. So, if one chooses to go that route, after finding what works best in his/her rifle, they will not likely be disappointed. Simply put: the .30-06 is better than ever! But so is just about any other BG rifle, especially if we make our own loads for them.
Then, with All-Terrain-Vehicles, 4×4 pickups, etc, one can get closer to where the game lives with less sweat, blood and frustration. Yes, blood (from bruised shins, scrapes and falls!).
Big Game regulations have also been altered over time with limits going down and costs going up! That means less time in the field and more urgency in filling a tag.
All of that impinges on “What BG Rifle is best for the task at hand?”
The answer, of course, is variable depending largely on four factors:
1) The game being hunted;
2) Where (involving what country and terrain);
3) You — your experience, temperament and preferences;
4) Suitable rifles and loads available — and the best among them.
Having to start somewhere, we obviously need to set parameters for big game. How big is “big”? Size matters, so does weight. Are DG (dangerous game) included? If so, then size and weight might not be the most important factors. There is also the matter of terrain/region. If high up in mountains, then rifle weight, caliber and cartridge must be of top priority. So the picture gets murky if we are considering a single rifle for all chores in hunting big game, does it not? What about a one BG rifle safari for a mixed bag? And that might become inconvenient in certain regions of the same continent, such as the west of North America. BG could mean sheep in the mountains or brown bear in the willows! What single rifle would you choose for a BG hunt in the mountains and a willow-hunt for moose or grizzly in the same season?
So, again, how “big” is BIG?
I’d suggest northern mature buck whitetails (250 to 400 lbs) as a starter, to Alaska/Yukon moose and brown bear/grizzly at the top end as big game in North America, and anything else that might fit within those parameters in the rest of the world — with African DG as an exception with certain qualifications.
As a starter, I’d choose nothing less than a .300 magnum (there are obviously several) for all BG in North America, IF it was/became an issue — for whatever reason — of a single BG rifle. Others have said it, and I repeat it out of personal conviction: A .300 magnum would be one among a possible half-dozen that I would consider as a single rifle for all big game hunting on this continent, and even in my province. That’s from experience and careful analysis of all potential factors involved.
<(.300 Win Mag, second from left)
“As a starter”, I said… one among a half-dozen.
Though the .45-70 (handloaded) has been one of my personal favorites for most of my BG hunts in Ontario, it has not been for ALL BG hunts… The reason has been its limited range under certain conditions of deer and moose hunting. So, I want a BG rifle that will be MORE than adequate under ALL potential conditions, no matter what!
So, among the criteria set above, physical conditions, including potential range, must be among top priorities. Someone once wrote, and it’s been quoted several times by others: “If the recoil from a .375 H&H is too much for a hunter, then there’s a certain amount of hunting he will have to forego.” In general, I endorse that statement — in principle at least, as there are several other cartridges that will do as well. More on that when we get to make nominations.
That was a general overview in answer to the question .
Now for some specifics:
AFRICA: If I were to do much hunting there it would be for a mixed bag of plains game and one or two of the dangerous game (DG). And I would use what I have for big game in North America, including a Big Bore and a Medium. From that point on if I were to do several more hunts in Africa the focus would be mostly Cape buffalo and a select few of plains game that had not previously been taken.
That would be a philosophical/practical approach to the question should I ever have that opportunity — which isn’t likely at this stage of my life. But I did have a taste of African hunting sponsored by my son who was a licensed resident BG hunter. He loaned me his 12-ga. pump shotgun loaded with Brennekes. I got to fire it twice on warthogs. However, he said “If we run into a nasty buff or lion, use it!” In such a scenario, I’d have handed it to him who was following behind me and his friend, the local scout whom I was following. Brent (my son) was toting a camera.
My choice for African DG would be a bolt-action .458 Winchester Magnum, and my 9.3 x 62 for plains game. Both shooting handloads.
For Cape buffalo it would be either the 450gr Barnes TSX or the 450gr Swift AF at 2400 fps from a 24″- 25″ barrel, seated long in the case. Using modern powders (reformulated) such as H4895, H335 and AA2230, such bullet speeds at the muzzle are possible. For a solid, Barnes makes a 450gr and Hornady a 480gr. Why not a 500? Good question. I could go either way, but the 450s are about 100 fps faster while generating less recoil. That’s a bit of hair-splitting, I know. 2400 fps from a 450gr is making 5755 ft-lbs at the muzzle. That’s some reserve over the traditional standard of 5000 ft-lbs for African DG of the largest/toughest sort.
Yeah, I too believe there’s more to it than that — nevertheless, it might resolve any doubts as long as the bullet and shooter are equal to the task at hand.
Of course, there are other capable rifles and cartridges that have proven their worth on African DG all the way to elephant, including the hoary .375 H&H. But after watching numerous professional videos on DG hunting in Africa, including the likes of elephant, Cape buff and lion, make mine a handloaded .458 Win Mag. I’ve witnessed on film, Cape buffalo take more than a half-dozen shots from .375s before they were done… finished! A big male free-ranging lion has also taken as many hits before the game was over — with PH’s doing most of the hitting! Yes, of course, timely and accurate shooting of a Cape buff in the African “alders”, er…. thickets, is a very challenging feat for a North American hunter who has never shot anything more than a smallish whitetail munching clover in an open field!
How many times have I seen on various videos the PH shouting, or voicing these words: “Shoot now!”, and there was no shot! Then the animal moves further into a thick tangle of thorn bush… and the rodeo begins! The hunter was mesmerized by what he was experiencing! And likely had not previously used his rifle in actual North American hunting! Yes, he may have shot it a few times at a bench (by a “few times” is meant a couple of boxes!), but never in an actual challenging N.A. hunt! So, he is unsure of himself in a strange setting, and using sticks, or offhand, for a rifle that weighs three pounds more than he’s used to, and kicks like the devil! So, he’s not ready to “Shoot now!”
To me, at least, it’s interesting (and informative) that promotional material from agencies that arrange African hunts for clients only use well-known “professionals” to do the shooting, but even they at time mess-up!
Personally, I’d not take an unfamiliar, unused rifle to Africa for hunting DG, or even plains game. I’d take my single-shot Ruger in .458 Win Mag over a bolt-action repeater in the same caliber that I had little to no experience with in the field prior to venturing on an African safari.
As a “Medium”, my nomination was the historic, African proven 9.3 x 62 Mauser. But not only because of its credentials. That counts, but more than that I’ve owned and used one for the past eight years. From excellent handloads it’s fully the equal of the venerable .375 H&H firing nominal factory stuff. Yes, the .375 H&H also can be handloaded to exceed their nominal specs; any experienced handloader could safely pull that off! I’ve done it! But the choice of components must be exact to surpass the downrange effect of the 9.3 x 62. For example: Should the .375 H&H be loaded with the 300 Swift AF, the 300 Nosler Partition or the 300 Barnes TSX, to 2600 fps MV, they will be lagging behind the 286 Nosler Partition from my rifle at the 300 yd mark in energy and momentum. The 286 in .366 has the same sectional density as the 300s in .375, so should produce the same penetration at equal impact velocity as the .375s. The truth of the matter is, however, that the 9.3x 62 has greater impact velocity from 25 yards on due to a better ballistic coefficient (BC).
Moreover, my rifle (TIKKA) with it’s 22.4″ barrel will shoot the 286 NP at 2620 – 2640 fps MV. If the barrel of a .375 H&H is cut to 22.5″, will it still make 2600 fps from 300s at the muzzle? My 26″ Browning shortened to 22″ would do factory specs of 2530 fps from good handloads. “Hot loads” made 2560 fps.
My choice would be what I now own: a TIKKA T3 in 9.3 x 62, that readily makes over 2600 fps from the 286 NP; or 2700+ fps from the 250 Nosler AB, or 2460 fps from the 320gr Woodleigh PP; all in using RL-17. And I have milder loads for whitetails and wolf. Could any of that be suitable for African Plains Game?
(My Tikka 9.3 x 62 in hand as I check the bait barrel. I shot a “good” bear a day or so later using the 250gr Nosler AB at +2700 fps. Range was 87 yards.)
Frankly, it has replaced all of my “mediums”, AND “sub-mediums”. Yes, recoil is a bit “stout” from the big bullets, surpassing even a .375 H&H that weighs over 9 lbs. Mine weighs a T3 “Lite” at 7.7 lbs, loaded, with a 3 – 9 x 40mm scope on board. It’s also a very accurate rifle, shooting MOA, or better, from the selected loads. And, according to QuickLoad, it should fire 300s at 2550 fps (from a 22.5″) at 64,000 psi; a standard I use for all loads since that rifle has also been chambered in .338 Win Mag. The effect on the Hornady brass that I use for all handloads isn’t greater than for any magnum loads. And I’ve handloaded a bunch of .338 Win Mags, a .340 Wby, and several .375 H&H’s. It’s not that modern 9.3 x 62’s are made “weaker” than the magnums; nor are the brass cases.
So, in P2 we’ll have a look at the challenges facing N.A. hunters of BG, and anywhere else in the world. From all that I’ll give my selection of “the BEST” BG rifle for the one-rifle hunter.
Of course, you have your own ideas, biases and preferences… I know that. And I’ll not claim that my choice should be the “best” for you. Remember the four criteria at the commencement of this piece. That’s open-ended, making any of several options viable. But I will tell you my choice from what I now know from analysis and forty years handloading rifles from the .22 Hornet to the .458 Win Mag; plus over sixty years hunting experience.
However, my choice of a one-rifle for all/any African game in a mixed bag hunt would be the .458 Winchester Magnum. Reasons and arguments will be presented in P2.