African safari preparation: Choosing the right caliber
By John McAdams

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In my last two articles, I've discussed the importance of shot placement on African animals as well as how to prepare for a safari. In this article, I'll touch on one of the most hotly debated aspects of preparing for an African safari: choosing the right caliber for your hunt. Everybody has an opinion about this, often times a very strong one. Unfortunately, there is no one "best" caliber. Fortunately, there are a number of excellent calibers available that do a great job when used appropriately.

INDUSTRY PULSE

Which caliber are you most comfortable with?
  • 1. .308 Winchester
  • 2. .30-06 Springfield
  • 3. .300 Winchester Magnum

In choosing a caliber, the first thing you should do is research the minimum legal caliber for hunting the specific type of game you intend to hunt in Africa. Some countries have a minimum caliber or power requirement, others do not. In Namibia for instance, 7 mm is the minimum caliber with a minimum of 2,700 J (1,991 foot-pounds) of energy for plains game such as hartebeest and kudu. While a .243 Winchester meets the energy requirement (about 2,700 foot-pounds of energy) and would be an excellent caliber for smaller plains game like springbok, it is technically not legal to hunt with since it does not meet the 7 mm-caliber minimum.

If you've already booked a hunt, the professional hunter you intend on hunting with is a great resource for advice on the right caliber as well. Most PHs want clients to bring a rifle/caliber combination they are comfortable with and can shoot accurately. As a result, they are typically willing to sacrifice a little bit of power in order to ensure that their client can place their shots accurately. After all, a shot placed properly from a slightly less powerful caliber is typically much more effective than even 2-3 poorly placed shots from a more powerful caliber.

It has been often said that "there is no such thing as a free lunch," and nowhere is this more true with rifle calibers. Power and accuracy are essential attributes in a rifle caliber for a successful and ethical hunt. However, as power increases, the felt recoil and muzzle blast usually increase correspondingly. This typically will reduce the accuracy a shooter can reasonably expect to obtain, especially when shooting a light rifle that is pleasant to carry on a long hunt. A .600 Nitro has more than enough power to easily take down even the largest bull elephants, but this is absolutely worthless if the hunter is afraid of the rifle and cannot shoot it accurately. As a result, you must make a compromise when it comes to power.

For the first-time hunter to Africa hunting plains game (zebra, kudu, impala, etc), the .308 Winchester and .30-06 Springfield are two great calibers I highly recommend. Both are powerful enough to ethically take every species of plains game up to and including eland if proper bullets are used and shots are placed precisely. At the same time, both calibers have relatively mild recoil, and most hunters can shoot them accurately. Both calibers also have a very large selection of bullets available all over the world making it much easier for hunters to find loads that are both accurate and will penetrate deeply.

I'm not going to say there is a certain minimum-energy essential for success when hunting a particular animal in Africa. However, I personally do think that the .308 Winchester should be the minimum caliber when hunting large plains game, like kudu and eland. Yes, plenty of eland have been taken by the .270 Winchester, the 7 mm Magnum, and other smaller diameter calibers. If you feel comfortable with one of those calibers and can shoot them well, by all means go hunting with them. The only issue is they give you less margin for error in shot placement. That is something you need to do a realistic assessment of, and discuss with your PH before your hunt to determine if that is a risk both of you are willing to accept.

More-powerful, high-velocity calibers such as the .300 Winchester Magnum and the .300 Weatherby Magnum certainly have their place in Africa, especially for longer range shots. However, there are not many shots taken at ranges long enough to justify the significantly increased recoil and muzzle blast that accompany the increased power and velocity of the belted magnums. If you can shoot them accurately though, both calibers will perform very well on virtually any plains game animal.

If you are planning on hunting thick-skinned, dangerous game such as buffalo or elephant, the 9.3x62mm Mauser and the .375 H&H are two great choices. Both are powerful enough to get the job done, and thousands of hunters have enjoyed great success in hunting buffalo and elephant with those calibers. While both calibers have noticeably more recoil than a .30-06, the recoil is not excessive and should be manageable for most hunters.

In fact, due to their effectiveness and relatively mild recoil (at least compared to the other dangerous game calibers), the 9.3x62mm and the .375 H&H are routinely used by hunters for both plains game and dangerous game on safari. However, keep in mind that some countries, such as Tanzania and Botswana, have a .375 caliber minimum for dangerous game hunting and do not allow use of the 9.3x62mm (.366 caliber). As a result of this, the .375 H&H is the closest you can get to a "best" compromise when it comes to hunting both large and small game in Africa.

When selecting the appropriate caliber to take on your hunt, try not to get caught up in which caliber is "best." The "best" caliber is the most powerful one you can accurately shoot. While choosing the appropriate caliber is important, placing your shots accurately is even more vital. The best advice I can give you is to spend less time trying to find the perfect caliber and spend more time practicing your shooting under realistic conditions. The difference between most of the major calibers (e.g. .308 vs .30-06 vs .300 Win Mag) is not as great as it is sometimes made out to be, and the animal will never know the difference if your shot is placed in the right spot.

John McAdams was born and raised in Texas where he started hunting at an early age with his father and grandfather. John has hunted big game all over the United States as well as in Namibia and Zimbabwe, and he runs his own website, The Big Game Hunting Blog. He is currently serving in the United States Army and has served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.