Africa and Actions
The last time I saw John Buhmiller, one summer afternoon in 1955, I was in his shop in Kalispell, forming cases for a Buhmiller wildcat cartridge that he was
soon to use on the first of his many safaris. John was not only one of the country's most respected top barrel-makers — he was also a very good and faithful
writer and a cracking-good photographer (I still have a couple of his cameras but — alas! — none of his photographs now). For years, he kept his American
friends apprised of his observations and adventures in long, detailed letters and clippings. After that 1955 summer day, he became one of the most
experienced American safari bwanas. Here are some excerpts from a couple of his later (early 1970s) letters.
EVERYTHING is in such
a turmoil, especially Africa. There are things I would like to do, but nobody knows what can be done, will just have to wait and
see. I would like to have some more buffalo shooting, but whether that can be arranged remains to be seen. In Africa, they try to extract the
uttermost dollar, and that has gotten to be difficult all the way around.
— 30 —
I have hunted in a good many parts of Africa, I think Botswana was a top place, also Tanzania was as good as anywhere. Sudan was fair, but irresponsible
people there, and horribly full of disease. I came home with an infection, but my doctor knew enough to kill it. In Mozambique, I have hunted at
two or three places. Most of the game there is rather common stuff. Unless one could get a permit for ten or twenty buffalo, that could be OK,
but they don't like to do that, then everybody wants to get a big bag. Some places are simply over run with them. I finally came up with a .460
load that kills buffalo.
I don't know why everybody thinks he wants to make a single-shot rifle. Costs are so scandalously high, the price has to be way up, then, like the Colt,
nobody wants to pay $700 for them. I think gun makers are missing the boat with their complicated, expensive single-shot rifles. For instance
that Ruger rifle — too many parts, too costly.
I'd be happy if we had a Magnum Mauser or Brevex, at a reasonable price. I did try my .475 # 2 on buffalo one time, I had no trouble, except
at times I got my fingers on the wrong trigger, when it didn't go I just had to get on the other trigger. I'm trained for the bolt gun, and that is what
The best buffalo hunting I ever had was where we organized our own hunt in Kenya, a sort of control on marauders, using a pack of dogs in bamboo
thickets. I doubt it I'll ever get into another like that again, but it was the real thing — perhaps too dangerous, since when worried by dogs, they charge
on sight. We made-up for that by three guns going together, and one fusillade generally put him down. I being the guest hunter was permitted to
go in front and take the first shot, after which there generally followed an immediate burst of three more shots. It was effective. It was so
easy to organize that hunting, partly because these animals had been raiding for such a long time, and so many of the natives were losing everything. I have
written over there in hopes of trying to organize another, but apparently I failed to contact an interested hunter.
I have a correspondent in South Africa who likes to day dream (so do I). He is a grandson of the old prime minister Jan Smuts. He thinks the
good old times are gone forever, and for the life of me I can't see anything else. Only the greatest of miracles could change things. Of course, a
wealthy man can still organize a hunt, but all my hunting was under bargain rates, or no cost at all, and I just can't see myself being robbed.
I do have a lot of 16mm footage of all kinds of African game in the parks, which is ridiculously easy to get. Hunting pictures are difficult unless two
men go together. I was usually alone, and you just can't handle a rifle and camera both. I had another man with me part time, and he got pictures
of almost nothing except my dead animals. He, following behind, couldn't keep up, and brush obscured almost everything. But I was pretty well
satisfied with what I did get. I have 4,000 feet of 16mm movie film, and an almost endless lot of color slides. I did a lot of experimenting with
various calibers of guns and feel very well satisfied with what I was able to do with various calibers, and feel that .45 and .470 calibers are all that I ever needed
for any shooting.
Really, elephant control shooting is ridiculously easy if you discount the foot work — endless walking. Rhino is easy to handle, barring being taken by
surprise. Buffalo is tough to kill at times, but there are tricks that can be used and seldom any real danger. I tried standing on a freshly downed
elephant like Bell mentioned. I couldn't stand on him, he was so jelly-like and spongy — until the next day, he would be solid enough then, but by then all
the live animals would be gone.
I learned quite a bit about lions, all of which will surprise any stranger to lions. I fed lions one year on elephant trunks! Elephant skin is
an inch thick. They just don't eat elephant meat on account of the heavy skin. But I was surprised at their eating the trunks off one
year. I never bothered the lions at all, and I could walk up close to them, never bothering them, and they became almost friendly. A lot of times,
I'd get within fifteen or twenty yards of three or four lions, and they would just trot away, showing no more concern than if they were pets. I could give you
dope for a lion article that nobody would believe. I have been around lions so much that I never had any desire to shoot one. They seem basically
friendly. A lot of things ordinarily accepted as gospel are bunk. Such as climbing a tree to escape danger. Hell, there's never a tree
in the right place that you can climb. A native African can — sometimes.
If you are interested in Africa, there is an annual hunters' conference in San Antonio in May that lasts four days and has attendance of a thousand or more, with
most of the big game wardens and many of the White hunters from Africa in attendance. It's better than a trip to Africa, just a bit expensive, but you can
back these big shots from Africa into a corner, and pump them dry. Magazine editors and everybody there.
Elmer Keith has gone overboard on his big calibers, I think. Maybe the .460 opened up to .50 caliber would be acceptable, but I never needed anything
larger than .470 caliber, and actually I found the .470 my favorite elephant caliber. It can be the Norma Special (.300 Magnum cylindrical — same as .458
caliber only a bit longer). I killed 81 elephants with that wildcat one year in a couple of months, and it was deadly. Shoulder shots, and
everywhere else, except not many brain shots. The .475 A&M, which I haven't used on live animals, I'm sure would be tops. You'd be surprised how
you can pile-up elephants with shoulder shots at roughly fifty yards with a .470 rifle. The .450 Magnum is almost as good.
Tony Dyer has been a man that I tried to follow, as I have found his advice completely sound and logical. I will enclose a dam-fool sheet that I wrote
one year after the Texas convention. It shows the easy informality that prevails there at the meeting, and perhaps explains things pretty well at the
Another surprising thing — I found the hippo can be about the most dangerous animal of all and I have been charged in a car by one, as it was coming out of a
water hole, twice. I think it was due to water holes drying up.
Just one week ago today, Lucile and I returned from San Antonio Texas where we attended the greatest gathering of big-game hunters ever assembled
anywhere. These people came from all parts of this world. This was the third such assemblage, the first being in 1967, the second in 1969,
and each being larger than the one before.
The welcoming speech was by John B Connally, the Secretary of the Treasury, who had always been a very active member of this group. We had hunters from
Australia, New Zealand, Mongolia, Iran , India, Europe, sixty from Africa, including many of the best known professional hunters, and game wardens, Eric Rundgren, no
doubt the top hunter of Africa, Ian Player of South Africa who had won the top conservation award two years ago for his work in saving the white Rhino from extinction,
Brian Nicholson of the Selous Game Reserve of Tanzania, International Conservation winner this year who by reducing the over abundance of elephants there, saved some
of the lesser animals, since the elephant with no other natural enemy than man, and ivory is of little value nowadays, tends to increase excessively in some protected
Tony Dyer was much in evidence, as always. Went through World War Two as a member of the R A F,, then went farming on the base of Mt Kenya on the
equator, at about 7,000 feet elevation (a most delightful climate, never hot, few insects or snakes, great wheat country and for cattle-raising). He has
been President of the East African Professional Hunters Association for several years and takes out hunting parties — safaris.
You could expect to see about all the who's-whos in the hunting world there if you could get through the crowds, or just camp in the cocktail room. One
night, there was a big party with free beer to auction-off a variety of valuables to help needy game departments. For instance: a donation to Serengeti Game
Reserve of $20,000 to keep planes in the air to spot poachers. I had a paper cup half full of beer when Fred Huntington brought each of us a full
bottle. Later, he returned and hung a little elephant on my jacket lapel and mentioned something about previous elephant escapades. Then I
noticed it was a nicely made trinket, of solid gold.
The auction resulted in some wild bidding. One painting brought $15,000. One cast-metal elephant — beautifully done — and another made-up of
old scrap-iron parts, using pitman rods for legs, likewise brought several thousand dollars. There seemed to be an endless number of small paintings, and the
bidding continued until after midnight. Oh, I almost forgot, after Connally's speech was over, he was presented with one of the new Sharps rifles as made
by Colts. I also heard a little story about him. He had been on a safari and someone asked his White Hunter, Is he a good shot? Yes,
he said. What work does he do when he is at home? Oh, he runs Texas (ex-Governor). Then a Sharps rifle serial number 1 was put up for
sale; it brought $2,100.
On the last day, after I had said all my goodbyes, I walked out the door of the hall to leave. A security guard came out the door and said they would
like to take a picture of me "with whoever I would choose." I said that I had just been talking with Tony Dyer before I stepped out and that he must still
be nearby. They found him in the next room. The security officer directed us to a nine-foot-tall polar bear and said you two be shaking hands, and
he stood beside us. Then I asked "What's the occasion for all this commotion?" Betty said "John here was the first man to register at the first
meeting in 1967, and we are making a scrap book."
enclosure — John's "African Notes No. 3":
Elephants Are Varmints
When I took-off last March for Nairobi, on my third trip to the Dark Continent, it was mainly for the purpose of shooting varmints in a newly organized farming area, where I had done about three months shooting two years previously. My first shooting there was in an almost virginal territory. Buffaloes, rhinos, elephants, and lesser game were there in abundance.
Varmints were fairly well controlled at that time by an electric fence that surrounded the cultivated fields. As time passed, this fence lost its effectiveness. Baboons and elephants became great pests. The baboon is very difficult to deal with, but all his foraging is done by daylight, and watchmen can at least partially cope with him.
The elephant comes by night, when it is nearly impossible to shoot effectively. He soon becomes accustomed to all the noises, spotlighting, and ineffective shots fired for his benefit, and by daylight may be ten or more miles away and still going. Appeals to the game department usually produce no results.
On my arrival there, two years ago, I was assigned native guides who knew about as much English as I knew of their language — practically nil. But we got along pretty well, and in no time were hunting successfully. At this time, elephants were seldom molested unless they were too near the crops, when a large herd could easily be forced through the electric fence by crowding from behind. Meat was shot for the farm laborers, who numbered well toward one hundred, some with families.
Arriving this last April, I found things vastly changed. The electric fence had become ineffective and had been allowed to go to pieces. The majority of the game animals had been shot-up to the extent that they had become exceedingly wary. One of the main crops being maize, corn to us, from the time the ears are formed until ripe, is a very luscious tidbit for old Tembo and the trouble is on, for a period of some two to three months. The elephants just can't seem to pass-up a field of nice juicy corn.
We would take-off at daylight, looking for fresh signs, and then follow the tracks until overtaken or it is time to turn back, at times finding ourselves ten or fifteen miles from home. Elephant hunting is well known to be very hard work, on account of the necessity for traveling on foot and the fact that elephants are almost continually moving.
There are still many rhinos in this area, since not many of them have been shot. Some of us thought that the sight of an occasional living rhino adds much to the landscape, and as they stay mostly in the deep forest they do little if any harm, other than scaring the daylights out of the native guides now and then, when happening onto them unexpectedly.
The buffaloes there are now very wild, staying in the heaviest cover during the day and seldom coming out except at night. Our elephant trails frequently took us through heavy brush where at times buffaloes would spook from very short range, crashing through the brush, and it was seldom that they could be seen or offered us a shot.
Snakes are an ever-present possibility, but not many are seen, since the grass is very heavy most everywhere. Snakebite is rare. Most snakes seem to be interested only in getting away, except the adder, which just lies still, if stepped on, might bite through a leather shoe, as he has very long fangs. Some of the world's most dangerous snakes are found in Africa, and it is fortunate that they don't seem to be looking for trouble.
Insects? Lots of ticks, ants everywhere; during rainy season, plenty of mosquitoes (which carry malaria), tsetse flies, which are very annoying, harmless to man in most areas, but kill cattle and horses. Houseflies are not too bad.
How hot does it get? Where I was shooting, afternoons it often got up to around 90 in the shade. Days on end it would never reach 80, and lowest I ever saw there was 65, early in the morning. This was during the rainy season. They claim August is the coolest month there. Many places where I was, mostly in South Africa, it was very cool evenings, and at such places it was customary to have a little fire in a fireplace to take off the chill.
How dissatisfied are the natives with British rule? I do not pose as being qualified to answer this question, but what I saw, leads me to believe that only a very small percent of the natives would have any qualifications for self-government. White people there complain that foreign publicity on this subject is ill-advised and not helpful.
What is the danger confronting a hunter in this country? Does danger lurk behind every tree? I will not deny that real danger may come along unexpectedly. After all, if there were no thrill in the pursuit of animals that can hit back, one might as well hunt rabbits. The danger is greatly exaggerated in the popular magazines, where they often have it played-up as dangerous to hunt the most inoffensive animals. If one uses prudence, he can follow a wounded buffalo or elephant with little danger. A number of very experienced hunters have been killed by elephants. I had killed eighty-four of these animals before experiencing a real charge. In this elephant-control shooting, one must use brain shots as much as possible, to kill them cleanly, so the retreating animals can be followed immediately.
At times, further shots may be had within a mile or so, or they may keep going all day. If shoulder and heart shots are taken, the first elephant hit will take-off, and all the rest will follow, then you have to follow-up the wounded animals and finish them off. With brain shots, at times several can be dropped before the remaining animals seem to understand just what is happening. Many times, one comes face to face with an elephant in heavy cover. He may have heard a strange sound or gotten the slightest whiff of scent from an eddying breeze. Anyway, he will be facing the direction of approach, and at such times, I made it a practice to fire instantly, so it was never discovered whether he was planning to come or to spin around and leave for parts unknown.
I used a magazine gun always. A double rifle does not suit my requirements for this sort of shooting, where one should have five or six shots available without reloading. The above-mentioned charge came after I had just dropped two elephants, and the third one came for me. I was ready and dropped number three without incident. With a double rifle, I'd be hard-pressed to get it reloaded in time, and there is little use to run from an elephant.
What about the carcasses? Very few natives in Tanganyika or Kenya eat elephant meat. It all goes to waste. Only the ivory is saved, and it's turned over to the Game Warden. In some areas, it must be a source of considerable revenue, but in general, not all marauding elephants are big tuskers. I might add that there is an ancient native taboo against eating elephant meat. Actually, it is quite wholesome.
Regarding caliber of rifles used for my shooting, I used from .416 to .505 Gibbs on the big stuff. Mostly used .450 Magnum, .460 Weatherby (the first one ever made, no doubt), and .458 Winchester. The rifle one should use depends altogether on circumstances. Much of my shooting was in very dense cover, and without an accompanying White Hunter. I liked to carry the most effective rifle I could handle, and that no doubt was the .505. If I ever go again I will take either a .50 caliber on the Weatherby case or even a .55 caliber. My friends are expecting me back in a year or two.
How long will the hunting last in Africa? Undoubtedly for a long time to come, but as the years pass, one will have to travel farther and farther. So don't
worry about African shooting becoming finished in the near future.
enclosure — John's annotated copy of an item about him in Field & Tide, September 1959:
Hunting Like the Old-timers Had in the "Bad Old Days."
Eighty-one elephants and five buffaloes shot with a rifle that he made himself.
Not many hunters are able to build their own weapons — from the barrel downwards — and then find an opportunity to use them extensively and with great success on Africa's biggest of all big game — the elephant.
Such a hunter was received at Field and Tide offices last month when Mr John Buhmiller, the famous American custom barrel maker, put in a welcome, but belated appearance.
Mr Buhmiller left America about four months ago, for his third East African safari, and on this occasion he brought with him a .450 heavy calibre rifle of his own manufacture. The rifle fires the .450 Magnum cartridge, and if the score card is anything to judge by, then this self made weapon answered all the questions in the field — as well as a number of unasked ones — for in a little over two months of active hunting it accounted for no less than eighty-one elephants and five buffaloes.
To those of our readers who will want to know where, why, and how such a large bag is allowed one hunter, and who may be anxious to set out on a similar expedition, the answer is:
1. Try and arrange it so that you land in Tanganyika at the right spot just at the moment when the Game Department decides that several hundred elephants have to be destroyed in order to protect life and property;
2. Make sure that you are able to convince the Game Warden that you are the right man for the job;
3. Overcome several other obstacles in your way.
If you can do all this then you are assured of a hunt on the same scale as the old-timers indulged in in the "bad old days."
Mr Buhmiller's safari took place in the Manyara district of Tanganyika where large herds of elephant and buffalo, sheltered by dense and almost impenetrable forest, have for some considerable time been making farming a very precarious occupation.
"It often happened that, on firing a shot at what I thought was the only elephant in the vicinity, the entire forest suddenly became alive with elephants rushing in all directions. I never saw so many hindquarters and tails in my life before," he said.
The country near Lake Manyara is so ideally suited to the raiders that it is doubtful whether the reduction of numbers by shooting will prove to be the answer. At the present time the authorities are erecting a fence consisting of a heavy steel cable and rails embedded in concrete to protect the farms from raiding elephants.
Some very interesting comments in regard to rifles for African big game will be dealt with by our "Gun Gossip" columnist, Mr Louis Weyers, in a future issue as Mr Buhmiller made a special trip to Pretoria in order to discuss the subject with him. Highlight of Mr Buhmiller's adventures among the pachyderms came when he dropped two bulls one morning and then suddenly saw a cow emerge from dense cover, putting up a determined charge. He managed to drop her with a brain shot at extremely close range. Charges by female elephants when the accompanying bulls are killed or wounded are not infrequent, and they all seem to develop the happy knack of appearing at close range from "nowhere at all" and when least expected!
It was after the writer had experienced the second charge under such circumstances that he lost a good deal of his enthusiasm for the double barrel cannons. Famous old timers like Goss, Norton, Cunningham and others specialized in holding extra rounds between their teeth, from which position they claimed they could reload as fast as when using a magazine rifle. The fact that none of them ever came to grief during such an operation is something in its favor, but it requires more practice than the average hunter of today is likely to obtain in the field "when the chips are down."
During his previous trip, some two years ago, Mr Buhmiller brought off his much discussed eleven buffaloes with thirteen shots. This score was obtained over several days of hunting. He maintains that he should have done better but for the fact that one shot hit a horn; the other was apparently misplaced. The shooting was done at close range and in dense bush country.
When Field and Tide commented on this achievement in an earlier edition there were several expressions of doubts registered by our readers, who thought such a feat something very extraordinary. Without wishing to detract from Mr Buhmiller's achievements, we would point out that this is far from a record in buffalo hunting. To the best of our knowledge the distinction belongs to Tim Downing who accounted for thirty buffaloes in as many shots and in one day. On this occasion he used a Holland and Holland .404 calibre. This happened in the Belgian Congo many years ago when Tim was doing a tsetse control job in one of Africa's worst infested areas, along the Congo river.
Subsequently another famous hunter in central Africa claimed that he improved on that score by one — thirty-one in thirty-one shots — but he forgot to mention that this happened in the great rinderpest plague and that most of the buffaloes he "shot" were actually dying on their feet, before he went into action.
Another notable achievement by Mr Buhmiller on this trip is reminiscent of W D M Bell at his best, and that was to account for three elephant bulls with as many well placed brain shots. On this occasion he used a light .264 (6.5mm) of his own manufacture, taking a 156 gr steel jacketed bullet.
Incidentally the famous .458 Winchester barrel was perfected in Mr Buhmiller's shop before it was accepted for use in this outstanding American heavy calibre rifle, which is proving so popular with big game hunters in East Africa.
Yet another highlight of the conversation was Mr Buhmiller's reference to Field and Tide, the editorial of which he considers is second to no American outdoor magazine in the matter of quality. The reference there is, refers to size alone. The American magazines Mr Buhmiller has in mind can claim circulations of a million plus and operate on a sixty percent advertising and forty percent editorial basis; these percentages are the exact reverse of those applying in the case of Field and Tide, and as for circulation … ?
(John notes: "Probably my best buffalo load for the .460 rifle = around top load powder — Barnes 500-grain thin-jacket solid — soft copper tubing. It will go in deep enough to kill — then hopefully break up and kill him. This I think was in 1957. Many other possibilities. I also have a very high regard for the .470 Kynoch 500-grain bullet, which seems to tumble inside elephant shoulders and is very deadly.")
In the news, Africa is buzzing with things trying to happen. My friend in Pretoria is saying that much that we enjoyed in the past is gone forever, and I feel the same way about it. This thing of a single shot rifle, I have in the past been quite a fan for that type rifle, and could find a considerable use for the right single-shot arm, and have some rather set ideas as to what the rifle should be. Maybe I should set some of the features down. There wasn't an awful lot wrong with the Winchester single-shot Hi-Wall, except way back yonder I had a lot of trouble with them stringing shots up and down, while at the same time many others assured me they had no such trouble.
Niedner made me a .25-caliber barrel for one, I believe it was .25-35 caliber — should have been a lovely gopher and varmint rifle. It was completely impossible, would string shots up and down at 100 yards for six inches yet cut a card vertically. Tom Shelhamer was very active at that time, and they all gave up on it. I had it cut off and refitted to a bolt action, which cured it completely — but I wanted it on a single-shot action. I recall that later I had a letter from Shelhamer asking me to send the barrel back as they had a new angle to work on, but it was too late then. I talked with any number of shooters at Camp Perry in later years who had obtained good results with the Winchester SINGLE-SHOT and good grouping. One as I recall was C E Nordhus, of Highland Park Ills, who claimed the Winchester single-shot did OK by him.
Harry Pope was a delightful man to talk with, same as Bishop, also Niedner. I believe that quite a few of us would gladly go back to this type of rifle for an occasional bit of hunting, but the rifle should be stripped of unnecessary parts for cheaper manufacturing, The Ruger as a horrible example is so full of too many parts. Take the Sharps Borchardt as made by Colts for instance. That price was enough to kill any gun. Why don't some one come up with a bolt action like the Magnum Mauser? There wasn't much wrong with that, only I could have gotten several of them at something like $100 each and well worth it. I did get a couple of them, had a chance at several more, only I didn't act quickly enough. Tom Burgess made one on an Enfield, and is trying to make more. I think the one he made, he named the B B B rifle, Buhmiller, Burgess, Biesen Rifle. The Enfield makes up into a very nice gun but needs a whole new trigger guard and sleeve. I have a couple of bolt actions that should see me through, or one could use a standard Mauser for a .458, but might be better to use the .470 caliber with .458 brass and 4198 powder, I shot a shell full of 4198 p0wder the other day, which is possible in the .475 bore, which has a bigger bore than the .458. I used to pour a 30-06 case full of solder (after tinning it inside) and make a 900-grain .470 bullet, but the trouble with such heavy slugs is they kick.
If someone would concentrate on that action, and simplify it all possible and keep the price down, he might make it go, where everybody else runs into costs that are too high. If we had a good strong action, one could make a rifle big enough to kill a charging buff at one or two yards distance, by using a .577 if necessary. I have killed I don't know how many at spitting distance. You blast them in the face and it seems the hunter always walks away when it is all over. I could make a two-shot or even a three-shot .577 on an Enfield action using .505 Gibbs brass (which I have done). What more would anybody need?
Copyright © 2006, Kenneth E Howell, ThD.
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