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by a.k.a. Gary Last updated: 2013-12-11 21:30:11
This hunt was a culmination of a dream for me that started back in the 70’s when as a young kid growing up in Chicago who was not raised in, nor raised around the hunting culture. We were allowed to get 3 magazines per year through a school magazine drive. I always got field and stream, In-fisherman, and outdoor life. In the early 80’s I spent much of my time reading these magazines and also reading Peter Capstick’s books that I checked out of the library. I remember an article in one of the outdoor magazines that talked about this new caliber in a single action pistol call a “454 Casull” and it was used on a brown bear hunt by the writer on an Alaskan hunt and I remember the way the bear was killed very very decisively by this writer with this mega-magnum pistol. Well in the Capstick books I also noted how many men were killed in his stories by the big 5 when their rifles failed, jammed, or just weren’t close enough to use. I always wondered how awesome it’d have been to have one of these 454 pistols in Africa and how many of these guys lives would’ve been saved had they had one. Many nights I’d finish a Capstick chapter and put the book down and imagine myself with one of these “454 Casull” pistols in Africa. This was about as far off a dream as I could have as I’d never even had a gun in my hands let alone one of these pistols. I’d never hunted and had no idea of who could possibly teach me to hunt, let alone afford the trip to have a safari.
Fast forward to January of 2013, I had received a call from Gary Smith about taking a trip to Africa to chase cape buffalo around in the late summer. We were at the Dallas Safari club show when I met my future Professional Hunter (PH), Bobby Hansen. He was more than happy to have handgun hunters in camp and has guided a few notable handgun hunters before in the past. It also helps when you’re sitting there talking to him and another PH comes up and thanks him personally for saving his butt in the bush so to speak. It seemed like the perfect opportunity and also to bring my eldest son Alex, who would be 18 at the time of the trip. Alex also came to the same dream in the same way I did, but has grown up shooting big bore pistols and hunting with them. I told Bobby I’d discuss the hunt further with him at the SCI show in Reno. My wife got to meet him and was instantly comfortable with him backing up her oldest baby Alex. We had discussed the buffalo hunt but he also told me about a lioness hunt in the Kalahari dessert. This hunt really seemed to embody my dreams. The hunt is basically tracking a lioness until it gets hot around mid-day and she gets tired, she then gets indignant, holes up in the thick brush or charges you. How could I pass this up? So I decided to forego plains game and would do the cape buffalo hunt and the lioness hunt. Alex wanted some plains game and would do the lioness hunt. We practiced for months sending over 2 thousand rounds downrange and I settled on a load. It was a swift a frame 325 gr bullet loaded to run at 1530 fps out of my FA 6” pistol with it’s Ultra Dot sitting up top, and I’d follow the swift with the 325 gr. Barnes Buster loaded to the same velocity. Both were hitting the same point at 75 yards. Alex was using Federal’s Barnes 275 gr. XPB load running 1850 fps out of his 8 3/8” 460 S&W. this load was used because, for one, it grouped well but Alex also has a favorite pistol, a 454 Casull BFR, that he loves and wanted to use a load in Africa that would simulate what he could’ve shot out of this BFR. Remember, Alex couldn’t bring guns in as he’s not 21 and I couldn’t bring two guns of the same caliber so his BFR 454 was out. So in a sense he was shooting a 454 load out of his 460.
Fast forwarding to August 1st as we boarded the Delta jet in Dallas the dream was becoming a reality. After a long long flight we landed in Johannesburg and in a few short hours we were resting comfortably at our PH’s home. The next morning we were on our way to the buffalo camp and got in time to get a nice dinner and get some rest. Sunday morning found us out pulling a few stalks on some small groups of bulls but by about 11 AM we’d been busted more than a few times. The agreement was made to split up and Alex and I would go with Johnny Demos, who guides with Bobby at times, and Gary would go off with Bobby and we’d try our luck when we split up. Johnny recommended we sit in a blind where we had seen an old Cape buff bull the previous night. Well that paid off, a couple hours into the hunt I had a wide bossed old bull in my sights. I had waited for this buff to turn broadside and then touched of the swift a frame. The buffalo jumped and hunched it’s right leg up and limped off with his 3 buddies and laid down about 40 yards away. We collected our wits and we discussed the situation. Johnny asked me frankly, “how many cape buff have ya shot with that load?” well, the answer was zero and despite having shot many bison and a water buffalo years ago, the decision was made not to let the buff lie down to long. It was explained that as we thought we had a good shot, we couldn’t be sure what the bullet had actually done and should sneak in and try and put a bit more lead in the buff as we knew exactly where it was. My position had always been to put one good shot in and then after that, whoever had a shot should take it as I didn’t want that trophy to get away. Bad things happen on these hunts and more than one PH and client has been hurt because they wanted as few shots put in as possible. This was no time for pride. So we stalked in and Johnny fired once with his 458 Lott and I got off one more shot with my 454 but they were fired through an awful lot of brush. As the buff ran off we went and picked up Gary and Bobby. The stalk began. We had located the buff 2 times and we all launched lead towards the buffalo. The buffalo went down and I fired one more shot into it’s chest and the buff stiffened up and then I walked up and put one into the boss through the head. We then had a dead cape buff down and now had an opportunity to test our loads on it. We both fired a few shots into the shoulder. I tested a barnes 250 xbp bullet, and gary had tested a hardcast 475 round. On a buffalo this big and going through both shoulder bones it was not surprising that there was no exit holes. While Gary and Bobby were off hunting for his cape buff we went off to the skinning shed to check the post mortem results on the buffalo. When the buffalo was skinned and gutted we found a few interesting results. The original A frame bullet was never found and appeared to have possibly exited and the barnes buster that I shot through the head was found on the skin under the head, it wouldn’t have exited, as the buffs head was lying on the ground when I fired. The buster I had fired through the shoulder from about 80 yards was found in the offside hide and the barnes xbp I fired in the bullet test was found in the offside leg meat. Impressive penetration for a bullet that opened up to an inch and was fired at a moderate velocity, essentially a hot 44 mag/ 45 colt round. I tracked the hole of the 475 hardcast round and it was somewhere in the offside leg bone/meat. Interestingly enough, many hunters find that hunting a cape buff with a handgun is a stunt, but wouldn’t have batted an eye had I used a .458 lott cartridge like my ph. Well, that bullet had come apart. His shot on my buff on the run had hit a bit back on the gut. The jacket had separated from the core of his bullet and was not even found in the vital cavity and the lead core was found on the offside of the chest cavity, all 89 grains of it. This bullet did essentially nothing, but I would’ve been celebrated in the dangerous game community for using such a cartridge and treated like a stuntman for using the 454 Casull. My PH said the buff was estimated at a minimum of about 1800 lbs and he felt likely to be near 2000lbs. All I know was the buff was big, real big, but that the PH felt very strongly that based on the blood the buff was coughing up and how quickly it laid down that if we had just left it alone the first shot would’ve killed it in short order. Now it was up to Gary to get his buffalo which he did in failing light on our last night at the buffalo camp. Alex had wanted a wildebeest or a good waterbuck but just never got the opportunity. Now it time to travel to the Kalahari for the lions.
The drive to the next location was long but it was fun to see so much of this country I’d never been to before. Bobby had kept saying that our last camp was comfortable but at the next camp he hoped we wouldn’t mind as it would be a bit rougher. When we arrived we realized he had been putting us on. This was one 5 star camp. Very nice and comfortable and had a “lion proof” fence around the camp. We could hear lions out a few hundred yards from our rooms at early morning when we woke up. It gave a real African feel that I had hoped to experience on this trip. The first day Alex was up as he hadn’t pulled a trigger on anything yet. We stalked his lion all morning and then retreated for lunch to let the lion lay up in the heat so it would possibly quit moving so much. The technique worked and we had the lion bedded in the thick thorns about ½ an hour after we finished lunch. Alex and Bobby positioned themselves about forty yards to our left to get a gap in the brush for a shot. It was exhilarating watching my son pulling the trigger on one of Africa’s most dangerous animals from about 30 yards away. The big 460 boomed and he made a perfect shot dead center in the chest of the lioness, she bounded about 20 yards away and lay down. He then moved in and fired another shot dead center in the chest and she collapsed and lay still but still breathing. The trackers and the PH were very very big on shooting these lion until they were motionless with no signs of life present. We all then went around the back side of the cat and he fired a shot at it lying down between it’s shoulder blades and then fired one more for good measure at the request of the PH. We all approached the large cat and I was quite nervous dragging it out of the brush even though it was dead. She was about 250 lbs as estimated by the PH’s. The 460 rounds penetrated completely on each shot and entered the chest and exited the back of the cat. One of rounds even penetrated a couple of trees about 3” in diameter and cut one over. The exit wounds were quite large and the round had obviously done a lot of damage. So far, all the PH’s present were quite impressed with the performance of the pistol.
On the way back, another opportunity presented itself for Alex. A herd of blue wildebeest were just off the road about 130 yards away. A good bull was located and Alex was moved in for a shot. At about 80-90 yards away he fired and the antelope jumped straight up in the air and face planted and kicked it’s way forward about 30 yards and lay motionless. It died quickly in about 30 seconds. Bobby said that he has rarely seen that effect from even large express rifles and they usually require follow up shots. Alex had punched perfectly through the thickest part of both shoulders. The bullet did not exit and now I’d finally get to see what one of the Barnes bullets from the 460 would look like. When the bullet was recovered it had performed as advertised but at the rather sedate velocity those rounds were traveling at there was a fairly large shank portion and I believe this caused it to tumbled a bit but it still broke the offside shoulder into about 20 pieces. When comparing this bullet to the 250 gr XPB from the Casull you could see that the 275 grain Barnes from the 460 was designed to be shot at a higher velocity and would have expanded and stabilized better had it been running 2-3 hundred fps faster but it still did the job. In the future if the 460 will be used on large game over 1000 lbs then the 275 will be run up to 2000 fps or the 250 gr load should be used. When gutting the wildebeest and seeing the lungs and heart I truly believe there is something to the Barnes claim that the sharp copper petals cut and do more damage. The bullets just do a lot of damage and when the bullets were recovered they had a lot of chewed up meat up under the petals like it was a circular saw going through meat.
The next morning it was my turn on a lion. We tracked mine for a few hours (more than 5 miles) and then we located her. She was a big female and the trackers and the PH’s made extra sure she wasn’t a small male. Their tracking ability is quite impressive. When I got set for the shot the lioness was lying at a rather odd angle slouched into the brush. I was about 35 yards away and using my ultradot red dot sight. Whether it was brush or I pulled the shot a touch the fact was it hit about 3 inches left of my intended aiming point and now I was dealing with a lion that was now hit in the guts and not the lungs. In retrospect I should’ve waited for a better angle with a larger margin for error or used a scoped pistol but the chase was on. About 400 yards later I was presented with a second shot, but this shot was through rather thick brush. I could see the hole through the large branches but couldn’t see all the smaller ones. I put what I thought was a perfectly placed shot next to the spine down through the center of her chest but she just ran off. Watching the video later you can clearly see a branch move just before the bullet struck the lion. All the skinner could find was a small bullet fragment in the lion and the bullet was obviously knocked off course and only a small fragment of the hollow point entered the lion. We tracked for several miles now and saw her trotting off. We gave chase but were unable to catch her so we found a nice shady spot where Gary, Alex, myself and another PH Chris grabbed a quick drink and talked for a bit while the trackers and Bobby picked up the track. We soon joined and began following the lion. Her track zig-zagged around the brush and the injured cat was found in the brush not 100 yards from where we had been sitting. We never knew she was there. Talk about getting lucky. I shudder to think about what could’ve happened had one of us walked off from the group to use the restroom. I got another shot and this time we got a bit closer and I used Gary’s Swarovski binoculars to see the hole in the brush. It was quit amazing what great optics will do. I could see lots of small branches in the apparent “hole” in the brush and was able to accurately place my shot between them and this time the effect was immediate and she died not 20 yards from where I shot her. She was a large cat about 300 lbs I’d estimate. My take home message on this was that what seemed like a great situation to use a red dot or iron sights was really a situation I needed a scope. The brush and thorns were very very thick and a scope was really needed to thread the needle and hit where you were aiming. You live and learn but at least I finally had my lion. Next time I will just use a scoped pistol in this situation. Now it was Gary’s turn for a lion.
On the last day Alex and Bobby were able to stalk in on an impala and Alex perfectly placed a shot and Alex had his 3rd African trophy. The bullet performed perfectly and the exit wound was about 1.5” in diameter and completely blew out the offside shoulder. A perfect end to a perfect safari! Gary and I got our lion and buffalo and Alex got his lion and a couple of plains game as well. The pistols performed perfectly. One side note, use doxycycline as malaria prophylaxis and not mefloquine. I am not sensitive to medicine but by the end of this hunt I was a paranoid anxious wreck each morning and had hideous dreams. I can see why the military went back to doxycycline instead of mefloquine. Researching this when I got home, I found out there have been many instances of serious psychosis in soldiers using this medicine. By the end I was just anxious and not sure I could’ve made a good shot on anything had more animals been on the menu.
You've already read Mark's account so I'll dispense with some of the logistics but I was embarking on my third safari and we all had great expectations as anyone would heading to the dark continent for dangerous game. I have been hunting with a handgun since the late 70's and I too had the seed planted for the thrill of dangerous game by writers such as Capstick, Ruark and John Burger among others. Mark and I each took two revolvers on this trip and mine were chambered in 454 Casull and 475 Linebaugh both manufactured by Freedom Arms. It was my intention to use the 475 on buffalo and the 454 on lion. I expected the lion might be shot at a longer distance and require a bit more precision since it was a much smaller target. Boy was I wrong!
Our hunt was scheduled from August 1st to the 13th arriving back in the US on the 14th. It may sometimes be tempting to book a short trip when on a limited budget or if only a few animals are on the list but I recommend that you spend at least 7 days with boots-on-the-ground and preferably 10+. It really does take a couple of days to get used to the new schedule and to be focused on the task at hand throughout the day. For the first couple of days I found myself running out of steam in mid-afternoon. I wasn't physically tired but I was mentally drained and my senses just not sharp after chasing buffalo around for a day or two.
As Mark said, we tried a few different techniques at the start of the hunt, including sitting in blinds. Mark got his buffalo early in the hunt but mine wouldn't come until the last few minutes. August wind in that part of the world is notorious for not being consistent. I imagine it's because August is sort of a transition month as you head into spring, much like March here in the states. The wind didn't blow exceptionally hard but it rarely blew from the same direction for more than an hour without switching. This was not going to work in a blind ... I actually had the hammer back on a giant bull early in the trip and after looking at the pictures he would have probably been in the top three bulls with a handgun. He was about 44" wide and probably had 18-20" bosses. Huge! Just as the crosshairs steadied on his shoulder the wind did a 180 again and a herd of over 70 buffalo thundered off in a cloud of dust. A new strategy would be needed.
We decided that the best way to tackle the problem was to get on buffalo tracks and follow them till they made a mistake. This meant abandoning the large herd and go after the dugga boys (a group of outcast bulls). We used the truck to find fresh dung and tracks and began the job of tracking them down. The first encounter didn't take too long. After walking only a couple of hours we were well within 100 yards of eight bulls. One had massive bosses that were polished as smooth as glass on top but as quickly as we sized them up, they were gone, thundering through the mopani and thorns as easily as we walk across a parking lot. Immediately we were on the tracks but they split up. Three were no longer with the other five and I really wanted a crack at that old bull with the polished bosses. Unfortunately we picked the wrong group and never saw that bull again. We had gotten off of the truck at 7:30 that morning and we stayed on the track all day long and got close on several other occasions but every time we got within 75 yards or so the wind would change and we would get busted. We didn't get back to the truck until after dark. I learned a lesson again about hunting in Africa, never get off the truck without water. We had walked and tracked for about eleven hours and had neglected to take any water with us. To say we were thirsty was a huge understatement. My throat was so dry I had some difficulty talking and I think everyone was in about the same shape. It was a rather quiet march back to the truck. I wasn't even thinking about the leopard tracks we'd seen the day before or the drag marks indicating a kill had been made.
I knew the next and last day of buffalo hunting would likely hold more of the same and this would be my final chance since we had to leave that evening for the Kalahari, a drive of about 14 hours. It was off the truck just after daylight picking up the track from where we left off the night before. Again, no water! Don't ask me why because I have no idea. We had made several stalks the day before many of which involved hands and knees. This was taking a toll. Between the sand burrs and rocks and gravel, my knees were a bloody mess, literally. Every time we would get close I kept telling myself, "ok this is the last time you have to crawl, tough it out". Sooner or later I would be right, but it wouldn't happen till the sun had set on this last day of buffalo hunting. We spent all day trying to outsmart and outmaneuver this same group of bulls and at about 3:00 in the afternoon we were in a pretty good position. We were downwind in some broken terrain, fifty yards from six feeding bulls but it was thick. We spent the next two hours dancing around with these bulls. Finally they broke from the feeding and started to head to water. I knew we had to make something happen or they would simply walk off at a pace we couldn't sustain without being busted. We closed another 20 yards and a smallish bull was broadside and I had a clear shot. Bobby said it was a "smaller" bull and to wait. After a few more minutes of deliberation I decided that it was the bird in the hand situation and I thumbed the hammer back once more. This was about the fifth time I had cocked the gun in preparation for a shot over the past few days. Just as the crosshairs settled behind the bull's shoulder he stepped forward into cover. Just that quickly the opportunity was gone.
The bulls were all moving away now at a more steady pace and we could not "wait" for a shot. The biggest problem was that we were behind them and the water was in front of them. We moved up quickly and a bull saw us move and that was it. The six bulls spooked and we listened as the sounds of them crashing through the brush slowly waned. Gone! The truck was close so we headed back to the truck and called Johnny (Mark's PH) on the cell phone to relay our situation. He said he had just talked to his wife and she had just seen a lone bull in an area near the camp as she was coming in the gate. A glimmer of hope set us in motion at high speed. The sun was dropping fast and it would set before we got to the area where she had seen a bull. As we approached the area the bull was still there and I knew this meant one thing, more crawling on hands and knees. The pain was actually quite excruciating but I kept telling myself, "only another 50 yards and you won't have to do this again". I knew also that this was no time for a gun with open sights. Fortunately, I had zeroed my 454 in with the 325 gr. Barnes Busters just in case and this saved my hunt. The buffalo was just over 80 yards and we were not going to get any closer. I got in position to take a shot from the seated position using my Stony Point shooting sticks but the bull was sharply quartering to, not a good angle. I waited. After a few moments we noticed another bull deeper in the brush moving and as he did, the bull I was targeting turned to face him, giving me a perfect broadside shot. I signaled to Bobby I was ready and I sent the Barnes on it's way. The sight picture was perfect when the gun fired and I knew I had a solid hit. Because it was basically dark and because we had to leave for the Kalahari, Bobby fired also to hopefully put a quick end to the festivities. We did not want to follow up a buffalo in the dark nor could we stay another day to recover the bull. His first shot was back as the bull bolted but he only went about 40 yards before stopping. Blood was spraying from his nose & mouth as a shot to the spine dropped him.
The Barnes had penetrated fully and this shot connected exactly where it should have just cutting the back edge of the shoulder muscle. After conducting some bullet testing on Mark's downed buffalo, I firmly believe this is the best shot for the handgunner on a buffalo. I know there are some shot placement books and photos out there that claim a buffalo shot behind the shoulder is gut shot but that's just not the case. Some of the African books bear this out and show a slightly different anatomy for shot placement. The best evidence I have is the amount of lung blood coming from my bull so shot. Unfortunately I did not get to witness the post mortem because we had to depart for our lion hunt but Bobby's shot was too far back to do any lung damage and the spine shot was also out of place for any encounter with lung tissue. We won't know for a few months but Mark and I are thinking that our buffalo may be in the top 10 killed with a handgun.
Lion Too Close For Comfort
Alex and Mark's lion pretty much went according to plan. Follow them till they get pissed off and then they lay and wait for you. We followed each for 3 to 5 miles before the kill. One thing about getting on a lion track in the Kalahari sand is that it's harder to tell just how old it is or how far they have gone before laying up. As it turned out we cut the track of my lioness less than 100 yards from where she lay in a thorn bush. My lion hunt started out the same as on previous days, by riding the two-track until a track is cut then follow it till around mid-day when it gets hot and she tires of running ahead. As dawn broke the weather had changed, the sky was heavily overcast with smell of rain permeating the stiff breeze. We could see a shower in the distance and fully expected to get wet. This would make not only seeing a track difficult due to the soft flat light but the lions may not move as much with rain threatening. We rode mile after mile with a tracker perched on the hood of the Land Rover with little to get excited about, even the plains game seemed to be holed up tight. At about 10:00 Bobby suggested that we check the water holes to see if any had come to water. Right on queue as we neared the first water hole the tracker said, "whoa" and held up his hand signaling to stop.
We all dismounted the truck and since we'd been riding for a couple of hours some of the guys tended to a nature call and we generally spread out in the general direction of the water hole from the truck while a couple of us walked along the track headed towards the water which was about 100 yards ahead. As we walked along there was one big thorn bush just ahead and Jock (one of the PH's) started to veer off from the track looking under the bush. I was bout six yards from it and Jock was about the same when he saw the big cat laying up switching the end of her tail. The shock of being so close quickly turned into a wild sprint back to the truck. It's probably fortunate that we had not pushed this lion. If she had been irritated someone would have probably gotten hurt. A lion can cover 80 yards in three seconds and at eight yards she could have been on us in an instant. As I sprinted away, I recall thinking how hard it was to run in the deep sand and too I was relieved to look back over my shoulder and see that we weren't being pursued.
After recovering our composure we moved back in and I took a shot at about 18 - 20 yards. The lion could be seen laying down under the bush with glass but I found that just because you can see a lion doesn't mean you can easily tell what you're looking at or where to place the crosshairs for a shot. Any animal laying down makes for a tough shot and lions especially so because of their flexibility. This shot would have been nearly impossible except for a guess without a good scope on the gun. It was also very important to have good binoculars. You just could not see her even from 20 yards without quality optics. She was deep in the brush and shadow and even with the Leupold scope cranked up a bit, I had a hard time picking out her shoulder with certainty. After a bit of discussion with the PHs and study of the situation with our binoculars, we agreed on the shot placement and I fired the 300 gr. Nosler Partition HG from my 454. At the shot she gave us a deep guttural growl called "the V8" and we knew the shot was a good one. She jumped and spun around and fell only a couple of yards from where she had lain. The shot entered perfectly behind the shoulder and I expected it to exit on the off-side shoulder or just in front of the off-side shoulder, it didn't. It actually exited behind the last rib on the off-side illustrating that the flexibility of a cat has to be taken into account when you take a shot. Apparently she was curled up rather tightly based on the point of exit but I'm thankful for a quick kill and that we didn't run afoul of an ill tempered beast, my skinned up knees would not have seemed so much a bother.
Once again as we settled into the long flight home, I wondered if this would be my last safari. Would I ever be able to get within mere feet of a lion again? I certainly hope so but we don't know what the future holds. I realize how fortunate I am to have experienced this hunt and to be a part of not one hunt for lion in the Kalahari but three hunts and to share the experience with my friends. The Cape buffalo has been a dream for as long as I can recall and to have the opportunity to take one with a revolver is truly a privilege that I can hardly express in words. My knees have all but healed up with the scars a reminder of buffalo and only one question remains, how can I get back to pursue buffalo once again?
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