Friday, June 11, 2010

An American Deer Hunter In Africa, Part III

Funny how, years later, the details of the guns seem a little less important.  Still, some thoughtful choices and careful preparation will make your hunt more enjoyable...

Part III: You and the Gun

Carry as light and short a rifle as you can shoot well. Longer, heavier pieces have their place, but that place is not "walking and stalking" the bushveld. You’ll want a rifle you can carry in your shooting hand alone, for as long as you need the other hand free to negotiate the thornbush, jump quietly from the truck, or creep through the grass "on all threes." Do not worry so much about recoil from light rifles, unless it contributes to your flinch.

Do not practice for hunting by shooting from the bench. Zero your rifle—or handgun—then leave the bench to practice snap shots, offhand, post rest, kneeling, and maybe a little from sitting. You will almost never find a use for the benchrest and prone positions in the bushveld. Besides, you’ll likely be pleased to discover that practicing from field positions reduces your rifle’s perceived recoil. If recoil is still a distraction you’ll find a PAST Recoil Shield makes a long session with a handy rifle much more pleasant.

Our PH recommended that we zero our rifles for 100 yards. I didn’t change mine as I thought that was kind of close. Then over ten days my longest shot on eight animals—seven game and one varmint—was 90 yards. Shot placement is always critical, but it is especially important when dense cover is always only a few feet away. A "25 meter zero" or "Maximum Point Blank Range" zero will put most of your hits two or three inches above your point of aim over most of the ranges at which you’ll be shooting at game in the bushveld. If you zero for 100 practice enough to know where your rifle puts its bullets at 200 yards just in case, as you may encounter a longer shot. Usually, with longer range comes more time to think about your shot. If you going hunting in open terrain later, make sure you bring extra ammunition and make time to re-zero.

Practice on practical targets. I used eight inch disks cut from cardboard cartons and paper grocery bags for my rifle practice whenever possible. Learn to concentrate on the center of a target that has no specific aiming point, while shooting from field positions, and you’ll be the better for it. By the way, you may notice you’re no longer cutting one, two, or even three MOA. Don’t worry; your rifle hasn’t suddenly gone sour. Practical field shooting tests you much more than the quality of your equipment and, yes, it is a humbling thing.

Use a low-powered scope. Set your variable at 1.5, 2, or 3 magnifications; you get the idea. Yeah, all the way to the bottom; then leave it there unless you encounter a long shot in the open. Yours only goes down to 4.5? May I suggest you find a smaller, lighter scope for this trip? I used a fixed four power glass and got caught watching the Impala on the left while a very nice Gemsbok wandered away to the right. I already had a nice Impala; I was hunting for Gemsbok. They were all of 75 yards away. My old 2.5 power Weaver would have been a better choice for all of my rifle shots in the bushveld.

Consider bringing two scopes, each already mounted and zeroed in its own quick detachable rings, especially if you plan to use heavy or hard slugs for close work in the bush, then switch to light slugs for long range hunts in open terrain. Zero one for each bullet. Scopes can go bad on you. One of my hunting companions had two scopes, of highly reputable American manufacture, crack up on him while preparing for the trip. It happens. He had time to mount and zero a replacement and a spare. If you have two good scopes, you can switch to the spare, re-zeroing it if necessary.

Nothing evaporates quicker in the bushveld than a really nice Kudu. I saw several nice bulls, but didn’t manage to get on them in time. Practice shooting as quickly as you’re able. A bullet that lands anywhere near the center of your homemade eight inch practice target right now is much better than a pinwheel you’re ready to deliver a second after the biggest Kudu you’ve ever seen has melted into the bush. On the other hand, learn your limits, so that you shoot no quicker than you can. Don’t take a shot if you’re not ready. Don’t worry about what your PH thinks of you --and your shooting ability-- at that moment. He would rather find you another trophy than spend the rest of the day tracking an animal you hit poorly.

Maker certain your rifle works with the ammunition you decide to bring. Do all your practice shooting from the magazine. I prepared a 220 grain handload that worked fine through the action of my .30-’06 Remington 700 ADL, so long as I only worked it quickly or firmly. When shooting for blood under the African sun I found out that the vigorous "bolt flick" Jeff Cooper taught me at his old Gunsite caused the round nose bullet to stop on the sharp, square edge of the chamber, every time. I bagged three animals with my "single-shot 700" anyway, but switched to 180 grain spitzer ammunition for my last few days of hunting. When I shot my Gemsbok on the last day of the hunt my bolt flick did not tie up the action. Not feeding roundnose bullets under rigorous conditions is no sin, but its better to discover such limitations at the range instead of in the bush. I’d have been happy to use a 200 grain spitzer had I known.

"Use enough gun." Our PH’s thought that anything between the 6.5x55 Swedish and the .350 Remington Magnum should do nicely for most any non-dangerous game in African bushveld, if you use a good bullet and can place it properly. Yeah, this will rule out the popular 6mm and .25 caliber rounds. The PH’s agreed that these rounds can do the job, especially for resident hunters who can afford to pass on "iffy" shots, but a little more bullet means the visiting hunter with only a week or two to hunt can take a shot that might not be prudent with the lighter rounds. The PH’s prefer to use Nosler Partitions in their .30-’06s and .375s to sort things out for their clients on non-dangerous game. They don’t see the need for a bullet any "harder" than the Nosler Partition, which offers quick expansion and certain penetration from almost any angle. They do not think much of high velocity magnums for bushveld hunting, as they favor an initial velocity of 2400-2600 feet per second for close work in the thornbush.

The PH’s quite liked the performance of the.350 Remington Magnum rifles carried by two of the hunters in our party. It may be an obsolescent cartridge (all but abandoned by Remington and fully appreciated only by a dedicated few), but topped with the 225 Nosler Partition at around 2500 feet per second it worked on everything from Impala to Zebra, from 40 yards to over 200 yards. The PH’s thought the .350s might have offered quicker kills if they had used a softer, single core bullet, but as it was they preferred the penetration guaranteed by the Partitions. You’ll hear that a lot; placement and penetration. By extension one would expect the .35 Whelen, the .338-06, and the .358 Winchester to do very nicely as well. I think the quick handling the original Browning Lever Action in .358 Winchester would be right at home in the bushveld. A Remington 600/660 (or a Seven from the Remington Custom Shop) chambered in .350 Remington Magnum would be quite the gamegetter in the thornbush; and most anywhere else in the world for that matter. A six or seven pound .350 is going to kick you enough to notice, but, man, it sure would be handy.

Stick close to your PH or your tracker; step in his footprints if you can. You’ll assume his pace, stop when he stops, be able to help each other quietly negotiate the thorn, and --most importantly-- you’ll be in a position to see what he sees.

Shooting sticks. Wow! Shooting sticks may just be the single best artificial shooting aid since the shooting sling. As one cannot count on using prone, sitting, and sometimes even kneeling, positions in the bushveld shooting sticks come into their own. If you are serious about preparing for Africa, get yourself some sticks or fabricate your own and get used to working with them. Ours were carried and set by our PH or tracker, which is by far the most convenient way to work with them. The [sticks] can be inconvenient and noisy if you try to deploy them yourself and handle your weapon at the same time. I missed a shot on a nice Warthog while fumbling with the sticks while drawing my pistol from its holster, all for a shot I could have taken from post rest or kneeling if I’d had no sticks or holster to worry about.

If your rifle is light enough you might not need a carry strap and there’s something to be said for always having your weapon in your hand. You may need a shooting sling though. There is none finer or quicker for practical shooting and hunting than the Ching Sling, as originally manufactured by the late Bruce Nelson, but now made only by Galco. You won’t always have, or need, the shooting sticks. If you know how to use a shooting sling you won’t miss the sticks, if the grass isn’t too tall.

As for handgun hunting; the bushveld is perfect for it. I used a .44 Magnum Thompson/Center Contender with a 10 inch factory barrel wearing open sights. I handloaded a 320 grain LBT Wide Flat Nose bullet, as hard cast and heat treated by Cast Performance Bullet Company, over a maximum charge of Hodgdon H110 and CCI Magnum Large Pistol primer. I zeroed it two inches high at 50 yards and had a great time. I took Impala, Blesbok, Warthog, and Zebra at ranges from 40 to 90 yards. The PH’s were impressed by the effectiveness of hard cast flat nose slugs, saying their .375’s with Nosler Partitions could not be counted on for better performance at close range. I expect the .41 Magnum, the .44 Magnum, the .45 Colt using Hodgden silhouette data in Ruger revolvers or the Contender, and the .454 Casull would all do very nicely as hunting handguns in the thornbush. In a Contender the .45/70, in a barrel short enough to be handy, would be a sledgehammer on game if the hunter is prepared for the challenging recoil.

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