Not for more than 100 years has there been such a surge in interest in big bore cartridges as there is today. This interest is fueled at least in part by the relative affordability of hunting game for which big bore cartridges are suitable. Such game is generally limited to thick-skinned dangerous game, namely cape buffalo, elephant, hippo on land, and white rhino. For half the cost of a typical new car, we can hunt cape buffalo and plains game. Trophy bull elephant can be hunted in several countries for less than the cost of a new truck, and rhinoceros can be hunted in South Africa for the same budget.
It is not necessary to be wealthy or even a high-income earner in order to afford dangerous game hunting in Africa. By scrupulously setting money aside and making a few personal sacrifices to cut expenses, such as giving up eating at restaurants, not buying tickets to professional sporting events, avoiding new or expensive cars and trucks, and by turning some of part of a gun collection into cash, almost every American wage earner will be able to afford a dangerous game hunt in Africa.
With the relative financial accessibility of thick-skinned dangerous game hunting comes a natural interest on the part of the sportsman in rifles and cartridges appropriate for that sport. Although none of us would suffer if our thick skinned dangerous game hunting were to be done exclusively with the 416 Rigby, 458 Lott and 470 Nitro Express, there is added excitement to shooting the largest and heaviest of bullets. But there is even more good news for the big bore fan. Prices for newly produced double rifles are at an all-time low with several fine offerings from Searcy, Heym, Merkel, Krieghoff and Sig coming in at around US$10,000. For a similar amount, a very nice big bore bolt rifle from several master craftsmen may also be acquired. Alternatively, there are some low-budget options for the big bore fan, which will result in a very functional big bore dangerous game rifle for about US$3000.
This article provides the reader with a summary of both factory and wildcat cartridges .50 caliber and larger that are suitable for use on thick skinned dangerous game. As a beginning proposition, cartridges that use bullets with a sectional density of less than .300 or which cannot achieve a velocity of close to 2000 f.p.s. have been omitted due to the inadequate penetration that results from those ballistics. These criteria require me to rule out any discussion of lever action cartridges and any discussion of 2 bore, 4 bore, 8 bore, 10 bore and 12 bore rifles. Although such guns may be fun projects, their poor penetration precludes them from serious consideration in a practical dangerous game rifle. Also, energy figures are not provided in this article because they are misleading. Thick skinned dangerous game do not seem to be much affected by the energy of the cartridge they are shot with, so it would be error to conclude that one cartridge would be more effective than another based solely on energy figures. Rest assured that all of the cartridges discussed in this article have plenty of power for dispatching elephant, buffalo or whatever else is on license. Just about any cartridge can be used to kill a cape buffalo with a properly placed broadside lung shot, as the tens of thousands of buffalo fallen to AK-47 rifles have proven. But stopping an enraged bull or penetrating to his vitals from a poor angle can test the limits of any cartridge. Elephant provide an even more difficult penetration challenge since a frontal brain shot on an elephant will require puncturing several feet of trunk and skull bone before the brain is reached. Likewise, buffalo shoulders and jawbones, and buffalo and elephant skulls are notorious for ruining bullets, so only quality monolithic solids or other premium nonexpanding bullets should be considered by those with an inclination toward self-preservation.
Each cartridge summarized below is discussed primarily from the point of view of building an affordable bolt-action rifle to use for thick skinned dangerous game hunting. Example loads and ballistics are shown. The nitro express cartridges are discussed for comparison purposes, even though they are typically available only in more expensive double rifles (the Heym and Hambrush bolt rifles being notable exceptions). I hope that all readers will have the chance to build or purchase a big bore rifle and hunt dangerous game with it, or at least be deterred by the mistakes of those of us who have.