2002 Hunt in South Africa with Bush Africa Safaris
Guns and Ammunition
Twelve yards to 150 yards. Snap shots to deliberate braced shots. Standing, kneeling, and sitting positions. Offhand, shooting stick support, and improvised rests. Stalking, posting, tracking, and sitting in a blind and on a tripod seat. In all of these situations the.376 Steyr Scout and my 300-grain Woodleigh SPPP handloads at 2300 fps proved to be a handy, easily managed, and deadly combination in the African bushveld. Two animals dropped to the shot, and none of the others got farther than 80 yards. Penetration was adequate with pass-throughs on the smaller animals, and on the larger ones the bullet always got into the vitals with good weight retention, even after passing through bone. While the wound channels were not large, they were sufficient to bring the animal down quickly. The guns and ammo all worked perfectly, except for the two cartridges that jammed right at the end. I have no explanation, as I had fed them individually through the action before bringing them.
I had our PHs and others who owned and regularly used .375 H&H rifles try the .376 Steyr Scout. All agreed and were pleasantly surprised that recoil from the eight-pound Scout was significantly less than from their longer and heavier rifles.
The one caution I have about this particular bullet and load is that the entrance and exit wounds were small and did not leave a blood trail. If you place your shot properly you will certainly kill the animal, but if it does not go down right away, you may have an interesting tracking job ahead of you.
The experience Greg had with his .375 H&H pre-64 Winchester Model 70, loaded with 260-grain Nosler Partitions at 2600 feet per second, confirmed my hypothesis that Hornady factory loads for the .376 Steyr are less than optimal for African plains game. He socked a very large eland on the shoulder with that load from 40 yards away. The bullet broke the upper leg bone but disintegrated in the process. After a 50-yard chase he put a round into the other shoulder with identical results. Neither shot made it out of the shoulder and into the vitals; they did not even reach the exterior chest wall. Luckily the eland is so heavy that it cannot run with broken legs, so Greg could take carefully placed finishing shots up close.
Now, consider that the heaviest .376 Steyr factory load is a 270-grain Interlock BTSP spitzer at 2550 fps, for all intents and purposes identical to the load Greg used. I think it is reasonable to conclude that on the heavier, tougher plains game like eland, zebra, waterbuck, and wildebeest, not to mention dangerous game, there is a significant chance of bullet failure and inadequate penetration. (The factory “deer load” of 225 grains at the same velocity makes no sense; why would a hunter buy a .376 Steyr Scout or Pro-Hunter to hunt deer when there are so many other suitable rifles and cartridges for that task?)
In my opinion, the hunter who is attracted to this rifle and cartridge combination is looking for near-.375 H&H killing power in a lighter, more compact package with lower recoil than is available with traditional .375 H&H rifles and loads. And the intended targets are large and possibly dangerous game. The proven solution in this caliber for such game is the 300-grain bullet. What the .376 Steyr needs to fulfill its potential, therefore, is a load with a tough 300-grain bullet at between 2300 and 2400 feet per second.
As for the Merkel 140-2 double in .470NE, except for operator error it performed flawlessly for the few shots taken. Its balance made it feel lighter than its near-11-pound weight when carried in both hands. While tracking I carried it crooked in my left elbow with my shooting hand gripping the pistol grip to support its weight better. The Kick-Eez recoil pad, recoil reducer in the stock, and PAST pad in my shirt all combined to make shooting it a painless proposition. Schalk fired one round with it and said that to him it recoiled about the same as his Remington 700 in .416 Rem Mag with 400-grain bullets handloaded to maximum. The Federal factory load of a 500-grain Trophy Bonded Bear Claw at 2150 fps mushroomed beautifully and traveled straight through the vitals. If I had not hit the leg bone going in, it is my guess that the bullet would have exited the rib cage and ended up under the skin on the far side.
The Hunting Experience
I could not have asked for a better experience. I took all of my animals cleanly, with near-perfect shot placement and quick kills. Counting the three whitetail deer I have taken previously, I now have seven animals in a row taken with heart/lung hits, from 12 yards out to 150 yards.
I consider the 150-yard shot on the waterbuck to be my best shot taken on game to date, both for the shot and for the hunting experience. The shot on the buffalo is probably second best, mostly due to it being a quick shot on a moving target with a relatively unfamiliar rifle equipped with iron sights.
The evidence of this hunt does a lot for my confidence as a hunter. In fact, because I only started hunting five years ago, despite my Gunsite training I still felt like a tyro, someone who was operating at the ragged edge of acceptable performance. Hunting whitetail in the wood lot did not seem all that challenging, since the ranges were usually under 25 yards and we were partially hidden in ground blinds. Nevertheless, those experiences must have sharpened my ability to quickly judge where to shoot to hit the heart. My performance on this trip makes me feel like I have finally achieved true competence as a hunter that transcends intellectual knowledge and approaches subconscious and ingrained instinct. One or two heart hits might be chalked up to good luck, but four heart hits and a front spine hit in the neck, some of them very quick shots and each from a different position, can only be due to well-developed skill.
In contrast to Greg, who says he goes through a mental checklist while setting up a shot, I took a more Zen-like approach to my shooting. Intellectual knowledge provided the proper aiming area (the “vital triangle”), but the assessment of target orientation and the proper bullet path to the heart were not conscious, calculated acts. I cannot tell you exactly where the crosshairs were when the shots broke; the rifle fired when it just felt right.
I came away with the nickname “Heart-Shot Eric” and Greg earned the title “Half-Hour Greg” for his habit of taking his animals within a half-hour of leaving camp. Further, on the game we both hunted (nyala, eland, and bushbuck) I never got a shot until he took his first, and then succeeded shortly thereafter.
I also noted that neither Schalk nor Dirk carried a rifle in the hunting vehicle or while guiding us, with the exception of my buffalo hunt, of course. On our first hunt, Schalk always brought a rifle along, though most often leaving it racked in the hunting vehicle for tracking and following up, not for immediate backup shots. I hope I’m correct in assuming that their being unarmed was a vote of confidence on our abilities.
The hunting styles were varied and the trophies are all nice representative ones. I will never be totally comfortable about the spotlight hunt and shooting from a blind over a feeding area, but they are both legal and accepted hunting practices in South Africa. And I would have preferred taking the buffalo from the ground (and not doubling the shot, of course), but it was a target of opportunity situation, and I did shoot the buffalo offhand, standing on my own two feet; they just happened to be in a truck bed instead of on the ground. I attribute my ability to make the snap shot on the moving buffalo at 30 yards in significant part to the familiar pistol-style sights on the Merkel. I am not sure I could have done it with traditional express sights consisting of a shallow V and large bead.
I was in better shape for this hunt than the one five years ago. Even though I had some periods of heavy breathing when stalking the eland up and down the kopjes, I was never winded. My knees held up fine, too. I stayed healthy, even though many of the BAS staff had or were coming off of a cold, courtesy of a previous client, and Greg managed to catch it as well.
I used Galco belt ammo carriers for the .470. The main one was their Double Rifle Six Pack, which had six individual pouches for the rounds grouped 2x2x2 and covered with a heavy leather flap, secured with a brass stud and perforated tab. Very rugged, secure, and quiet. The second carrier was their Keith Speed Case, designed by Elmer Keith. I used it to hold my initial load of soft and solid for the Merkel, whereas I kept only solids in the Six Pack. I also kept extra rounds in my pocket, using the five-round plastic carriers that come in the Federal ammunition boxes. Finally, for the .376 Steyr, in addition to the spare magazine in the buttstock, I had a Westley Richards five-round pocket carrier, designed for .416 Rigby, but which held the .376 Steyr rounds well enough.
I liked the elastic chest harness for my binoculars, and the Swarovski 8×30 SLCs were perfectly suited to the job. The Camelback was useful as a light day pack for my camera and a few emergency items, but I carried it while hunting only once, and it turned out to be more of a hassle than it was worth. It mostly rode in the hunting car, though there were times I was grateful for the sips of water it provided. The Leica LRF800 rangefinder, which I carried on my belt, was handy for checking distances from a fixed position, and for post-hunt measurement. The Princeton Aurora LED headlamp turned out to be very useful on a couple of occasions, especially at Zimshoek Ranch but also when we stayed overnight at First Hope Farm.
The combination of short-sleeve PAST shirts with long-sleeve CoolMax T-shirts worked very well. In the bright sun at midday it got a little warm, but then it kept the chill off adequately, allowing me to get rid of my jacket sooner in the morning and hunting without a jacket until dark. I think the Cabelas “Outfitters Camo” hunting pants worked very well, and if it were not for the fact that I wanted my attire to look “classic” in the buffalo hunt pictures, I would have worn them full time. They seemed to resist snagging, were reasonably quiet, and were quite comfortable. I think the pattern and colors worked very well in the bushveld. As before, the Russell PH boots never gave me a moment of trouble. I got another thorn snag on the leather and a bit of buffalo blood on the toe of the right boot, but they just added to their character.
I never did get an opportunity to use the prototype Safari Ching Sling for shooting support; the circumstances did not lend themselves to it. I either had to shoot very quickly or I had alternative means of support handy.
All in all, I used just about everything I brought, did not want for anything I didn’t bring, and everything worked as hoped. About the only thing I did not use was the lightweight rain shell. The experience from the first hunt paid off in being able to plan better for this one, which is one big reason why I like to try things at least twice so that I can correct the errors from the first time and have a better overall experience.
Our reception and treatment by Schalk, Terina, and their new staff was attentive and cordial but always low-key and casual, as if we were friends dropping by for a visit rather than business clients. The presence of the van Heerden children and Fransisca added more variety to the mix of personalities and conversations. We were also well-received by the owners and staffs of the other ranches on which we hunted: Clinton, John, and Anton at Zuka Ranch in Zululand; Stoffel and Helga Uys of First Hope Farm on the Limpopo River; and Frank and Louis Vos of Boston Ranch next to Kruger National Park. My sincere thanks and gratitude to them all for their hospitality and generosity.
Next time (and there will be a next time!) my wife, Rita, will come along, and the agenda will be game viewing rather than hunting. We’d love to have Schalk and Terina take us on a tour of Kruger National Park. His eye for game in the bush will immeasurably increase the number of game we see. Both Rita and I would enjoy spending more time with Terina who, in the normal course of a hunting visit, stays behind during the day and is in the kitchen most of the evening. She’s already said that she’d like to come along if we do a Kruger trip; it would be something of a holiday for her away from the responsibilities of camp and children. (Perhaps I’ll be able to sneak in one animal and, who knows, maybe Rita might be interested in trying her hand at hunting an impala or warthog, too.) If nothing else, it’s something to dream about for the next few years.